Freelance writer from Cornwall
Team Lotus, a name we all know and love. We’ve all heard or read the stories of classic cars racing and winning round classic circuits like the old Nurburgring, the old Spa-Francorchamps or Reims. Graham Hill two F1 World titles in 1962 and 1968, Jim Clark’s win at the Indy 500 with the Lotus 38 that Americans called the ‘funny car’, Emerson Fittipaldi becoming F1’s then-youngest World Champion in a Lotus 72. And, naturally, many Lotus-lovers will know Lotus’ first Grand Prix win when Innes Ireland won the US GP at Watkins Glen in 1961 for his only GP victory. And with triumph there’s also been tragedy. Jim Clark killed at Hockenheim in a minor F2 race in 1968, Jochen Rindt becoming the first and only posthumous World Champion after dying at Monza in 1970.
What many people don’t know, even some long-time Lotus-lovers, is that the very first Lotus race win was almost entirely unheralded then and is largely unacknowledged today. It wasn’t one of the classic circuits, it wasn’t a superstar, big-time driver and isn’t even considered a proper F1 race even by many who’ve actually heard of it at all.
The circuit was the former Royal Air Force base at Davidstow in Cornwall. The car was a Lotus Mk. 8 ‘sports racer’ and the driver was the talented private entrant John Coombs. The race itself was a mixed grid of so-called ‘sports racers’ run to F1 rules with some Formula 2 cars to fill the grid. The race was run on August 2, 1954.
To clarify, in the 1950’s almost any racing club with money and members to make it happen could organise an event and call it a Formula One race. Non-Championship races were still common practice into the early-1970’s. The technical specs needed before a car could call itself a Formula One car were infinitely more relaxed and less complex. A cursory look at race reports confirms that motorsport was infinitely less regimented then than today, explaining what, to today’s fans, might seem quaint, ad hoc organisation making racing a lot more fun while infinitely more dangerous.
Even today the former ‘Davidstow Circuit’ is one of the most overlooked, especially in relation to what came out of the then-fledgling Team Lotus. Even many locals are unaware that races were held there. Even fewer know of the Lotus connection. The circuit consisted of the main runway linked to a section of perimeter road and comprised a long straight with sharp corners at each end and a tight chicane just before the first hairpin. It was very simple, very fast and, to some who drove there, very dull. Like so many 1950’s circuits it was also a potential death-trap. Speeds were very high at a time when safety was almost non-existent with weather being mainly rain and heavy fog with occasional sunny dryness. Combine a very fast circuit with perpetually bad weather and basic safety standards and your brainchild will be a dangerous challenge for anyone brave enough to take part.
The first Lotus win came during the second of three ‘F1’ races held at Davidstow. The car was a late entrant, so late it arrived from the factory without even a paint job. The Lotus Mark 8 was the first of Colin Chapman’s fully-enclosed sports racers with revolutionary aerodynamic bodywork. It weighed in at only 1100 pounds, had a Connaught 1.5-litre, 85hp straight-4 engine and a top speed of 125mph. The bodywork gave it a ‘Space Age’ aspect that drew crowds even before the race began, such was its novelty. Lotus 8’s were normally entered as sportscars in 1.5-litre races although it was regular (especially given the comparatively open technical specs) for a sportscar to be readily converted to F1 specifications in order to fill a starting grid and avoid empty spaces. The famed Mercedes 300SLR was described by some as being essentially an F1 car with a sportscar body fitted and not much else done to it.
This particular Lotus 8 was only the sixth of the nine eventually built and, in the last few years, has been saved from the scrapheap to be restored at some future date. It’s driver was the well-respected, fast and safe privateer John Coombs. Coombs began his career in 1951 driving a JBS, went through 1952 driving a Cooper Mk. 6 under the ‘Ecurie Britannique’ banner and spent 1953 driving both a Cooper-Bristol and the Lotus 8. Coombs was never a big-name driver compared to some Lotus pilots such as Jim Clark and Graham Hill, but won at Thruxton and Silverstone in 1952, Thruxton again in 1953, the Davidstow win in August, 1954 and also at Brands Hatch a month later. Coombs later entered Mk. 2 Jaguars as a private team owner and manager, was instrumental in developing the lightweight E-Type Jaguar for sportscar and GT racing and ran various F2 cars employing such luminaries as ‘Black Jack’ Brabham, the perennially-unlucky Ron Flockhart, and the legendary Triple Crown-winner Graham Hill after Coombs himself had retired from racing his own cars due to his business commitments.
Racing in the 1950’s was a comparatively-improvised, highly dangerous affair, especially when compared with the slickly-corporate, safety-conscious business it is today. Davidstow was active from 1952 until 1955 after which it vanished into history and near-obscurity. It was one of many ‘airfield circuits’ created after World War 2 many of which (like Silverstone or Thruxton for example) are still used today in vastly updated and considerably safer forms. The Davidstow had so brief a lifespan is no great surprise. The organisers were always short of money and people to actually organise events, running costs and maintenance became increasingly expensive and the workload eventually unsustainable. But, for all its problems, Davidstow was popular while it lasted, especially as there wasn’t much else for West Country race fans to watch.
So, to August 2, 1954. There were eight races that day in a number of different classes. Sportscars were well-represented with a race for cars up to 2.5-litres, two heats and a final for unlimited capacity sportscars, a race for half-litre single-seaters of the ‘500’ class, one for sportscars up to 1.3-litres, a handicap race under Formula Libre rules and Race 5. Race 5 was run under F1 rules although it was almost entirely F2 cars and ‘sports racers’ like the Lotus 8 refitted to fit the F1 specs. But in those days an F1 race was an F1 race and the crowds were happy enough so the race went on. There were even some big names on hand in the sportscar races. George Abecassis brought one of the famed Jaguar ‘C’ Type sportscars, well-known motoring writer Tommy Sopwith arrived to race a Sphynx and there were a number of other Jaguaras there, no great surprise as Jaguars dominated the Le Mans 24 Hours during the 1950’s. The Lotus 8 with its Space Age looks caused a stir and there were a number of cars made by the Bristol Car Company which might have implied strength in numbers if they hadn’t all broken down.
As expected, the ‘F1’ race had to be padded out with a mixture of modified ‘sports-racer’ and F2 cars t make up the grid. The chief problem for the organisers was clashing dates. The previous day had seen the German Grand Prix won by Juan Manuel Fangio at the fearsome 14.1-mile Nurburgring and on race day itself there were the high-profile BARC meeting at Crystal Palace and the lucrative Rochester Cup races at Brands Hatch, all far bigger draws for drivers and spectators than a wet weekend in secluded Cornwall. But an ‘F1’ race was an ‘F1’ to spectators (even without any actual F1-spec cars) so the races went ahead amid weather that would have seen a race meeting automatically cancelled today.
Race 5 started in dense fog and puring rain with Rodney Nuckey’s Cooper-Bristol leading from the off. Even though Race 5 was shortened from 30 laps to only 20 because of the weather Nuckey’s luck and oil pressure faded and soon Coombs’ Lotus swept by to take the lead, the fastest lap (shared with Tom Kyffin who drove another Cooper-Bristol) and the win. With only 3 laps left Nuckey’s engine finally died, Coombs shot pst the stricken Cooper-Bristol and Lotus had their maiden ‘F1’ win in the bag. Team Lotus were off and running. There would be much triumph, and sadly much tragedy, to follow.
Hindsight being perfect visions it would be easy to criticise those who dodn’t see the beginning of the Lotus story for what it was but, that said, there was little to suggest it was especially important at the time. It was a barely-noticed win in a minor race at an almost-forgotten venue. At least that’s how it would have been viewed at the time. Few people, if any, had any real idea that what started at Davidstow in Auguest, 1954 would evolve into the legendary marque that Lotus eventually became.