Freelance writer from Cornwall
Herbert Mackay-Fraser (known as ‘Mac’) was the first driver to suffer a fatal shunt while driving for the Lotus factory team, sadly he would not be the last. He was born in what was once called Pernambuco, Brazil (nowadays renamed Recife) on June 21, 1927 and would die after a Formula 2 race at the ultra-fast Reims circuit in north-eastern France on 14 July, 1957, only three weeks after his 30th birthday and one week after his Formula 1 debut at the French Grand Prix while driving a BRM P25. ‘Mac’ had qualified well for his Grand Prix debut (he started 12th on the grid and retired on lap 28 with transmission failure), but still had cause for optimism as he’d been offered a regular drive with the BRM factory team. It was with that in mind that he left Rouen after the race on July 7, 1957 and headed for his next engagement, the Formula 2 ‘Coupe Internationale de Vitesse’ at Reims.
‘Mac’ had an unusual and interesting family background. He was born to an American mother (Grace) and an American father (also named Herbert), who registered his two sons with the U.S Consul so that they would automatically be American citizens rather than Brazilians. His father was born on the island of St. Vincent before becoming a naturalized American citizen and his mother was from New York. ‘Mac’ also had a brother, Alexander, born in the Brazilian city of Bahia in 1923. ‘Mac’ was privately educated at Holderness School in the state of New Hampshire and enlisted in the US Army in January, 1944 but saw no action as he was employed doing clerical work with the rank of private. At the time of his death some newspapers listed his current residence as Idaho Falls, Idaho. His name was also unusual. Unlike his father, ‘Mac’ opted to use the hyphenated form of surname (MacKay-Fraser) while his father kept the unhyphenated version. The hyphenated version is highly unusual as his mother’s maiden name was Belcher, not MacKay. Whether or not this was something that ‘Mac’ simply liked or he was using it for other reasons simply isn’t known, although it wasn’t unusual for drivers to adopt aliases in those days (Jackie Stewart started his career entering races as ‘A.N. Other’ as his mother strongly disliked his racing while the French driver Pierre Levegh (known mainly for the Le Mans tragedy of 1955) was really Pierre Bouillon. ‘Levegh’ was an anagram of his uncle’s surname, Velghe, as his uncle had been a pioneer of the early city-to-city races when racing was still very new).
‘Mac’ perhaps owed his freedom to race to the fact that his father ran a sizeable coffee plantation in Brazil, which him a measure of financial independence. It wasn’t uncommon for privateers to buy their own cars and race at their own expense in those days if a drive for a factory team was unavailable and ‘gentleman drivers’ (as they’re sometimes disparagingly described nowadays) were common at the time. Having established himself in London ‘Mac’ also became a firm friend of Swedish driver Jo Bonnier, who would help lead the efforts to revolutionise racing safety before, sadly, losing his own life at Le Mans in 1972. ‘Mac’ was often to be seen driving around London in his Ferrari 250MM Berlinetta, an extreme rarity at a time when many people still couldn’t afford ordinary mass-produced road cars. To people used to seeing Morris Minors, a Ferrari 250MM with Pininfarina bodywork was always easily spotted and would attract attention even today.
‘Mac’ also got to race a classic sports car as well in the form of the Ferrari 750 Monza, performing well at the 1956 Reims 12 Hours until retiring with mechanical failure, while competing regularly for Team Lotus in F2 races and also entering the 1957 French Grand Prix at Rouen driving a BRM P25 as a late replacement for Roy Salvadori, retiring with transmission failure. His performance at Rouen, while unsuccessful on the track, was far more successful off it as he was offered a ride with the BRM factory team for 1958. Sadly, he would never take up the offer. The Formula 2 ‘Internationale Coupe de Vitesse’ at Reims was next on his list where he would be driving a Lotus Eleven sports racer heavily stripped down to meet Formula 2 specifications. In the 1950’s Team Lotus were particularly known for altering existing cars to enter different races, making just enough changes to fit the technical rules and pass scrutineering while keeping the cars as fast and light as possible and they weren’t alone in doing so. It has been said, for example, that the famed Mercedes 300SLR sports car was more like their Grand Prix car with sports car bodywork than an especially different design in its own right.
Reims was a street circuit like so many circuits at that time, but it was a circuit with a very dangerous twist to it. In the 1950’s there were three circuits that had a perpetual rivalry over claiming to be the fastest circuit in Europe. The three were Reims, Spa-Francorchamps and Monza. None of these circuits ever held the unofficial crown for long as car technology constantly evolved and circuit layouts were regularly altered. The Reims circuit had its own layout changed to bypass the town of Gueux after the 1952 French Grand Prix. Trees were cut down, the road was widened and the organizers went as far as demolishing some old houses to make the necessary changes. None of these changes were made with safety as a priority, simply to make the circuit faster and provide a greater spectacle for the crowds. Spectators could stand almost anywhere they liked, there was no debris fencing, no gravel traps, no run-off areas and the circuit layout of three tight corners linked by very long, ultra-fast straights was especially hard on both cars and drivers. Tyres, engines, brakes and transmissions were hard-pressed to last a race if a driver didn’t nurse a car, especially during the Reims 12 Hours that frequently finished only hours before the French Grand Prix. Also, the penalties for driver error were entirely obvious and almost always serious, especially as Reims was also known for epic slipstreaming battles between closely-bunched packs of cars. In short, Reims was a typical circuit of its time when safety simply wasn’t considered a major issue even after the 1955 Le Mans tragedy.
The first corner after the pit straight held a particularly dangerous reputation. It was a sweeping right-hander known officially as the ‘Courbe du Gueux’ and according to ‘El Maestro’ Juan Manuel Fangio, an especially brave, gifted driver could save up to half a second a lap if they took it flat out, while facing a potentially lethal shunt if they got it wrong. So drivers and fans alike nicknamed it the ‘Courbe du Calvaire’ or ‘Calvary Corner’ as it was to claim the lives of a number of drivers over the years. To add to the hazards of risking ‘Calvary’ flat out, there were small drainage ditches and embankments running immediately next to either side of the road so running even slightly off the racing line could make the car instantly cartwheel out of control. It was an especially dangerous corner for the drivers and thus one of the most popular viewing spots for the fans.
Mac was driving one of the famed Lotus Elevens for the works team. It wasn’t unusual for cars to be altered for different types of race back then and his Eleven had been altered to fit the Formula 2 specification. Cliff Allison would also start for the works team, racing the new Lotus Twelve. Both Lotus and Cooper were heavily represented by both works teams and privateer entrants while there was also a single entry from Scuderia Ferrari driven by the race winner Maurice Trintignant. Other big-names were Roy Salvadori and Jack Brabham for the Cooper works team, while lesser luminaries like Andre Simon, Les Leston and Jean Lucas were also on the grid.
The race was first marred by the fatal shunt of Cooper privateer Bill Whitehouse on lap 2. Whitehouse had borrowed a T30 Cooper ‘Bobtail’ from Roy Salvadori after his own car (a Cooper T43) had broken down in practice. Salvadori offered Whitehouse the ‘Bobtail’ and Whitehouse happily accepted. A tyre (which had apparently been incorrectly fitted on the wheel) burst while Whitehouse was braking hard to take the Thillois hairpin. The Cooper left the track at high speed, somersaulted and instantly burst into flame. Whitehouse was seriously injured by both the shunt and the fire (which had required ten portable extinguishers to put out) and was immediately flown by helicopter to the Centre Hospitalier in Reims where he died shortly afterwards.
The race continued, as was the fashion in those days. It was on lap 28 that the promising, tragically brief career of Herbert MacKay-Fraser was to end at the infamous ‘Courbe du Calvaire.’ ‘Mac’ was running well up until his shunt. He’d been dicing with Jack Brabham until ‘Black Jack’ retired with mechanical failure and also with Roy Salvadori and Maurice Trintignant. At the time of his shunt ‘Mac’ was pressing especially hard in pursuit of Trintignant’s Ferrari and driving rather faster than he usually did in an effort to catch “Le Petoulet’ as he was known (owing to once racing a car straight from storage that had rat droppings in the fuel tank) and simple driver error is the most obvious cause of his shunt. According to a subsequent report from Raymond Roche based on the account of a marshal at Post 3:
‘In the International Cup for Speed for cars of 1500cc, the pilot MacKay-Fraser, driving the car Lotus No.4 of 1500 cc, approaching the curve called ‘Avoidance Gueux’ at very high speed from the outside, left the road diagonally to the right, the car driving off the road for about 60 metres.’
The Lotus had gone completely out of control as it left the track. It rolled several times after crossing a small embankment and ‘Mac’ was thrown clear of the wreckage (drivers then preferred no seat belt to avoid being trapped should a car catch fire). He was seriously injured. He was immediately flown to the Hopital de Reims, but sadly died during the flight. The race continued and was won by the lone Ferrari of Maurice Trintignant.
In the touching words of local writer Lawrence River:
‘Herbert MacKay-Fraser was buried in the cemetery in Bezannes-Reims as a soldier fallen in battle far from home, attended by members of the Automobile Club of Champagne who attended his funeral on July 23, 1957.’