Thirty years ago this October Alain Prost, the analytical Frenchman, fought wheel-to-wheel-to-pit-wall with blunt-talking team-mate Niki Lauda for the 1984 F1 World Championship. That defining final in Portugal will be remembered not only for the side-by-side squeeze past the pits but also for the result; it stands in the record books as the closest title race ever; Lauda was the victor by just half a point.
A country mile then.
Twenty-six years previous, in the far more humble world of tin-top saloon racing, half a point would have seemed a disappointment. Jack Sears and Tommy Sopwith, two pioneers of saloon car racing, displayed steely courage at the wheel of their respective Austin Westminster and 3.4 litre Jaguar for the title of the very first British Saloon Car Championship. Its conclusion would be quite a unique and extraordinary spectacle and what’s more, unthinkable by today’s standards.
Having first delighted the crowd on Boxing Day 1957, the BSCC continued to prove a success throughout its inaugural season in 1958. The premise was gloriously simple with the majority of competitors arriving in the car they wished to compete and planning on driving the machine home again after…should it survive the day’s racing.
The crowd, dressed in their Sunday best, as were many of the drivers behind the wheel – ‘Gentleman’ Jack Sears saying that “I was in the habit of wearing a tie and it never occurred to me to take it off [when racing]” – could relate easily to the spectacle before them; the only difference between the car that Mum, Dad and the children had arrived in and the ones being thrashed at all speeds and angles before them were a set of stick-on competition numbers.
The racing was exciting, naturally, but the thankfully extinct class system was baffling: all cars, Austins, Jaguars, hefty Ford Zephyrs, all with disparate engine capacities and physical sizes, raced at the same time. The four classes – A, B, C and D – each provided a winner come the race’s end.
The confusion came from the fact that the drivers who would ultimately fight for the championship would rarely actually race each other on the track, thanks to their car’s differing performance. It would also mean that the driver seen crossing the finish line first wouldn’t necessarily be doing best in the hunt for the title, that was decided by which driver performed best across the year in their respective class.
It was Tommy Sopwith, racing in the quicker class D aboard his 3.4 litre Jaguar that did most of the year’s winning: seven overall victories at Brands Hatch and one each at Snetterton and Crystal Palace put him in good stead for the inaugural BSCC title. But Jack Sears aboard his Austin Westminster, racing in the slower class C, had taken eight class victories to present himself as a title contender too.
The pair entered the final race at Brands Hatch on October 5th equal on points; if both men won their respective class, it would finish that way too; It was a likely outcome given both men’s previous class performances. The original suggestion to separate the two and announce one as overall champion was to toss a coin! Could you imagine such a thing?
Well Sopwith and Sears certainly couldn’t, Sears reasoning that “neither of us had risked life and limb all year just for a game of chance to decide the outcome”. In fact, both drivers refused to accept the solution, Sears again saying: “Both of us held up our hands in horror and said ‘you’re not getting away with that, we haven’t raced all year to spin a coin to decide who’s the winner; you’ve got to think of something else'”.
The solution proved rightfully unpopular with fans of the series too and so the idea was quickly axed. Instead, in preparation for the potential draw, two identical Riley 1.5s were prepared for a one-on-one shoot out.
As predicted both Sopwith and Sears won, leaving the two drivers equal first in the race for the title. The Rileys were soon prepared and placed line astern on the start/finish straight of Brands Hatch.
The format was designed to be as fair as possible; two five-lap races, the drivers swapping cars in between and an aggregate result would deem the winner.
The rain tumbled down as the pair got under way in this, a unique two horse race for the championship, Sopwith with headlights blazing for identification purposes. Indeed it was those headlights of Tommy that crossed the line first, 2.2 seconds to the good, with ‘Gentleman Jack’ splashing his way to second, his tie now neatly tucked into his shirt.
The pair swapped cars and off they went again, 5 more laps of the sodden track. This time it was Sears with the advantage, 3.8 seconds ahead by time the chequered flag fell. And so it was Jack Sears who claimed the very first British Saloon Car Championship by 1.6 seconds, a shimmering trophy and a handshake from his worthy adversary Sopwith too.
It was of course different times in motor racing in the 1950s and such a tie-breaker simply wouldn’t happen nowadays, making the battle of Sopwith and Sears a unique and treasured tale.