IT WOULD have had race fans across Britain shouting at their TV screens … or cursing themselves for not knowing the answer: a contestant on ITV’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire decided to pass on the motor sport-themed million-pound question, despite later guessing it correctly.
Retired GP Andrew Townsley reached the final question, and was on the edge of becoming the show’s first millionaire in 14 years, though decided to take the £500,000 he’d already won rather than risk it for double that amount, and potentially lose £436,000 by dropping back to his chosen “safety net” amount.
He was asked by host Jeremy Clarkson which of the following events was held first: the Le Mans 24 Hours, Monaco Grand Prix, Indy500 or Isle of Man TT.
When Townlsey said he wasn’t sure of the answer, Clarkson said: “Please tell me that one of your best friends is Stirling Moss.” The show was aired on May 12 but filmed in December, before F1 and sports car legend Moss passed away, in April.
The Glasgow resident phoned a friend before making his decision, though as they didn’t have a clue as to the answer, Townsley decided to take the £500,000.
After he had made his final decision, and with nothing at stake, Townsley was asked by Clarkson, “But… If you had been feeling lucky, what would you have said?”
“I’d have said the TT,” said Townsley.
“If you’d have said the Isle of Man TT … there’d be tinsel landing on your hair. That was the correct answer,” replied the Sunday Times Driving columnist, who then advised Townsley, some would say unhelpfully, not to “rue on that.”
The first Isle of Man TT was held on May 28, 1907 and featured races in two different classes of motorcycle — single-cylinder and two-cylinder. The Isle of Man — a self-governing British Crown dependency situated in the Irish Sea, between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland — was chosen as the venue as motor racing on public roads was banned in England.
Surprisingly, the second oldest of the four events is the Indy500, which was held almost exactly four years later, on May 30, 1911. The race of 40 cars was disrupted by a multi-vehicle crash, which caused dispute about the race’s eventual winner. The fastest cars had inline 3-litre V8 engines, and the eventual winner, Ray Harroun, clocked an average speed of 74.59mph in his Marmon Wasp. That’s some way off 2019 winner’s average speed of 175.79mph but would have been pretty exciting back in 1911.
The first 24 hours of Le Mans came next, being held for the first time in 1923, also at the end of May. Twenty manufacturers took part, almost all of them French, bar a smattering of British and Belgian teams. The first two spots on the podium were taken by Chenard and Walcker, a French auto manufacturer that went defunct in 1948. Only three of 33 cars were forced to retire from the race, the lowest in its history.
The Monaco Grand Prix, the crown jewel of the GP calendar, is the baby of the group, at a comparatively spritely 91 years old — although it won’t be able to celebrate its birthday this year after being cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It was first held in April 1929, and was won by the Bugatti Type 35B, which had a supercharged 2.3-litre engine mustering 136bhp. Bugattis, in fact, took most of the top seven spots, split by a Mercedes SSK in third.
The question is perhaps more difficult than it first appears, and may have caught out many motor sport enthusiasts… as befits of a million-pound reward.
Jeremy Clarkson brought his trademark disdain of electric vehicles to the end of the quiz: “Are you able to get down the ramp?” he asked Townsley, who uses an electric wheelchair due to progressive multiple sclerosis. “Your battery has probably gone flat by now… that’s the trouble with electric vehicles.”
Townsley said he is counting on a coronavirus vaccine to allow him to enjoy his windfall, today’s The Times reported.
“I really have to wait until there is an effective vaccine before I can go out and about in Glasgow before I even dream of going further afield,” he told the paper. “Niagara is looking like 2022 at the earliest. It is meant to be absolutely stunning in the winter but minus 20C is not for me. I would just seize up.”
For now Dr Townsley, who worked at Newhills medical practice in Easterhouse before his condition forced him to retire, is focused on helping his sons Angus, 22, and Calum, 19, and supporting a small number of charities.