Paul Radisich's first World Cup win


“I’d been racing for so many years and in so many different cars and countries that nobody knew who I was.”

Paul Radisich speaks without bitterness. He’s a self-sufficient, quietly determined Kiwi: think Amon, McLaren, Hulme.

I first met him at a Pembrey test in the summer of 1993. Team boss Andy Rouse was pounding around putting the final touches to the Ford Mondeo ahead of its delayed BTCC debut, and Paul looked a little put out. Asked if he was scheduled to drive, he replied: “Dunno”. I was soon to realise that often he preferred you to fill in the gaps.

“I’d signed for a full season in a rear-wheel-drive car,” he says today. “But there we were, end of June, yet to race, and with a front-wheel-drive car. We’d tested the rear-drive and it wasn’t quick enough. It was the correct decision to drop it.

“It wasn’t ideal, but I was just so relieved to have the opportunity to be a full-time racing driver. Now I had some money in my pocket – perhaps I was dumb, stupid or naïve – I was so damn grateful.”

Radisich had spent the vast majority of the 1980s in single-seaters. He won the coveted Driver to Europe award and contested the start of the 1984 British Formula 3 Championship with compatriot Murray Taylor’s team. He qualified on pole for his second race, at Thruxton, but no sponsors came running and his fund had run dry by May.

He returned two years later, again with Taylor – and this time with Damon Hill as a team-mate – but a third place at Snetterton was a rare bright patch. Although he won New Zealand’s Gold Star in 1987-’88, and had his eye on a Group C seat with Vern Schuppan’s outfit, he gravitated towards touring cars to earn a crust.

His good work in Sierra RS500s, which included a second place at Bathurst in 1990 alongside Epsom’s Jeff Allam in a Dick Johnson-run Cossie, brought him to the attention of team manager Alan Gow, who was soon to switch allegiance from Peter Brock to Rouse and find himself running TOCA, new promoters of the burgeoning 2-litre, single-class BTCC.

“The touring car thing didn’t happen immediately after Bathurst,” says Radisich. “I think I did some more Formula Atlantics. Gosh, I struggle to remember. I think there were some races in Japan, too. Basically, I bounced around for a couple of years.”

Radisich leads Leslie, Winkelhock, Soper and Rouse at Brands Hatch, 1993

That all changed when he began bouncing over kerbs in the BTCC. Despite contesting only half the season, he finished third in the 1993 standings thanks to wins at Brands Hatch – Ford’s 200th BTCC victory – Donington Park and Silverstone.

“I had learned an important lesson when Brock blasted past me on the Wellington street circuit in 1989. I could see daylight under his wheels. That’s when I realised how you should drive a touring car. After that I didn’t clip kerbs, I went right over them.

“I had no experience of front-wheel drive, though. Not even in hire cars. Fortunately, the Mondeo had a good chassis that allowed me to continue to attack. But I think it also helped that I decided to left-foot brake in it. I’d never done that before either, yet it felt natural. It allowed me to keep some weight over the front wheels and maintain the car’s stability even as I jumped the kerbs. I think I caught some of the more established guys napping.” He had.

Suddenly Radisich was hot property in a category that had come rapidly to the global boil. His presence at its inaugural FIA Touring Car World Cup at Monza in October wasn’t confirmed until the week before – his was a one-man band in a showpiece event geared to national teams – but Gow was determined that the BTCC’s form man should battle the best of France, Italy, Germany, Portugal, South Africa, Belgium, Australia, Venezuela (in the guise of Johnny Cecotto) and Sweden.

“I had no experience of Monza,” says Radisich. “Luckily, it suited our car. We weren’t the quickest down the straights, but we were good over the kerbs, and the torque of our V6 gave us good punch from the chicanes. It was like driving an F3: you had to keep your momentum up.”

Radisich – “A petrol pump attendant!” – qualified on pole. Behind him were more than a dozen ex-F1 drivers and a swathe of touring car aces: Rouse, Steve Soper, John Cleland, Roberto Ravaglia, Fabrizio Giovanardi and Frank Biela. The only big name missing from the 40-plus field was the injured Alain Menu.

Race day dawned wet and tyre choice was discussed until moments before the start. The tree-lined track was drying in places, but still damp in others and Ford plumped for wets.

Radisich fluffed the start. Although he picked off Alain Cudini’s Opel Vectra for second on the approach to the Lesmos, he was relieved to see red flags.

“For the restart I lined up a few feet behind the thick painted white line, which offered little grip, and made a much better getaway,” he explains.

Cleland’s Cavalier, with inters on the front and wet-cut inters at the rear, was the fastest in the race – the Scot finished fourth – but Radisich calmly led the 15-lapper throughout, finishing ahead of Cudini and Nicola Larini, Alfa Romeo’s reigning DTM champion adapting brilliantly to the FWD version of its 155.

There followed a 10-minute intermission, during which Radisich had a painful arm massaged – Rouse was not an advocate of power steering – and the team switched his Mondeo to slicks for the second heat.

What struck me about him that weekend was his composure: another good start; unswerving accuracy within a narrow dry line; and relentless pace. Even the emergence of the Safety Car, which reduced his big moment to a single-lap shoot-out versus Larini, failed to fluster him. He stayed calm and smart.

“I watched him in my mirror and, the moment he glanced in his, I was gone,” says Radisich. “I may have looked very laidback – that’s how I try to deal with things – but underneath I was pretty heated up.”

The following season did not run so well for him. Alfa Corse got the jump via a controversial aero package – an adjustable front splitter and raised rear spoiler – and, more vitally, its rally-bred differential. Radisich again finished third overall, but only when Michelin introduced a sturdier tyre for the longer World Cup race, this time held at Donington Park, did his Mondeo again become the car to beat. For the second year in succession he fluffed the start, was given a second chance by a red flag, and made the most of it by leading from start to finish.

“Both those wins are important to me,” he says. “But to beat the Alfas at Monza was very special.”

Injuries sustained at Bathurst in 2008 – he’d suffered a whopper there in 2006, too – required a protracted recovery period and ended Paul’s full-time career at 46. He now runs Auckland-based Aegis Oil, the company set up almost 30 years ago by his father.

“The ‘Two-time world champion Paul Radisich’ thing lasted 15 years,” he says. ”I was always introduced that way. It’s gone a bit quiet now. I can’t believe Monza was 20 years ago.”

After our interview Paul pinged an email thanking me for letting him “ramble on”. That’s a relative term. Yes, he was happy to chat about his greatest career moment, but I got the impression that it wouldn’t bother him overly if nobody inquired about it for another 10 years or so. And I’m certain that he wouldn’t volunteer it.

Still self-sufficient. Still quietly determined.

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