Tony Robinson – the biography of a race mechanic
The biography of Tony Robinson, chief mechanic at BRP and former mechanic for Stirling Moss, is to be published in September. Among the many tales in the book is the following hair-raising episode that occurred during his time working for Bruce Halford.
American racing driver Herbert Mackay-Fraser and his wife Marga lived in a little coastal village called Bonassola situated between Genoa and La Spezia. Just before the 1956 German Grand Prix Mackay-Fraser invited Tony and journalist Dennis Jenkinson to spend a few days by the sea. ‘Mac’ instructed them that Bonassola was easy to find, just a mile off the main road. He omitted to say just what that mile entailed.
Jenkinson set off in his Porsche 356 only to find that it was a gravel track that precipitously wound down the side of a cliff with hairpin following hairpin. Even in the Porsche he arrived at the bottom having spent half an hour with brakes on and in bottom gear. Mackay-Fraser told him that nothing larger than a Fiat 1100 had ever managed the track before. Now this journey must have been pretty harrowing in itself but think about it, Tony would be heading the same way later….in the Royal Blue coach (used to transport Bruce Halford’s Maserati 250F).
That evening the party, which included Mackay-Frazer’s fellow American Phil Hill, awaited news of Tony wondering when he would telephone to report progress. As darkness fell they assumed that he must have been held up at Modena and so retired to the local trattoria for dinner. Some time after 11pm the door was flung open and in staggered a totally exhausted and wild looking Tony. He stumbled to the table, collapsed and was plied with brandy. Eventually, recalled Jenkinson, he muttered, “Christ Almighty, I need a drink and some food.”
Tony had descended the track in the coach, sometimes having to make as many as six reversing manoeuvres to negotiate a hairpin bend, the tail of the coach perilously hanging out over the edge. He had thought the road a bit narrow as he hit the first hairpin but by the time he had come to the second he was totally committed. His headlights illuminated nothing; all his could see was a black void, perhaps a good thing. Many had been the time that he had descended from the coach’s cab to see just how close to the edge its wheels were. The proof that he had completed his harrowing journey sat outside the trattoria, an AEC bus complete with Maserati 250F inside and now being gawped at by the population of Bonassola.
The party left the restaurant to gaze in awe before deciding that they, too, needed brandies.
The next morning Tony was given the gladsome tidings that the track was the only way out of the village. ‘Jenks’ wrote that the poor man did not know whether to laugh or just break down hysterically. Mackay-Fraser and friends had been discussing the possibility of hiring a tank-landing craft and seeing if they could beach it. However, Tony took some strong Espresso coffee and allowed himself to be taken back up the track in Jenkinson’s Porsche.
As the pair ascended he remained very quiet. However, there was nothing for it and at least some of the hairpins could be taken in a wide sweep always assuming that nothing was coming down. Marga Mackay-Fraser volunteered to stand at the top of the track and prevent this from happening. Other hairpins would need at least three or four manoeuvres and so her husband rounded up enough friends to call advice from strategic points up the hill.
Perhaps the most courageous man, though, was Phil Hill. In 1954, the Californian had suffered from ulcer trouble. Throughout the following year he was in a tense, nervous state, regularly dosing himself with tranquilisers. Nevertheless, he volunteered to ascend with Tony. As the coach climbed upwards so he stood on the steps of the passengers’ entry, jumping off when necessary and excitedly bawling instructions - “left, back, right, forward, stop.”
“When we eventually arrived at the top, he was more shagged than I was,” recalls Tony.
Many years later Jenkinson remembered Tony’s inspired driving that day, full throttle in first gear almost all the way up. Giggling almost hysterically at the top, Tony said it had been even more hair-raising than the descent. At least the previous day he had not been able to see how close to disaster he had been.
ABOUT THE PHOTOS ABOVE
A. This water colour of Bruce Halford in the 1957 German Grand Prix by Ray Toombs was specially commissioned for Tony Robinson’s biography
B. Motor Sport's continental correspondent Denis Jenkinson travelled in Bruce Halford's 'Royal Blue' coach on occasion and took this photo of Tony Robinson as he concentrated on the road ahead. (Courtesy Denis Jenkinson: The GP Library)
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