The worst car I ever drove

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The worst car I ever drove

Perry McCarthy
Andrea Moda-Judd S192
In the first of a new series, Shaun Campbell looks into life at the wrong end of the grid. This month Perry McCarthy recalls the nightmare machine that put an end to his short-lived Formula One career

At first, Perry McCarthy is reluctant to describe the 1992 Andrea Moda as the worst car he has ever driven. He has some vivid memories of an F3000 Ralt from a few years earlier that he would prefer to forget, together with some heated conversations with Ron Tauranac. But though he can crack jokes about his brief time as a Grand Prix driver, he admits the experience still wakes him up at night. It wasn’t the car so much as the team…

To be sure it was as strange an outfit as has ever attempted to enter Grand Prix racing. Founded by a sharp-suited Italian shoe salesman, it left an impression of curiously aimless personnel with designer stubble and leather jackets, and a record of stunning ineptitude. Before the end of the season the team had been banned from F1 for bringing the sport into disrepute, and the proprietor, Andrea Sassetti, had been arrested on fraud charges.

Perry McCarthy wasn’t to know all this when he agreed in March 1992 to drive for the team. And even if he had, it’s questionable whether it would have altered his decision. At the time he was an unemployed racer and jobs were few and far between. “It wasn’t as if I turned down a Jaguar Group C drive to do this,” he points out dryly. “Remember, this was when Group C just imploded and IMSA collapsed. So there’s nowhere to go, nothing to do, and then comes this chance to be a Grand Prix driver.”

McCarthy didn’t do it for the money. The contract he signed meant that he wouldn’t be paid and that he would make his own arrangements for travel, insurance and board. He confesses that he would have signed a blank piece of paper. It was a chance – remote perhaps – but still a chance to get into Formula One, and no racing driver with ambition is ever likely to throw that away. McCarthy had few illusions about what confronted him. He wasn’t expecting to go out and win, or even score points, but he did think it might be an opportunity to show what he could do. There were, he remembers, some grounds for optimism.

“I never found our how he did it, but Andrea Sassetti managed to buy the design of a car that Nick Wirth (later Simtek F1 designer) had done for a potential BMW project. It was two or three years old when he bought it, so the technology was a bit behind, but when they built it up it looked nice. The Judd V10 engine was pretty good – obviously not top dog, but good enough. If it had been run even half decently, we could have qualified for three or four Grands Prix. I’m quite sure of that.”

The other side of the Andrea Moda coin, though, soon became apparent The new team had entered F1 by acquiring the ‘resources’ of the outgoing Italian Coloni team. “Andrea got stitched up there, which was poetic justice really,” remembers McCarthy. “Coloni consisted of a couple of old chassis, one rusty engine, a transporter that looked like an empty meat lorry and a couple of spanners. He paid $2 million for that – no wonder he was bitter and twisted.”

McCarthy says now that the biggest trouble he had with the car was just getting into it. The engines didn’t turn up for the Canadian GP. Neither did the chassis for the French GP. Then Enrico Bertaggia, fired by the team at the beginning of the season for complaining about the non-arrival of the car he’d been signed to drive, reappeared with $1 million of sponsorship money in his pocket. “Max and Bernie wouldn’t let the team change driver again mid-season, so they were stuck with me and they were desperately unhappy about it,” says McCarthy. “After that, they just used my car as spare parts for Roberto Moreno’s, and they held me back in case something broke on his.” Which it invariably did.

What happened when McCarthy did get going was equally depressing. At Spain he completed four metres under his own power from the pitlane exit during pre-qualifying before the engine cut out. End of Grand Prix debut. At Imola, in pre-qualifying for the San Marino GP, though, he completed seven consecutive laps. Progress, of a sort…

“There was no windshield, and they refused to make one. The buffeting I took was unbelievable. And I didn’t have a proper seat; I was hanging from the straps and bouncing around in the cockpit. And then there was the steering. You didn’t turn the wheel, you just had to press it on one side or the other.” After seven laps the clutch went, the diff was going and another pre-qualifying session was over with McCarthy’s name at the bottom of the list.

There was little comfort in the back-up, though perhaps one shouldn’t take too seriously McCarthy’s assertion that one of his mechanics had been the Minardi team chef the year before. “You’d come in and talk to him about understeer, and he’d say, `I dunno about understeer, but I gotta lovely pasta for your lunch’. Unbelievable. This was the only car that could spin off on its own bolognese.”

If there’s a funny side, there’s also a serious one. And at Spa, McCarthy came face to face with some ugly realities. “The whole thing was driving me crazy by then,” he says. “The idea that I was a Grand Prix driver just seemed like a cruel joke. But I’m not the type to give up and at Spa I was convinced I could make my mark.”

McCarthy set off with the certain knowledge that he wouldn’t get many laps to prove his point. He had to get on the pace immediately. Fully committed to the daunting left-right sweep of Eau Rouge, he found the Andrea Moda’s steering decidedly stiff on the corner’s entry. “As I turned to the right the steering just jammed and I was heading flat-out and head-on for the barrier. I slammed on the brakes as hard as possible and I felt a muscle in my shoulder rip as I pulled at the wheel. I managed to move it a bit and the car went off the track and on to the grass, the tyres rubbing down the barrier.”

McCarthy fought the car as it snaked and weaved up the hill. “I had no idea what had happened; when I came into the pits I told them that the steering rack was flexing. And they said, ‘Yeah, we know.’ They’d tested it on Moreno’s car earlier, found it was flexing and then just fitted it to mine.”

McCarthy walked out, but only just ahead of the team’s closure. Later that weekend Sassetti left the Spa paddock, handcuffed, to help police with their enquiries. At Monza two weeks later, the team’s personnel were refused admission to the paddock. The Andrea Moda Formula One team was no more.

Pressed to recall a worse car than the Andrea Moda, McCarthy struggles to find a answer. “I have to stick up for Nick Wirth because what happened wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t the design, it was the way the car was prepared to run,” he said. But then, after a long pause: “But the more I think about it… Yes, it was the worst.”

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