My greatest race
He has won races from Le Mans to Indycars but says the greatest win of all was in Formula Ford where a trick new front wing put him in a class ahead of the field
British Formula Ford 2000 Championship race, Donington Park 1986
I was just 19 years old, and I had just blitzed the opposition. I felt like a Grand Prix driver. Yes, odd though it may seem considering some of the other formulae and cars I have raced in the intervening years, the Donington Park round of the 1986 British Formula Ford 2000 Championship was my greatest race.
In fact it wasn’t so much the race itself that was great, but the whole weekend surrounding it. We must have been about halfway through the season, and I was stuck right in the middle of an almighty battle with Bertrand Gachot for the British and European titles. We were the real minnows in the series that year. I was running with a team called Anglo-European Racing in what was actually my first professional drive – I got a road car from one of the team owners and 50 quid a week to turn up and race – but had no real money to help them out. Bertrand on the other hand had some serious Marlboro backing and was being run by Keith Wiggins, who later took his Pacific team all the way to Formula One. So it was certainly all the more satisfying to put one over on them.
Despite the disparity in our teams’ fortunes, we worked hard all year at improving the car and when we got to Donington we had brought a bit of a surprise for our rivals. We had managed to get our hands on the latest development front wings from Reynard. They gave me so much front-end grip they transformed the car. I drove out onto the track on practice day and I swear I did no more than literally 10 minutes running at the start of the session. I put myself on pole position by a clear half second, pulled back into the pits to save our little car and sat in the garages waiting to see if anyone out there could beat me. It was ever so cocky at that age. I know I was only doing Formula Ford, but I felt like I was in Formula One!
The biggest thrill for me was not that we had put the car on pole, or that we were half a second quicker than anyone else; the biggest thrill was just sitting there quietly watching Bertrand and Wiggy flogging their guts out to try and catch up. They were sticking new tyres on or whatever they could to make up the difference. But it was to no avail, our wings were way ahead.
Looking back, even at that stage of my career, even with those small cars, it was serious stuff. In those early years there was always some little trick development going on, something to give you the edge over everybody else. If it wasn’t trick wings it was anti-roll bars, tyre pressures or whatever. I can still remember Wiggy working really hard with softener compounds to get a little extra grip out of the tyres.
So every little thing we could think up was tried out and the big upset that weekend was that even though they were the ‘big team’ in the formula, it was us that turned up with the parts from Reynard. Sometimes you have to ‘work’ on people to get things… or maybe they just felt sorry for me.
Whatever the reason, it was us who had the trick parts, and we just rolled out of the trailer and blew everybody away in practice, and then did it all over again in the race.
Even though the start to the weekend was all and more than we could have hoped for, the race, in the end, was in some ways an anti-climax. There were no big dramatic thrills or any exciting wheel-to-wheel racing. I didn’t end up battling with anybody at all because I was literally gone, miles ahead, adios amigo, goodnight Vienna.
It was just one of those weekends where we drove away from the track all feeling like we were on top of the world. Of course, we soon came back down to earth with a bump, though. You always do in racing.
I can remember that Wiggy was pretty good at accepting that we had the edge that weekend, but he didn’t like losing as he had all those Marlboro men to answer to. I think he had the new wings by the next race if I remember correctly, so it was plain that he wasn’t going to sit back and take it on the chin for long. In the end, Bertrand went on to take the British crown and I got my hands on the European title. I’ve had some amazing races before and since that weekend winning an lndycar race by 0.027s this year springs to mind but Donington will always stick in my memory. The most satisfying thing about that era in British junior racing is that all the good guys made it to the top. That quality of drivers all at one time has not really come along since. I can’t think of a year where so many drivers made it – with me was Damon Hill, Johnny Herbert, Bertrand Gachot, Eddie Irvine, Martin Donnelly, Julian Bailey, Perry McCarthy. We all made it in one way or another though, after that season, aside from Le Mans in ’92, I didn’t win another race until last season.
Winning races at international level is extremely difficult, and it’s worth remembering that it gets harder and harder. The further you get up the scale, the more dependent you find you become on your machinery. You learn that at an early age, but don’t really comprehend it properly until you get out there in Formula 3000 or F1 and are flogging around in something lousy. Compare the number of winners in the very top formulae to those taking part, and you will see that the ratio is tiny. It’s a hard sport and there are so many bad breaks on the way that the satisfaction I took from a win like I had in my Reynard FF2000 in those early years is second to none.