Mention David Leslie’s name and what comes to mind?
For many, particularly those of a certain age, he may be most associated with touring cars. After all he was a habitual BTCC race winner for Vauxhall, Honda and Nissan in the celebrated Super Touring age. He finished runner-up in the championship in 1999 behind his Nissan team-mate Laurent Aiello, and Leslie was thought integral in getting the Ray Mallock-run Primera to its dominant pitch after years of underachievement.
It’s impressive certainly. But even that only scratches the surface. There was infinitely more to Leslie.
We now are 10 years on from losing the popular Scot – along with motorsport pioneer and entrepreneur Richard Lloyd, data engineer Chris Allarton and two pilots – in a plane crash.
It is a poignant time for motorsport at many levels as Leslie’s skills and influence touched many people in many categories. And his influence remains acute a decade on.
We can start with Leslie’s driving skill and decorated racing career, even outside of touring cars, achieved by consistently punching above his weight.
“David Leslie won the Scottish Formula Libre Championship in a 1.6 litre Formula Atlantic car, racing against one or two year old Formula 1 cars,” says Graham Brunton, head of Graham Brunton Racing.
“The same year he won the Hitachi Formula Atlantic Championship, nowadays probably equivalent to the current F3 championship. He won it with a budget of toffees in comparison to the opposition.
“Absolute class driver, a lot of people remember David from the touring car era but to me that was something he did once he’d been on the world stage, winning the C2 world championship [for teams in the 1986 World Sportscar Championship, with Ecurie Ecosse] and things like that, which is equivalent to the LMP2 championship nowadays. Won that as privateers.”
Leslie also claimed place second in the C2 drivers’ table in 1987 co-driving with future boss Mallock, again for Ecurie Ecosse.
BRSCC Formula Ford 1600 coordinator Ian Smith concurs on Leslie’s talent. “At the time David was starting in Formula Ford, I was organising race meetings at Aintree and obviously I’d have Formula Ford on the bill and he was one of the quick guys,” he reminisces. Leslie indeed bagged the BARC Formula Ford FF1600 title in 1977.
“It wasn’t that long before he started his onwards and upwards stage of his career,” Smith continues, “and I always kept an eye out for his results because in my head he was always one of ours that was making it.”
“It was all about the preparation,” Brunton continues on Leslie’s approach. “I never ever forget when young David, racing his Royale, and the car broke down in the race after running in a quite strong position, and the absolute disappointment in father Leslie’s [Leslie’s father David Sr] face said it all, about what it really meant to the two of them, father and son.
“Just everything was about winning. I don’t think they ever had the budgets of the top teams, but the attention to detail, and the preparation for going racing, was second to none.”
Yet there was more to Leslie than even his great skill, preparation and determination. His influence was much more tangible and widespread.
With David Sr he ran the David Leslie Racing team and together they are credited with launching the careers of several drivers who reached the very top – David Coulthard, Dario Franchitti and Allan McNish among many others.
“Him and his dad, what those guys did for so many young drivers, not just Scottish drivers,” Brunton notes.
“Obviously people always remember McNish and Dario and the likes, but they also did it for so many other drivers.”
It was a pursuit that Leslie never relented.
“Right at the end, he was back supporting Formula Ford,” Brunton says, “he just loved to be in a racing car, and loved euphuising with others and getting others involved with the sport, at all levels. He is so sorely missed.
“These lads would rattle around Knockhill lap after lap, and they would give the young drivers a strict RPM limit, and it would be about doing 80, 100 laps at a set RPM limit so that mentally they were going at the right speed. And then they would just up the rev limit as the sessions went on, and the way to develop a driver, insisting they used an RPM gauge, not like this modern day nonsense when we’ve got all computers and what have you, and so-called engineers telling [them].
“The driver had to know, had to be able to come out of the car at the end of the session and tell David or father David exactly what RPM they were doing at the end of a certain straight, he would want to know what the oil pressure is doing, and if you weren’t able to do that well you were dead meat.
“Old school, but the kind of skills that they instilled in drivers are still relevant nowadays. They absolutely are.”
McNish confirmed the pair’s importance shortly after Leslie’s passing. “Quite honestly, I don’t think David [Coulthard] or I, or Dario would have gone so far in motorsport if it had not been for the help and support we got early on from David and his dad,” he said.
“They were both key figures in developing our early race careers and we all owe them so much. Scottish motorsport will forever be in his debt.”
Leslie also remained quick right to the end, taking an unexpected Britcar endurance series race win in wet conditions sharing a BMW M3 E46 with Apex Motorsport co-owner Harry Handkammer a matter of days before his untimely death.
He also was a frequent participant in several club and historic events across the UK, including going back to where he started by taking part in the annual Formula Ford Walter Hayes Trophy.
“I was delighted to see him doing the Walter Hayes Trophy in the early 2000s with the same car, or if it wasn’t exactly the same car it was liveried up exactly the same [as when he started in Formula Ford],” notes Smith.
“He did very well. Sad loss when he went, because he was still well on the pace.
“Superstars of Formula Ford, they’re never far apart. Because they do well in Formula Ford and go on to do well in others things but they never forget their Formula Ford routes, and they still wax lyrical about the good old days.
“I’m sure if he’d have a spare meeting with the Formula Ford nearby he’d pop in.
“He was just one of the good guys.”
And a decade on Leslie’s impact remains, with his family and legacy still a major factor in British motorsport including for those who never will have seen Leslie race. The Leslies remain hands on in helping up and coming driving talent, and there also is the coveted David Leslie Trophy from winning a Knockhill Formula Ford race.
Young Formula Ford pilot Seb Melrose, winner of the latest David Leslie Trophy, confirms the importance of it all.
“I know the Leslies well and Jane who presented me with the trophy, that was David’s wife,” he says.
“Just an amazing family, honestly they’re so nice. And [David’s son] Graham as well is just so supportive, not just of me but of Scottish motorsport in general, they love it, and you can see that they’ve still not lost the love of the sport.”
As for claiming the David Leslie Trophy, “that was a good race to win,” Melrose continues, “it meant a lot to me that.”
His boss Brunton agrees. “It probably meant even more to me or just as much to me,” he says, “because we’d never won it, so absolutely chuffed to bits to win it.”
So are David Leslie and Scottish motorsport inseparable still? “Yeah, they probably are,” Brunton confirms.
“To a lot of people who are new to the sport they can only read about what the Leslie family meant. But to me the Leslie family is still around, Graham Leslie still very involved at Aston Martin Racing, Jane Leslie, motorsport is all she knows, and she’s still well-known and well respected within the motorsport community.
“They always support Scottish motor racing, they come to our awards dinner every year, and Jane likes to present the David Leslie Trophy herself.
“It’s immensely sad, but at the same time we’ve still got to keep at it and keep the young Scottish drivers coming through.”
Additional reporting by Elliot Wood and Josh Suttill
Photo by Tony Harrison from Farnborough, UK (BTCC David Leslie Brands Hatch 1996 Honda Accord) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons