Legends - Bob Bondurant

Lunch with Bob Bodurant at Monaco. I don’t know what it is about American drivers of the ’50s and ’60s, but all have great powers of recall, and spice their anecdotes with easy humour. Phil Hill and Dan Gurney I can listen to for hours.

Bondurant was not in their class as a driver but that’s not to say he didn’t build a substantial reputation in GT and sportscars, particularly those associated with Carroll Shelby. His name always says ‘Cobra’ to me, and in 1965, in one of the beautiful Daytona coupes, he was instrumental in winning the GT Manufacturers’ Championship for Shelby.

If he remembers one event above all from that era, however, it is the Tour de France of the year before. On the face of it, a Daytona Cobra was less than ideal for this event, then effectively a rally at racing speeds.

“There were eight races and nine hillclimbs,” Bondurant recalled, “and the road sections between were like a long race on their own! You had checkpoints along the way, and if you didn’t make one of them on time, you were out.

“We had to average, like, 67mph on the road and to do that, you had to be going pretty hard a lot of the time, because obviously you had to slow down for the villages. The Cobra was a wild thing in those conditions, but we didn’t know any better…”

He drove with Jochen Neerpasch, and did a thorough reconnaissance of the route. Bob reckons that really paid off, but still there were surprises.

“We did all that in the daytime, of course but the first hillclimb was at night. The smallest cars started first, and by the time we got to go up, there were boulders everywhere, because so many guys were flying off the road. I said to Jochen – who never wore a seat belt – ‘Hang on, here we go…”

After fighting up the rock-strewn road, Bondurant expected to be in midfield; in fact he had won. And the Cobra was to lead until the race at Le Mans, where the clutch disintegrated.

There were many adventures in the interim. “In ten days we had four nights where you slept; otherwise, we were on the road the whole time. We ran at Rouen, and on the way I felt the throttle cable was trying to pull out. At the stop I told the mechanic, but he and said it looked fine.

“About ten laps in, I was leading, and the pedal went dead. I jumped out, used a franc piece to turn the throttles wide open, and then drove it on the ignition switch after that!”

Fitting a new cable took nearly an hour and there was a control at Caen to be reached, somehow, on time.

“I’ll never forget that,” Bondurant smiled. “This was in normal traffic, and it was a holiday everyone was coming back from the beach, and we were doing 160mph! David Piper was behind, in a GTO, doing the same.

“Remember I said Neerpasch never wore a seat belt? Well, halfway there, I look over at him, and he’s putting on the shoulder harness! We made that checkpoint by 17 seconds…”

It was always Bondurant’s hope to get into F1, and a chance came late in 1964. The recalcitrant ATS cars had been taken over by Alf Francis, and when Bob went to Monza to test Ford GT4Os for John Wyer, Francis asked if he’d care for a run in an ATS.

“They’d redesigned the rear suspension, but not put in new halfshafts. I went out, got used to it, and that night got talking about the Curva Grande, about guys like Clark taking it flat out.

“We went back next morning and I’m thinking, ‘Well, maybe it is flat out.’ I figured the ATS didn’t have that strong a motor, so I wouldn’t be going that fast, and after a few laps I got through it flat out. And on the way to the Lesmos I’d picked up 500rpm. Quite a difference.

“By the end of an hour, I’d done it several times, and got the ‘In’ signal. I thought, ‘Well, who knows when I’ll be back here? I’m going to do it one more time’. As I went through a half shaft broke. I was doing about 150mph, and then the axle broke at the left rear. I went through the hedge backwards, and remember thinking, ‘Bondurant, you just wrote yourself off…’

“I went down a ravine, and got thrown out. I was wearing one of those bubble shield visors we had at the time and it got shredded, but it saved my face. I landed on my back, on a pile of leaves! Just lucked out, I guess. When I came to I was gasping for air, and it felt like I’d a punctured lung, so I rolled over on my stomach, crawled to a hedge, and pulled myself up with the branches.

“I couldn’t find the car, though. I thought, ‘Well, I know I came down here in a car – where the hell is it?’ Then, in the middle of the Curva Grande I found the hole in the hedge and then I found the car. At that time the bodywork was all one piece, and the front had come back, so the windscreen and the roll-over bar were sheared off. If I’d been strapped in, I’d have been decapitated. I thought, ‘Wow, if this is Formula One…’

“The middle of my back was sore as hell, and back in London I saw an English doctor. He said, ‘Where did you crash?’ I said, ‘Monza’, but he looked at me meaningfully, and said, ‘No, you crashed at Goodwood, I’m sure you crashed at Goodwood’. I got the message, and said, ‘Yeah, OK, Goodwood.’ I got a doctor for free!”

A year later, Bob won the F3 supporting race at the Italian GP, and was afterwards invited to Maranello. “John Surtees told me the Old Man wanted to see me, but when I got there, he wasn’t around. I met Mauro Forghieri, and he showed me the factory – showed me everything, in fact.

“I waited and waited, and the Old Man still hadn’t shown up. Then I met up with David Piper, and we went off for dinner. Surtees called after we’d ordered, and said, ‘You must come now – the Old Man is here.’ I said, ‘John, I’ve been waiting all day. I’m going to finish dinner first’ He said, ‘You can’t do that.” Yes, I can,’ I said. Mind you, I ate very quickly…

“Back at the factory, we passed the windows of Ferrari’s office – there he was, sitting at the desk, six floodlights on him. We walked in, and the only other thing in that room was a picture of Dino Ferrari, lit by a candle which burned 24 hours a day.

“We talked for an hour, with John interpreting. Would I like to work here in Italy? I said, ‘Yes. Formule Uno? “Possibile, Bondurant, possibile…’ Mainly, though, he was talking sportscars. Then we walked through the factory but he only showed me what he wanted me to see!

“He said he would contact me later. I was waiting and waiting, and he didn’t call. Then finally I was told to go back for a seat fitting, that they wanted me to do the US Grand Prix.”

Surtees had by this time seriously injured himself in a CanAm car, so for Watkins Glen Ferrari entered cars for regular team member Lorenzo Bandini, and for Pedro Rodriguez and Bondurant.

After qualifying a good 14th (ahead of Rodriguez), Bob got as high as sixth in the race. “Then the weather changed. It started raining, and blowing like crazy, and my goggles blew down – the elastic had stretched, believe it or not. I didn’t have a spare pair with me, and I figured if I came in, tried to get to where my bag was, it would take for ever. So I stuck my head high out of the cockpit, so the wind would keep the goggles against my face, and when I came to a corner, I’d stick my knee against the wheel, use my left hand to hold my goggles on, and my right to change gear!

“I ended up ninth, but if that hadn’t happened I’d have been in the points, for sure. I drove sportscars for Ferrari in ’66, but that race at Glen was the only time I drove an F1 car for them. Sad, but even so I’ll never forget it…”