In the hot seat

Bobby Rahal

He won at Indy but had to turn down a Le Mans drive with Sauber. He doesn’t care if he’s underrated but does promise not to be another overprotective ‘race car dad’

Your father was a pretty useful driver. Did he pass on any tips when you started racing, and do you do the same for your son Graham? Chris Rees, Bracknell

I don’t know if my father passed on anything except the love of auto racing in general. He was good about letting me go my own way. I go to all Graham’s races, but I’m aware that there’s nothing worse than race car fathers. I’m his biggest fan but I try not to be overinvolved.

Did you prepare your own Lotus in the early days? John Fane, via e-mail

Yes I did. It was a Lotus 47 with 41 suspension. We didn’t think we could afford a mechanic.

After your spell with Wolf were there any other F1 opportunities, and does it bug you that you didn’t get a decent shot at F1? Alexis Cole, via e-mail

Well actually, I did get another opportunity during my time with Wolf. In 1978 I was driving a Wolf-run F3 Dallara at Zolder, and I was approached by Bob Sparshott of BS Fabrications who was running an M23 for Brett Lunger. He said he’d like me to race their car, which would have been an M26 for ’79.

I went to Rod Campbell who was working for Wolf and he told me, ‘No, you don’t want to do that!’ So the ride went to Nelson Piquet! Following Wolf, I didn’t really have a chance other than to fill in at Tyrrell at Long Beach in 1981, but the ride went to Kevin Cogan. In ’84 I was approached by Carl Haas when the Beatrice project was getting underway, but that fell through.

To answer the second part of the question, it would be greedy to think I could have had things go much better, especially considering I had such humble expectations at the start. Sure, F1 was my dream, but if I’d wanted to do things differently I’d have needed representation in Europe, which I didn’t have.

You were pretty handy in a Porsche 962. Was Le Mans ever on the agenda in a 956/962? Dale Chisholm, Bay St Louis, Mississippi

I drove at Le Mans in a Porsche 935 in 1980 and in a March-Chevrolet in ’82, but I would love to have done it in a 962. Unfortunately my Champ Car calendar was always in conflict. My real regret? Jochen Mass rang me to ask if I’d share the Sauber-Mercedes with him in ’89. We’d won Sebring together, so it seemed like a good opportunity. But again there was a clash of dates, so I had to turn him down. Of course, his car went on and won the race…

You were awesome at Classic Le Mans driving a Porsche 917 Just how big a thrill was it to race that car? Charlie Opert, Wolverhampton

Oh, that was the realisation of a lot of dreams. Dad had a 906 in the late ’60s/very early ’70s, and I had seen people like Rodriguez and Siffert in action in those cars. To have the opportunity to emulate them in some small way was amazing. It wasn’t so much the Mulsanne Straight that made me think of them, more the run from Mulsanne to Indianapolis: you didn’t have to squint much to think it was 1970 or ’71.The headlights might be a little better than they were in ’70, but I tell you it’s still pretty dark and bloody quick!

In a Formula Atlantic era that included yourself, Gilles and Keke, were there any other talents who should have made it but didn’t? Alexander Payne, Paris

Well, the answer is one we already know: that a career’s not always based on outstanding talent but on being in the right place at the right time. I thought Price Cobb was a very good driver, and I always rated Kevin Cogan as being talented.

I suppose the obvious guy is Tom Klausler: he was immensely talented, but he was in a Lola when a March was the thing to have. Unfortunately he wasn’t good at self-promotion and his talent, great though it was, wasn’t great enough to overcome that.

Why is it that the Indy 500 has always been regarded as more prestigious than the championship, be it USAC, CART or IRL? And would you trade an Indy win for any of your CART titles? Craig Short, Crawley, Sussex

Ha, well that’s a good question, but it’s down to folklore and history, the fact that the Indy 500 is so much part of the fabric of the US. There has been so much tragedy, so much joy and so many epic stories attached to that place that it will always have more of an impact than a string of 16 races. Part of that is down to people who don’t normally follow motorsport getting caught up in the Indy fever. Look at ’05: Danica Patrick’s performance brought yet more non-auto racing enthusiasts on board, but if she’d turned in the same performance at Michigan it wouldn’t have caused the huge media reaction that it did.

For me it’s easy to say this having won the 500, I guess, but no, I would never trade my titles for an Indy win. Those represent your performance throughout a whole year of your lifetime.

How cool do you feel whenever you step into that ex-Carlos Reutemann Brabham BT44? Margo Breckenridge, Aylesbury

Oh, I’m very much a romantic so of course it feels great. I watched the grand prix at Watkins Glen in 1974 and saw Reutemann and Pace score a 1-2 in this model, so it has always been special for me. Driving that car there I have also since discovered how Reutemann ran away with that race: it’s great round the Glen. And I have always had immense respect for Gordon Murray as an engineer — but his cars are so good-looking too!

Tell us about that fab saloon car race at the last Goodwood Revival. Maindrian Pace, Portland, Oregon

Just magic. That’s what racing is all about: lots of power, the cars slipping and sliding around. It was an awesome feeling, especially when you could see how the crowd was reacting to it. A couple of times I tried to pass Jackie [Oliver], but of course he didn’t have to move the Ford Galaxie very far to block the whole track. It was such a shame my steering broke.

Do you ever feel overlooked in CART history, despite being a triple title winner, and that names like Unser and Andretti stole the headlines? Robert E Burns. Washington DC

Well, my name isn’t Andretti or Unser, so of course they would get more recognition. Not a problem. But if it wasn’t for me, Michael Andretti would have four Champ Car titles instead of one! I sometimes feel that perhaps my pace over a whole season wasn’t recognised outside of the sport, and that I didn’t always have the best equipment. People in the know appreciate me, so that’s what matters.

When you retired, what was it that was first to go? Was it qualifying pace or your wish to go wheel to wheel in race conditions? Charles Hunter-Napier, Telford

I loved racing, and at my peak everything was second to motorsport. My team’s failure with Honda cost me a lot of enthusiasm and I guess I was no longer so committed after the 1992 season. I always said that the day I felt I couldn’t see myself doing another year would be the day I decided to quit, and so it was.