Time for the bill – Lunch with Simon Taylor

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After 125 ‘Lunch with’ interviews, Simon Taylor is hanging up his… knife and fork. He reflects on 10 memorable years and an incredible body of work

Last week, in Jackie Stewart’s conservatory, I finished off the last of my strawberries and cream, drained my cup of camomile tea and, not without an inward tear, swallowed my final Lunch with… for Motor Sport

Over the past 10 years and five months it has been my great privilege to take lunch with 125 special people. In their different ways, every one has enriched our lives: world champions, Le Mans winners, Indy 500 winners, rally drivers, NASCAR drivers, a land speed record holder, a drag racer, team owners, designers, mechanics, a doctor, a broadcaster. In my conversations and my questions, and then in the three-quarters of a million words that resulted, I have done my best to uncover the true character of each guest. 

There have been stories of joys and tragedies, opinions and condemnations, anecdotes, wit, often surprises, sometimes previously untold secrets. The relaxed atmosphere of a pleasant lunch has usually encouraged my guests to be far more frank and direct than they might have been in the more guarded environment of a typical journalist’s interview.

A lot of readers have been very kind and said they liked the series. Down the years I have had letters and e-mails from around the world. Strangers have come up to me at race meetings, in airport departure lounges and even on one occasion in a supermarket. One had an entire article embossed on metal and framed, and presented it to its subject. A book publisher produced a hard-back collection of 25 lunches (now out of print, but secondhand copies can be found). Motor Sport themselves may produce in the future a one-shot with a larger selection if they think there’s a demand: meanwhile they’re all on the website.

And now I have decided that Lunch with… has run its course for me. Lots of clichés will explain why: all good things come to an end, a change is as good as a rest, best to quit while you’re ahead. Of course I’ll go on writing for this wonderful magazine – which incidentally I started reading 65 years ago, soon after I learned to read. (I remember I had quite a lot of trouble with Wolseley and de Graffenried, and Freikaiserwagen defeated me completely).

This lunch thing started in 2006, when Motor Sport wanted to create a series of in-depth interviews with leading motor sport figures. The crux was that sitting down together over lunch would lead to some revealing conversation – and so it proved. First on stage was FIA president Max Mosley, a controversial figure, adept at making a journalist think what he wanted him to think. I’d known Max since we both raced in Clubmans Formula events in the late 1960s. In 1970, as one of the cash-strapped owners of March and eager for publicity in his hunt for sponsors, he let me do a few laps in one of the team’s F1 cars. When I spun and stalled at Woodcote, a spectating Ronnie Peterson chortled loud enough for me to hear inside my helmet. So Max and I went back a long way, and I hoped I could deal with most of his circumlocutions. 

After we’d talked in his Monte Carlo office, he suggested lunch in the sunshine of Casino Square at the Café de Paris. It was a fascinating two hours. The readers liked the result, and the editor told me to line up some more heroes. 

Subs spend their lives pruning profligate journalists’ copy, and I was asked to keep those early lunches to a fairly conventional length. But when Damien Smith returned as editor at the end of 2007 he believed that Motor Sport was the one magazine in its field which should give its readers longer articles if the subject and the treatment merited it. He agreed that I should have between 5500 and 6000 words for each interview, so I could probe deeper into my subjects’ lives. 

I’ve travelled a fair distance, all over Europe, Australia, Canada, the USA from east to west. The farthest I went for lunch was to New Zealand and Chris Amon, a gentle and unpretentious man and one of the most underestimated F1 talents of all time. He drove six hours from his home on Lake Taupo to meet me in Auckland, and his choice of venue was a bistro that just happened to be next door to the humble filling station where, in an upstairs room, Bruce McLaren was born. I heard the sad news of Chris’s death as I was writing this.

I always told my guest I would take him (or her – thank you, Desiré) to any restaurant, pub or bistro they chose. Some were grand, like Bibendum (Alain de Cadenet) or Langan’s (Steve Soper). One was Harry Ramsden’s original fish’n’chip shop in Yorkshire (Brian Redman), one was a Monte Carlo balcony overlooking the harbour (Roy Salvadori). Three were in golf clubs (Frank Gardner in Queensland, Darrell Waltrip in Tennessee, Eddie Jordan at Wentworth). Peter Warr wanted the best restaurant near his home in south-western France, a Michelin three-rosette job. Fortunately it was closed, although the second-best wasn’t cheap. On the wine list was a 1950 Petrus at £3400 a bottle, but he tactfully chose a Tour de Pas at one hundredth of that. 

Some preferred to be interviewed at home. Jochen Mass and I ate under the vines shading the terrace of his idyllic French country cottage above the River Loup. Hans Stuck lives in a breathtaking house he designed himself up a mountain in the Austrian Tyrol, surrounded by snow-covered peaks and with a central staircase wrapped around the trunk of an ancient tree. 

Stirling Moss asked for coronation chicken on white from the sandwich bar around the corner – “I’m too busy to eat lunch, boy”, although we talked for nearly five hours. Mario Andretti took me in his Lamborghini to a hamburger bar in downtown Nazareth, Pa, but ensured that there was a good bottle from his own Californian vineyard on the table. Keke Rosberg said, “I don’t do lunch, I’m too fat” but a coffee beside his swimming pool led us into a wonderful afternoon’s stories. Emanuele Pirro, who loves to cook, rustled up linguine and sea bass in his kitchen in Olgiata.

I ate with Julian Bailey in his own pub, and Jo Ramirez took me to a genuine Mexican restaurant in London. With Mika Häkkinen I sat exactly where I’d sat in Casino Square with Max Mosley five years before. Mark Webber didn’t mind where we met, as long as it had somewhere to land his helicopter, so I found a Hampshire country pub with a meadow. Mark said he’d be there at 1pm, and at 12.58 his chopper came into view over the trees.

Robin Herd, whose humour is irrepressible, recalled the dodgy early days of March by choosing the Oxford restaurant which is a makeover of the old city prison. One cell is preserved, and we photographed Robin sitting on the top bunk. Walter Wolf was surprised that I’d run him to earth on his ranch in Northern Canada: over lunch he cheerfully divulged that he couldn’t return to Europe since Interpol had issued a warrant for his arrest.

Ron Dennis agreed to allocate me three hours over lunch in the stainless steel and glass palace that is the McLaren Technology Centre. But it turned out to be a difficult day for him: he arrived an hour late and could only give me 40 minutes. He was very apologetic, and instead asked me for the evening to his magnificent and spotless house (I had to take my shoes off at the door). Then we went to a pub nearby for a memorably frank and revealing chat until they threw us out at closing time. Damien allowed me 7500 words for that one.

Some of the most memorable lunches were with people who sadly are no longer with us. I felt duly respectful in the North Wales home of Motor Sport’s eccentric and voluble founder editor Bill Boddy, whose memory at 93 years of age was flawless. Tom Wheatcroft’s giant laugh echoed for our entire lunch around the Leicestershire pub he’d chosen. At first Frank Gardner said he didn’t want to be interviewed: “If you look back, all you get is a sore neck.” But we did it anyway, and his dead-pan humour was just as it had been in the 1960s. He died the following year.

Professor Sid Watkins, simply one of the best people I have ever met in my life within and without motor sport, invited me to his house in the Scottish borders overlooking the River Tweed. We had lunch cooked by his author wife Susan in his kitchen, tales all afternoon, dinner in a fine local restaurant, and then single-malt whisky in his study until 3am. I got three hours’ sleep in his guest room before creeping out of the house and into my rental car to catch my plane. Quite a few of Prof’s stories were unpublishable, but every one was a gem. Like everyone, I felt a personal loss when he died.

A great help in persuading all these people to lunch with me was that most of them are readers of Motor Sport. And many were astonishingly welcoming: Jacky Ickx, a particular hero of mine, insisted on meeting me off the Brussels Eurostar, and was waiting for me on the platform. Dan Gurney e-mailed me to say, “I’d love you to come to Santa Ana for lunch, but you can’t interview me because I want to keep all my good stories for my book.” The next day he e-mailed again saying, “What the hell, I like that green magazine. Come anyway and I’ll tell you my stories.” And he did, while we ate in a corner of his still busy workshop surrounded by F1 and Indy Eagles. Dan is one of the world’s nicest and most modest men.

When Roger Penske added the British Ferrari concessionaire to his portfolio and was flying in to check it over, he agreed to fit me into his schedule for 20 minutes over a coffee when his private jet landed at 6.30am. He said his philosophy was to look forward, not back, but once I got him going about his own racing and his teams – such as Mark Donohue and the Can-Am Porsche 917/30 – we kept talking in the back of his limo and I got nearly two hours. A few months later Roger invited me to a NASCAR race, and afterwards lent me one of his jets which took me, as its only passenger, to Milwaukee where I was due to lunch with David Hobbs.

Two of the most iconic, and most daunting, Americans were AJ Foyt and Richard Petty. AJ didn’t know what to make of me at first, but turned out to be tough, good-humoured and talkative. He also took me to a hamburger joint, because there was nothing else close to his premises in rural Texas.

I was reminded that he and Andretti had history when he growled across the table, “Is this burger better ’n Andretti’s?”

Richard Petty was quiet, courteous, dead straight. He wore his cowboy hat and his dark glasses throughout, carrying a red plastic cup into which he spat the residue of his chewing tobacco. When the photographer asked him to take off his shades briefly he just said, “Nope.” He also took time to show me the beautifully equipped children’s camp he has built two miles down the road in memory of his grandson Adam, who was killed in 2000, aged 19. Fully staffed, it caters for terminally ill and seriously disabled kids. 

Much of the strength of these pieces has been down to the superb photography of James Mitchell, who shot all the portraits for the UK and European lunches, right back to Mosley. He lives in Italy, so there was a lot of travel for him too, and we got used to meeting in airport lounges and at car rental desks.

Out of all these, don’t ask me who was my favourite. All have been wonderfully open with me, all have told me great stories. Most in their different ways have been heroic. A lot have been very funny, some touchingly personal, a few scary. Each one unforgettable. 

When I told Damien I’d decided to eat no more lunches, he offered to turn the tables and give me breakfast. On my home turf of Chiswick, Le Pain Quotidien did us excellent granola and stewed fruit, egg muffins and coffee. We agreed, looking back over 10 years, that I’ve been a very, very lucky boy.

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