Up in smoke

Aussie battler Dave Walker shone bightly in 1971 aboard a Gold Leaf Lotus Formula Three car. But when he stepped up to Formula one with the team and John Player Special, it all turned black. Michael Oliver finds out why…

“I will never forget it even though it only lasted six laps before the thing blew up. Instead of cars going past me on the straights, I was actually able to pull up alongside and outbrake them into corners — a physical impossibility with the engines I’d had before. I thought, ‘This is a piece of cake’. And that was quite a shock.” Dave Walker is describing his first experience of a Series 12 Cosworth DFV during the 1972 Austrian Grand Prix — a race that typified his F1 career: a glimpse of potential followed by an anti-climactic letdown.

Walker made the switch to the John Player Team Lotus Formula One squad on the back of a dominant Formula Three season: 25 wins from 32 starts, including the prestigious Monaco and British GP support races, and two UK titles, the Shell and the Forward Trust. He made his GP debut during the season too, in the four-wheel-drive Lotus 56B turbine at Zandvoort

He blotted his copybook on the latter occasion, spinning off when a points finish beckoned, but his F3 success that year played a major part in persuading John Player to extend its sponsorship of Lotus for another three years, as team manager Peter Warr acknowledges: “At the time we went to Silverstone [for the British GP] our contract with Player’s was up for renewal. Dave drove a blinding race to win the F3 event, in front of Player’s top brass, and on the strength of that we promised him the F1 ride.”

Walker was signed as number two to Emerson Fittipaldi for 1972. It was a gilt-edged opportunity. But while the Brazilian went on to become the youngest-ever F1 world champion, Walker’s 10 starts brought him seven DNFs all due to mechanical failure and zero points. His career was tarnished.

Opinion is divided as to why he failed to make an impact. Walker cites several factors: lack of testing, unfamiliarity with the bulk of the circuits, inferior engines and car specification, being barred from set-up changes. His mechanics — and Warr — point to a lack of mechanical sympathy and a failure to adapt to F1.

Who can say one is right and the other wrong? For example, in the Spanish GP at Jarama, Walker ran out of fuel in the closing stages when on the tail of a three-car group disputing fourth. Was this his fault for racing too hard when fuel was tight or a preparation error by the team? Yes, Fittipaldi won the race with less fuel aboard than Walker, but he had been conscious of the need to conserve juice after a last-minute leak left him starting slightly short…

That lack of testing certainly hampered Walker’s efforts with what he freely admits was a hard car to drive: “The Lotus 72 was unique in terms of its torsion-bar suspension; it had a lot more anti-squat and anti-dive than probably any other F1 car at the time. It was just very different” His first test set the tone for the rest of the year. “We went to a damp Brands Hatch for the best part of half a day. And that was all the time I had in the car before the first grand prix. I did absolutely zero midweek testing from the beginning of the season to the end.”

Fittipaldi had faced a similar situation in — 1971 little testing, little F1 experience — and endured a lean spell. Now, though, he was doing all the team’s testing, visiting most major European circuits prior their grand prix. Walker, who had only raced at Jarama, Monaco and Brands Hatch before, was forced to learn the other racetracks in practice.

Walker’s mechanics from that year, Rex Hart and Steve May, still strenuously deny his assertions that he was handed inferior equipment, insisting that the cars were prepared to the same level. But Warr does concede that Fittipaldi’s number one status penalised Walker: “If there were any development bits, Emerson would get them.”

This was understandable. Even Walker’s mechanic from the F3 days, Ian Campbell, concedes the point: “Who would you give the best of everything to — the bloke who is going to win or the bloke who may finish seventh or eighth? You try your best for the number two driver, give him the best of what’s left, but you sure as hell don’t give him the latest engine or dampers, do you?” The practical manifestations of this policy meant that, as late as August, Walker was driving a car with a specification last used by Fittipaldi in May.

Engines were another Walker bugbear: he regularly complained of down-on-power DFVs. It’s not disputed that Fittipaldi had access to the latest Series 12s, as befitting someone challenging for the tide, but more than 30 years on it’s hard to verify the specification of engines allocated to Walker. Contemporary data shows that at least one engine (DFV 082) was raced by both men at different points of the year. It is also recorded that Walker had to use an old Series 9 in practice for the Austrian GP. Certainly, he had more than his fair share of engine blow-ups, but whether this was a symptom or a cause of his being allocated lesser-spec power units is difficult to say.

Being prevented from making major set-up changes was another issue which Walker feels held him back: “Whenever I wanted to make a change to something, I pretty much wasn’t allowed to. I’d just be flatly told, ‘It’s set up the same as Emerson’s and he’s going a second quicker, so what’s your problem?’ Well, we were two very different drivers, you know!” This difficulty was compounded in Spain and Monaco, where Walker was forced to use Fittipaldi’s spare having damaged his own car. Unsurprisingly, the Brazilian wasn’t keen on major changes being made to this chassis in case he needed it. Campbell recalls that Walker liked a much stiffer set-up than Fittipaldi and agrees that this would have been a problem: “I remember Dave saying to me that they wouldn’t make the car stiff enough…” Hart denies this, however, stating that stiffening Walker’s car “made no difference at all.”

Enough of the car, what about the driver? Could he have been lacking? Unsurprisingly, this is something which Walker does not cite as a contributing factor. (What professional racing driver would given that a deep-seated self-belief is what keeps them going?) His lack of F1 experience perhaps showed on occasions: at Monaco, he pitted to complain of poor handling in a wet race when there was oil on the track; in Belgium, he stopped to report no oil pressure only to discover that the needle had fallen off the gauge!

Which brings us to mechanical sympathy. May says: “Dave would come into the pits and his engine would be red-lined. This happened on several occasions.” Additionally, there were instances when Walker was slow to pick up on warning signs of an impending blow-up, a bad habit that did not endear him to his team, or to the other drivers sliding around on the resultant oil slicks. Walker was also accused of being hard on his gearboxes. It’s a charge he vigorously denies: “In all my career up to that point, I had never damaged a gearbox, or had a gearbox failure.”

Walker was accused of lacking something else: race fitness. There is a huge gulf between 20-mile F3 sprints and 200-mile GPs. “We had to lift him out of the car in South Africa,” says Hart.

But according to Warr, it was another ‘gulf’ — that between low-powered F3 cars and sensitive, torquey F1s — that caused Walker’s ultimate GP demise: “What let him down was that he had only ever driven cars with an on/off switch. He’d never had to master the delicacies of throttle control which a car with 450-500bhp demands.”

Former Lotus Components boss and GRD founder Mike Warner, who ran Walker in F3 and championed his cause on numerous occasions, tends to agree with this: “Dave never could quite make that transition. He was very successful outside of F1, but it never quite clicked once he was in it.”

In the end, however, it was probably the politics of a team focused so heavily around `Emmo’ that ensured Walker’s F1 fate. He was simply in the right team, with the right car, at the wrong time.

“On paper, Dave had all the right credentials,” says Campbell. “He was obviously an exceptionally good racing driver. Unfortunately, when he went into F1, he joined a team in which Emerson Fittipaldi was absolutely at the peak of his powers; everything was done the way he wanted it.

“If Dave had gone into a team that had coaxed him along, been more patient with him, pandered to him a bit, I think he would have done better, because I think he had the ability to do it; I can’t believe that he didn’t. If you’d have put Emerson Fittipaldi in Dave’s F3 car during 1971 he wouldn’t have done any better, would he?”

Perhaps not. But in 1972, when it really mattered, it was no contest: Fittipaldi struck gold, while Walker stumbled into a black hole.

Getting there…

Walkers’s journey to Formula One was a long, hard slog.

He trained to be an accountant until a chance meeting with some motorsport enthusiasts changed his life. His racing career began in Australia during the late 1950s with a second place in a hillclimb aboard his twin-cam MGA. A race at Gnoo Blas followed and the bug had bitten.

He made an abortive trip to England in 1962 and had to hitch-hike home, where he quickly realised that his racing future lay in single-seaters. Walker purchased a Formula Junior Brabham which he campaigned with some success in domestic events until a serious crash in the ’65 Tasman round at Lakeside.

He returned to Europe in 1966 and had a handful of Formula Three drives before his money ran out. Undaunted, he scraped the funds together to buy a Merlyn Mk10 for ’67 and embarked on a season as an ‘F3 gypsy’, criss-crossing Europe, living on start money and prize money. His first big success came in June when he won the Adriatic GP on the daunting Preluk road circuit at Opatija, Yugoslavia.

A switch to UK Formula Ford for 1968 yielded a Lotus link-up towards the end of the year and he used a works 61 to win the Les Leston Championship the following season.

He moved back up to F3 for a few races at the end of 1969 and his performances were enough to secure a works ride with Gold Leaf Team Lotus in the category for ’70. Although the prestigious Motor Sport/Shell Oils title just eluded him, eight wins and the Lombank Championship were reward for a very strong campaign.

And then everything clicked in that all-conquering 1971 Formula Three season. Dave Walker had arrived. At last.

And coming back?

Walker signed with the new GRD Formula Two team for 1973. But it was to prove an even more disastrous year for him than ’72. He broke a leg in a car crash and then, in August, had a far more serious road accident which virtually severed his left arm. The limb was saved but never regained its full movement — a career hammer blow.

Sportscar and F2 outings followed in 1974 with Toj, and in ’75 Walker drove an F5000 Chevron B28 for John Macdonald. Although he was straight back on the pace, he soon decided that the time had come to retire: ‘We went over to Zolder and had some major brake problems in practice and the race. I had a couple of spins but got out of it without hitting anything. But when I got back to London that night, I said to my wife, ‘I think it’s time I stopped. I’m trying too hard and I don’t feel comfortable.’ Physically, it wasn’t all there the left arm was not strong enough — and I was overcompensating in other ways.”

After a few Canadian Formula Atlantic races in a Lola, Walker hung up his helmet for good at the end of 1975.

Today, he runs a boat charter business in Queensland. Having stepped back from its day-to-day running, however, his interest in fast motoring has been rekindled. We may yet see Dave Walker back on track…