Ayrton Senna only drove ralts in F3, right? Wrong. He also drove a Sparton. A what? A Sparton. And, writes Nick Phillips, the Brazillian star thought it was pretty good
Picture the scene: you’re a young ambitious racing driver with a new Formula Three chassis built by your own company, which is attempting to step up after producing some reasonably successful single-seaters for lesser formulae. The car feels good, and you reckon you’re driving it well, but it’s off the pace. What do you do?
The obvious answer to Paul Jackson was to put Ayrton Senna in it. And that’s how the legendary Brazilian came to give M-Sport’s Sparton SE420VW a thorough workout.
This was the season when Senna’s career took off, but he was still far removed from superstar status. He was, though, in the thick of his battle with Martin Brindle for the British F3 title and had already been linked several Fl drives for 1984. So, from a modem perspective, it seems amazing that he should put himself out to help some struggling Brits out of a corner.
“It didn’t all seem quite as serious then,” says Jackson. “And it was done very much as a spur of the moment thing. We asked him as a favour and that’s the basis he did it on. He put in a sensibly long run and gave us an honest opinion, which is what we needed.”
Sparton was run by co-directors Jackson and Norman Pierce. “We started making cars in 1978,” says Jackson, “and it must have gone through to ‘84,1 think, which is when it all started to get a bit difficult.”
Sparton built Formula Fords to begin with. Driven by Johnny Herbert and Allard Kalif, as well as Jackson, they met with some success in an era when there was a cut-throat sales battle between Van Diemen, Royale and Reynard.
“Whenever one of our guys started to go well,” says Jackson, “one of the big boys would give him a free chassis, and we could never compete with that. We learned an awful lot of hard lessons.”
There was what Jackson calls “some moderate success” in junior formulae, including dominance of the short-lived Formula Talbot think Formula Ford with a more powerful (methanol-fuelled) Talbot engine and slicks. Courtesy of Derek Cook and Jackson, Sparton won the first and second Talbot titles, in 1980-81.
By 1983, though, both Jackson the businessman and Jackson the driver were looking to step up to F3. Jackson and Pierce collaborated with Geoff Rumble (the man behind Dastle) on an F3 design and built two chassis, the first of which was completed in time to contest five races in the second half of the ’83 season.
That brings us to the test. It was on the run-up to the last two rounds of a season Senna had dominated initially only to be hauled back latterly by Brundle. So he was testing his Raft RT3 facing the very real possibility that the title might be sneaked from under his nose; which is precisely when a couple of young Brits sidled up…
Jackson: “I’d done a fair stint in the car and we were reasonably happy, but were still a 1.5sec off the pace. So we sat down and thought about it. I said that, as far as I was concerned, it felt pretty good: I had a balance everywhere and it was as fast as I could go.
“We needed a reference point. The ideal way to do that was to get a front-runner in the car to see where we were at. If Ayrton had blown me away by two seconds, fine, I’d hang my helmet up; but if he did not, hopefully he could tell us what our problem was. That’s when we approached him.
“I didn’t know him very well and he wasn’t an outgoing type of guy, but he was okay about it. He was a bit reluctant to begin with: he was busy and wasn’t sure whether his contract would allow it. We said, ‘Okay, let’s talk to Dickie [Senna’s team boss, Dick Bennetts]. He had a similar opinion.”
“You know why?” says Bennetts. “Earlier in the year Ayrton had been off the pace at a test, which just wasn’t like him. He said that he was taking it easy, but it turned out that he’d been testing an FF2000 the day before, something had broken and he’d had the most enormous barrel roll. The worry was that something like that could happen again.”
Amazingly, though, Jackson and Pierce talked them round. And that brought Jackson to career crunch time: “I was holding my head in my hands thinking, ‘Christ, if he blows me away, that’s if.”
Senna didn’t blow him away. He was quicker, but only by a bit. Even better, Ayrton was quite complimentary about the car.
“He said, There’s no big problem. In fact, through the chicane I think it’s quicker than my car. But you need to do something about the engine’.”
The way Senna immersed himself in tasks was evident, too. “It certainly wasn’t a case of him saying ‘Your engine’s shit!’ and walking away,” states Jackson. “He was really enthusiastic and friendly and helpful. We stood and chatted, talked about the various corners and how it felt on each one. He was a great help to us. Ultimately, we didn’t have the budget or wherewithal to fix it, but at least we knew where the problems were.”
And there was no question of a fee for the Sparton run. ‘There was never any suggestion that he wanted something from it,” says Jackson. “It was freely given and much appreciated.”
Sparton’s F3 car didn’t achieve any great success, though Mario Hytten took it to fourth in the final round of the 1983 British championship. “Really, with hindsight, to undertake an F3 programme in the situation we were in was not really a sensible thing,” admits Jackson. “But we were younger, and greener, and had those dreams of progression. It was a very good education in how to do every thing in Motorsport”.
Pierce soon left Motorsport, but Jackson stayed, running the Sparton (alongside a Raft for Ross Cheever) in 1984 before replacing it with another Raft. He ran out of driving opportunities in 1986, and took up behind-the-scenes roles.
He’s still involved with promising young Brazilian drivers. He’s currently team manager/race engineer with the Petrobras Junior Team in Formula 3000, which this season is running Antonio Pizzonia and Ricardo Sperafico.II