The worst car I ever drove: Julian Bailey – 1988 Tyrrell 017

The Tyrrell 017 was not just slow, it was also awful to drive. It was intended to start Bailey's F1 career; instead it almost finished it.

Julian Bailey Tyrrell 1988 Monaco GP

Tyrrell 017 – not a winner

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It was the beginning of 1988 and I’d done a total of about six F3000 races and a handful of F3 races before that. I hadn’t done a full season since Formula Ford 2000 but all of a sudden here was a chance to get into Formula 1.

It was with Tyrrell. There was a seat up for grabs alongside Jonathan Palmer for half a million quid. Ken Tyrrell had been there at Brands Hatch in ’87 when I’d won the F3000 race and John Webb of Brands kept pushing me to him, saying he should give me a try. Well, I had a sponsor, Cavendish Finance, who were backing me to the tune of £250,000 with which I had been going to do an F3000 deal. At the same time the pub I owned with my brother was on the market for £500,000. My share of that combined with the Cavendish money meant I could go F1 instead.

With hindsight it was too early for me, but chances like this don’t appear too often and I might never have got the opportunity again, so I went for it. I had a talk with Ken and told him the score, but then he said something I didn’t expect: that he was not prepared to take a penny of my personal money and that he would only take me if all the money came from sponsorship. Maybe he already knew just how bad the Tyrrell 017 was going to be and was trying to do me a favour – I don’t know.

Julian Bailey Tyrrell 1988 launch

017 car launch: all downhill from here

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Anyway, I wasn’t going to let that get in my way, so I gave Cavendish my £250,000 and made it look as though the whole lot was coming from them. It did the trick and everything went through. That was it! I was a F1 driver, the culmination of all my dreams. Or so I thought.

Selling the pub meant I had nowhere to live, of course. But I wasn’t too worried about that. I stayed with a friend who had a health farm in Herts – he knew I was penniless.

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It had all come together at the very last moment so I’d never even sat in car when the time came to go out for the first session at Rio. Straight away things began to go wrong. As everybody was firing up and driving down the pit lane, the steering wheel on my car just wouldn’t go on. It was an omen. It had been on and off all morning as they’d prepared the car but now it just refused to go on. They had to replace the rack which took about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, everyone else was blasting around, getting in the groove.

Eventually they fixed it. I climbed in and they fired it up. Just as they did that the right hand mirror fell off. I told Ken I couldn’t go out like that and he just told me to get out there and concentrate on looking forwards, not backwards! So I did, and it was a nightmare. It was my first time in an F1 car, I didn’t know the circuit and everyone else has already been going round there for most of the session. I was saying to myself, “I don’t want to do this”. I turned in for one corner and was suddenly aware of someone locking up down my inside and I just got out of the way in time; it was Prost! Then the same thing happened with Senna, then Piquet.

By the time I came in there were drivers queuing at the garage to talk to me. Ken just told them all to piss off; but I felt terrible. It was even worse when he said to Piquet, “I remember your first race. You were crap as well.” I just cringed.

Julian Bailey Tyrrell 1988 with team boss Ken Tyrrell

Tyrrell wasn’t overly sympathetic with his advice to Bailey

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So it got off to a terrible start, but the problem was it never really got much better. Because the car was just very, very difficult. You couldn’t predict what it was going to do next and after a few races of that my confidence was pretty much shattered. The car grew nine inches during the season as they lengthened the wheelbase to try to remove the twitchiness. But even that didn’t work. All it did was make the car look odd because they didn’t change the bodywork, there was just this extra nine inches sticking out the back. It was only at the end of the season when I did some promotional work for Benetton and drove their car that I realised what an F1 car could be like.

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It was all made worse by the fact that I did no testing; Jonathan did all that as the senior driver with the experience. There wasn’t enough money to have me testing as well. I got an idea about the money side of it at that first race in Rio. Everyone else had their air-conditioned motor homes but at Tyrrell we ate in the garage – Nora went out and bought some rolls. She came back and said, “you can have ham-and-cheese or ham.”

The only time I vaguely enjoyed driving the car was at Monza because there weren’t many corners. I managed to bump Jonathan off the grid there. Actually, it went very well in wet qualifying at Hungary, too. Harvey Postlethwaite had just joined and had come up with a different set-up. It was raining in the first session and I got out there and suddenly I saw P1 on my pit board. This was such a shock after a season of seeing P27 that I had a trip across the grass at the next corner. I came straight in and Harvey said, “I didn’t realise you were such a star.” By then I’d dropped to fifth or sixth so I went back out and was quickest again. I came in early because I was worried that I was going to crash and only dropped back to third by the end of the session. Then the next session was dry and I didn’t qualify.

Julian Bailey Tyrrell 1988 Hungarian GP

Hungary proved the highlight

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Even though it was a bad car, I just know I could have done a better job with more experience. I’m a much better driver now than I was then. But you don’t get second chances. That season harmed people’s perceptions of me in F1. At least the fact I did it got me the Nissan sportscar drive and over the next couple of seasons that allowed me to recoup the money I’d given to Tyrrell. Even so, it was disappointing to think you’d achieved your goal and then have it turn out so bloody dreadful. There were a few laughs along the way, but not many.

I still see that car advertised for sale. I feel like buying it and smashing it up – I’d like to use it for flower pots in the garden. But I’m not going to spend another £35,000 on it.