Thursday, February 25, 2010
When I first discovered the world of Formula 1, its composition was quite different from that of today. One of the significant losses for present day F1 is the extinction of the 'Gentleman Driver'--the sportsman who partook out of pure enthusiasm and who was, more often than not, wealthy to some degree. It could be argued that all drivers of the era were pure sportsmen as the pay they received for risking their lives was nominal. Ferrari went so far as requiring his drivers--John Surtees, for example--to purchase a Ferrari road car for PR purposes. In addition to gentleman drivers, there was one notable 'Gentleman Owner' in Formula 1. His name was Rob Walker, heir to Johnnie Walker Scotch. When I became aware of him, he was campaigning a Cooper-Maserati driven by the Swiss driver Jo 'Seppi' Siffert. He had previously fielded a car for Stirling Moss.
In 1966, I attended the Mexican Grand Prix in Mexico City. John Surtees, having left Ferrari, was now driving the vastly inferior Cooper-Maserati as were Jo Bonnier, Jo Siffert and Jochen Rindt. Jack Brabham and Denny Hulme were driving Brabham-Repcos and Jim Clark, Pedro Rodriguez and Pete Arundell were each in a Lotus-BRM. Graham Hill, Innes Ireland and Jackie Stewart were in BRMs. Dan Gurney was in his Eagle-Climax and Bob Bondurant drove an Eagle-Weslake. Richie Ginther and Ronnie Bucknum had Hondas. Bruce McLaren had his McLaren-Ford. Get the feeling?
Improbably, Surtees won with the Cooper-Maserati. Siffert retired with suspension failure. It was an exciting race and Surtees' win was especially gratifying after he received rather shabby treatment from Ferrari personnel at Le Mans subsequent to recovering from a bad accident and, consequently, left the team. After the race, I flew down to Acapulco for a few days. At the airport, I was standing in a rather long line for the ticket counter and found that the man in front of me was a familiar figure.
"Pardon me, but you are Rob Walker, are you not?" I asked.
He looked surprised and replied, "I am, but how in the world would you know that?" He didn't expect to be recognized in Mexico by a teen-aged Californian, I suppose. I explained that I was an ardent follower of Formula 1, which launched us into a post mortem of the race. I mentioned that his Cooper-Maserati had an unusual nose cone with a larger opening than the normal one and asked if it was to counter high track temperatures. He was impressed that I had noticed and confirmed my assumption. Our conversation continued until we reached the counter and we bid each other farewell.
I wonder if I would ever have such a conversation with any of the current team owners.