Walter Wolf wouldn’t enjoy running a Formula 1 team in 2014. We know this because we asked him. Yes, Motor Sport has tracked down one of the most elusive and rarely interviewed figures in motor racing history, and you can read his amazing story in the February issue, on sale now.
All the credit for our scoop must go to Simon Taylor. When our popular ‘lunch with’ correspondent mentioned to me that he was targeting Wolf, I wished him luck and quietly reminded myself not to hold my breath. But not for the first time I’d underestimated Simon’s dogged persistence.
Walter Wolf holds a special place in motor racing history. The Slovenian-born Canadian is a self-made man who popped up in F1 as a welcome benefactor to a desperate Frank Williams in 1976. Disappointment followed for the partnership and Wolf, not known for his patience, decided to go it alone for the following season. What followed beggars belief for anyone only familiar with F1 as we know it today.
First, Wolf hired the right people. Hesketh designer Harvey Poslethwaite jumped aboard to pen a neat, conventional, DFV-powered car that was a clear evolution of what he’d come up with at his previous team. Then there was Peter Warr, the veteran Lotus team manager who Wolf badgered into jumping ship. Then, as Wolf explains in our interview, Jody Scheckter (below with Poslethwaite) was lured from Tyrrell – by the promise of cold, hard cash.
The team was small, entering just a single car for the 1977 season, but with that line-up it was potent, especially when you also consider that a promising bloke called Patrick Head worked on the suspension before Frank talked him in to co-founding the next iteration of the Williams team (which would go on to be a bit more successful than previous efforts…). There was even a young machinist called Ross Brawn in the mix – he’d have a reasonably bright future, too.
The result? Victory first time out in the Argentine GP. Stunning.
Thirty-one years later, that man Brawn would match the achievement by winning his first Grand Prix as a team owner, but Jenson Button’s Australian GP victory of 2009 was effectively a result for a group of people that had been collectively known as Honda the year before. In comparison, Wolf’s achievement was from a complete standing start – the sort of thing that could still happen in the 1970s, but had become wildly impossible by the time the likes of Caterham (Lotus) and Marussia (Virgin) took the plunge in 2010.
Back in ’77, Scheckter would also win the Monaco and Canadian GPs and finish an amazing second to Niki Lauda’s Ferrari in the championship. Wolf’s memory of this monumental first season today? “So we only finished second. That wasn’t so wonderful. Second doesn’t mean anything, it only means something if you win.”
In 2014, there were backslaps and hugs all round when Jules Bianchi scored Marussia’s first points in the fifth year of trying, with a ninth place in Monaco. Wolf would barely have shrugged.
“Today, motor racing is all very corporate,” he tells Simon. “It is a business, not a sport any more. In the 1970s we would all stay at the same hotel, drivers and teams, we would have dinner together. We were friends. After the race we would hate each other for a day or two, then we would be friends again. Today people don’t talk to each other, you would never see people from different teams having dinner. And after the race, each driver rushes to the airport, or if a driver retires he is gone without waiting for the end.
“There’s another big difference: if you are in Formula 1 now, you are making money. When I was in Formula 1 I was just spending it.” (Caterham and Marussia, not to mention Sauber, Force India and Lotus, might beg to differ on that bit.)
Ahead of the Wolf interview, the February issue also includes a typically definitive F1 review, not only of events in Abu Dhabi but the entire season, by our Grand Prix editor Mark Hughes. Less than a week after the final race, we’re proud to present such a comprehensive review that, dare I say, will not only be the first but the best you’ll read this winter.
Mark joined us at the start of the year to lead our Grand Prix coverage and for all of us at Motor Sport working with him again has been a joy. His race reports on the website, posted on the Monday after each GP, offer a depth of detail and insight beyond anything you’ll find elsewhere, while his exclusive stories and interviews for the magazine have packed a punch in every issue. His review, beautifully crafted to take in every major theme of the season from Australia to Abu Dhabi, is the culmination of all this work. We’re proud of it, as you can probably tell!
Another highlight for me, and I suspect for those of you of a certain age, is Rob Widdows’ interview with Alessandro Nannini, the former Benetton ace whose F1 career was curtailed by a terrible helicopter accident. In the wake of his Stefano Modena interview in the previous issue, Rob is gaining a reputation for tracking down old Italian racers we haven’t heard from for years. Like Simon and Walter Wolf, he chased Nannini for some time before finally meeting up with him – and it was worth the effort.
Nannini leads Senna in the 1990 German GP
Nannini was, of course, the man who eventually inherited victory at Suzuka following the Prost/Senna clash (part one) in 1989. He talks about his only F1 win in the interview, but his account of threatening to kill Senna after Ayrton bundled him out of the Hungarian GP the following year is much more interesting.
The threat was obviously in the heat of the moment, but imagine if an F1 driver said such a thing today. There’d be weeks of outrage, fines, bans, forced apologies. But back in 1990, according to Sandro, Senna just shrugged and walked away.
I’ve written it once, I’ll write it again… different world. Then again, that tends to be a running theme in the pages of Motor Sport.