Andy Wallace: Le Mans, F1 and becoming a record-breaker

| 4 Aug 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Andy Wallace: Le Mans, F1 and becoming a record-breaker

He rolls his eyes at the memory, all the while straining to be heard over fellow diners in a high-decibel Buckinghamshire pub.

That win almost didn’t happen.

Andy Wallace, victor at Le Mans first time out, wasn’t receptive when invited by Tom Walkinshaw Racing to join the fold.

He wasn’t interested in becoming a works Jaguar driver, but fortunately for him the team was persistent.

Classic & Sports Car – Andy Wallace: Le Mans, F1 and becoming a record-breaker

Andy Wallace’s fascinating racing career started modestly: with a 1973 Hawke DL11 Formula Ford car, a trailer and his dad’s Austin Maxi

“At the end of 1986, I was sounded out about doing the 24 Hours in ’87.

“I told them thanks, but no thanks,” he recalls with mock-horror. “I am going to drive in Formula One.”

Few wheelmen were more deserving of a shot than Bugatti’s test pilot, who had bagged major scalps in junior formulae.

A man prone to stretching self-deprecation to breaking point and quick to smile, Andy is great company.

He is living proof that nice guys sometimes do finish first, although his rise to prominence was far from preordained.

Classic & Sports Car – Andy Wallace: Le Mans, F1 and becoming a record-breaker

Heading to an epic debut victory at Le Mans in a Jaguar XJR-9 in 1988 © Getty

“I didn’t have money behind me,” he says.

“My family wasn’t involved in motor racing, but Dad took me to watch the British Grand Prix in 1968 and that got me hooked.

“I grew up 30 miles from Silverstone and would cycle to every meeting I could.”

Andy disliked school, though. “I left when I was 16,” he continues.

“I joined British Gas as an apprentice and qualified as a service engineer.

“It was a means to an end: I had already decided I was going to be a racing driver.

“The route to Formula One is obviously to start in karting then switch to cars.

“But I had watched a few pre-1974 Formula Ford races and it was something I could just about afford.

“It was a big leap for a teenager, though.

“In 1979 I went to the banks and attempted to get a loan, but they didn’t consider me a safe bet even though I insisted I was going to be world champion.”

Classic & Sports Car – Andy Wallace: Le Mans, F1 and becoming a record-breaker

Andy shares the podium with teammates Johnny Dumfries and Jan Lammers, plus TWR boss Tom Walkinshaw (on right) © Getty

He then hit upon a genius idea: “I went to a nearby used car lot, bought a car for £1800 on hire purchase, then sold it to somebody that same day at a £200 loss.

“The thing is, I now had £1600.

“I then saw a 1973 Hawke DL11 in the Autosport classifieds for £1250.

“I phoned the guy selling the car and he agreed to trailer it down from Scotland and meet us at Sandbach services on the M6.

“He arrived with the car in the back of an old coach, which was par for the course back then.

“I then drove the Hawke around the car park before we negotiated a deal, by which I mean he knocked off a tenner.”

Andy now had a racing car, something to tow it with in the form of his dad’s Austin Maxi, and a trailer bought from Jonathan Palmer for £50: “I then set about taking the Hawke apart, spreading it out all over the lawn, and pretended I knew what I was doing.”

The leap to his maiden start wasn’t without hurdles.

He lapped competitively at Silverstone during his first-ever test session, then a Clubmans driver lost it in front of him.

Classic & Sports Car – Andy Wallace: Le Mans, F1 and becoming a record-breaker

“The cornering speeds were in a different world. You were only limited by how much you dared to keep your foot in”

The Hawke clipped a wheel before barrel-rolling.

Bruised but unbowed, Andy returned in 1980 to claim the pre-1974 FF1600 crown.

“I moved into contemporary Formula Ford and won several races,” he says.

“I also took a job as a mechanic with the Jim Russell driving school just to be around racing full-time.

“It was slow progress for a while, but I made it into FF2000 and that went well, and in 1985 I landed a drive in the British Formula Three Championship with Swallow Racing.

“I won the opening race at Silverstone in my VW-engined Reynard 853 and took a few more rounds that year to finish second to Mauricio Gugelmin.

“I took the title in 1986 driving for Madgwick Motorsport.”

Andy was the runaway winner, the highlight of his F3 campaign being victory in the blue-riband Macau Grand Prix.

“In many ways, that was the best and worst thing that happened to me,” he muses.

“That was the race we all wanted to win, and you had a lot of drivers stepping down from higher categories to do it, including F1.”

Classic & Sports Car – Andy Wallace: Le Mans, F1 and becoming a record-breaker

Andy secured a full-time seat with TWR following the 1988 win at Le Mans

“I won both heats, the first after I jumped Jan Lammers, who has the best car control of any driver I have ever seen,” he continues.

“Even so, he was heading into the barriers at Lisboa late in the race until I dived up the inside.

“Our wheels touched, which got him pointing straight again, and Jan followed me home.

“I beat Emanuele Pirro in the second heat.

“The upshot was that I was offered a test with Benetton at Donington.

“There was me and Giovanna Amati, Otto Rensing, David Hunt and Emanuele, who already had two years’ experience in F3000.

“The Benetton F1 car had the four-cylinder BMW engine with massive horsepower and epic turbo lag.

“Then there were the ultra-hard-compound Pirellis, which retained heat for maybe four laps.

“I was second fastest behind Pirro, then did the rounds with various F1 teams: Arrows and Tyrrell offered me drives for 1987, on the condition I handed over $600,000. I didn’t have a fraction of that.”

Classic & Sports Car – Andy Wallace: Le Mans, F1 and becoming a record-breaker

Taking a win at the Daytona 24 Hours in 1990, driving the TWR-Jaguar XJR-12 © Getty

At this juncture TWR operations director Roger Silman made his initial approach: “I subsequently learned that Jan had recommended me, but I turned down the offer of a test because I was sure I was going to be in Formula One.

“I hadn’t thought about doing anything else. How stupid is that?

“I ended up graduating to Formula 3000 for 1987, but with an F3 budget.

“The March 87B we started out with was difficult to drive because the cockpit was much too small for me, but then we borrowed a Lola and I had a good end to the season. I didn’t win a race, though.”

He did, however, lead the season finale at Jarama for 50 laps until he was tripped up by a backmarker.

It marked the end of the single-seater dream.

“If you look at all the F3 champions prior to 1986, and those that came later, there aren’t many who didn’t become Grand Prix drivers, but it wasn’t to be.

“I kicked myself for batting away the TWR drive, but Roger phoned again. A test was set up at Paul Ricard.”

Classic & Sports Car – Andy Wallace: Le Mans, F1 and becoming a record-breaker

Le Mans ’95 and a night-time pitstop in the McLaren F1 GTR © Getty

“I hadn’t driven there before or been in anything as quick as a ground-effect Group C car,” remembers Andy.

“I drove the Jaguar XJR-9 mostly in low-downforce Le Mans trim, and you needed to get used to a fair bit of weaving around on the faster straight sections.

“The speed was something else, way beyond what I was used to.

“I am going from memory here, but I seem to remember touching 205mph, and the cornering speeds were in a different world.

“Initially you were only limited by how much you dared to keep your foot in.

“I then got the nod and raced at Jerez with John Watson and John Nielsen, and also with ‘Wattie’ at Road Atlanta, by way of a warm-up for Le Mans.

“Again, that was quite the experience. There was no test weekend in 1988 so it was all new, but I was aware that 6000rpm along the Mulsanne equated to 200mph.

“I thought I was going jolly fast first time out, but then another Jaguar came past me like I was standing still.”

Classic & Sports Car – Andy Wallace: Le Mans, F1 and becoming a record-breaker

Andy hit 217mph in a Jaguar XJ220 at Fort Stockton before setting a production car World Speed Record in a McLaren F1

“On my next lap, I went through the kink – which my teammates swore was flat – determined not to lift,” he explains.

“My right foot was practically through the bulkhead on the approach, but I still had a little lift.

“Then, on my third attempt, I didn’t lift at all. Like a lot of things in racing, it’s all about mental programming.”

Andy, with teammates Jan Lammers and Johnny Dumfries, famously won a race that wasn’t lacking in drama.

Derek Bell, Hans Stuck and Klaus Ludwig had been a threat in their factory Porsche 962C, only to run out of fuel after trying to eke out an extra lap.

Cue an epic comeback. For the TWR squad, the race was no less fraught.

“We knew the transmission was the weak link,” Andy adds.

“Jan taught me how to drive the car very quickly but without taking too much out of the drivetrain, and he used his experience to nurse our car home.”

Classic & Sports Car – Andy Wallace: Le Mans, F1 and becoming a record-breaker

More recently, Andy has become Bugatti’s ‘pilote officiel’

Just 25 minutes from the end, with the Porsche on the same lap, the gearbox main shaft snapped but somehow kept itself together: “It jumped into neutral so he grabbed the first available gear – fourth – and left it there.

“Jan knew the works Porsche team was listening to our radio broadcasts so he didn’t let on.

“When the mechanics took the gearbox apart after the race, the innards fell out.”

Winning Le Mans on his debut led to a full-time seat with TWR.

Major victories included the 1990 24 Hours of Daytona, before he jumped ship with Lammers to Toyota for ’92.

He raced in the World Sportscar Championship and also the IMSA GTP series: “Dan Gurney’s AAR team ran the American side of things, and I thoroughly enjoyed driving for him.

“Dan was a legend, but very modest and welcoming. He made you feel at home instantly. Not every team is like that.

“I won the Sebring 12 Hours in 1992 and ’93 driving alongside Juan Manuel Fangio II, who was a super guy. Both wins were in the same chassis, too.”

Classic & Sports Car – Andy Wallace: Le Mans, F1 and becoming a record-breaker

Although Andy’s Formula One dream never materialised, his subsequent career has seen him become one of motorsport’s greats

Andy accrued 25 major sports car wins by 2012, but a repeat overall victory at Le Mans never quite came off.

The closest he came was in 1995, when he joined Derek and Justin Bell aboard the Dave Price-fielded, Harrods-liveried McLaren F1 GTR: “You have to remember it rained for most of the race. It was awful, with standing water everywhere.

“Derek surprised me, and I mean that as a compliment. He was in his mid-50s by then, and although I was well aware of his past achievements, he drove brilliantly and seemed to find another gear when the conditions were at their worst.

“We could almost smell victory.”

The all-British trio led from 3am on the Sunday to a few hours before the end, when the clutch master cylinder failed. They hobbled around with only fifth and sixth gears to finish third.

Andy did claim three consecutive rounds of that year’s BPR Global GT Series aboard the same car, alongside Olivier Grouillard.

Classic & Sports Car – Andy Wallace: Le Mans, F1 and becoming a record-breaker

Andy today, with the record-breaking Bugatti Chiron

In 1998, he established a new production car World Speed Record of 240.1mph aboard an F1.

Andy had already gone 217mph at Fort Stockton in a Jaguar XJ220, so he seemed a natural fit for the record attempts for which he has become famous since quitting frontline motorsport.

This is the man who guided a Bugatti Chiron Super Sport 300+ to 304.77mph at Ehra-Lessien in 2019, let’s not forget.

Andy describes such bids as though nothing could be more normal, although even he concedes: “We spent a week at the track validating the aero numbers and checking and rechecking everything, each run edging faster and faster.

“From the cockpit, 250mph feels a whole lot quicker than 200, so approaching 300mph certainly commands your full attention!”

Pause. Smile.

“Honestly, I was glad we did it, but I drove quite slowly for at least a week after I got home.”

Images: John Bradshaw/Max Edleston/Luc Lacey/Getty

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