Lunch with... Walter Wolf

Jody Scheckter’s 1977 Argentine GP victory had a whiff of Hollywood – new F1 team wins first time out – but his team patron was used to success
Writer Simon Taylor | Photographer Clinton Hussey

It sounds like the romanticised plot of a bad movie. Into the rarefied technological stratosphere of Formula 1 comes a brand-new one-car team, sponsored only by its owner: and, against the best cars and drivers in the world, it wins its very first race. Straining credibility even more, the same little team goes on to win two more Grands Prix that season, and puts its singleton driver on the podium in every other round that it finishes. The end result is second place in the world championship. Almost more unbelievable is that, with just one car to score points, the team is fourth in the constructors’ championship.

But this isn’t fiction. It really happened, although it was nearly four decades ago when F1 was very different from today. Even so, it astonished everyone in motor racing – except one man, a man who always assumed that he would succeed in everything he did. When he first appeared in the F1 paddocks Walter Wolf was a brash, ebullient 37-year-old, a larger than life character who refused to be overawed by the Grand Prix establishment.

His beginnings were humble. In 1957 he arrived in Canada from Slovenia as a penniless teenager, and in less than 20 years he had built up a huge fortune, which came primarily from setting up and equipping off-shore oil rigs around the world. His involvement with motor racing lasted just four seasons before this rather mysterious man turned on his heel and walked away, returning to his various commercial interests, his love of flying helicopters, and his 7000-acre ranch in the wilds of British Columbia.

In today’s motor racing circles he is almost forgotten, although he has maintained many of the friendships around the world that were forged in those four hectic seasons, from Chris Amon in New Zealand to Jody Scheckter in Hampshire. When I finally track him down he is somewhat surprised that I should want to travel from England to talk about his brief time in F1, so long ago; but he agrees to have lunch with me. I was rather looking forward to beating a path to his isolated ranch, but a business trip is taking him to Vancouver, and he proposes we meet in his favourite French restaurant there, Le Crocodile. He arrives on time to the minute, a fit-looking 75, evidently entirely recovered from the stroke he suffered two years ago. From Le Crocodile’s magnificent menu he orders soupe de champignons sauvages, parfumée a l’huile de truffe, avec torsade de parmesan (mushroom soup to you and me) and a stylishly presented dish of sea bass. He drinks only water, and his cappuccino at the end of the meal is decaffeinated.

Accompanying him is his charming third wife Edna, whom he introduces by saying: “Nowadays when there are computers inside everything, it is good to have a wife 30 years younger than I am. She knows how to turn on the TV.” He was previously married to a former Miss Austria, and before her to Canadian aristocracy in the shape of the great grand-daughter of the former premier of Prince Edward Island. His circle of friends and acquaintances stretches from politicians to Hollywood actors, from Olympic skiers to business moguls like himself.

Walter’s difficult start in life no doubt shaped and toughened his determination. He was born four weeks after World War II broke out, when Adolf Hitler was intent on his repulsive ideal of a pure Aryan race. “It was not a good time to be the youngest son of a half-Slovenian, half-Austrian bricklayer father and a three-quarters German, quarter-Slovenian mother.” In the chaos of war-torn Europe his father was conscripted to fight with the German army on the Russian front – “He was 40 years old, but the Germans were putting everyone they could find into uniform” – and was captured. He spent the next 10 years in a Russian prison. Walter, now living with his mother and brothers in Yugoslavia, did not see his father from when he was three until he was 15.

But from an early age he dreamed of cars and motor racing. “All the time I was a kid, even from Yugoslavia I managed to follow what my heroes were doing: Fangio, Moss, Mike Hawthorn, Peter Collins. But I longed to see a real Formula 1 race for myself. So when I was 16 I hitch-hiked to Italy, and arrived at Monza for the Italian Grand Prix. Of course I had no money to buy a ticket, but I got myself in. You can always manage to get in anywhere if you try hard enough.”

Walter was 19 when he decided it was time to go west and seek his fortune. He arrived in Canada with no money, and speaking no English. “The first words I learned in English were ‘noodle soup’ because that was the cheapest food I could find. For the first few months I lived on nothing else. I found out how to get warm by taking refuge in a local cinema, and I learned English from watching cowboy movies.”

The Wolf determination ensured that Walter survived. After various jobs, from lift repair man to underwater diver building bridge foundations, he joined a company that made marine equipment. His summary of his 20-year route from the bottom of the ladder to the top is brief. “I kept working, I kept working, I became junior partner, I kept working. I got contracts for big projects in Canada. I ended up taking over the company. We did oil platform installations all over the world: off the shores of Louisiana, in Brazil off Rio, in Nigeria, in New Zealand, in the North Sea working out of Aberdeen. And we dealt in crude oil, buying low, selling high. We weren’t IBM, but we made a lot of money.”

To get himself around, along with private jets and JetRanger helicopters, he bought himself a Lamborghini Countach. “But I decided it wasn’t good enough, so I got onto the factory to ask them to make me a special one. That was how I met Gian Paolo Dallara. At the time he was chief engineer at Lamborghini, although of course he already had a lot of experience with racing cars, including designing the 1970 De Tomaso F1 car that Frank Williams ran for Piers Courage. I am still very close to Paolo: for me he is the best all-round car engineer in the world. I am not just talking about Formula 1 now, he is not a Patrick Head or an Adrian Newey, but he is very versatile: he has done F1 cars, he has done Indycars, he has done road cars. He is still a very good friend, and one of the nicest guys I know. Now he is working on a new sports car, not to compete with Ferrari or McLaren, but something that can sell for under €100,000, like a modern-day Porsche 550 Spyder with a 300bhp Alfa Romeo V6 engine.

“With Paolo, using the Countach as a base, we set out to make the fastest road car in the world. At one time I was spending more time at the Lamborghini factory in Sant’Agata than I was in my office, and I had several Countach Walter Wolf Specials made.” He also got the factory to assemble the last-ever Miura out of remaining parts, and gave it to his then wife as a shopping car. “Later, when Lamborghini was in trouble, I could have bought the business. I had a look at it, but it had too much debt. That was a smart decision. Later it ended up with Chrysler, and now it belongs to VW.

“Then I decided I wanted to go racing. So I got Max Mosley to sell me the latest March sports-racer, the 75S. With Paolo’s help we put a DFV in the back, and the idea was to do Le Mans, me co-driving with Chris Amon. I was trying it out at a track in Italy and I ended up in the guardrail, turned over I don’t know how many times. I got out with a few scratches, but then my bank, my company, my wife, they all blackmailed me to stop. They said, ‘Either you want to be a playboy or you want to continue in business’.

“And then I met Frank Williams. In all of Formula 1 he is the man that I respect the most, besides Bernie. Frank is one of a kind. He has put his whole life into motor racing, regardless of all the ups and downs. What happened was, I was at the Lamborghini factory one day and Paolo, who still knew Frank well, said to me: ‘Do you know Frank Williams?’ I said I knew the name. Paolo told me that things were a bit tight for Frank with his F1 team and he needed an engine, so I agreed to buy him one. By the end of the 1975 season I had bought him 11 engines.”

Walter maintains now that he was never a shareholder in the Williams F1 team: “I just helped him.” But the accepted story – and Frank’s own version – is that, having been a guest of the Williams team at several of the 1975 Grands Prix, Walter bought 60 per cent of the Williams team for the 1976 season, in return for paying off the team’s debts of £140,000. Whatever the truth, from the Spanish Grand Prix in 1976 the Williams cars were entered by Walter Wolf Racing and were known as Wolf-Williams FW05s. In fact they were basically Hesketh 308C chassis from the previous year, for Walter had also bought the assets of His Lordship’s team when it went into liquidation. With the deal came Hesketh designer Harvey Postlethwaite, assisted by Frank’s newly hired engineer Patrick Head.

The cars were beautifully turned out in dark blue but, with Jacky Ickx, Michel Leclère and later Arturo Merzario as the drivers, they were overweight, they handled badly and they weren’t competitive. Moreover Frank Williams soon found that he did not enjoy being a salaried employee of what had been his own team. Walter, meanwhile, quickly became impatient with the lack of results, and started to think about starting again with a team that was entirely his own.

At Brands Hatch, when Jacky Ickx failed to qualify his ill-handling car for the third time, Walter was furious. Behind the Team Lotus motorhome he openly confronted Lotus team manager Peter Warr. He told him he had decided to set up a new team for 1977, and he wanted Warr to manage it. Peter told me many years later: “He offered to double my salary, and on the Sunday evening after the race he took me and my wife to dinner at Trader Vic’s at the London Hilton and started an expansive and voluble campaign to persuade me. He would not take no for an answer.”

At first Warr wasn’t convinced, and meanwhile Walter also had to make sure he could keep Postlethwaite. “So we had a meeting at the mews house I had in Kensington, Harvey, Peter and me. Harvey and Peter said, ‘If you have this new team, who will drive the car?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, who do you recommend?’ They put their heads together and said, ‘Here is a list of four names. If you get one of those, we will join your new team. But you won’t get any of them’. On the list were Niki Lauda, Mario Andretti, Ronnie Peterson and Jody Scheckter. So I spoke first to Niki. He said, ‘No thanks, I am at Ferrari’. Fine. Then I spoke to Jody. He said, ‘I am not available. I have a contract with Ken Tyrrell’. I said, ‘I’ll pay you double what Ken pays you, and you can keep all the prize money’. Ken was paying Jody $300,000 then, so my offer caught Jody’s attention. In the end he agreed to come, and now we had our team.”

By the end of the year Frank, desperate to be his own boss again, had left to set up Williams Grand Prix Engineering. Meanwhile Harvey was designing the Wolf WR1: a light, straightforward chassis to take the ubiquitous Cosworth DFV engine, clothed in a curvaceously elegant body. Patrick Head was very much involved, doing a lot of the suspension work on the new car until Frank tempted him away. Meanwhile joining the team, as a humble machinist, was a young man named Ross Brawn.

Walter is proud that in Postlethwaite – who went on to be a major player at Ferrari, Tyrrell and Honda before his sudden death at 55 – and in household names Head and Brawn, he employed in their early years three of the finest technological brains in F1’s recent history. (In 1980, just after Walter had disposed of the team to Fittipaldi, Harvey hired a lad straight from university to help him with his aerodynamic calculations. His name was Adrian Newey.)

The new Walter Wolf Racing continued to operate out of the former Williams premises at Bennet Road, Reading. From the start Walter wanted to concentrate on running a single car. “Each race can only have one winner,” he says, adding impenetrably, “When 10 naked men climb a ladder, the man who is second from the top looks the same as the man at the bottom.”

The first Grand Prix of the 1977 season was Buenos Aires, run in the stifling heat of an Argentinian January. Things didn’t start well for the new team: much of practice was lost tracing a fuel-feed problem, and Scheckter ended up 10th on the grid. But the car handled very well, and as soon as the race started Jody began to move up the field, benefiting from the retirements of Hunt’s McLaren and Watson’s Brabham, and passing Reutemann’s Ferrari, Andretti’s Lotus and finally Pace’s Brabham to take the lead with six laps to go. He ran out the winner by 43sec.

It was a historic victory, even if some F1 pundits dismissed it as a flash in the pan.

It proved to be anything but. In the remaining rounds Scheckter scored two more wins, two second places and four thirds. There were also several mechanical retirements, but every single time the Wolf finished a race it was on the podium. By mid-season Jody was leading the world championship from Lauda. In the Monaco Grand Prix he achieved an imperious victory, leading from start to finish to vanquish the Ferraris of Lauda and Reutemann. Walter says that Monaco win was one of the best days of his life.

Then Jody achieved another joyous victory, this time in Walter’s adopted homeland. That Canadian GP win at Mosport was a lucky one, inherited when Andretti’s Lotus blew its engine with two laps to go, but by the same token Jody had the Long Beach GP in his pocket, only to suffer a puncture four laps before the end.

“And there was Austria: we would have won there too. Jody was third, catching Alan Jones and Niki in front of him, when he came up to lap Patrick Neve in Frank Williams’ old March. Neve was a meathead. He moved across and Jody spun off. That was the only time I was ever pissed off with Frank.”

In the final world championship positions, the top three were Lauda, Jody and Andretti. “So we only finished second. That wasn’t so wonderful. Second doesn’t mean anything, it only means something if you win.” But Jody’s deal with Walter of $600,000 plus all the prize money turned out to be a good one. “I tell you, he earned more that year than Niki. Of course, if you ask Jody today he will tell you he was underpaid. But he was brilliant, he was a great racer, very fierce. When Jody closed on you, you had two choices: get out of the way or be pushed out of the way.”

As well as having an unparalleled debut season in F1, the energetic Walter had simultaneously set his sights on the Can-Am Series, which was being revived that year by the SCCA. Lolas dominated the entry lists, but Walter got Dallara to design and build him a centre-seat Can-Am car, and engaged Chris Amon to drive it. In practice for the first round at St Jovite Brian Redman had that notorious accident when his Lola took off at the infamous hump at more than 150mph, flew for 40 yards and flipped over on its back. His injuries included a broken neck. “When Chris saw that he almost had a heart attack. He said, ‘I don’t want to do this’.” Nevertheless he qualified the Wolf WD1 on the front row, and ran second on a wet track until an untraceable rear vibration put him out. Thereafter Gilles Villeneuve was brought in to drive the car for the remainder of the series, netting pole position and third place at Elkhart Lake but otherwise a string of retirements.

For the 1978 Formula 1 season Harvey produced the WR4, basically an updated and improved version of the WR1. But several of the other teams had taken bigger steps forward and the Wolf was now rather less of a front-runner, Jody repeatedly complaining of a lack of traction. For a while the team reverted to the original WR1, and with this Jody was third at Monaco. The WR5 was sufficiently improved to finish second to Andretti’s Lotus at Hockenheim, by which time one of the earlier cars had been sold to Teddy Yip for Keke Rosberg to drive in Theodore colours. The season ended on a higher note, with Jody taking third place at Watkins Glen and then, to Walter’s great pleasure, second place to Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari on Montréal’s Ile Notre-Dame circuit. “But that wasn’t the car, that was Jody.”

In these two final races of 1978 Walter did change his strategy temporarily and run a second car. This was because he wanted to give the young American Bobby Rahal his first taste of Formula 1. “I had been sponsoring an Austrian Formula 3 driver called Willy Siller, and when I was at the Nürburgring I saw Bobby Rahal running in a European F3 Championship round. He had never seen the old Nürburgring before, but he qualified third quickest among all the top F3 guys, so he was clearly one of the few from North America who could show the Europeans what it was all about. He went on to finish third in the race. We gave him a test at Brands Hatch, and then we entered him in a second WR5 in the US and Canadian Grands Prix.

“At Watkins Glen he played himself in, qualified 20th and finished 12th. Then in Canada it rained hard in Friday practice. Bobby was going really well until he slid off into the barriers and tore the front suspension off the monocoque. The car couldn’t be mended for the race. Well, we had an old WR1 on display in the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel in Montréal, not race-prepared or anything, just on show. The mechanics rushed off to get it, and worked all night to put it into a state where it could be raced. Bobby qualified it on Saturday, 20th on the grid alongside James Hunt’s McLaren, and in the race he went for it, getting up to 11th in the first 10 laps before something went wrong, the fuel system I think. I liked Bobby, he was a very good driver.”

By now Walter knew, to his dismay, that Jody was off to Ferrari for the 1979 season. “I have to tell you, when Jody left I started to lose interest, because he had been part of the original gang of four – Harvey, Peter, Jody and me. If you listen to what most drivers say, you’d think there are never bad drivers, only bad cars. They say, ‘Give me the right car and I will be world champion’. And, ‘If I was driving that car over there I would win the race’. But Jody never made excuses. He was a fighter, a winner.

“So for 1979 I needed a new driver. James Hunt had worked with Harvey at Hesketh, and he was persuaded to come because of that. His salary was entirely paid by Olympus. I wanted to try to get Gilles out of Ferrari, but I gave in and we signed James. The trouble was, the heart had gone out of him. The previous September, when Ronnie Peterson had his accident at Monza, James came into our motorhome that evening in a bad state.”

Peter Warr told me some years later that James, who had already been signed to drive for Wolf in 1979, pleaded with him on that Sunday evening in the Wolf motorhome at Monza to release him from his contract. “He wanted out, but I said we should wait a week or two for things to settle down. At the time we were talking we knew Ronnie was injured: what we didn’t know was that by next morning he would be dead.”

Walter is in no doubt about why the accident happened. “It was because the starter screwed it up. He switched the green light on too early and Patrese was still rolling, so he got away very fast. He hit Hunt’s McLaren, and Hunt clipped Ronnie’s rear wheel. Then, as you know, James jumped out and went to Ronnie’s aid. It was a very bad day.”

But James did start 1979 with Wolf, although the atmosphere in the team was not as it had been with Jody. “When James and Harvey were at Hesketh with Lord Hesketh and Bubbles Horsley, the races were not the important thing. Having fun was the important thing. But when James came to Wolf we were serious, and there was a fair bit of friction between him and Harvey. You often get that in a team: the driver says, ‘Give me a better car’; the engineer says, ‘Drive the car faster’.”

In fact Postlethwaite’s new WR7 was in trouble from the start. Harvey had devised a clutch-driven fan that, ostensibly, was intended to draw air through the oil coolers. But at Rio this reminded other designers of Gordon Murray’s controversial Brabham BT46B fan car that had been withdrawn following its Swedish GP victory the previous year. They reckoned it was a movable aerodynamic device, and therefore illegal. Before the race Harvey got the Wolf mechanics to change the direction of the fan, which satisfied the complainants. But then – proving that the device had in fact been doing what it was supposed to do – the oil overheated, and a second oil cooler had to be fitted behind the radiator.

James Hunt did seven races in the WR7. He only finished one of them, a lapped eighth at Kyalami. At Zolder he got up to fourth place before crashing, saying afterwards that he thought a tyre had gone down. In all the others he retired. On two occasions, on lap one at Long Beach and on lap four at Monaco, a driveshaft joint broke. Peter Warr told me that James had confided to one of the mechanics, “I’ve discovered that if I run the car along the barrier and give it a squirt in second gear, it breaks a driveshaft.” Walter doesn’t volunteer that story himself, but he remembers it when I mention it.

So, after the possibly deliberately driver-induced driveshaft failure four laps into the Monaco Grand Prix, Hunt announced his retirement. “After Patrick Depailler’s hang-gliding accident, Ligier approached James to fill their temporary vacancy. I told Guy Ligier I would sue him if he tried to go through with that, because I had James under contract. If he was still prepared to drive for anybody, he had to drive for me.”

Within days of James’s announcement the Wolf seat had gone to Keke Rosberg. The Finn’s eight races with Wolf brought little joy, but Walter remembers Keke with affection.

“He was very aggressive, like a little bull terrier. He had the killer instinct. But you have to admit that his world championship in 1982 for Williams was in part due to a lot of luck: remember he only won one race that season. Gilles was killed, Pironi was injured. Keke was in the right place at the right time.”

By the end of 1979 Walter’s enthusiasm had ebbed away. “I decided that Formula 1 was finished for me. Once I go, I go. I sold the assets to the Fittipaldi team, and they took over the Wolf premises in Reading. Harvey and Peter Warr stayed on, along with some of the mechanics. I did more flying, spent more time with my family, sold my company, bought my ranch. But I did get involved in motorcycle racing with Suzuki in 1986. We ran Mario Duhamel in Canada and he did extremely well, won a title that season. And Suzuki produced a limited edition street bike in my Wolf colours.” In 1998 Walter was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame.

“Then in late 1998, almost 20 years after I had got out of Formula 1, Bernie Ecclestone told me that Ken Tyrrell was selling his team. Bernie said if I bought it he would back me, to get back into my position in Formula 1, so I offered Ken $15 million for the whole Tyrrell team. Harvey was back working there then. Ken said to me, ‘Walter, I want you to have the team’. Then a week later BAT offered $25 million. When I heard that I said to Ken, ‘You should accept their offer. Very fast’. So Tyrrell became BAR.

“Bernie is another man I really respect. Sure, he has made a serious fortune out of motor racing, but he doesn’t just do it for the money, believe me. His whole life has been motor sport, ever since he was racing a little Formula 3 car at Brands Hatch 65 years ago. He has put together the Formula 1 package and he has made a lot of money. He deserves it.

“Another big figure, of course, was Enzo Ferrari. Do you know that Wolf was at that time the only F1 team to run at the Fiorano test track apart from Ferrari? When we were running Jody, the Old Man invited us to take a car down there to test. Of course, the reason was he wanted to take a look at Jody. A month or so later he signed him, and Jody went on to win the championship for him straight off. The Old Man was smart. Behind those dark glasses you never knew what he was thinking. Most guys that smart don’t live to be 90 years old.

“I have made some great friends in motor racing. Gilles Villeneuve only drove for me in Can-Am, but we were neighbours when I had a house in the hills above Cannes and we saw a lot of each other. He was a fantastic guy. There is always a fine line between being a real racer and being stupid, and Gilles didn’t know where that line was. After Pironi ignored Ferrari team orders at Imola and won the race, even though they were really just making a demonstration, Gilles was really angry, he felt cheated. He couldn’t take it. A few days later Gilles, Jochen Mass and I had dinner at my house and we talked about it. Gilles and Jochen were good friends. Then the next weekend at Zolder, in the final moments of qualifying, Gilles was going for pole position, and he crossed that line. Ironically it happened to be Jochen who was in the car he hit, which was very sad for Jochen. You can’t cross that line. It was like Ricardo Rodriguez in practice for the Mexican Grand Prix in 1962 – he was going for pole and he crossed that line.

“Carlos Pace was a guy I liked. He was a very good driver, better than people remember. But he was also a hell of a guy. I asked him once, ‘Carlos, which do you prefer: the racing, or the women?’ He said, ‘Of course, definitely the women’. He died flying, with his instructor, near São Paulo. Carlos Reutemann was very good, too, but when the pressure was on he could be psyched out – like Alan Jones did to him when they were both at Williams in 1980. Jonesy was great: it took him a while to get there, but in the end he was a proper champion.

“Today, motor racing is all very corporate. It is a business, not a sport any more. In the 1970s we would all stay at the same hotel, drivers and teams, we would have dinner together. We were friends. After the race we would hate each other for a day or two, then we would be friends again. Today people don’t talk to each other, you would never see people from different teams having dinner. And after the race, each driver rushes to the airport, or if a driver retires he is gone without waiting for the end. There’s another big difference: if you are in F1 now, you are making money. When I was in F1 I was just spending it.”

Walter has continued to have a variety of business interests in Europe – a brand of aftershave in Spain, a cigarette brand in Croatia – but recently he has been in the news because, as he is quite happy to explain to me, Interpol has a warrant out for his arrest. “I was accused in Slovenia of bribing the prime minister. It’s complete garbage. I never met the man. I have been in court seven or eight times, flying back and forth. I am accused of giving a present to an unknown person in an unknown place at an unknown time. What does that mean? It means they have made it up. It was dragging on, dragging on, and then I had my stroke, spent some time in hospital, and after that I said they could go to hell. They say I am hiding in Canada. I am not hiding, they know exactly where I am. You found me, no problem. And the likelihood of Canada allowing me to be extradited is the same as me becoming Pope.

“The thing is, they are all communists in Slovenia. I don’t like communists, I don’t like fascists. To me they are the same. Hitler was an egomaniac, Putin is an egomaniac. You know, history repeats itself, and people like that are very dangerous. I have been on television in Slovenia and I have said these things, and they do not like it. Now I have lost everything I had in Slovenia – it was worth €20 million. But I am not really motivated by money. I am more interested in achieving something. And I still have enough to eat. On my ranch I have 2000 cows, so I can eat meat for a long time.”

I’m told that as you approach Walter Wolf’s ranch house there is a big dog kennel, with a big dog inside it. The notice above the kennel says: “Never mind the dog, beware of the owner.” That sums up the man: a man who thinks big, a man with a sense of humour, but not a man to be trifled with. I’m rather sorry that we don’t see his unmistakable figure in its black leather coat in the paddock any more.

He may say that he preferred his era in F1 nearly 40 years ago: but I have a feeling that he would fit rather well into the ruthless political cut and thrust of F1 today.