A June morning. France 1959. Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori have driven an Aston Martin DBR1 to first place in that centerpiece of the sports car world, the Le Mans 24-hour race. For the Aston Martin Company and its race team, winning a Le Mans is the climax of 10 years of hard labor. Now David Brown, head of the industrial conglomerate of which Aston Martin is a small but vital part, flies over the 8.38-mile circuit on the way to London in his twin-engined de Havilland Dove, looks down at the debris left by the race and its 300,000 spectators and expresses one side of the love-hate emotion that so many in it have for Le Mans.
"Thank God," he says. "Thank God I don't have to come back to this damn place again."
Seated in the plane with Brown is John Wyer, a shy, intense Englishman who has been Aston Martin's racing manager during those 10 years and is now the firm's general manager as well. "I guess that means I won't be coming back, either," Wyer thinks to himself, but he is not exactly upset at the prospect. "Now I can stop playing with motor cars and get on to something more serious."
A decade of broken resolutions later John Wyer is still playing with cars. No longer is he merely an able team manager, he is the reigning wizard of Le Mans. And not because he frightened people with fast cars the way Ferrari used to. He clobbered them with antiques. His victories in 1968 and last year were won with the same aged Ford GT40—an obsolete car in among the swifties from Porsche and Matra. Wyer emerged as a man who could keep his cars together when all about him were losing theirs to the intoxication of speed, and next week his tall, slightly stooped figure, his sparse, straight, black hair and haggard face will be visible at the season-opening Daytona 24-hour race, in the pits of—ah, so—Porsche.
January 26, 1970
Tired of facing life against him, Porsche has hired him. Wyer, therefore, will be campaigning a powerful new Porsche 917, a racer capable of 225 mph flat out and already proved at record lap speeds on the track at Daytona. The enemy: Ferrari, returning to endurance racing with a new five-liter projectile called the 512. The favorite: Porsche and John Leonard Wyer.
"In a different age John might have been a General Montgomery, a man he admires tremendously," says Pieta Wyer, his wife of 28 years. "He enjoys motor racing as a strategic exercise. Everything down to the smallest detail is carefully planned out. Even in his personal life he has a great capacity for minute detail and an abhorrence of imperfection in others."
After an endorsement like this you might expect Mrs. Wyer to conclude, "but I love him anyway." However, the seemingly cold, implacable side of Wyer's personality is tempered by a quiet sense of humor and an ability to take bold, precipitous action when the situation seems to call for it. Though he married Pieta 4½ years after being introduced to her in the lobby of London's Piccadilly Hotel, Wyer proposed marriage that first evening.
"It doesn't seem like him, does it?" asks Pieta. "He really is extraordinarily shy. But I was drawn to him because he was also so exceedingly intelligent and had such a fine sense of humor. We had drinks, dinner and more drinks. It seemed an absolutely hilarious evening."
At that time, in 1936, Wyer worked for Solex, Ltd., the international carburetor cartel headquartered in Paris. But ever since childhood, when Wyer read automotive books and magazines instead of playing games, motor sports has been his strongest passion. It was a passion he was not able to indulge until he was 36. A touch of tuberculosis and being in an essential industry kept Wyer out of military service during World War II but, like everyone else in war-saturated Britain, he worked hard at his job, and by V-E day was wrung out physically and spiritually. He was ripe to take part in what could be described as the mid-'40s' version of doing one's own thing.
"There had been a Depression and then a war," Wyer said recently, "and we all felt that since we hadn't been able to do the things we enjoyed doing for such a helluva long time, we were going to start right then before we got too old and it was too late."
What Wyer did in 1945 was to get swept up in Britain's racing craze. His was a generation looking for less deadly excitement than war, but excitement nonetheless. There was a frantic search for cars to race and tracks to race them on. Wyer took a job as general manager of Monaco Motors, which prepared cars for private clients who wanted to race them. The cars won races, the firm prospered, and when Monaco was bought out by Vauxhall dealers in 1950 Wyer moved to Aston Martin, newly purchased and revived by David Brown. Brown, who put together his first works team in 1949, looked upon winning races as the most effective way to promote his product, and he viewed Wyer as the most effective way to win races. During his five years at Monaco, Wyer had developed an approach to racing. "I learned that it wasn't the lighthearted affair many people thought it was," he says. "Only a methodical, systematic approach could give results.
"Actually I looked on the job with Brown as a sort of short-term paid holiday. I'd do it for a year and then get on with something more serious."
One year somehow became 10 years, and Wyer developed a commandolike compact striking force of only two or three cars for his race teams. Occasionally members of his staff were also commandolike in bravery. A good example of the kind of dedication Wyer appreciates was provided during the 1952 Goodwood nine-hour race in England. One of the Aston Martin cars had pulled into the pit and then suddenly burst into a ball of flame while being serviced. Wyer and two of his mechanics were badly burned. The pit staff scattered for cover. All, that is, except Rob Walker, a sportsman later to become the patron of Stirling Moss and other leading drivers, who was helping out by timing one of the cars—the eventual winner—and was not going to lose track of his charge or be distracted in any way.
"When I came out of the hospital and examined Walker's time sheet months afterward," says Wyer, "I discerned no tremor at all in his neat, precise handwriting. The only indication of the disaster was the laconic marginal comment, 'No. 15 catches fire.' "
This kind of single-mindedness is fairly typical of what Wyer can generate in members of his staff. There are those unkind enough to imply that Wyer, like an Indian prince in a sedan chair, rides from success to success on the shoulders of an exceptionally able corps of assistants. For support his detractors cite the fact that at last year's Le Mans, when his GT40 nosed out a Porsche by 125 yards in that implausible upset, Wyer got the glory though he wasn't even there. True. Wyer stayed with Pieta. who was ill in the hospital, and kept in contact by phone. And don't knock it.
"If I've done my job properly I should, in theory, be able to stay at home and hear about it on the radio," Wyer happily admits. "I can leave the actual races to the people who do that for me, and they do that very well."
The two most important are John Horsman, a 35-year-old engineering graduate of Cambridge, who has worked under Wyer since the days at Aston Martin and is now his second in command, and David Yorke, 52, who won a DFC flying Hurricanes during World War II and joined Wyer three years ago as his race manager.
In a 24-hour race no driver can stay behind the wheel more than four consecutive hours. He must have an hour of rest between stints. Careless juggling of the two drivers can result in the best man sitting in the pits just when he is needed in the car or, worse, disqualification of the entire team. Yorke is rated one of the best in the world at this difficult job. "John builds the cars and David races the cars, and I just tell them what they're doing wrong." says Wyer.
Another knack of Wyer's is bending headstrong drivers to his will. Bad discipline can lose races, as Porsche discovered last year at Le Mans. Porsche had the best cars, and plenty of them, and a fine team of drivers, but lost to the slower GT40 just the same. One of Wyer's aides watched two Porsche drivers, early in the race, going like horizontal rockets down the backstraight at Le Mans, the three-mile stretch of France's Route N158 called the Mulsanne Straight.
"They were ripping down Mulsanne, hubcap to hubcap, doing close to 200 mph," he says. "They were so close together the two cars finally touched. One of them hurtled off the road; the driver was lucky to survive. The other kept on but broke down not long after and was out of the race. So Porsche lost two cars, mainly because they were trying to beat each other."
"I really began to understand drivers after I started at Aston Martin," Wyer said the other day while seated in the study of his snug white-brick cottage in Fulmer Chase, an hour's drive west of London. "I had previously thought that motor racing was rather like a school game in which the drivers would subordinate personal glory for the good of the team. I soon found out that they wouldn't. They were all individuals with strong personalities, which, of course, makes sense. If they weren't they wouldn't go in for something like motor racing. I learned that sometimes competition within a team can be stronger than the competition with the people you're running against. This is the thing you've got to overcome.
"With exceptions like Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and Jacky Ickx, the best Formula I drivers, broadly speaking, don't make good long-distance drivers. What they really enjoy is the cut and thrust of Formula I racing, where they are driving very close to their own personal limit all the time. You've got to convince them that going flat out from the start is not the way long-distance races are won.
"The driver who was the greatest inspiration to any team was undoubtedly Stirling Moss," Wyer continued, drumming the sharp blade of a letter opener on the surface of his study desk as he recalled some of the drivers he has worked with. "He could drive in any sort of competition. Here you had a driver who every other driver recognized, without exception, as something else. He did things nobody else was able to try. He knew he was the best in the world and always made damn sure he got the best car, but even so he was good for morale, because if Stirling was driving for you it meant he wasn't driving against you.
"Ickx is one of the few drivers who is extremely good at both long-distance and Grand Prix racing. He can drive within his capacity and the capacity of the car and then go absolutely flat out, as he had to do for the final three hours last year to win at Le Mans."
Wyer finally left Aston Martin in 1963, not, he says, because Aston Martin had dropped racing, but because it did not build up the passenger-car side of the business as much as he would have liked.
"I felt we were not going to make real progress with our DB4 production car," he says. "It still remained something special for the few. I didn't want to mass-produce a cheap sports car, but I did want to make it available to a broader market."
Later that year Wyer signed a contract with Ford. This was the beginning of Dearborn's assault on Le Mans, then dominated by Enzo Ferrari and his bright-red cars. Ford planned to produce a new car, which subsequently became known as the GT (for Gran Turismo) 40 (it was 40 inches high). Under an umbrella called Ford Advanced Vehicles, Wyer would oversee the European racing program.
What happened after that constitutes one of the sagas of motor-racing history. In September 1963, with Wyer as general manager, Ford Advanced Vehicles began a crash program to get the GT40 ready for Sebring the following March.
"The GT40 was the most advanced car of its time in suspension, body shape and performance," says John Horsman. "It was one of the first of the cars to place the engine right behind the driver. It had great potential. The problem in the beginning was that it was unreliable—but if you stay with it you can make any car reliable."
Unreliable was the word. During the 1964 season the GT40 was entered in races at the N√ºrburgring, Le Mans, Rheims and Nassau. There were nine starters in all, and not a single one finished a race. Ferraris won at the N√ºrburgring and Rheims, finished one-two-three at Le Mans and won the manufacturers' championship to boot.
Panic in Dearborn. Vice-presidential memos and phone calls clogged the out-boxes and the switchboard at the Ford division. Decision: bring the entire racing program back to the U.S., where it could be kept under tighter surveillance. Concentrate on a more powerful engine (up from 4.2 liters to 4.7). Start thinking about a far more powerful car (the seven-liter Mark II).
Wyer's role was reduced to building enough GT40s (50 of them) to qualify the car under the FIA's rules of homologation.
The next year was slightly better for Ford. First at Daytona, second at Se-bring, third at Monza. But then there was disaster at Le Mans. Six Fords entered the 24 Hours and not one finished. Ferrari once again took the top three places. Now there was puzzled outrage in Dearborn. Ford's decision was to intensify the effort, spend more money, concentrate on the more powerful Mark II. The result was victories at Daytona and Sebring and a one-two-three finish at Le Mans (with Henry Ford II on hand to pour the champagne). Ford won the manufacturers' championship. There was victory at Le Mans again in '67, then retirement from sports car racing, the objective attained.
Meanwhile, back in the machine shop in Slough, Berkshire, that advocate of the compact striking force, John Wyer, was satisfied to be out of the Ford mainstream, the massive ebb and flow of Ford money, Ford cars, Ford vice-presidents. He was quietly feeding and grooming his pets and preparing to write the second part of the saga. In January 1967 Wyer purchased the assets of Ford Advanced Vehicles and severed his official connections with the company. With John Willment, a freewheeling entrepreneur, as a relatively silent financial partner, Wyer set up JW Automotive Engineering Ltd.
That year Wyer raced with some success a Ford prototype, the Mirage. In 1968, under the same special licensing arrangement with Ford, the firm prepared and raced three of the poor, neglected GT40s. Gulf Oil took over ownership of the cars, as it had the Mirage, and financed the racing program. Horsman was installed as second in command, and David Yorke was put in direct charge of the racing team. The results were fantastic. With the retirement of Ferrari from the sports car scene in 1967, Porsches had become the preeminent racers, but the three orphaned GT40s took them on, grille to grille, beating them at Le Mans and elsewhere and winning the manufacturers' title. More obsolete by the week, the GT40, of course, defeated Porsche again at Le Mans in 1969.
"Ford never gave the GT40 or the idea of a compact striking force a fair chance or enough time," Wyer insists. "I believe we could have won with the car in 1965. The feeling seemed to be that a 4.2-liter car was not powerful enough, but in fact a less powerful Ferrari did eventually win. The effort failed in 1965 because too many people had become involved, it had become too diversified. Ford finally won at Le Mans, but once the company began spending so much money and so much effort doing it the result was inevitable. As the saying goes, they didn't solve the problem, they trampled it to death. They proved that if you spend $7 million—about seven times what anyone else had ever spent—you can win at Le Mans."
But Porsche has not been reluctant to splatter the Deutsche Marks about, either. To be able to utilize up to a five-liter engine, it has had to build 25 carbon copies of the 917. The cost of each of the 917s is $70,000. Porsche will sell a few (at a loss) but even so will have invested $1 million before the cars have even gone racing. Fortunately Gulf Oil plans to continue its association with Wyer, and its contribution probably amounts to $350,000.
With Wyer, Horsman and Yorke at the controls, Porsche can expect to eliminate the errors that have plagued it the last two years: badly planned engineering, poor driver discipline. Already they seem to have eradicated the last major bug in the 917, one that Porsche engineers had been puzzling over for most of last year. The drivers found that the car handled erratically. When Horsman and Yorke took their first hard look at the 917 last November in tests at Zeltweg, Austria, they quickly found the reason why. "We noticed that there were no flyspecks on the tail of the car," says Horsman. "This meant that the tail was sloping down too sharply, that currents of air were not hitting it, not forcing the wheels into a firm position on the road. So we just raised up the tail. Suddenly the drivers enjoyed the car. Our lap times on the track immediately dropped from 1:48 to 1:43."
A month later at Daytona, in the midst of a 30-hour test, two of the 917s were hurtling around the track at lap times of 1:47 and change, almost five seconds under the official track record. Porsche, Wyer and his staff are obviously on the verge of an extremely successful year. Even so, as he looks ahead to the Daytona race and the season beyond, Wyer nurses his customary doubts about the whole business.
"It sometimes all seems so senseless," he said, recalling the way it was in the rain at Le Mans in 1968. At about 5 a.m. Wyer left the pits and went to the Welcome Inn, the race organization's tavern in the infield near the first turn, to shave and wash. He came out and walked over to the edge of the track to watch his Ford go by.
"The stands there were absolutely deserted," he said, "and the wind was sweeping the rain across the track in great, furious waves. And here were these cars driving round and round and round and not a soul watching them. I thought we all must be crazy to be there. I had to go straight back to the pits and get to work. I knew that if I had a real chance to think about it I probably would have got into my car and driven as far away as I could."