I was really sad to hear that Paul Frere died over the weekend, aged 91. Frere was an amazing man, with an incredible career that puts the rest of us car journalists firmly in our place. I met him a few times, but once in particular sticks in my mind. I was on the launch of the road-going Mercedes CLK GTR at Hockenhiem, £1.2-million worth of road legal Le Mans racer. That night at dinner I was sitting at the end of the table with Paul, alongside some young Australian guy I’d never heard of before, who was going to give us some hot laps in the CLK race car the next day. His name was Mark Webber. I pretty much ignored Webber all night, and just pumped Frere for anecdotes from his life and work. I thought he was fascinating to listen to. At the end of the night, a clearly unimpressed Webber stood up, and whispered to me, ‘Who the hell was that old guy?’ Which made me laugh – typical racing driver, if you’re not going to make him faster or slower, you don’t really figure.
So who the hell was this old guy? Born in Le Havre in 1917, Frere was educated in Brussels, where he qualified as an engineer. He turned to journalism after the war, and became motoring correspondent for various European car magazines, plus, notably, Road and Track in the US. But Paul was also a racer, first on bikes and then cars, and what really made him stand out was he was good at both – he won the non-championship 1952 Grand Prix des Frontieres in Chimay driving an HWM. Amazingly, this and other successes gave him the opportunity to drive for the Ferrari works team in both F1 and sports cars. So a journalist became teammates with Peter Collins in a Ferrari Grand Prix car (*staggering*), and in 1960 Frere won Le Mans in a 250 TR with Olivie Gendebien. Think about that – occasionally you do get a car journalist who’s also a great driver, but can you imagine – and I don’t mean any disrespect when I say this – can you imagine CAR writers Ben Barry or Chris Chilton bashing out a Ford Focus road test on Wednesday, before flying out to Barcelona to qualify alongside Kimi Raikkonen for Ferrari on Friday? Just amazing.
Paul retired from racing when he was 43, but he continued writing till the very end. So he was probably 81 years old when I met him, driving that CLK GTR. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be a great launch for him – he was sent out first for few laps of the short Hockenhiem circuit, because he was seen as a safe pair of hands... and he crunched the car into a concrete wall within a couple of laps. Webber must have been shaking his head in disbelief back in the pits (who IS this guy!?); but Paul was amazing to watch under pressure. When he came back to the paddock after his accident he was incredibly calm and dignified, and when he could have slinked off out of sight to avoid embarrassment, instead he stood beside the AMG Mercedes mechanic who got the job of jet-washing the gravel-splattered wreck. So cool. A real gentleman.
I don’t want to die, but when I do, I hope I’m doing something I love. Paul was testing a Honda Civic Type-R last year at the Nurburgring (aged 89!) when he crashed heavily (that’s two crash anecdotes in one story – a coincidence, he was a great driver). Unfortunately Paul was smashed up pretty badly with a broken pelvis and punctured lungs. I hear he never really recovered properly from that (not surprisingly) and he died on Saturday, 24th February 2008.
No-one wants to die, but what a life, and what a way to go.