The worst car I ever drove
In the days before Patrick Head, Frank Williams ran a very different team from the standard – Setter we know now, as Henri Pescarolo found out to his cost in 1972. Adam Cooper reports
This year Henri Pescarolo did not take part in the Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time since 1969, when injuries sustained in a testing crash kept him away. Instead the bearded Frenchman pursued a new role as a team boss, as part of his arrangement with Elf’s La Filiere programme to support young drivers. Henri says he might drive again in 2001, but even if he doesn’t, his record of 33 Le Mans starts is unlikely ever to be beaten. What’s more, he never really had duff machinery at the Sarthe.
“The Rondeau M482 was supposed to be the first car with fantastic downforce,” he recalls, “but in fact it was slower everywhere than the M382 of the year before; naturally, we were very disappointed. The car was quite nice to drive, but it was slower than the conventional car. But apart from that, all the other sportscars were either fantastic, like the Matras, or at least very good. I never had a really bad car to drive in my career — except the Politoys.”
The Politoys was the first ever Williams Formula One car. And even Sir Frank would probably admit it was also the worst Pescarolo is so closely associated with Le Mans that his single-seater achievements are often overlooked. With Matra in F3 and F2 he was one of the very best of the era, and his F1 career got off to a good start in 1970 when he bagged third place at Monaco. But the French team dropped him at the end of that year and he never really got back on course.
His first step, in 1971, was with Frank Williams. Shattered by the loss of Piers Courage the year before, and having split with de Tomaso, Frank was forced to regroup and prepare and fun a customer March 711. “I was very happy to be with him, because he was a nice guy and I knew him from F3 days. It was a team which I was pleased to go to. Of course I was not very pleased to be pushed out of Matra. For my second year in F1 with Matra, I was ready in my mind to win, as I did in F3 and F2, so I was very disappointed. But after that I was pleased to go with Frank. He had no money, but the March was an interesting car to drive. It was not too bad, and there was no problem in the first year.
“Frank was a genius at trying to find money. He was always finding new sponsors, and was really fighting very, very hard to create a good team. What was fantastic with him was that, even with no money, the team was still looking very good, and his cars were always very well prepared. He was a fantastic guy, though he was already against all the `Froggies’!” In 1971 Henri finished fourth at Silverstone and sixth in Austria, and qualified a respectable 10th at both the Nurburgring and Monza. This solid performance allowed Frank to push ahead with more ambitious plans for 1972. As FOCA grew stronger, it became clear that the team would earn more if it built its own cars rather than continued to run customer machinery. He hired Len Bailey, closely associated with Ford’s sportscar activities, as designer, while construction of the chassis was entrusted to Maurice Gomm. Frank landed a £40,000 deal with Italian toy manufacturer Politoys, and agreed to put their name on his new car. Frank’s next job was to persuade `Pesca’ to stay on.
“I had a good offer from Ron Tauranac to drive for Brabham, but Frank was sure that, with this new designer and brand new car, it should be a lot better than with the March, and a lot better than joining the Brabham team. He was so insistent that in the end I re-signed for him. And that was the biggest mistake I made.” Unfortunately, the Politoys endured a long gestation period, and Pescarolo had to start the season in a well-used March 711, uprated to 721 spec. The early races brought mediocre results, and then the car was written off at Clermont-Ferrand.
“I was catching Nanni Galli and at the top of the circuit there was a very fast ess, flat out in fourth or fifth gear. He went off into the dust just as I arrived, so there was no visibility at all, and! hit the guardrail.”
By now, the Politoys was nearly ready, and there was a rush to get it out for the British GP at Brands Hatch. It looked smart, and the ‘Coke bottle’ tub was reminiscent of the McLaren and Tyrrell. Ironically, Tauranac was now working with Frank as a technical consultant, having sold Brabham to Bernie Ecclestone. But even he couldn’t make up for some fundamental flaws.
“It was absolutely undriveable, very dangerous, and it was breaking all the time. It was impossible to find the right settings, impossible to drive.”
Fuel pressure and other engine problems saw Henri qualify 26th of 27. And after just eight laps of the race, he was sent off the road at Dingle Dell. Reports either blame steering failure or assume that the Frenchman had just lost it, but the real story is somewhat bizarre.
“I broke the car in two places in the compression where you are going down and up — it was unbelievable. I was sitting right on the track in the middle of the car! In fact the engine was disconnected from the monocoque. The bolts which fixed the engine to the chassis were broken. There was no rigidity — it was just not strong enough.”
When the wreckage was towed back to the pits, Frank was heartbroken. Back to square one again.
“He was, of course, as disappointed as me, because he really believed that Len Bailey was able to design a good car.”
The team had no choice but to rebuild a 721 that was already past its sell-by date, and got worse after massive accidents in Germany, Austria and Italy.
“In Zeltweg I had a puncture in the same place where Mark Donohue was killed three years later. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but every race something was breaking, and each time I had a terrific crash, and each time I was completely safe, which was miraculous. That was the worst year I ever had with a racing car.” Meanwhile, the unloved Politoys was rebuilt, and Pesca’s Matra replacement Chris Amon gave it a second outing in the October ‘Victory Race’, again at Brands Hatch. He retired with a misfire after an undistinguished weekend.
“At the end of the season, when Frank gave the car to someone else, it was about the same. It was just a shit car!”
Williams found new backing for 1973, and the Politoys FX3 developed into an Iso-Marlboro. The next few seasons were tough, but eventually he got it right. “I felt one day he would have a fantastic team. With his capacity and some money, I was sure he would be able to do something good. What he was trying to do with Len Bailey was what he did later on with Patrick Head.”