Early in 1960 Mike was approached by Sir Gawaine Baillie, another racing enthusiast, who had just purchased a Lotus Elite. Baillie’s initial intention was to use Mike’s engineering skills to improve the performance of his cars. One of these was a Jaguar which, with two passengers, clocked up 138 mph on a straight mile test. After becoming aware of Mike’s racing abilities, Baillie invited him to co-drive in the 1000 Km at Nürburgring, where Mike achieved the fastest lap. All went well until Baillie went off the road while leading his class. Mike was again co-driver at Le Mans, where the car did not finish because the differential tore itself out of the fibreglass bodywork. Mike raced the car in four other events in the U.K., achieving one second and two third places, but then Baillie decided to sell the car.
1961 represented a turning point in Mike’s racing career. For the first time he had the opportunity to race top-class cars professionally prepared and serviced by a proper racing team, complete with mechanics, car transporters and so on.
In January 1961 he kicked off the year by driving a works Sunbeam Rapier in the Monte Carlo Rally, as co-pilot with Gregor Grant – the Rootes Group had finally realized that they had an in-house racing driver. Starting from Warsaw they arrived at Monte Carlo penalty free, but the car lost a wheel and crashed in the “Round the Houses” test in Monte Carlo itself.
Mike’s big chance came at a dinner party held by the Sunbeam Talbot Owners’ Club in 1960. He happened to sit at the same table as Tommy Sopwith and in the course of the meal Sopwith asked him if he would like to race Saloon and Grand Touring cars. Sopwith was then financing a private racing stable under his Equipe Endeavour banner – the name “Endeavour” was that of the yacht with which his father, Sir Thomas Sopwith, had competed in the America’s Cup between the Wars. This comprised two Jaguar 3.8 saloon cars (VCD 400 and JAG 400), a Jaguar E-Type (ECD 400), and, later on, various Ferrari 250 GTOs raced in collaboration with Maranello Concessionaires.
Mike’s first race with Equipe Endeavour, at Snetterton in March 1961, was a fiasco, but through no fault of his own. He and Jack Sears, driving the two Jaguar saloon cars, were first and second just a lap from the end of the race when they ran out of fuel – by mistake, the cars had been fuelled for 12 laps instead of 15! As Mike commented in an interview: “At least it showed consistency in the cars’ preparation”.
In the course of 1961 Mike drove the Jaguar saloons in eight races, achieving five first places, and one second place. He drove the Jaguar E-type in four races, achieving two first places and one second place.
In the same year Mike got his first chance to race Ferraris. In July 1960 Colonel Ronnie Hoare had set up an English Ferrari dealership with the name Maranello Concessionaires. In 1961 he decided to embark on a racing programme, initially limited to GT/Prototype events in England, as a means of publicizing Ferrari cars and his dealership. Hoare and Sopwith were close friends and colleagues and until Sopwith retired from motor racing at the end of 1962 Equipe Endeavour and Maranello Concessionaires co-financed and co-entered the Ferraris. Colonel Hoare had the following comment to make on Mike’s move to Equipe Endeavour/Maranello Concessionaires: “I can’t claim any part of the credit for discovering Mike. That was entirely Tommy. He spotted him, from quite a low level of racing, club racing and that sort of thing where Mike was doing very well. Once he joined Equipe Endeavour in 1961 he had all Tommy’s wealth and know-how behind him, the cars were beautifully prepared, and he was very successful.”
In 1961 Mike drove Maranello Concessionaires GTOs in seven races, achieving four first places and class wins (the Lombank Trophy at Snetterton, the Fordwater Trophy at Goodwood, the Peco Trophy at Brands Hatch and the Molyslip Trophy at Snetterton) one second place in the RAC Tourist Trophy, and five fastest laps.
Mike made his début driving the Equipe Endeavour/Maranello Concessionaires Ferrari 250GT SWB in March in the 12-lap GT race at the Lombank Trophy Meeting at Snetterton. He started in pole position and led throughout the race from another 250 GTO driven by Graham Whitehead. In “GT and Prototype driving” Mike described driving in the this race: “One of my first experiences with a G.T. car was during my drives in Tommy Sopwith’s Equipe Endeavour’s 250 G.T. Ferrari in 1961. Jack Sears and I had practised the Ferrari and I had snicked his time by a fraction, so was given the car for the race itself. I won the event in this wonderful car and decided that I would like nothing better than to drive a Ferrari—any Ferrari— thereafter.” Love at first sight, as you might say.
His next race in this car was the 10-lap Fordwater Trophy at Goodwood. “A couple of weeks after this first success I drove the car again for Tommy at the Goodwood Easter meeting. I managed—by the skin of my teeth—to win, and the event taught me a great deal about racing against the top drivers, and something about the gamesmanship to expect in the sport. During the race I was chased for some of the time by Stirling Moss in his Zagato Aston Martin DB4. This was my first insight into how much more than just an expert driver Stirling was. He must have decided that as a new boy I should be harassed as much as possible, and whilst he knew that he could not pass me on the straight due to the superior acceleration of the Ferrari Berlinetta (his car of the T.T. the previous year), he caught me up on every corner by sheer late braking and, let’s face it, by better driving, flashing his lights and blowing his horn and trying every dodge to force me to make a mistake in a war of nerves that lasted for half a dozen laps. I was almost sorry when his car lost its edge and dropped back into the pack.”
As well as winning, Mike also put up the fastest lap time, at 85.37 mph.
On Whit Monday Mike raced the GT250SWB in the 15-lap Norbury Trophy at Crystal Palace. After a practice accident in which he spun the car and damaged the tail, it was repaired overnight. In the initial stages of the race he competed with Graham Whitehead (driving the other GTO) for third place, but then spun twice and was called into the pits because Colonel Hoare had noticed a wobbling rear wheel. When the mechanics dismantled the car they found that a halfshaft had been damaged in the practice accident.
At the Brands Hatch International Meeting Mike was competing in the Peco Trophy race with two Jaguar E-Types driven by Salvadori and Graham Hill. He stayed behind the two Jaguars in the initial stages of the race until Hill made a mistake, then slipped past Hill, caught up with Salvadori and overtook him two laps before the end to win by 1.8 sec. He also clocked up the fastest lap.
The RAC Tourist Trophy at Goodwood, a four-hour race, saw another memorable battle with Stirling Moss, who this time was driving a Ferrari similar to Mike’s and came first, and with Roy Salvadori, driving an Aston Martin Zagato, who came third. The hectic pace took its toll on the tyres of Mike’s Ferrari, necessitating four tyre changes. Mike came second, having gained a useful lesson in race strategy. Mike later commented on Moss’s performance: “I learned more about race driving that afternoon than on any other occasion.”
In the 25-lap Molyslip Trophy at Snetterton Mike won in a Ferrari 250GT, confidently leading a strong field of Jaguar E-Types and Aston Martins after starting in pole position.
In 1961 he also got his first chance to drive a works Ferrari. In April of that year he accompanied the Sunbeam team to the Le Mans trials, in his position as a Rootes group engineer. Colonel Hoare, who as a Ferrari concessionaire was in close contact with the Ferrari team, arranged with Romolo Tavoni, the Ferrari team manager, for Mike to try the works Berlinetta. With instructions from Tavoni not to go too fast – the ostensible purpose of the trial was for Mike to comment, as an engineer, on the performance of the car — he did five laps, one of them in 4:10:0. This was the best time achieved in the two trial days by any of the works cars, and undercut the previous year’s fastest Ferrari GT time by 8.6 seconds. The upshot was that he was asked to drive for SEFAC Ferrari in the Le Mans race itself. The car was not a Berlinetta, but instead a 3-litre Testa Rossa front-engined sports car. His co-pilot was Willy Mairesse. At the end of an eventful race they came second, not bad as a Ferrari baptism. The winners were Olivier Gendebien and Phil Hill, in another works Ferrari. This race is described in detail, by Mike himself, in Peter Miller’s book “The Fast Ones”. At one point in the race he had a very close shave when he encountered Bruce Halford’s wrecked Ecurie Ecosse Cooper-Monaco while going at 140 m.p.h. on a wet track under the Dunlop bridge.
It was undoubtedly a good time to be racing in Ferrari sports and GT cars. At the end of 1959 Aston Martin had withdrawn from sports car racing, leaving Porsche and Maserati as the only serious rivals to Ferrari. Ferrari won the International Manufacturers Championship in 1960 and 1961, racing the 3-litre Testa Rossa and the new rear-engined 246SP. The Ferrari SWB 250 GT, which first appeared in 1960, was also highly successful, and neither the Aston Martin DB4GT nor the Jaguar E-Type could really compete with it in terms of performance.
In the 1961 season Mike also drove a Formula Junior Gemini Ford entered by Graham Ward’s Chequered Flag stable in ten races, gaining three first places and four second places.
The start of one of these races sounds more like a session on the dodgems than a car race. As Autosport reported: “The 10-lap Chichester Cup Race for Formula Junior started off sensationally. Peter Arundell (Lotus) slid wildly when the flag fell; Tony Maggs (Cooper) collided with Jim Russell (Cooper) and Mike McKee (Lotus), who both finished up on the left-hand side of the road on the grass, the former minus a wheel. Taking avoiding action with a wheel coming at him Alan Rees (Lotus) stood on everything and Mike Parkes (Gemini) ran up the back of his car and finished on top of it, just past the paddock gate on the right-hand side of the road.”
In the course of 1961 Mike competed in a total of 31 races. His “Grand Slam” weekend came on September 30th and October 1st when he competed in six races – three at Snetterton and three at Brands Hatch – and won all of them!