My only grand prix

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1980 Belgian at Zolder by Tiff Needell

How did the drive with the Ensign team come about?

The seat became free after Regazzoni had suffered his accident at Long Beach. I had connections with both Unipart and Ensign from before so I was on the phone, as tactfully as I could be, as soon as possible.

Jan Lammers was hot property having qualified the ATS fourth at Long Beach, and [team boss] Mo Nunn was very taken by Mike Thackwell and was chasing him for a two-year deal. They went for Thackwell initially and he did the test at Zolder, but then turned the drive down. So I was rushed in and given half a day’s running at Donington to prepare for my GP debut.

Was it a struggle to qualify?

I only had one qualifying session because the second was wet — in which I ended up 14th fastest. But in the dry I qualified 23rd out of 27 entries.

The worst thing was that it was a one-car team so I had no-one else to back up what I was saying about the problem with the chassis. I found that when I went over the left-hand crest after the chicane the steering was going all stiff and tight. I was told that Clay never complained of understeer, that he always talked of oversteer. I replied, “Well, it’s bloody understeering now!”

At the end of the year they realised that, after 200 miles, the monocoques were going soft, twisting and seizing the steering rack. It was so frustrating not having a team-mate to corroborate my viewpoint. When Lammers got in the car after me he failed to qualify for four races on the trot!

Your race itself only lasted 12 laps — what do you remember of it?

I don’t remember much, actually. I do recall sitting on the grid and humming the Grand Prix signature tune. I was caught up in the romance of it all — I just loved the sport, the history, everything. I was sandwiched on the starting grid between the Fittipaldi cars, and I had a little dice with Emerson — my schoolboy hero — for last place. I got up to 19th and then the engine failed.

You then went to Monaco, but failed to qualify…

My greatest achievement in my entire racing career is that I qualified for the Monaco GP in the wet on the Thursday. Only 20 got in and I was 19th, one place behind Prost. So I spent all of Friday praying for thunderstorms on Saturday but to no avail. It was dry on Saturday and I ended up 26th after stuffing into the wall at the Swimming Pool.

How did you find out your time was up with Ensign?

All the time at Zolder there were these little meetings with Lammers going on, so I knew it was fairly temporary accommodation. Then the week after Monaco they tested Brian Henton. It was all a question of them not believing me about the chassis.

Despite the frustrations, are you glad you got that one chance?

I’m hugely delighted. It sounds a bit stupid to say you’re a grand prix driver when you only did one, but I can assure you, if you’re the man who’s done it, it makes a huge difference.