from driver to owner
“If I don’t drive any more, at least I can say I went out on a successful note,” commented John Fitzpatrick after announcing his new sponsorship deal with Skoal Bandit smokeless tobacco in London early in March. “I won the European Endurance race with Derek Warwick at Brands Hatch, a Can-Am race, an IMSA race, and a European Touring Car Championship trace with Jaguar, so you could say I am very happy with what I’ve done.”
At the age of 41 Fitz, as he is invariably referred to, looks back on a 21-year career which included a British Saloon Car Championship, two European Grand Touring Car Championships, an IMSA title and three prestigious Porsche Cups, the latter awarded to the most successful private driver on a worldwide basis. The first indication that he was considering retirement came at Kyalami in December when he elected to supervise the running of his two £160,000 Porsche 956s in the final round of the 1983 World Endurance Championship, though at the Skoal presentation he said he would not announce his retirement, “in case I decide to drive again!”
With two Porsche 956s in his Silverstone workshop, two more on order, and a 935 in an even larger San Diego, California organisation, Fitz is dealing in millions these days, whether you talk in dollars or pounds. And every so often the juggling act can go wrong, as the American operation did a few weeks ago. American backer J. David Dominelli, described recently as “the perfect sponsor”, experienced a run by investors on the funds he handled and is currently in low profile, which is another way of saying that his sponsorship has dried up. So Fitz’s plan to run a March for Stefan Johansson in the American CART series has come to a full stop, though the 935 will be entered in the IMSA series on a race-to-race basis when experienced drivers come along with the right sort of money.
In Europe, starting at Monza over Easter, Fitz will supervise the running of two 956s for David Hobbs and Tierry Boutsen, and Guy Edwards with Rupert Keegan. It was Edwards, the indefatigable sponsorship gatherer, who wooed Skoal to Le Mans last year and rewarded the American company with fifth place in Fitzpatrick’s second Porsche. This year the four drivers, with Frenchman Philippe Streiff joining the team from Le Mans onwards, will drive the two Skoal Bandit Porsches in green and white livery with the numbers 33 and 55 (Skoal’s racing numbers in CART racing), with additional sponsorship from Edwards’ longstanding sponsors Newsweek and Rizla.
David Hobbs has a career even longer than Fitzpatrick’s, last year being his 25th on the circuits. At the age of 45, and with two grown-up sons, Hobbs is the reigning American Trans-Am Champion, but his enthusiasm seems to be undiminished. “David has so much experience in all the racing situations that could possibly occur, but he is still very quick,” says Fitz of his team-mate. “At Mugello he set the fastest lap towards the end.”
At the time we talked the proposed new Group C regulations for 1985 were still far from clear, though it seemed certain that the cars would become heavier, and that the fuel consumption regulations would be scrapped. Fitz is firmly in favour of FISA and IMSA drawing closer together “but, as an owner, I am faced with heavy costs because FISA has sold out to IMSA.” It looks as though FISA will make the American regulation pedal box mandatory for World Championship racing, insisting that the driver’s feet must be behind the axle line. “So we will need new chassis at £26,000 at time, new bodywork of course, new doors, everything… and that’s before we change the engines. It means that the 956s will become museum pieces, and we’ll have to start again with new cars.
“But it doesn’t matter if the cars weigh 10 tons and are powered by half-litre engines, Porsche will still win because they’re the only ones prepared to spend the money and do the development work.”
Fitzpatrick won the IMSA Championship in 1982 then departed the American scene temporarily, with some critical remarks which he stands by today. When new regulations are drawn up, he says, a choice has to be made between IMSA, “an amateur form of racing devised for rich guys with local sponsors,” or World Endurance Championship rules “which are for the professional teams, such as I run. We have better sponsors, international companies, and reliability is better too.”
There was still an eleventh-hour hope that FISA would relent on the pedal box rule, at least for cars already constructed since, after all, it is the drivers who run any risk of injury and not the organisers. Fitzpatrick suffered a heavy crash at Fuji last October without any personal injury, his 102 chassis flying off the road due to a tyre failure and hitting the wall at close to 180 mph. Although the monocoque was badly damaged the driver’s feet were untouched, and a couple of months later Hobbs had a head-on accident with the Joest Porsche, leaving the road during a rainstorm, and again the monocoque stood up well to the impact. “While bringing the regulations closer together, it would make more sense to have an IMSA class at Le Mans and a Group C class at Daytona, saving us all a lot of expense,” says Fitzpatrick.
Without fuel restrictions the turbocharged cars are clearly going to gain an advantage, despite the weight penalties which are going to be imposed. Fitz foresees the era of 750 bhp from sophisticated 2.5-litre racing engines, such as a destroked 956 with four valves per cylinder and Motronic engine management, and this may well deter the likes of Jaguar and Aston Martin from nursing any ideas of reaching the top in endurance racing.
We learned that Goodyear have decided not to support the World Endurance Championship this year, so Fitzpatrick, Kremer and other teams will be looking to the alternative suppliers, probably Dunlop, though the Fitzpatrick team will be testing Yokohama rubber, “and other makes” in the coming weeks. Goodyear’s rain tyres, of course, took Alan Jones to the lead in the Silverstone 1,000 kms last May, and helped Warwick to lap the field at Brands Hatch in September. “There was nothing magic about those tyres, they were just the softest compound that Goodyear offer with hand-cut groves for the rain,” says Fitz.
Plans for the Fitzpatrick Skoal Bandit team, probably the most ambitious of any privateers this year, include running a third car for Corrado Fabi and Renzo Zorzi at Monza, and for Australians Peter Brock and Larry Perkins at Le Mans. So how sure is Fitzpatrick that he won’t be tempted into the driving seat? “I definitely won’t drive a 956 this year. After all, I am employing professional drivers to do the job for me, and it would not be fair for me to do the testing and say, ‘that’s it, the car is ok, go out and drive it’. After a few months I think it would be difficult for me to be on the pace… the incentive wouldn’t be there… it’s just as nice to see your car at the front as it is to do the driving.”
Retired or no, it looks as though John Fitzpatrick has now given up being a serious racing driver, one of the most successful Britain has produced. The “old school” which produced John Surtees, Brian Redman, Derek Bell, David Hobbs and John Fitzpatrick seems to be waning at the moment, though Derek Warwick and Jonathan Palmer could be leading exponents in years to come, if their Formula One programmes allowed.
Eleven World Championship victories and 18 class wins, all but two of them in Porsches, is John Fitzpatrick’s fine record in the past 12 seasons. He never raced a single-seater but was regarded as one of the finest exponents of endurance racing, and in particular the master of the rear-engined Porsche 911. Though he is now an American citizen, Fitz’s future seems firmly set on World Championship racing, his goal being to form the best private team – and to win at Le Mans, a prize that escaped him during his driving career. – M.L.C.