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Mexico's fatal arrival on the world scene



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Walt Hansgen


Lotus-Climax 18/21 (self-entered)




I Mexican GP (4 November 1962)


In the event that cost Ricardo Rodriguez his life American SCCA-bred racer Walt Hansgen made another brief appearance in Grand Prix racing, having raced a Briggs Cunningham Cooper T53 run by the Momo Corporation in the 1961 US GP. Alfred Momo was Cunningham's associate in the team which Hansgen was very much part of since 1956.

Walter Hansgen was a veteran at the time he entered the 1961 US GP and 1962 Mexican GP and about to reach the peak of his career. Born in 1919, Hansgen started racing as late as 1951 when he took out a Jaguar XK120 in US club events. A year later Walt had his first international race, finishing a creditable 10th at Sebring, sharing an MG TD with Randy Pearsall. For 1953, Hansgen created his own car for SCCA nationals, a tube frame carrying the engine and suspension of his XK120. It was successful from the start but was soon surpassed on pace by the Ferraris. Then Hansgen got in talks with Briggs Cunningham's team but Walt beat Briggs's cars before he actually joined them. He accomplished the feat in 1956 at Cumberland, taking victory in his Hansen-McPhee D-type over no less than four Cunningham D-types raced by John Fitch, Sherwood Johnson, John Gordon Bennett and Cunningham himself. Two weeks later Hansgen was a Cunningham driver, going on to take the first of four SCCA 'C' modified titles in a row. He won the second in one of the Alfred Momo-prepared Cunningham Jags, the team having switched to Jaguars, Maseratis and Corvettes after the production of Cunningham cars stopped in 1955, while he completed the quartet in '58 and '59 racing Lister-Jaguars.

In 1958, Walt crossed the pond for the first time to race saloons, sportscars and F Libre cars in England. He won races in each type of vehicle, surprising the British with his versatility. Back in the US, Hansgen started to race single-seaters, driving a Cooper FJ prepared by Momo. He quickly got the hand of it, at one time even putting together a string of five wins before the opportunity came up to go F1 racing. In a Cooper T53 owned by Cunningham and entered by Momo, Hansgen lined up 14th on the grid, faster than Olivier Gendebien and fastest of the local heroes, outpacing Roger Penske, Hap Sharp, Jim Hall and Lloyd Ruby. On lap 14, however, Walt crashed when Gendebien hit an oily patch right in front of him, leaving the American with no place to go. Cunningham sold the chassis to Roger Penske after the race, and it later re-appeared as the famous Zerex Special.

A year later Hansgen self-entered a Lotus 18/21 in the inaugural Mexican GP, a 60-lap race that saw a nice turn-out of 17 quite competitive cars. Walt had actually raced against the Lotus in the 1961 US GP, when it was still owned by hapless American-Canadian Peter Ryan. The car (chassis 372) was bought from Ryan's estate after its owner had died in an F2 practice crash at Reims and bore the same starting number 60 that the Cooper carried in the 1961 US GP. Walt qualified it in a solid 13th place before retiring on lap 45 with ignition trouble.

That was after a start that turned into a complete mess when Jim Clark's battery went dead. Clark, driving 25/R3, was of course on pole and the organizers didn't feel like taking their star entry out of the equasion before the flag dropped. Mexico was trying to get on the World Championship calendar for 1963 and the last thing they needed was a curtain-raising event without the 1962 title contender not even taking part. It was bad enough that their home boy Ricardo Rodriguez had been killed the day before while their second local hero, Moises Solana, was said to have declined on racing the promising Reg Parnell-run prototype V8 Cooper-BRM T58 (F1-12-61, also practiced by Surtees) claiming he did not stand a chance of winning in this car. If there is any truth to this rumour, then there was someone with a slightly overblown opinion of his capabilities.

So with all the fuss on the grid, the organizers delayed the start only to have it fluffed for the second time. While Clark had to be push-started, Surtees burned one of his pistons on the grid and was out, Hansgen had to deal with a small fire while near the back Alan Connell's private Cooper was boiling dry. Meanwhile, the three Mexican starting officials (yes, there were three of them) were confusing each other and the field with their signals while one of them stood on Clark's front wheel to make his waving visible to the back of the grid! While he was still on it, one of his colleagues flagged the field away, forcing the fool on Clark's wheel to jump off and run for his life. The Scotsman led away but it was all for nothing as the officials deemed his push-start illegal and black-flagged him after 10 laps, overlooking the fact that they themselves had forced Clark into the situation. How in the world the Mexicans ever got their World Championship date for next year on the basis of this fluffed starting procedure remains a mystery. Fortunately for them, the rest of the race in their otherwise well-organized event proceeded without any serious incident.

Thus Jack Brabham - in the first car of his own name - inherited the lead, with McLaren second in the single works Cooper and Taylor third in 25/R2. But on lap 15 Trevor was called into the pits and Clark hopped in without losing third place but trailing by almost a lap. Lapping four seconds faster than Brabham and McLaren, Jim started reeling them in at an alarming rate while Bruce got ahead of Jack before the Kiwi's engine blew at half-distance. On lap 38 Clark had cut back the deficit and swept past, Jack offering no resistance as he was worried about his oil pressure. This allowed Clark to cruise to a comfortable victory. In sixth was American Bob Schroeder, racing John Mecom's No.77 Lotus 24, who finished with the rear of the car dragging along the ground after the car's frame broke near the finish… He wasn't the best of the North Americans, though. Roger Penske in the Zerex Lotus had taken a magnificent 6th on the grid, outpacing the likes of Brabham, Salvadori and Gregory, while Jim Hall (10th in qualifying) eventually finished a fine fourth.

So in the end, Trevor Taylor and Jim Clark took the last shared GP win in history. In World Championship racing shared runs had been, well, disencouraged, since 1958 of course, but as this was a non-championship event it didn't really matter.

After his F1 adventure Hansgen went back to sportscars, winning the 1963 FIA Manufacturers Double 500 in Cunningham's Cooper-Buick. He showed that he earned his nickname of "King of the Bridge" when in 1964 in spite of a 10-minute pit stop he brought John Mecom's Scarab to victory over the Ferrari of Pedro Rodriguez. Meanwhile, Hansgen continued to do well when racing single-seaters, qualifying an amazing 10th for the 1964 Indianapolis 500. Hansgen's MG-Liquid Suspension Special ran as high as second until mechanical troubles resulted in a 13th place finish. Later in the year, Hansgen made his second World Championship F1 appearance, doing a one-off for Lotus at Watkins Glen. It got him two World Championship points as he took his Lotus 33 home in fifth, 3 laps down.

Having taken on a young Mark Donohue as his protégé, Hansgen shared a Ford Mark II with Donohue on their way to 3rd in the 1966 Daytona 24 Hours. The pair also finished second at Sebring. Sadly though, while preparing for Le Mans with Ford, Walt crashed fatally during a washed-out April test session, shooting up an escape road ahead of the fast right-hander after the pits. There, two piles of sand were left in the middle of the road by the track maintenance people. He was taken to hospital in Le Mans before being flown to the US Army Hospital at Orleans, where he died five days later.

As often happens with the greats, Walter has been honoured by having a corner named after him. At Bridgehampton "Hansgen's Bend" was the acknowledgement for being the first to take the fast downhill right-hander after the pits without backing off! Very much a deserving title.

Reader's Why by Marcel Visbeen

Walter Hansgen was a privateer who acquired himself an ex-works Lotus 18, which was last driven by Pete Ryan in the 1961 US Grand Prix (incidentally won by Innes Ireland, see story above).

Hansgen was born in New Jersey, December 29, 1917. He started of as a privateer, but became a much accaimed proffesional. He only started in two GP's, and scored 2 points when he was driving the 3rd Team Lotus entry in the 1964 US GP. The other GP start was in the US GP of 1961 in a private Cooper.

He was killed in tests for the 1966 24 hours of Le Mans driving a Ford Mk2 sports car. He had driven with Mark Donohue for who he was something of a mentor. He drove in F1, Indy Cars and Sports Cars. In sportscars he had his biggest successes. In the US he won the prestigious President's Cup three times: 1957, 1958 and 1961. He also won several sportscar championships and races in Jaguars. He beat the works team on many occasions and was even invited to drive for them.

Hansgen practiced as 13th for the GP of Mexico 1962 and in the race he retired with ignition problems in the 45th lap. But the race itself was very eventful. Jim Clark was blackflagged and took over Taylor's sister car. He stormed back through the field and in the end managed to set things straight and won. A downside to the race was the fatal crash of Ricardo Rodriguez in front of his home crowd.

This first GP of Mexico was the only one which was not a championship race. The next year it was entered in the championship and remained on the calendar till 1970 and later on the revised circuit the race returned from 1986 to 1992.

The Lotus 18 was of course the car that put the marque on the racing map. Colin Chapman considered it its first real Formula 1 design. The cars he designed before, all front engined, were merely revised Formula 2 cars. The car was based upon the Cooper-style back-engined concept. The first appearance of the 18 however was as a aluminium bodied Formula Junior car which raced on Boxing Day 1959 at the BRSCC meeting at Brands Hatch, having been developed from drawing board stage in five weeks it arived just in time for practice. Later a Formula 1 version of the car was built to start in the Argentine GP of 1960.

Innes Ireland recorded the second best practice time and led the race at its debut in Argentina but ultimately came in 6th.

Later that season Ireland and the 18 gave Lotus their first F2 victory at Syracuse and at the Easter Goodwood meeting he won both the F1 and F2 classes, the first Lotus F1 win. He beat Stirling Moss in the Rob Walker entered Cooper so astoundingly that Rob Walker immediately ordered his own Lotus 18. Chassis 376 was delivered to the Walker team just one week before the Monaco GP. In practice Moss broke the existing lap record with 4 seconds and won the Grand Prix, the marque's first win. Moss went on to win the US GP in 1960 and again the Monaco GP and German GPs in 1961.

The Lotus 18 was immensely popular with privateers and the car in wich Hansgen drove was an ex-works car with revised bodywork in the Lotus 21 style and thus also often credited as Lotus 18/21.