Last week Autosport magazine looked back at 1990. It was a seminal, and in some cases truly life-changing year for many big names in the sport, particularly Nigel Mansell, Jean Alesi, Alessandro Nannini, Martin Donnelly and Eddie Jordan.
Below that though there was a momentous amount of talent throbbing underneath the F1 radar. F3000 was perhaps at its peak in 1990, and somehow I was fortunate enough to get a front row seat in seeing the likes of Allan McNish, Heinz Harald Frentzen, Eddie Irvine, Damon Hill and eventual champion Erik Comas.
Somehow, with a combination of my father’s fearless lobbying and my own 15 year old green as grass innocence I saw half of the F3000 races that season. As a ‘go-fer’ with Colin Bennetts eponymous CoBRa Motorsport, I unknowingly started my career in racing, give or take a few lost years at college and also in the hideously stultifying world of wine retailing!
I started out by being just a fan in the opening two races at Donington Park and Silverstone. At the former I witnessed Allan McNish’s appalling accident which sadly claimed the life of an onlooker.
A few weeks later I was in the inner sanctum on work experience at Brands Hatch and Birmingham for International F3000. Stir in a holiday visit to Pau, and all of a sudden, in my own head at least, I was Simon bloody Arron!
My less than prodigious mechanical knowledge initially made me the laughing stock of the CoBRa factory floor. I was, for my own safety, kept away from spanners, air-hammers or anything else that could harm me or anyone within a fifty metre radius. Sweeping the garages and polishing the car were entrusted to me, and I soon became a leader in this particular field.
Two gleaming Reynard 90D F3000 cars became my friends that summer. Whether my Dad would drop me off in Warrington, or I would climb aboard a knackered old No.42 bus from Knutsford, I was a happy wee urchin. Whichever mode of transport I took, the journey would be soundtracked to the Stone Roses or the Happy Mondays. Manchester was just up the road and I was fully immersed in the whole ‘baggy’ scene.
‘Thrills, Pills and Bellyaches’, The Monday’s seminal sophomore album was a few months away, but as you will read later, it perfectly illustrated my less than glorious pre-race social engagement at the Kentagon pub at Brands that summer.
Still, I was part of an International F3000 team, which included veteran engineer David Luff, future RML engineer Rik Perry, and of course the force of nature that is Colin Bennett. It was a tight unit, which also included Colin’s son Alistair, who was roughly the same age as me, but was allowed to wield a spanner without threat of injuring himself or anyone about his person.
After being promoted from director of wheel washing to pit board controller for Alain Menu in the Oulton Park Gold Cup a few weeks before Brands, I was making a meteoric rise through the motorsport industry and was surely destined to follow Eddie Jordan in to F1 soon. It was now only a matter of time before I moved up to applying stickers, of that I was sure. That massive responsibility was thrust upon my young shoulders, and I happily slapped sticky LUK and Borbet decals on to Herr Michael Bartels’ 90D in readiness for the big one at Brands. If you look closely at photos you can see my obvious inability at doing this properly, which was mainly due to an inherent lack of cohesive balance.
So to Brands. The eighth round of the 1990 International F3000 Championship. There was a test on the Thursday and then it was straight in to the meeting. This was mid-August in southern England, so as a Northerner I was relatively non-plussed by the mirk and rain that weekend.
We listened to the Happy Mondays again in the CoBRa ‘fun bus’ on the way down to Brands. As I ‘stepped-on’ to it, little did I know of the unholy off-track carnage that was to come my way that weekend.
First off, my weekend started quite unpleasantly, as I was almost run over in the pitlane by Stephane Proulx’s Pacific Reynard during the test day. My embarrassment was complete after a double bollocking. First from one of Proulx’s mechanics (who it later transpired was my future colleague at Lola – Craig Wiggins) and then by my own boss – Mr Bennett……sir.
If that were not enough, the CoBRa mechanics goaded me with cheap lager on the Friday night in the Kentagon, and as an inexperienced drinker (but with lots of future potential), I flat-lined spectacularly in the hotel lift. I have no recollection of this, but one of the mechanics later told me that no less than Eddie Irvine and Trevor Foster, then with Eddie Jordan Racing, had helped me to my room. Oh, the wretched infamy!
My first real hangover resonated through the natural amphitheatre of the Brands pit and paddock for much of Saturday like a Mader tuned V8 in a tunnel made of tin. A mixture of wheel washing solution, swarfega, brake cleaner overdoses, and the rasp of Mugen and Cosworth V8’s rendered me almost unconscious on several occasions. If Stephane Proulx had decided to run me over again I really wouldn’t have felt a thing.
God only knows what my pit board information was like that day. It probably contributed to Bartels qualifying only 20th. At least he made it. Our other driver, the wonderfully bonkers Giovanna Amati raggedly attempted to make the cut but joined Marco Greco, John Jones and somewhat surprisingly Karl Wendlinger’s Helmut Marko run Lola on the sidelines.
Amati was a ‘special friend’ of a devilishly swarve, tanned and devious looking fellow Italian who frequented our pit occasionally that weekend. His name was Flavio Briatore. He went on to win stuff, make money and cheat in F1.
To the race, and what a race it was!
Qualifying saw a remarkable front two rows locked out by Brits. Eddie Irvine, fresh from rescuing a giddy drunken bum at the hotel the night before, stuck his EJR Reynard on pole from Damon Hill.
The future World Champion headed the similar DAMS run Lola T90/50 of Allan McNish, while a startling cameo from Phil Andrews saw him start fourth in a brand new Superpower Reynard, after his previous chassis was comprehensively disassembled by an errant Amati at Oulton Park the previous week. For the amusing (not for Phil) story on that incident click here – http://www.sniffermedia.com/blog/2013/03/09/291/
To be honest, the race was actually a blur but looking back on it now, a classic wet/dry affair it was. What was clear though was that Allan McNish reigned supreme and gave plenty of notice that as well as Irvine and Hill, he was destined for great things.
My distinct recollections of the race were that my cheap lager affected pit board skills were usurped by someone more conscious and capable. Yet, this demotion was quickly forgotten as I was asked, by the boss himself, ‘if I could lend a hand should the conditions dry, and be a chief ‘taker-off-er’ in a pit stop. You ‘ant got a choice kid, so shut the fuck up and listen t’lads ‘n’ get on wi’ it, reet!’
“Sure, a sinch….easy,” was the demeanour I gave. Inside that though there was a quaking, jibbering idiot, waiting to get out and run far, far away from Brands Hatch.
And then, there he was. Bartels bombing down the pitroad. Pit speed limits in those days didn’t exist and as he braked for his slot there was a momentary lock-up as approximately 550kgs of Adrian Reynard’s brain-creation toyed with the idea of ending my life before I’d even shaken off its first hangover.
Somehow ‘Mikey B’ stopped it and the air-hammers whirred. I pulled the Avon bedecked wheel off and then grabbed the fresh one and placed it on to the hub. It seemed to takes ages and probably did, but off he blasted, ultimately to finish a rather dis-spirited 10th.
We did get fastest lap though in the drying conditions. 1m15.566s. But the intense Bartels sought no solace and grumpily skulked off soon after dumping the car in Parc Ferme.
The British boom continued as per qualifying. As well as ‘Nishy’ winning the thing, Hill was second and Irvine third. Little Pedro Chaves completed an excellent cameo in Madgewick’s Reynard for fourth, while among the retirements was a bruised Gianni Morbidelli, after a hefty shunt at Westfield, title leader Erik Comas, and young international debutant Paul Warwick.
My Dad, soaked to the skin, and £15 worse off after being stung by the notorious ‘Umbrella mafia’ at Paddock Hill Bend, reached home long before I did.
Pulling in to Knutsford services at midnight, I was booted off the CoBRa fun bus. I was physically finished, my hands looked like raw steaks, I had chunks of ‘Avon marbles’ in my hair and those four pints of ‘disco-piss’ were still playing havoc on my insides. Yet, I was probably the happiest 15 year old in the world that summer.
Special thanks to Stella-Maria Thomas for all photos