If asked to describe how good or bad a racing driver I’d been, I think I’d fall back on that rather overworked school report phraseology: “He made good use of what little talent he possessed, but with more application could have done a bit better.” Nevertheless, my racing career lasted 14 years and for 11 of those, I was able to enjoy the professional status, including being a “works” driver for Mercedes Benz in South Africa.
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However, I was bright enough to recognise early on that an F1 career was beyond my capabilities, but that didn’t stop me from racing in many memorable events against some of the world’s best drivers. Amusingly, if I were racing now, I’d most likely be in F1, because my sponsorship acquisition skills would almost certainly have secured the budget required to drive for one of the middle to back of the grid teams!
Something that’s never really changed in motorsport is the motorsport media’s obsession with season reviews and previews, not just in F1 but also in other categories. So I thought that for my opening Money, Egos and Speed feature of 2015, I’d jump on that bandwagon, but in a slightly different way. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a long career in motorsport and feel privileged to have competed against many famous drivers, as well as having attended some remarkable races throughout my 41 years in the business. I’ve therefore listed my four most memorable races in which I’ve either competed or been present at. You could call it a 41-year Review!
Something that’s never really changed in motorsport is the motorsport media’s obsession with season reviews and previews, not just in F1 but also in other categories.
1977 was my first year as a professional racer. I’d secured an extremely sizeable sponsorship agreement with a company called SodaStream and signed up with Hawke Race Cars to compete in the 1977 National Formula Ford Championship, which was sponsored by Townsend Thoresen.
I think I’m right in saying that the first race of the season was at Oulton Park. I booked into the prestigious Wild Boar Hotel, fairly close to the circuit. The pressure that I felt before my first race with a major sponsor and also the first of my professional career came as quite a surprise to me. So much so that I vividly remember waking up in the middle of the night, having seemingly sleepwalked over to the massive bay window in the bedroom, where I had somehow managed to pull the entire set of full-length velvet curtains completely off their rail. There I was standing in a T-shirt and boxer shorts, covered in dust and dead flies, wondering how I’d managed to achieve all of this damage whilst still sound asleep! Ah, the glamour of being a racing driver….
Looking back on that incident, I can only think that if that’s what I did the night before a Formula Ford race due to nerves, perhaps it was just as well that I never made it to F1!
As to the race itself, it proved to be a fiasco for me, with the clutch exploding as I tried to pull away at the start of the race. I was just two places on the grid behind a certain Nigel Mansell. I felt a huge surge of frustration as I watched him disappearing into the first corner whilst I sat in a stationary car…..yes, my first professional race weekend will always be there in the memory banks!
The first ever F1 Grand Prix that I attended created a huge impression on me. It was in 1968 at what I still feel is one of the world’s greatest race tracks…….the GP circuit at Brands Hatch. I remember the massive crowds and the amazing atmosphere of the event, as well as the freedom to walk around the Paddock and almost touch the F1 cars.
With a struggle, I was able to work my way through the ever-increasing number of spectators and position myself on the hill that runs up from the exit of Paddock Hill Bend towards the Druids hairpin. As the race unfolded, the sight and sound of Swiss driver Jo Siffert’s dark blue Lotus 49B car, being chased by the screaming Ferrari V12’s of Chris Amon and Jackie Ickx, impaled themselves into my memory banks forever! I can also recall being told that incredibly, Siffert’s car had been delivered brand new to the circuit on the first morning of the meeting. It was completed in the paddock and was entered by the Rob Walker-Durlacher team – a private entrant winning a Grand Prix. Imagine that! In the second place, just 4.4 seconds behind, was Chris Amon, followed home by his team mate, Ickx. Jackie Stewart finished a further lap in 6th place in the Matra-Ford MS80.
To say that this was the race that provided me with the proverbial “motor racing bug” would be an understatement. It was a new world for me, one so far removed from driving the road cars of that era that I could have been on a different planet. However, little did I realise, as I watched the victory lap of the popular Swiss winner, that I would one day myself drive in a host of races at that superb circuit. If someone had suggested that I might actually go on to work in F1, I’d have laughed out loud. But then, as I said, it was a different world and these drivers were my heroes, albeit that the sport claimed so many lives in those days, including tragically that of Jo Siffert at Brands Hatch in 1971.
In 1981 I was living in Johannesburg, having decided to spend a couple of years visiting my family and hopefully doing some racing. Thanks to the efforts of Max Mosley however, I’d instead become the Manager of the Kyalami Grand Prix circuit, then home of the South African F1 GP. Despite the pressures of the role, which I related in a previous Money, Egos and Speed, I was still able to do some racing of my own.
Apart from hosting the annual F1 Grand Prix, Kyalami was home to another famous international race for sports and GT cars, the first of which was way back in 1961. It was an event that changed identity several times during its life-span. From initially being the tongue-twisting “Rand Daily Mail 9-Hour Endurance Race, it changed in 1975 to the Wynns 1000km Sports Car Race, then became the Castrol 9 Hour in 1981 before its final rebranding in 1987 to the Yellow Pages 500. These races attracted incredible international grids with drivers of the calibre of Jochen Mass, Derek Bell, Hans Stuck, David Piper, Jody Scheckter, Bob Wollek and Ronnie Peterson racing in legendary cars such as the Rothmans Porsche 956s and 962s, the stylish BMW MI and the Martini Lancia Ferrari’s.
I was lucky enough to compete in two of these races. My last ever race before retiring was, in fact, the 1987 Yellow Pages 500, which coincidentally was also the last ever international race to be held on the original world-famous Kyalami F1 Circuit. To the despair of so many people, over half of the legendary track was then to disappear as part of a property development deal. It eventually re-emerged as a sanitised modern race circuit! Whilst competing in the Yellow Pages 500 was memorable, the 1981 Castrol 9 Hours version of the event was even more so for me. Let me outline why.
I say that I was lucky enough to compete in that race, but I didn’t think so at the time. I suppose that in the space of 30 seconds I was both unlucky and extremely lucky. It’s on my most memorable races list because it was in this international event in 1981 that I had the biggest accident of my career.
Around two hours before the end of the race, in the dark, a rear-wheel came loose and then broke off, right on the apex of the extremely rapid 4th gear corner known as Sunset. All I can remember is the car turning right through ninety degrees before crashing head-first into the concrete inside wall of the corner. I just had time to switch off the ignition before the Lotus sports car spilt into two, with me a rather forlorn passenger in the front end of the chassis, whilst the engine and gearbox spun away in a different direction. I was able to climb out of the wreckage and then head for the medical centre in an ambulance. It looked a lot worse than it probably felt for me, being involved in the crash. I was later told that my team manager punched someone who got in his way as he ran straight through the Paddock to see if I was badly hurt, so spectacular was the accident!
Looking back, the shunt was a great shame, as we were in sight of a possible top ten finish. However, it is still very firmly entrenched in the memory bank!
I played no part in this, my final choice of memorable races. Nevertheless, it’s a really exciting memory and involved one of the most successful ever British GP drivers.
I was working for the Lola F1 Team in 1993 and due to the absence through illness of the company’s CEO, Mike Blanchet, I was asked to step in and fulfil some of his duties. This involved heading over to the USA, which was a huge commercial market for Lola. At that time, Huntingdon based Lola Cars was the world’s most successful race car manufacturer. In fact, in 1991, every race car but one on the grid of the Indy 500 was a Lola, built in the UK. The other one was a March, also built in the UK.
This visit to the United States presented me with the opportunity to watch my first of several races in America. You’ll recall that Nigel Mansell had won the World F1 Title with Williams the previous season and was now trying to apply his extraordinary speed, bravery and sheer physical strength to what was then known as CART Racing ( Indy Car as it is now better known). He drove for Newman Haas Racing, Lola’s USA Agent.
Amazingly, Nigel won the season’s opener at Surfers Paradise in Australia that year and finished a gutsy third in the Indy 500, but a huge shunt in practice at Phoenix saw him suffer a serious back injury. Nothing would stop Nigel however and I feel privileged to have been at the famous Milwaukee 1-mile oval on June 6th to watch him race to his first ever oval track victory. I know that some F1 fans call oval track racing boring, but to witness the sight of three cars abreast of each other hurtling into bends at speeds of around 140/160 mph was something I’ll never forget. To watch Nigel stand on the top step of the Podium, an old, but much faster, sparring partner of mine in Formula Ford, was fantastic. He won that and many other races that year on merit and as we know went on to secure back to back F1 and CART titles. This was a remarkable achievement for a driver whose talents were sadly underrated by too many people. I am so pleased to look back and say “Yes, I was there that day in Milwaukee when Nigel won his first ever oval track race.”
So these are my four most memorable races, each one for a very different reason. Hopefully, they will give you a taster of why I feel so passionately about the sport in which I’ve worked and am still doing so for over 40 years.