Letter from Il Commendatore

Autumn 1980, Formula One is slap bang in the middle of civil war. FISA v FOCA got so complicated and bitter that some unlikely people attempted to act as intermediaries or even peacemakers.

Of course Enzo Ferrari, imbued with Machiavellian politics and agendas for half a century and more, penned this letter to Bernie Ecclestone, then chairman of FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association).

enzo

The letter, a copy of which came in to Sniffer Media’s hands earlier this summer, was circulated to delegates of the FISA Plenary Conference in October 1980.

The Ferrari/Ecclestone dynamic was always a fraught one. They were a generation apart and as opposite in personalities to a severe degree.

However, there was also some mutual respect. As Enzo entered his last decade, even he could see that the future of the sport rested with the son of a Suffolk fisherman rather than any of his own minions, such as the fiercely ambitious Marco Piccinini.

One can only imagine Bernie’s reaction to it; such was the loaded and skewed logic, which smacked of anything but a conciliatory agenda but more of thinly veiled threats. It probably fed one of Bernie’s office bins fairly quickly.

Dear Mr Ecclestone,

I would like to confirm my availability to cooperate in order to achieve a stable administrative organisation for the FIA F1 Championship founded on an agreement the points of which are resumed hereinafter.

I will make every possible effort in relation to FISA, Alfa-Romeo, and Renault to bring about this agreement, thus ensuring continuity in financial relationships in the interest of all those taking part in the FIA World Championship.

I would however remind you that this availability on my part is conditional on an immediate undertaking by FOCA to drop all legal actions already undertaken or envisaged against FISA, thus accepting definitively its role as the sole technical and sporting power as well as all the regulations already published or to be published.

This agreement should be put into concrete form in a ‘Protocol’ deposited by your organisation with FISA, which will then intervene as a guarantor representing the ASNs to which all Grand Prix organisers and competitors belong.

This ‘Protocol’ will be made available to all those who enter the FIA World Championship, competitors as well as organisers, at the same time as the technical and sporting regulations. This ‘Protocol’ should contain the following points:

  • For a period of three years, your organisation will assure the financial management of F1 Grand Prix within the framework of the FISA technical and sporting regulations and in accordance with its decisions.
  • Your organisation will conclude a standard type contract with all the organisers. These contracts will take into account the financial conditions of current contracts harbouring the best ones already obtained.
  • For the different geographical zones (Europe, North America, South America etc,) financial ceilings will be fixed valid for the contracts of all the 1981 Grand Prix. These ceilings will be indexed for the following years on the basis of the inflation in the country the currency of which is used to fix these ceilings.
  • At the end of each Grand Prix, all the money received will be immediately shared out between all the participants according to a scale similar to the one used by FGCA at present. These sums will include the amounts of prize money, the refunding of travelling expenses (if foreseen), radio, TV and advertising rights. Possible extra sums, available over successive periods, will be shared out globally, on the basis of the final classification points of each championship.
  • Your organisation will have the right to a quota percentage to be agreed drawn from all the sums received. Compensation will also be fixed for refunding the expenses which will allow FISA to ensure the management of the F1 World Championships, with a single starter, safety delegate, scrutineering delegate etc.
  • All the participants in the F1 World championship will undertake to associate themselves with your organisation in order to obtain the contracts mentioned above and to have them respected by the various parties.Should you think my intervention worthwhile, please confirm by telex your willingness to adhere to this plan.

Best Regards

E.Ferrari

September 18, 1980

 

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The Life of Brian

This article first appeared in the 10th July edition of Autosport magazine

He was a champion in British F3, European F2 and an F1 driver for Lotus, Tyrrell, Toleman and Arrows. Yet today the name Brian Henton barely registers an acknowledgement in discussions or lists of great British racing drivers.

An on/off coruscating presence in Formula One from 1975 to 1983, Henton had perhaps the best CV of any British driver from that period. What is more, most of the people that worked with him, including one of the most decorated engineers/designers in F1, attest to a significant talent.

A young Super Hen. Wild but quick
A young Super Hen. Wild but quick

“Brian was one of the best I ever worked with, no doubt about it,” says Rory Byrne, who worked with Henton at Toleman from 1978-81. “He had the talent to win Grand Prix and maybe even more if circumstances had allowed. Brian was all about drive, skill and ambition.”

A stubborn talent, flush with natural technical skill that was born of hard graft and almost masochistic determination, Henton’s career was a relentless battle from start to finish. It was often tainted by bad luck, but always driven by an almost primal commitment to his craft.

The rags, to riches to rags to riches story of Brian Henton, a streetwise kid from a council estate in Derby, is a bare knuckle journey founded on raw ability and iron resolve.

Not a lot was entirely conventional for Henton, including the ‘genesis moment’ of his entry in to the world of racing.

“I suppose it all started when I blew up the toilets in our council house,” Henton says matter of factly. “I somehow got hold of some fireworks. Being an inquisitive sod I thought I would light one of them in our front room. Obviously it started fizzing so I ran from the kitchen, threw it in the bog, thinking I could flush it away, but the fuse went and it blew the toilet to pieces.”

Mrs Henton, arrived back post-explosion. She screamed at the fragmented bowl before her and kicked young Brian out of the house.

“So I got on the bus with my savings, which was about 10 shillings, got to Derby station and there was a bus about to leave,” says Henton. “It had ‘Mallory Park’ on it. I thought that sounded nice and peaceful, thinking it was a recreational park. I got to Mallory, climbed under the fence and witnessed this incredible noise and colour. I just thought ‘This is it! I want to be a racing driver, and I will be.’

For Henton, brought up at the school of hard knocks on the infamous Chelleston estate near Derby, he was more likely to get in to a brawl than a racing car. His uncompromising upbringing saw a thread of abrasiveness twist its way through most of a see-saw single-seater career, which began with winning the Formula Super Vee title in 1972. That success came courtesy of blinding pace and enough money to finish the season thanks to selling wallpaper from a van on Belper market.

Brian in GRD gets sideways as he jousts with Richard Robarts and Larry Perkins
Brian in GRD gets sideways as he jousts with Richard Robarts and Larry Perkins

March signed Henton for the Formula 3 works team in ‘74, which on the face of it was not as competitive as the classic 1973 season that saw the likes of Tony Brise, Alan Jones and Jacques Laffite fight for the title. Still, a job had to be done and he strolled to both championships, winning 15 of 26 races in his Holbay powered works March 743. All of a sudden, Colin Chapman was at the door. And he was knocking.

By 1975 with an ageing Lotus 72, Colin Chapman was on the lookout for an up and coming British talent, partly to please John Player Special, but partly for technical input to supplement the rather dis-interested test and development aspect of Ronnie Peterson’s genius. Henton was pitted against Bob Evans and Jim Crawford at Silverstone.

“At the end of my stint behind the wheel at the first test, Chapman said to me: “What do you think Brian?” and I said: “To be honest Mr Chapman, this is the biggest pile of shit I have ever driven in my life”. He smiled and said: “You’re the man for me Henton.”

Entered in a third Lotus 72, Henton’s first Grand Prix at Silverstone was perhaps a portent to come as he was one of many to end up in the Club catch fencing after the infamous deluge.

There was plenty of testing for Brian but along with Jim Crawford and also a cameo from John Watson at the Nurburgring, race opportunities were slim.

Brian at Osterrreichring during infamous 1975 Austrian GP weekend
Brian at Osterrreichring during infamous 1975 Austrian GP weekend

With just two Grand Prix’s to his name, Henton was soon to be cast aside and quickly became yesterday’s man. 1976 was largely  wasted in Tom Wheatcroft’s Abarth-powered R26 F2 car. There was a one-off cameo in the Ensign N175-based Boro at Zandvoort but even that turned to nothing when he was disqualified after receiving  a push-start.

Henton’s next plan was to form the ambitious British Formula 1 Racing Team in co-operation with well known playwright Don Shaw – Z-Cars and Van Der Valk being among his credits. To say the patriotic operation was hand to mouth would be a gross under exaggeration of even that basic motorskill.

“Our transporter was an old British Gas van, we just painted it and off we went to do F1, mad really!” recalls Henton. “At our base in Castle Donington we wired up the power to run some equipment and when it was switched on the whole village used to get intermittent electricity and everything would strobe, flash and then dim; house lights, street lights, everything.”

By 1978 Henton’s racing career was in dire straits. The distant days of being flavour of the month with F1 teams was well over. The re-birth via his own team had not worked and he concluded that one last crack at glory in the European F2 Championship was on the cards with a private March and a borrowed engine from Brian Hart.

Brian at the Donington title decider where he just lost out to Marc Surer's BMW powered March
Brian at the Donington title decider where he just lost out to Marc Surer’s BMW powered March

“We were this happy band of urchins roaming Europe for the summer but actually we did pretty well,” recalls Henton. “Hard results were tough because we were running the thing on ‘second hand fresh air’ but we were often among the big boys like De Angelis, Giacomelli, Cheever and Surer. We even won one at the last meeting in Hockenheim.”

Toleman Motorsport, then running Rad Dougall in a March 782 BMW were initially housed at Tom Walkinshaw’s base at Kidlington but by 1978 they were getting more ambitious, particularly under the direction of team principal Alex Hawkridge, who had been impressed by the plucky Henton in 1978.

“Brian was a good barometer for us really,” says Hawkridge. “He ran his own March, knew the March people well and was doing amazing things on very little. Rory (Byrne) was very impressed by him and we got talking. I knew Brian (Hart) well as we were both Essex boys and had worked together at the Ford rally programme too. So we all came together really, mainly because the BMW-engines, sourced by Walkinshaw were so damn unreliable.”

So for ’79 an F2 ‘supergroup’ was formed and Henton was a happy man. The various parties got to know each other properly at the season ending Temporada series at the end of ’78 when BMW and Hart were back-to-back tested, confirmed the switch to Hart power and a Ralt RT2 chassis for the following season.

“Toleman paid me about 100% more than anybody else,” Henton remembers. “They were really serious about moving forward and the Ralt was the right choice in the end. The talents that they had there was phenomenal. Rory Byrne, John Gentry, Roger Sillman, Alex Hawkridge, who put everything together and was a very shrewd and very talented operator, and later Pat Symonds.

The team initially ran March’s but collaboration with Ron Tauranac followed and a Rory Byrne influenced design started to become the class of the field as the season progressed. After wins at Mugello and Misano, Henton had a chance of the title at the finale, held at his home track, Donington. However, the weekend started in the most terrible way.

“Our chief mechanic (Paul Pimlott) was killed in a road crash close to the circuit,” remembers Henton. “He was a nice lad with a young family and it was just awful. In the race (Marc) Surer and I we swapped the lead several times. I was leading until a few laps from the end and I had been losing more and more rear brakes (air had got in to the master cylinder). Anyway, I ended up spinning, finishing second, Surer finished first and won the championship!

It appeared that Henton’s last chance of an International title had gone, as Hawkridge, under the behest of the team’s increasingly influential sponsor – BP, was persuaded to invest in youth with the feted Stephen South set to join Derek Warwick. Fate was to intervene for Henton, but this time the cards fell for him.

“Stephen was quick and ambitious but he did something naughty and tested a McLaren F1 car at Paul Ricard, behind ours backs,” recalls Alex Hawkridge. “I terminated his contract instantly. We couldn’t have drivers doing that. BP were very good about it as they were close to Stephen but it went beyond any commercial decision, it was trust based and he was out. I knew immediately who we should have to replace him so I called Brian straight away. BP weren’t too thrilled because Brian was viewed as a bit of a rebel. He could find a hundred ways to skin a cat and he could be tricky sometimes but I admired him for that really and liked the way he operated. He always gave the maximum.”

Now he was re-integrated in to the Toleman fold Henton was even more determined to go for the title and set about winning it with a ferocious zeal.

1980 was mission accomplished for Henton and Toleman in F2. Of the 12 races that year Henton took three wins at Thruxton, Mugello and Vallelunga while Warwick scooped a win at Silverstone. Six further podium visits for Henton sealed the title in August.

While Henton and Warwick generally got on well, as ever at a front running team with two enormously competitive drivers there was the odd flare-up.

At Enna, Henton, his lid still clattering away from internal steam after an argument with Warwick’s engineer, John Gentry, took physical action.

“We were walking back from a restaurant and I was ahead of Brian and some of the others,” remembers Warwick.  “Next thing I know there is John with a bloody nose. I ended up chasing Brian down the road and he locked himself in a toilet and wouldn’t come out. What a scene!”

Taking the title at Misano, August 1980
Taking the title at Misano, August 1980

Occasional fisticuffs apart, Toleman were generally a harmonious team and a close one at that. The Rory Byrne penned TG280 was the class of the field, but it hadn’t looked that way at the start of the season.

“The car understeered a lot as I recall,” says Byrne. “I went to Pirelli’s factory in Italy and we worked together because I was sure it was the tyres rather than anything specifically mechanical on the car. Brian was instrumental in working through what we needed and Pirelli actually changed their compounds to suit us. It paid us back massively.”

Henton had always been a highly prized test driver. He was the un-official go too driver for March throughout the 1970s and was courted by Frank Williams to sort his cars out. Engineers would effervesce around him.

“Once we got it sorted, the Toleman F2 car was phenomenal,” remembers Henton. “Derek and I used to play with each other a bit in testing and in the races too. We had a fair bit in hand over the opposition.”

The title was sealed at Misano by mid-August, Henton following home Andrea De Cesaris’ Ron Dennis’ managed Project Four prepared March-BMW. Rumours had surfaced around this time of Toleman planning an F1 entry but the basis of such a leap was far from being a certainty.

“I wasn’t actually that sure Toleman should enter F1 in 1981, it was never going to be a great move,” recalls Hawkridge. “We kind of ended up in F1 by default really. We were approached by Lancia to run an engine they had but it made more sense to stick with Brian (Hart).

“It was a year too early but actually the main problem was actually getting the car built,” continues Hawkridge. “McLaren in particular had vetoes on so much hardware. There was a long list of stuff we could just not get but somehow we did it and the Toleman F1 story from there. Brian was actually quite useful and understanding because he had run his own team and knew more than most drivers how tough things like this could be.”

The final decision was ultimately made after a test at Goodwood in the autumn of 1980 and also after Hawkridge and several other key members had visited the Italian Grand Prix at Imola! A Hart turbo engine was used in the Formula Two car and it impressed Henton.

“That thing was so fast,” recalls Henton. “I have never really been frightened in a racing car but at Goodwood, in this projectile which delivered the power like a light switch. It was either all or nothing. In the end I think we burnt the brakes out but I said “I tell you what, that engine makes the DFV look like a bloody toy!”

Brian de-briefs with team mate Warwick and the late Brian Hart
Brian de-briefs with team mate Warwick and the late Brian Hart

Remarkably Henton qualified for his only Grand Prix in a Toleman-Hart at Monza. As Italy’s favourite Inglese F1 team the pressure was now on.

“Candy had a whole grandstand opposite the pits with employees, board members,etc. I can remember the family that owned Candy, really nice people, and when I qualified, you would have thought we just won a grand-prix. They ran in to my arms, kissing, cheering, and shouting ‘Grazie’, it was crackers!”

The Italian adulation was short-lived for Henton, as he was forced to make way for Teo Fabi in 1982, the team needing to take on an Italian

Ever the opportunist, Henton snapped up a drive at Tyrrell when Slim Borgudd’s drumming royalties dried up. As team mate to a young Michele Alboreto, Henton fared well despite the team’s obvious focus on the future Ferrari driver. Henton was unlucky not to score points, especially at Monaco and Osterreichring, although he did take the fastest lap at the British Grand Prix by dint of a late change for fresh Goodyear’s.

The final act in a career that had spanned a dozen years was played out at the 1983 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch where Henton put in a typically gutsy and committed drive to 4th place in an ageing Ensign N18. Still he out-qualified the teams highly rated youngster Roberto Guerrero and Nigel Mansell’s Lotus-Renault.

The granite smile
The granite smile

But at 36 years of age, Henton himself was aware that his career in F1 had run its course. “I knew my time had come to stop. I wasn’t really interested in doing sportscars or touring cars, it just didn’t do it for me. I had offers but even by then I knew I could get a thrill from doing a good business deal.”

To this day Henton is still a wily, focused and engaging presence. Now though, as owner of the scenic Ingarsby Hall in Leicestershire, he gets his sporting thirst nourished by other pursuits.

“I took up hunting a while back,” he says. “My two daughters, and my ex-wife were all horse mad. At first I didn’t want to do it but they persuaded me.  They bought me this great big goliath of a horse, stuck me on it, all of a sudden it all came back to me. The balance, controlling fear and the instinct of wanting to go fast and control it.

“There is nothing more frightening than there being a ten-foot fence between you and needing to control something that weighs half a ton with a brain the size of a pea and you are sitting on it, with a silly hat on. Now, that’s an adventure!”

Henton the horseman!
Henton the horseman!

Brian Henton. From council estate to country estate in his own lifetime. His career was a relentless battle and his contemporaries often flinched at his warm but granite smile.

The racing media of the day didn’t always understand his combustible ambition. Lady luck rarely smiled on him but for sheer effort and commitment there are few that could hold a candle to.

“How good was Brian Henton?” asks Warwick. “Well in my mind with the right circumstances he could have won Grand Prix for sure. Could he have won a championship? Absolutely he could have. Unfortunately for Brian, as with many others, those circumstances just passed him by.”

“He was a hard task master,” concludes Rory Byrne. “He gave 100% behind the wheel but one thing stood out for me about Brian and that was his sheer ability. He really had it in abundance and he knew how to get the job done.”

Photos thanks to F3cc, Rory Byrne, Jamie Greaves and Brian Henton

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Making History at Silverstone

Steven Kane talks you through an incredible couple of weeks at Silverstone last month

An unforgettable weekend! That is what the second round of the 2014 Blancpain Endurance Series was at Silverstone a couple of weekends ago. The ‘Bentley Boys’ were fantastic as we scored a dream win for Bentley at Silverstone, a place which is our spiritual racing home through the links of the original ‘Bentley Boys’ who formed the BRDC, of which I am a proud member.

Steven_Kane_BES_Silverstone-08

The whole race weekend was sensational. I qualified the Bentley Continental GT3 4th on the grid, the same position that we started at Monza a month before, but this time we were always in contention in the race after great stints from Guy (Smith) and Andy (Meyrick) set things up nicely, despite a twenty second penalty that Guy had to serve for a yellow flag infringement.

The team were phenomenal on the pit work all weekend. The speed they turned us around at our stops really put us in contention for the win and I can’t thank them highly enough. They were just brilliant.

When I took over the number seven Bentley Continental GT3, we were just over twenty seconds adrift of the ART McLaren driven by Andy Soucek. I immediately started to hunt him down but then the safety car came out. I’m pretty sure that even without this I would have still caught Soucek engineer told us and SC helped. Even though it was a help there were still three or four lapped cars between me and the McLaren, which left plenty still to do.

Steven_Kane_BES_Silverstone-06

The Bentley Continental GT3 was fantastic all weekend. The real difference for us was just how easy it was on the Pirelli tyres we use in the Blancpain Endurance Series. The wear rates were very impressive and ensured that we could attack pretty much as we pleased throughout all the stints.

With about twelve minutes remaining of the race I caught Soucek. Having been racing at Silverstone since 2001 and also formerly working as a former instructor there, I know the place inside out. I know all of its little secrets! There was no way I was not going to steam on through and I went for it straight away at Luffield where I knew that if I took a specific line, then the traction on the exit in to Woodcote would see me through and get the optimum line for Copse. It worked and from there I was able to control the pace very easily. It was a brilliant feeling.

At the chequered flag I just remember screaming in the radio that we had done it and it felt so good. It was all a bit of a blur but the most satisfying thing was seeing all the team at the end and the joy in their faces afterwards. Everyone had upped their game significantly since the start of the year and it was a great reward to do it on home turf. It was a weekend I will never forget for so many reasons, not least of which was the fantastic job that all the M-Sport Bentley team did and how proud I felt standing on that podium representing them.

Another eventful day at Silverstone

Just a few days after that epic weekend at Silverstone I was back in an M-Sport Bentley GT3 for the British GT Championship race there. Again it was a very eventful weekend that involved another visit to the podium. But this time there was a bit of a sting in the tail at the end.

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It was another three hours race and this time I was sharing with my Dutch team mate, Rembert   Berg. We alternated the stints and in my first one I had a really wild ride (see left) when I had to desperately avoid another car spinning in front of me at Becketts. That lost us a bunch of time but then after some great driving by Rembert we were in the mix for a podium position in the closing stages.

I was having a fair old dice with the BMW Z4 of Alexander Sims and for a few laps I tried to find a way through. I got a good look down the inside at Stowe and was alongside but he went for the apex which was exactly where I was and he turned in and we touched. Racing is all about opinions and in the heat of the moment it is easy to make a call on whose fault it was. What most people hadn’t seen before that was the BMW moving several times from left to right and back again down the Hangar Straight. From where I was sat I had the corner and Sims made the decision to turn in, knowing full well that I was close. In my view for him to turn in at that point all a bit unnecessary.

I was genuinely surprised to learn afterwards that I, alone, had been penalised for the incident. A thirty second penalty was added on at the end and we were classified in fourth place. I was not happy at all and our team manager less so because we all felt it was a real injustice. We will leave it up to you all to check it out on the TV this weekend and form your own opinion!

Coming up….Snetterton and Ricard

On track there is a brief lull now but as we all know, if you snooze and you lose in racing, so we have been testing this week working through lots of programmes for the up and coming races.

Snetterton is the next race weekend for British GT (this weekend) and then the week after we have the third round of the Blancpain Endurance Championship at Paul Ricard. We are really in the title hunt now and more points will be the order of the day before the big one at Spa at the end of July.

Oh yes and the weekend at Ricard is when our second baby is due. Anyone got a spare helicopter?

Saddling up with the ultimate bike

The day after the Silverstone British GT race I popped over to Richardsons Cycles in Huntingdon to pick up my mega new racing bike. The Militas Pro by Raleigh is a top piece of kit, most of made from carbon fibre and it weighs just 6.5kgs! That’s about the weight of a decent sized watermelon….just to put it in to perspective!

I’m looking forward now to some long training rides with my team mates at Bentley and also Matthew Wilson, who is a mad keen cyclist.

IMG_5481

Big thanks to Richardsons and Raleigh. Especially to Adam at Richardsons of Huntingdon, who is pictured above.

Cheers

Steven

Photos thanks to Jakob Ebrey and Peter May

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Nat Attack: Berthon goes Enduro

Nathanael Berthon is a highly rated GP2 winner who has been savvy enough to explore a parallel career in endurance racing in 2014, while he dovetails another GP2 campaign with the Lazarus team.

After a brief but very impressive appearance at the Paul Ricard test day at the beginning of April, Berthon completed his deal to race at Imola and Le Mans in early May. Greg Murphy sealed the deal with the rapid Frenchman and was delighted with the prospect of having this hot property in the Oreca-Nissan.

Berthon chats with Sniffer Media at Imola earlier this month – Photo by Peter May

Sniffer Media caught up with the Frenchman and his team manager, Greg Murphy at Imola recently to find out how Nathanael is bedding in with the Murphy Prototypes team.

“Nathaniel is exactly the kind of driver that fits right in at Murphy Prototypes; quick, committed and with a lot of hunger to make a name for himself and also the team,” said Murphy. “There is a lot of anticipation that he will be very, very quick. He excites me greatly and along with Rodolfo and Karun we have probably the strongest line-up we have ever had.”

Berthon was delighted to part of the ebullient Irish team and told me: “The next few weeks are going to be a bit hectic to say the least. From Imola, I go straight to Monaco and then to Le Mans for the test day. I suppose you can’t get two more different tracks than Monaco and Le Mans. But of course for me it is a great move to be here with a very competitive team and with great team mates like Rodolfo (Gonzalez) and Karun (Chandhok), who I both know from the GP2/GP3 paddocks. I can see the potential already and I am very happy to be part of what I am sure will be a very special campaign.”

Philosophical about his career progression, Berthon remains open-minded about what his long term future might entail.

Berthon in the Murphy Prototype pit at Imola – Photo by Peter May

“You can see more and more drivers looking at sports cars now,” he said. “Guys like James Calado, Jon Lancaster, Harry Tincknell and Sam Bird have transferred over. I now have a foot in each discipline so I am in a good place to see where it all takes me. For sure they are both very different in some respects, like the obvious things of team work and saving tyres and fuel more. But ultimately it is down to what you can achieve behind the wheel and I think I have a lot to bring the team for Le Mans next month.”

Berthon was right on it from the start at Imola and was very impressive in Free Practice 2, setting the 3rd fastest time. He also qualified the car 4th and despite the disappointment of not getting a chance to show his stuff behind the wheel of the Oreca-Nissan after one of his team mates – Rodolfo Gonzalez damaged the car in the third hour, he will be one to watch at Le Mans next month.

You can follow Murphy Prototypes 2014 Le Mans adventure via www.murphyprototypes.com

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Alexander Sims – Mr Versatile

This article first appeared in the June issue of Motor Sport magazine

It was Patrick Head who once said that racing drivers are like light bulbs. ‘You just screw one in and then replace him with another when he’s done.’

Well, if you were to follow his rather brutal wisdom these days, you may be interested in meeting Alexander Sims. Both on and off track the 23-year-old is efficient, not only in terms of pace and results, but also in a genuine willingness to be his own sustainable entity.

Alexander Sims – photo by Jakob Ebrey

Sims also just happens to be a very sought-after racing driver. As he consistently proved in a diverse 2013 season and in keeping with his growing image, a little bit of Alexander Sims goes a long way!

Last year he began with one focused programme, as a factory McLaren GT driver, taking in the Blancpain Endurance Series with the French Hexis Racing team and a McLaren MP4-12C. A superb second place in the over-subscribed and intensely competitive series proved a worthy highlight. However, at mid-season things started to get busier for the Cambridgeshire based driver.

“Status GP called me to deputise for one of their drivers in the GP3 race at Nürburgring . Then a few weeks later Carlin did the same for Spa,” says Sims. “In addition to that Three Bond/T-Sport needed someone at short notice for the remainder of the FIA F3 season and I ended up completing the season with them. All of a sudden I was in demand and racing pretty much every weekend.”

Sims did an extraordinary job in both GP3 and F3, scoring a superb win in the former at Spa and then notching up five podium positions in the latter. Prior to these cameos he had actually scored all of the Status GPs teams season points in one weekend – at Nürburgring. His combined efforts with Status and Carlin saw him finish and take points in every race he started. He topped the season off with a fighting 4th place at the Macau Grand Prix last November.

So as well as guaranteed results, efficiency is a strong trait of Sims’ make-up and not only on the racetrack. What sets Sims apart from many of his contemporaries is his genuine interest in zero emission electric vehicles and the technology that drives, maintains and develops them.

Sims driving the BMW i3 road car kindly loaned by ELMS BMW of Cambridge

“I’m a real geek when it comes to electric cars and love how they can contribute to a more sustainable life,” says Sims. “Obviously as a racing driver there is that natural element of burning fossil fuels but then that means there is all the more reason to be environmentally aware when you are away from the racetrack too. Highlighting personal responsibilities on how small changes can make a big positive impact is how I like to view things.

“I have driven a Tesla for a few years and really enjoy it,” says Sims. “To me it represents what future motoring can be all about. The fascination for me is with the simplicity of it all and how the performance always surprises people when they experience the torque in particular. But once the novelty factor wears off you actually forget you are driving an electric car. It’s like anything that is well engineered and thought out. It is a great way to travel.”

Along with outlook on the bigger picture when it comes to transport, Sims also discovered a different outlook to his racing modus operandi in 2013. He not only shifted his emphasis in the off-season of 2012/13 to focus more on GT racing, but he also found that as a driver he was a subtly different racing animal.

“I noticed that I had slightly changed in the sense that I actually enjoyed the racing more and found a better balance,” he recalls. “I was no less intense in the car but it was actually how I was out of it that reaped the results last year. I realised you don’t need to be overly severe away from the cockpit. It actually wastes mental energy to be overly ‘tight’ when you are not driving, which gives a pay back when you actually do come to compete.”

“My more relaxed demeanour definitely helped me last year to perform better in the car,” he continues. “My friends and family noticed it and I felt it myself. Perhaps it was getting away from the cut and thrust of single-seaters for a while, who knows? Whatever it was helped me as a person and to have a more balanced outlook on life.

So for 2014 Sims is again a driver in demand and this time a more rounded and worldly one. The year started in the best possible way as he was snapped up by BMW to become an official factory driver. He will race in both the Nürburgring and Spa 24 Hours endurance classics as well as the majority of the British GT Championship. As opportunities go, impressing a major automaker and one that is so deeply entrenched in motorsport culture, this one is huge.

As he sits in a BMW i3 electric road car (kindly loaned by ELMS BMW of Cambridge) that he is testing for the day around the lanes of his home in Soham, Cambridgeshire, Sims also ponders the inevitable links with the new and innovative FIA Formula E Championship. His knowledge, passion and genuine understanding of electric powered vehicles make it an obvious fit for a crack at the series which kicks off this September, in Beijing.

“I admire what the FIA Formula E Championship is creating and it is of enormous interest to me, irrespective of whether or not I am directly involved,” says Sims. “FIA Formula E from where I stand looks to be a good way to engage a youthful market and to make low carbon racing cool. That can only be a good thing for future generations.”

There is no doubting that Sims is a major asset to the BMW GT programme in 2014 but as it is so often the case with one of racing’s more thoughtful and interesting characters there is much more going on underneath the surface.

For more on alexander sims follow him on twitter www.twitter.com/AlexanderSims

 

 

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Wish You Were Here

Do you remember that smell? The one when you first fell as a kid, on to concrete.  Iridescent black. Then stars. Then that smell? Metallic scent in the top of your nostrils, the one you could also taste.

I hadn’t fallen but that very feeling, that very smell is my abiding memory from Mayday evening, 1994, when the BBC’s Moira Stuart told millions of us that Ayrton Senna was clinically dead in a Bologna hospital room. Like millions of others, I could not process those words.

I was then, and still am a huge Ayrton Senna Da Silva fan. I first saw him racing in 1981 in that delicious Van Diemen RF81. I saw nine of his Grand Prix’s. I was lucky enough to meet him briefly in 1993 when I hitchhiked to the Italian Grand Prix and somehow spent the weekend in the McLaren pit garage as an uninvited guest.

Watching in awe as he donned his balaclava and helmet just yards from where I stood was magical and surreal. This was just days before he and Frank Williams did the deal for 1994, setting in motion the eventual tragic end to an astonishing career.

I have known and spoken to many people who worked with Senna. People whose lives he touched throughout an astonishing career. All of them speak of the immense reverence and charisma he possessed. The latter of these traits being off the clock.

Since 1st May 1994 the Senna legacy, some would say myth, has grown enormously, fuelled by the simple fact he did not grow old, did not get slower.

Since the excellent ‘Senna’ film came out in 2012, there has been a trend to deify the Brazilian and cast him as some sort of Godhead figure both within the sport and actually beyond it. There are thousands, in fact millions of people worldwide who believe that the ‘Senna’ film is all they need to know about the man. Senna often played by his own rules during his career, so perhaps it is only apt that this be the case.

He was a brilliant and charismatic racing driver, we all know that. What he most certainly wasn’t was a deity or a saint.

His complex and paradoxical nature; his contradictions and some of his downright brutal decision making processes were questionable and should remain so, irrespective of his tragically young death.

Suzuka 1990 is the obvious and most high profile example. What he devised and executed on the run down to the first corner, at 160mph, ensured his unfettered desire to win at all costs became complete. It remains one the most vengeful and blatant acts of sporting toxicity ever fulfilled.

So how to reconcile the man who could do this, endangering himself and 25 other professionals so recklessly, just six weeks after showing so much genuine compassion and concern for a critically injured Martin Donnelly at Jerez? The answers don’t exist and are entwined in the endless, lost and genius fuse box of his mind.

Imola 1994. There was no weird premonitions beforehand, no real intention to quit afterward and probably no other reason for the accident than a complex combination of mechanical and aerodynamic factors. There was no divine or pre-ordained date with destiny. He was by all accounts a spiritual and religious man, but one who just happened to have a remarkable natural gift.

I hope that all of his fans remember the man and not the myth this Thursday. He deserves to be remembered as the sporting colossus he was. We won’t see his like again.

The true sadness are the ‘what if’s’?

What would he have done with his life these last two decades; how many titles would he have and how would he have coped with Michael Schumacher?

Like millions around the world today, I cannot help humming, singing or just mouthing…….

‘How I wish, how I wish you were here.’

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Kaney’s Monza diary

Steven Kane, works Bentley driver at Monza – Photo with thanks to Peter May

This article first appeared in the 17th April edition of Autosport magazine

There is nothing like Monza in spring. It’s the perfect place to start the season and in my mind it is the true spiritual home of world racing. To compete there as a works Bentley driver last weekend in the opening round of the Blancpain Endurance Series gave me the same thrill as winning the McLaren/Autosport BRDC young driver award earlier in my career.

As ever at Monza it was a fairly epic weekend. It was the European race debut of the Bentley Continental GT3 and although it is very early days there is massive potential for us to get really excited about 2014.

The Blancpain Endurance Series is seriously competitive and probably the most intense in the world for the sheer quality of teams and drivers. Last year I was with Peter Dumbreck and Lucas Luhr at JRM, both of who are seriously quick boys. I stacked up well against them and Bentley got in touch with me after seeing some of my performances.

After our test race at the Gulf 12 Hours last December we have committed to a full Blancpain campaign in 2014. It was our first event with two cars at Monza last weekend but we showed that the Bentley Continental GT3 has some serious pace. Over the winter we have had a lot of development upgrades for the car, including suspension setup changes, driveability and fuel economy on the engine and also some welcome ventilation enhancements to the cockpit.

Last weekend at Monza I qualified the no.7 car I share with my ex-Dyson team mate – Guy Smith and fellow Brit Andy Meyrick on the second row. I was on a quicker lap in the dying moments of qualifying and really gunning for pole position when I went off at the Ascari chicane and damaged the car.

As a team unit we are intent on going for the absolute maximum and on my final lap I believed we had a chance of something special, indeed the data showed we would have grabbed 2nd place on the grid. Unfortunately on this occasion it didn’t quite happen for us. Next time, I will make sure it does.

The M-Sport Bentley team played an absolute blinder to get the car repaired. The guys worked all-night and by Sunday morning the car was like brand new. It was just another reminder of the strength of the Continental GT chassis and just how good the M-Sport Bentley mechanics are because the car felt great during the race. Reliability wise it has been sensational too, which is a big testament to the respective teams at Crewe and Cockermouth.

The race started well and Andy was up to second place in the early stages before the tyres really started to lose their edge after some big fights, particularly with the Kessel Racing Ferrari. Guy took over but some delays in the pits cost us, so it was initially up to Guy and then myself to get us back in to the top ten. As ever Guy was excellent and then I completed the final stint bringing the car home in 8th place just behind the sister Continental GT3 of our stable mates Antoine Leclerc, Jerome D’Ambrosio and Duncan Tappy.

As a driver you always want to win but it was a really good team effort for our first race in the series and it sets us up nicely for the next round at Silverstone on May 23rd.

Just before we left for Monza we all went to the Bentley headquarters in Crewe. What a place! The pride and dedication within every member of staff in the Bentley factory was something I have never come across before.

The great thing for me in 2014 is that I am also racing a Bentley Continental GT3 in the British GT Championship, again to be run by M-Sport. I am sharing with Humaid Al Masaood who I have raced with in both ALMS and Grand-Am over the last few years. So from one great circuit we now head to another – Oulton Park this weekend.

In the Blancpain Endurance Series we have points on the board already but in the next round at Silverstone we will be really pumped up to deliver a great result on home soil. As a BRDC member, racing passed the clubhouse in the #7 Bentley Continental GT3 is going to be a very special feeling indeed.

Ever since I was one of the original drivers chosen by Bentley I have immersed myself in the Bentley way. The brand has such a distinctive and successful place in motorsport history, dating back to the ‘Bentley Boys’ in the 1920’s and we all fully intend to carry on that winning tradition in 2014 and beyond.

Cheers

Steven

 

 

 

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Black-eyes, scrap metal, piss-ups and a bloke called Jesus!

 

‘Super Hen!’; Panda-eyes not pictured!

This article first appeared in the 27th March edition of Autosport magazine

Brian Henton was talking to Sam Smith

My weekend at Hockenheim at the end of the 1978 season seemed to perfectly encapsulate the bitter/sweet nature of motor racing.

I had come out of a brief and difficult period in F1. I just seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…..all the time! Then I set my own team up which didn’t work out. I don’t think a few grubby blokes working out of a van was what Bernie had in mind when, in the 1970s, he started his vision for the future of F1.

By the start of 1978 I was pretty much written off. But I was still determined to get back to F1 and I honestly believed that in the right car I could win. So I started all over again. Mortgaged everything I had and bought a March 782, borrowed an engine from Brian Hart and got Pete Hemmings, a mini specialist as my chief mechanic. Barry Foulds who had worked for Alan Smith was drafted in as second ‘spannerman’. A mate of Pete’s who we just knew as ‘Lou’ was the truckie and then we had this bloke called ‘Nick the Greek’, who we also called ‘Jesus’ because that is who he looked like. He acted as ‘gofer’. So with this elite team we decided to do European F2!

We were so hand to mouth that year it was unreal. But we formed an incredibly tight, motivated and hungry little team. Mixing it with the best we got several poles, fastest laps and decent finishes. I led a few races but because we were running on ‘second-hand fresh air’, things broke and denied us wins.

We got to Hockenheim where there were two races. I won the first one beating guys like Giacomelli, Surer, De Angelis and Cheever. That felt good.

Just before the weekend I had signed with Toleman for 1979 and had agreed to sell the March. The guy who was buying it was in the paddock with the cash. Everything was working out very nicely. What could possibly go wrong?

In the second heat I was chasing Cheever for the lead and going down to the first chicane Eddie braked super early. The BMW engine car was much lighter than our Hart powered March. He launched me in to the air and I started barrel-rolling. It was pretty much an aircraft accident.

When all the banging and crashing stopped I was just sat in the monocoque and nothing else. The thing was obliterated. I looked at it and instantly realised I’d lost approximately £50k. Next thing I know I’m running up the track to tell Cheever how disappointed I was. I decided to do this with my fists. Once the marshals had pulled me off him, I ended up at hospital for a check-up.

Funny thing was that the g-forces during the accident had been so great that the vessels around my eyes had burst and I had these scary black rings around them. Allied to concussion I somehow decided, along with the boys in the team, to get colossally pissed that night to drown our collective sorrows and also to thank the lord I was alive.

Big mistake! I had forgotten I had a PR event in Paris the next day and had problems getting through immigration because I looked like the walking dead!

Profile – Brian Henton

Henton was a late starter to racing but won both British F3 titles in 1974. A brief chance with a below par Lotus came in 1975 before setting up his own F1 and F2 teams in 1977 and 78. He took the European F2 title in 1980 with Toleman and moved in to F1 the following year with them. His final F1 race came at the Race of Champions in 1983. Henton now runs an renewablesengineering company and lives in Leicestershire.

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Teenage Kicks!

Matt takes advice from father Chris at Ricard last week – Photo by Peter May

Matt McMurry will make his European Le Mans Series debut at Britain’s famed Silverstone Circuit for the first race of the 2014 ELMS season April 18 –19. McMurry at 16 years of age is the inaugural member of the Dyson Racing Junior Development Program and will join Chris Dyson and Tom Kimber-Smith in the #41 Caterham–liveried  Greaves Motorsport LMP2 Zytek–Nissan.

McMurry joined Dyson and Kimber–Smith  with the Greaves team at the ELMS’ official pre-season test at the Circuit Paul Ricard near Marseille, France last week. The #41 Dunlop-shod entry was third fastest during the Tuesday evening session and second fastest Wednesday morning. This was McMurry’s second outing in the Greaves Motorsport LMP2 entry. He has competed in 56 races in the past two years in Formula Skip Barber, US F2000, Formula Mazda and Prototype Lites.

McMurry will also be competing in this year’s International Motorsports Association Prototype Lites Championship. He is the son of sportscar racing veteran Chris McMurry, who has previously finished third in the American Le Mans Series Drivers Championship.

“I feel well prepared to take on the next challenge,” commented McMurry. “Dyson Racing, Greaves Motorsport and everyone involved have taken me under their wings, shared their knowledge and have given me a lot of seat time. I couldn’t be more appreciative and honoured to join the team at Silverstone, and I look forward to rewarding everyone with everything I’ve got.”

“Matt had two very good days at Paul Ricard,” said Chris Dyson, Vice President and Sporting Director of Dyson Racing. “Paul Ricard is a daunting and technical track that is quite physical. He showed maturity and the same aptitude that he displayed during his first test at Carolina MotorSports Park.”

Dyson observed that McMurry’s confidence and pace increased session by session over the course of a test that included many regular ELMS competitors.

“Matt’s biggest strength is his ability to listen and learn,” continued Dyson. “He has a measured and mature approach. That’s what’s impressed me over the last two years as I’ve watched him make a naturally seamless upwards transition.”

Commenting on the Paul Ricard test, Dyson also noted that the team has built on the baseline it established at last month’s tyre test at Sebring. “At Paul Ricard, for the first time this season, we were able to measure the car against the top runners in the series. We left confident that the car is very good in all conditions, which will translate well at Silverstone, Matt’s first race in the European Le Mans Series.”

Follow all the ELMS action at www.dailysportscar.com

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Imola 1989 – Saving Gerhard

Berger’s charred helmet – Photo with thanks to Gerhard Berger

If the life you have created
Has buried you with luxuries out-dated
And you ask what is the purpose
Too weak to claw your way up to the surface

Grant Lee Buffalo, It’s The  Life (1994)

There was something in the air during the spring of 1989. The Ides of March appeared to have been carried over a month to April.

A smattering of frustrated students had first entered Tiananmen Square in protest for more reforms in China; unimpressed UK citizens were introduced to the Poll Tax, ironically launched on 1st April 1989, triggering uproar and ultimately contributing to the end of Thatcherism the following year.

Even now the ripples of that spring reach the shore of today’s headlines. On the 15th April, 96 Liverpool football fans went to watch an FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield and never came back. The wretched and shameful ramifications of the Hillsborough disaster still emerge.

Set to the soundtrack of The Stone Roses era defining debut album, which was released that spring, these decade characterising events were playing out in a final dramatic year of the 80s.

As the F1 circus arrived at Imola for the second round of the ‘89 season, an abstract landscape for the 1990s was about to be ploughed, elicited by a horrific accident that befell Gerhard Berger and one that was witnessed live by millions of horrified television viewers.

The accident

Race day dawned bright and warm; a light breeze blew brittle dandelion wisps around the scenic municipal park in Imola. The Tifosi, bloated on the false miracle of Mansell’s astonishing Rio success four weeks earlier, had packed the place out. Heady atmosphere crackled.

24 hours earlier Berger had hustled his Ferrari 640 to 5th place on the starting grid behind Riccardo Patrese’s Williams Renault. Ahead lays Mansell in 3rd with the two McLaren Honda’s of Prost and Senna on the front row.

In qualifying Berger had looked ragged. His top spot from the wet Friday practice meant nothing when Saturday dawned dry and he started 5th on the grid. He had squeezed everything from his Ferrari 640 that Saturday, riding the kerbs at Acque Minerale and the final Variante Bassa chicanes, finding some time there despite the front wing taking a battering. He would do the same in the race to try and get by Patrese and then hunt down his team mate, hustling his car through ‘the Bassa’ to have a chance of a slipstream in to Tosa. He didn’t get that far.

“I actually don’t remember anything about the race up until the accident,” says Berger. “It is funny how the brain works because I remember every single detail of the accident and impact itself but nothing before. I tried steering…nothing, then I tried braking….nothing. I just said shit….now I brace for impact and just pray.”

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After the force of the shock Berger instantly found himself in the second phase of a nightmarish scenario. With the monocoque broken on the right hand side where the radiator had come through the chassis, his exposed flailing arms and upper torso were showered with litres of AGIP fuel. Then momentary silence and the briefest of pauses. Somewhere between the viaducts of his mind, consciousness was lost. Then came the inferno.

“The next thing I remember is a lot of big pain everywhere and Sid (Watkins) sat on my shoulders trying to get a tube in to my mouth,” recalls Berger. “I was struggling because that is just a normal reflex when you have been unconscious for a few minutes. I don’t remember those moments too well but I do recall trying to understand where I was and what was going on. I can recall the pain and also the smell of fuel which was very strong.”

Already at the accident scene was the primary rapid response vehicle of the medical team headed by Dr Sid Watkins and Dr Domenico Salcito. Salcito was the first to introduce the “Fast Medical Car” concept in Italy, in order get on the crash scene quicker than in an ambulance.

Their car, driven by former sports car driver Mario Casoni, who finished 3rd in the 1972 Le Mans 24 Hours in a Porsche 908, had full priority and authority to enter the circuit during the race, this included above and beyond the Race Director, Roland Bruynseraede.

“We could enter the track at any time if we deemed it necessary, we answered to no one if the circumstances were such,” confirmed Salcito. “We just used the radio to warn everybody about our intervention, and they had to react.”

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The quick actions of Salcito, Watkins and Dr. Baccarini allied to rapid response ensured they were at the scene 35 seconds after the fire was extinguished. The fight to treat Berger then became literal.

“Gerhard remained unconscious for around three minutes, and then he entered a state of psychomotor agitation,” says Salcito. “He was moving so much that we couldn’t remove his helmet, and in the end Dr. Watkins had to sit on him in order to allow us to set his head free. Then we brought him to the Medical Centre with the Ambulance, and we used some sedation to calm him”.

Meanwhile the red flag had flown. Doctors Watkins and Salcito left Berger at the medical centre with remarkably light injuries; second-degree burns to his hands (from where the inside seam of his gloves had melted) a bruised collar bone and a cracked rib. Outside there was chaos as media and Ferrari team members, among them a concerned Mansell, sought news of the Austrian’s condition.

Amid the cauldron was a man alone. Under almost intolerable stress Ferrari team principal, Cesare Fiorio had been the toast of the Tifosi at Rio three weeks before. Now he faced the unimaginable pressure of having to withdraw a Ferrari on home turf. Such was the lack of knowledge as to why Berger had ploughed off the road at a corner where driver error was highly unlikely and now an impossible decision had to be made.

The Pressure: Fiorio’s story

As the number 28 Ferrari 640 had burst in to flames at Tamburello, Cesare Fiorio momentarily stared at the tiny Longines monitor on the pit wall focusing on the unimaginable. He then turned away before wrenching his shades off and trying to quantify at first which of his two cars had crashed.

“On the human side the accident was the toughest moment of the day, but in the following minutes I found myself in the most difficult situation of my career,” remembers 74-year-old Fiorio today. “Obviously the race was red-flagged, the restart set for 20 or so minutes later. The first ten minutes passed quickly while I tried to get some information about Gerhard’s condition. Finally I got into the circuit’s Medical Centre and I saw him there: he was ok, just some light burns on his hands. Now the race was starting in 10 minutes and there was a serious decision to be made.”

“A driving mistake is still possible, that was the case when Piquet had crashed there two years earlier,” says Fiorio. “Still, a technical failure was one of the most probable causes. I had to decide what to do with Mansell’s car, and it wasn’t that easy looking at the full picture.

The first assumption had to be that something had broken on the Ferrari 640. Derek Warwick, a few cars behind Berger at the time of the shunt initially thought that the suspension had failed but no one knew for sure. The TV cameras only caught one angle of the car leaving the circuit and that only focused on the rear. A driving mistake was highly unlikely but…….

“Nigel had won the first race of the season in Brazil, and that meant that he arrived in Imola as the championship leader, in front of our home crowd,” continued Fiorio. “Our cars had performed strongly in qualifying, expectations were high, and so you can imagine that withdrawing the car from the race wasn’t going to be easy. Add the fact that I had arrived at Ferrari just two months earlier and you have to agree that I was in a very difficult position.

“First thing I did was speak to John Barnard, asking him if he had any reason to believe that the crash was caused by a technical failure, and if there was any chance that it could happen again. Unluckily, he didn’t really have an answer. He told me that yes, that could have been the case, but that an in-depth analysis of the wreckage was the only way to be sure. He planned to do that on Monday in Maranello, but as you can understand that was too late for me.”

Minute after minute the restart of the race approached and for Fiorio the tension tested even his enormous experience and poise. In the pit-lane he met Piero Lardi Ferrari, Enzo’s illegitimate son and the company’s vice-president. Fiorio asked Ferrari what he would have done if he was in Fiorio’s shoes: “’You’re the boss, it’s up to you’, that’s what he said,” smiles Fiorio. I answered ‘Thanks for that Piero’.

“At that moment I had this serene realisation that I was completely alone at the helm of Ferrari. Don’t get me wrong, I already knew from Ferrari that I had full authority and control on any department of the racing team. Still, at that moment the loneliness really stood out like never before.”

Looking furiously through data at Fiorio’s insistence was Berger’s engineer, Giorgio Ascanelli. Having joined the race team as race engineer for the Austrian at the previous year’s emotional Italian Grand Prix, the young and relatively inexperienced Ascanelli was now at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.

“I remember that there was shock everywhere but still you have to remain as professional as you can be, “remembers Ascanelli. “I was with Cesare on the pit wall when the accident happened and we just could not believe what we were seeing. Then it was a case of trying to find anything from the data we had to see if it could have a common issue for Mansell’s car. With so little time it was almost impossible, telemetry in 1989 was still quite basic.”

While Fiorio adjusted his mind to an almost unprecedented series of events, Mansell was on the grid, sitting behind the wheel, staring straight ahead, ready to go.

“In such a situation you never want to speak to the driver, his view will always be biased. Starting the race is the only thing he’ll be interested in,” recalls Fiorio. “I made my move and said to Nigel. ‘You are going to start the race, but before the end of lap 1 you slow down, raise your hand and crawl back into the pits, pretending there’s some issue with the car’. ‘No way’ was the first answer I got, but I immediately made my point clear, the decision had been made.

As Fiorio walked away from the remaining Ferrari, Mansell muttered something and tempers became frayed. As ever, Mansell did things ‘his way’ and the Tifosi’s new hero pushed on.

“Instead of coming in at the end of the first lap, Nigel took his time and did it after 23 laps, pulling off and retiring the car. We told the press that there was a gearbox issue and our race was over,” confirms Fiorio.

The release valve had dissipated some intense energy and tension in the Ferrari pit. The moment of truth came at Maranello on Monday morning when Fiorio, Barnard and the engineers inspected the destroyed 640.

“Can you imagine what would have happened if the post-accident analysis had shown that the car wasn’t to blame?” ponders Fiorio. “I’ll tell you that under the pressure from all of Italy it wasn’t too far from committing suicide!”

Berger’s aggressive driving (over the kerbs) certainly contributed to the accident. Barnard found out that the accident’s primary cause was some design weakness in the front wing that the Maranello quality inspectors had not picked up.  Ironically two weeks later in practice at Monaco Mansell suffered a similar failure at Massenet. Barnard decided to make further changes to prevent the failure from happening again.

The ‘Lions of Imola’ speak!

“We’re no heroes”. Paolo Verdi and Bruno Miniati nod while Gabriele Vivoli, the first man to arrive at the crash scene and the one who played the major role in putting out the fire, makes his point. “We were just doing our job, and any other CEA volunteer would have been able, equipped and prepared to carry it out as efficiently as we did”.

The Lions of Imola! Miniati, Verdi and Vivoli. Photo by Filippo Zanier
The Lions of Imola! Miniati, Verdi and Vivoli. Photo by Filippo Zanier

As much as CEA’s records prove that this is true, it was they who ran from their post to the Tamburello corner on that day, and in so doing they saved Gerhard Berger’s life.

Today the trio still lives in Borgo San Lorenzo, a little town 25 miles north of Florence, in the backyard of one of Italy’s most beautiful racetracks, Mugello. Of the three, only 65-year-old Verdi still works with Squadra Corse, CEA’s quick intervention team. At 70 Miniati has just reached the age limit for active service while Vivoli, the youngest of the trio, at 60, decided to stop in 1994.

“The force of the impact is the most striking memory for me” recalls Miniati. Verdi immediately provides backup to the shuddering memory. “As the car went off I was mostly disappointed as it was so obviously a Ferrari. But as soon as it disintegrated against the wall it didn’t matter anymore, it was just a person inside a car needing our help, and needing it fast.”

“At that time it was already some years that the three of us had been working together, and at Imola our standard post was 3C, just after Tamburello,” remembers Vivoli.  “We had a consolidated intervention strategy not to get in each other’s way. Being the stronger guy, Miniati was in charge of the ‘carrellone’, the big trolley carrying a 100-litre extinguisher equipped with a 25-meter long hose. Paolo and I, we were younger and quicker and so our brief was to run towards the car with portable extinguishers. That was our usual plan, and that’s exactly what we did the day Berger crashed.”

The distance between the site of the crash and gate 3C was later measured at 87 metres, but despite this considerable distance Vivoli started emptying his extinguisher on the fire just 14 seconds after the Ferrari had come to a halt. Verdi arrived a few seconds later.

“I doubt Carl Lewis would have been able to pull that off,” laughs Verdi today. “It is not a bad time considering we were carrying an eight-kilo extinguisher and that our protective gear impaired our movement.

“The real reason why we got there so quickly,” Verdi continues, “was because we started moving way before the car caught fire, right after it crashed into the wall. Given the severity of the impact and the fact that it happened on lap three, with a full fuel tank, we knew that flames were a very likely outcome.”

Being the first to arrive at the crash site, Vivoli faced a scene from hell: “Flames were so high that tifosi who had climbed on top of the advertising board to see the race felt the urge to jump into the Santerno river, meters below. The car was completely engulfed in flames, to the point that I couldn’t see which way it was facing. I stepped into the fire spraying my extinguisher, and as flames started to fade I could see Berger’s position. I clearly remember seeing heat bubbles forming on his helmet”.

As his duty was to manage the larger extinguisher, Miniati saw the events unfold from a different perspective: “I saw Gabriele and Paolo run towards the car while it was still spinning, then it stopped and in no time it was on fire. As it was too far away to be reached with the 25-meter hose I had available, I grabbed another hand extinguisher and I started running too. Once the fire was out the extrication team arrived in the Medical Car and dragged Berger out of the chassis really quickly. That was important too because even after the fire, the temperature inside the wreckage was still extremely high, enough to slowly ‘cook’ the driver.”

Miniati's bravery medal from Imola 89 presented to LoF - Photo by Filippo Zanier
Miniati’s bravery medal from Imola 89 presented to LoF – Photo by Filippo Zanier

“What’s quite amazing.” says Vivoli, “is that three extinguishers alone were enough to put out a 190-litre fire. That wasn’t sheer luck, trust me. CEA had asked for a supply of actual F1 fuel in order to test different chemicals and that definitely made the difference, we had the best possible gear to take on that fire. Still, I believe that luck helped us a little too: extensive damage to the fuel tank meant that the vast majority of the fuel had spilled out, removing the risk of an explosion. Furthermore, even when you’re prepared as we were a valve can fail, a handle can break or you can stumble, we’ve seen that happen. A lot can go wrong, but it didn’t”. 

Vivoli feels that if none of them were hurt that day, it was thanks to CEA’s attention to their crews’ safety: “I jumped into the fire and I emerged without a single scratch. We were equipped with latest-generation fireproof suits, and they worked well”.

That hadn’t always been the case. In the early days, for example at the time of Ronnie Peterson’s fire in Monza, CEA men used to wear what they had at home. Usually it was jeans and leather boots!

Despite wearing the best protection in the business, Vivoli risked putting himself into trouble. His wingman, Verdi confirms: “In the heat of the action he forgot to lower his helmet visor, hence being even more exposed to smoke and fumes. After putting out the fire his face was pitch black”.

“That’s true, I inhaled even more of that stuff than Berger did.  And there’s one more thing I remember clearly, as if it had just happened,” says an emotional Vivoli. “When everything was over a woman from the public who was carrying a child kindly offered me a carton of milk, saying that drinking it was the best thing to do after breathing in god knows what. I did, and it felt so good.”

“We were given a medal from Imola’s municipality and one from the Italian Automobile Club, the latter in Bologna,” says Verdi. “The ceremony actually took place at the city stadium just before a football match, Bologna vs Inter Milan. We entered the pitch together with the players, it was quite an emotional moment, especially for Gabriele as he’s a huge Inter fanatic”.

The trio also met Berger several times, even getting to have lunch with him at the Cavallino restaurant in Maranello. But the memory they cherish most was when just the three of them were invited to Austria for a TV special.

“When our duties at the TV studio were over we had dinner with some of the Berger family, and it was a fun evening,” recalls Vivoli. “Gerhard presented us with some gifts and got us all very drunk!”

The Butterfly Effect of Imola 89

If’s, but’s and maybe’s abound in F1 folklore but in the case of Imola 1989 there is a genuine rationale for believing that Berger’s accident kick started a chain reaction that shaped F1 for the early part of the following decade and possibly even beyond.

The accident occurred on the 4th lap of the race; at the time of the red flag Senna led Prost from pole position. A big lock-up of his brakes going in to Tosa saw the briefest of opportunities open for Prost, but the professor declined a move.

The re-start was very different. Senna got bogged down ever so slightly and Prost was immediately through and in to the lead. As Prost chose his optimum line in to Tosa, Senna dived for the inside, and even moved over to get a decent trajectory around the tight lefthander. Surprised, Prost was forced to widen his line to avoid contact. Thus was broken a pre-event agreement, ironically that whoever led in to the first corner should hold station for the opening lap.

Rattled and fuming, Prost’s race unravelled as quickly as his respect for Senna’s word. An un-characteristic spin at Bassa ensured that he finished the race forty seconds adrift of Senna. Prost stepped from his MP4/5, spoke briefly with Ron Dennis and then left the circuit, forsaking the post-race press conference.

From there on Prost and Senna barely spoke and the Frenchman realised he had to leave the team that he had spent 60% of his career with and won two titles for. He instructed his advisors to test the waters at Maranello and at Monaco on the Friday ‘rest day’, the first of a series of tentative approaches was made. By the French Grand Prix six weeks later he announced he was out of Woking and then on Friday 25th August at Spa the inevitable three-year deal with Ferrari was signed.

Could Prost and Senna have co-existed for another season at McLaren, even if the Berger incident had not taken place? Probably not. The seismic shifting of two tectonic F1 heavyweights was always going to happen. Indeed it had almost taken place at the Portuguese Grand Prix the previous year when Senna almost had his nemesis in the pit wall at approaching 200mph.

For Berger, a necessary change was made in his driving and outlook on what being a racing driver now meant as he thought more long-term about his professional future, one that would see him take Prost’s place at McLaren-Honda for 1990.

“I think Gerhard was a different driver for sure after the accident,” suggests Ascanelli. “He was not really much slower or less committed but just in a more level and balanced way. He thought more about what he was doing and how he could minimise unnecessary risk. I think it helped him in some ways but took away some edge in other areas.”

 “I got a big wake-up call from my accident at Imola and realised that I could do myself some serious damage,” admits Berger. “From Imola onwards I was a different driver for sure. Not slower or less competitive, just different. I knew where the boundaries and limits were and I knew I had to respect them more. The risk-factor became more visible for me as a driver after Imola, that is for sure and I listened to the warning it gave me.

“There is a big difference when you have an accident when you make a mistake, get out and think ‘well, I screwed up’. But it is totally different to be in a car where you are on edge a little thinking something might break. It was like this for me in 1993 with the active Ferrari. It was like you see in America with the cowboys on those crazy bulls getting flipped around. Fucking crazy!”

As with most earthquakes, there are aftershocks. Five years after Imola 89, as Berger rounded Tamburello on lap two of the re-started San Marino Grand Prix, he saw the wavering shadows of Imola rise once again. After avoiding the wreckage of Senna’s leading Williams, Berger glanced in his mirrors. Speaking today he recalls one of his immediate memories that intertwined the two events.

“You know, Ayrton and I were at Imola sometime later in 1989 after my accident. We went to look at Tamburello because we both had concerns about the closeness of the wall. We went behind it and looked to see how it could be moved back but there is a river there and we just said, ‘Oh well never mind, nothing to be done here.’ How stupid we didn’t think about a chicane or another corner before it…..how stupid!”

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