Frank Gardner: Racing driver who turned down Formula One but won championships in other disciplines

Frank Gardner might not have been as well known outside his sport as his contemporaries Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt, but that was exactly how he preferred it. In a career that spanned a quarter of a century and embraced championships in Formula 5000 (1971) and British saloon cars (1967, '68) and success in international sportscar racing, he established a reputation as a redoubtable professional and car sorter par excellence (the car sorter sets up the car so it operates at maximum effectiveness). With his white flannel hat and devastatingly dry sense of humour he came across as precisely what he was: a quick racer driver who had seen enough of life to get his head around it and understand just where he fitted in.

He competed in speedway and motorcycle events before switching to race a Jaguar XK120 at Mount Druitt in 1948, close by his native city of Sydney, Australia. But an initial interest had been boxing; he won all six of his professional fights. "The walk from the dressing room to the ring is always the apprehensive thing," he said. "The last thing you're thinking is that the bloke is going to sort you out. That walk, with people cheering or heckling you, was always the big thing. The rest of it was a formality if you'd trained right. Like rowing, boxing was a discipline that got you organised for later life."

He forged a reputation as a specialist in big cars such as Ford's Falcon and Boss Mustang, Chevrolet's Camaro or Lola's brutish open-wheeled Formula 5000 machines: "You wore a single seater and you drove it to the stage where you felt your tyres go light and knew you were somewhere near the limit. The trick was to keep the tyres feeling as light as possible, because while you did that it was like being on a skid pan. Before you slide everything goes light and a bit peaceful, but go over it and then it all takes off on you."

Gardner turned down the chance to race F1 full-time with Brabham when Dan Gurney left in 1965. Denny Hulme grabbed the opportunity, and went on to become world champion. Gardner had no regrets, and chose instead to race for Ford. "It was the best deal in the world, a lot more than I would have been getting for F1. I didn't necessarily want to be the quickest driver in the business, though I certainly wanted to be the oldest..."

The car that said it all about his pragmatic blend of perseverance and courage – and his laconic manner – was the original Porsche 917. When asked to drive the wayward beast in the Nürburgring 1000kms in 1969, he asked team manager Huschke von Hanstein, "What about Jo Siffert?"

"He's in the hospital."

"Brian Redman?"

"He's in the hospital."

"Rico Steinemann?"

"He's in the hospital too."

He did the lion's share of the driving. "I decided it was a lot easier to settle for what the thing would stay on the road at, than be a little bit more heroic and throw it all into the undergrowth," he said. "It was an animal, structurally wrong. The chassis flexed. You could have jacked up the windscreen wiper and put a new car under it, but even then you'd doubt the windscreen wiper! I've always said that the Nürburgring was the circuit that Hitler designed for Jewish racing drivers, but to be there in a Porsche that didn't handle was an experience. You had 600 bhp and 10 inch wide wheels, and the track was wet. It was a mess!"

He would never be persuaded into acknowledging his own heroics that day and was equally diffident about that car-sorting tag, preferring instead to pay strong homage to the Lola founder Eric Broadley. "A lot of good people had the benefits of Eric's philosophies, such as Patrick Head and John Barnard."

Motor racing fascinated him, but he regarded it wryly. "Of course, it's all moved on now, hasn't it?" he said after he had retired. "Everybody is convinced that you can't move unless you've got five engineers, computers, a trainer, an adviser, a bloody manager, a solicitor, a Protestant Pope and an Irish king! The basics haven't altered, but the cost has just gone through the roof. In the old days you'd walk into a shop like Brabham's and there's your car, all those tubes on the wall. You want the car, go and make it."

Ten years ago Gardner drove Professor Sid Watkins' safety car at the Australian GP in Melbourne. "I don't have regrets," he said, "but I would like to have sampled some of the sophisticated equipment that's developed since I stopped racing. I was looking at that new Mercedes GT car at the Grand Prix Ball last night, and a thing like that gives you a traveller in the trousers. You would love to be 40 years younger. My only regrets are missing out on driving something like that, otherwise I'm happy the way things went. Earning big money is one thing, being around to spend it is another."

David Tremayne

Frank Gardner, racing driver and team manager; born Sydney, Australia 1 October 1930; married Gloria (one son, one daughter); died Gold Coast, Australia 28 August 2009.

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