Cliff Allison

Formula One racing driver for Lotus and Ferrari

Thursday 02 April 2009 23:36

Cliff Allison was the first man to lead the soon-to-be-famous Team Lotus when they graduated to Formula One in 1958.

Cliff Allison, racing driver: born Brough, Westmorland 8 February 1932; married (three sons, one daughter); died Brough 7 April 2005.

Cliff Allison was the first man to lead the soon-to-be-famous Team Lotus when they graduated to Formula One in 1958.

Born in Brough in Westmorland in 1932, the garage owner's son began racing a Formula Three Cooper-JAP in 1952. Five years later he won the prestigious Index of Performance at Le Mans, driving for Lotus after its founder Colin Chapman had spotted his talent. Allison had no sense of the glory that was to follow for Lotus, but said: "I always reckoned that Colin had the ability to design a winning car. But what worried me was that it might kill me before that happened! I had all sorts of problems with Lotuses. They were all very, very light . . ."

On their joint début at Monaco in 1958, Allison finished sixth, repeating the result in Holland before finishing fourth at Spa in Belgium, where he might have won had the race run a lap longer. Tony Brooks' Vanwall crossed the line with fading oil pressure and seizing gearbox, Mike Hawthorn's second-placed Ferrari blew its engine on the final corner, and Stuart Lewis-Evans' Vanwall was creeping with broken suspension.

Ironically, all the good things came early for Allison, and that fourth place remained the zenith of his career. Later that year he put in a brilliant drive at the Nürburgring in Germany which went largely unnoticed in the aftermath of Peter Collins's death. But for the failure of a radiator repair, after his team-mate Graham Hill had crashed the car in practice, Allison could have finished second to Brooks. The 14-mile-long track was the greatest test of a driver. Allison confessed that he remembered nothing of it from his first experience, as a passenger in a Ford Anglia driven by his friend Stirling Moss, but added: "I loved the 'Ring. That was a man's circuit . . . One of the reasons I enjoyed it is that a lot of the little roads in the Lake District, close to home, were very similar to it . . ."

Allison's performances attracted Ferrari, whom he joined for 1959. That season he had to vie for his seat with drivers of the calibre of Brooks, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, Richie Ginther, Olivier Gendebien and Wolfgang von Trips. "It was my first glimpse of the big time and a proper professional team," he recalled. "Everyone looked upon Ferrari as the team to drive for. I was on cloud nine."

If that is reminiscent of Ferrari's current position, other aspects were very different from what Michael Schumacher expects today. The remuneration was minimal and Allison faced a Herculean trek to Ferrari's Maranello headquarters from rural Brough. He would drive to Darlington, then take the train to London, a coach to Heathrow, fly from Heathrow to Malpensa, then get trains from Malpensa to the Grande Stazione Centrale and thence to Modena. More often than not he would arrive, only to be told his car wasn't ready.

He showed his class in 1960 by dragging his outdated front-engined Ferrari home second in Argentina to Moss's fleet rear-engined Cooper, which was the shape of the future. But a crash during qualifying in Monaco, when the gearshift pattern had been changed but nobody had told him, left him hospitalised with a broken arm and ribs and compression of three vertebrae. When he awoke from a 16-day coma he found he could speak French, which was odd since he had understood not a word of the language previously.

He came back in 1961 driving a Lotus for the private UDT-Laystall team but another heavy crash, at Spa, ended his career as he suffered broken legs and spent two years recovering. By then the two Hills, Phil and Graham (no relation), team-mates he had demonstrated he could beat, had become world champions, in 1961 and 1962 respectively. Allison had reached the end of his yellow-brick road. It took him a long time to get over the bitter frustration and disappointment that he had been left behind. He went quietly back to Brough to work in his father's Grand Prix Motors garage business, occasionally driving the local school bus in his later years.

It was only when he made occasional visits to grands prix in the Nineties that he came to realise that people still remembered him with respect, and at Monaco in 1992 he admitted: "I don't want to sound big-headed, but at the time of the accident in Monte Carlo, I knew I was already driving as quickly as the other drivers in Ferrari, and probably a little bit quicker." He would have been perfectly suited to the "Sharknose" Ferrari in which Phil Hill won his 1961 crown.

"Life's all ifs and buts, isn't it?" he said.

I did feel bitter, rather cheated. I'd got to the top and it felt great, but it's not to be recommended falling over. I went to Silverstone but it was awful; all my friends were still there doing it and I was there, watching. Being back in Brough was . . . well, talk about shock therapy!

Allison once shared a Lotus with the historic racer Malcolm Ricketts on a re-run of the famed Mille Miglia. At one checkpoint he was personally sought out and congratulated by Luca di Montezemolo, the president of Ferrari. That, and the reception he got on his return to the F1 paddocks, did not compensate for Cliff Allison's lost career, but one of the finest fellows in the sport quietly admitted that he was overcome to discover that he had not been forgotten.

David Tremayne

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