John Whitmore’s death in April cut one more link with Jim Clark. In 1959 they drove to tenth place at Le Mans in a Lotus Elite and remained firm friends up to Clark’s death in 1968. Sir John Henry Douglas Whitmore Bt was European Touring Car Champion in 1965 in a Lotus Cortina. He shared his town flat in Balfour Place Mayfair with Clark and Jackie Stewart so often they called it their Scottish embassy.
Following aristocratic family custom Whitmore went to Eton, passed out at Sandhurst and attended the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester. Yet in his twenties he felt “burdened” by his wealthy kin and disposed of his country pile in Essex, Orsett Hall, along with its 3,000-acre estate. He wanted to make his way in motor-racing. “I didn’t regret the loss,” he said: “I didn’t miss my plane or my boat on Lake Geneva or my house in the Bahamas. Getting rid of all the wealth I once had enriched me enormously.”
“I was very lucky to race when I did,” he recalled to Motor Sport. “We still had the old Nürburgring, the old Spa. It was before Jackie Stewart shortened all the circuits. Rightly so, because of the high death rate at the time — but because I was racing then I was living the greatest experience imaginable. They were vintage days.”
Whitmore started with a borrowed Austin A35. He met Alan Stacey, “a racing driver living up the road in Chelmsford”, who gave him “lots of good advice”. Stacey managed to convince Lotus founder, Colin Chapman, to allow Whitmore drive one of the first Lotus Elites in 1959.
His success with the small powerful coupe was immediate. He won his first race at Snetterton before turning the car over at Mallory Park two weeks later. He put the Elite on the front row for the Silverstone International alongside Stirling Moss finishing fifth overall and second in class. Inevitably known as “The Racing Baronet” in the popular press, Whitmore went on to win the Saloon Car Championship in 1961 in an 848cc Mini Minor, which he would later lend to Steve McQueen when he was in Europe filming The Great Escape.
From 1959 Whitmore drove at Le Mans every year, finishing second in class along with Clark in his first and in 1965 and 1966 joined the Ford team of GT40s, but retired both times.
Whitmore gave up racing and moved to California, embracing the Age of Aquarius as a cheesecloth-wearing advocate of flower power. His competitive spirit never left him however and he raced motorcycles north of Hollywood on Mulholland Drive - it was little more than a dirt road - against Charles Bronson, McQueen and McQueen’s stuntman, Bud Ekins.
“We called ourselves the chicken shit racing team, Bud took some hen droppings to a chemist and got him to analyse them. Then he had the chemical formula painted on our helmets by the top Los Angeles hot-rod painter, Kenny Howard, aka Von Dutch, or Joe Lunch Box.”
Exploring alternative lifestyles he enrolled at the Esalen Institute in California, which did humanistic education. He befriended Hollywood actor James Garner, and remained close to McQueen, a talented driver. He tried to put Whitmore off a Swedish air hostess Ella Gunilla Hansson, who had been going out with Stirling Moss, claiming a marriage wouldn’t survive six years.
McQueen was right, yet the Whitmore’s daughter, Tina, owns companies in the American wool industry. In 1969 they divorced and Whitmore married Diana Becchetti in 1977. Their son Jason produces films. This marriage lasted 30 years during which the family returned to Kent. Whitmore set up Performance Consultants International, advising executives on management and leadership, training people from Deloitte, Barclays, Rolls-Royce and British Airways. He wrote five books. one, Coaching for Performance selling in 17 languages. He also founded a tennis school and a ski school in the Alps, despite an accident that left him spending weeks in an artificially induced coma. In 1990 aged 52 he was tempted into three comeback races in a McLaren M8F Can-Am car.
“At Montlhéry I finished third. At Donington Park I finished second. Then came Silverstone, with a Saturday race and a Sunday race. Charlie Agg, who was the top guy in a similar M8F, beat me on Saturday by a length. So I had to win on Sunday.
“My six year old son, Jason, was with me. About an hour before the race I’d got my overalls on and I was pacing up and down a bit, and he said to me, ‘Why are you nervous?’ Then he went to the bedside table, wrote something down and pushed it into my hand. I looked at it, and he had written, ‘Believe in yourself.’ Six years old. I was incredibly moved. I thought, even if I can’t believe in myself for me, I can do it for him. I won the race.”
Sir John Whitmore 2nd Bt was born on October 16, 1937, died of a stroke on April 28, 2017, aged 79.