Return of the Marlboro Man

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He was the chain-smoking, Stetson-wearing little Italian at Frank Williams’ team in 1974. But when we reunited Arturo Merzario with the Iso-Marlboro, the fags were just for show…
By Damien Smith

The man in the cowboy hat pushes open the café door. The few people tucking in to breakfast stop, forks poised, mouths open. The tiny, wiry figure is wearing pale blue overalls and race boots, and there’s a swagger to his walk as he approaches the counter. The customers murmur, then carry on eating. It’s not yet eight in the morning, but Arturo Merzario is ready.

The night before, he’d entertained us at a local pub with fragments of stories told in broken English. The locals had stared then, too. “Who’s the guy in the hat?” asked a barmaid. “That,” I said, “is an Italian Ferrari Formula 1 driver from the 1970s. He’s a bit of a hero.” Not the answer they expected on a cold November evening deep in the heart of the East Midlands.

‘Little Art’ had flown in that morning, courtesy of Motor Sport, to be reunited with a tempestuous old flame: the Iso-Marlboro Formula 1 car that he’d driven for a chancer called Frank Williams in 1974 and early ’75. Speedmaster’s Paul Hanson had met him at Stansted airport and taken him for a seat fitting in his old mount. Then it was off for a flying visit around Lotus and a quick stop at Snetterton, where Merzario made his UK race debut in 1963. “I was driving a 1000cc Abarth,” he says. “This was the first time I’d been back since.”

At dinner, the cowboy hat was removed to reveal shorn, fuzzy grey hair. The tight shoulder-length curls that used to frame his leathery face have wisely been consigned to history and he looks all of his 68 years. But still there is not an ounce of fat on him. He’s clearly in good shape.

So do you still smoke, I asked? He shook his head, “No. I stopped four years ago, but before I smoked five packets a day. It was May 28, 2006, 10am at Vallelunga. I was opening my second packet of the day. I lit the cigarette, then flicked it away. Finish. I kept the packet like a trophy, wrote the date on it and I still have it. There are only 19 cigarettes in the packet.”

Merzario was motor racing’s very own ‘Marlboro Man’, the white Stetson emblazoned with the familiar red and white chevron his trademark. Today, it’s been replaced by a plain black hat: still striking but much less dramatic. I heard that the original Stetson had been lost, much to Arturo’s dismay. But he says not. “The Marlboro hat is at home. I have a new one. I can’t wear it anymore because of the ban on tobacco advertising.”

At Donington Park this morning the man in the black hat saunters towards the wedge-shaped FW03. The boys from restoration specialist Mirage have it ready and waiting. Rain is on the way, so there is no time to lose.

Merzario walks slowly around the car, staring intently with a contented half smile on his face. He likes what he sees, but not all is as he remembers: “The front suspension is not exactly the same. The wishbones are chrome now; they weren’t before. Also, it was single-wishbone and now it is double. The radiators are different, too. Also, the nose and airbox are not how I remember them. There was no oil pressure gauge back then. We just used a dipstick in the oil tank! I remember the depth was 22cm…”

Details. He likes to impress with what he recalls. But he agrees the restoration is remarkably sympathetic, given the paucity of information that survives. Mirage had pondered why there was an extender in the pedal box when the car came to them. It all became clear when ‘Little Art’ arrived for his seat fitting.

Old photos and a brochure to lure in sponsors for the 1975 season (see p70), most likely written by Frank himself, offer some insight into the shape of the chisel nose and high airbox. But like the total history of Frank Williams Racing Cars, before the 1977 formation of the Williams team we know today, information is convoluted and patchy. Posterity was far from Frank’s mind as he wheeled, dealed and scraped through the ’70s.

The trusty Cosworth DFV fires up first time and Merzario, complete with period white helmet and Marlboro flashes, rolls into the pitlane. It’s freezing. “In 1974 I remember doing a lap of Monaco in this car with my wife and a blond friend riding on the sidepods,” he’d told me. “It was a slow lap – only 100kph!” Little Art’s reputation as a wild one was no exaggeration, but still he’s a professional. There’ll be no madness today. I’ll confess I’m a tad disappointed.

Merzario trundles gingerly down the pitlane to join the ubiquitous Porsche 911 and Caterham that always seem to be at these mid-week open tests. The blip of downchanges echoes as Merzario gets back into character.

FW03 slides into view out of Goddards and Merzario accelerates over the finish line. He brakes early for Redgate, but the downchanges are crisp and precise. He manages five laps before the 911 ditches into the Redgate sand and the session is red-flagged. As FW03 is rolled back into the garage, James Hanson puts his hand on the slick tyres. They’re stone cold. In these temperatures, he was right to take it easy.

Then the rain comes, and it doesn’t stop. I ask Merzario whether he fancies another go, but I know the answer before I finish the question. “It was very easy to crash. Not correct,” he says with a wag of his finger. “Gran casino. Stupid.” But he agrees to some slow laps for photos. After that, we retire to the warmth of the cabin office in the transporter.

Shell-shocked Frank Williams ran Marches to little effect in 1971 following the debacle of De Tomaso and the death of his friend Piers Courage the year before. But to qualify for travel subsidies and freight facilities for races outside Europe, he needed to be a constructor. The Len Bailey-designed Politoys FX3 was the result in ’72, but Henri Pescarolo wrote it off on its debut at the British Grand Prix.

So Frank tried another new approach for 1973, under another new name: Iso-Marlboro, in deference to Frank’s new title sponsors (he couldn’t afford to be precious about such things). Renzo Rivolta built his first Iso GT car in 1962 and named it after himself, with styling by Bertone. The Grifo followed in 1965, with the Lele replacing the Rivolta in ’69. But when Marlboro suggested a link-up in F1 for ’73, Iso was already in trouble. Still, the two companies pledged £40,000 each to Frank Williams, although as Frank told Maurice Hamilton for his biography of the man and the team, “Iso forgot to pay after the first 5000 lire. They got loads of publicity and I got loads more debt. But Marlboro always paid, thank God.”

Marlboro had plunged into F1 with BRM, but the in-decline team offered little value for money. So it was decided the tobacco giant should pour some cash into a bottom-end outfit to show that a huge corporation wasn’t averse to backing an underdog. Frank’s team fitted the bill.

New safety regulations concerning deformable structures came into force at the start of the European season, and new cars had to be created. Frank employed ex-March man John Clarke to draw the IR01 and IR02, which bore a family resemblance to the FX3 under their wedge shapes. But the slog continued. Gijs van Lennep and Howden Ganley scored a point apiece in ’73.

In 1974 shaky Iso went under, but Frank plugged on with the renamed IR01 and 02 as FW01 and FW02. So began one of racing’s great lineages (although our own Jenks refused to accept the name change and continued to use the IR prefix). ‘Our’ car, FW03 (sorry, Jenks. It’s easier this way), was an update of the ’73 cars and was carried through by Roy Stokoe. Clarke had left Williams after refusing to accept recommendations on the rear suspension from consultant Gian Paolo Dallara, Frank’s old friend from the De Tomaso days. By the time it made its race debut at Jarama for the Spanish GP, driver Merzario had already made his mark as Marlboro’s replacement for Ganley.

By the end of ’73 Little Art had lost patience with Ferrari and F1 team-mate Jacky Ickx. He remains cool about the Belgian to this day: “Ickx was very political. I was faster than him in sports cars. If I said something to the team, he asked for the opposite. I had a good relationship with Mr Ferrari. The problem was the entourage.”

Latin tempers had boiled over at the Nürburgring 1000Kms, and if one story follows Merzario more than any other – perhaps unfairly above his role in pulling Niki Lauda from the flames at the same track in ’76 – it’s this one.

The pair of 312PBs ran unchallenged at the ’Ring in ’73 – but only after the faster Matras imploded early on. Ferrari team manager Giacomo Caliri ordered his drivers to hold formation to the finish in numerical order: Ickx/Brian Redman in No 1 and Carlos Pace/Merzario – who weren’t on speaking terms, even before the race – in No 2. At the stops, Ickx and Merzario jumped in their respective cars, and Little Art couldn’t resist. He closed in on Ickx, tapping his F1 team-mate up the gearbox. Jacky had no option but to engage in combat, the battle lasting for two laps until Merzario finally had to pit for fuel.

As an example of a racing driver strop, it’s hard to beat. “I stopped the car in the pits. I said to them, ‘f*** off’.” An enraged Caliri reached into the car, undid the belts and pulled his driver out. After the inevitable heated exchange, Pace jumped in, caught up with Ickx and obediently played his part in a near-formation finish. On the podium, Ickx, Redman and Pace celebrated in bemusement. Merzario was already back at his hotel.

A switch to BRM looked on the cards for ’74, and Merzario tested for the team at Silverstone – which is where he met Williams. The Marlboro link paved the way for a move, but from Ferrari it was evidently downmarket for Little Art.

Still, dividends paid early at the South African GP where Merzario qualified a surprise third in FW02. He dropped places at the start, but still claimed sixth place and a championship point. Now for FW03.

“The sensations were the same as I had in 1974. The car is a good car,” maintains Merzario today. “When the car lasted I always finished well.” His words are born out by the stats. Art qualified seventh on the car’s debut at Jarama and was running fourth until a collision with Jean-Pierre Jarier’s Shadow. FW03 was launched by a barrier and flew into a photographers’ enclosure, fortunately causing no serious injury to the occupants or the driver himself.

From there, it makes miserable reading. At the next race, Nivelles, Merzario qualified sixth but retired with a driveshaft failure. At Monaco he was caught up in a multi-car startline accident and FW03 did not reappear until the British GP in July. At Brands he retired – engine. DNFs followed in Germany and Austria, before finally – and for one time only – the car made it to the finish of a Grand Prix. In a competitive position, too.

At Monza, Merzario qualified mid-grid and there was little hint of an upturn in fortunes. There was even less when he completed the first lap in 23rd place. But on home ground, Little Art got his head down. A combination of grit and attrition moved the Marlboro Man up the order. At the finish Merzario found himself fourth – behind only Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus, Emerson Fittipaldi’s McLaren and Jody Scheckter’s Tyrrell.

But after Monza, the story reverted to type: 1974 ended with two more non-finishes in North America, and the woe continued into ’75. By Belgium in the Spring the relationship between team and driver was at an end. Merzario turned his full attention to sports cars, while the car continued to soldier on in the hands of Damien Magee (Sweden ’75) and Ian Scheckter (Zandvoort ’75). Williams then sold it to Loris Kessel, who failed to qualify for both the ’76 and ’77 Italian GPs.

The story goes that Little Art would tape a packet of cigarettes to the cockpit of the Iso-Marlboro to keep him going when the car broke out on the circuit. I ask him – cue much laughter: “Yes, but two packets for the race,” he grins. He gets into authentic spirit at the photo shoot when I hand him a packet of Marlboro reds. He even goes as far as popping one in his mouth, but he pulls up short of lighting it…

Merzario smiles again at the mention of Frank Williams. His memories of the man are not soured by the string of DNFs. Indeed, Art would drive for him again just a year on from their split. By this time, Williams had teamed up with Walter Wolf – Merzario claims he introduced them – and Art would step in when his old nemesis Ickx walked out mid-season.

From there, ignominy awaited our poor hero: while Frank Williams finally reaped from all he had sowed with the formation of Williams Grand Prix Engineering, Arturo created the horror show that was the Merzario Grand Prix team. I have to ask him, and tentatively bring it up. “Oooh,” he groans with a half-smile. “Next question!”

Today, Merzario races on – because it’s all he knows. He goes back a long way. In the late 1960s he was friends with Jochen Rindt and tells me the Austrian’s manager once changed his tyres for him. Yes, that’ll be B C Ecclestone. Thanks largely to Bernie, Merzario’s sport has changed dramatically – “around 1985 to 1988 racing was finished as a sport and became a business, you understand? Now it’s crazy. And not just in F1” – but you sense that nothing is different for him. The cars are a little more humble now, but he’s just as committed.

“I had my biggest accident on Easter Saturday, 1991,” he says. “I was racing a prototype in Italy, at Magione. I was nearly paralysed. The doctor told me it would not be possible for me to walk. Four months later I was racing again and won, in the same car. I still race now. Last weekend I was racing a Lotus Exige at Vairano. Next weekend I’ll be driving an Abarth 500.”

The reunion with his old Williams has been an enjoyable diversion for a day, like his visits to Goodwood each summer. But the man in the cowboy hat isn’t living in the past. He saunters off, ready to return to Stansted. Ready for the next car, and the next race.

Our thanks to Speedmaster, Darren Stone at Mirage Engineering, Jackie Perkins and Donington Park for helping with this feature.

*****

Insight

Frank’s hard sell

A 1975 sponsor brochure offers a great snapshot of F1 ‘pre-Bernie’

Assistance

It will cost £250,000 to field a competitive two-car team in the 15 events of the World Championship. £50,000 is recoverable in start monies and other assistances. So £200,000 is required to finance the team for the 1975 season. This covers all expenses including the construction of new cars, new engines, team maintenance, salaries and travel.

Return

The sponsor could enter the team and cars in his name and colours. The cars and drivers would be available for promotional appearances, television advertisements and other methods of public exposure. F1 racing gives sponsors an international showcase with which to display their products and services to the world.

Audience

The average attendance at each of the 15 Grands Prix throughout the world is 100,000. This means a direct audience of 1,500,000. The races are covered by the wire services with a European following of an estimated 50,000,000 readers. But an accurate picture of overall media exposure is difficult to judge. An indication of the degree of its audience can be assessed by the 1974 British GP.

This race was televised to 20 countries including Brazil by satellite. Estimated audience in this case was 200 million. Eleven countries took live radio commentaries. The North American specialist press with a readership of four million also covered this race. This total audience was predominantly male (70 per cent) and had a high ABC1 demographic profile.

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