On July 11th 1964, the famous Brands Hatch race circuit hosted a sports car race that has gone down in the annals of motorsport history as the ‘Black Flag race’. The entry, as was common in the ‘60s, saw Grand Prix drivers compete in a wide variety of automobiles and this race featured Jackie Stewart at the wheel of a lightweight Jaguar E-type.
Opposition arrived in the shape of a pair of AC Cobras entered by John Willment’s team with drivers Bob Olthoff and ex-British Saloon Car champion Jack Sears. The latter driver was enjoying a successful season racing the ex-Le Mans Cobra, 39PH, that had finished in seventh place at Le Mans 24-Hour race the previous year, the first non-Ferrari home.
The ‘Black Flag race’
During practice, the Cobra of Olthoff was credited with the quickest lap time to take pole position on the grid; in an attempt to further improve his time, Olthoff and his Cobra left the track and came into contact with a large tree. The damage was such that a quick repair proved impossible so the pole postion slot on the grid became vacant. However, as the cars assembled on the grid, Jackie Sewart placed his car in pole position with the Cobra of Roy Salvadori alongside. As third place qualifier, Jack Sears was left with a clear run from the second row as there was no car in front of him. However, he was instructed by the marshals to move forward to start on the front row.
By the time anyone realised the error, it was too late to push the Cobra back and the flag fell as the cars hurtled away into Paddock Bend to begin the 24-lap race. At the end of the first lap, Sears, who made a slow start and was lying fourth, saw that the marshals were holding out a black flag with his number on it, signifying he had to return to the pits which he duly did, only to be given a quick lecture by the Clerk of the Course about starting from the wrong grid slot before sending him on his way. Sears was furious, blasting from the pit lane while shaking his fist at the officials. Spurred on by the perceived injustice, he began to throw the Cobra around the track, lapping two seconds faster than he did in practice. He was in last place while the E-type of Stewart held a comfortable lead.
Sears began to drive the Cobra to its limits and, at one point, almost beyond. He rapidly dispatched the slower cars and after just five laps the Cobra was in fourth place, closing on the Jaguar of Stewart before passing it on lap 16. The spectators cheered the Cobra home but in the pit lane, a huge argument had broken out between the volatile team manager John Willment and the RAC officals. After the dust had settled, Sears kept his victory but Willment had a harder time placating the authorities.
In 2009, the AC Cobra, 39PH, was part of the Corner family collection. The Swedish motoring magazine, Teknikens Varld, contacted Nigel and Neil Corner to ask whether they would be prepared to bring the Cobra to Brands Hatch in Kent where it would be an essential part of a ‘Black Flag race reunion’ that would include the two drivers and a sister-car to the E-type (the E-type that raced in 1964 was undergoing restoration at the time). The magazine planned an article about the race with accompanying photogrpahs of the cars and drivers.
Both Sir Jackie Stewart and Jack Sears were happy to be a part of a trip down memory lane where they would recount their memories from the race. Jackie Stewart confessed that despite his best efforts he was unable to keep the Cobra behind him on that occasion while Sears admitted he had never driven so ‘determinedly’ before or since. The meeting of two great drivers was a notable event and they later drove the cars around the circuit for a few swift demonstration laps before the official in charge of the decibel meter took exception. The Cobra (chassis CSX2131) was originally painted in the AC Cars team colour of light green for the Le Mans 24 Hour race; when it passed to the Willment team it was painted in the team’s red and white stripe colour scheme which it has retained to this day.