Gone but not forgotten – controversial racing impresario Raymond Mays 1899-1980

Gone but not forgotten. Controversial racing impresario Raymond Mays. Controversial father of the British Formula 1 industry ‘In Junior-GP Voiturette racing, Era and mays were potent, gaining respect on both sides of the channel’ Words Dale Drinnon. Photography Drive-My.

What he did makes for a fascinating story, whether it be about his achievements as a driver before the War or his influence on modern British F1 after it. Who he was, however, his vision and perseverance, his often absolute lack of practical judgement, his position and privilege, his grace and courage, and yes, his sexual orientation, all combine to make that story much more than merely an assemblage of race results and team histories.

Raymond Mays

Raymond Mays

Of course, position and privilege guided the plotline from the outset. Thomas Raymond Mays was born in 1899 in Bourne, Lincolnshire, his father a prosperous wool merchant and gentleman racer. Raymond attended Oundle School, served as an officer in France during World War One (for a single month before the 1918 Armistice), then in 1919 left the Army for Cambridge. Father bought Ray his first race car at the start of fresher term, and his higher education largely consisted of parties, hillclimbs and Brooklands meetings.

But a 1921 downturn in his father’s affluence forced Ray out of education and into the family business; it also decimated his motor sport budget. Undeterred, he probably invented sponsorship, utilising the Right People he’d met almost co-incidentally since childhood (the supercharging guru and racing coconspirator Amherst Villiers was a prime example) for whatever goods or services he needed, and carried on.

Ray’s talent at the wheel didn’t hurt, either, and over the coming years he would prove a driver of international calibre. Mays and his colleagues furthermore expanded into tuning and construction, producing the celebrated White Riley, which led to Britain’s most ambitious pre-war monoposto project: English Racing Automobiles. In junior-GP voiturette racing, ERA and Mays were potent, famously winning the Nürburgring Eifelrennen of 1935 and gaining the establishment’s respect on both sides of the Channel.

Mays spent World War Two tending the family’s textile concerns and did race again, briefly, winning the inaugural 1947 and ’1948 British Hillclimb Championships. His real focus, though, even during hostilities, was re-launching ERA, but as a fully fledged Grand Prix effort. For Mays it was a patriotic duty: he was convinced that racing could be for Britain, as with inter-war Germany, a national instrument of what’s now called ‘soft power’, like science and the performing arts.

In 1945 he began organising BRM, British Racing Motors, with many of the ERA crew, and sought once again to provide funding via his Old Boys network – along with essentially Britain’s entire motor and tech sector. Mays was a natural to preach the Gospel of GP to the nation: he was well-known and well-liked, tall, handsome and charming, had friends everywhere, and was a media magnet.

That he was also gay wasn’t unsuspected in the racing fraternity, but only publicised to the wider world in period euphemisms such as ‘immaculately dressed’ and ‘adores musical theatre’, and if his sexuality was a problem, it didn’t stop sponsors from stepping up. BRM rolled out its debut machine, a radically complicated, 1.5-litre supercharged V16, in December 1949. It was an unmitigated disaster. Mays was, it transpired, far better suited to have-a-go-chaps Brooklands than the professional motor sport world evolving postwar.

He was a mechanical innocent (one has a man for that, after all) and hadn’t actually considered, before soliciting money, how much would be needed. BRM went broke building cars that wouldn’t run, surviving only through a 1952 buy-out by principal sponsor Rubery Owen.

Still plagued by inspiration over preparation, things didn’t genuinely turn around until Mays lost effective operational control altogether following the notorious 1960 drivers’ strike by Hill and Gurney, eventually filling the role of PR front-man and race team ‘fixer’, the man who dropped a quiet word in the appropriate ear. Worse yet for Mays, whether by his own indiscretions or corporate fear of publicity, his sex life came under increasing condemnation from new team boss Louis Stanley. Through it all, though, Raymond Mays stayed with BRM and carried on.

And in 1962, Graham Hill and BRM won both the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ World Championships. It wasn’t the first British title, Brit companies having long since decided a native F1 industry wasn’t such a bad idea after all; it was merely the first all-British title, the kind Mays always dreamed of.

He stayed on with the team, too, almost as long as there was one. Mays died at home in Bourne in 1980, two years after his CBE for services to motor racing.

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