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Mike Spence was a talented British racing driver who competed in Formula One and sports cars in the 1960s. Though he scored only one podium finish in F1, Spence built a reputation as a solid performer who consistently scored points.

Mike Spence Early Life and Entry into Motorsports

Michael Henderson Spence was born on December 30, 1936 in Purley, Surrey, England. As a child, he suffered from polio but fortunately recovered from the illness without any permanent physical effects.

Mike Spence studied mathematics and science in school and was also a skilled cricket player. After finishing his national service in the British Army, he joined his family’s business, Coburn Engineering, in 1957. This led to his involvement in motorsports, as he began racing his father’s Turner sports car and an AC Ace.

Climbing the Ranks

Mike Spence steadily moved up through the junior ranks in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He competed in Formula Junior, winning races at Snetterton, Reims, and Monza. His talent caught the eye of Colin Chapman, head of the renowned Lotus F1 team.

Formula One Debut

Spence made his Formula One debut at the 1963 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, substituting for the injured Trevor Taylor at Lotus. Though his race ended prematurely with an oil pressure issue, he had shown enough speed for Lotus to keep him on for 1964, and offer him to drive for 6 races in the next season.

Successes Alongside Clark at Lotus

Over the next three seasons from 1964-1966, Mike Spence raced as teammate to Jim Clark at Lotus. Though clearly overshadowed by the legendary Clark, Spence acquitted himself well by scoring points in several races.

First Podium at 1965 Mexican Grand Prix

The highlight of Spence’s Lotus years came at the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix. He skilfully dealt with the demanding high-altitude conditions to bring his Lotus 33 home in third place, securing the only F1 podium finish of his career.

Signs as BRM Works Driver

In 1967, Spence joined the Owen Racing team to drive for the works BRM Formula One effort alongside Jackie Stewart. Though the BRM cars were overweight and unreliable, Spence still managed several fifth and sixth place finishes.

Success in Sports Cars

While his achievements in Formula One were modest, Spence excelled in sports car racing, particularly in 1967. Driving for Chaparral in the innovative Chevrolet-powered Chaparral 2F, he won the BOAC 500 race at Brands Hatch with co-driver Phil Hill.

The Chaparral 2F featured advanced aerodynamic bodywork and a high rear wing for increased downforce. Hill remarked that Spence was “absolutely in his prime” at the wheel of this car.

Can-Am Podium Finishes

That same year, Spence finished on the Can-Am podium twice, scoring a pair of third place finishes driving a McLaren M1B-Chevrolet.

Return to Lotus Cut Short by Tragedy

Mike Spence’s career was on an upswing in early 1968. He was running at the front of major races in the promising new BRM P126. He had also signed to drive for Lotus at the 1968 Indianapolis 500 after the death of Jim Clark.

Tragically, during practice for Indy, Spence crashed the revolutionary Lotus gas turbine car head-on into the wall. He succumbed to severe head injuries later that evening at just 31 years old.

Remembered as a Quick and Consistent Performer

Though Spence’s premature death deprived him of greater glories, he built a reputation over 5 years in Formula One as a quick driver capable of hauling inferior cars to points finishes. Off the F1 track, he shone brightest racing sports cars like the advanced Chaparral 2F.

Had his life not been cut short, Mike Spence surely had the talent to fight for Grand Prix wins and perhaps even a world championship. As it was, we can only wonder what heights this affable Englishman might have reached at the top level of motorsport.

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