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Cliff Allison, Formula One driver with Lotus and Ferrari, has died aged 73. Cliff spent his entire life in Brough, Cumbria, a village far to the north of England where he ran the family garage business. His father and an uncle had both raced motorcycles and, in 1952, Cliff bought a 500cc Cooper Norton Formula Three car.
As a trained engineer, Cliff set about modifying his car and though he could not compete with with the works Coopers and Kiefts with their engines tuned by Francis Beart and Steve Lancefield, he began to impress onlookers, among them Reg Tanner, the Competition Manager of Esso. Tanner signed him on a retainer and set about building a career for him. Meanwhile, Colin Chapman was wooing Esso and Tanner insisted that he give Allison a test drive.
At the time, Team Lotus, was an organisation which entered cars for favoured, semi professional, customers. They bought their cars, had special deals on spares and could command better starting money. For its part, Lotus appeared to be running a large works team and Chapman needed that credibility because the Elite GT car was being planned.
Because of Reg Tanner's insistence, a test day was arranged at Snetterton with a Lotus Eleven and Cliff set a quick time, but it was not as quick as Colin's time. Cliff was asked if he could go quicker, he said that he could, and he did. He therefore became the very first real Lotus works driver. Cliff was the essential catalyst of the long association between Lotus and Esso.
Three years ago, Cliff recalled, "I've never owned a Lotus, yet I was a works driver. Most people who raced under the banner of Team Lotus bought their own cars and received assistance from the factory because in those days there was usually a team prize for the important events. In sports cars, the only true works drivers were Graham Hill and myself.
"Because we were both engineers, Colin Chapman and I spoke a common language. He was a very good driver who might have gone far had he not had Lotus to run. I was usually quicker than he was, but it was not by much."
There was no official pecking order at Lotus in those days, but more often than not it was Cliff who debuted a new model. Thus it was that he shared the driving, with Keith Hall, of the 747cc Climax powered Lotus Eleven which only ever raced once but it won the Index of Performance at Le Mans in 1957. The Index of Performance was a handicap race within a race and was considered so important that it carried equal prize money (£2,000) to an outright win.
When Lotus entered Formula One in 1958, the drivers were Allison and Hill and they were pretty evenly matched. Looking at the F1 grids in 1958, Cliff was usually the quicker, but it is actually difficult to extrapolate too much from grid positions in the 1950s. It would be fair to say, however, that most people regarded Allison as senior to Hill.
In the 1958 International Trophy, Cliff was sixth overall, but first of the Formula Two runners so he gave Lotus its first F2 win, which was also its first win in open wheeled racing. He also gave Lotus its first World Championship points when he finished fourth in the Belgian GP. It is often said that had the race lasted one more lap he would have won because the three cars in front were in no fit state. That presumes that his Lotus 12 could have completed another 8.7 mile lap, and one could never assume that a Lotus 12 would cover nearly nine miles.
Cliff was involved with every major step Lotus made in the heady days of 1957/8, which saw Lotus move into F1 and F2, launch the Elite and the Seven, clean up at Le Mans and introduce the Fifteen sports car. He was so clearly brilliant that at the end of 1958, Enzo sent someone to knock on his door.
At Maranello, Cliff was part of a squad which included Brooks, Behra, Gurney, Phil Hill and von Trips at a time when Ferrari regarded sports car racing as being as important as Formula One. Cliff shared with Jean Behra the Ferrari Testarossa that was second in the Sebring 12 Hours. As had been the case with Phil Hill and Dan Gurney, Ferrari groomed Cliff in the sports car programme while giving him the odd drive in a single seater. He was not only retained for 1960, Enzo tore up his 'L' plate and moved him into the elite of the Scuderia. It was never set down, but entry lists suggest that Ferrari's three main drivers for 1960 were Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and Cliff Allison.
Cliff began 1960 in fine style when he and Phil Hill won the Buenos Aires 1000 Kms in a Ferrari Testarossa. He followed that with second, to Bruce McLaren's Cooper, in the Argentine GP. It seemed that Cliff had made the big breakthrough and the world was his oyster. Then, during practice for the Monaco GP, he crashed and was thrown out of his car. He sustained a broken arm and facial injuries which kept him out of racing for the rest of the season.
Ferrari offered to retain him, largely as a test driver, but he wanted to race and during practice for the 1960 Belgian GP, he overcooked things in his BRP entered Lotus 18, was badly injured, and he never raced again.
Cliff Allison's achievements have not been properly appreciated. He was a major factor in Lotus moving on to the international stage. Ferrari reckoned him to be a better prospect than Graham Hill, who did go on to be World Champion twice. He is one of the great What ifs.
Cliff was a diffident man who did not brag about his racing career, though he would talk about it if asked. It was worth asking him because he was relaxed on the subject and spoke of it with a dry humour. He was not at all If only. You meet them, the people who say, 'if only' and follow that with, 'I could have'. Put it this way, how many drivers who were on the grid in the opening F1 races of 2005 will ever stand on the podium?
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