In from the cold
Tom Walkinshaw’s most surprising recruit for last year’s five-car Le Mans challenge was an American Porsche driver who was almost unknown in Europe. But Price Cobb returns for a second attempt as a fully-fledged Jaguar man now in the front line of TWR’s IMSA Championship campaign.
Last June Price Cobb was invited to drive a Silk Cut Jaguar at Le Mans, and it would have been only slightly more surprising if Hans Stuck had been selected. Cobb was at the time a Porsche man through and through, heading for his third consecutive victory in the US Porsche Cup (which he now holds in perpetuity) and, in all seriousness, an arch-rival of Tom Walkinshaw’s Castrol Jaguar IMSA team.
At the time he felt like an outsider in the British team. Sharing the car with Danny Sullivan (who also said that he felt excluded from the team camaraderie) and with Davy Junes, he finished a disappointed sixteenth after having the XJR9’s transmission rebuilt twice, but whatever his feelings may have been at the time he subsequently made it his ambition to join the Jaguar team.
Cobb, who is 34 years old and lives in Colorado, has yet to make his mark in Europe, although naturally he has high hopes for Le Mans this time around, but has proved to be the fast, rugged and reliable competitor TWR’s American outfit hoped for. Five straight second places in the IMSA championship may not be exactly what he expected at the start of the season but they do keep him, and co-driver John Nielsen, well ahead in the overall points position. Exactly as Cobb anticipated, though, the Porsche opposition seems to be crumbling; indeed his former entrant, Rob Dyson, has virtually withdrawn in order to concentrate on CART racing … with James Weaver.
That’s a sore point with Cobb. After going through the Bob Bondurant racing school at Lime Rock, with Dyson, Cobb shone for two seasons in Formula Ford and Formula Atlantic, and then waned for a full decade. He’d reached the point where he needed big money, or a major sponsor, to go forwards, and he had neither. It was Dyson who saved him from a humdrum existence of working in a tuning shop, securing just the odd drive “Come to Watkins Glen and drive my new Porsche 962,” said Dyson in 1985, an invitation accepted without hesitation.
“I hadn’t even sat in a race car for two years. We tested at Lime Rock and it terrified me! I hadn’t raced anything with a roof before, I’d never driven anything that weighed more than a thousand pounds and certainly hadn’t driven anything that was turbocharged, or had 800 horsepower.
“My time at Lime Rock would have been enough for a top five position, so off we went to Watkins Glen … and I was a disaster! I had to go fast with some of the best people in the business, and I just wasn’t there. Drake Olson and I finished seventh, but we should have been third or fourth.”
There is no point now in dwelling on the drama in Cobb’s career, but his absolute honesty is refreshing in a business where “image” is everything. Olson wanted a new partner, sponsor Budweiser wanted to drop him, and Dyson himself was seriously concerned. The next race, though, was at Columbus, a street circuit with lower speeds, and Cobb was given another chance. He redeemed himself by being right on the pace and winning the race. “It was the turnaround,” says Cobb, who built his reputation with three outright victories in 1986 and has now taken part in 51 IMSA races and won nine of them, finishing in the top five on 37 occasions.
Although 1988 was not a vintage Porsche year Cobb won two races, and his sensational victory at Miami, where he beat Martin Brundle by four-hundreths of a second, established him clearly in Walkinshaw’s mind. The invitation to drive at Le Mans came straight after that.
“Last August,” Cobb recalls, “it seemed that Rob Dyson and I were going into Indycar racing, and that was all I could think about. But time was going by and the deal wasn’t coming together. I have a family, I need a job, and I was getting offers that I had to consider.”
One such came from the Electramotive Nissan team, based in California, and towards the end of 1988 both Cobb and Chip Robinson were invited to Daytona for a test. Cobb was the quicker driver, and in fact was under all previous GTP qualifying marks even though it was Nissan’s first visit to the Floridian track.
“They offered me the drive that night, but I asked for 48 hours to think about it. because I knew that someone from Jaguar was up there in the stands timing us. I was going to hear from Jaguar, and sure enough it happened. By then I’d set my heart on Jaguar.”
On previous form the Nissan was still going to be the car to beat, as Cobb well knew. The Electramotive team felt spurned, and puzzled.
“Nissan, you see, offered Geoffrey Brabham the championship,” Cobb explains. “They wanted someone to back him up. I’d have had a problem with that because I’m a front-line player, and my bottom line is to win races. Myself! I’m a team man, if I win a race with somebody that’s fine, but at this point I don’t want to be driving someone else’s car. I’d have had to put the charnpionship out of my mind. Herewith Jaguar, it’s Davy Jones and me, we both have the chance.”
Jaguar has got itself a highly competitive, disciplined driver who is partnered perfectly with John Nielsen, last year’s IMSA runner-up. There’s just one thing, though, that Cobb finds it hard to talk about, and that is Rob Dyson’s delayed decision to go into CART racing, announced just a few days after the Jaguar contract was signed. Eventually Cobb had despaired of the CART deal, but such was his relationship with Dyson, “like brothers”, that he was convinced that the plan had gone cold.
“It’s not something I want to talk about.., ask Rob if you want to know. Maybe he was sore that I left him, and wanted to show he could do without me; I don’t know. But there wasn’t an Indycar deal the day I accepted the offer from Jaguar, and going to the Castrol team is the best thing I could possibly have done. Indycars will still be there when I’m ready.” MLC