Part of Derek Minter's pulling power was that you couldn't get to know him that well
When we read the news in the weeklies, dad and I looked at each other and said nothing. But we were both thinking the same thing: we knew we had to be at Brands Hatch on Good Friday in that spring of 1963. Minter and the Gilera would be there.
The weeklies had been chanting ‘Minta- Gilera!’ since late the previous year, when the possible union of Derek Minter, the triple British champion in the 250, 350 and 500cc classes, with the enigmatic four-cylinder bikes from Arcore was raised. The Gileras hadn’t raced since ’57, when the factory pulled out of GP racing.
Now Gilera’s 1950s world champion Geoff Duke had persuaded the factory to de-mothball the bikes and pitch them against Hailwood and the dominant MV in the nine-round 1963 500cc world championship. But first there would be this initial clash at Brands. It was the biggest racing story of the day, and it put fans like us into a delirium of excitement. Minta-Gilera versus Hailwood-MV was all we talked about for days before we got in his Mini Cooper and headed for Brands.
At that time, short-circuit racing in the 500cc class was dominated by privately owned Manxes and Matchless G50s – an all-singles scene. We loved the deep ‘whaawhaa’ of these one-lungers warming up, but the prospect of three factory Italian four-cylinder racers (John Hartle was to partner Minter) drew 60,000 people to Brands. We willingly paid our 10/- entry fee, splashed out 2/6d for the programme, and awaited this clash between the reigning 500cc world champion and the king of the short-circuit scene.
But it never happened. In those days riders multi-tasked, chucking a leg over all kinds of machinery. In the 350cc race that preceded the 1000cc event, Hailwood crashed his AJS 7R on the final corner of the last lap at Clearways, and Minter couldn’t avoid the fallen rider. Minter was able to race on and win, and Hailwood walked away from the incident, although he would not compete again that day.
When the 1000cc race came around, Minter won, setting the long circuit’s first ever 90mph-plus lap at 90.34mph. I can remember now seeing ‘The Mint’ rocketing out from under the bridge before Clearways, and then giving us the sound of a factory four on full noise as he wound the Gilera out onto the top straight.
A feature of Minter’s riding that endeared him to fans was his oftenhopeless starts. On the first lap he might be seventh or even 15th. Mid-race he might have picked up momentum, but we’d be calculating his gap to the leader against laps remaining, thinking: ‘This time he’s left it too late’. But in the closing laps he’d burst through to another nailbiting win. In that ’62 triple-championship season, he competed in 80 races and won 52 on nine different machines.
We knew relatively little of the off-track lives of the stars of the ’60s, in that era before the arrival of press conferences, Twitter, grid interviews, mass TV coverage and Q&A interviews containing inane ‘what colour is your underwear?’ speculations. That made the riders even more like demi-gods than today’s gymobsessed superstars. They were our heroes, yet they were elusive, ethereal, they seemed to exist on a higher plane.
In those times when the Manx and G50 ‘production’ racers were the everyday tools of journeyman professional riders, they sought the tiniest competitive advantage, and the top men recruited the services of tuners – Steve Lancefield and Ray Petty, in Minter’s case. The work of these oracles of cylinder head sorcery remained even more arcane; no one knew what they actually
did to an engine. Lancefield once said: “The only similarity my engines had to a standard unit was that they looked alike on the outside”. He also said: “Racing is a religion and a science”.
Well, Mint, we may not have known you and your engine builders as intimately as we can know Valentino Rossi and Jerry Burgess, but we loved what you did and the last-corner dramas that you gave us just as much. What a hero.