Friday, 16 June 2017

How Mike nearly became Unipower's works driver

With Le Mans about to start, I thought it was a good idea to offer you another 'Minis at Le Mans' story. Now, as I didn't want to bore you with yet another Mini Marcos tale (many more to follow, mind you), I wanted something else. And that's when I bumped into Mike Mitchell. Mike is a 73 year old Brit living in France, who very nearly became a works driver for Unipower. This is his story how he told it to me. Enjoy!

"I met Piers Weld Forester in 1968 when we were both doing a race at Malory Park. I was racing a Formula Vee for a company I worked for at the time, called European Cars. On the next patch to us was this guy wearing a huge sombrero accompanied by a girl with very large chest. He was racing a Unipower. Amazingly, it was his first race and he had all sorts of problems, many to do with breaking wheel studs as he was still running the standard black MOWOG items. We sent him off 'round the paddock to scrounge some and he came back with four which we fitted, one to each corner. My two mechanics helped him fit them and that was the start of a short but beautiful relationship. I was living in Kensington at the time, he was living in Chelsea and we bumped into each other frequently. He was a nephew of the Marquis of Ormonde and the family had a considerable fortune, to which he had access. But all he wanted to do was race."

"The family knew he was a bit of a lad and they thought running a company would keep him out of trouble. They fell for Universal Power Drives and it was bought. What they didn't know was that they were building this motor car, too. And as soon as Piers took over he started building three works racing cars. I was then offered a works seat to do Le Mans, Spa, the Nurburgring and the Targa Florio. The timing was perfect, as I wanted to get out of Formula Vee because the races were all so short. Now, in those days there were some famous names coming out of Formula Vee, Nikki Lauda and Helmut Marko for example but I badly wanted to go endurance racing so this was quite an opportunity."

"And so I got over to Park Royal, where the first of three cars was being built, had a look and made sure I could sit in it. If I remember correctly it was using a 1293 Broadspeed engine with the world's shortest exhaust pipe, which gave a shattering sound. It was always a bit of a problem to get in, with the gear lever in the right hand sill that got into your trouser leg. The car was an orangey yellow and the bodywork was very thin, with criss-cross carbon fibre matting everywhere. I was there long enough to have a good look around but unfortunately I cannot remember too much of it as my memories are all about the car itself. As far as I remember it was the only car there, though. The building had a corrugated iron roof and the sound of the car revving inside it was simply shattering. Piers drove a roadgoing white GT40 and at about that time he was run into from behind in the Cromwell road by a clown in a Mini who wanted to race him from the Gloucester Road traffic lights. Trouble was Piers stopped at the Beauchamp Place lights - and the chap in the Mini didn't, took out all the rear body section and the very expensive exhaust system! Good memories, still wish I had said yes to Piers!"

"However, my then-wife, who up to that point had quite enjoyed my low level motor racing, suddenly decided that this was all getting too serious and started kicking off big time to the extent that I had to choose between her and what I hoped would be a full time career racing rather than part time. Stupidly, I chose her! The next season the Unipower Team all went to Europe, but in the event they had a terrible season dogged by bad luck and hampered by the fact that the car was a bit heavy despite the very early use of carbon fibre reinforced bodywork. There were unreliability issues and I think one of the cars got written off by a mechanic before the Targa Florio started. I felt really sorry for them, also because I felt if I'd been there they might perhaps have done a bit better. Piers Forester really was a great chap, who sadly lost his life on a 750 Suzuki at Brands in, I think, 1977. I didn't hear that he died until a week or so afterwards."

"Unfortunately I don't have any pics, I was very busy at the time both working and racing so my contacts with Piers were occasional, either when we met in Peter Jones, at a circuit or when we were planning for or talking about the next season. As I related my then wife scotched my plans so I never drove for them, nor did I see them race as all four events were in Europe and would have required taking some holiday to go to. We kept in touch for a few years but drifted out of touch when I moved from Kensington to Redhill and started a family. By then he too had got married, to the very beautiful Georgina Youens, a model who was tragically killed shortly after in the Paris DC10 crash in 1974. Piers was a really great guy, unique, the sort you only meet once in a lifetime but a bit of an adrenalin junkie, I miss him to this day."

Is this the exhaust that Mike saw in the Unipower factory? He wrote: The exhaust, as I remember, came straight out in the centre, down from the manifold then back under the bodywork and a little turn up
Picture Jeroen Booij archive

The Unipower works racer at the factory in London in early 1969. Mike Mitchell was offered a works seat and saw and heard it there "with the world's shortest exhaust pipe, which gave a shattering sound"
Picture Jeroen Booij archive

A while later the works racer is seen at Le Mans test day on 30 march 1969. Piers Weld Forester is seen here standing beside the car in light overalls
Picture Jeroen Booij archive

Next race: Targa Florio on 4 May 1969. I think that's works driver Andrew Hedges in bare chest
It's the same car as was used for Le Mans testing
Picture Jeroen Booij archive

Targa Florio again. Unfortunately the car was crashed by a mechanic in practice and never started the actual race. The first of a series of disappointments for Forester and Co.
Picture Jeroen Booij archive

And then there was the Le Mans 24 hours race on 15 june 1969. Trouble again, as the Unipower GT did not qualify for the race. Full story here
Picture Jeroen Booij archive

Seen here prior to the Le Mans 24 hrs. Note massive spot light for adequate lighting during the night stage. It must have been a different car than the one used on Le Mans test day and the Targa Florio, when it was crashed. Or did they rebuild it?
Picture Beroul / Jeroen Booij archive

Next stop: Italy. For the Gran Premio Mugello on 20 July 1969. Piers Forester now co-piloted the car with Swiss Dominique Martin. They came 46th overall. Note filled hole for the spot light
Picture Jeroen Booij archive

This shot is definitely taken at the Nurburgring and probably during the 500 kms race of 7 september 1969. But it looks to be a different car again. Who knows more?
Picture Jeroen Booij archive

A rare photograph of Piers Weld-Forester, taken in 1976, a year before he was tragically killed
Picture Graham Etheridge

Daily Mirror headlines on 31st of October 1977; the day after Piers Weld-Forester was tragically killed at the age of 31 in a crash at Brands Hatch. His wife Georgina Youens (middle bottom) died three years earlier at 22 in a terrible plane crash
Picture Jeroen Booij archive


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