Leslie George Johnson (22 March 1912 – 8 June 1959) was a British racing driver whom competed in Formula One between 1946 and 1950. He most notably took part in the first ever round of the Formula One World Drivers' Championship when he raced at the 1950 British Grand Prix in an ERA E-Type. Johnson also has the accolade for being the first driver to retire from a world championship motor race.
He never raced in Formula One again, however was a regular contender in post-war grand prix racing from 1946 to 1950. He first gained prominence in Formula One in putting in some very successful performances in a Talbot-Lago sportscar throughout 1947.
He was dubbed, the "Businesslike Performer", being an incredibly successful businessman when he was not motor racing. In 1947, he was considered one of motorsports great "Brains".
He poured his business interests into Formula One when he purchased the ERA constructor from Raymond Mays and Peter Berthon in October 1947. Throughout 1948 to 1950, Johnson unsuccessfully raced and developed the ERA E-Type.
He thereafter retired from Formula One racing and instead focussed on running the business interests in the team. For 1952, Johnson announced the new ERA G-Type to which he recruited Britain's rising star, Stirling Moss to race for him in the new season.
Johnson had been critical of Moss in his earlier career, however had developed a great respect and friendship for Moss whilst they were teammates at Jaguar in sportscars. Although the ERA project in 1952 was not a success and Johnson sold the company at the end of the season, Johnson was renowned as one of Moss's early mentors.
Johnson had been afflicted by heart and kidney problems since he was a child, which largely prevented him from making a full-time motor racing career. Albeit, he gained a reputation as a great-all rounder in being able to be competitive in any kind of motorsport from Hillclimbs, time trials, Formula One, Sportscars and Rallying. His most noted motorsport success was winning the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps at the wheel of an Aston Martin in 1948.
- 1 1946-1950: Formula One Career
- 2 1948-1952: Non-Racing Formula One Career
- 3 Formula One Statistical Overview
- 5 Notes
1946-1950: Formula One Career[edit | edit source]
1946[edit | edit source]
An accomplished driver in rallying, time trials and sportscars, Johnson turned his attention to Grand Prix cars for the first time in 1946. Having participated in the unofficial "Belgian Grand Prix" in a sportscar race in Brussels,. Having been likened to Britain's best pre-war racing driver, Richard Seaman,Johnson had purchased Seaman's old 1928 model, Delage also driven by Earl Howe and Prince Bira. Johnson's first race was the 1946 Ulster Trophy and during practice whilst in his first outing in an old outdated G.P car, Johnson broke the lap record. His race performance was less memorable, however he was noted to have overtaken David Hampshire for third before retiring from the race.
1947: Racing a Sportscar in Formula One[edit | edit source]
His first race of the season came at the 1947 Jersey Road Race. He had been snubbed ahead of the event for "entering what was a basically a sportscar" into an F1 event. Johnson had simply taken off the mud gate in order for it to be classified as a G.P car. Johnson impressed everybody in putting his car fourteenth fastest in qualifying. It was noted "that 'Johnson went fast in practice' is something of an understatement."
Johnson would start in the midfield among cars that should have been vastly superior. He then went on to drive a consistent race and where others dropped out due to reliability, Johnson finished sixth. However it should be noted that after he lost sixth gear, he had to halt his hard pressed challenge on Henri Louveau's Delage.
He then entered his first Grandes Épreuves at the 1948 Swiss Grand Prix at Bremgarten. Aside from Johnson's sportscar entry, there were a number of Delage and Delahaye sportscars as well as Louis Rosier whom entered the newest model Talbot-Lago T150C. Johnson had a lot of expectation following his strong showing at Jersey. He looked to be one of the few sportscar racers to make it into the final heat. however devastatingly for Johnson, during the qualifying heat, only a few minutes after Achille Varzi had run over and killed a child whom had run onto the circuit, Johnson ran wide off the circuit to which he hit and killed two spectators.
A devastated Johnson immediately withdrew from the race to which it was commented on the incident, "he had a brake lock on, to which he slid onto the grass, killing two spectators whom had no right to be there, having defied the police. It is a thousand pities to Johnson, who, a decent chap, retired at once."
Johnson would overcome this traumatic experience to which he would return to race at the next Grandes Épreuves at Spa-Francorchamps for the Belgian Grand Prix. Johnson would finish the race eighth, six laps down on race winner Jean-Pierre Wimille and last of the classified finishers. Rosier whom finished a lap ahead of Johnson in his newer Talbot-Lago was the only other sportscar runner to finish.
Johnson would enter one final F1 event in his sportscar, the 1947 British Empire Trophy at Douglas. However his car caught fire before the end of the first lap and he was forced to retire from the event.
1948-1950: ERA[edit | edit source]
1948[edit | edit source]
Johnson had been rumoured to be involved with ERA since January 1947. However it was not until October 194 that Johnson took ownership of the company. The deal would have been completed much sooner, however "the business papers had been lost and were never found."
Raymond Mays and Peter Berthon were committed to setting up BRM, Britain's first government-funded racing team to which they no longer had any use for their inactive ERA organisation. Johnson whom immediately sold his Talbot-Lago sportscar was now responsible for the development of the ERA E-Type.
Now a racing driver and team owner, it was reported that one of Johnson's challenges for 1947 would be getting over the ERA's "various malaises". Regarding Johnson's restructuring process it was noted "When he acquired ERA Ltd and re-established it at Dunstable he employed a number of old lags from pre-war racing who were looking for a job postwar." 
At what would be his first race with the ERA at the 1948 British Empire Trophy, Johnson was described as being "very happy to have got his Zoller-blown E-Type ERA at last and to be permitted to run although he had not practiced." 
Johnson's revival of the ERA brought a lot of curiosity to which it was noted "When he drove the E-Type, I think in the Isle of Man, Reg Parnell wandered over for a chat with Johnson, and absent-mindedly gave the car's steering wheel a tweak, to discover VAAAST free-play. 'You can't race this Leslie, you'll kill yourself'. 'Oh yes, well, it takes a bit of getting used to but you know, the boys have worked so hard to get it ready I really feel I ought to give it a go...'."
Starting from the back of the grid, Johnson's ERA engine was described to have "started rather reluctantly" off the line. However, coming from the back of the field, Johnson scythed his way through the midfield. He had climbed to fifth when after hitting the bank at Cronk-ny-Mona corner, he lost the position to Duncan Hamilton. However after Hamilton retired, he reclaimed the position. Johnson went on to set the equal fastest lap of the race alongside Parnell, it was an impressive opening performance for Johnson whom considered the race merely a "try out" for his new ERA E-Type.
Johnson was one of the select few British racing drivers selected to be invited to the opening race at the Circuit Park Zandvoort by the Royal Netherlands Automobile Club. Although now considered one of Britain's leading race drivers, Johnson did not participate in the event.
Johnson was once of the drivers to participate in the very first British Grand Prix and the opening races at the Silverstone Circuit. During practice it was described that Johnson held a "slide" through Copse corner before shortly afterwards being forced to avoid a major accident when "Baird" spun out of control at Seaman. At the end of the first day of practice, Johnson was fastest. However the following day he dropped down to fifth on the grid, behind Chiron, Emmanuel de Graffenried, Philippe Étancelin and Bob Gerard's old ERA B-Type. The car then retired shortly after the start of the race.
At the Sulon Grand Prix at the Autodrome de Montlhéry, Johnson was described to have "repeated his Silverstone tactics". He took the pole position, however predictably his unreliable ERA would retire shortly after the start.
1949[edit | edit source]
Heading into the new season, Johnson was considered one of the drivers whom would be able to mix with the leading Ferrari's and Maserati's. Although there was much anticipation for the new BRM project, Johnson and the ERA remained the leading British manufacturer in Formula One racing. Johnson was described as "doggedly persevering with the E-Type ERA."
His old 'GP2' chassis had been sold to Taso Mathieson at the end of 1948, thereafter Leslie Brooke had come to him with an idea for an ERA F-Type, however Johnson "doubted its validity." Nonetheless, Johnson permitted, his friend, Brooke to begin construction, albeit the project went nowhere.
The F-Type debacle had cost ERA significant progress throughout 1949, Johnson had significantly reduced attendance during the 1949 season. In April 1949, Johnson had finished the race in fifth position to which he raced the old 'GP2' chassis even though it was now under Mathieson's ownership. He then withdrew his entry into the 1949 Jersey Road Race and thereafter, following the failed F-Type development was not seen in Formula One for the remainder of the season.
Johnson's diabolical Formula One season came to a close when he travelled to Montlhéry where he would attempt to break the lap record with the ERA E-Type. However the car's notorious unreliability would strike again when the fuel pump broke before the start of his running. Johnson was described to have left the track, "leaving the E-Type ERA behind."
1950[edit | edit source]
Johnson was in attendance for the very first world championship Formula One at race at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix. He would once again use his old E-Type, now under the ownership of Taso Mathieson. He would qualify the ERA in twelfth position, however was outmatched by Peter Walker whom had managed to qualify an E-Type in tenth.
However, notably both Walker and Johnson would fall fate to the E-Type's tragic reliability very early on in the race. It was described that "Past Woodcote corner Johnson sees flames amid the smoke and steers the car onto the grass, stumbling from the cockpit before the car has stopped." Johnson became Formula One's first retirement in its world championship history. 
Thereafter Johnson never entered a Formula One event again as a driver, however he was requested by Raymond Mays to replace their driver Ken Richardson at the 1951 Italian Grand Prix in the BRM as Richardson didn't possess the correct license. However he was unable to reach the circuit in time and so the drive went to Hans Stuck.
1948-1952: Non-Racing Formula One Career[edit | edit source]
ERA Ownership[edit | edit source]
Johnson, whom was considered one of the "brains" of motorsport was invited in early 1947 to take part in the Remembrandt meetings. This particular meeting was for Britain's best motor racing minds to come together to discuss the future of motorsport. Other notable members included Raymond Mays, Peter Berthon and Earl Howe. When queried whether women should be allowed as pit attendants, Johnson was an advocate so long as they were the "right type". He also was doubtful of closed cockpits being developed on GP cars and noted that teams and drivers should not take advantage of loopholes in regulations as it is "unfair and embarrassing for the organisers, who are doing their best to please."
After his success in the furniture industry, Johnson expanded into starting businesses in the timber and nuclear power industries which is where he began to truely expand his wealth. In October 1947, his business interests expanded into motorsport when he acquired English Racing Automobiles (ERA) from Raymond Mays and Peter Berthon. Having taken over the ERA brand, Johnson produced a road car in partnership with Javelin to which the ERA-Javelin was released in November 1949. The car was not a success and it was estimated that only half a dozen ERA-Javelin's were ever produced.
Whilst also ERA's lead race driver, Johnson was also expected to lead development for the creation of a new ERA Grand Prix car. In 1949, Johnson hired Prof.Dr Robert Eberan von Eberhorst, the former lead designer of Auto Union to lead developments on the F-Type. However these failed developments throughout 1949 led Johnson to replacing Von Eberhorst with an engineering graduate, David Hodkin in 1950. Johnson was led to believe that Hodkin was a "genius".
Hodkin was placed in charge of the technical design of the ERA G-Type to which had been expected to be the leading British car in Grand Prix following the failure of the BRM project. Johnson had also successfully managed to convince his friend and Jaguar sportscar teammate, Stirling Moss to switch from the HWM team to join Johnson's revival of the ERA works team. With the signing of Britain's best young racing talent in Moss, Johnson would focus on management rather than driving in 1952. 
Johnson had entered Moss into the Daily Express Trophy where the new car was expected to make its debut. To the disappointment of all, the car was not race worthy and failed to be delivered to the circuit in time. The car instead was debuted at the Belgian Grand Prix. 
Upon its unveiling, the G-Type's aesthetics was not marvelled to which Ken Gregory, Moss's manager noted "I am sure, had visualized a really beautiful racing car, something on the lines of, say, a Mercedes or the E-type ERA, both of which were quite classics in appearance. Then, just before practice was due to begin, I saw a rather rough-looking green machine coming down the road, and was horrified to learn that this was the ERA. I wasn't watching Stirling's face closely at the time, but I think that he, too, was bitterly disappointed. Not only was the car squarish and ugly; it wasn't even a true single-seater, yet here it was, turning out for the GP of Europe!" 
The car was not only unattractive but it did not prove to be fast or reliable either. Moss's qualifying time to thirteenth on the grid was 14 seconds slower than polesitter, Alberto Ascari's Ferrari. The car's Bristol engine had also proven unreliable during qualifying. Nonetheless Moss maximised the car's performance and climbed to as high as fifth before the Bristol engine exploded pitching him into an accident to which was noted "It was one of his luckier escapes, for just beyond the point where the ERA finished up was a great mass of barbed-wire fencing."
The car being wrecked had meant the ERA would not be repaired in time for the next round of the championship at the French Grand Prix. An angry Moss would note "While I was having these problems Mike Hawthorn was making his name in his cheap and cheerful and uncomplicated but effective Cooper-Bristol."
At the Daily Mail Trophy, Moss provided a good result for the car, however was once again overshadowed in British motorsport by the Cooper to whom Hawthorn and Alan Stacey had finished on the top two steps of the rostrum. Then at the Dutch Grand Prix, Moss failed to set a time in practice before another engine failure saw him retire from the race.
The team withdrew from the National Trophy, before competing in three final races at the Madgwick Cup, Joe Fry Memorial Trophy and the Newcastle Journal Trophy. The car proved to be one of the fastest British cars to which Moss set the second fastest time in practice at the Madgwick Cup, only to be shunted off by Dennis Poore's Connaught at the start. At the Joe Fry Memorial Trophy and the Newcastle Journal Trophy, Moss was the fastest car, however had to retire from both races due to steering problems to which had struggled to be repaired after Moss's incident in the Madgwick Cup.
By the end of 1952, the ERA G-Type whilst it was quick, it was often outclassed by the British cars of Cooper and Connaught, as well as being well off the pace of the Ferrari's and Maserati's. Johnson had also run out of development funds which deteriorated the car's reliability throughout the season. In October 1952 with no more money, Johnson sold ERA to Bristol. Moss remembering the ERA project noted, "It was, above all, a project which made an awful lot of fuss about doing very little."
The aerodynamic design of the G-Type was used for Bristol's success in taking three successive victories for its class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans from between 1953 and 1955.
Formula One Statistical Overview[edit | edit source]
Formula One Record[edit | edit source]
World Championship Career Statistics[edit | edit source]
|Distance Raced||9 km (6 mi)|
Career Results[edit | edit source]
|Complete Formula One results|
|3rd||DNQ||Did not qualify|
|5th||Points finish||DNPQ||Did not pre-qualify|
|14th||Non-points finish||TD||Test driver|
|NC||Non-classified finish (<90% race distance)||DNS||Did not start|
|Italics||Scored point(s) for Fastest Lap||[+] More Symbols|
[edit | edit source]
Notes[edit | edit source]
- The Motor
- Guy Griffiths
- Ken Gregory
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