German Group 5 saloon car race, Nurburgring, 1976
The most frightening part of beating his hero Ronnie Peterson in an identical car around the old Nurburgring was the subsequent trip with him to the airport.
I’ve had a funny career. I started like gangbusters, and always came very close but never got all I wanted. So to form my own team, do it right, and win the Indy 500 last year was very gratifying. Twenty five years of nightmares gone in three and half hours.
People criticise the Indy Racing League, but we have a lot of young drivers who’ve done all their training on dirt tracks in Kansas and Texas, and believe you me, they know how to get around an oval. Oval racing is a lot about courage and strategy – it’s totally different from what I was trained for. I don’t remember the last time I turned right at a race track. Well, I have turned right, but shortly thereafter I was in a hospital…
I had an amazing time in Formula One, but I’m disappointed I didn’t spend more time enjoying it than I did. Your only thought is, “I have to get in a better car, I have to get in a better car.” It’s all technology driven. I still think you can take an average F1 driver, put him in the best car, and he’ll win the Championship. You could take an exceptional driver and put him in an average car and he’ll be an average racing driver. I always found that extremely frustrating.
I had a lot of seconds and thirds, but they’re nothing. In the scheme of things, you’re branded as someone who didn’t win races. That year I was with Renault, 1983, I could have won four races. My engines, and those used by Elio de Angelis and Nigel Mansell at Lotus, were built by a group of people. Alain Prost’s were built by two people. I had cables come off, distributor belts come off, electrical problems because somebody hadn’t tightened something…
All it takes is one win, and you look at life in a totally different manner. I can say that from experience now, because after winning Indy, every time I sit in a racing car, I’m annoyed if we don’t win. You will dig deeper. It does make a difference.
But I don’t want to talk much about Indy, as I have another race in mind as my greatest. But first, let me put it into context. When I started racing in go-karts, my hero was Ronnie Peterson, the only kart racer who’d been successful in F1. The track I raced at in Rome, the Pista d’Oro, was the track he competed at in the World Championship. So I spent my youth dreaming about being Ronnie. Elio and I used to race all the time. and he’d be Jochen Rindt. By 1976 I was racing for Ron Dennis in Formula Two, aged 18. Not long after I was testing for Ferrari. Life was a joy, because everything was happening so fast. In retrospect it was too much; I should have spent more time in F3 than I did, but I won quickly, and wanted more than I could have, and my father wanted more.
With Ron there was a lot of juggling to turn up to races, but not matter how little money we had, his cars were always the best looking. He was very fussy about making sure things looked right. I learned how to be a racing driver with Ron.
To help us get BMW engines for ’77 I had to race in the German G5 Championship. Jochen Neerpasch set up a junior team, which was myself, Marc Surer and Manfred Winkelhock. BMW was very serious, we all had to go together to St Moritz and train. Then they’d give us these 320s and we’d all go to the Nurburgring for a week and just destroy them, driving around and around. By the time we got to the Nurburgring race, I’d probably done 500 laps.
For that weekend BMW brought in Peterson and Hans Stuck, and they were the senior team. I had never met Ronnie before. He was everything I imagined him to be. He had a beautiful woman and every engineer was hovering around him. As Americans would say, he was a cool guy. So I had a chance to race my hero, and I think most of the racing etiquette I had – I didn’t have much at that age anyway – went out the window. My only interest was to beat Ronnie Peterson. It’s all I cared about.
The 320 race car was great. It had the F2 engine and a lot of downforce, and they were all very equal. On the straights we would be four abreast. Us junior team guys didn’t know what we were doing. Ronnie got stuck in the middle once, and he got hit on both sides. It was great to be around Stuck and Ronnie, but I used every door, every fender, and really tried to give Ronnie a hard time.
There were two races, and after the first one Ronnie came up to me, put his finger in my chest, and said “If you do that again to me, you’re going to be landing in the top of one of those trees.”
Anyway, in the second one he had an accident with Stuck, and his car was in bad shape. On the long straight I was towing behind him and pulled out to pass. I turned and looked at him, as if to say who’s going to lift off now, and he rammed into my door. He wasn’t pleased that I’d been bumping him. I managed to get in front of him at the last chicane, and he hit the back of my car so hard I must have gone 30 yards in front, and almost spun. But I made the chicane, and just finished ahead of him.
Neerpasch found a lot of humour in the fact I had to go back to the airport with Ronnie! I’ve never been so frightened. We hit almost every car, and I don’t think there was one corner that we didn’t go around sideways. Afterwards I got to know him really well. To race on the old Nurburgring was fantastic, and I’m sorry for the drivers of this generation who don’t have that opportunity. When you took off on the big circuit, it was an experience every time, especially to be able to race with somebody like Peterson and watch him go around there, watch the flair that he drove with. It was different days. Racing drivers were pirates then; today racing drivers are corporate monkeys.