Roy Salvadori: Racing driver who triumphed at Le Mans

David Tremayne
Sunday 10 June 2012 12:42

Roy Salvadori, a Londoner despite his Italian parentage, was a tough racer best known for his success at Le Mans with Aston Martin. Coincidentally, he died three weeks after his partner in that epic success, Carroll Shelby.

He worked in his father's refrigeration business before learning the motor trade in the tough arena of Warren Street in the late Forties, where he forged a lifelong friendship with Bernie Ecclestone, who went on to control Formula 1. Subsequently, Salvadori set up a garage business in Tolworth.

He competed in 47 grands prix, making his debut with a Ferrari 500 in the 1952 British GP at Silverstone. His subsequent performances in a Gilbey Engineering Maserati 250F, between 1954 and 1956, led to drives with the emergent BRM, Vanwall and Cooper works teams in 1957; he scored his first points with fifth place in a Cooper in his home race. His best season came in 1958 with Cooper, when he finished second in Germany, third in Britain, fourth in Holland and fifth in Italy to take fourth overall in the world championship behind aces Mike Hawthorn, Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks.

The relationship he forged with Aston Martin in sportscar racing in 1953 would prove to be the cornerstone of his success, and as he waited for the British company's own Formula 1 effort to arrive, he and Shelby scored that historic victory for the marque at Le Mans in 1959. The front-engined F1 Aston Martin was already outdated by the time it finally appeared and yielded Salvadori only two sixth places in 1960, but that year he finished third at Le Mans, sharing an Aston Martin with an upcoming Scottish racer called Jim Clark.

In 1961 he moved to the Yeoman Credit Racing team in F1, winning races in the Tasman Series. His final season in F1 was in 1962; he was partnered with multiple motorcycle champion John Surtees at Bowmaker-Yeoman, but the season was marred by a heavy accident in a Cooper during the Tasman race at Warwick Farm in Australia, which left Salvadori with temporary facial paralysis, and another when his Jaguar flipped into the lake at Oulton Park following a puncture.

Subsequently he focused on sports and saloon car racing, usually driving for entrant Tommy Atkins, but he also assisted former Aston Martin manager John Wyer in developing Ford's dramatic GT Le Mans contender.

At 41, this urbane, elegant dresser, a renowned deadpan practical joker, retired from racing to manage the fading Cooper team. He recruited Surtees to partner the mercurial Austrian Jochen Rindt in the middle of 1966, after Surtees' famous fallout with Ferrari at Le Mans.

Surtees dominated the US Grand Prix before colliding with backmarker Peter Arundell, then won the Mexican GP easily.

Surtees, who moved to Honda for 1967, said of his old team-mate: "Roy had always been serious about his motor racing and, in my view, never quite realised his full potential as a grand prix driver, mainly because he was waiting in the wings while Aston Martin were being so slow in developing their DBR4 in 1959.

"The fact that I was quicker than him when I joined him in the Bowmaker team was not openly resented by him. He was certainly a good and considerate team-mate."

Salvadori also played a key part in the career of a young mechanic who went on to very great things. "We were anxious to avoid any clash between Jochen and John," he wrote in his autobiography, "so we set up what were virtually two teams. Each driver had his own chassis, engines and mechanics."

The new set-up was also good news for the youngest mechanic, Ron Dennis. Jochen insisted (and Salvadori agreed) on having him as his chief mechanic, despite his youth and inexperience, thus giving him the boost that would help him on his way to masterminding McLaren's fabulous success from the Eighties onwards.

"I'm very saddened to hear of the death of Roy Salvadori – who, although he never won a grand prix, was in my view one of the finest racing drivers of the Fifties," Dennis said. "His superb victory at Le Mans in 1959 was proof of that. I learned a lot from Roy – and, more than 40 years later, would like to pay tribute to him."

Cooper won their next race too, the 1967 season opener in South Africa, courtesy of the Mexican racer Pedro Rodriguez. But it was a tough year as Rindt did not get along with team-mate Rodriguez and was once moved to comment to Salvadori: "The best thing about you is your wife!"

The equable Salvadori retired from racing in 1968 to concentrate on his car businesses. Subsequently he and his wife, Sue, retired to Monaco, where they lived in an apartment above the start/finish line.

Roy Salvadori, racing driver: born Dovercourt, Essex 12 May 1922; married Sue; died Monaco 3 June 2012.

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