"The most stupid thing I ever did..."
Was spurning Ferrari as a teenage race prodigy. Still driving hard as he nears the Big 5-0, Eddie Cheever has had plenty of time to rue the decision
Words: Gary Watkins
Eddie Cheever is the oldest driver competing in top-line single-seater racing today; 30 years ago he was among the youngest. He was racing in Formula Two just a year after his debut in cars and had a Ferrari contract by the time he was 19. And then he told them where to stick it when he learned he didn't have a Formula One race seat. Cheever was most definitely a young man in a hurry.
"Impetuous", "impatient" and "arrogant" are all words Cheever, today racing open-wheelers in the IRL IndyCar Series at the age of 48, uses to describe his younger self. "I wanted everything now, now, now," he says. "I was in too much of a rush back then." So much so that he even pretended to be a year older than he actually was. This impatience explains why the Arizona-born karting star, who had spent much of his childhood in Italy, completed just 10 Formula Ford races in Britain at the start of 1975 before moving into Formula 3 with the works Modus team. His efforts alongside fellow countryman Danny Sullivan — he won at Silverstone only fourth time out — caught the eye of Project 4 boss Ron Dennis. First, he put Cheever in one of his F3 cars for a one-off in Germany at the end of the year, and then offered him an F2 deal for 1976.
The big break came for '77. Dennis, who was also acting as Cheever's manager, pulled off a masterstroke. His young charge would race a BMW 320i Group 5 `sportscar' for the Munich marque's new Junior Team, while Project 4 would get a supply of works Bimmer engines for its two-car team of Ralt RT1s.
Cheever had managed just one podium in '76 with Hart power, but now he was a championship front-runner. He scored maximum points by finishing second behind seeded driver Jochen Mass at the Nürburgring and followed it up with his first proper victory at Rouen in June. A month later, he should have added a second win at Enna: he had won the first heat and was well ahead on aggregate when he threw it off trying to pass Keke Rosberg.
Such performances were attracting attention in high places. Within weeks he'd had talks with both Ferrari and Brabham, and was confident enough, or perhaps that should read arrogant enough, to declare that he would be in F1 the following season with a 12-cylinder engine behind him.
The call from Ferrari had come straight after Enna. "The phone rang and the voice on the other end said it was Daniele Audetto [Ferrari's team manager]," recalls Cheever. "I thought it was one of my friends playing a joke, so I kept hanging up on him. Eventually he managed to persuade me that it really was him. He told me that Enzo Ferrari would like to meet me. "It was all very convoluted, because they didn't want anyone to know that I was there. We had to meet at a café and then go behind some buildings. Eventually I was taken up to his office."
Cheever offers a typical story of a meeting with Ferrari. "I was in there for five minutes before Enzo said anything," he explains. "He just shuffled papers behind his big desk before he started talking to me, without looking up.
"The first thing he said was that when I drove one of his cars I wasn't to go over the kerbs. I thought, 'That's a good start'. Then he just talked and talked, telling me how I needed to test and how I could become a better driver."
A multi-day test at Fiorano followed, which included running on the Michelin tyres the team would use the following year. "I remember getting a lot of time in the car; I was there for four or five days," he says. "It was very hot and I wanted to get out of the car between runs. They said, Niki [Lauda] 'never gets out of the car'. It was Niki this' and Niki that' all the way through, but I ended up signing a contract for a lot of money for a 19-year old."
Cheever had no doubt at the time that he would be racing for Ferrari the following season and was expecting to make his F1 debut at a non-championship race at Imola that September, an idea which had been floated by Italian motorsport weekly Autosprint. The race would be open only to drivers who had yet to score a world championship point.
But the race, which had been touted as a pilot to a new European F1 series, never happened. And nor did Cheever's Ferrari drive.
The American ended up losing both his F1 chance and the opportunity to add to his tally of victories in the European F2 Championship in the space of weeks. His BMW contract took him to Vallelunga for a World Championship of Makes round in early October. Front suspension failure on only his fourth lap of practice resulted in a massive accident. Cheever remembers going under the barrier; contemporary reports say he rolled over it. Whatever, the end result was a written-off 320i and extensive arm injuries for its driver.
"I broke my hand and elbow and dislocated my shoulder, and was in hospital for what seemed like weeks," says Cheever. "I got a nice telegram while I was there from the Old Man telling me to get well and that they would put me back in the car as soon as I was ready."
Cheever received some more news from Ferrari while he was in hospital, via the pages of Gazzetta dello Sport. "I opened the newspaper one day to read that Ferrari had signed Gilles Villeneuve," he recalls. "I was so mad that they had taken Villeneuve that I wanted out of my contract.
I went to Ferrari in my plastercast demanding to see the boss. I went three times before he would finally see me.
"Ferrari asked me why I had come down trying to get out of my contract. My reply was, 'Because I want to race in F1 next year'. He told me that I was young and needed more test miles, but I still wanted out."
Ferrari wanted Cheever, eight years Villeneuve's junior, to continue testing at the same time as racing its F2 engine. The offer was declined, and not because of Cheever's experiences with the Lancia unit on which the V6 powerplant was based at the beginning of '76.
"It was the most stupid thing I ever did in motorsport," says Cheever today. "What harm would it have done me as a young kid to be racing Ferrari's F2 engine and doing a bunch of testing?"
Cheever did make it to Buenos Aires for the first round of the 1978 F1 season after agreeing a late deal with Teddy Yip's Theodore team. Its new Ralt-built TR1 most definitely wasn't a Ferrari 312T2, however.
"I had tested an F1 car, therefore I wanted to be racing an F1 car. The Theodore deal came out of reflex. It was a difficult programme and it was at the time when teams were getting very different tyres from Goodyear.
"I failed to qualify in Argentina and when we went to Brazil Leo Mehl gave me a used set of James Hunt's qualifiers. That's like using a second-hand condom, but even with those I was still something like a good second and a half quicker." That wasn't enough to make the grid at Interlagos, although Cheever reckons it was probably better that he didn't qualify. "I was still having trouble with my hand and I doubt that I would have managed more than 10 laps." The first of Cheever's 132 Grand Prix starts finally came at Kyalami in a one-off appearance for Hesketh Racing in March. The team folded within weeks so it was another step back into F2 with Project 4. "I'm amazed Ron had me back," says Cheever, who was unable to build on his strong '77 season and failed to win a race. The star that had shone so brightly appeared to be on the wane, only for the momentum to be restored from an unlikely quarter. A move to the Italian Osella squad for '79 looked like a retrograde step, but it not only put him back in the F2 winners' circle but also gave him the chance to describe himself finally as a grand prix driver.
"I was sick of F2 by that time, but going there looked like a good idea. Enzo Osella had Pirelli tyres and did his own engines. The F1 thing was entirely serendipitous, actually."
The money for Osella's F1 graduation largely came from the state-owned MS tobacco company. That meant the sponsorship deal had to be discussed in parliament. Cheever had learned that he wouldn't be racing for Ferrari by reading a newspaper. This time he found out that he would finally become a full-time F1 driver through another branch of the media — listening to the debate on the radio!