In the hot seat

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This may come as a shock, but our most successful sportscar driver prefers single-seaters — as long as they’re not ropey Lotus F3 jobs. Oh, and his favourite Le Mans moment was when he finished third!

Your early years seemed quite difficult -and then suddenly you were racing for Ferrari. What triggered this turnaround?
Peter Barker, Swaffam

Driving a Brabham instead of a lousy F3 Lotus! My first year in Europe, 1966, in a Lotus 41, was a nightmare. There was no-one to guide me — the only person to say I had a talent was Jim Russell — and we were lured into buying it because of the glamour of the marque. It had to be the worst, most unsuccessful single-seater Lotus ever built. When I got a Brabham for 1967, I won lots.

What’s it like to get a phone call from Ferrari?
JE Norris, Sheffield

Amazing. It was the most stunning event of my life. Ken Tyrrell once told me that joining Ferrari ruined my F1 career. Sure, but he wasn’t offering me a drive! Ferrari was offering me a Formula Two contract with, maybe, an F1 drive down the road. I was all on my own — my wife at that time was very ill in hospital — and so I was under a lot of pressure. But I have no regrets about the decision I made. It was fantastic to get to know Enzo; to get pole in your first race with Ferrari. My first professional race was for Ferrari; my first F1 race was for Ferrari, at Oulton Park; my first GP was for Ferrari, at Monza; my first Le Mans was for Ferrari. Actually, I do have one regret: I didn’t go to live in Italy.

Your 1975 Le Mans victory is the one that tends to be overlooked. Does it deserve more recognition?
Bill Sanderson, East Grinstead

Definitely. Most people only remember the 1980s and the Porsche 956/962. But 1975 was a hell of a tough race to win because we had to keep the revs down; it was an engine, we were told, that would never win Le Mans.

Where does your 1973 Spa 1000Km win with Mike Hailwood lie in your pecking order?
Ernst Heldring, Hilversum, Netherlands

Mirage was important to me. Its Cosworth engine was fantastic, especially for the sprint races, but during the development of the car we were always frustrated that we weren’t quicker; I don’t think the chassis was good enough for the engine. But to win any race in a car in which I did the bulk of the development work was very special. And to have Mike, for whom I had the greatest respect, alongside me was wonderful.

Why didn’t your F1 career take off?
Peter Stanley, Liverpool

I qualified eighth in my first GP — with Jackie Stewart on one side, Denny Hulme on the other, both champions. Not bad. I think the trouble was that Ferrari gave me a car that wasn’t very good. I don’t think I was world champion material, but I had been good in F2 and F3, and I can see no reason why an extra 200hp would have changed that dramatically; I just needed to be in the right car. But then if you talk to Trulli, he’ll tell you exactly the same. They all will. The closest I came to it was when Martini & Rossi was to sponsor an F1 team: we were going to go to Brabham, and I was going to be Carlos Reutemann’s team-mate. I wouldn’t swear to this, but I reckon I beat him in every race we did together — and he went on to be damned successful. Unfortunately, the deal I think might have made my F1 career fell through, and Martini and I ended up at Tecno.

Did you prefer single-seaters to sportscars?
Joe Williamson, Alnwick

Oh yes. They’re absolutely fantastic. My whole life at one time was single-seaters. People tend to forget that.

You raced the Ferrari 512S and Porsche 917 — how did they compare?
Christopher Freeman, Chepstow

The 917 was easier to drive. The Ferrari was like a sled; it didn’t give you any messages. It would basically understeer and then leap into oversteer. But I didn’t know any better, and I was happy to drive it. It had a very flat power curve that just kept accelerating, whereas the 917 would be bubbling along, you’d hit the gas and it would take off with a load of wheelspin. The Porsche had more sensitivity when you braked and turned in.

You had some lean times in the late 1970s/early ’80s… Did you ever consider quitting?
Darren Whitehead, Stoke-on-Trent

It’s very poignant that this should be asked. I was on the verge of quitting at the end of 1979. It wasn’t coming together: sportscars was a disaster zone. I went to Renault for two years, and drove the British Leyland Jags; I was getting some fabulous drives, but none of them continued for long. Then, in 1980, I got a call from Porsche to drive a 924 GTS at Le Mans. That started my connection with Al Holbert, and led to my racing in America. And then along came a man called Steve O’Rourke — who passed away here in Florida just recently. Steve wanted to run a Lancia; I convinced him to run a BMW M1. I signed up to drive for him for 10 races, but at Monza Porsche approached me about Le Mans, and Steve magnanimously released me from my contract. I won the race with Jacky Ickx in a 936, and the rest is history.

At the height of IMSA, how did it compare to Group C?
Andy Capaldi, Newport, Monmouth

These are such good questions! IMSA was never the same quality, because the factory teams were in Group C. Having said that, Al Holbert’s team was as good as it gets in terms of a privateer outfit; he had a superb car. I enjoyed driving the 962 in IMSA more because we ran up to 850hp — with a single turbo, so you had this great bite of power that would slide you out of corners. The ride height wasn’t as low, so we had less grip and hence more exciting driving. And there was no fuel restriction, so we could drive flat out. But you can’t get away from the fact that Europe was the home of factory racing.

Which is tougher, Daytona or Le Mans?
Janine Banks, Enfield

I used to think Daytona was. It’s one corner after another, before flying round the banking. It’s very physical and there’s no respite. Plus the traffic is far more intense — double the cars in half the distance. But Le Mans is now more physical than Daytona, because of the chicanes on Mulsanne, the other new corners and the grip levels of the latest cars.

Is there a Le Mans moment that stands out?
Steve Stoker, Merton

Standing on the rostrum with my son Justin after we had finished third in 1995.

Motor Sport is running a Top 20 sportscar drivers poll. Who is your number one?
Al Doughty, Tamworth

Jacky Ickx. He was the benchmark.

What does the future hold for Le Mans?
Jonathan Hyde, Croydon

It’s always been a turbulent fixture: years of intense competition, and others when manufacturers are thinner on the ground. To me, it’s leaning towards becoming a GTS race [current FIA GTs] — and that’s no bad thing.

Much is written about the 4WD Cosworth and Lotus 63, but not much about the McLaren M9A. You raced it in 1969… what was it like?
Dave Fernihough, Richmond

Bruce McLaren had tested it on the Monday at Goodwood — and decided to enter it for that weekend’s British GP. I was at the back of the grid, and 4WD was clearly not the way to go. The car didn’t stop very well and weaved all over the place. It understeered, too, and if you lifted off the throttle all it would do was slow down — you couldn’t change its trajectory. Afterwards Bruce asked me if it was going to work. I said, ‘No!’ It was never seen again. End of story.