1985: The greatest year

If you had to pick a single year in motor sport as the best ever, what would it be? One man thinks he has the answer

Here’s a question that is guaranteed to cause an argument: what was the greatest year of motor sport ever? I’m not talking just about Formula 1 or sports cars; I’m talking about all forms of motor racing including touring cars, rallying and even motorcycle racing. Was there a year in which all the stars were aligned and whichever form of motor sport was your bag, this was the time? Either because the machinery was particularly exciting, the greatest drivers were around and the best events were being held.

As it happens I have the answer, and it’s 1985. My case is strong, as I hope to prove, but to back it up we’ve enlisted the help of drivers who were not only active themselves in that year, but who have vast experience of years (and in cases decades) either side of it. More importantly, their passion for motor sport has not waned with age. Whose opinion on sports car racing is of more value than Derek Bell’s? He raced right through the era of the GT40, the 917 to the Rothmans Porsche decade and on to the McLaren F1 in the mid-90s. Ditto Andy Rouse for touring cars.

As you reach for your back issues of Motor Sport and delve into your memories, let’s go on a tour through the year 1985 and add a bit of context to our interviewees’ thoughts.

LIFE WILL NEVER be the same again because on January 1, 1985, the first mobile telephone call was made in the UK. It would certainly never be the same for motor sport journalists because it marked the point from which it would be virtually impossible to interview a famous driver without him constantly answering or fiddling with his phone.

Communications technology would soon dramatically change the Paris-Dakar rally that in 1985 was only seven years old. Its legendary founder Thierry Sabine was still alive (he was killed the next year in a helicopter accident) and nobody would have guessed that the event would live on in South America. Even today about 80 per cent of the entrants are amateur; the percentage was higher in ’85, but what I loved about those early events was the machinery. Look down the entry list and you’ll see Land Rover Defenders, Toyota Land Cruisers and on two wheels mostly production bikes modified only by fitting a larger fuel tank. While competitors were battling sand and trying to not get lost, in a Stevenage hospital Mr and Mrs Hamilton were welcoming their son Lewis into the world.

At the end of January Margaret Thatcher becomes the first post-war prime minister to be refused an honorary degree by Oxford University and 4000 striking miners go back to work. Meanwhile, the sports car season is about to kick off on February 3 at Daytona in Florida. Among that year’s Daytona 24 Hours list of DNFs you’ll find Bob Tullius’s Group 44 Jaguar XJR-5. Porsche’s 962 took the first four places in the race but by June we’ll have some more names to gatecrash Porsche’s party.

Martin Brundle

Tyrrell driver who survived a brutal but thrilling era in F1

“The late 1980s were certainly epic, but you’re not far off in choosing 1985 as a particularly good year,” says Martin Brundle, who in that season was behind the wheel of a Tyrrell. “The cars in ’85 were very agricultural and binary to drive. I used to say that your main job was to stop the car from crashing and your secondary job was to make it go fast. They weren’t particularly reliable, either, so you had to look after them.

“You had to watch the front of the car the whole time, you couldn’t just turn in and let the car go around the corner. Tamburello at Imola was an incredible corner and you had to be so careful not to attack too much kerb, because if the car got on top of the surface you were going to have an enormous accident. We sat very near the front of those cars, which is why many of us including Johnny Herbert, Martin Donnelly and myself ended up with a limp. The circuits were old school and you were lucky if you ended up in the gravel because you could finish up somewhere much less suitable. Like a tree. At least bag tanks had brought an end to the regular sight of cars burning and the medical facilities were hugely improved from the decades before.”

Aside from the circuits and the incredibly challenging cars, the class of 1985 had some serious depth. “You’re right,” agrees Brundle. “This was before the days of social media but everyone was a household name: Senna, Prost, Mansell, Laffite, Rosberg.

“The cars in the early 2000s with V10 engines were very brutal, but the mid-80s were special because the balance between drama, danger and excitement was very good.”

Andrew Cowan

Enjoying success when the Paris-Dakar was at its peak

“Like most people I’ve met who’ve competed in Africa, Andrew Cowan adores the country. “The Paris-Dakar Rally was about Africa and holding it somewhere else is not the same.” Cowan competed in the event eight times from 1983 and only failed to finish twice, which is a remarkable record. “The arrival of GPS kind of ruined the Dakar,” he says, “because it took a lot of the adventure out of it. We had to navigate by compass, which was a huge challenge, and if you got lost you were in serious trouble.

“Back then it was a unique event. We hadn’t a clue where [founder] Thierry Sabine would send us. I drove a Mitsubishi Pajero [the Shogun in Europe] and in 1983 won the marathon class, which was for essentially standard road cars. In 1985 we came second overall in a Mitsubishi.”

Cowan’s ’85 result might have been in a heavily-modified road car, but it was still in the era before custom-built desert racing machines. Same with the bikes, which were close to the machines you and I could buy. “Make no mistake, it was a race,” says Cowan, “but you’d still stop to help a competitor if they were in trouble.”

MEANWHILE, OVER THE last weekend of January the world’s finest loose-surface drivers are gathered in the South of France for the upcoming Monte Carlo Rally. We are, of course, in the era of the Group B rally car. Paddy Hopkirk winning the Monte in a Mini-Cooper was a wonderful and romantic occasion but it doesn’t quite compare with the ferocity of a 650bhp four-wheel-drive flame-spitting Gp B car. Ari Vatanen won the ’85 Monte in a Peugeot 205 T16.

It’s back across the pond to Florida for the Daytona 500 on February 17. Just look at the roll call of names in the event: Bill Elliot won in a Ford but all down the list are such as Yarborough, Foyt, Petty (Richard and Kyle) and Allison. And how could you not love an event in which drivers with names such as Lake Speed and Slick Johnson took part?

The racing in today’s British Touring Car Championship is undeniably exciting, especially for panel beaters, but the cars themselves are a bit tame. Back in ’85 we had a wonderful variety of machines, many rear- wheel drive, making up the grid at the opening round of the series at Silverstone on March 23. The week before Mohamed Al-Fayed bought Harrods department store. Frank Sytner had his only win of the season (in a BMW 635CSi) in a year dominated by Andy Rouse in a Ford Sierra XR4Ti. The cars were exciting and so were the drivers. Tom Walkinshaw was behind the wheel of one of his Rover SD1 Vitesses and Barry Sheene, in his first year of retirement, was driving a Toyota Celica.​

Derek Bell

How the Porsche 956 helped save sports car racing in the ‘80s

“The 1970s was a shitty period for sports car racing,” says Derek Bell. “It started well with the Porsche versus Ferrari battles but then the rules were changed to 3.0-litre engines. Group C was the game- changer and in particular the arrival of the Porsche 956. You see, sports car racing has always survived thanks to private teams.

“You can go back to the 1950s to see this and then right through the ’60s. The 956 was available to privateers or non-factory teams – anyone who could afford one. It was perfect because they could buy spares from Porsche’s motor sport department at races instead of keeping a stock of parts.”

It wasn’t just the arrival of the 956 and its successor that made racing great in the ’80s. “The IMSA series was hugely important,” notes Bell, “because wealthy Americans had a car for their domestic series but they could come to Europe for the classic races at Le Mans and Spa.”

Of course, the 1985 season was marred by the death of Stefan Bellof, but as Bell points out “the sheer volume of entries with amazing cars and very talented drivers was incredible.”

Stig Blomqvist

How rallying hit powerful new heights in the 1980s

“You’ve chosen a good year for rallying, that’s for sure,” says Stig Blomqvist. Of all the fields of motor sport that we are looking into, surely rallying was in its most glorious era in 1985. There’s no doubting the skill of drivers from previous eras in their cars, but the machinery in Group B was just astonishing. “The technology was not particularly impressive,” recalls Blomqvist, “but the power was absolutely amazing.

“But it wasn’t just the excitement of driving those Group B cars that made that year so good – there were plenty of other reasons, too. For starters, most of the classic events were still being run: Greece, Monte Carlo, the Safari rally. All epic events. And the depth of the field was amazing with many of the older guys from the early ’70s still driving. At each rally there were so many drivers who could win. Everyone was trying so hard and if you were in one of the slower cars you really had to fight.

“On top of all this, you had a championship that was professionally run. The organisation was fantastic.”

THE WAIT FOR Formula 1 fans ended with the start of the new season in Brazil on April 7. Michele Alboreto won the race in his Ferrari 156/85. H-pattern gearbox, 1.5-litre turbocharged V6 engine, no safety-net electronics. But nobody remembers that victory because a fortnight later Ayrton Senna, at a rain-soaked Estoril in Portugal, won his first Grand Prix in a Lotus-Renault and at the same time fired a warning shot to all the other competitors.

On May 16 scientists at the British Antarctic Survey discovered that there was a hole in the ozone layer. This news probably had little impact on the motor sport community in Indianapolis, as they were working through the complicated and virtually month-long preparation for the Indy 500 that took place on May 26. It was a notable year for it featured Danny Sullivan’s famous ‘spin and win’ moment during which he did a 360 right in front of Mario Andretti. Sullivan raced on to victory and put the mighty save down to 50 per cent skill and 50 per cent dumb luck. Earlier in the month tragedy had struck at the Tour de Corse as Italian rally driver Attilio Betega was killed when his Lancia 037 hit a tree. A year later Henri Toivenen was to die on the same event and the writing was on the wall for Group B rally cars.

In mid-June Jacky Ickx is digging his overalls out for his last-ever outing to Le Mans. He’d finish 10th, low down for this six-time winner. The results are dominated by Porsche 956s and 962s but new names such as Mazda, Toyota and Jaguar are on the entry list. Perhaps not a vintage year for sports car racing, but it certainly previewed what was about to be a magic era. Derek Bell explains more on this page.

The Isle of Man TT is in my opinion the only arena of motor sport that has continued to get better and better. It is still outrageous, the machines are faster, the challenge even greater and the riders as heroic as ever. Nothing gets in the way of my annual pilgrimage to the island. In ’85 the late and very great Joey Dunlop completed his first hat-trick of victories. Our own Matt Oxley, as much of a hero to me as the big names, won the 250cc production TT race that year.

Grand Prix bike racing was also getting better and better. It was the year of Freddie Spencer, who saw out the end of an era by being the last person to win both the 500 and 250cc championships in the same year. In June, Spencer won the Yugoslavian GP in the days before the wall came down.

Andy Rouse

Signs of a classic period of touring car racing to come

Other touring car drivers are available but for our purposes there is no one better to talk to than Andy Rouse, with a career that spans from the early 1970s to the 2000s. “There are two really memorable cars that I drove,” says Rouse. “One is the BDA-powered Escort that I raced in 1972, which had 13-inch-wide tyres and 300bhp, and the other is the Sierra Cosworth RS500.”

The latter wasn’t competing in 1985 but the earlier Ford Sierra Cosworth was. And so were other great cars like Capris and the popular Rover SD1s. Big, brawny, very powerful and, importantly, rear-wheel-drive saloons.

That’s the British Saloon/Touring Car Championship covered, but in the mid-80s epic events for tin-tops such as Spa and the Willhire 24 Hours were hugely important and well supported. Elsewhere in Europe touring cars were strong, particularly in Germany where the DTM was taking off. As Rouse says, the best time was a couple of years away when there were 40-car grids and 19 of them were RS500s, but in 1985 the signs were already looking very good.

Mario Andretti

How the growth of technology and CART inspired US legend

Mario Andretti is in his hotel room at Indianapolis having a break between engagements at the 500. “I’ve been thinking about this for a few days. An interesting subject. The big deal for us at this time [in Indycar racing] was bagging the Beatrice sponsorship at Newman-Haas. The Beatrice people had been to see a race and asked ‘How much to put our name on the car?’ We told them and they then asked ‘How much to take everyone else’s off?’

“It was great news for the sport because without sponsors you can’t survive.” So if prospects for the championship were good in 1985, what about the racing itself? “Computers had just started coming in,” says Andretti, “and this was the first year we had telemetry. I love progress, so I looked forward to all these things.

“Competition was intense with some of the main guys like Al Unser still going strong. The cars were exciting to drive and there were some great events like the race at Long Beach. Yeah, we wrapped up ’85 feeling positive about the future with CART at a level where it was really growing.”

Steve Parrish

Breakthroughs for bike racing in terms of power and talent

Not surprisingly, Steve Parrish’s favourite year of motorcycle racing was 1977. “I was at my peak then,” he says, “riding works Suzukis as Barry Sheene’s team-mate. But your choice of 1985 is a good one because it marks the introduction of bikes with serious horsepower. It was also the point at which ‘customer’ machines like the Suzuki RG500 could no longer win a Grand Prix.

“Radial tyres came into bike racing, which allowed for more extreme power outputs, as you couldn’t put any more horsepower through our old cross-plies.”

With extreme levels of horsepower came a new style of riding and an invasion on European shores. “Freddie Spencer was an incredible talent,” says Parrish, “as was Wayne Gardner, who slid bikes around in a style we weren’t familiar with.”

Away from Grand Prix racing, or MotoGP as it is now, there was much excitement. Joey Dunlop was busy stacking up Isle of Man TT wins and the first twinklings of superbike racing were seen with the big four-strokes. Bike racing from a spectator’s point of view was still down to earth, close-up and accessible.

WHERE WERE YOU on July 13? Watching Live Aid on telly or perhaps even at Wembley? I was working in an iron foundry in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia. I might have missed a legendary musical event but I was ideally placed for a motor sport happening a few months later…

Not only did I miss Sir Bob Geldof in action, I also missed Keke Rosberg’s ballistic 160mph qualifying lap at the British GP at Silverstone a week later. But as the racing comes to a close in Europe it’s just kicking off in the Southern Hemisphere. Kicking off with a bang at the famous Mount Panorama circuit in Bathurst, New South Wales. It was the James Hardie 1000 and, as mentioned, I was up the road in Queensland. And what a race it was for Poms. Scotsman Tom Walkinshaw was flying the flag for Britain with his TWR team’s Jaguar XJ-S race cars. Walkinshaw and Win Percy put their Jag on pole, but the race was won by John Goss and Armin Hahne in another XJ-S. You’ll find footage of one of Walkinshaw’s laps on You Tube that not only shows how dramatic Mt Panorama is, but how wonderful the Jag’s V12 sounded.

WE HADN’T QUITE packed up at home because one hugely important event, now diluted but still on the calendar, had still to be run. It would prove to be an epic year for the legendary Formula Ford Festival held annually at Brands Hatch. The overall winner was Johnny Herbert, but the style in which he won it has gone down in Formula Ford folklore. Herbert took the back of his Quest off in qualifying, had it fixed and was allowed to qualify and started his first heat from the back of the grid with a 10-second penalty. He finished sixth, then fourth in the quarter final, second in the semi-final and then led the final from start to finish.

It was a great year for domestic racing. I don’t remember if the term Brit Pack had been invented back then, but it applied to our squad of talent in 1985. Herbert was joined in Formula Ford by Mark Blundell, Damon Hill and the legendary Perry McCarthy. Over in Formula 3 we had Andy Wallace – later to play such a pivotal role in sports car racing but in ’85 well on his way to stardom in single-seater racing with a second place in the F3 championship.

There’ll be arguments about the choice of 1985. There have already been a few around the bar at Motor Sport’s local. We all have our biases. A sports car fanatic would demure over 1985 because the field hadn’t reached its prime. F1 one fans might choose the years of the great Senna/Prost or Schumacher/Hill battles. For me, I rest my case.