– Why Singapore saga is no surprise in today’s ‘sport’
– No one had a way with words quite like Frank…
A busy time it’s been in Formula 1, with three races – Valencia, Spa, Monza – in four weekends, and briefly the emphasis was on motor racing, in particular the glorious Indian summer of Rubens Barrichello, a well-loved man winning Grands Prix in his 17th season. Remarkable.
By the time we left Belgium, though, the storm clouds were gathering once more. And in Italy, two weeks on, the torrent was raging, the conversation of nothing else.
In fact, the seeds of the latest ‘scandal to rock sport’ had been sown a little earlier. In Budapest, on July 26, Nelson Piquet Jr drove a Renault for the last time, and that same day his father put a call through to Max Mosley. He had something to tell him, he said, and it went back almost a year, to September 28, 2008, the day of the inaugural Singapore Grand Prix.
At that time the world seemed to be – was – in a precarious state. Less than a fortnight earlier the collapse of Lehman Brothers had precipitated a financial meltdown that would damage everyone – save, as we know, those who had actually brought it about.
Suddenly nothing looked certain any more, and within the racing world there were those who murmured that maybe, at least in the short term, Formula 1 didn’t have a future. Overnight folk stopped buying new road cars, and rumours abounded that this manufacturer or that would pull out of racing, unable any longer to afford it or – perhaps more fundamentally – to justify it. Honda, as we know, duly took that step shortly before Christmas.
Another team considered shaky was Renault, whose parent company was on hard times even before the credit crunched. Despite employing the best driver, Fernando Alonso, Renault had not won a race in 2008, and word was the clock was ticking. At a moment like that, a victory wouldn’t hurt.
Fernando had been quickest in two of the three practice sessions at Singapore, but a problem in Q2 brought him to a halt out on the circuit, and that meant starting 15th – only one place ahead of his team-mate – at a circuit where overtaking looked near impossible. “Starting from there,” he said, “I’m going to need a miracle.”
And, lo, he seemed to get one. After starting unfathomably light, Alonso quickly passed three cars, but was in for fuel and tyres after only 12 laps, necessarily rejoining at the tail of the field. Two laps later, though, Piquet parked the second Renault against a wall, and did it hard enough to tear off the car’s right rear corner and shower the track with carbon fibre. Safety car…
It was indeed a miracle, and reminded me of the one at Sepang in ’99, when the Ferraris – one-two in the race – were afterwards found to be in breach of the regulations and disqualified – only to be found legal again in Paris the following Saturday. That particular miracle kept the World Championship alive to the final round.
By the time the Singapore race resumed, and everyone else had made their stops, Alonso was set fair, and duly collected the 10 points. It was an irony that at Fuji, two weeks later, he won again, and without any controversy whatever.
At the time of the incident in Singapore there were plenty of jocular remarks to the effect that at last Piquet had done something which materially benefited his team, and also not a few raised eyebrows: my, my, how convenient that shunt had been…
Even though quite a chunk of the sport’s recent history does not bear close examination, however, many were reluctant to believe it truly had been ‘a fix’.
But shortly after the Italian Grand Prix, Renault announced that Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds had ‘left the team’, and that it would not be contesting the allegations levelled against it by the FIA. Presumably the company’s hope was that, in the circumstances, the World Motor Sport Council might show some clemency at the hearing in Paris, and the evidence is that it worked, for on September 21, following an extraordinary meeting of the WMSC, it was announced that Renault had been disqualified from the World Championship – but that the sentence was suspended until the end of 2011, and would be activated only in the event of a comparable offence within that period.
As anticipated, the punishments for Briatore and Symonds were much more severe. Briatore has in effect been banished from motor racing for ever, not only as a team principal, but also as a manager of drivers; Symonds, meantime, is banned for five years. On balance, Renault has good reasons – one might even say a hundred million of them – to feel relieved, and one hopes the company will now continue in F1.
In the build-up to Monza, as ‘Singapore fever’ grew ever more virulent, all manner of material – transcripts, telemetry traces, and so on – was leaked to the press, and it was evident that, for all Briatore’s protestations to the contrary, he and certain members of the Renault team were bang to rights. There had indeed been a plan for Piquet to crash his car, so as to bring out the safety car after Alonso – and Alonso alone – had made his first stop.
Watch a clip of the accident, as we did at the time, and you might – might – believe it to be mere ineptitude. Seen, though, in conjunction with knowledge of the telemetry (leaked to us shortly before Monza, and revealing that Nelson, having started to spin, did not back off the throttle as the inside wall approached), it’s impossible to dispute the FIA’s allegations.
At the Thursday press conference at Monza most of those present, when asked about the controversy, were reluctant to comment, but Barrichello was an exception: “It’s quite difficult to think that somebody would deliberately crash a car because he was told to, and if it’s true, it’s very, very sad. The only thing I can see is that somebody wants Briatore’s head…”
Certainly there was no doubt that the Piquets, père et fils, were hell-bent on that. In his lengthy and emotional statement, issued a few days after his firing, Nelson Jr said this of Briatore – his manager, lest we forget, as well as his employer: “A manager is supposed to encourage you, support you and provide you with opportunities. In my case it was the opposite. Flavio Briatore was my executioner”.
Clearly the aim was now straightforward revenge – to put Briatore’s head on the block. One former World Champion put it this way: “This seems to me like a guy sacrificing his kid’s career for the sake of a vendetta…”
Whatever, it worked.
Until recently there had always been a belief that Briatore was bullet-proof, protected by his friendship with Bernie Ecclestone, with whom over time he has shared many a business interest, including the acquisition of QPR. In the course of this season, however, there had been suggestions that the two were no longer so close, that Flavio’s overt support of FOTA, in its battles with Max Mosley and the powers-that-be, had been poorly received.
It was on Briatore’s boat that all the FOTA members met in Monaco, planning for the possibility of seceding from the FIA, and operating their own championship.
I remember an insider murmuring at midsummer, “They’ve put a line through Ron Dennis’s name on the hit list – Flavio’ll be next…” I’ll admit that I expressed doubt at the time.
If indeed Mosley and Ecclestone wished to see the end of Briatore, then unquestionably the Piquets provided the means to achieve it. That said, there is no getting away from the fact that, in organising the ‘fix’ in Singapore, Briatore handed them the ammunition in the first place.
Down the years Flavio’s reputation was one of a ruthless businessman, a strict pragmatist, always one step ahead of the game, and I confess that what surprises me most about this affair is that he should have put himself in a position of such powerlessness: for ever after, let’s face it, the Piquets ‘had something on him’.
Perhaps, when I interviewed Briatore in the spring, I should given more reflection to remarks he made about Piquet Jr. When I said I was not alone in being surprised by the decision to retain him for a second season, Flavio made a face: “Yes, OK, but… tell me who’s available who might have been better. This is the last chance for Nelson, sure, but if you have one driver like Fernando in the team, what you need next to him is a good team player – you don’t need someone creating aggravation.”
No, Flav, you don’t. But, in light of what happened in Singapore, was there not always a possibility that the events of that day might come to light at some point – such as when you eventually replaced Piquet? Nelson Sr, after all, is not only a prime example of the ‘racing father from hell’, but also a street-fighter of the first cut. While adored by all in Ecclestone’s Brabham team (for which he drove in 1979-85), he was by no means universally popular among his fellows, like Alan Jones, Nigel Mansell and – above all – Ayrton Senna.
Perhaps Briatore believed that the Singapore incident would remain buried because the Piquets themselves would wish it so. Whomever conceived the plan, after all, Nelsinho agreed to go along with it, so he can lay no claim to any moral high ground. Had he run to Mosley at the end of last year, wishing to absolve himself of all his sins, etc, that would have been one thing – but by then, of course, a new Renault contract was in place. Only when his performances failed to improve, and Briatore replaced him, was he overtaken by a burning desire to come clean.
Immediately after the incident, though, he told his daddy, who had a quiet word with the FIA’s Charlie Whiting (Brabham’s chief mechanic in Nelson’s days with the team) at last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix, only a few weeks after Singapore: if he were to bring the matter into the open, he wondered, what effect might it have on his son’s career? An adverse one, clearly, for it came to light only nine months later, when his son didn’t have a career any more. No action could be taken at the time, apparently, for Nelson Jr had made no statement of his own.
I don’t for one second condone what any of them – Briatore, Symonds, Piquet – did in Singapore, but perhaps it’s a sign of the times in which we live that I was not, upon learning of Piquet’s statement to the FIA, shocked by it. As one who has covered F1 for close on 40 years, I have watched its sense of ethics – its claim to be a sport – fade over the last 30, evaporate over the last 20.
Like any other racing journalist I have frequently been precluded by the libel laws from writing about a variety of unsavoury goings-on, and what that does over time is leave you wearily cynical, just as with mainstream politics: ‘I’m lying to you, and you know I’m lying to you, but… I really couldn’t care less, because you can’t do anything about it…’
And they’re right, of course, these people. Over the years I’ve been told all sorts of nefarious tales by all sorts of (sometimes nefarious) folk in the paddock, but rarely been able to publish them because these same whistle-blowers, while themselves outraged, have been simply too frightened of the consequences of speaking on the record. I have written many times of the climate of fear in which this business has operated – particularly over the last two decades – and I exaggerate not. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, so does absolute money, upon which F1 has concentrated, to the exclusion of most everything else, for way too long.
In that respect, mind you, it is hardly different from any other sport. ‘Fixing’ may be something we don’t care to contemplate as we watch our heroes, but how many matches have been resolved by a penalty brought about by a player taking a dive? The argument is offered that such goings-on are less serious than the Piquet affair because they are not premeditated, but you’d have to say that certain players seem to have a remarkable propensity for falling at the right moment.
The same argument, you may recall, was put forward by the FIA when it failed to punish Michael Schumacher adequately – or at all, really – for trying to shove Jacques Villeneuve off the road in their World Championship decider at Jerez in 1997. It hadn’t been ‘premeditated’, the governing body said, and perhaps – perhaps – it hadn’t, but did that mean it was kosher to behave in that way on the spur of the moment? Michael did, after all, have a certain amount of ‘form’ in that respect, as Damon Hill can tell you.
How do we define ‘fixing’, as opposed to ‘influencing’? Piquet in Singapore was an extreme example, I’ll grant you, but Grands Prix have long been influenced by the actions of a driver seeking to help his team-mate. Take Watkins Glen as long ago as 1975: Niki Lauda (Ferrari) and Emerson Fittipaldi (McLaren) were battling for the lead when they came up to lap Clay Regazzoni, who had been delayed by a pitstop. Lauda was able to slip by the other Ferrari, but Fittipaldi was not. Four laps later he got past, but by now Niki was 11 seconds up the road, gone.
By the by, Clay was black-flagged, and when he came in much excitement ensued, coming to a head when the Clerk of the Course was punched by the Ferrari team manager – one Luca di Montezemolo.
Regazzoni’s actions, while clearly not premeditated – he could hardly have planned to need a new nosecone – undeniably aided Lauda’s cause. A ‘fix’, or merely ‘team driving’?
That sort of thing has been a grey area in motor racing since Job was a lad, but in recent times there have been many happenings in plain black and white. There was ‘Spygate’, involving Messrs Stepney, Coughlan et al a couple of years ago, which resulted in a fine of $100,000,000 for McLaren, while a not dissimilar incident, in which stolen McLaren material found its way to Renault, went unpunished by the FIA. And at the beginning of this year we had the Hamilton ‘Liegate’ affair, which resulted in the consignment to outer darkness of not only Davey Ryan, but also Ron Dennis.
Now we have this, and perhaps we are all less shocked than we should be, inured to scandal by events past, not only in our own sport, but in others, too. Recently we have had the Dean Richards episode, for example, and do you remember Hansie Cronje, the great South African batsman banned for life in 1992 for his involvement in ‘match fixing’ for financial gain? Not cricket, old boy.
We have grown familiar, too, with the phrase ‘performance-enhancing drugs’, be it in the Tour de France or the Olympic Games or wherever. What I’m saying is that, broadly, we have become accustomed to the concept of cheating – it has seeped into our culture as surreptitiously, as insidiously, as political correctness. We may not approve of it, but we hardly notice it any more. It has become the norm.
Why, then, so much fuss in the papers about what happened in Singapore? Well, the air of ‘revenge’ has given the story extra bite, of course, but most of the outrage has stemmed from the danger aspect – this is not a disputed penalty or chemically-assisted 100 metres, after all, but motor racing, where things go fast, and people
can get hurt.
I don’t seek to play down this aspect of Piquet’s contrived accident, for there is inevitably at least some risk of injury in anything of this kind, even at a slow corner on a street circuit bordered by concrete walls and debris fences. I cannot but remember, though, the opening lap of the Japanese Grand Prix in 1990, when Ayrton Senna simply took aim at Alain Prost at the first corner, and speared the Ferrari off the road at 150mph. At their heels was the pack, and when Prost’s rear wing, torn off in the initial impact, fluttered into the air, it could have come down anywhere – perhaps on one of 24 open cockpits.
The Ferrari and the McLaren were of course out on the spot, and the World Championship was settled, in Senna’s favour. Afterwards he denied his action had been intentional, fatuously suggesting that Prost had ‘left a gap’, but a year on admitted he’d done it deliberately. It remains the most reprehensible deed I have ever seen at a race track – and it went
In the same way, it wasn’t exactly safe – we won’t even bother to talk about ethical – when Schumacher parked his Ferrari at Rascasse at the end of Monaco qualifying in 2006, his plan to keep Alonso from threatening his pole position. Michael was put to the back of the grid; I’d have banned him.
None of this, I hasten to say, is an attempt to play down the Singapore incident. Although Piquet himself was granted immunity by the FIA (why – and on whose authority?), I believe all involved deserved everything coming to them, just as I hoped forlornly that would be true of Senna after the Suzuka debacle – which I mention now merely as an example of how over time we have witnessed the death, by a thousand cuts, of sport as once it was defined and understood.
Maybe only golf survives in recognisable form. I read recently of a player competing in a PGA tournament who was in the rough and minutely touched his ball as he addressed it. No one else had seen it, but he knew what happened, and immediately informed an official, thereby costing himself a stroke.
Probably most of today’s sports people would think him an idiot, but it wasn’t always so. Let’s finish an unpalatable topic on an edifying note, and recall the events at Oporto in 1958, a year in which the main protagonists in the World Championship were Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorn. In Portugal Stirling was untouchable, building an ever greater lead over Mike, whose Ferrari’s drum brakes were no match for the discs on the Vanwall.
In those days the scoring system was 8-6-4-3-2-1, ill rewarding a winner just as our 10-8-6 etc system does today. There was, however, an extra point awarded for fastest lap, and at Oporto this was to prove crucial, for while Moss held it for most of the afternoon, Hawthorn, after stopping to have his brakes adjusted, beat it.
The Vanwall crew promptly hung out a board – HAW-REC – to Stirling, but he read it as HAW-REG, and interpreted it as ‘Hawthorn regular’, and not gaining. Thus, while consummately the quickest driver in the race, and one who could have claimed back the fastest lap at will, he felt no need to respond.
On the last lap Hawthorn, now completely out of brakes, missed a corner, and took to the escape road, whereupon the Ferrari stalled as he tried to turn it round. Mike got out, hoping to push start the car, then leap back aboard, and this he duly did, going on to finish second.
Afterwards, though, Hawthorn was called before the stewards – something of an unusual occurrence in those adult days – and accused of pushing his car in the opposite direction to the circuit. Disqualification looked certain, until Moss – unbidden – went to the stewards, and told them that at the time of the incident, which he had witnessed, Hawthorn had been pushing his car on the pavement, and not on the track itself.
On the basis of Stirling’s evidence, Mike was not disqualified, and so left Portugal with seven points (six for second, plus one for fastest lap), compared with his rival’s eight for a dominant victory.
The Ferrari was more reliable than the Vanwall in 1958, and by season’s end Moss, with four victories, lost the World Championship to Hawthorn, with one, by a single point. Had he kept shtum in Oporto, he would have taken the title, but to him that would have been unconscionable.
“People have said they can’t believe I helped Mike that day,” Stirling said, “but although it affected me, in terms of the championship, it was the decent thing to do, and I believed in it. I suppose that sort of thing is absolutely inconceivable now – they’d be screaming at the stewards to throw him out!”
Rely on it, I said. “The thing is,” he went on, “pride has always mattered so much to me. I can see no satisfaction in winning at any cost – it’s like out-running someone with a broken ankle – but nowadays that doesn’t seem to matter, because racing’s bred a different type of creature, hasn’t it?”
By chance, as we talked about this in Moss’s house, I was about to go off to Jerez for the last round of the 1997 World Championship, to be settled between Schumacher and Villeneuve.
“I was talking to Patrick Head the other day,” Stirling mused, “and he said, ‘Jesus, now we go to the last race one point behind Schumacher – and all he has to do is take Jacques out, and he’s World Champion. And we know he’s capable of that, because he did it to Damon at Adelaide in ’94…’
“I know how much money is at stake these days, but I also know I couldn’t ever have done something like that. It’s just… it’s just… I don’t see how anyone can do something like that – and then live with it on their conscience…”
Different times, Stirling. No, you never won the World Championship – but that serves only to devalue it. The reasons why you are revered have nothing to do with mere titles.
Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser…’ Over time the words, originally uttered by Vince Lombardi, head coach of the Green Pay Packers and legendary ‘hard man’ of the NFL, have become one of the clichés of sport.
The first time I ever heard them, though, they came from the mouth of Frank Gardner. It was the autumn of 1973, I was working for a long-defunct monthly named Competition Car, and was asked to interview Gardner. I called him: “I’m testing at Snetterton on Thursday – we can do it at the end of the day.”
So that was what we did. Over time I have interviewed racing people in a variety of circumstances and venues, some plush, some emphatically not; by any standards, though, this was towards the bottom of the scale. It was a horribly dank afternoon, and at around five o’clock we went into the greasiest of spoons for tea and a bacon sandwich. “If you’re going to be a racing journalist,” Frank murmured, “you’d better get used to the high life…”
An hour and a half later I set off for London, and in the course of the journey played back the cassette of my chat with Gardner. I have it still, together with others recorded later; for laconic humour and straightforward common sense, only Mario Andretti and Niki Lauda come close.
Over time you come to realise that racing drivers – particularly retired racing drivers – are no different from the rest of us in one sense at least: all have a repertoire of favourite stories and, in the case of a man like Frank, favourite sayings. He was a funny man, and he knew it, and when a particular homily went down well he would file it away for future use, knowing it would be well received. Hence, when talking of the prototype Porsche 917: “Like I always say, I never wanted to be the quickest racing driver – I just wanted to be the oldest. And that motor car was certainly going to interfere with those plans…”
Gardner, mercifully, was of a generation untouched by the scourge of political correctness, and listening again to that tape, recorded 36 years ago, brings home just how much the world has changed, not least in terms of ‘permissible’ humour. When Frank described the Nürburgring as ‘the circuit Hitler built for Jewish racing drivers’, he wasn’t being racist or anti-Semitic, or any such nonsense – it was simply his pithy way of getting across how fiendishly uncompromising and perilous was the Nordschleife. If his observation doesn’t offend Jewish racing drivers of my acquaintance – and it doesn’t, at all – then why should it offend anyone else on their behalf?
Frank Gardner was through and through a decent man, compassionate without being soft, laconic without being cruel. He was also a hell of a good racing driver, one of that lost generation who could drive anything, from a Formula 1 car to a ‘saloon’ (as he described his Chevy Camaro), and drive it superbly.
My feeling was that Gardner was easily good enough to have been a full-time Grand Prix driver, but although he indeed raced F1 cars, it was only on an occasional basis, and I’m not sure he thought himself good enough to take it further than that: “I’m a Frank,” he said to me once. “Not a Jackie or a Denny or a Chris…
“The question of doing F1 for Jack [Brabham] came up several times, but I was retained by Ford at the time, for sports cars and so on, and being paid reasonably healthy money. It’s a case of doing a job in a sphere, isn’t it? In the end, it’s all racing, it’s all competitive, and that’s what it’s all about. I wouldn’t want to run in the midfield in any class, including F1 – try and win it, or don’t run.
“The one thing that never changes about racing is that there can only be one winner, and you’ve got to be in the right team at the right time. There are some fair old drivers in F1 who never will be – and never could be – World Champion, by virtue of their situation. I always thought Jacky Ickx, for example, was as good a driver as you’d come by, but his situation meant that his ability was wasted. A long time ago blokes started buying their way into F1 – but what’s the point of that, if it means you’re going to be touring round at the back? I mean, why would you want to do that? Just to be able to say, ‘I’m an F1 driver’? Never made any sense to me…
“When I was a boy, you served your apprenticeship and you earned your drive – there was no way you could buy your way in. I’ve no axe to grind, believe me. I did have F1 deals offered to me, but I was always in the fortunate position of having two or three contracts to study at the end of each year, and it seemed to me that the right thing to do was take the competitive drives, no matter what the type of racing. I’d have far sooner had a competitive saloon or sports car drive than a midfield F1 drive – apart from anything else, race day is pay day, after all…”
No one, save perhaps Andretti, had a more varied CV than Gardner, who would reminisce, for example, about his brief dalliance with NASCAR in 1968.
“I quite enjoyed it, actually. It was a hard world for a newcomer, and I’m sure it still is, but thanks to Ford I was fortunate to go in with Holman Moody, so I didn’t have too many problems. Mind you, you don’t go into their kitchen to be told where the cups and saucers are, let alone get the cup of tea made for you! There’s a lot of old toffee handed to you in NASCAR, and you have to wade through it, and see what you can eat and what you throw away. ‘It’s great to see you’ and ‘I’ll ring you back’ seemed to be the two biggest lies you could run into…
“As I say, I enjoyed it, but it seemed to me the only way you were ever going to do it well was to live in the States, and make a career of it. Certainly you needed to be fit and robust – there were some very tough old boys in NASCAR at that time, no doubt at all. It wasn’t for the faint-hearted. You really had to earn your money – you had to do some ridiculous things with a motor car.
“I must say I found it a bit alarming to see drivers lighting cigars and cigarettes while the yellow lights were on! A lighter on the dash was a major part of their equipment, so they could have a quick draw while following the pace car.”
Gardner had his ‘set piece’ stories, of course, but if he told them many times, his phraseology varied in the telling. Perhaps the most famous of all was of the 1969 Nürburgring 1000Kms, where the Porsche 917 made its debut, with Frank at the wheel. This is the version on my tape.
“Huschke von Hanstein called – and the money he was offering was certainly good enough to cross a strip of water and get in the thing. I think the reason they bestowed this honour on me was that every 917 driver was in hospital at the time, recovering from various stages of disrepair…
“I wanted a good, sensible bloke sharing with me, and suggested they call David Piper. As I recall, David did one lap in practice and was all for going back to England immediately, but I pleaded with him to stay because the money was right.
“This was one of the very first 917s, with an alloy chassis, which was gas-filled. There was a big gauge in the cockpit, which measured the gas pressure, and that was to keep you informed of the chassis’ state of health. If it zeroed, they said, that meant that the chassis was broken, and I should drive mit care back to the pits. If it zeroed, I replied, I wasn’t going to drive mit care anywhere – I was going to park the bastard there and then, pick up my Deutschmarks and get home to Mum…
“Then there was the engine. You had about 300 horsepower at 5000 revs, and then between 5000 and 6000 you picked up about the same again! So it was a bit of delight, really – and it was on narrow nine-inch rims all round. The computer had said that nine-inch rims would make the car very quick in a straight line – but the computer wasn’t strapped in the bloody seat up in the Eifel mountains, where you tend to get the odd corner…”
Nor was that the end of it. “You sat between these pannier tanks, which bulged when they put the fuel in. It took 40-odd gallons because it was pretty hungry.”
It was also, even with ear plugs in place, quite extraordinarily noisy, to the point, Gardner said, of being disturbing. “It was bloody hard to think. You were horrified by all the activity, your brain numbed by the vibration, the power and the wheelspin.
“In those days, they were still gas-welding chassis, and the thing flexed so much that the actual position of the gearchange used to alter. You’d reach for where the lever had been last time you used it, and it wasn’t there any more – it had moved!
“Nothing about the car was consistent, that was the thing. When it became airborne, sometimes it would sort of float through the air, and other times it would crash down. It never did the same thing twice. Just when you thought you had it worked out, it’d pull another trick.
“It was simply indescribable, the motor car, and the weather did its best to help as well. Snow and rain all the way. You were just so crossed up in the thing that you didn’t know which way was straight ahead in the finish. But we got it through to the end, seventh or somewhere, and in addition to paying me money, they did try to take up a collection for an Iron Cross, which they reckoned I’d earned…”
Porsche followed up with an invitation to drive the 917 at Le Mans, but Frank decided against it. “Again, the money was great, but I’d had my lesson. Rolf Stommelen went like hell with the thing at Le Mans, but of course he had the whole of the Fatherland on his back, and he had to rise to the occasion…”
Gardner, as you can see, was at his best when talking about terrible cars, of which he drove more than a few. “I had a good relationship with Fords for a long time – the GT40 was pretty undriveable at first, but eventually we got it to the stage that it was a decent motor car. Mind you, having said that, I don’t think I ever drove anything – including the 917 at the ’Ring – worse than the F3L…”
This was the sublimely beautiful, woefully unsuccessful Cosworth DFV-powered coupé developed and raced by Alan Mann’s operation in 1968. The following year it was succeeded by a revised, open version.
“The F3L was a terrifying thing to drive, particularly at Spa, where I somehow managed to get it on the pole. But it wasn’t as bad as the open car that came afterwards. That was a device all of its own. It had automatic wings – the idea was that when the air pressure increased, the wings flattened out, and the car went faster. Then, when the pressure dropped, the wings came down.
“Great in theory. Only thing was, they didn’t take into account that with racing cars around, you tend to get a little bit of turbulent air. And nothing’s going to piss you off like a front wing staying down and a rear wing coming up at the same time. I only drove the thing a couple of times, and then I told them it wasn’t my strong suit of clothes…”
In 1998 Gardner, by now 67, came to Goodwood for the first Revival meeting, where he raced a Cobra, and reminded me he had lost none of his way with words: “How does it feel? Well, after my first practice lap I tore up my victory speech, I can tell you that…”
It struck me that weekend how little he had changed. There he was, still wearing the familiar white towelling hat, still strutting around on the balls of his feet.
“I think,” he said, “I had a very good innings in this business.”
That he did. We learned of his death over the Spa weekend, and Mark Webber spoke for everyone: “Wonderful bloke, wasn’t he? This is such a loss to everyone who knew Frank – such a loss to motor racing…”