The worst car I ever drove - Joker vs the Batmobile

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It might have gone down as a Touring Car classic, but the Ford Capri was John Fitzpatrick’s nemesis. Adam Cooper reports.

Touring Car fans got quite excited when Nigel Mansell joined this year’s BTCC trail, and after rumours of interest from Alan Jones and Jody Scheckter did the rounds, it seemed that we could soon have a grid full of superstars. You might think that tintops have never been so well-served, but you’d be wrong. Back in 1973, when the category still deserved European Championship status, the entry list almost duplicated that for a Grand Prix. Consider that among those taking part in the ETC were World Champions Jackie Stewart and Emerson Fittipaldi, established names Jacky Ickx, Chris Amon, Rolf Stommelen, Henri Pescarolo and Reine Wisell, and a list of F1 comingmen which included Scheckter, James Hunt, Niki Lauda and Jochen Mass. Among those yet to make their GP debuts were future March team-mates Vittorio Brambilla and Hans Stuck.

This stellar field was generated by a fierce battle for honours between BMW and Ford, the latter being represented by the Cologne competition department. The cars each manufacturer fielded the – CSL and the Capri RS2600 – have become accepted as classics. But were they any good? Certainly not the Ford, according to one of the great touring car drivers of the era.

“I’ve actually been lucky and driven lots of good cars,” says John Fitzpatrick. “It wasn’t too difficult to think of the worst. That Capri was really awful…”

The story starts in 1971, when John was driving Escorts for Ford Cologne boss Jochen Neerpasch. “In 1971 raced the Castrol Escort in England for Broadspeed, and an identical car for Ford Cologne, against their Capris, in Europe. They ran the Escort as a way of taking class points off the Alfas in the overall championship. As long as they won the class once or twice, that’s all they were bothered about.

“In the last race of the year at Jarama, Jochen Mass and I were actually leading the Capris and that, of course, looked bad for Ford. When I came in to hand over to Jochen they messed about and washed the windows and lost loads of time, so the Capris went into the lead. I was really pissed off with Neerpasch, and told him what I thought of him on the pitwall. Eventually the Capris gave so much trouble they couldn’t slow us enough, so we won it anyway.”

Fitzpatrick left Ford at the end of the year, but returned in 1973, by which time Neerpasch had left for BMW taking his top technical man with him. Meanwhile Jochen Mass had won the ’72 ETC title in a Capri, and new motorsport boss Mike Kranefuss planned an ambitious three-car attack for ’73, with Fitzpatrick, Mass, Gerry Birrell and Dieter Glemser as the anchormen, and Ford contractee Jackie Stewart making guest appearances when the schedule allowed.

“Mike Kranefuss was a really good guy, very good with the drivers,” says John. “I was with Gerry. Mass was terrific, and I would say he was definitely the quickest of all the regulars. Glemser was a good, steady driver. And Jackie was fantastic whenever he drove.”

The ETC car was based on a homologated RS Lightweight, which had plastic doors, bonnet and boot lid, but no aerodynamic appendages. The reliable V6 engines, developed by Weslake, were good for 330bhp, but were still outclassed by BMW. However, the overall package looked strong on paper. But according to John, new chief engineer Thomas Ammerschlaeger didn’t get his sums right; the RS2600 was a mess.

“The new guy just hadn’t got a clue. The cars were a complete and utter disaster. We went on a fitness course in St Moritz and then straight to the first race at Monza. We had hardly done any testing and the cars were terrible. It was like one guy designed the front end and someone else designed the back, without even talking to each other. When they put the two together it was just undriveable.

“The thing was that you could not unstick the back end, whatever you did. They used to understeer like hell. You couldn’t throw the car into a corner to provoke a slide or anything like that. It was just terrible. When you pressed on they actually went up onto two wheels, as the roll centres were all wrong. It was just unbelievable…”

Despite the problems, the cars could still match the BMWs on pace at the first two races, both held at high speed tracks. Stewart took pole at Monza, while Mass and Scheckter finished second in the race. At the Salzburgring Birrell rolled in practice, so John moved across to Glemser’s car, and the pair duly managed to win an event of high attrition. Sadly Bind was later killed in the Rouen F2 race, so Matra sportscar ace Gerard Larrousse became John’s new partner. The next event was the Nurburgring Six Hours, where Ford pulled off an unprecedented coup by partnering Stewart with F1 arch-rival Fittipaldi.

“We’d heard a rumour the week before that BMW had been testing with wings on the back of their cars. The Ford people thought, ‘Don’t be ridiculous’. And they turned up with this modified car, which was of course the ‘Batmobile’. They were something like 10 seconds a lap quicker than us! Fittipaldi was hopeless. The car was undriveable, and he just hated it.”

Ford did not have the resources to homologate a wing, so it was an uphill struggle after that. BMW dominated the Spa 24 Hours, and while Mass and Glemser managed to triumph at Mantorp Park, the CSLs went on to win at Zandvoort, Paul Ricard and Silverstone. They easily won the manufacturers’ championship, while drivers Toine Hezemans, Brian Muir and Dieter Quester finished 1-2-3.

“We also ran the car at Le Mans,” John recalls. “I remember we got quite a long way, and the engine broke. I stopped on the Mulsanne straight and trickled round into the golf club, and stayed there for the last few hours. That was a bit frustrating.

“It just didn’t get any better the whole year. It was just hopeless, absolutely the worst car you could ever dream of. I never felt comfortable in it, and I just didn’t drive well that year at all. It was almost a relief at the end of the year to drive something else. And it was a sad year for me because Gerry was killed.”

John later found out just how easy his rivals had it.

“The CSL was just a wonderful car to drive. went back to drive them during 1976, including a couple of races with Ronnie Peterson, when the cars were Group 5 spec. They were even more developed. They were just fabulous. The best touring car you could ever drive – so easy, light on the steering, and you could slide the thing everywhere. It was just fantastic…”

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