Give and take

FISA gave Perry McCarthy a superlicence in Brazil and then it took it away…

Sentiment is a rare enough commodity in real life; in the insular environs of Formula One it is as rare as an accurate election opinion poll.

That was an unpalatable fact of life which Perry McCarthy was obliged to consider when he tried to make his F1 debut in Brazil. The rules of the game (Appendix L Article 3.6 of the International Sporting Code) say, on the subject of the superlicences that every F1 driver must possess before he or she can drive a car in company with their rivals:
‘A driver’s name can only be placed on the Super-A licence list on the sole decision of the Formula One Commission and on condition that:
1) He must be the holder of an A licence, and
2) either: he must have effectively participated in a season of the FIA International Championship for F3000.
– or: he must be the current champion of the principal National F3 Championship of one of the following countries: Great Britain, France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, South America.
– or: he has started in at least 5 events counting for the F1 World Championship for Drivers the previous year.
‘Exceptionally, the Fl superlicence may also be issued to other drivers whose record of results is judged sufficient by the Formula One Commission.’ (Our italics).
‘The driver’s name will remain on the list for two years; if at the end of this period he no longer fulfils the above criteria, his case may be reviewed by the F1 Commission.’

It is the penultimate paragraph that is important in McCarthy’s case. Under no circumstances does he comply with the requirements of the others. He would dearly love to have completed a season of F3000, to back up his two years with Madgwick Motorsport in the British F3 Championship in 1986 and 1987. During those halcyon seasons he at one stage or another beat all of the other ‘ratpack’ hotshoes who have since gone on to better things: Johnny Herbert, Martin Donnelly, Bertrand Gachot, Damon Hill, Thomas Danielsson, Gary Brabham, Mark Blundell. . . The graduation to F3000 was stymied for a very simple reason: lack of finance.

We have heard many times how Nigel Mansell lived on the breadline during the early stages of his career. Compared to what McCarthy has sacrificed, the Williams driver lived in luxury. That’s not to decry Mansell, but an indication of the relentless determination that McCarthy has brought to his racing. Since his last F3 season he has parlayed the house he and Karen bought in Billericay into a ticket for continued, albeit spasmodic, racing. At no time has he ever given up in his quest, and though his house is shortly to be repossessed, he has still pressed forward. In an age where young drivers tend to give it their best shot for a couple of years before fading away if success initially proves elusive, that sort of commitment is outstanding.

When it is allied, as it is in his case, to an obvious talent for the job of driving racing cars fast, it made it doubly hard to accept the situation in Brazil wherein, having received his superlicence, it was then taken away. What went wrong?

The Saturday before the Brazilian GP, and the day after he received the invitation to join Roberto Moreno in the Andrea Moda Formula team, McCarthy approached Bernie Ecclestone to discuss his chances. Bernie was blunt; he didn’t rate them too highly. After further conversation, he advised McCarthy to approach the RAC MSA with his blessing, and the following Monday (March 30), Peter Todd (Race & Speed Executive of the MSA’s Sporting Services Department) approached FISA on his behalf. He received a favourable response. FISA’s Roland Bruynseraede faxed the following message to Pierre de Coninck, Secretary General of FISA later that day: ‘After having received all the information about driver McCarthy and having contacted the RAC MSA. who confirmed to me that Mr McCarthy had been issued with international “A” licence number 19293, I have no objection to his being furnished with a Super Licence’.

On March 31 the RAC MSA received from Ian Brown, the man responsible for security and safety at FISA, the following fax: ‘Further to your request dated 13-03-92, we confirm that Perry McCarthy is eligible to apply for the Super Licence “A”.’

That same day Andrea Sassetti received confirmation from Gerald Richard of FISA that Andrea Moda Formula’s nominations of Roberto Moreno and Perry McCarthy as respective replacements for Alex Caffi and Enrico Bertaggia had been accepted.

McCarthy duly travelled to Brazil and went through the mandatory driver weigh in. He was then handed his superlicence on the morning of Thursday. April 2. FISA subsequently said it was merely an agreement to supply one, but that is not the case. It was the licence. That much was confirmed in front of witnesses by FISA’s press representative, Francesco Longanesi. At four thirty that afternoon Bruynseraede then warned McCarthy that there might be a problem with the licence, and at six returned to the Moda pit to take it back. It had been rescinded. By then, McCarthy had also gone through the mandatory cockpit exit test as further indication that FISA had fully accepted his application. It was suggested that a senior representative from a rival organisation had approached FISA earlier to query the licence, and that that was the first time that anyone at FISA realised it had been granted without recourse a legal requirement to the F1 Commission. Perhaps that was the case. Perhaps somebody else within FISA simply noticed the oversight. Nobody would admit anything either way. Whatever, McCarthy was thus no longer eligible to participate. He had travelled 5000 miles, borrowing the money for his air fare and putting behind him for the moment his continuing financial crises at home. and now he was out. Just like that. FISA later issued a release that attempted to cover its bureaucratic error: ‘Only the Formula One Commission can issue a superlicence (Appendix L Art. 3.6 of the International Sporting Code). Neither the Formula One Commission nor any of its members had any knowledge of the purported issue of a superlicence for Mr McCarthy.

‘It follows that Mr McCarthy did not possess a superlicence and could not take part in the 1992 Brazilian Grand Prix.’

This was pure fabrication. McCarthy had held the superlicence in his hand. Moreover, Ecclestone is a member of the F1 Commission and he knew that an application was going to be made.

“I wasn’t just surprised, but shattered to see Perry here,” said Bernie on the Friday. “He called me and I told him that in my opinion I didn’t think that he would get a licence. We talked, and I suggested that he should approach the RAC MSA and tell them he had my approval to do so. But I knew he wouldn’t have time to get a superlicence for Brazil because of the need to go through the F1 Commission. He should have been told that. The boy did nothing wrong; FISA screwed up.”

“I received a superlicence and I paid the fee. It was accepted,” said a bitterly disappointed McCarthy. “The faxes confirmed we would get one, and we did. I had it in my hand and I signed it.

FISA’s smokescreen hadn’t abated by Friday April 3, the day McCarthy should have been driving the Andrea Moda Judd, when de Coninck faxed Les Needham at the RAC MSA with the following message. ‘Further to the fax sent by the FISA on 31st March mentioning that Perry McCarthy was eligible to apply for the superlicence, according to Appendix L Art 3.6 of the Sporting Code, the process was followed; therefore, this application has been submitted to the F1 Commission.

‘From the information I have received from the FISA Delegate, it appears that this application has been refused by the F1 Commission members who are currently present at the Brazilian Grand Prix.

‘As soon as I get more information concerning this matter, I will keep you informed.’

This is not true; the F1 Commission members discussed subjects such as changes to the Concorde Agreement and enhancement of qualifying during a meeting in Interlagos on Thursday April 2, but the matter of McCarthy’s superlicence was never raised. Somebody, somewhere, would seem to be making an attempt to cover their tracks after their original mistake.

So where does the situation now stand? McCarthy instantly began lobbying members of the F1 Commission hard, trying to get his application accepted officially in time for the Spanish GP meeting on May 1. For a driver on the breadline, yet also tantalisingly on the verge of the biggest break in his career, it was a disturbing time, notwithstanding the fact that he will at least test the Andrea Moda Judd. When the likes of Michael Bartels, Fabrizio Barbazza, Giovanna Amati and Paul Belmondo have applied for and received superlicences in recent months, without ever demonstrating any outstanding ability in F3000, McCarthy’s frustration was understandable. Financial disasters or not, he has managed to keep his career afloat since the days when specialist design concern Hawtal Whiting provided him with a decent budget in F3.

Nobody wanted the unloved Ralt RT22 in 1988, but in his F3000 outings McCarthy embraced its shortcomings and qualified it in all his three outings, something luminaries such as Eric Bernard, Russell Spence, Andy Wallace and Cor Euser failed to achieve. A year later he tested at length for the Footwork, Leyton House and CDM F3000 teams and was always quick, but as usual the better heeled got to race the cars. With Roger Cowman’s Lola he was a dramatic seventh at Spa, having at one stage been second fastest in wet qualifying until the team’s lack of equipment hampered his tyre change and lost him vital running time. His performance in qualifying 11th moved Lotus team manager Peter Collins to comment in Interlagos: “That was the race at which he convinced me he had something. I watched him at Eau Rouge, and he was doing something special in that car.” In the warm-up at Le Mans, he was third quickest, behind only Eric Bernard and Erik Comas and ahead of Jean Alesi even though, as usual, the car was run on a shoestring.

For 1990 he made himself an opportunity which took him to America, where he won on his IMSA Camel Lights debut for Spice at Mid Ohio. He had never seen the track before, nor the car. In the dry at the equally unfamiliar Watkins Glen he was 1.4s faster than any other normally aspirated car, when elevated to the 700bhp GTP Spice. It was dry in qualifying and the Glen is a turbo circuit that suited the Jaguars, yet in the wet race he devoured the opposition, scything past regulars such as Geoff Brabham in the Nissan and Davy Jones in the Jag to forge through into the lead until the track dried again. Not the work of a man without a high degree of talent, one would think. He took pole position at Sears Point and led until the engine failed, and fought for second place with Fangio in one of Dan Gurney’s Toyota Eagles at Portland. In San Antonio he led again until the engine broke. Such achievements won him Rookie of the Year honours, and he repeated the form again in 1991, even putting up with the ultimate frustration: occasionally qualifying the car only to have a wealthy but slow pay-driver race it.

The Brazilian debacle highlighted the current parlous state not only of the rules governing superlicences, but also a worrying lack of detailed knowledge on behalf of many F1 Commission members. Ecclestone has pledged that the rules will be revised significantly for 1993. However, that penultimate paragraph clause is vital in the cases of drivers such as McCarthy. Invariably it seems to be the British who struggle most to find racing budgets, and FISA needs to remain aware that the ‘sleepers’ should retain the chance to graduate to the highest level should they be good enough. In F1 there are only two sorts of people: racers and onanists. Motor racing at the highest level any level should be about racers. As this column was written it seemed certain that McCarthy would get his licence after all and the chance which is all he seeks to pursue his career. And rightly so.

It seems, however, that without the Brazilian affair bringing the whole thing to very public attention, he almost certainly would have been refused. We are told by insiders at FISA that his plight evoked sufficient sentiment that the majority of the F1 Commission members were moved to vote in favour of his application. All well and good, and hurrah for a decent human value, but it would have been far more comforting to know that they had all looked very carefully at what results he could claim – maybe some of them had even seen him in action, Heaven forbid, and could make value judgements – and made the same decision based on what he can actually do, rather than what he and others say he can do.

A final thought: Under the current rules the likes of Gilles Villeneuve might not have been granted a superlicence on first application, but for that italicised paragraph. Those in the position to judge don’t always have the facts at their command, as the McCarthy Affair revealed only too well, let alone do they try to obtain them from those who do. And on such things a racer’s career might hinge.

Worrying, isn’t it?