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Sportscar Heroes: Jan Lammers, Part 1

Michael Cotton talks to the little Dutchman with a big racing history

Here’s another throwback interview from the DSC vaults, in celebration of his 64th birthday today here’s part one of a two-part chat between Michael Cotton and Jan Lammers from back in 2010 (Part 2 tomorrow) – Almost a decade on, Jan’s frontline career finished with Le Mans in 2018 aboard the Racing Team Nederland LMP2 car but what a career it has been!

Want to know more, then read on!

Effervescent is a word that comes to mind, to describe Jan Lammers. Slightly built, curly-haired, and with an outgoing nature, the Dutchman’s cheerful manner disguises a determination that has surprised many rivals on the race tracks. Winning the 24-Hours of Le Mans in 1988, in a Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-8 with Andy Wallace and Johnny Dumfries is undoubtedly the highlight of his 39-year career but now, at the age of 54, Jan has turned his talents to something a bit slower… tackling the Dakar Raid in a 10-ton, 1,000 horsepower Ginaf truck. If you follow the event across South America in January, look out for the grey ‘works’ Ginaf number 506, once again backed by Jumbo supermarkets.

Jan has been everywhere, done most things in racing. Dutch touring car champion in 1973, at the age of 17, European Formula 3 champion in 1978, Formula One driver with the Shadow team in 1979 (the first of several F1 teams, generally back-of-the-grid outfits, the last of which was March in 1993. During the 1980 season, Jan qualified his ATS fourth on the grid for the US Grand Prix at Long Beach, still the best qualifying record for any Dutchman). He was twice Renault 5 Turbo European champion between 1982 and 1985, competed in Indycars with Forsythe Racing and Dan Gurney’s Eagle team in 1985-86, was a member of Tom Walkinshaw’s Jaguar sports car team between 1985 and 1990, FIA Sportscar Champion in 2001-2002 with his own Racing for Holland Dome team, competed at Le Mans for the 21st time in 2008…we’ll just have to begin at the beginning!

Child Prodigy to Loose Canon

Jan was born in June 1956 in Haarlem, not far from Zandvoort on the coast of Holland, and by the age of 12, he had a pretty good idea what he wanted to do with his life. Cars, at Zandvoort, what else? He made himself useful at Rob Slotemaker’s skid school, washing cars, making coffee, and virtually gave up on his education at the age of 14. A pupil, yes, but in the art of car control, and at the age of 16 he was a fully-fledged instructor, and starting to win races in a Simca Rallye entered by Slotemaker, his ‘adopted godfather’. Together with his manager Gerard van der Storm they revived Racing Team Holland which began promoting his career, putting him in a Ralt Toyota for the 1978 European Formula 3 Championship. Huub Rottengatter and Arie Luyendyk were his team-mates and rivals included Anders Olofsson, Nelson Piquet, Derek Warwick and later in the season, Alain Prost. “Maybe my light weight was a help” he recalls. “Some weighed maybe 90 kilos and I weighed 65!”

Winning the championship from Olofsson, with victories at Zolder, Zandvoort, Magny-Cours, Monza and Karlskoga, promoted the 22-year-old to international stardom, and Don Nichols offered Jan a contract to join the Shadow Grand Prix team in 1979, partnering Elio de Angelis, with backing from the Samson Shag tobacco company, and its fearsome lion decals. “There was an opportunity and I grabbed it, because in Holland it was a big thing to get into Formula One racing. I knew it was a lower team, but like Alonso, I thought to gain experience then hope to be signed by a better one.”

The Shadow DN9 was just not competitive, a story that would be repeated several times in Jan’s single-seater career, and he failed to get anywhere near the points. “With hindsight, I don’t think it was such a good idea. If I had moved into Formula 2 and won that championship as well, I would have got a better ride in Formula 1. I had so much to learn.”

His pride was salvaged in 1980, after a poor start to the season and running out of money after two races when he replaced Marc Surer in the ATS team after the German broke his legs during the Friday practice at Kyalami. During the final qualifying session for the US Grand Prix at Long Beach, he stunned everyone in the paddock, himself included, by keeping pole for 50 minutes and finishing up on the second row. ‘Lammers leaves the Ferraris red-faced’ was the headline story the next day, but he went from hero to zero the next day when a driveshaft broke 400 metres into the race! More consistent performances followed in the ATS though technical problems and incidents kept him out of the points, and eventually, Surer recovered and reclaimed his place in the team.

Jan then got a regular F1 drive with Mo Nunn’s Ensign team, another with BMW Nederland in the Procar series, against Grand Prix drivers in the fabulous BMW M1 coupes, A victory at Donington Park, a couple of second places, at Avus and the Norisring and pole position in Monaco kept the shine on Jan’s reputation. His Formula One career continued on tick over with the Teddy Yip’s Theodore team, ATS and Unipart, with nothing to show in results.

In an unusual career move, while winding up his F1 career with Theodore in 1982, Jan took two steps back to compete in the Renault 5 Turbo Europa Cup in a car owned and sponsored by Renault Nederland. He had a win and two second places in his first season, and the following year, when he first appeared in the World Endurance Championship with Richard Lloyd’s GTi Engineering Canon Porsche team, he won the Renault Cup outright with wins at Paul Ricard, Imola, Monaco and Zandvoort, plus some more podium appearances. And still, while racing for the Canon Porsche team, he routed the opposition in the Renault Cup in 1984 with eight straight victories. In 1985 the Renault 5s were replaced by the Alpine sports car and Jan continued to shine, winning at Monza and Vallelunga, and the Monaco Grand Prix supporting race for the third time.

Jan was, in those days, a very bad boy on the highways, as were quite a number of contemporary racing drivers before ‘highway etiquette’ came into vogue. Lewis Hamilton earned opprobrium last year for doing a burn-out outside the race track in Adelaide, but that would hardly have got a mention in Jan Lammers’ book of misdeeds. Driving on the Dutch autoroute one day in his Renault Alpine turbo, Jan spied a police car in his mirrors. “I had already been stopped a few times for 150 kilometres, 160 maybe, when the limit was 100. I got so fed up with it that I just drove away.” The chase went some way up the autoroute, then onto A-roads, until they reached a village. “I didn’t want to do anything stupid involving a pedestrian so I just stopped and let them catch me. I gave up.” Jan can reduce a dinner table to tears as he adds the punch-line: “They started to drag me out of the car. I looked up and asked, can I undo my seat belts first, please?”

Presumably, Renault Nederland was pretty upset about this run-in with the law? “No, they were very pleased in fact. It was a big thing in the newspapers because the policeman said he was doing 245 kilometres in a Porsche and the Renault sports car was pulling away. It was good publicity!” With the wisdom that comes with age, Jan adds that “I was a total idiot in those days. Now, I know that it’s cool to have control of the situation, to be a racing driver and not show off. But I don’t think you ever get the boy out of the man! Now I’m in trucks, I’m finding that it’s just as much fun having big toys as it was to have my own race team.”

Jan’s introduction to Richard Lloyd was made by Mick de Haas, then Canon’s European corporate communications director, based in Holland. Canon sponsorship went onto the GTi Engineering team’s new Porsche 956 and Jan’s name was put forward. It was not always an easy relationship, though. “Jonathan (Palmer) was a well-educated man, a doctor, and I was just a loose cannon, the drunken monkey with a machine gun. I was the more spontaneous guy, Jonathan was the academically brought up guy who studied what we should be doing. He had a lot of input to the team which was good for all of us, you see what he has achieved now.

“At the time I was probably undervalued, my input was under-appreciated. We had a little competition within the team, Jonathan would use too much fuel and I would have to get back on target. When you look back it was all very trivial and childish at times. That internal competition made us strong towards the other cars.”

Ah yes, that word childish. Arriving in Japan for the Fuji 1,000 Kms in October 1983 Lloyd’s team was billeted in a mountain-top hotel, miles from the Gotemba township. I was there too, under the team’s wing I recall, paying my way but hitching rides with the team. After dark, Jan set off down the mountain in his rental car and Jonathan followed, with me in the passenger seat. Without warning, there was a hefty bang on the back bumper, and in the mirrors, we could just see Jan’s curly mop and a huge grin on his face. He had pulled off the road and waited for us, with his lights switched off.

Richard found that he needed one of the cars so Jonathan and Jan had to share a set of wheels, and that immediately degenerated into games of chicken. There’s no need to go into details, to avoid embarrassing the good doctor, but it involved dual control, one on the pedals, his passenger on the steering wheel. These games had to stop when Richard got wind of the activities (not from me, though!) and read the riot act, mentioning among other things that they would be jailed for a long time if the police were involved, a Japanese prison would be a horrible place, and they would be in breach of contract if they couldn’t race on Sunday.

In that first season Palmer, Lammers and Lloyd finished eighth at Le Mans, the two professionals seventh in the World Championship which was dominated by the Rothmans-Porsche factory drivers, and by the Joest Racing team. Lammers, making his debut at Le Mans, was involved in an unfortunate incident on the opening lap, colliding with Jacky Ickx at the Mulsanne Corner and causing him to spin. Twenty-four hours later, Ickx and Bell finished in second position just one minute behind Al Holbert, Hurley Haywood and Vern Schuppan, whose engine was seizing up. Fingers were pointed at Lammers who might have denied Ickx his seventh victory at the Sarthe. The Dutchman’s story was never heard, though.

“There was a little bit more to that story than people knew at the time. Jacky was driving on the straight when he saw the blue light come on, which means that you have a brake pressure problem. So first he touched the brake gently before Mulsanne then much more heavily to see that everything was there. He was braking more than normal and I was right behind him, taken by surprise. I moved out to avoid the back of his car but then I spun and my nose hit the side of his car. I was more cross with Jacky than he was with me, and he really acknowledged that when we talked later.”

Palmer and Lammers got close to victory at Silverstone in May 1984, denied by a split oil line when leading the works Porsches by a minute, then won their first race together in the Canon Porsche at Brands Hatch. It was a result to celebrate, beating the Joest Racing Porsche of Jochen Mass and Henri Pescarolo by two clear laps after nearly six hours of racing. In fact it was a double celebration for Jan, because he won his Renault 5 Turbo race at Spa that same weekend, on Saturday morning. He had qualified his Renault on Thursday with a single flying lap, which was good enough for pole position, flew to Kent, qualified the Porsche early on Saturday then flew back to Spa. Because of traffic, for the 24-hour race, he had to run the last couple of miles, jump a fence and leap into the Renault, just in time for the start. “I still had my suit on from Brands Hatch, I was out of breath but by the end of the first lap I was seven seconds in the lead, so then I could settle down a bit.”

Richard Lloyd’s team raced the GTi Engineering version of the 956, with a honeycomb material chassis designed by Nigel Stroud, in the latter end of the season. At Imola, in September. Palmer and Lammers finished a very close second to the Brun Porsche of Stefan Bellof and Hans Stuck. Lloyd then arranged a sponsor day at Silverstone to demonstrate his GTi version Porsche, and Lammers was on driving duty. There was no passenger seat and no belts, so Jan was expected to take things nice and easy with his valuable passengers, and so he did until I was offered the golden opportunity to ride with him, seated on a pad of sorbo rubber. It was late in the day and he was clearly getting bored. “Would you like to go fast?” Oh yes, please! The “drunken monkey” took control.

I don’t scare easily and can cope with late braking, high speed and all that, but the experience was simply mind-blowing. Hanging on to the roll cage for dear life (“make sure you don’t fall into my lap” seemed to be good advice), the one flying lap demonstrated a dimension to race driving outside my comprehension. Full acceleration out of the corners, through the gears, nice, but Jan was very late on the brakes, hitting the pedal as if to stop a charging elephant. A blast of hot air enters the cockpit, with the acrid smell of burning brake pads, then with a violent swing on the steering wheel, the Porsche is pinned down by its superb ground effects.

Getting out, I was weak at the knees, astonished by the sheer physical effort that goes into each and every lap and marvelling that Jan, any driver, could keep that up for one or two hours without relief. There were smiles on the pit-wall, too. Jan had taken me round just a second off the two-month-old sportscar lap record, which stood to Jochen Mass, with my 80 kilos bouncing around the cockpit. We had averaged 135 mph around the Grand Prix circuit.

Jan’s relationship with Lloyd and the Canon team broke down in 1985 and he quit the team before Le Mans. “I just didn’t feel right. I was not happy to go to Le Mans with that car, with the speeds we were doing, and I felt that the amount of risk that I was taking did not add up to the pleasure I was getting back from it.” His relationship with Palmer was strained, also with Lloyd for reasons that he doesn’t want to talk about (“but later on our relationship became good again”), but the word “undervalued” is repeated in the conversation. James Weaver was drafted into the team at short notice for Le Mans, his first sports car race, and the GTi Engineering Canon Porsche team finished a good second to the Joest Racing Porsche, ahead of the Rothmans factory team. Jan, though, has no regrets about his decision to leave.

Tom Picks a Winner

Jan Lammers had other offers, one from the Forsythe Racing Indycar team. He was on course to win at Miami but crashed 10 laps from the end, and on the strength of that Dan Gurney offered him a drive with the Eagle team in ‘86.

Back to 1985, though. Tom Walkinshaw’s Jaguar XJR-6 team, resplendent in British Racing Green and powered by the Coventry firm’s V12 engine, made its debut at Mosport, where Martin Brundle, Mike Thackwell and Jean-Louis Schlesser finished third, a promising podium result. Tom was auditioning a number of drivers and Lammers was high on his list, joining the team at Shah Alam, the Malaysian circuit, and doing marathon stints in both the cars to finish second overall, with Thackwell and John Nielsen, in energy-sapping heat and humidity. The New Zealander buckled before the end of his stint, so Tom beckoned Jan, who had retired in the gravel due to a tyre failure, and put him into the surviving Jaguar. The little guy’s stamina astonished a lot of people and virtually guaranteed him a permanent seat in the Jaguar team, controversially sponsored by Silk Cut cigarettes.

Not in a continuation, though. Jan still saw his future in single-seaters and Gurney’s offer of a drive in the All American Racers’ Eagle Indycar team was too good to refuse. If only…the car had been a good one! Jan was relegated to places near the back of the grids, “and by the time we got to Indianapolis we knew that the car really wasn’t up to it.” The drive fell through in the summer, and Jan took a break to take stock of his career. “I had been racing for 14 years, I was still only 30 but I didn’t know what I really wanted to do. I had driven with Shadow, with ATS, with Theodore and then in Indycar, and I never got results. I always felt that if I had been with a good team I could have stayed up there. The biggest common factor was that I was always having problems. I was asking myself, is there something wrong with my driving? Am I a bad driver, am I too slow? I worked it out that it was not my driving, I had a lot of experience of winning races against good drivers, and I knew that I could do things with a car that my world champion friends could not. It was not my driving, it was something else.”

This period of introspection went on for weeks. Jan was living in Los Angeles, played golf a lot, read books about sports mentality, sports philosophy, how things work in life. “I thought that if am as good as I believe I am, people will realise that and come and find me. And if not, then I am not so special and I would have to do something else with my life. I decided that the first offer that came, I would take it. If it was Formula Ford then I would do that. If it was something higher, it would be a bonus.”

Jan got his bonus, and it was a big one. A call from Roger Silman, manager of the Silk Cut Jaguar team. The story continues tomorrow on dsc.