Johnnie Wakefield, a notable pre-war racing driver and talented pilot, was recently featured in the September issue of ‘The Automobile‘ magazine. Johnnie lost his life in 1942 at the age of 27, when the Spitfire he was testing collided with another aircraft over Wargrave Aerodrome, near Henley, and burst into flames. The Johnny Wakefield Trophy is awarded every year to the driver setting the fastest race lap of the season at the Silverstone Grand Prix.
Please see below a condensed version of the article written by John Barker.
Johnnie Wakefield, an alumnus of Sedbergh School, was a pre-war racing driver whose potential for greatness was cut short by the outbreak of WWII.
Born in Marylebone, London, into wealth on 5th April 1915, Johnnie’s early life was tainted by personal tragedy. His mother died when he was only four years old. His father, William Henry Wakefield, who ran the successful family gunpowder business, died when Johnnie was just seven.
An only child and now an orphan, he was taken in by the family, and was brought up at Sedgewick House near Kendal in the Lake District. Educated at Sedbergh School until the age of 18, he did not distinguish himself academically, though he excelled on the sports field as a natural athlete.
On leaving school, he started out on a life of adventure, as did many other young men in possession of considerable means at that time. Johnnie had access to considerable amounts of money. At the age of 18, this was unlikely to be his inheritance, which he probably received when he came of age at 21. So the family most likely indulged his spending.
In 1933 he began to compete on motorcycles at Esholt and Southport, riding a 497cc Ariel, then at the Manx Grand Prix on the Isle of Man TT Circuit on a 348 cc Velocette. He finished 18th in the Manx Junior and DNF in the Manx Senior.
He spent most of 1934 and early 1935 having flying lessons and by 17th June 1935 he was issued with his private pilot’s licence (number 12849) by The Royal Aero Club. Just six days later, he purchased his first private aircraft: a second-hand Gypsy Puss. He flew this almost every day until he sold it in May 1935. Its replacement on 27th March 1936 was a brand new B.A. (British Aircraft) Eagle Gypsy. It is evident from his pilot’s log book that he was flying both planes from March to May. He flew his BA Eagle August 1936 and did not fly again until he applied to join the R.N.V.R (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves) in 1939.
During 1935 Johnnie competed at Brooklands on his Norton motorcycles. He took part in Outer Circuit and Mountain Circuit races with a best placing of 6th place.
It was during 1935 that Johnnie purchased his first Alfa Romeo, the equivalent to today’s Ferrari sports car. Dissatisfied with it, he moved it on quickly and became the owner of his second Alfa Romeo. During 1936 Johnnie was the owner of a Railton Terraplane Saloon as his road car.
His last motor cycle race was at the 1936 Barcelona Grand Prix on 26th April where he finished 8th. Johnnie’s car racing career was launched on 18th April, 13 days after his 21st birthday, with a brand new 1,500cc Supercharged Alta 56S Vioturette, the Formula Two equivalent of its day. This was purchased from Geoffrey Taylor for the sum of £784.10.0, at the time when the average wage was £165 per annum and an average house in London cost £350!
Straight in at the deep end with no previous car racing experience, his debut at Brooklands was inauspicious as he was unplaced. In the 13 subsequent events he took part in with his Alta during 1936 at places such as races at Brooklands, Donington Park and the Isle of Man, his best results were two 1sts in class. Not bad for a beginner!
In 1937 Johnnie decided to move on to something faster and to race in Europe, on real road circuits. He purchased a new state of the art Maserati 6CM 1500 s/c racer. He also replaced his Railton with another Alfa Romeo 8C-2300. By July, he also had a second-hand 3½ litre Derby-built Bentley Saloon.
His 1937 campaign started in June at the Circuito di Firenze. Lining up with the best Vioturette drivers from Europe, he finished a credible 10th.
He raced his Maserati 6CM throughout the year and into 1938, competing in 18 events and notching up two 2nds, four 3rds, two 4ths and one 5th place. Clearly Johnnie was starting to make his mark and drove his car with mechanical sympathy, something that would continue both on four wheels and in the air. In April 1938, however, he crashed during the Cork Grand Prix. He was taken to hospital with cuts and bruises and some broken ribs; the car was too badly damaged to repair. During his entire racing career this was his only serious accident.
With the 1938 season now well underway, he placed an order with English Racing Automobiles for an ERA. While he waited for delivery, he had use of Ian Connell’s ERA. In the six events when he used this racer he achieved one 2nd and two 3rds.
Johnnie’s first race with his new car R14B was in Switzerland where he finished in 3rd place in both his heat and final against the best of the Voiturette drivers of the era. Then on 27th August he achieved his first major success on British soil with a win in the J.C.C. 200 Miles Race. The entry for this event included the band leader Billy “Wakey Wakey” Cotton and another Sedbergh alumnus, Reggie Tongue, both also in ERAs.
By August 1938 Johnnie replaced his Bentley with another second-hand Bentley, this time a 4 1/4 litre Saloon.
It was also during 1938 that Johnnie got engaged and married his girlfriend Kay (Catherine) Heywood.
During the rest of 1938 and until May 1939 Johnnie raced his ERA in 13 events with two 1sts, one 2nd, four 3rds, one 4th, 5th and 6th plus three retirements. For the remainder of the 1939 season, he raced his new Maserati 4CL
He was by now a rising star and becoming noticed. The last nine events that he took part in resulted in four 1st places, one 2nd, as well as 3rd and 4th placings. Wins came in both Italy and France.
At the outbreak of the 2nd World War, Johnnie offered his services as a pilot and was taken on by R.N.V.R (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves) on 8th September 1939 as a sub lieutenant.
By December, results and reports on flying tests show that Johnnie was: ‘a smooth natural pilot’. His competence as a pilot developed as can be seen in subsequent record: ‘Above average as a pilot and a very good shot indeed: Keen reliable: Plenty of common sense, initiative, with further experience would make a good section leader’.
His Pilot’s Flying Logbook records that between 1939 and 1942 Johnnie flew in 8 different Squadrons, on 25 different aircraft.
By 25th March 1942 he had resigned his commission (retaining his Naval rank of Lieutenant R.N.V.R.) to undertake pilot flying test duties for Vickers Armstrong on Spitfire PR Mk IVs. He was attached to Wargrave Airfield which had no formal aerodrome control so it was the case that one had to be extremely alert on take-off and landing. At the other end of the airfield the RAF had a pilot training school. On 24th April, as Johnnie taxied out for take-off in his Spitfire, he was confronted by a Magister coming from the RAF hanger on a collision course with him. Johnnie swerved to avoid him as he became airborne and crashed; his plane burst into flames and he was killed instantly.
Johnnie was in line for the British Racing Drivers Club BRDC Gold Star, awarded each year to Britain’s most successful driver in the season but the outbreak of war postponed his receipt of it. His wife Kay received the award posthumously on his behalf after the war. To this day the BRDC still award the Johnnie Wakefield Trophy for the Fastest Lap of the Year.
Johnnie was by all accounts a fun-loving, likable, ever-smiling young man. Who knows what he may have achieved had his life not been so tragically cut short.
To read John Barker’s full article, see ‘The Automobile’ September 2020, www.theautomobile.co.uk