The man who said no to Bernie

In an extract from a new book by Gordon Kirby, Rick Mears recalls his promising Formula 1 tests with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team, and why he rejected a Grand Prix deal to stay in CART

His place is assured: Rick Mears is one of the greatest oval racers in history. But his legacy could have been so different. There was a moment in his career, a crossroads, where Mears could have made the switch to Formula 1. 

A Grand Prix drive was in the bag and with his ability, worldwide acclaim was within reach. But remarkably he turned his back on the chance, simply because he was happy as a rising Indycar star. 

Mears had already won the first of his four Indy 500s and the inaugural CART Indycar title when Bernie Ecclestone came a-calling at the end of 1980. In those days the diminutive Englishman was just beginning to assert his authority in F1. He had bought the Brabham team in 1972 and would run it until 1987 when he sold the team to focus entirely on running F1. Rick’s successes at Indy and in CART had caught Ecclestone’s eye and he offered Rick a test drive in one of his Brabham BT49s. 

“That was when CART and USAC had split and it was like, ‘What’s going to happen here?’,” says Mears. “I received a call from Bernie about running F1. My thinking at that time was I might pursue this a little, just to keep my foot in the door in case CART doesn’t make it. That was one of the main reasons I pursued it.

“The other reason was everybody seemed to think F1 cars and drivers were a head taller than everybody else. I had my own curiosity to satisfy. I went to Roger [Penske, Rick’s Indycar team boss] and told him that Bernie wanted me to come and test and was offering this kind of money. I wanted to tell him first and see what he had to say about it. 

“He said it was a business decision I had to make. He didn’t try to hold me or threaten me. It was typical Roger. He supported me. He told me, ‘You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.’ So I said I was going to run the test and see what I thought, and Roger said okay.”

Rick tested the Brabham twice, first at Paul Ricard and then at Riverside. “That was fun! The characteristics of the F1 car were completely different, because those cars are lighter, quicker-reacting and more responsive,” Rick recalls. “You have to hustle an F1 car harder. The first time I drove the Brabham I was a couple of seconds off the pace, and that was because I was driving it like an Indycar – smooth and steady, not making any bobbles, not touching the kerbs. I was using all the track but not over-using it, and I was a couple of seconds off. 

“I thought, ‘What’s wrong here?’ So I got mad and started driving the shit out of that thing. I started sliding it and pitching it sideways and bouncing it off and over the kerbs. Then I got down to competitive times. I discovered you’ve got to change your way of thinking when you drive an F1 car. It’s a stand on the gas, bang it off the kerbs every lap type of thing. In that type of racing, you can’t pace yourself. It’s a flat-out deal.” 

By the end of his test in France, Rick was half a second away from matching Brabham team leader Nelson Piquet’s fastest laps. Piquet finished second to Alan Jones in the 1980 F1 World Championship and would go on to win the title in ’81. “I got within about half a second of Nelson’s time and I found out a race car is a race car. The basics were the same. I was making sure not to make any mistakes. I knew there was more left in the car and more left in me. I knew we could run closer to him, if not as quick.”

At Rick’s second test in the Brabham at Riverside a few months later, he was quicker than Piquet. “We came back to Riverside where we did a Weismann gearbox test. We had a couple of chicanes in the track to test the gearbox, and I ended up being quicker than Nelson. So then it boiled down to, do I want to do this? I knew I could be competitive if I wanted to do it.”

Today, Charlie Whiting is the FIA’s F1 race director and starter, and Herbie Blash is the FIA’s chief observer, overseeing the operation of F1’s pitlane, paddock and parc fermé. But back in those days, Whiting and Blash were mechanics in the Brabham team, and both were impressed with Rick’s performance in his pair of tests.

“For me, Rick was the real Mr America,” Blash recalls. “He was super-cool, good-looking, and having a look at that Indy ring on his finger meant so much to me. I go back to when Jimmy Clark won the Indy 500, so Indy was always such a big thing. Rick was the coolest dude. You could see he was going to be right there. He was so smooth from the start. 

For me personally, he would have been extraordinarily successful in F1. There’s no doubt about it.

“You could see Roger Penske’s influence as well. That had rubbed off on Rick quite a bit. But he was very smooth, very intelligent, very understanding of the car. He would have been a megastar in F1 because he had all that and he was extremely polite and genuine.”

Whiting was equally impressed. “He came across as a suntanned Californian, ultra-cool,” he says. “I remember how easy it was to deal with him. There was no fuss. He wasn’t one of these drivers who took a lot of taking care of. In the very limited time he had in the car you could see he was a very easy guy to work with. It was a pleasure running him.

“From a mechanic’s point of view, Nelson was a dream. There was no messing around. He just got in and drove, and Rick appeared to be of the same ilk. I thought they would have made good team-mates had it all come out like that.”

Blash adds: “Nelson liked Rick. He believed he was giving us good information and would have had no problem working with him.”

Ecclestone saw enough to offer Rick a ride. “Bernie and I came to terms on a contract,” he says. “It was a matter of me making the decision of whether I wanted to go or not.” 

But to the Formula 1 impresario’s disappointment, Mears decided to continue in CART and Indycar racing with Penske’s outstanding team. “I got into racing as a hobby because I love it and it’s what makes me happy,” Rick reasons. “I decided I was going to do what makes me happy, not what pays the most. 

I just started weighing up all the facts. The money in F1 was good, yes, but it was road courses only, and I liked ovals. I could see CART getting strong and I liked the variety of CART with short ovals, long ovals, street circuits and permanent road circuits. I felt you had to be a more well-rounded driver to win the CART championship and I liked the Penske team and the association we had there. To me, CART was more competitive and more challenging. 

“I kept weighing up everything, and I said, ‘I don’t care for some of the egos over there in F1. I’ll have more fun staying in CART.’ F1 would have been fun, but it would be more fun to stay in CART. By the time we did the test at Riverside I could see CART was taking off, so I made a decision not to do F1. I don’t regret it one bit. I made the right call for me.

“It was tough to pass up everything I had with Penske,” Mears adds. “You couldn’t ask for a better team and I had all the faith in the world in both Roger and the team. I knew F1 was a different world, probably more cut-throat. There was also the hassle of the extra travelling and having to think about living in Europe. I decided it was best to stay with Penske and stay here in the United States in the CART series.”
His loss? Possibly. F1’s loss? Definitely.

Rick Mears • Thanks: the story of Rick Mears and the Mears gang is available at all good shops or from the publisher at Price £25/$39.95, ISBN 978 1 905334 30 8