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Gerry Birrell - What might have been - Another excellent history lesson with a lesser known driver

Published by Steven Roy

A Chevron B25 similar to the Formula 2 car Birrell drove in 1973.
Credit: pietroz cc:ann

Gerry Birrell was born in Milngavie, Glasgow on July 30th 1944. He left school at 15 to become a car mechanic and soon became involved in racing as a mechanic for his brother Graham. In 1961 Gerry made his race debut in the family’s Austin A40 at Charterhall. The Austin was soon replaced with a Lotus 11 which Gerry re-built from a burnt out shell. It was soon clear that he was more talented than his brother and that coupled with his mechanical background and car development ability made him a very effective driver. The Birrells were a real racing family as the middle brother Ian also raced although only briefly and Graham’s wife Jenny was also a good saloon car racer.

Despite making his race debut at the age of 17 Birrell did not sit in a single-seater until he was 24 years old. He raced a Formula Vee at Ingliston and despite leading the race he finished second to Nick Brittain who was the top Formula Vee driver in the UK. The following year, 1968, he won the British Formula Vee title and moved into Formula Ford for 1969 winning the European championship in a Crossle.

1970 was an important year in his career as he stepped up to Formula 3, winning several races, and made his sportscar debut. For 1971 he made another big step entering Formula 2 and the European touring car series as a works Ford driver in addition to more sportscar races. He won the touring car series in an Escort RS1600.

In 1972 he continued with the same programs. Sharing with Claude Bourgoignie he won the touring car class and finished 11th overall at the Le Mans 24 hours and finished second at the Spa 24 hours. His best result of the year was in the Rothmans 50,000 International Libre race where Birrell finished 4th in his F2 car behind 3 F1 cars. Birrell was followed home by James Hunt and John Watson also in F2 cars. At the end of the season Birrell went to South Africa and won the Springbok Sportscar championship in a Chevron.

By 1973 Gerry Birrell was established as a hot prospect for the future with a growing reputation. He was highly rated by Ford for his development as well as racing abilities and was known as a real gentleman. For the 1973 season Birrell contested the Formula 2 championship in a Chevron and continued driving in endurance races for Ford.

The ninth round of the Formula 2 championship was at Rouen-les-Essarts in France. During Friday practice some of the drivers had raised questions about the safety of the track. Birrell’s car had been held up at French customs for ten hours causing him to miss Friday practice. As a result he was very angry when he went out for final practice on Saturday. He put in some quick laps and was heading through the fast downhill bend at Virage des Six Freres at around 150mph when one of his front tyres deflated. He went nose first into an Armco barrier which should have absorbed the impact. Instead due to poor installation the barrier rose up allowing the nose of the car to pass under it and Birrell was decapitated.

In 1970 Denis Dayan died in nearly identical accident. His Formula 3 car was involved in a collision which caused it to leave the track and go between the top and bottom rails of the barrier at the same corner. His car was totally destroyed and he died a few days later without regaining consciousness. It says much about the attitude to safety prevailing at the time that Birrell could hit an incorrectly installed barrier in the same place three years later.

Although Jackie Stewart’s retirement from racing had not been made public it had been widely predicted. François Cevert was expected to become the team leader and Birrell was expected to become the second driver for Tyrrell. In fact Ford rated Birrell so highly that their head of motor sport Stuart Turner had said that they would make sure he was in F1 for 1974. It would be very difficult not to sympathise with Ken Tyrrell. His team had been started to run Jackie Stewart in F1 and had done so magnificently. Stewart had trained his apprentice Cevert who was ready to take over on Stewart’s retirement and Birrell had been identified as the new apprentice.

Birrell died on June 23rd and a little over 3 months later so did Cevert in a freakishly similar accident with Stewart retiring the same day. The well planned succession was in ruins and the team never recovered.

At that time many drivers died as the result of the lack of safety provisions at circuits which meant trees, lamp posts and the like, were exposed and there were high kerbs or big drops at the sides of some tracks. It is particularly sad that these two men died in the manner that they did. They both hit safety barriers that should have saved their lives but due to neglect the barriers had not been fitted or maintained properly and instead of saving them they contributed greatly to their injuries.

The Tyrrell team never really recovered from Jackie Stewart’s retirement. Imagine however what would have happened had Cevert and Birrell survived 1973 and lined up for the team in 1974. Cevert could have delivered on his obvious promise and made use of everything he learned from Jackie Stewart. Birrell would have learned from Cevert and Stewart would have been advising the team. You have to deduce that Tyrrell would have been one of the top teams over the next few years and you have to wonder what the effect would have been on Niki Lauda’s attempts to turn round Ferrari and James Hunt’s position at McLaren after Emerson Fittipaldi committed career suicide by leaving to join Copersucar.

Would Lauda or Hunt have won their championships and had Lauda not won a title at Ferrari what would have happened to them? Would Scheckter have been able to win with them? The whole history of the sport since could have been very different had two circuit owners taken safety seriously and made sure that their Armco barriers were properly fitted. It seems particularly cruel that Jackie Stewart, who had campaigned for 7 years by that stage to improve safety, lost both Cevert and Birrell.