After a rather loud evening with the film crew, having to be back in the pit garages at the world Famous Silverstone motor racing circuit at 7.am was not my idea of fun. We had just filmed three TV commercials with Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg and we were liberally celebrating the job done. We still had Schumacher’s’ backup F1 Mercedes car. It was to be picked up at 10am but the Classic car Grand Prix was coming in the next morning at 7, and being in charge of the film team, I was volunteered to go and guard this car until I could officially hand it back to Mercedes.
Well, I needn’t have bothered. Over the next hour; trucks, vans and trailers arrived from nowhere and disgorged their contents. The Pit Garages were rapidly being populated with every conceivable model of car dating back to the 1930’s. Every few feet there was a small space created in which the classic racing car, its mechanics, the tools boxes and spare parts set up camp. Electric kettles and toasters were plugged in and breakfast began as guttural throbbing engines were turned over and tested. By 8 o’clock, men who looked like they were born with engine oil on their hands were already sliding under raised cars making last minute adjustments.
Soon the garages smelt of petrol and oil that was just so heady. Standing around keeping watch over Michael Schumacher’s car I chatted with one or two peopel who wandered over with mild curiosity to look at this £1m technological beast. But they were soon gone; drawn back to their machines of bygone days.
Eventually the Mercedes truck arrived and took away the Schumacher car. I was free to go for breakfast. Wandering through the Pit Garages I stopped here and there and watched these enthusiasts and semi professional car teams getting ready for the afternoon 2012 Classic Car Grand prix.
I was given a mug of coffee by one small group who had an Alfa Romeo car. I was told it was related to a model of a car made famous by veteran racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio from Argentina, one of the greatest racing drivers of them all and who had won the 1950 British Grand Prix at this very race track, in an Alpha.
Fangio dominated the first decade of Formula One racing, he was inducted into the Formula One Hall of Fame, and is regarded by many as one of the greatest racing drivers of all time and holds the highest winning percentage in F1, 46 percent – winning 24 of 52 F1 races he entered. In 1952 Fangio crashed and broke his neck. But a year later he came back. He was world champion five times – a record that remained unbeaten until Michael Schumacher, arrived on the scene, 46 years later.
These amazing drivers would, from year to year, drive for different manufactures depending on the deal. Fangio drove for companies, Ferrari, Alpha Romero, The British Brabham Car Company and Maserati.
In Fangio’s last two years when he became the world champion, he was back driving for Maserati. He started the 1957 season with a hat-trick of wins in Argentina, Monaco and France, but had to retire with engine problems in Britain. In the next race in Germany he needed a six point lead to be able to claim the world title again. He started the race in pole position (in the front section of cars at the start line) but as soon as the flag dropped he fell to third position behind two Fararris. By the end of the third lap he had over-taken both with an 11 second lead. He had started the race with a half full tank of fuel. He expected he would need an early change of tyres so why carry that extra weight of fuel that could cost him precious seconds. On the 13th lap he pulled into the Pit enjoying an overall 30 second lead. The tyre change and fuel top-up went badly and by the time he shot out of the pit lane onto the circuit he was back in 3rd place and 50 seconds behind the lead Ferraris. On the penultimate lap he got past both Ferraris again and shot past the chequered flag with a 3 second lead. After the race, engineers inspected his car and found the suspension shot with the wheel pins seized up. He’s pushed that machine beyond its limit. This performance is considered as the greatest drive in the history of Formula One.
Fangio has another and more curious record to his name; that of being the only Racing Driver ever to be kidnapped for political purposes.
It happened in Cuba in 1958 when Fidel Castro and his comrades were plotting a revolt to overthrow the repressive American backed President Fulgencio Batista. The Cuban Presidente played host to the Casinos and brothels of the Chicago and New York Crimes families. Havana was the playground of the American moneyed classes; a gambling and frolicking weekend destination within easy reach by air. It had become part of the American romantic dream.
As the song goes…”..sand in my shoes…sand from Havana..”
The Huge revenues generated by this Cuban playground stayed in the cophers of the El Presidente whilst most of the Island’s population went poor. Castro lead a clandestine revolutionary group determined to overthrow the regime and establish a socialist society
Formula One was fast becoming an international prestige sport and Batista wanted it in Cuba. He paid handsome sums for the world’s greatest teams to stage an event in Havana.
The night before the race, Castro’s men walked up to Fangio in his Havana hotel bar, and at gunpoint took him hostage. The plan was simple, if Fangio was not able to drive in the race it would be called off and embarrass Batista. They afforded him every comfort their meagre funds would allow for the 24hrs of captivity in recognition of him being such a celebrity and an Argentine, they treated their Latin brother with quite some respect. The race went ahead anyway and was won by Britain’s Stirling Moss. Fangio was later released unharmed.
The following year Fangio ran his last season, took the world championship that year and then retired back to Argentina. He remained in sporadic touch with his captors up to his death in 1995.
All the cars entered into these races were essentially hand built. The mechanics would build an engine over a weekend, test it again and again and rebuild it the next week until they got it right. Looking at these petrol heads working on their machines at Silverstone that morning, with love and concentration on their faces I see why they were not so interested in the computer monitored, corporatized machinations that is today’s Formula One. Yes- they still have the roar of the engines, the beautiful women, the canapés and the parties; but they don’t have that free spirited do as you please, anyone welcome of the early years. In today’s Corporate Formula One they don’t have the “roll your sleeves up – amateur enthusiasm of the people in that Pit garage, I thought, as I drank their coffee.
And they don’t have Fred Boon.
Fred Boon lived down the street from me when I was a child. He was a larger than life character who was usually to be seen in an oily boiler suite with engine muck engrained into his hands. He was a mechanic at Lack’s the local repair garage. I would spend any time I could standing Lacks chaotic and filthy workshop as Freddie would fix the cars. He knew everyone and everyone knew him, always cheerful, always chatty. He always seemed rxcited about what he was doing next.
One day he showed me some photographs of racing cars, some of them with him driving. He promised to give me some pictures if I could be back there at 4pm the next day, “not a minute before or after..or I won’t give them to you” next day I rushed down at 4pm. “Ah too bad” he said “you are two minutes late” It took a couple of weeks to get those pictures from him.
His other job was with the Lotus Engineering founded by Collin Chapman. This world famous car was still being nurtured into life in a small workshop in Crouch End, London. Engineer John Clairmonte wouldn’t have anyone else but Fred Boon working on his cars. To them and all the other people in the experimental car world Fred was known as “Sorrento” because of his love of all things Italian and especially Alpha Romeos. He even sported a thin pencil moustache and wore a black beret just to look the part.
Today you couldn’t get into the pit garages on Grand Prix day even if you were Royalty, but back then Freddie would take a bag of tools to the track, mingle with the mechanics of an Italian team, making himself useful and soon he was helping to push a car out onto the grid.
When it came to the winner of a Grand Prix sitting on his car with a magnum of Champaign to his lips, Fred Boon was invariably in the background just getting his face in. He appeared in more magazines than most fashion models.
Fred had irons in many fires. He was a film extra, and I remember we all went to the cinema because Fred Boon was an extra in it. I don’t recall the film, but I can clearly see the scene of a theatre audience in the film, applauding. Right there in the middle was Fred in his black beret yelling, cat calling and vigorously waving his arms. He was somewhat over acting
Years later I met an old gentleman in a small hotel where he was living out his retirement. He was sitting at the bar in a tweed suite and cravat; we got talking. Somehow our meandering conversation reached a place where Fred’s name came up. “Good God” he said “Freddie used to be our family chauffer. What a funny Chap”
Such a small world.
“Yes, old Freddie used take the car off for a whole day, to give it a ..”..proper service…”.. he would say, but we found out later he was running up to Silverstone or Goodwood race tracks in it. Gosh! ….. Old Freddie. … I often wondered what became of him”
So it fell to me to tell him what happened to Freddie.
Not long after seeing Fred Boon in the cinema there was story about him in our local newspaper, saying that Fred Boon had been found dead in his flat. There were circumstances. Fred was found naked, chained to a chair, surrounded by mirrors leaning against the walls. I giggled, but those older than me took a darker view and we were not allowed to discuss it any more. That was the end of it.
I don’t remember how, but a year or two later I found out the truth of Fred’s strange exit from this world. You see, he had got this notion that he could be an escapologist if he just practiced long enough and perfect his routine. Because of his film connections he could get a foot into the entertainment world. Perhaps he imagined himself as ”The Great Sorrento” He had discussed his idea with a few friends.
He contrived to chain himself securely onto a chair, and with the aid of the mirrors, and naked in case of the chains getting caught on his clothing, he would perfect his escape. He didn’t. He was trapped there for several days, and died.
Just like the cars, they don’t make ‘em like Fred Boon anymore.