Formula 1 left Al Unser Jr with a bad aftertaste
Al Unser Jr recalls an ill-fated test for Williams and an awkward conversation with Benetton
Bernie Ecclestone offered Al Unser Jr a Brabham Formula 1 drive in 1986, according to A Checkered Past. Little Al had just missed out on a first IndyCar title – by one point to his dad! – and declined the offer because he was driven to win the Indy 500. But F1 came calling again at the end of 1992, after Unser had won his first 500, when he was offered the chance to test for Williams at Estoril. It was not a happy experience – and the team’s co-founder and technical director Patrick Head isn’t someone Little Al remembers fondly.
As he says in the book, “Emerson Fittipaldi had warned me: ‘You don’t want to go F1. It’s not like over here. Here, we look out for each other. In F1, it’s really cut-throat, even on your own team. They will stab you in the front, they will stab you in the side, and they will stab you in the back. And that’s your own team. Al, don’t go to F1.”
But the chance to test for Williams, which had just dominated the 1992 season with Nigel Mansell and the brilliant FW14B was too good to resist. The trouble was it appeared to Unser that Head didn’t really want him in the car. He flew to England, had a seat fitting, then jetted straight to Portugal and jumped in the Williams with severe jet lag. Unser struggled with his neck and adapting to the performance of a car that was nothing like his Galmer Indycar – and he never got to test the car with all the electronic ‘gizmos’. It was a harrowing and deeply hostile experience, as Fittipaldi had warned.
As Little Al tells us, he wasn’t the only Unser to struggle with Patrick Head: “I don’t go into it in the book but in 1980 Bobby Hillin, a Texas oil man, hired my father and their Indycar was a Williams.” The Cosworth DFX-powered Longhorn Unser raced at Indy in 1981 was an evolved FW07. “Dad developed it and he had a real tough time with Patrick Head. They automatically felt it was going to be a bomb and my dad drove it – and it was a piece of shit. With Dad’s perseverance he was actually leading the race at Milwaukee and at a pitstop one of the crew didn’t get the right front tyre on straight, he went back out and the wheel left the car going into Turn 3 and he went up in the fence.”
Michael Andretti’s aborted 1993 season with McLaren perhaps suggests it was just as well Al Jr didn’t land an F1 drive. It would have meant a huge upheaval to his life, although Unser says: “I knew that. I guess that’s why I told Bernie Ecclestone ‘no’ when he called me up in 1986 because I knew what the commitment level was and had to be. But I didn’t know how political it actually was. In 1992 Frank [Williams] wanted me in the car and Patrick didn’t – because I wore a gold Rolex.”
There were talks with other teams too, although Little Al struggles to remember the names of those he dealt with. “I got that same feeling when I talked to the head of McLaren, I’m trying to remember his name…” Ron Dennis, we prompt. “Yes. And Fabio…” Flavio Briatore at Benetton. “And from Walkin…” Tom Walkinshaw, with whom Unser negotiated for a drive at Benetton too. “He brings me over, says I’m going to drive his car, we make a seat, then go into his office. He knows what I make [in IndyCar] and he offers me a quarter of that – and he wants me to move over to England with my family, all on my dime. I looked at him: ‘Are you kidding? At the very minimum you have to match what I’m making, and I’ll pay my own expenses because I do want to come and drive for you. Michael Schumacher was driving for him at the time and it was a winning thing. It was something I wanted to do. But I said ‘We’re done.’” He never did test for Benetton.
“That’s F1,” says Al. “I watch the F1 races today, I’m enthralled by it, I love the technology of the cars. But I know the politics now and it just turns me off. I love what Lewis Hamilton is doing, I feel for Bottas because I know what is going on there. Today I see it in Indycars. That’s why I admire Mikey so much and Bobby Rahal. They’re enthralled by it but when I look at IndyCar today it’s F1 in the 1980s. The politics that are going on is incredible. “It was the 1980s when Emerson said to me F1 is not like it is over here. Today in IndyCar racing it is not like it used to be either.”