The early signs of greatness
I nearly fell off the chair to see October’s photo of Emmo and me in dicing Merlyns at Snetterton in 1969 – how many lifetimes ago was that race!
That was the day that a major talent announced its arrival in Europe. The story of the race was recounted in Emerson’s biography, where he couldn’t remember who the other driver was.
Well, I remember, because it was me.
In the late ’60s, Formula Ford was the way to a Formula 1 berth, so gathering every penny I had, I managed to fund myself into a Merlyn Mk 11A. After a couple of races, I arrived at Snetterton to find a young Brazilian Formula Vee champion in the entry. In practice, my car started jumping out of gear, so I steered with one hand and held it in gear with the other. At the end of the session, the Brazilian was on pole and I was alongside.
I had no pit crew and couldn’t fix the gear problem, so that’s how I drove the race. Emerson out-dragged me to the first corner but I managed to shadow him and took the lead at the very fast Corum curve.
As Emerson and I went through the corner, both on our limits, I watched his beautifully graceful technique; he stroked the car along. He was piling on the power, yet in that magical way only the very top drivers have, kept the car beautifully balanced between engine power and tyre friction forces, his hands caressing, not fighting the wheel.
I still remember thinking in those milliseconds, “Whoever you are, you are very, very good.” My ageing eyes may be deceiving me, but I think the photo you published was at that very moment and you can actually see me looking across at Emmo.
In the end, Emerson won, I came second, still holding the gearstick. During the next two years in FF and F3, I saw Emerson’s career rocket. His car control was sublime, streets ahead of the next best and that included at least two future world champions.
Memories flood back: we were driving in F3 qualifying, Emerson was fastest. After the session, other drivers were asking their pit crews how he’d done it. The answer was that he was going flat through a top-gear corner and no one else was. It was that silken car control again. Most remarkable of all, though, was that he was likeable and charming; a shy smile and friendly eyes That may not sound a lot in normal life, but believe me, amongst the massive egos of an international F3 grid, it was saintly.
John Wilson via e-mail
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