“I never knew my father. I was only eighteen months old when he had his accident. Throughout my life I have got to know him through my mother’s stories and all the photos and newspaper cuttings she has kept and found.
More recently I have been able to find out more through Internet forums and blogs and it has become very apparent that it is not just my family that miss him but that so many Motor Sport fans do too.
This is the reason for this site. To try and gather as many photos, newspaper cuttings and stories as possible in memory of my dad.
- Kara Birrell.
“Football is said to be a game of two halves. Motor Sport is a game of three thirds – a car, a driver and a back up team of engineers and mechanics. The interplay between the three thirds can play a major part in the success of a team and inter-team relations are not always easy with some of the stresses (and egos!) involved.
But the inter-play within ANY team with which Gerry was involved was always easy because of his wonderfully warm personality. He was a fine driver, he was a fine analyist of a car’s charcteristics and as such played a major part in developing some successful Ford competition cars. But above all he brought a friendliness and good humour to a team and, whatever the pressures, he could relax people with his smile and a sometimes dry comment.
A great driver and a great man.’
- Stuart Turner.
Although Gerry was one of the fastest of his generation, his approach to racing was very intelligent and professional (very like that of his fellow-Scot Jackie Stewart, who was just coming to the end of his career then). So it is no surprise that Gerry was completely blameless in the accident that killed him. In case there is any interest in exactly what happened, here is the detail of what seems to have occurred, based on informed reports published at the time.
Rouen, which is no longer used for motor racing, was a very fast circuit laid out on public roads that had been lined with steel “armco” barriers, as was the norm on race circuits in those days. But if the barriers were not properly assembled and fixed, they could do more harm than good. On Friday a couple of the English journalists covering the event (I wasn’t there) walked around the track, looked at the location of the barrier, and noticed that they were sited in loose earth and could be moved around by hand. Worried, the journalists pointed this out to the race organisers, but nothing was done.
On Saturday afternoon, in the final practice session, Gerry was setting a qualifying lap in the works Chevron B25, going through the fast downhill sweeping curves after the start at around 155mph, when a front tyre suddenly deflated. Gerry hit the brakes, but with his front wheels locked the car hit the armco barrier head on. Rather than deflecting the car and slowing it down gradually as it was intended to do, the barrier (according to one report) “opened up” and Gerry was dreadfully injured. He died shortly afterwards.
It took this accident to focus the attention of the other drivers, who included the likes of Emerson Fittipaldi, Jochen Mass and Tim Schenken, on the danger of the barriers lining this high-speed section. Another driver, Mike Beuttler, had also had a puncture during practice and hit the barriers on a different part of the circuit. In his case the front of his car actually went underneath the barrier and was torn off, exposing the driver’s legs and feet: miraculously he escaped with bruised ankles.
After an acrimonious drivers’ meeting with the organisers, during which there were calls for the next day’s race to be cancelled altogether, a makeshift chicane was hastily made from plastic bales to slow the cars down at the point where Gerry had crashed. With these in position the race took place the following day. All this happened nearly 40 years ago, and the safety standards in motor racing, even at an international level, were pitiful by today’s standards. If such an accident were to happen on a modern circuit, even at those speeds, the driver would probably escape any sort of injury.
As for Gerry’s career, I remember he was helping out the early racing efforts of his elder brother Graham when he was still in his teens. As soon as he was 17 and old enough to get a racing licence he drove Graham’s Austin A40 in a race at the old Scottish circuit of Charterhall, and then he raced an old Lotus sports car and a succession of saloons before getting a fully race-prepared Singer Chamois, effectively a Hillman Imp. With this he won the Scottish Saloon Championship.
Next came his first single-seater drives in the VW Beetle-based Formula Vee. In 1968 he dominated the class, winning the British FV Championship with ease. From then on he was a man to watch. He moved on to Formula Ford in 1969, and won the European Championship. In 1970, now married to Margaret, he moved up into the very competitive Formula 3, driving a semi-works Brabham BT28 for Rodney Bloor’s Sports Motors Manchester team and winning the L’Equipe Championship.
His progress up the ladder continued into Formula 2, which in those days was highly competitive, being contested by Formula 1 drivers on their free weekends from Grands Prix. Both Gerry’s 1971 F2 Lotus and his 1972 F2 March lacked reliability, but when things held together he showed tremendous speed. Soon the Ford Motor Company had marked him out as a rising star, giving him drives in their works Capri RS in British and European Championship touring car races, and in the Le Mans 24 Hours.
He was now doing a lot of testing and promotional work for Ford, who were determined to see him progress into Formula 1 with the right team, and there seems no doubt that he would have made his F1 debut in the 1974 season. From then on he could well have gone to the very top, and been another World Champion for Scotland alongside Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart. Tragically, fate decreed otherwise.
I think it’s worth quoting some words said immediately following his death by Stuart Turner, who was then Ford’s Director of Motor Sport. Stuart was an unerring judge of cockpit talent, and a man who did not dish out praise lightly. He said:
“Gerry Birrell was not just a brilliant racing driver. He was a very close and dear friend, a consistently cheerful, friendly and co-operative man. As a racing driver, he was one step from Formula 1, in which it was simply a matter of time before he made his debut.” ”
- Simon Taylor.