THE GENTLEMAN'S DRIVER
WORDS: TAYLOR WALSH
PHOTOGRAPHY: COURTESY OF MIKE WILDS
When nostalgically looking back at motorsport in the 1960’s and 1970’s, names such as Jim Clarke, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Niki Lauda and the irrepressible James Hunt come to mind. You would be forgiven not to have heard of our guest today, partially because his F1 career was short lived, only eight Grand Prix entries and no classified finishes. It is also because he himself states he would be classed as a ‘journeyman’ if he was a boxer. However, for people who know of him and have witnessed him behind the wheel know he much more than that, Mike Wilds is the Gentleman’s Driver.
Born in West London, Wild’s future looked set to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Fleet Street photographer and by all intense and purposes he did start the journey to becoming a press photographer, working for Sport & General, developing photographs while heading out to all the major newspapers selling photographs.
So how does a photographer then become a Formula One driver and subsequently a World Champion sports car driver?
Mike’s love for motor racing can be traced back to 1959, when the then thirteen-year-old worked at the Checkered Flag cleaning the team’s cars. The team invited him to Brands Hatch, were the team was racing that given weekend and that’s where the lifelong passion for motor racing ignited, “I remember the sound and smell of Castrol R, those of a certain age will know what I mean’. It was that moment when he knew he wanted to be a racing driver.
Fast-forward to 1964 when Wilds joined the 750 Motor Club whose meetings at the time were held in the back room of a Battersea pub. The 750 Motor Club was seen by many as an economical way of going racing and in the same year Mike purchased his first and only race car, a 1172 DRW which came with its own trailer for £250 and took delivery on a cold December day. ‘Bless her, my mother stood guarantor for a bank loan which helped me purchase the car, my only problem was I didn’t have anywhere to store it’. So, for a long period after the arrival of the race car it lived under a tarpaulin outside his parents flat.
Wilds first race season consisted of just seven races in 1965 with the opening round taking place at Snetterton in which he finished on the podium in third place and continued to climb the podium until he claimed his maiden victory in only his third race. Wilds then rounded off the season taking the 750-motor clubs best newcomer trophy.
The highs of a successful debut season where short live, during the opening round of the 1966 season at Brands Hatch Mike suffered a broken pelvis along with other fractures after colliding with a spinning competitor into Paddock Hill Bend. After being unconscious in Dartford Hospital his long recovery began. In the following months, the 750 Motor Club along with his father began rebuilding his race car and every two or three weeks would tow the car to a specific space at the hospitals car park where he could see the progression that had been made.
During the 1965 season Mike joined Firestone’s export department in a bid to get closer to the Formula One and Sports Car circuses. For the next several years, Mike worked as the Operations Manager for the company’s European division which allowed him access to the Grand Prix stars of the time.
It was while working at Firestone Wilds started a more traditional route to becoming a Grand Prix driver, ‘scrounging’ for drives in Formula Four and Formula Ford he found sponsorship from building companies and working his way through the junior categories, Formula Ford 1600, British Formula Three until 1972 when Dempster Developments offered Wilds a drive on the basis that he leaves Firestone and becomes a full-time professional racing driver.
After taking third in the Formula Three championship, Wilds moved to Formula 5000 driving a March and competed against his heroes such as Brian Redman and David Hobbs, he would then lead the championship for the majority of the season even though he didn’t win a race. This placed Wilds on the racing map and had to only be a matter of time before he was given the chance to race in Formula One. Mike didn’t have to wait long, Max Mosley contacted him offering a drive in the March at the Swedish Grand Prix as the team’s current driver, Hans Stuck had broken his wrist. Sadly, for Wilds, a F5000 race was scheduled to take place prior to making his Formula One debut but in a twist hand of fate Wilds too broke his wrist and was unable to race the March the following race.
Wilds finally made his Grand Prix debut with Ensign at Watkins Glen in 1974 alongside familiar household names and Mike’s personal hero Ronnie Peterson who happened to be driving the famous Lotus 72 and qualified only a handful of places in front of Wilds (starting twenty second). After taking the checkered flag Wilds was informed that his friend Helmuth Koinegg had tragically died during the race. Only seven more entries into the Formula One World Championship would be made following his debut but all-in underperforming cars either in a BRM or Shadow. Wilds only regret when reminiscing about his stint in Formula One is that ‘I wish I had the chance to see what I could do in a competitive car, either a Ferrari 312, McLaren M23 or a Brabham’.
Wilds continued to work with Grand Prix racers, conducting tests with Mike Hailwood for Team Surtees which was owned and run by 1964 Formula One World Champion John Surtees. Recounting those long test days, it was clear that he had a fondness for Hailwood and similar feelings towards the Ferrari champion although ‘he (John) was difficult to work for’. Wilds suffered the same fate as many good drivers in the modern era, a lack of funds prevented him from returning to Grand Prix Racing.
Since the late 1970’s, Wilds has had the privilege to complete show runs, test and even race some of racing’s most iconic racing cars. From a Ferrari 312 driven by Niki Lauda in period to Group C Porsche 956, if you can name the car the likely hood is Wilds has driven them. Pressing for an answer to which was his favourite and could jump in again today, Ferrari P3 and 250 GTO’s initially came to mind but ultimately fell to the Williams FW08 from 1982.
Success finally found Wilds while driving a Group C Ecurie Ecosse in the World Sports Car Championship and claiming the 1986 World Championship alongside excellent showings at Le Mans on seven different occasions with his final outing in 1988 with Nissan’s factory team.
Mike is an honest, old school racer who is widely respected by his peers. We decided to ask him about the modern-day crop of drivers whether in Formula One or any other category and his views on the changes he has witnessed with his own eyes. ‘It comes down to respect and comradery, it’s (racing) pure business now and when I raced (in ‘60s & 70’s) it was a sport”. He followed this up by saying ‘when we made a (racing) move, we had to be sure it worked because if it didn’t either one of us could be killed, that’s gone from racing now’.
Now in his seventieth decade Mike continues to race and show his speed, from racing a Ginetta G40 in 2020 for the Masters Historic Championship or taking a Group C Porsche out at Monza for a 200mph drive and ultimately he still has the same passion as he did when he was thirteen years old.