From Colditz to Silverstone: the incredible tale of Tony Rolt | Sport

Seventy years ago this week, Formula One thundered into action for the very first time. The sport is celebrating its anniversary, its longevity and the pantheon of drivers who have become household names, but when F1 began that weekend at Silverstone, it was also host to a little-known hero.

Tony Rolt’s name is written into F1’s opening chapter but his story demands a broader canvas. He was a youthful prodigy, a soldier decorated for gallantry, a serial escapee in the second world war and designer and builder of the Colditz glider, a Le Mans winner and a successful engineer and businessman.

That inaugural grand prix did not go well for Rolt. Peter Walker had done well to qualify his English Racing Automobiles (ERA) car in 10th but when Rolt took the wheel for the race he was forced to retire after only four laps with a gearbox failure. But for Rolt, who had come through the crucible of conflict, just going racing was enough. He had known crushing disappointment in capture and imprisonment during the war and could take the slings and arrows of competition with aplomb.

Born in 1918 and enamoured of racing as a child, he was fortunate to have a mother willing to indulge his passion. Perhaps hoping to curb the excesses that had already resulted in him being caught by the police for driving under age, she bought him a Morgan three-wheeler when he was 16, in which he competed in schoolboy trails events for Eton.

Rolt won a Military Cross for helping a wounded comrade. Photograph: Courtesy of Tony Rolt

He persuaded his mother to buy the famous ERA car known as Remus from Thailand’s Prince Bira, who would go on to be another competitor in that first grand prix at Silverstone. Shortly afterwards, while racing Remus at Brooklands, Rolt demonstrated his assuredness and bravery. A loose bolt allowed exhaust gas and flames into his cockpit and Rolt calmly removed a glove, shoved it into the offending hole and went on to win. In 1939 aged only 20 he did so again with such skill he had become impossible to ignore. He won the British Empire Trophy at Donington. “Boy driver wins 200-mile race. Experts all upset at Donington Park,” read the headlines in the Sunday Mercury afterwards.

A grand career in racing beckoned until the war intervened, as his son Stuart, now 71, recalls. “He was going places rapidly as a private entrant and then the war came along,” he says. “He would drive anything he could get his hands on but left motor racing because of Adolf Hitler at a point when he was being lined up to drive all sorts of stuff. There were people interested who really rated him and he was young. He was ready to become a top driver of the time.”

Fate had other plans and Rolt would distinguish himself with the same quiet determination in service of his country as he had behind the wheel. As an officer in the Rifle Brigade he was ordered to Calais to prop up the crumbling French defence, as the evacuation at Dunkirk proceeded.

After only five days of fighting his battalion was captured but not before Rolt had proved himself, assisting a wounded comrade while still firing his Bren gun at the enemy. He was awarded the Military Cross but was set to spend the rest of the war in captivity, anathema to the young charger. “He was hugely frustrated,” says Stuart. “He wasn’t doing his bit for his country and there was anger that his war was over after five days and an absolute determination to get home and fight.”

Rolt proved his resolve in no uncertain fashion. Seven escape attempts followed. He suffered the cruel disappointment of making it to within 100m of the Swiss border on one occasion. The Germans failed to confiscate the false documents he had been using and Stuart still has them. On another he and his comrades walked out of a camp dressed as Swiss Red Cross visitors. “It worked brilliantly,” Rolt later recalled. “We watched them arrive, waited a suitable length of time and then walked out the main gate. We then walked for two nights using makeshift maps.” The escapers managed to board a train but were ultimately recaptured.

Rolt (second right) and Duncan Hamilton with their wives following their victory at Le Mans in 1953

Rolt (second right) and Duncan Hamilton with their wives following their victory at Le Mans in 1953. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Like other serial escapers Rolt was sent to Colditz Castle in February 1944. Fearing the SS might execute the prisoners Rolt came up with an audacious plan to secure a way out for at least two of them: building a glider and launching it from the gloomy stalag. Its construction was well under way, hidden in the eaves of the building, when the officers were told to cease escape attempts because of the approaching end of the war.

Rolt returned home but had lost six years of his career. He threw himself back into the sport but it was a different experience to that of the late 1930s. Now driving an Alfa Romeo he raced whenever and wherever he had the chance. “He got stuck in,” says Stuart. “But in an ideal world he would have been a grand prix driver.”

He at least made it to the grid for that momentous occasion at Silverstone in 1950. It ended sadly as did his other two grands prix, both at Silverstone where he again suffered mechanical failures in 1953 and 1955. Undeterred, Rolt took drives wherever he could, proving himself a master in sports cars.

The false document that Rolt hid from the Nazis while a prisoner of war

The false document that Rolt hid from the Nazis while a prisoner of war. Photograph: Courtesy of Tony Rolt

In 1952 as reserve driver in the RAC Tourist Trophy at Dundrod he lapped quicker than Stirling Moss in the Jaguar C-type. Jaguar promptly offered him a works drive. The next year, alongside his teammate and friend Duncan Hamilton, they won the Le Mans 24 hours. The following year they were second. In 1955 they retired while in second in a race marked by terrible tragedy. It was the year more than 80 people were killed when a Mercedes flew into spectators on the pit straight. The incident was shocking and Rolt, with a young family and a fledgling engineering business, called time on racing at the end of 1955.

His association with the sport continued, however. Rolt’s engineering firm focused on building new technology around four-wheel drive and anti-lock braking. Working with the inventor of the modern tractor, Harry Ferguson’s, company, he designed and built the Ferguson P99. It remains the only four-wheel drive car to win an F1 race, the non-championship Oulton Park Gold Cup in 1961, driven – appropriately – by Moss. His transmission systems were used in Ford’s world championship-winning rally cars and with pleasing symmetry in the Audis that were all-conquering at Le Mans in the 2000s.

Silverstone too remained close to his heart. He was a proud member of the British Racing Drivers’ Club and Stuart has fond memories of his father and friends in charge of the inside of the corner at Becketts for many, many grands prix. He attended F1 for the rest of his life until his death aged 89 in 2008.

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Rolt may have been a bit player when F1’s 70-year journey began but he has his place as much more than a footnote in the history books. “He had an overwhelming love of motor sport, he lived and breathed it and he had an extraordinary life,” says Stuart. “The war definitely had an effect on him but after that he was determined to prove himself to he world and he did it.”

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