RACING

Farewell, Paddy Hopkirk, one of the best rally drivers ever

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Monte-Carlo Rally legend dies aged 89

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We were on the Col di Turini, in the hills north of the French Riviera, the scene of one of the most unlikely motorsport victories of all time. We had traveled 1600 miles together across Europe, from Minsk to Monte Carlo, for a BBC documentary, made to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Paddy’s victory in the Monte Carlo rally in 1964. He was one of those guys who really had a permanent twinkle in their eyes, and as he chased me out of the driver’s seat of our (modern) Mini Cooper, he was as mischievous as ever.

“I’m 71, you know, but everything still works pretty well,” he said, cracking one of his huge smiles, Belfast accent still strong. “Except my view. Yeah, it’s starting to go a little…” At that point, he launched the car down that mountainside road with the kind of precision and fearlessness that only the best rally drivers possess. . Hopkirk’s faculties were fully intact, no doubt.

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Paddy Hopkirk MBE was one of the people who made the original Mini famous, in the years when London was starting to swing. Right place, right time, right attitude. The international rally was different in the 1960s, and participants had to arrive from a distant location to join the common route – hence Hopkirk’s cantonment in Minsk, then part of the Soviet Union, and firmly behind the Iron Curtain in the Cold War era. Along with his co-driver Henry Liddon, Hopkirk was one of 30 cars out of the 240 entered which arrived in Reims from Minsk for the start of the 33rd Monte-Carlo rally. He had traded stockings for boxes of beluga whale caviar while he was there, and smuggled them back…

“Henry and I pushed very hard and in places there was a lot of snow, and the snowdrifts caused the roads to narrow. Which was good for the Mini, of course,” he recalled. He was a driver who had the nerve and bravery to go with his natural abilities, and Liddon, deliveryman and bespectacled, was a very smart navigator. Arrived in the Principality, the occupants of 33 EJB no longer knew where they stood and managed to hold on during the final stage to win. The victory made headlines and the trio ended up as guest stars on the UK’s most-watched TV show, Sunday night at the Palladium. There were telegrams from then Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home and the Beatles. They also signed a photo and wrote, “You’re one of us now, Paddy!” It is framed and hung on the wall of a ground floor room in Hopkirk’s house in Buckinghamshire.

Patrick Barron Hopkirk was born in Belfast on April 14, 1933 and grew up on the edge of Belfast Lough. As a child, he used to take food to a local priest who left him his Harding – a motorized bath chair – when he died. Hopkirk quickly adapted to it and honed his skills on the pitch near his home. After dropping out of his engineering degree at Trinity College Dublin, he started rallying in an Austin Seven he had rebuilt himself. Northern Ireland has a long history in hill climbs and self-tests – timed slaloms through cones and around pylons – and success in these and in the Irish Rally Championship in 1954 and 1955 earned it driving with the Triumph Rally Team.

Paddy’s first major victory came in the 1958 Circuit of Ireland rally, co-driving with Jack Scott, driving a Triumph TR3A. Entered by the Rootes Group, he again won the event in a Sunbeam in 1961, and he and Scott finished third in the ’62 Monte. He then joined the BMC factory team, alongside Finnish talents Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Makinen, first driving an Austin-Healey 3000. And then the Mini entered the frame… There would be six more victories in international rallies, and a second place finish in the epic 10,000 mile London to Sydney 1968. When he and his co-driver Tony Nash stopped to help fellow competitors Lucien Bianchi and Jean-Claude Ogier to get out of their car following a head-on collision with a car that had ventured onto the closed course, they wasted their chances of victory. He also raced successfully in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Bathurst 500.

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Hopkirk retired from professional motorsport in 1970 and turned his innate entrepreneurial skills into a successful career in the automotive business, as well as creating his own line of accessories. He was also an energetic member of the BRDC and worked tirelessly for several important charities. Mini’s return to BMW ownership helped carry the Hopkirk name to a new generation, something the man himself embraced with his usual enthusiasm. This included participating in this television special, which brought us and the production team back to Minsk, now the capital of Belarus, after which our equipment was confiscated by corrupt customs, pending the payment of a “fine” of $3,500. Late, our brilliant production assistant Veronica managed to borrow a van from the orphanage, then we slept in it for a night at the Polish border, when it was -17° outside. There were no hissing Hopkirk fits; in fact, Paddy entertained us all night, born storyteller that he was.

He is survived by his wife Jenny, their children Katie, Patrick and William, and his six grandchildren. Top Gear sends their love and condolences to all of them. In a statement, they noted that “his family, friends and fans will never forget his quick wit and wicked smile. He brought fun and joy to everyone in his company and inspired many. “.

Farewell, Paddy. Keep it on.

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