David Leslie: Talented racing driver

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The Independent Online

'Racing comes first." How often did we tease David Leslie about those words, among the first he ever spoke to his wife-to-be, Jane? And he would smile in that impish who, me? manner of his, then happily reiterate them. Racing came first, to the very end, because David Leslie was a racer.

Born in Annan, Dumfriesshire in 1953, he raced karts as a kid, inspired by the example of his father, David senior, who had himself competed with distinction. Five times David junior was Scotland's champion, before he switched to Formula Ford 1600s. Racing against the likes of Nigel Mansell, he won the Formula Ford title in 1978 and went on to dominate Formula Ford 2000 in 1979. His mileage every season was astronomical as he travelled from Carlisle, where the family garage business was based, to race circuits across the UK. He thought nothing of it, and was always ready for work after another successful weekend at the wheel.

His talent took him into Formula Three in 1981 with a Hope Scott Ralt, and despite a minuscule budget he was only narrowly beaten by Belgium's Thierry Tassin at Thruxton in March. Elsewhere he was competitive until the money ran out, whereupon Eddie Jordan snapped him up.

Driving for the little Magnum team in 1983 he so upset an upcoming Ayrton Senna by taking pole position ahead of him for the opening round at Silverstone, that the Brazilian was convinced he must be cheating. Anyone who got behind Leslie's famed monosyllabic reserve, however, quickly came to appreciate his inherent sense of fair play.

He raced with distinction for Ecurie Ecosse, Jaguar and Aston Martin in long-distance sportscar racing, where his consistency and ability to extract performance from the car without overtaxing it mechanically made him a highly valued commodity.

Leslie moved into the British Touring Car Championship in 1990, and went on to race with distinction for Ecurie Ecosse's Vauxhall team in 1992, with Mazda in 1994 and Honda from 1995 to 1996. In that latter season he won the British Grand Prix support meeting and had such a strong second half that he leapt to fourth place overall in the championship standings. He turned to Nissan for 1997, and deserved much of the credit for massaging their Primera into a competitive proposition for 1998. In 1999 he finished runner-up in the title chase to team-mate Laurent Aïello.

After driving for Proton in 2002 and 2003, he became colour commentator for Eurosport in the World Touring Car Championship. Just a week before his death, he won his last motor race, at Silverstone, and was excited about the new opportunity opening up to race the Apex Motorsport Jaguar XKR in the GT3 Euro Championship. It was while travelling to Nogaro in France to test the car that he, and the team owner Richard Lloyd, perished on Sunday, when their plane crashed in Kent.

But David Leslie – "DL" – was so much more than a very talented race driver. He was a staunch family man. Jane, the niece of the Lola Cars founder Eric Broadley, was a racing girl herself; their elder son Graham works in the sport, and their younger son James is an RAF student pilot. David was as proud of them as they were of him. He was part of the fabric of motor racing, especially Scottish motor racing. Life as a driver who would race anything took him from his native land long ago, but while you could take the man out of Scotland you could never take Scotland out of the man. He wore tartan proudly on his helmet, and never lost an opportunity to wear his kilt at special functions. He and "Father David" discovered the F1-pilot-to-be David Coulthard in 1989 when he drove for their Formula Ford team, and also helped launch the careers of the Le Mans winner Allan McNish and the Indianapolis 500 victor Dario Franchitti.

He was the sort of man who would turn up, unannounced, to watch my elder son Tom race cars, and never let me forget a column I wrote in which I wrongly identified him as Tom's godfather whereas he was actually my younger son Sam's. But his ribbing was always done with his innate style and kindness.

It's not often it falls to you to write the obituary of one of your closest mates. As a racer, David Leslie was great; but as a man he was even greater.

David Tremayne

David William Leslie, racing driver: born Annan, Dumfriesshire 9 November 1953; married 1983 Jane Broadley (two sons); died Farnborough, Kent 30 March 2008.