Perry McCarthy: The Motor Sport Interview

Perry McCarthy has been called the unluckiest man in motor racing and yet for all his career-threatening accidents, mechanical failures and financial difficulties, this Brit Pack battler was never short of good, old-fashioned bouncebackability

Perry McCarthy against brick wall

Jonathan Bushell

Perry McCarthy somehow made it all the way to Formula 1 despite starting out at 21 years old with no previous experience of competing in either karts or cars. Permanently short of money, and with no family support, he relied on his talent, an abundance of charm, and sheer unremitting determination.

He had to prove his talent and he did, winning the Dunlop Formula Ford championship in ’83, impressing in Formula 3 in ’86, and moving up to F3000 in ’88. Successful seasons in GTP and sports cars in America preceded, and followed, his brief foray into Formula 1 in 1992 with a car that was, at best, capable of scraping onto the back of the grid. For Perry, however, it was an ambition achieved even if he never actually raced the recalcitrant and unreliable machine known as the Andrea Moda.

He’d worked on oil rigs, served in shops, and lived on the edge, surviving long enough to tell the story at countless dinners and grand occasions. As Damon Hill observed, “No matter how many times he gets knocked down, he just gets back up again and has another go.” In a wide-ranging chat with Motor Sport, Perry looks back on the good times and, of course, the many setbacks that punctuated his career from the early days of manual graft to his arrival in the Formula 1 paddock in Brazil.

Motor Sport: You have spoken many times about the frustrations, challenges and sacrifices on the way to Formula 1 – but what about the good times, the performances that gave you the biggest buzz?

PM: “You know, for me, it was never about the best times, it was always about the next step, what’s the next move towards Formula 1. I took it for granted that I’d win a race, or get pole position. I expected that of myself.

“My best results simply told me that I was in the right game, that I wasn’t deluded, so it was the career path that was most important. Getting support from people high up in the sport was good, a great motivator, and helped me to believe that I was capable of delivering. I was on my own, no family, no advisers, nobody to guide me, so the support from influential people kept me going. I don’t mean to be different, but I know I am, and my personality, my attitudes, kept me going in what were often very difficult and demanding circumstances.

“The first big accident, in Formula Ford in ’84, I broke my back“

“I loved my first full year in Formula Ford in ’82. It was great racing, even if I only did six races before going back to the oil rigs to make some more money. Of course it was great to win the Dunlop Championship in 1983 with Rushen Green because until then a lot of people thought I was an idiot, a dreamer, coming into motor racing at the age of 21 with no experience. It wasn’t just the results, I loved driving those cars. That was the best bit about it. Of course, as champion, and winning six out of the 10 races, my self-belief was now even stronger.”

Perry McCarthy in Formula Ford race

McCarthy leads a group at the 1985 Formula Ford Festival

Perry McCarthy with F3 car

1986 F3

To get this far you’d spent two years working on oil rigs to raise the money when most other drivers  were karting. What was it like, those two years in the North Sea?

PM: “I didn’t want to be out there. I had to do it for the money. It was the only way and it was very tough, hardened me both mentally and physically. You’re sharing a room with three other guys, up at 6am or earlier, and it’s cold, always cold, so you’re in thermal vests and long johns, steel-capped boots and a hard hat. Getting out there by helicopter you’re in a big orange rubber survival suit
that gives you about 10 minutes in the sea if you’re lucky. We did a lot of safety training but I always thought, if we go into the sea, the flight is just about over.

“On the rigs my job was corrosion control. If the metal structure is left untended in that environment it will corrode and eventually fail, halting production. So you’re hanging from a scaffold platform with a shot-blaster 120 feet above the waves for hours on end, peering through a tiny glass window in your helmet, all the abrasive stuff hitting you, so you’d have to stop and change the glass. The shifts were long, 14 hours, seven days a week, two weeks at a time, but I stashed away at least £15,000 for my racing over those two years in 1978 and ’79. It would have been more if I hadn’t indulged in what sociologists call ‘explosive compensation’ in the pub with my mates when I came back on shore leave.”

Perry McCarthy points to the camera

For Perry McCarthy, it was always about the next step…

Jonathan Bushell

Your career path was, shall we say, punctuated with some horrendous shunts. Did those accidents not deter you from reaching the ultimate goal?

PM: “The first big accident, in Formula Ford in 1984, I broke my back. That put me out for a whole year and in ’85 I was forced to stay down in Formula Ford. I had no money, it wasn’t enjoyable any more – that was a horrible season. So, yes, I was very close to quitting. Honestly, I had lost my motivation and didn’t want to drive those cars any more.

“But… when I found a sponsor and got into a Formula 3 Reynard in ’86 with Madgwick Motorsport, I thought, ‘Wow, this is the big time.’ Coming from a patchy season of Formula Ford in ’85, it felt like I was strapped on the back of a missile. It just felt fantastic. So now I had this great opportunity. I was fastest in early testing and qualifying, nobody expected that, but yet again the good times were always punctuated with unforeseen disappointments. Nerve damage in my right leg forced me to miss part of the season and when I came back I still couldn’t move my right foot properly.

“Are you putting that on, finishing so far down the field?“

“In ’87 we had gearbox failures, suspension failures, engine failures and two massive accidents within days of each other, both suspension breakages. Adrian Reynard wanted me to try some new suspension on an old Saab F3 chassis they had and it collapsed at 140mph putting me in the wall. The car was totally destroyed, my helmet was broken, I’d taken a good blow to the head. Just three days later the team wanted me to try some different development suspension on my car and it fell apart going into the old Russell chicane at Snetterton, and that was a very big shunt. The car took off and barrel-rolled along the track. There was nothing left of the car when they dragged me out.

“Two days later Paul Haigh and the Madgwick guys had built me a new car for the Cellnet Superprix and as soon as I went out on the track I’d lost it. I mean, I was all over the place. I’d had two severe blows to the head, I couldn’t work out what was happening, and that led to fear. I was doing 50mph and in a panic, I had to get back to the pits. I sat there, my hands were shaking, so I stuffed them between my legs so nobody would notice. It was like being in a trance for 20 minutes. I said to myself, ‘What’s happening, I’m a racing driver, I need to go fast.’ So they fired it up, I went back out, did a warm-up lap, one flyer, went fastest, came back in, and I didn’t know what was going on again. I started crying, just stood there crying, not something I do unless it’s in a good Lassie film, but I’d proved a point to myself even though it was a dumb thing to do, to have got in the car. In the race I really struggled, came fourth, but I’d have to be dead not to give it everything.”

Perry McCarthy with mug

It’s a more sedate life these days

Jonathan Bushell

Despite the setbacks you got yourself up into International Formula 3000. Did you still believe you had what it takes to make it to Formula 1?

PM: “I believed I was a Formula 1 driver waiting to happen. I needed more results in the ‘Notice Perry’ folder and I knew, that with the right support from the right people, I would make it. I would go anywhere, do anything, as long as people kept believing in me and I absolutely adored my graduation to Formula 3000 at the Birmingham Super Prix street race in 1988 in the GA Motorsport Lola. I was second fastest to Roberto Moreno – who was later my team-mate at Andrea Moda – in the wet quali session and although I missed out in the dry, with mechanical problems, Ron Tauranac had been impressed and I joined the Ralt works team.

“The car wasn’t competitive that year. Other drivers were abandoning it, but in a test on the Le Mans Bugatti Circuit I was fastest in the wet and Tauranac was already telling Ken Tyrrell he should sign me. Formula 3000 was my favourite ever form of racing, loads of power, loads of grip, and the more power, the faster the car, the better driver I became.

Perry McCarthy in Andrea Moda

McCarthy’s only year in an F1 seat was 1992, but he never once made the starting grid – but tested for Footwork and Benetton

“As I progressed up the ladder I was enjoying the cars more and more. Of course, there was never enough money, but I felt I could make the difference. In ’89 I went with Roger Cowman Racing and the Lola-Cosworth. Roger was a great team leader, he believed in me. Nobody else could have run that car on such a small budget. Roger sacrificed a lot to do that and I signed my house over for that drive. All through my career there were ‘penalty clauses’, or setbacks, like that.

“But I tell you, to qualify that F3000 Ralt in mid-field in ’88 was like winning. The car was so bad that after the race at Dijon Damon Hill said to me, ‘Are you putting that on, finishing so far down the field?’ The insurance broker Tim Clowes told me that people were watching at the ultra high-speed right-hander waiting to see this bloke in a Ralt have the biggest accident they’d ever seen in their lives. When it’s tough like that I don’t back off. I grip the wheel and go harder and faster. That’s the challenge, to make the most of every chance.”

Perry McCarthy in Daytona 24 Hours

At the Daytona 24 Hours in 1998, McCarthy was part of a Dyson foursome (20) that led the race

Your success in GTP and sports cars in America greatly enhanced your reputation. Should you have stayed longer in America and made more of that opportunity in properly competitive cars?

PM: “America was fantastic. I was welcomed by everyone. They knew about me, and that was really nice, and to win my first race there was great. My introduction to the GTP series, at Watkins Glen in the 600bhp Spice, was incredible. I was quicker than Wayne Taylor in the other Spice and my team-mate Tommy Kendall. By this time I was having conversations with F1 teams. My sole job was to make my name, hang it out, and I just felt the dream was getting closer; somehow a door will open for me.

“At the Glen it rained and I was in my element. I grasped that chance, beating the turbo cars from Jaguar, Nissan, Toyota and Porsche, which were far quicker on the straights. I’ve always been fast in the rain but honestly I have no idea why, it just came naturally. Sadly, I had to leave America, but I went back and in ’98 we were leading the Daytona 24 Hours with Dyson when the car failed after 20 hours. I loved those sports cars, winning with Panoz in 2002, racing with Audi at Le Mans in 1999.

“It was never my choice to leave America the first time round, but I had no money and all the teams needed sponsorship. It’s always been the story. I mean John Wickham wanted me at the Footwork F1 team. I tested for them, and tested for Benetton, came so close, but I had no funding. I’d started my career so late, I was getting older, and time was running out, but I’d loved those tastes of F1 with proper cars and proper teams.”

Perry McCarthy Audi Le Mans car

Driving for Audi at Le Mans ’99, but a DNF…

Perry McCarthy with Panoz Le Mans team

…as was the case in 1997

As we know you did get your F1 chance with Andrea Moda in 1992, a story told many times. Do you think you’d ever get into F1 these days? Anthony Davidson says it’s now more difficult than ever for young drivers.

PM: “I have a lot of respect for Anthony but I reckon any of us in the ‘Rat Pack’, guys like Donnelly, Hill, Blundell, Bailey et al, would now have a chance with the academies at the big teams. It may not have been me, but one of us, at least, would be noticed like Damon and Johnny Herbert. I felt I was as good as all of them but there were a lot of areas where I felt Johnny, in particular, could beat me. He’s very talented, as I’ve told him many times, and they are all formidable racing drivers but Johnny had that something extra from his karting days, a natural talent, and I’m aware that coming into racing without any previous experience did perhaps hold me back.”

“There were chinks in my armour for sure. In my first year in F3 I was nowhere near technical enough. Maybe that’s why I was fast in the rain. You didn’t need to be that bright technically. Growing up I was in awe of the top F1 drivers. I met some of them; my jaw was hanging down in their company. When I got to F3 and F3000 I was still in awe of it all, going to a race, finding myself at Paul Ricard or somewhere I’d only read about. It was like I’d arrived at the Colosseum.”

Perry McCarthy with stopped Andrea Moda car

Frustration at the 1992 Spanish GP as McCarthy stands next to his Andrea Moda F1 car, which managed to travel mere feet out of the pit in pre-qualifying

Getty Images

In retrospect do you think that taking that drive at Andrea Moda did you more harm than good, bearing in mind the car was so far off the pace?

PM: “No, because I still had very little guidance at the time and I did ignore the advice that some people gave me. Foolishly I also ignored the potential of a Group C drive and I could have pursued that. I was utterly fixated on getting to F1, which was admirable, but it produced its own problems.

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“A lot of guys I raced against in America told me they knew I was getting screwed, and they knew I hadn’t somehow lost 28 seconds a lap of talent within a couple of months. At the end of ’92 there were still F1 teams who wanted to talk to me because they were impressed that I refused to give up and that I was prepared to get into a car like the Andrea Moda. I mean, the car was long, sleek, black and dangerous so all we needed was brass handles on the sides… Save us all a lot of time and trouble.”

Since you retired have you been able to find anything that gives you the same buzz and challenge as motor racing?

PM: “No, nothing. Racing for me was everything. A huge amount of passion went into it, and then there was the sheer thrill of going all the way, braving it out against the best. You can’t replace that heart-stopping, gut-wrenching thrill. It’s completely addictive. Racing grabs you like that. If you’ve been a racing driver then it’s impossible to find anything to replace that. People think of me as a happy-go-lucky guy but I’m not. I’m a very serious person with, I think, a good sense of humour.”

Perry McCarthy with Damon Hill book

Relaxing with a good read… McCarthy cheered when Damon Hill won the F1 world title

Jonathan Bushell

Damon Hill said that when he retired he spent a lot of time in the woods with a chainsaw as a way of filling the void after a life of top-level racing.

PM: “I know what he means. I relate to that. Leaving F1 as a world champion must be like pulling the plug, like cold turkey, a huge gap to fill. He was at the centre of everything, winning all those races, under extreme pressure at the top level, and I’ve never been faced with a situation like that.

“I wasn’t at all surprised he won the world championship. He is a very focused and determined person, way brighter in a racing car than I was. It’s not about being blisteringly fast, it’s about so much more than that. I might have had that Williams drive – and not won all those races and the championship. I’m a different personality, so I have never felt any envy when my mates in the Rat Pack had success. I let out a massive cheer when Damon won that title, just as I did when Johnny Herbert won those three grands prix. We all had the talent but it’s not just the speed or talent that matters. There’s a great deal more to it than that.”

Perry McCarthy with Johnny Herbert

With fellow Rat Packer Johnny Herbert, left, at Goodwood in 2002

Perry McCarthy in rallycross Audi

in 2019 McCarthy was in the TitansRX rallycross series

What’s your view of Formula 1 today, the way it has developed, the ever-increasing technology and electronics?

PM: “First, the new young drivers, they all absolutely deserve to be there. They are outstanding athletes, and the work ethic – understanding all the technology – is terrific. Honestly, all this new technical stuff would have bored the living daylights out of me but that doesn’t stop me admiring the way these guys work. I just think we’ve gone way too far with the tech, complex hybrid engines, the data and the simulators. Do the fans really care about all this? I don’t think so.

“I was never tempted to go back to racing, I did look after Marc Hynes for a while, but managing drivers is not my cup of tea. I did some rallycross championship races, and I raced an Austin A40 at the Goodwood Revival in 2004, but the only racing I’d really want to do would be historic Formula 1. The problem is, I’d have to go training, do some testing. I was never scared of an F1 car but if I stand next to one now, the car looks at me and says, ‘If you’re even thinking about getting into me, I’ll kill you because you’re no longer good enough to drive me.’ Back in the day it would have said, ‘Jump in, you’re coming with me.’

“I don’t want to be fairly quick, I want to be mega quick, so I have no interest in doing it now. I have many great memories. I’m proud of the book I wrote when I retired and I still keep in touch with my mates from the racing days. There’s always a new challenge; deals to be done. Life is good.”