Matt Bishop Monthly Edition 2

Matt Bishop Monthly Edition 2

If you live in the UK, and you type ‘teachers’ into Google’s search window, your choices will auto-complete to various elongations, most of which include the word ‘strike’. Worry not: this column is not about the rights and wrongs of industrial action, although personally I believe that teachers in the UK should be paid better, nor is it about educators per se. No, it is about a man who always used the word ‘schoolmaster’ to describe himself, spurning ‘teacher’ as too transactional, and who did more than probably anyone else to instil in me my love of racing.

David Blumlein is now 85, and I last saw, heard or spoke to him on the day I left Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, a west London grammar, aged 18, which was 42 years ago. He taught Latin. He was the son of Alan Blumlein, a brilliant engineer notable for his many inventions in telecommunications and radar, without which the Allies may have found defeating the Axis Powers in World War Two more difficult, who was killed in 1942, aged 38, when the Halifax bomber in which he had been flying crashed near the England/Wales border during a secret trial of a new airborne radar system. 

Latin is as Latin does, and, although David Blumlein taught it well, he was pleased to discover that three of my mates and I were Formula One fans. Surely his famous father had died too soon to have been able to instil in him a love of engineering - he was just four at the time of his father’s passing - but it was there nonetheless, enthusiastically if eccentrically so, and it focused particularly on cars and racing cars. ‘In Germany, you must drive Porsche or Mercedes; in Italy, Ferrari or Alfa; in France, Matra, only Matra; and in the UK, Lotus, only Lotus,’ he once told us. His stipulations for Germany and Italy are hard to argue with, although I have owned some lovely Audis and BMWs over the years and I have always fancied a Lancia Aurelia B20 GT; his French decree is decidedly quirky; he put his money where his mouth was when it came to the UK, for he used to park his 1973 JPS-liveried Lotus Europa Special in the teachers’ (sorry, make that schoolmasters’) car park, where we ogled its dinky mid-engined form daily. 

‘Why only those cars?’ we asked him. ‘Because you should drive only cars made by companies that race,’ he replied; and, as far as he was concerned, that was the end of it. 

One afternoon in the April of 1976 he asked me, ‘Would you like to go to the Formula One test at Brands Hatch tomorrow?’ 

There was only one answer: ‘Yes.’ 

‘Good,’ he replied. 

‘Will we go in your Lotus?’ I ventured.

‘No, because you can ask Tom, Paul and Mark to come along if you like. If they want to go, I’ll borrow my mother’s car.’

Tom, Paul and Mark did indeed want to go, so I was never driven in that beautiful Lotus Europa Special, and indeed to this day I have never so much as sat in one. When the next day dawned, it turned out that our conveyance would be an Alfasud, which was an unusual choice back then but is today possibly an even rarer beast than a Europa (all the more so if you count as a real Europa the Type 121 Europa S, produced from 2006 to 2010, which I do not).

He drove that Alfasud from Holland Park to Brands Hatch astonishingly quickly, heel-and-toeing into roundabouts through which he made its 165-section Pirelli Cinturatos squeal entertainingly. When we arrived, we found out that he was something of a Formula One regular, for he introduced us to John Watson, then still bearded, yet to race his Penske PC4 to victory at Osterreichring, and Lotus’s talented rookie Gunnar Nilsson, who signed autographs for us as we leant through the window of his Lotus Elite (the Type 74, not the Type 14, but I count both as real Elites). 

I can find no record of that Brands Hatch test online - it was a Goodyear tyre session rather than an official test, I seem to recall - but I can remember almost everything about it. When you are 13, memories like that stay with you for ever.

So I can tell you now, 47 years later, that Gunnar Nilsson was driving a Lotus 77, John Watson a Penske PC3, Clay Regazzoni a Ferrari 312T, Jochen Mass a McLaren M23, Tom Pryce a Shadow DN5B, Jacques Laffite a Ligier-Matra JS5 and Jody Scheckter a Tyrrell P34; yes, the six-wheeled Tyrrell, which at that time had never yet started a Grand Prix. And when I bought Autosport magazine the following Thursday morning, and read it on the tube on my way to school, I was pleased to see that Scheckter had been fastest.

The Tyrrell P34 made its Grand Prix debut at the next race, the 1976 Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama, in the hands of Patrick Depailler; Scheckter elected to stay with the old four-wheeled Tyrrell, the 007, in which he had won races in both the previous two seasons. Depailler qualified his P34 an auspicious third, behind only that year’s form horses, James Hunt (McLaren M23) and Niki Lauda (Ferrari 312T2), but he DNF’d with brake failure on lap seven; luckily his shunt was a small one and he was unhurt. At the race after that, the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, Scheckter was in a P34 for the first time, and he finished fourth in it, beaten by three cars powered by 12-cylinder engines: Lauda’s and Regazzoni’s Ferrari 312T2s and Jacques Laffite’s Ligier-Matra JS5. Next came Monaco, where both P34s shone, Scheckter second and Depailler third behind only Lauda’s Ferrari 312T2. And then came Anderstorp, in south-west Sweden, where Scheckter and Depailler delivered 12-wheeled joy for Ken Tyrrell, first and second in their P34s, pushing Lauda’s previously almost invincible Ferrari 312T2 down to third.

It could not last, and it did not. Anderstorp was a peculiar circuit, full of banked turns, and it suited the P34 uncannily well. Scheckter and Depailler scored three more second places each that season, but they never won again, and no six-wheeled car has ever won a championship Formula One Grand Prix since. 

I was never mad-keen on Latin - but, thanks to David Blumlein’s excellent teaching, I passed my O-level in the subject. After retiring as a schoolmaster, he began writing about racing. Google him and you will find his books. Buy them if you like. 

I owe him a lot. Docendo discimus (Latin: by teaching, we learn).