Desiré Wilson could mix it with the best in single-seaters and sportscars. Richard Heseltine charts why, given a change of luck, she could have been a Formula One star
A few weeks after storming the Brickyard in May, Dan Wheldon arrived for the Indycar race at the Texas Motor Speedway wearing a T-shirt announcing, ‘Actually, I won the Indy 500’. While this could be interpreted as glory-mongering, to him it was more a rejoinder to the media maelstrom surrounding the fourth-place finisher, IRL darling Danica Patrick. But then a woman succeeding in an arena awash with alpha males is always bound to get Y chromosomes bristling.
A sentiment shared by Formula one cult heroine Desiré Wilson: “Finally! A great woman driver with a formidable team and car. Danica has made us ladies very proud. She made a few rookie mistakes but fought like a lion, fending off quite a few very experienced drivers. This was absolutely the best achievement for a woman in Indycar racing.”
But for the small matter of money (not to mention nationality and luck), it’s not inconceivable that Wilson could have enjoyed star billing more than 20 years before Patrick. It wasn’t for the lack of trying: “I started racing when was I five years old in Micro Midgets. I fell in love with the speed, the competition and the challenge. At the age of 17 my headmaster told me that he would not be surprised if I one day received South African Colours for athletics. My reply was that it would be for motorsport. I was awarded them eight years later for my racing achievements. For the next 20 years I lived and breathed the sport.”
On graduating to ‘long’-circuit racing in 1973, Desiré Randall, as she was then, finished fourth in the SA Formula Vee Championship, taking the runner-up spot a year later. Then came Formula Ford: “The South African series was very prestigious, a bit like the F3 series in the UK. Jody Scheckter had won it a few years earlier and the title meant the next step: racing in Europe against the best. My rivals fought me tooth and nail — psyching was the name of the game. I was always the underdog but nothing was going to stop me from winning the 1976 title. I had to beat the field and not one particular gender.”
And, on arrival in Europe, she had it all to prove again, but results in UK and Benelux Formula Ford 2000 soon attracted supporters: “Being South African and a woman was a major stumbling block in my career. It was almost impossible to find sponsorship, even for someone who generated so much good publicity. Most of my drives were given to me by mentors.”
One such was Brands Hatch supremo John Webb: “He was responsible for getting me into the Aurora AFX F1 series. John wanted a competitive female driver to help draw in the crowd.” So in 1978, the same year she married latter-day circuit designer Alan Wilson, this outwardly quiet hard charger made the quantum leap to F1 in Britain’s domestic series, with a best finish (from five starts) of third place at Thruxton in an Ensign N175. A year later, and armed with a Melchester Racing Tyrrell 008, there were further podiums at Oulton Park, Brands and again at Thruxton. The 1980 season would prove to be the high watermark, with an overall victory for Teddy Yip’s Theodore squad: “Winning the race at Brands in the pre-ground-effects Wolf WR3 was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my career and earned me some respect and stature. That said, the team was struggling to support two cars. After three more successful races that year, beating my team-mate Kevin Cogan each time, they decided to run just the one. As I had no money I was laid off in favour of Kevin.”
Not that her results had gone unnoticed: “Bernie Ecclestone had been trying to place me in a third Brabham for the ’81 South African GP. A month before the race I received a phone call from Ken Tyrrell, telling me that the Brabham was no longer available so I would be driving for him. I was ecstatic. My dream was to drive for Ken as I respected him as a talent spotter.
“I wasn’t able to test the car beforehand so the GP weekend was the first time I had so much as sat in it. I qualified 16th, 0.6sec slower than Eddie Cheever in the sister car who had been testing for much of the winter. I made a disastrous start and found myself last off the grid. However, in the wet I managed to pick off quite a few drivers, including Eddie and Mansell in the Lotus. I worked my way up to ninth as the track started drying but tried a little bit too hard and spun out, touching a wall with my rear wing. I drove back to the pits but there was too much damage. I was pretty miffed with myself and then a few weeks later the FIA went and delisted the race due to political issues.
“After the race Ken was a bit annoyed with me for not having finished but said I had driven well and should get ready for Long Beach, Brazil and Argentina. A week before the US GP he called to say that Kevin Cogan had come up with some Michelob dollars so Long Beach was off. Two weeks before Brazil Ricardo Zunino came up with money for the South American events. Then Michele Alboreto found sponsorship for the rest of the season. Ken really wanted me in the car and tried to raise funding but couldn’t get past the South African label at what was the height of the anti-apartheid movement. Later that year Andy Marriott thought he had a sponsor for me to join Arrows for 1982 but that fell apart too.”
So her F1 ambitions were laid to rest — but there was always sportscar racing. Enter Alain de Cadenet: “I’d signed up for the 1980 Brands Hatch Six Hours and John Webb phoned to ask if I’d chosen a driver line-up. I hadn’t, so he suggested I give the seat to one of his Brands instructors. He raved about this driver and I thought, ‘Well if Webbie’s got so much belief he must be good.’ John neglected to mention his new star was a woman. Anyway, I took the car (the de Cadenet-Lola) to Brands and she was just unbelievable. I thought I knew my way around the circuit but she ended up teaching me things.
“The Six Hours was a very sad occasion as Martin Raymond was killed in a stupid accident so the race was stopped early. We were third overall and first in the Group Six class. Anyway, I thought seeing as we still have some life left in the engine let’s do the Monza Six Hours. I kicked off and our ‘old skip’ loved the long straights there, but when Desiré went out it started raining. We had a lap lead over the Porsches and Lancias but they all then pitted for wets; Desiré was still on slicks. I swear I’ve only ever seen one other driver as good in the wet as her, and that’s Jacky Ickx. Somehow Desiré kept it on the island and held on to win. Afterwards everyone told me how very John Wyer-esque my decision had been to keep her in the car. Truth is, we didn’t have any wet tyres! Then of course we won the Silverstone Six Hours, where she’d been penalised a lap for missing the chicane, I think, and then made up the time with a really ballsy drive. She was absolutely fearless.”
Then came Le Mans. “We were always underfunded and our cars were built from bits discarded by others,” recalls de Cadenet. “I remember Ickx saying, ‘You know Alain, I look at my Porsche and I think I’m at the Ritz. Everything is perfect. Then I look at your car and I think it’s like being in prison.’ But Desiré just got into the spirit of it all. She was just such a nice person and really gave her all.
“The 1980 race was her first time at Le Mans and this was probably our best chance of winning. Unfortunately she lost the lot in practice going through the Porsche Curves and Pete Clark — who was an aerobatics pilot — told me that he’d actually driven underneath her while the car was still airborne.
” Wilson: “My one qualifying lap was lost by the officials and I wasn’t allowed to drive even though the ‘missing’ time was found before the start and showed that I was among the fastest 10 drivers overall. The car was repaired and Alain and François Migault drove an incredible race to finish seventh. To this day I still struggle to forgive myself for making that mistake. Alain was the most unselfish person imaginable. I’ll never forget how happy he was after our success at Monza and how gracious he was after I ended his chances of winning at Le Mans, a victory he had chased for years.”
While there were other attempts — notably seventh in ’83 with the Obermaier Racing Porsche 956 — Wilson still hadn’t altogether given up on single-seaters. An Indycar career beckoned, if only briefly:
“I’m grateful for the experience but boy, what an experience! My Indy career was a disaster. I was given the chance to drive in the 1982 500 by Teddy Yip. At a time when the March-Cosworth was the car to have, Teddy received some very bad advice from Bobby Unser, who sold him an ’81 Eagle. Bobby charged as much for that Eagle as a new March and, with a large smile on his face, promptly went off and bought his driver Josele Garza a new March.
“The Eagle was evil! On a practice day I went over to Dan Gurney and asked him to put his driver Mike Mosley in the car to find more speed. He told me ‘no’ as I was doing 196mph on the straights and averaging 192mph, so no one would go faster in that car. On the first weekend of practice the team decided that my speed was not sufficient to make the race so they waved off my qualifying run: my time would have actually placed me in the race. I went back in 1984 and practised for a few days but decided that risking my life to find another 5mph wasn’t worth it. I remember sitting with Jim Crawford after he had qualified on the front row, having not made the cut a year earlier. I asked him how he did it. He said, ‘It’s all in the car.’ I never had any desire to go back.”
And she never did, instead embarking on a ‘have-licence-will-travel’ sportscars-and-saloons vocation that netted wins for the Saleen Mustang squad before gradually retreating from full-time competition during the 1990s. These days, Wilson’s only outings are at the Goodwood Revival. Anyone who witnessed her opening stint during the TT race last year in Bill Bridges’ AC Cobra was left in no doubt that speed hasn’t deserted her.
Last word goes to her favourite team-mate. “She drove the ‘old shed’ up the hill at Goodwood in 1999 and proved her bravery beyond a shadow of a doubt by mixing it with the F1 boys,” says de Cadenet. “That car had Le Mans gearing, concrete tyres and she was fifth fastest! I honestly believe that if, like Danica Patrick, she had managed to get a well-funded team built around her, she would have won races in Indycar or in F1. Regardless of gender, Desiré had what it took to run at the front. No question.”