– Montoya and Michelin deserved more in F1
– Daytona: from the 24 Hours to the 500
– Why ‘Quick Vic’ loved the Porsche 917
You know,” mused Vic Elford, “for years I worked for Skip Barber, doing tuition at his race drivers’ school at Sears Point – it’s got some other, vulgar name now [Infineon], but back then it was Sears Point. Anyway, one day this gentleman from South America turned up with his tiny little kid. He couldn’t speak any English, and although I’m fluent in French I only have a few words of Spanish, but still we managed to communicate OK. The man’s name was Pablo Montoya, and after three days of working with his kid I said to him, ‘Look after your boy, and if you do everything right he just could be World Champion’. And I still think he should have been…”
I wouldn’t argue with that, and to this day I think him a great loss to Formula 1. Juan Pablo’s natural ability is from the top drawer, and if his… mercurial personality perhaps worked against him in the world of modern F1, there was no doubt that, following the retirement of Mika Häkkinen at the end of 2001, he was one of very few to seriously worry Michael Schumacher.
Another such was Kimi Räikkönen, and after the Hungarian Grand Prix of 2003 the World Championship standings read thus: Schumacher 72 points, Montoya 71, Räikkönen 70. With three races to go, the prospects for the World Championship were indeed enticing.
Or so it seemed. But events that day in Budapest were to have a seminal effect on the season, and not in any way that might have been predicted. Räikkönen and Montoya finished second and third in the race, but they were beaten not by Schumacher, but by Fernando Alonso, who took his first Grand Prix victory. Michael, somewhat shockingly, had finished eighth.
In 2003 both Williams-BMW and McLaren-Mercedes significantly raised their games, whereas Ferrari did not, and a major factor in the turnaround was tyres: in ’02 much of Ferrari’s absurd superiority (which allowed Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello to win 15 of 17 races) stemmed from the fact that Bridgestone had its act together, and Michelin did not.
In ’03, though, the opposite was true. Where the year before Williams and McLaren suffered on the tyre front, now Ferrari felt the same pain. Such is the way of it in motor racing, is it not?
Maybe yes, maybe no. Almost as soon as the chequered flag fell in Budapest there began serious ‘briefing’ about the legality of Michelin’s front tyres, and it was greeted with considerable cynicism. The design, after all, had been introduced in 2001, yet it began to give serious offence only after the debacle in Hungary, where Schumacher, whisper it, was lapped.
Prior to the next Grand Prix, at Monza, the FIA abruptly notified all the teams that, as of now, it was going to change the way in which tyres were measured – in the sense that henceforth it would be done after the race, as well as before. Many argued, with some justification, that this amounted to a mid-season rule change, and such things, as we know, are not allowed. Max Mosley thought that a horrid thing to say.
The contention of Ferrari, clearly supported by the FIA, was that in the course of a race Michelin’s front tyre ‘spread’ to a width greater than that permitted by the rules. If such were the case, Michelin and its teams wondered, why only now – two and a half years after the tyre’s introduction – had it become a problem? And there were those who unworthily speculated that it was an attempt to destabilise McLaren and Williams, then on a roll, and threatening to keep Schumacher from winning his umpteenth World Championship.
Patrick Head was particularly incensed by the course of events, making clear what he thought at a Monza press conference. By the end of the year, when I went to the Williams factory to interview him, he was still far from appeased.
“I thought I was very restrained at Monza, actually – certainly compared with the way I felt! I just wasn’t prepared to stomach… I know Ross [Brawn] quite well – he used to work here in the past, after all – and every now and then he is quite good at putting on a holier-than-thou act, and saying that Ferrari would never do anything that might be… I mean, we know the record over a number of years, don’t we? And some of it sticks in my craw, frankly, and I’m not prepared to stay quiet when that happens.
“If the intention of all that carry-on about Michelin’s front tyres was to destabilise our, and McLaren’s, preparations for the Italian Grand Prix, I’d have to say it worked – and to quite some degree. We had a very difficult Monza test beforehand, some of which was self-inflicted – Ralf [Schumacher] had a big accident on the first day, caused by a bond failure in a composite suspension component at the back of the car.
“That apart, rather than concentrating on set-up for the race, which ordinarily we would have done, we had to spend most of our time experimenting with different cambers, different toes at the front, measuring the width of the witnessed wear on the front tyre, and so on. So a great deal of our focus was on verifying that we could actually run the tyre.
“Michelin did a very rapid modification – but that was not to comply with the regulations: there was all this talk about a wide tyre, but the actual geometry of the tyre was exactly as we’d run from Imola 2001 on.
“It was basically a change of interpretation – the Michelins protested by Ferrari had all been presented to the FIA beforehand, and the rule said that the tyres would be measured when new, adding that the width of the tread should be no more than 270mm, which Michelin had quite reasonably assumed meant ‘when new’ – I don’t believe there’d been any thought of, ‘OK, it’ll be like that when new, but we’ll make it wider when it’s worn’. It had just come about because of the design of their tyres, and because sometimes, when you go over kerbs and things, it scuffs the side of the tyre. But it amounted to a rule change when the FIA suddenly said, ‘We’re going to measure the tyres when they’re worn, as opposed to when they’re new’. They had not done that before!
“I’m not using this as an excuse for our not winning the World Championship, but for Michelin it was certainly a new thing, and it did definitely cause an upset. Had we not put so much of our time into that, I suspect we would have been able to get more performance from the car at Monza.”
The result of the Italian Grand Prix? First, Schumacher; second, Montoya.
The Michelin controversy was merely one of a number of highly questionable happenings in that era of F1, many of them calculated to shore up the widespread belief in the paddock that ‘FIA’ stood not only for Federation Internationale de l’Automobile but also for ‘Ferrari’s Invisible Ally’.
Whatever, there is little doubt that, in the course of six years in F1 (2001-06), Michelin – in my experience an unusually honourable company – was often treated shamefully by the powers-that-be: remember, for example, the absolute lack of sympathy and flexibility from the governing body when, for once, Michelin got it wrong at Indianapolis in 2005, and all its teams were obliged to withdraw from the race.
When it was decided that, from 2007 on, there should be but one tyre supplier in F1, the company did not so much as tender for the contract, and I don’t believe it was ever intended – by others – that it should. Michelin left F1 in sorrow, but also understandably bitter about the slings and arrows that had come its way. Now, as Bridgestone, too, prepares to take its leave (at the end of the coming season), the sport’s most pressing priority is to find a replacement tyre supplier. I could be wrong, but I somewhat doubt that Michelin will offer a sympathetic ear. As Martin Brundle recently said, “Apart from being appalling in itself, it really wasn’t the smartest thing to humiliate Michelin like that, was it?” What goes around, as they say.
As for Montoya, he remembers the tyre scandal with a shrug. All in the past, all part of a world he left behind, and does not miss. “It’s the racing I love so much here [in the US],” he said. “In F1 you can have a bad car, but as long as you get off the corner all right, they’re not going to pass you, because there’s only one line. In NASCAR, though, you’re on the banking, and you protect the bottom – and they go around you on the outside; you go up high – and they go to the bottom… That makes it satisfying for a driver, because the racing is not defensive – at all.”
Curious now to think of that 2005/06 McLaren superstar team of Räikkönen and Montoya: both compete still, but in branches of the sport very different from F1. And just as his friends suspect that Kimi will be much more content in the world of rallying, so there is no doubt that Juan Pablo feels at home in a NASCAR garage area in a way that he rarely did in an F1 paddock.
At Daytona I asked him what he thought of Schumacher’s return. Again a shrug. “Mmm, I know at first he had a problem getting time in the car, with the testing ban and all that, but I assume he spent hours in the simulator before he ever went near the car – I’m sure he’ll be fine.
“Mind you, in a situation like that, whether you like it or not, you’re rusty. He’s been away for three years, and the cars have changed. Yes, he’s a great driver, and he won’t have any problem doing the times, but racing is a different thing, and… I’m not saying it will, but it might take a couple of races before he’s really back into it. After all, he’ll be competing against a lot of guys new to him.
“Whatever else, this shows he shouldn’t have quit when he did. I think people around him put pressure on him to leave when he was on top, but I never thought he was ready to retire. I’m sure he’ll run well and be competitive.”
During his years in F1, Montoya’s distaste for Schumacher’s intimidatory ways was well known: “It is possible to be hard and fair, you know…” During Michael’s absence, though, the behaviour of the race stewards has emphatically hardened, to a point that now the tiniest misdemeanour will land you a drive-through penalty or whatever. Juan Pablo laughed. “Yeah, but… with him it’s different, isn’t it? It always was, and I’d be surprised if it changed…
“You know what?” he said. “I raced against Schumacher for six years – and I never talked to the guy once. Not once!”
I ran into Montoya in the course of a trip to Daytona for the Rolex 24, which is becoming an annual pilgrimage for me, and one that I much enjoy. The amphitheatre atmosphere of the track stirred me the first time I went there, for the 500 in 1972, and it had the same effect this time, the only discordant note being a large sign in lights which read ‘What Can Brown Do For You?’ I thought I was seeing things, but it proved on closer inspection to be an ad for UPS, whose trademark colour is brown. I venture the thought that the company would be wise to pass up using this slogan in Britain, where we are only too aware of what Brown can do for – and to – us.
“A lovely event, Daytona,” said Martin Brundle, who won the race back in 1988, sharing a Walkinshaw Jaguar XJR9 with Raul Boesel, John Nielsen and Jan Lammers. “Without any doubt, it’s the toughest race in the world – much tougher than Le Mans. For one thing, there’s nowhere in the lap where you can relax a bit, as you can on Mulsanne; for another, you’re constantly in traffic, threading your way through; and for another yet, it’s run in January, not June, so a huge proportion of the race is in the dark. I loved it, I must say…”
Scott Pruett, another previous winner and a team-mate of Montoya at Chip Ganassi Racing, went along with that: “Le Mans to me is like driving through the countryside – I mean, yes, you haul ass, but it’s eight miles long and it’s got a flow, and it’s in the summer, so it’s only dark for a few hours. Here the track’s three and a half miles long, and you’re passing slower guys continuously – I think the drivers at Le Mans are perhaps a little bit more refined and experienced.”
Nowadays it’s the Grand-Am cars, the ‘Daytona Prototypes’, that dominate proceedings in the Rolex 24, and if you would struggle to call the boxy cars beautiful, there’s no doubt that they race well. With more than 500bhp and not much downforce they also move around quite a bit, which makes them entertaining both to drive and to watch.
As well as that, the Grand-Am cars are remarkably bullet-proof. Through the last few hours of the 2009 race four of them remained in close contention for the win, but ultimately it came down to a two-hander between Montoya, in Ganassi’s Lexus-powered Riley, and the faster Porsche-powered car of David Donohue, which ultimately triumphed – by less than half a second – in the closest 24-hour race of all time.
It was no more than inevitable that this year’s event would fail to match it, but still it had much to commend it, not least the sight of cars twitching round the banking in the rain.
Montoya’s car – BMW-powered now – retired around midnight and although, as we know, he likes to win in anything he drives, he may not have been too disappointed on this occasion. “I’m not a big fan of endurance racing,” he said, “but when you drive for Chip, you know you’re doing this race. It’s not in the contract, it’s not mandatory – but it’s understood! Of course doing NASCAR we don’t have enough to do – only 38 races a year…
“Actually, I do think this race is fun. The first time I drove a Grand-Am car they wouldn’t brake, they wouldn’t turn, they wouldn’t do anything, but now they’re quite nice to drive. They don’t have a ton of grip, so they step out real easy – you can really change how the car behaves by how you drive, and that gives you entertainment. The harder you drive, the faster it goes, and you can’t say that about a lot of cars – in some you get to a point where the harder you drive the more you harm the car, and you don’t go any faster.”
Former F1 driver Max Papis, also in a Ganassi car, told me that when he first started practice for the Rolex he came close to what would have been an embarrassing accident. “I went out there yesterday,” he said, “and gave it a good tug on the wheel – like you have to do in NASCAR – and almost crashed in a straight line!”
Papis ran a limited Sprint Cup schedule last year, and admitted – as do all those new to the discipline – that he found NASCAR totally different from anything he had experienced before.
“I think,” he said, “that if you put Sébastien Loeb in a Cup car, he would do better than 90 per cent of the F1 drivers, because NASCAR is not about ‘the line’ – it’s about feel and car control and searching for grip. The rally guys are used to improvising, and last year I had to go back 15 years – if the thing goes sideways, OK, react to it! There is no ‘line’, as such – the line is where your car works. You’re driving a 900 horsepower car on very narrow tyres, and the grip level changes so dramatically as the tyres go off – it’s all a matter of trying to find a way to maximise what you’ve got, and that’s why I really feel that a top rally driver would do better in stock cars because he’d have no preconceptions – he’d be used to improvising. When I got into a stock car, nothing I’d learned before was of any use to me.”
Sadly I wasn’t able to stay in Florida long enough to see this year’s Daytona 500, but I watched the TV broadcast, and it was abundantly clear that rule changes introduced this year, both technical and otherwise, had worked.
Unlike F1, NASCAR has always regarded rule changes as a constant work in progress, tweaking regulations as it goes along, sometimes in the interests of safety, usually with the quality of ‘The Show’ in mind.
Since the formation of FOTA, F1 has begun to take note of its fans and their wishes, and not a moment too soon. NASCAR, though, has always had this awareness, and increasingly over the last few years has come to accept that the product needed an overhaul, that the quality of the racing – traditionally its strongest selling point – was not what it used to be.
“It all changed,” Richard Petty told me a year or two ago, “in 1987 when Bobby Allison crashed at Talladega. He got up in the wall and into the debris fence. It didn’t hurt nobody, fortunately, but I guess it scared the insurance guys, and NASCAR went to Panic City, saying, ‘Man, what if that thing had got into the crowd…’ They strengthened all the debris fences, and they slowed the cars down by introducing the carburettor ‘restrictor plate’ for races at Daytona and Talladega.
“I guess they had to do something, but the plate had a bad effect on the racing. Nowadays you want to be in the lead on the last lap – because there ain’t nobody going to pass you. Back then, though, being in front was the last place you wanted to be, because for sure someone was going to draft you. I liked it a whole lot better like that – and I guess the fans did, too.
“See, these days NASCAR’s in show business – not racing, OK? The old race fans don’t like it, but the new ones don’t know anything better – they never saw it the way it was. I guess it’s very similar in Formula 1, from everything I hear…”
Occasionally, though, there remained moments to remind one of the old days of NASCAR, to the time when Petty and Allison and David Pearson were the dominant figures, when retribution was accepted as intrinsic to the sport – indeed, a new book about that era is entitled He Crashed Me, So I Crashed Him Back…
At Homestead, the final race of 2009, there was just such a happening. Coming off the banking, Montoya had a run on Tony Stewart, and when Stewart chopped across to block him, the two made light contact. A lap later Stewart, plainly peeved, swerved into Montoya, bursting one of his tyres and sending him into the wall. JPM struggled back to the garage area, and lost many laps while his car was repaired. Then he returned to the race – and returned the favour, spinning Stewart into the inside wall.
“You had to do that, didn’t you?” I said to Juan Pablo, who burst out laughing. “Yes,” he said, “I did – I had to do it. You know, NASCAR penalised me, and I said to them, ‘Why are you doing that – when you didn’t penalise him?’ They said, ‘Well, what he did was in the heat of the moment, but what you did was premeditated’. I said, ‘No, it wasn’t! When he hit me, I wanted to hit him back right away, but I couldn’t – I had to wait until my car was fixed!’ I said, ‘Believe me, the moment he hit me I wanted to do the same to him – I just didn’t have the car to do it…’
“It was funny, actually. Tony loses it sometimes, and he got mad when I nudged him, but I’d had a ton of momentum on him – most people give you room, but he came over right in front of me. When I passed him, I could see him making signs at me, so I wasn’t really surprised when he tried to take me out…
“Actually, we get on pretty well – in fact, he came to me a while later and said, ‘I want to apologise’. And the story from his side was funny, too. When I went back into the race I was looking for him, and he said he knew what was coming – he said he came off the corner, looking at me and saying, ‘Come on, get it over with!’
“I try to drive as clean as I can, because here you have to – there’s a lot of give-and-take and you’ve got to respect that, and the more you do it the easier it is for you. But if something like that happens, people have got to understand that you are going to retaliate. And the thing is, the fans loved it! They want more of that – of course you don’t want to see anybody hurt, but at the same time don’t cry about everything. It’s a contact sport, NASCAR.”
True enough, so it has always been, but still there was a belief among the fans that it was coming to be affected by the ‘Nanny State’ mentality so prevalent in today’s world, and they didn’t like it. A move to ban ‘bump drafting’ at Talladega last autumn resulted in a race soporific by superspeedway standards, and over the winter significant changes were made. For one thing, bump drafting was declared kosher once again; for another, a larger restrictor plate was introduced, giving back to the drivers some of the power and, more to the point, acceleration that had been lost.
As a result, this year’s Daytona 500, even though twice interrupted by track repairs, was the most entertaining for a long time, and the fans must have been gratified that their complaints had been heard, and acted upon. One hopes now for a similar response from the powers-that-be in Formula 1. I’ll concede, though, that bump drafting might be a step too far.
There is a custom at Daytona for a former driver to be named as Honorary Grand Marshal for the Rolex 24, and this year it was Vic Elford, who won the race for Porsche back in 1968. What made it truly remarkable was that, only 10 days before, he had taken a factory 911 to victory in the Monte Carlo Rally. Nothing if not versatile, ‘Quick Vic’, as he was always known.
Elford, like Brian Redman and Derek Bell, has long been resident in Florida, and at the pre-race dinner he was greatly entertaining as he recalled incidents in his racing life. “After I’d won the Monte Carlo Rally,” he said, “I came straight to Daytona for the 24 Hours, run the next weekend.
“I wasn’t even sure where Daytona was! I was excited to win the rally, got on a plane to New York, caught a flight to Daytona, and arrived late in the evening. Back in ’68 the airport amounted to a little shed, and outside was a plank thing where they threw your bags. Here was this enormous man who’d come to meet me, and he introduced himself: ‘I’m Bill France…’
“I’d never been anywhere like this before. I’m a warm-blooded person – anything under 75 degrees is cold to me – and here I was, at 11 o’clock at night, and it was warm, with the smell of orange blossom in the air. I thought, ‘One day I’m going to live in Florida’. It didn’t happen immediately, but I’ve been here for 20 years now.”
It struck me that when the British drivers of that era are discussed, Elford’s name rarely comes up, and I can’t really offer any explanation for that; apart from anything else, I always considered him the bravest of the brave, not least because of his exploits in Porsche’s iconic 917.
Anyone who ever drove the original 1969 car has lurid tales to tell, Redman for one admitting that it gave him sleepless nights, but Elford, perhaps uniquely, adored the 917 from the start.
“I first saw the car at the Geneva Motor Show in the spring of ’69 – and I fell in love with it. It looked beautiful, powerful, sexy – everything you could want in a car. It was still experimental at that stage, of course.
“The truth is that the 917 – and the Ferrari 512S – came into existence purely by accident. The FIA had decided that sports cars were getting too fast, and they were going to get rid of the huge engines companies like Ford had been using, and impose a 3-litre limit for ’69. Then they thought about it: there were a lot of cars – GT40s and so on – around that had bigger engines than that, and they didn’t want to make them obsolete overnight, so they decided to create a new class which would allow engines of up to five litres – but to qualify for that, you had to build 50 cars in a year. Ferrari and Porsche said, ‘Fifty cars is too much – can we cut it back a bit?’ The FIA said, ‘OK, let’s make it 25’, whereupon Ferrari and Porsche immediately rushed off to build them – and out of a quest for safety these monsters were born!
“At Le Mans in ’69 Porsche wanted to enter just one 917, for Rolf Stommelen, but in fact the only guy who really wanted to drive one was me. Porsche said, ‘No, no Vic, you drive the 3-litre – the 908’. I kept on at them and finally they said, ‘All right, you can have a 917 – but it’s only going to last for six hours, and then it’ll break!’ I got Richard Attwood to co-drive with me, and we decided right from the word go that we were not going to race – we were just going to drive very quietly, very steadily, and see how far we got. True enough, the car did eventually break – but only after 21 hours, when we were leading by 15 miles!”
The late Frank Gardner, who – with David Piper – gave the 917 its race debut at the Nürburgring 1000Kms that year, had lurid memories of the experience: “It was simply indescribable, the motor car – about as agile as a leper in a swamp. It never did the same thing twice. Just when you thought you had it worked out, it’d pull another trick…” And Redman – hardly a scaredy-cat – maintains that the original 917 was the most frightening car he ever drove.
“Very early on,” said Brian, “I got a call from Porsche to come and test it, and I thought, ‘Hmm, they’ve got 10 drivers in the team – why do they want me?’ So I said I had some important business to attend to, and I’d call them back in an hour. I rang Siffert: ‘Seppi, have you tested the 917 yet?’ ‘No, no Brian – not me. We let the others find out what breaks first!’
“The car was very fast – but in accidents several of them broke in half, you know. It happened with David Piper’s car during the filming of Le Mans, and with Kurt Ahrens’s car when he crashed one at the VW test track – he went under the Armco, and went down the track strapped in the back half, leaving his shoes in the front half…
“Then, on the first lap of Le Mans in ’69, John Wolfe, a private owner, crashed his car at White House. We’d all tried to persuade him not to race the car. Digby Martland, his intended co-driver, drove it in practice and spun in a straight line, going over the brow at the end of Mulsanne. He didn’t hit anything, but drove it back to the pits, got out and said to Wolfe, ‘John, I’ve now retired from racing’. They put Herbert Linge in as co-driver and we all said to John, ‘Let Herbert start the race’. Not a chance: ‘I’ve bought this car, I’m starting the race…’, and of course he was killed on the first lap. I drove one in practice that year, and it was all over the road; on Mulsanne you were constantly having to correct the steering.”
Elford conceded that he, too, felt anything but comfortable in the 917 that first year: “I don’t think anyone did, although after that, when the aerodynamics were sorted out, we all loved it.
“These days the Mulsanne Straight is disrupted by Mickey Mouse chicanes, but back then it was a straight line for real high-speed cars – except for the little right-hand kink, which you don’t even notice in a road car. In a 917, though, you did notice it!
“Until the 917 arrived, probably none of us had ever been over 200mph, but suddenly this monster was doing more than 220, and it was very, very unstable. In the original 917, as you approached the kink, you couldn’t just snap off the gas pedal – if you did, the rear of the car would come off the ground and start steering the front. Not very nice. What you had to do was ease very gently off the throttle, then gently back on, and probably go through the kink at about 180mph.
“By the following year, though, Ferdinand Piech – in my opinion, probably the greatest automotive engineer of all time – had taken over the 917 project, and it was a different car. In long-tail spec, the engineers calculated that it should do 250mph on Mulsanne, but it would get up to 243 and then run up against a brick wall – you’d sit there for 20 seconds, at 243, wondering why it wouldn’t go any faster. Believe me, 20 seconds at that speed is a long, long way, with guardrails on both sides, and then a lot of trees…
“In fact, it wouldn’t reach 250 because the engineers, when they did their calculations, forgot to allow for the tyres’ growth at very high speeds, which increased the frontal area and affected the top speed.
“Even so, every lap you’d arrive at the kink at over 240mph, and OK, it took a few laps before I was brave enough to do it, but finally I was able to take it flat – even at night. And when I first did it, I came out the other side and my first thought was, ‘Shit, that was easy!’ Quite seriously, it was much easier to do it flat than to lift off…”
Probably Elford’s most fabled win came in the 1968 Targa Florio, a race he adored, and for which, given his rally background, he was perhaps uniquely suited. On the first of 10 laps of the 45-mile circuit, he was halted by a loose wheel, but spectators came down from the mountains and lifted the car, allowing Vic to tighten it up.
“I set off again – and then went off the road because the wheel came off again! This time the tyre was punctured, but again the spectators came to help, which allowed me to change the wheel. Finally I got back to the pits and they changed all four wheels, and I began the second lap of this 10-lap race – 18 minutes behind the leader. I thought, ‘Well, that’s it – I’m not going to win the race, but I’m sure as hell going to have the lap record’. And I did – every lap! And that’s how we won the race…”
Elford, as I said, was a man who raced in every conceivable category, from F1 to NASCAR, and all points between. On display near the Bill France Room (in which the dinner was held) were a Martini Racing 917 and the Chaparral 2J ‘sucker car’ which Vic drove in the 1970 Can-Am series.
“At the end of the Watkins Glen sports car weekend, I went back to my room at the Glen Motor Inn, and Jim Hall called me to say he’d like a chat. I’d met him a couple of times, but didn’t really know him. We had a meeting and he said, ‘Have you seen the Chaparral this weekend?’ I said, ‘Yes, sure, I’ve seen it’, and he said, ‘Well, how would you like to drive it?’ I said, ‘Come on, Jim, you’ve got to be joking – you’ve had Jackie Stewart driving it this weekend’. He said, ‘Yes, but that was a special General Motors PR deal with Jackie for the introduction of the car – now we want someone to race it for the rest of the year. Do you want the job?’ I said yes, of course I did.
“I went down to Texas, to Rattlesnake Raceway, and tested it a couple of times, and then my first race was at Road Atlanta, where in qualifying I beat the works McLarens, which were usually dominant in Can-Am – and by a couple of seconds.
“The big problem was that we only had a three-speed gearbox in the 2J, whereas the McLarens and Lolas had four-speed ’boxes, so at the start of the race – any race – they would blow me away. But the 2J’s huge advantage was that it had constant downforce, from the under-car suction, and it worked at any speed.
“The car had a torque converter transmission, which meant that I still had to change gear manually, but without a clutch. That meant being very careful about getting the revs right, for gear changes both up and down.
“The procedure for starting the car up was that I’d put my left foot on the brake and my right on the throttle pedal. I would hold the car on the brake, then start up the little two-stroke snowmobile engine, which would buzz up to about 6000rpm, at which point the car would sink, by about two inches, as it sucked itself down on to the road. Then I’d put it into first gear, still holding it on the brake, start up the big engine, which worked with the torque converter transmission, and then all I had to do was take my foot off the brake and the car would drive away.
“That constant downforce was the big plus. The McLarens and Lolas had been designed along conventional lines, which meant the faster they went the more aerodynamic downforce they had – but the Chaparral had constant downforce, thanks to the suction provided by the little engine, so in slow and medium-speed corners it was in a different class from anything else. If only it had been more reliable…”