Legends Mo Nunn

When Niki Lauda was recently sacked by Jaguar Racing, he joined a long list of great drivers who, for whatever reason, have failed to stay the course as a team principal. Lauda was in the job just 15 months, a little longer than his predecessor, Bobby Rahal. Oddly enough, good, rather than great, drivers tend to fare better in management. If Roger Penske, businessman supreme, is the most obvious example, another, at a lesser level, is Morris Nunn, whose Indianapolis-based company is set to compete in both the CART and IRL championships in 2003. Mo Nunn Racing is a far cry from the last team he owned.

As a driver, Morris had been pretty good. “Until 1963, when I was 24,” he says, “I’d never even been to a race. Then I saw a Cooper-Climax in a showroom, bought it for £850, and went racing. By 1966, I was in F3, which was incredibly competitive in those days, and three years later Colin Chapman offered me a drive in the factory Lotus F3 team.”

In his last race for Chapman, Nunn won, beating Hunt and Cevert, and had hopes of a Lotus Fl drive. When it failed to materialise, he reasoned that he was probably not going all the way as a driver.

“It wasn’t that I wanted to stop,” he says, “but I didn’t see how l could progress. I was already 31, and there wasn’t much sponsorship around in those days — you couldn’t just go and buy a drive. There were only 18 or so cars competing in F1, and drivers tended to stay put. Unless someone got killed, there weren’t any spaces. “After stopping driving, I didn’t know what to do. I was 32, with a wife and children, and I just sat at home. Then one day it just came to me: there was another way into F1. I could build my own car, become a constructor.”

Logically, the best way to start was with what he knew, F3. In today’s hi-tech world, his memories of those times seem more than faintly surreal.

“I had about £800 savings, and I went to a nearby firm and bought a load of 1 in square tube. Then I sat on the garage floor and said to myself, ‘This is how wide I want it at the bottom’, and laid two tubes down.

“Then I started to measure, cutting up the steel as I sat there, and I tacked it, and worked out where the dash was going to go, things like that Not one thing was drawn on that car! Then I started to make the chassis…”

The car was finished in November 1970 and taken to Silverstone; within 10 laps it broke the F3 lap record, and the following year won several races. Then, before the ’72 season, a big break came Nunn’s way. “I heard about this wealthy guy, Rikki von Opel, who had ordered a couple of Marches. I worked out that, for the same money, I could run him in a works Ensign, and called him. He had a flat in Grosvenor Square, and our appointment was for 8.30am. There he was, sitting alone at this huge table, servants waiting on him, breakfast all laid out – I’d never seen anything like this! I told him my proposition and said it would cost £9000. He agreed immediately.

” Von Opel was no great shakes as a driver, but he tested assiduously, and eventually began to win the odd race. “Then we began to talk about 1973,” Nunn remembers. “We were driving to Thruxton in his Rolls he and his girlfriend were in the back, and I was driving and we were discussing F2 and F5000, and couldn’t make a decision. Then I suddenly said, ‘What about F1?’ By the time we got to the hotel, it was all agreed!”

After a single season in F1 with Ensign, von Opel departed to Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team for 1974. The parting was amicable.

“Rikki was very good to me. He’d bankrolled the whole thing. He took his Cosworth engines to Bernie, but he left me with the cars and said I could run someone else.”

Over the next few years, drivers came and went at Ensign, but it was not until the middle of 1975, when Morris persuaded Chris Amon, late of Ferrari, March and Matra, to come out of semi-retirement, that the team truly began to progress.

“Chris was a fantastic driver. He always reckoned he was past his best when he drove for us, but we made tremendous progress with him. We had no sponsorship and couldn’t afford to go testing, but he was incredibly quick and always qualified near the front. I think he’d lost some determination by then, though; I wish we’d run a few years earlier.”

It amuses me now, as presentations get ever glitzier, to think back to the ‘launch’ of the 1976 Ensign. Three people were present: Nunn, Amon and myself. Chris and I had driven up to Walsall, to the little garage, and Mo opened its doors and rolled out this gorgeous little red car. Producing my camera, I suggested they pose with the car. Even 27 years ago, with PR still on the far horizon in F1, I could see a problem here. Mo’s jacket bore the logo of a previous sponsor, Duckhams.

“Morris,” I said, “you can’t wear that. The only sponsorship on the car is Valvoline another oil company.” He was a bit nonplussed: “D’you think they’d mind?”

It was an endearing facet of Mo’s personality, that lack of awareness of the commercial aspects of motor racing. The man you meet today is very much more worldly, but still genial and friendly, still one who regards this primarily as a sport.

After Amon’s retirement, he signed another ex-Ferrari driver Clay Regazzoni and the two became firm friends: “He wasn’t as talented as Chris, but all his motivation was intact, and we had a marvellous time together in ’77.”

Regazzoni left, first for Shadow, then Williams, but he returned to Ensign in 1980, only to crash disastrously at Long Beach.

By the end of 1982, Morris was not only disillusioned by grand prix racing, but also broke. He closed Ensign’s doors and went to America in search of a new life. As he says, he must be one of the few F1 constructors to leave the business poorer than when he started: “When I went to the States, I had my Barclaycard, and that was about it.”

It was the best move he ever made. He got a job with George Bignotti’s CART team and has worked in that milieu ever since. By 1989, he was with Patrick Racing, and it was a supreme satisfaction when Emerson Fittipaldi took the team’s Penske to victory in the Indianapolis 500 in the process beating the factory cars.

Drivers who have worked with Nunn have extraordinary faith in his ability. “Mo’s background was European racing,” says Fittipaldi, “yet his genius lies in making a car handle on ovals. I’ve never really understood it, but it’s a fact: no-one I ever worked with had that same ability, and it was fantastic for a driver’s confidence; at a place as quick as Indy, you really need a car that’s working with you.”

In 1992, Mo joined Chip Ganassi Racing, a long and phenomenally successful association. The team won the drivers’ championship four years on the trot, with Jimmy Vasser (1996), Alex Zanardi (’97 and ’98), and Juan Pablo Montoya (’99). It was Nunn, indeed, who first alerted me to just how good Montoya was. He had been very close to Zanandi, and when Alex announced his intention to leave, Mo told Ganassi that he was going to stop at the end of ’98.

“Then Chip calls: ‘Morris, Alex is going to test at Barcelona. Would you like to see him test? And Williams have got this Montoya kid there’ – who I’d never heard of’and we could have a look at him at the same time. He’s a possibility for the future’.

“So I met Juan, and spent two days trying to figure out whether he was arrogant or just very confident. On the circuit I was very impressed; he was ahead of the car he knew what it was going to do, and was making the corrections to allow for it.

“I said to Chip, ‘This kid may be overdriving a bit, but he’s got incredible car control’. I suggested we give him a test, and he was very quick right off – in fact, a little bit scary, especially in his first run on a oval. He insisted he was taking it easy.

“I told Chip I thought he could win by Long Beach, in March, and Chip signed him up. In the end, I stayed for one more year, with Juan, and I’m glad I did. And after that, far from thinking about leaving the business, I decided to start my own team! Long way from the Ensign days, isn’t it?”