Delaney still in top gear after a lifetime at the wheel

At 92, the world's oldest active competitive driver has natural fitness and greater prudence than in his grand prix days
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The Independent Online

The stately cavalcade of veteran car racing can belie a competitive ardour that even Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya would have to respect.

Take the philosophy of one regular participant, Tom Delaney. "If I have a chance of winning, I go for it,'' he says, much as the two uncompromising Formula One drivers might.

The difference is that Delaney, from London, has reached the time of life when he could be forgiven for confining his interest in the sport - any sport - to a comfortable seat in front of the television. He is 92 and believed to be the oldest active racing driver in the world.

Every year he has a medical to renew his international competitor's licence, and every year, so far, he has passed it. Equipped with that essential document, he pursues his passion in tandem with his beloved companion of the track since 1930, a Lea Francis Hyper.

They are fixtures at race meetings at Silverstone and Donington, vintage car owners' reunions at Brooklands, and the annual sprint along the Parade at Brighton.

"They tell me I'm the oldest driver with an international licence, though I don't really think too much about it,'' Delaney says. "Traffic on the roads now is hell, so I don't go too far afield. I have about a dozen races a year, as well as the sprints and reunions.

"How competitive I am depends on the race. When it starts I try to weigh up the situation: have I got a chance to win or be in the first three? I soon know by the performance of the other cars. And if I have, of course I go for it.

"But otherwise I can usually find another car or two of about the same performance as mine and we have our private little scrap, which is fun.

"You have to look out for some of the younger drivers, because they don't necessarily drive the same way as I do. I let them go if I think it's a little bit dangerous. So that's OK.

"I've had my days of winning races and I can afford to just enjoy it. I try not to do anything silly. This car will still do over 100mph.

"I've never had a serious accident, but we do have incidents in vintage car racing. I've had to take evasive action in a couple of recent races, when other drivers have got into difficulty.''

Delaney's longevity in racing owes as much to natural fitness and strength as to his prudence on the circuit. Slight of build, he evidently has no trouble controlling the beautiful but hefty Lea Francis.

He said: "I ought to do more exercise than I do, but I'm lucky. So far I've always got through the medical and it's quite a stiff test. But I don't have any problem driving the car, probably because I know it so well.

"Vintage cars are much heavier than modern racing cars. There's no power steering and the tyres today grip the road so much better, so the modern cars are much easier to drive.''

Delaney's Lea Francis was the manufacturer's latest model when he first saw it at the inaugural Ards TT race, in 1928. He was 17 and entrusted with the job of looking after the spare parts for the Lea Francis team. The car, driven by Kaye Don, won the event.

Two years later Delaney's father, who had an engineering business and raced against the likes of Malcolm Campbell, bought him the car and encouraged him to compete.

"The first year I had the car I did quite well, won a few trophies, and the following year my father said, 'Let's enter it for the Irish Grand Prix', which was held at Phoenix Park.

"I got pole position and led for about 200 miles before I had to come into the pits because the engine was slowing. I got going again, but I'd lost my chance of winning. When we got back to England I drove it to London and it was fine. But that's racing.''

That was also, Delaney acknowledges, the high point of his racing career. "I would like to have done more grands prix, but I was entering the family business so I hadn't the time. Going down to Brooklands was easy enough.''

Brooklands proffered another attraction. "They had a jolly nice aerodrome and that's how I came to take up flying. My wife and I had five sons, and I could take them flying, but I obviously couldn't take them in the racing car with me.''

However, one of the sons, Geoffrey, followed the racing line of succession, in a 1930 Lea Francis, and his granddaughter, Lucy, represents a fourth generation of the family's combatants.

Despite his devotion to the 1928 Lea Francis, vintage car racing, Brooklands and all things nostalgic, Delaney is a keen and appreciative follower of modern Formula One.

"Now the other cars have caught up with the Ferrari it's become more competitive and more exciting,'' he says. "Ferrari are not beaten yet, though, and Michael Schumacher is supreme. He's a fantastic driver and he looks after his car.

"The advancement in the design of the cars interests me, and of course the road car does benefit eventually from what they learn. I also like rallying. I like to watch all the best drivers.''

Northern Ireland's racing enthusiasts relished the sight of Delaney and his Lea Francis at the Args TT 75th anniversary meeting last month. In September, the veteran double act will play to another loyal gallery, on the south coast. "I raced at Brighton in 1934," he says, "and I have to keep going back there, for the sprint on the Parade. They expect me to.''

Admiring friends and intrigued commentators, mystified that Delaney should still be racing, have speculated that climbing into the car takes away the years and pumps up the adrenalin. Delaney maintains there is no mystery at all.

"I just feel normal when I'm racing,'' he says. "I take it in my stride. I can't imagine not racing. My car and I are a partnership. We can't be separated. As long as I can pass the medical and the car keeps going, I'll try to keep going.''