The passion the Americans feel for the oval race tracks is nothing new, it goes back to the beginning of the last century. The idea of a track where the drivers could go flat out almost throughout the whole course isn’t new, but oddly enough, it started with a very popular sport in the mid-1800s, bicycle racing.
Bicycle racing was quite popular at the time, it was fast, competitive, and convenient for the spectators since the races were held on closed circuits, and they could watch the whole action from the stands. Those race tracks were called Velodromes.
To build a smooth surface for the bikes and the structures for the banked turns, the constructors used the cheapest material they could find in the mid-1800s, wood. Since not only wood was plentiful at the time but also labor, a Velodrome could be erected in a matter of a couple of weeks.
Back in the early 1900s, the motorcycle was a fairly new invention, but as soon as the machines became commercially available in the US and Europe, the owners and manufacturers started to organize races. Those events were held on open roads or even on dirt tracks, used for horse racing.
It was only in 1910 that two guys decided to get together and bring motorcycle racing to a professional level. One of them was Jack Prince, a British bicycle racer that came to the USA to promote the sport and to build velodromes, and the other was Frederick Moskovics, a Hungarian born mechanical engineer, who became the manager of the Daimler Racing Team in 1904. Together they came up with a simple plan, to build stronger velodromes that could stand the weight and the speed of motorcycles and even automobiles.
Their first enterprise was the Los Angeles Coliseum Motordrome, located in Playa del Rey, California.
Construction began on January 31, 1910, and it took almost 2 months to be completed. Pine was used for the track surface since it was the most resistant wood against the scorching California sun.
Millions of tiny 2-inch (51 mm) x 4-inch (100 mm) boards were meticulously nailed side by side to form the 1-mile (1,609 km) long by 75 feet (23 meters) circular track. The builders estimated that over 30 tons of nails were used during the construction. When done, the track was coated with a layer of glue mixed with crushed seashells, to improve traction.
The LA Motordrome was a very well thought project, with guard rails, lighting for night racing, and stands to hold 12,000 spectators. The whole circuit was banked from 18 to 25 degrees, but judging by some of the pictures, it seems steeper than that. The outer rim is 25 feet (7.6 m) off the ground, making it impossible to watch the races from the outside. A small railroad was built in the vicinity by the Pacific Electric Railway in order to ferry spectators to and from the race track.
The LA Motordrome was a smashing success, attracting numerous competitors and large crowds of spectators. It quickly became one of the main race tracks in the country, second to only the Indianapolis Speedway.
But the enterprise came to an abrupt end when, in 1913, the track was partially destroyed by fire and the owners decided not to rebuild it.
The end of the LA Motordrome didn’t mean the end of the wooden race tracks, the achievements of the venue were an inspiration for the entrepreneurs to build more of them.
The board track fever caught on the whole country. From 1920 through 1931, the American Automobile Association sanctioned 123 championships events and 82 of them were held on wooden Motordromes, scattered across the country.
Board racing quickly became the favorite motorsport in the USA at the time, it was crazily fast and extremely dangerous. The daredevil riders reached the status of idols and the adoration of the fans just encouraged them to disregard the most basic concepts of safety.
The motordromes were more like a trap than a race track. The seashell coating, used to improve traction, didn’t last long and most of the time the riders had to deal with a very slippery surface. Blown engines were a common problem and they would leave a layer of oil covering parts of the track, making the ridding even more dangerous.
It would take only a couple of months for the exposed pine boards to become brittle and with the constant punishment of cars and bikes travelling at 90 plus miles per hour, splinters of the size of a kitchen knife would fly all over the track. There are even some stories about kids removing a few boards before the start of the race, just enough to stick their heads out to play the chicken game of ducking in the last second before being hit by a car or a bike. The wooden tracks required constant maintenance, but the owners, always looking for more profits, mostly disregarded it.
In an insane pursuit for more speed, the banks were getting higher and higher to the point of reaching 45 degrees, making it impossible to ride a motorcycle below 100 miles per hour.
The motorcycles used at the motordromes became known as “board racers”, they were purpose-built machines, conceived with one thing in mind: speed. To achieve maximum performance, lightweight was paramount. The bikes look more like bicycles, with a simple hardtail frame and skinny wheels and tires.
Hydraulic brakes didn’t exist back in the 1910s/1920s; the system was operated by cables and rods, making it heavy, complicated, and unreliable. To solve the problem, the teams came up with a very ingenious idea: build the bikes with no brakes whatsoever, after all, they were meant to be ridden at full throttle from the beginning to the end of the race. A simpler time indeed.
To make matters even worse, those ancient engines didn’t have an efficient lubrication system and the riders had to manually pump oil every mile or so, during the race.
Following the mantra, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday“, many North American motorcycle companies had their own race team. The picture above shows Johnny Seymour, one of the official Indian race riders.
In the 1920s, a top rider could make 20,000.00 Dollars per year at board racing, (around 280,000.00 Dollars in 2022 money), enough cash to lure young daredevils to risk their lives in the motordromes.
Their racing suit consisted of a leather helmet, goggles, wool sweater, and leather boots and gloves. It is clear that the protective gear didn’t do much to save the riders’ lives when they crashed, and crashes were fairly common during the races.
With skills and luck, some of them dodged death long enough to become heroes. Names like Jim Davis, Otto Walker, and Albert “Shrimp” Burns (pictured above) might’ve faded away after more than a century, but back then, they were idolized by the fans.
By the mid-1910s, the board racing reached its peak. People couldn’t get enough of seeing the competitors racing on the edge of the knife, but the price the riders and the spectators alike were paying to keep the show going on became too high.
In 1912, during a race near Atlantic City, a legendary racer called Eddie Hasha (aka the Texas Cyclone) lost control of his Indian and flew over the guard rail, he died in the crash and the spiralling bike landed into the crowd, killing three young boys and a man, and injuring 10 other spectators.
Another horrible accident happened in Ludlow, Kentucky, on July 30, 1913, the top racer Odin Johnsons crashed while fighting for the first position. He hit a lamp post, which caused the rupture of the fuel tank and exposed electrical wire ignited the spilled gasoline. Johnson and a young boy were pronounced dead at the track; more than 25 others were taken to local hospitals, where six of them died several hours later from their injuries. Two other spectators succumbed three days later. The scale of the tragedy was so enormous that many spectators at the park used their cars as ambulances.
Johnson was only 24 years old when he died. His widow started a campaign to ban board racing altogether and she found strong support among the media. The newspapers began calling the tracks “murderdromes”. But during a time when the news travelled at a much slower pace than today, the ban campaign would take another 10 years and many more casualties to pick up momentum.
It was only when the motorcycle companies, local governments, and the entrepreneurs started to question their involvement in such a controversial sport that the board racing began to lose steam and by the 1930s it was already a thing of the past.
Of course, here I focused on the motorcycle side of the motordrome, but the race drives also faced the same danger, even if their cars had brakes.
Jack Prince, the guy who conceived the motordrome, never stopped believing. He kept building more oval (or circular) race tracks but replaced the wood with steel and concrete.
Those tracks morphed into the modern super speedways we all know today. It became part of the American sports as much as baseball and football.
Oval tracks are still dangerous but in a more acceptable way and the “gladiator spirit” of the early racers still lives on among the today’s competitors.
Batman is back on the big screen, this new movie comes 33 years after the American director Tim Burton revived the character with his haunting and stylish version of the Caped Crusader.
Speaking as a fan, it is always exciting when a new movie pops up but speaking as a gear head, there will always be the expectation about what the Batmobile will look like.
Tim Burton’s movies feature a stylish, armored, rocket car while Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy has a tank-like vehicle; useful, but not particularly charming. But the Batmobile I would like to talk about here is the coolest of them all, the one Batman drove in the 1960s.
The Batman TV show.
The superhero genre had a long journey before becoming mainstream entertainment. The transition from the comics to the big screen wasn’t easy, both Captain Marvel and Batman had their chance in the theatres at the beginning of the 1940s, but thanks to the lack of special effects, those movies were crude and didn’t rightfully portray the superheroes like in the comics.
When The Adventures of Superman aired from 1952 to 1958, it enjoyed a good dose of popularity, as TV sets were becoming more common in the houses of American middle-class families at the time, but it wasn’t until Batman premiered in 1966 that the rest of the world got acquainted with superheroes.
The Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939 is a dark and sinister character who moves through the shadows and uses fear as his greatest weapon, but you won’t find any of that in this series., Adam West (Batman) and Burt Ward (Robin), play a silly Dynamic Duo,fighting against even sillier evildoers. The series is campy, comical, and psychedelic.
This cartoonish series was designed specifically for kids and it worked for me. As a six-year-old boy, I loved it and never missed a single episode.
Besides all the fist fighting, the crazy villains, and the occasional appearance of the Batgirl, what I loved the most was the Batmobile. For me, it was the coolest car I’ve ever seen.
Years after the more badass versions of the Batmobile appeared in movies, the car created for the TV series is still the most iconic.
The First Batmobile
Batman is a superhero with no superpowers, consequently, he needs a lot of gadgets to fight crime, and a decent car is a must.
When he first appeared in the comics, Batman used to drive a regular late 1930s coupe and then a “supercharged” red roadster that looks like a 1939 Graham “Sharknose” model.
For the TV show, the producers wanted a more impressive car, and in 1965, the ABC-TV hired Dean Jeffries, a custom car builder with deep roots in the TV/movies industry. One of his most popular creations is the “Monkeemobile” a heavily modified 1966 Pontiac GTO for the TV series “The Monkees” (another favorite of mine).
Jeffries worked on the design and initial fabrication for the Batmobile, using a 1959 Cadillac, like the one you see in the picture above (which would be my first choice as well). But as the deadline was looming on the horizon, Jeffries gave the task to the “King of Kustomizers”, Mr. George Barris.
Barris made a name for himself in the California hot rod/custom scene in the 1950s and became legendary in the world of television and motion pictures. He created such iconic cars as The Munster’s Coach (picture above) and KITT from Nightrider.
Barris had a very tight schedule, the ABC studio gave him only 3 weeks to get the Batmobile ready. Fortunately, the perfect car was just sitting on the lot: a decaying Lincoln Futura he bought from Ford a couple of years ago for $ 1,00.
The Lincoln Futura.
The 1950s was an amazing time for industrial design in the USA. The influence of the Space Age was everywhere. American automakers created some of the most impressive concept cars of all time, and one of them was the 1955 Lincoln Futura.
The concept was created by Ford’s lead designers Bil Schmidt and John Naijar and the Ghia Studio in Turin, Italy, was commissioned to hand-build the all-metal body panels. The Italians were also responsible to fit the body on the chassis (most likely the Continental Mark II platform), painting it in “high tech” Pear white, finishing the assembling of all parts, and shipping the car back to the States, at a final cost of $250,000 (around $2,400,000 in 2022).
The Futura was officially presented to the public on January 8, 1955, at the Chicago Auto Show, but Ford had been already touring the car across the USA for a while before that. The Futura’s styling has all the “sci-fi” inspiration one could expect from a 1950s concept car: double clear-plastic canopy top, exaggerated hooded headlight pods, and long tail fins.
Underneath the futuristic body, you will find a pretty conventional car. The Futura was powered by a 368 Lincoln “Y” block V8, bolted to an automatic transmission.
Becoming a Star
Ford has been known for his good connections with Hollywood and since the Futura was almost a fully functional car, it shouldn’t be hard to put one on the silver screen.
The car became the star of the 1959 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie, “It started With a Kiss”, starring Glenn Ford as a broken Air Force Sargent and Debbie Reynolds as his sassy nightclub showgirl wife, who won the Lincoln in a contest. For the movie, the Futura was repainted in bright red, in an attempt to make the car’s lines more visible to the public.
The year 1959 also marks the peak of the “Tailfins Era” in auto design. In the following years, American cars would become more and more unpretentious. The Lincoln Futura quickly lost its relevance and a few years later, Ford sold the red Futura to George Barris for a single Dollar!
Becoming the Batmobile.
The Lincoln Futura certainly is the kind of car one would expect to see at George Barris’s shop, but with no use for it, the car sat in the parking lot for years. When he received the task to build the Batmobile, the red Lincoln was less than pristine.
When 20th Century Fox started recording the episodes, the Batmobile wasn’t there, George Barris took a little bit longer than the planned 3 weeks to get it ready. Bill Cushenberry was responsible for the metal modifications, making it more like a “bat looking” than a “shark looking” car, which was the original idea of the Futura.
When the Batmobile was finally delivered, in October 1965, I bet the Dynamic Duo was pleased. The car was slick and elegant, qualities inherited from the Lincoln Futura, but Barris made it look dark and sinister as well.
The Batmobile was there for the debut episode Hi Diddle Diddle, which aired on January 12, 1966, and yes, it was a success. But besides the ultra-cool body and all the bat-gadgets, there was a 10 years old Ford that had been neglected for a while. As soon as the filming began, some mechanical problems like overheating and leaking fluids started plaguing the car. By mid-season, the original 368 Lincoln engine and transmission were replaced with units removed from a Ford Galaxie.
George Barris built 4 replicas, in fiberglass, using the Ford Galaxie chassis, stretched in 11 inches. The # 5 was the stunt car, used for jumps and crashing into buildings.
The # 4 was prepared for drag racing, powered by a high-performance Ford 427 “police interceptor” V8. “Wild” Bill Shrewsberry drove the car at Muholland and several other strips across the country. The #4 car had a working flamethrower and working parachutes, it was able to go down the drag strip in 12 sec.
In 2014 the #4 went through a complete restoration by the Fiberglass Freaks, the only shop in the world officially licensed by DC Comics to build 1966 Batmobile replicas.
The # 3 was exclusively used as a promo car, while the # 2 was a perfect clone of the main Batmobile and was used as a spare.
Upon realizing that he had created something more than just a custom car, Barris applied for a patent for the Batmobile, opening the door to a new source of revenue: licensing the design to toy companies.
George Barris never sold his Batmobiles to the studio, instead he loaned them. When the series came to an end, in 1968, he sold the replicas to collectors but kept the original one.
But the time to part ways with his most iconic creation finally came and on January 19, 2013, the car was taken to Barret-Jackson Collector Car Auction. The Batmobile was pulled into the auction by no other than Mr. Barris himself, to the amazement of hundreds of fans that were there. When the hammer fell, one of the most emblematic pieces of pop culture had changed hands, for the staggering price of US$4.2 million.
Predicting the future
The amount of “Bat paraphernalia” incorporated into the Batmobile is enough to make James Bond jealous. Are you ready for the list? Here we go: nose-mounted aluminum cable cutter blade, Bat Ray projector, an anti-theft device, an Anti-Fire Activator, automatic tire inflation device, detect-a-Scope, Batscope, Bat Eye Switch, Antenna Activator, Police Band Cut-In Switch, mobile Batcomputer, a Batphone, Bat Smoke, and a Bat Photoscope, emergency Bat Turn Lever, which deploys a pair of parachutes, magically allowing the Batmobile to do a quick 180-degree turn.
Among all the silly Bat stuff, there is one item that catches the attention, after almost 60 years of its creation: the mobile Bat computer, constantly connected to the main Bat computer, located in the Bat cave. Whoever came up with this idea, certainly predicted the future, when cars would be equipped with Internet Wi-Fi, keeping the occupants connected to a sort of “Main computer”.
Holy adventure, Batman
The Batman TV series run for 3 seasons, between 1966 and 1968 and it was a success, not only in the USA but all over the world as well. Celebrities of the 1960s, like Bruce Lee, and Jerry Lewis, gladly accepted the invitation for a cameo appearance in the famous “Bat climb” scenes. Even Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes showed up (another one of my favorite TV shows).
Rumor has it that Frank Sinatra wanted a part in the series, as a villain.
As part of the pop culture in the 1960s, the show lives on in the memories of fans and even in the minds of those born many years after the conclusion of the series. the phrase, “Holy______, Batman”, still can be heard every once in a while.
There were many elements that helped to make the series so beloved among the kids around the world, but the Batmobile played a major role in it. It was the third component of the Dynamic Duo.
A brief account of this obsolete piece of machinery that refuses to fade away.
Picture above: Roger Dubois, Huracán edition.
At the beginning of the 1969 movie Easy Rider, right before the start of his journey across the USA, the character Wyatt (Peter Fonda) gives one last glance at his wristwatch, removes it from his arm and throws the watch on the ground, symbolizing he was finally free, no longer chained to time.
But unfortunately, the rest of us have no other option but to keep time as the master of our lives. The clocks are everywhere, just to remind us about it: on your coffee maker, on your stove, on your computer’s screen, and especially on your cell phone. Even if we are surrounded by clocks, some of us still insist on wearing a wristwatch, but since they became an obsolete way to keep time, we wear them more like a fashion accessory, and that is precisely how the wristwatch was born.
The idea of a portable clock, that could be strapped around the wrist or at least that could fit inside a pocket it is as old as the creation of the mechanical watch itself, in the 16th century. In the beginning, wristwatches were meant to be some kind of jewelry, designed for the affluent ladies of society. Possibly the most notorious example of this trend is when, in 1571, the Queen of England, Elizabeth I received a wristwatch as a gift from Mr. Robert Dudley.
For the men, the fashion was the pocket watch, but that was about to change.
Towards the end of the 19th century, military officers discovered the benefits of synchronizing, by time, the maneuvers among different platoons on the field and the necessity of having a reliable and sturdy timekeeper. Since a soldier has both hands constantly employed holding his rifle, the pocket watch would just be impractical. As we all know, Necessityis the mother of invention, and soon officers and soldiers alike began adapting straps around their pocket watches to use them as wristwatches.
In the late 1800s, the United Kingdom was the leading country in the still young watchmaker industry. It didn’t take long for a British company to offer a model specially designed for the Royal Army, the Garstin Company of London, presented the “Watch Wristlet”, which was, basically, a pocket watch encased in a leather strap (pictured above).
From 1898 to 1902, the Mappin & Webb company produced the successful “campaign watch” series, widely popular among British officers serving in the colonies around the world. This new product helped to spread the idea that wristwatches could also be worn by a man.
In continental Europe, Girard-Perregaux and other Swiss watchmakers began supplying German naval officers with wristwatches in about 1880.
Conquering the skies
At the beginning of the 20th century, the use of wristwatches among the male population was still strongly linked with the military. In 1904, the Franco-Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont asked his friend, Louis Cartier, to make him a wristwatch that would help him during his flights. Keeping time was of the utmost importance when flying those early steerable hot air balloons, and since Dumont needed to keep both hands on the controls all the time, a pocket watch wasn’t the right choice for the task.
Cartier created a beautiful, square-shaped watch that served the aviator perfectly, it was compact, light, and gorgeous. The Santos Dumont’s Cartier can be considered the first chapter of the love affair between wristwatches and aviation.
Considering that Dumont was, at the time, a public figure in Paris, he helped to make the wristwatch popular among the male Parisians.
To honour the Brazilian aviator, Cartier has a series of watches called “Santos de Cartier”, based on the original watch.
From the trenches to the streets
During WWI, as the tactics between the artillery and the infantry grew in complexity, the use of the wristwatch became paramount, not only for the officers but for common private as well. The companies began producing watches specially designed for the hardships of war, with luminous dials and impact-resistant glass. From now on, the wristwatch became an integral part of the soldier’s uniform.
For those fortunate enough to survive the war, the wristwatch became part of their civilian lifestyle.
At this point, the watchmaker industry was well established and innovations just kept coming. All the features that make a military watch so sturdy were transferred to the civilian ones.
In 1923, John Harwood created the first successful self-winding system.
After WWII, the wristwatch was so popular among the returning combatants that the field watch and aviator watch became separate categories in the horology universe, readily available to civilian customers.
In the 1950s the American watchmakers Elgin and Hamilton developed the first electric-powered wristwatch, in an attempt to solve the most annoying aspect of a mechanical watch, which is the necessity of daily winding. The watches were not very reliable and therefore not a commercial success but it was the first step towards the quartz movement.
Beyond the blue sky
During the space race, between the 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviets were always one step ahead of the Americans. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first man to fly into space when, on April 12, 1961, he completed one orbit around the Earth, travelling onboard the Vostok 1 capsule. Gagarin insisted to wear a wristwatch during his journey, and the Sturmankie company prepared him a specially built model, designed to withstand the brutal acceleration of the rocket and also the weightless environment he was about to experience. According to him, his watch worked flawlessly during the mission.
One year after the launch of the Apollo program, NASA started looking for a wristwatch to be official timekeeping for the astronauts that would eventually go to the moon. After a series of evaluations, the Omega Speedmaster chronograph was the winner, outperforming brands like Rolex, Longines, and Hamilton.
In 1969, Neil Armstrong had the honour to be the very first man to set foot on the moon, but he was not wearing his watch, it was Buzz Aldrin, who left the lunar module right after, who gave the Speedmaster the privilege to be the first watch to visit the moon.
Perhaps no other human activity has embraced watches more passionately than motorsports, after all, a race driver must beat the clock before facing the other competitors on the track.
In the 1910s -20s, the Swiss watchmaker Heuer was already the leading company in the production of sports stopwatches. In 1933, Heuer released the dashboard chronograph series Autavia (AUTos + AVIAation), and this equipment quickly became the standard chronograph for all the major rally and race teams.
While co-drivers and crew members loved their dashboard-mounted stopwatches, the drivers always preferred to have theirs integrated with the wristwatch. Through the last years of the 1960s, Heuer, in association with Breitling and Hamilton, developed an engineering marvel, a self-winding watch-chronograph movement, called Chrono Matic. Together, they seized the moment and created iconic models that became the timekeepers of the golden age of motorsports.
Other brands like Rolex, Omega, and Longines followed the trend, making race-inspired watches one of the most important segments in the horology world.
Conquering the oceans
In the underwater activities, the role played by the watch is similar to the role it played in the early stages of aviation. It is more than just keeping time, it is keeping its user alive.
The necessity of a reliable timekeeper for diving came as early as the 17th century. The hard hat divers used to attach common pocketwatches inside the helmet to keep time spent underwater, but obviously, this wasn’t the most practical solution. In the early 20th century, dust/water resistant watches could be custom made for some special customers, usually called Explorer watches, but they were far from being waterproof.
In 1926, the Swiss watchmaker Rolex presented the Oyster, with a hermetically sealed case, considered to be the first waterproof wristwatch.
On October 7, 1927, the new Rolex was put to a test, the English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze crossed the English Channel with an Oyster hanging around her neck. After 10 hours in the water, the Rolex came out perfectly sealed.
The Oyster became the “father” of all other dive watches that came after since they all share similar concepts, but Omega had the honour to create the first commercially successful dive watch, the Marine, released in 1932 (picture above).
In many cases, the diver’s life depends on the accuracy and reliability of the chosen watch. Since it holds such a responsibility, a dive watch must go under a series of trials before being certified for specific depths.
It is impossible to talk about diving and not talk about one of my childhood heroes, Jacques Cousteau. In 1943, the French oceanographer created the scuba diving suit, opening the doors of underwater exploration to the average adventurer.
During the 1960s and 70s, his TV shows, picturing his incredible adventures around the world, onboard the ship “Calypso”, helped to propel the popularity of scuba diving.
It is fair to say that Cousteau also helped to make dive watches popular. His favourite brand was the Swiss watchmaker Doxa, he loved the watches so much that he even became an “authorized dealer”, selling them through his company, U.S. Divers.
Cousteau started his career as an officer in the French Navy and later he became an inventor, scientist, explorer, and filmmaker. He spent his life showing us the magnificent beauty of the oceans but more importantly, he showed us the fragility of the underwater ecosystems. He died at the age of 87, in 1997, but his legacy lives on through the Cousteau Foundation, a non-profit organization involved in the conservation of marine life and preservation of tropical coral reefs.
The quartz revolution
By the end of the 1950s, the world was experiencing the beginning of the digital revolution, also known as The Third Industrial Revolution. Engineers were creating a whole new array of electronic components that would deeply change the future of the industry in general.
In 1969, Seiko released the Astron, the first quartz watch in the world (picture above). The main difference is: while a mechanical watch relies on a balance wheel, which oscillated at, perhaps, 5 or 6 beats per second, this new Seiko uses a quartz crystal resonator that vibrates 8,192 Hz, which means the new Astron was much more accurate than any mechanical watch.
The advantages of the quartz watch go beyond the accuracy, it is lighter and more resistant to impacts, and since it is simpler to build, it is cheaper to buy.
By 1980, the watch market was flooded with hundreds of new electronic models, driving the once-powerful Swiss watchmakers to the brink of extinction. To survive, they had to join forces, adopt the new technology, and rely on something the Japanese quartz watchmakers could never provide: tradition and status.
Cell phone, the fiercest competitor
The affordable “quartz watch” throve in the 1980s and 1990s, but as soon as the cell phone services became more affordable and reliable in early 2000, the necessity of having a timekeeping device strapped around the wrist became redundant, since that little phone people now have in their pockets also shows the time.
With the advent of smartphones, the situation of the wristwatch became pretty dire. The phone has more accurate time, and automatically switches time zones, it has a built-in stopwatch and alarm clock (besides everything else, of course). For the younger generations, it is much more important owning the latest smartphone on the market than an expensive wristwatch.
Surviving the hard times
The watchmakers are constantly learning how to adapt to survive, if the traditional wristwatch lost its relevance as a timekeeper, the industry has been marketing it as a desirable man’s jewellery. The watch shifted its status from an useful tool to an accessory, something like the final touch of a well-dressed man.
Celebrities are always happy not only to show their watch collections but also to become “brand ambassadors”.
Benedict Cumberbatch is the perfect example, the British actor became involved with the Swiss watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre during the recording of the 2016 movie Dr. Strange. Cumberbatch, who is a scuba diver and watch aficionado, gladly accepted the role of the brand ambassador.
The long-established connection between watchmakers and motorsports remains strong. Most of the Formula One teams have partnerships with either traditional or independent watch brands.
In 2021, Ferrari signed a multi-year agreement with Richard Mille, a fairly new Swiss watchmaker, founded in 2001.
Richard Mille is becoming a powerhouse in motorsports, the company has its own racing team, competing in the LMP2 class at the World Endurance Championship.
A whole lot of things that we, the old timers, used to hold dear are losing their importance, not only watches. As I am writing the last lines of this post, on my cell phone, while waiting for for my bus, I totally understand how much the world has changed. The younger generations have different priorities.
The wristwatch represents something nostalgic, a throwback to a simpler time, but for some of us, it is more than that, a good quality mechanical watch is a machine in its purest form, a multitude of gears, pins, and springs, working harmoniously without any help of electronics. Usually encapsulated by a beautifully designed case.
For those with deep pockets, wearing a good watch instead a “smartwatch” is like driving a 1968 Miura instead a Tesla. It not about practicality, it is about style.
The Cold War was a dark period in history when humanity came, for so many times, too close to total annihilation. When this “war” came to an end, in 1991, the danger of a nuclear Armageddon became a thing of the past and now we can, in a more relaxed way, look back at some of the amazing war machines that were created by the Americans and the Soviets during that time.
Some military airplanes were so well designed that even after over 60 years of entering service, they are still on active duty.
One of those planes is the mythological Lockheed U2, this spy plane was born with a very elementary mission, to fly over enemy territory at 70,000 ft (21,300 meters), out of the reach of any fighter jet or anti-aircraft missile at the time.
Lockheed Aircraft Corp. created a jet plane with a very simple design that looks more like a glider, narrow fuselage and 103 ft of wingspan. To save space and weight, the landing gear also looks like the one you will find in gliders, only two sets mounted in tandem, also known as “bicycle” gear.
To take off, a pair of smaller wheels are placed close to the tips of the wings, but as soon as the plane lifts off, those wheels are jettisoned.
The prototype flew in August 1955 and a year later it came into service, the pilots nicknamed it The Dragon Lady.
The U2 is an unforgiving plane to fly, the lack of assisted commands and the bicycle stile landing gear make the landing a very complicated process. The ideal procedure is to bring the plane very close to the ground, around 2 ft (0,60m) and then stall it, safely touching the tarmac. But there is a problem: the pilot can’t precisely know how close to the ground the plane is, and if he stalls the plane at a higher altitude than 2 ft, the landing gear might brake because it has no shock absorbers.
The plane was called the most difficult-to-land machine in the US Air Force inventory. After numerous accidents at the beginning of the active service, the U2 pilots came up with a very interesting solution: a team member would follow the approaching plane in a car, informing the pilot by radio how far off the ground the plane is, and that was how the U2 chase cars were born.
The Country Squire.
Since the Dragon Lady comes down to the runway at 140 Mph, the chasing car must have some muscles. The first choice was the 1956/57 Ford Station Wagons, called Country Squire, as seen in the picture above. The U2 program was highly classified, therefore, finding information about those cars can be a bit frustrating, but an exchange of emails between the retired US Air Force Major Tommy Douglas and the hot rod website The Jalopy Journal shed a light on the subject.
Let’s hear from the man himself:
“I’m retired Major Tommy Douglas from the US Air Force. I’m also a car junkie and have been ever since I can remember. I’m emailing you because I thought you would find my history a little interesting given our shared passions.“
“In 1954, I participated in a car project for the Air Force. Myself and three or four others were given the task of finding and preparing a car to be used as a chase vehicle for the then top-secret U-2 spy plane. The U-2 was a complicated aircraft to land due to its huge wingspan and bicycle landing gear. Pilots don’t necessarily land the U-2. Instead, they fly it to about 2′ off the ground and then stall it. And they do this blindly, so spotters are needed at each wingtip to call altitude.“
“The two cars we procured were to hold these spotters and needed to be capable of speeds of up to 120mph – just under the approach speed of the U-2. They also had to have enough cargo room to hold the detachable pogo gears that go on the wingtips of the aircraft and allow for taxiing.“
“At the time, the best vehicle for the job was a 1956 or ’57 Ford Station Wagon. It was anemic in stock form, but we were hot rod guys and took care of that easy enough.”
“We had two wagons on base. The first was powered by a 312 with a McCulloch supercharger on it. I don’t remember exactly where we sourced that motor, but I think we took it out of a factory Fairlane provided by Ford. It was fast, but the driver’s timing with the U-2 pilot had to be perfect to get the spotter in an ideal position.“
“The second wagon had a supercharged Mercury engine in it. I believe that one came from a NASCAR shop in Florida, but I don’t have any specific memory of it. That car was really fast and gave the driver a little more cushion for error.“
“I don’t recall doing anything to the brakes. We had a really long and wide “landing strip” at the time and the U-2 skidded down this strip for quite a ways, giving us plenty of time to slow down. Worse came to worse, we could just swing out wide and coast to a stop”.
“I do remember lots of “testing” on that runway with those cars. There might have been some shenanigans, but no pictures. The base we used had pretty tight security.”
(The Major’s account is part of the post “Chasing The U2″, published by The Jalopy Journal, April20, 2020.
N.E. – The 312 was the biggest displacement Ford “Y” block in 1956/57. The McCulloch supercharger was part of the Ford performance catalog and could be ordered and installed at any dealership. Since it was considered “OEM” part, the supercharger was allowed to be used in NASCAR.
In the 1960s the Cold War was in full throttle, the U2 spy plane was being operated not only by the Air Force but also by the CIA. As the program saw a spike in the number of missions, the Ford wagons were replaced by a pair of Chevy El Caminos. They were just perfect for the mission, it performs like a muscle car and has a very spacious bed for all the U2 related junk.
Two 1968 El Caminos were ordered, powered by the 396 big-block V8, cranking up 325 hp, more than enough for the mission, but no AC. Some people will tell the cars were SS models, but it might not be the case, the SS came standard with Rally wheels and what we see in the photos looks more like a “plain Jane” big block El Camino.
The cars were painted the Air Force standard blue paint and later on, the roof was painted white in an attempt to divert some of the blazing Arizona sun (the first operational U2 base was Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ), but that alone wasn’t enough to keep the El Camino crew from baking inside the diminutive cabin and an RV style roof AC unit added to them. When the U2 base was transferred to California, in the 1970s, they received a pair of new body style El Camino.
When the time to replace the El Caminos came, in the 1980s, the muscle-car scene was a lot different, the oil crisis of 1973 brought the segment to the brink of extinction.
The Air Force was once again looking for a cheap, high-performance car but the market in the 1980s offered far fewer options than in the 1960s. The answer came in 1985 when they borrowed a Ford Mustang from the California Highway Patrol for some tests. Of course, the car was not your average 5.0 Fox Body, it was an SSP (special service package), with all the good stuff you can find in a police cruiser car.
The Air Force loved it, the Mustang became the U2 chase car for the next decade, and more than 20 units were bought during that time, some of them were sent to bases in Europe and Asia.
The Mustangs were equipped with the legendary 5.0 litres V8 (302 CID) small-block, able to produce between 180 and 225 HP, depending on the year. It was less powerful than the El Camino but it handled a lot better. The lack of room in the Mustang trunk was a problem and the Air Force had to dispatch a pickup truck to get the “pogo” landing gear after each take-off.
Back to General Motors
Even after the end of the Cold War, the U2 operations didn’t stop. As missions advanced into the 1990s, the Mustang was replaced by the fourth-gen Camaro in B4C-specs (police cruiser specs).
During the early 2000s, the Camaros were replaced by Australian sourced Pontiac GTO/G8. For the U2 pilots, those Aussie Ponchos became one of the all-time favourite chase cars.
As the U2 operations became less and less “secret” after the years, videos and photos of the chase cars became abundant on the Internet. As we can see, the fifth and sixth-generation Camaro has been the primary choice for the mission but some Dodge Chargers can also be seen.
The future of the Dragon Lady.
In 2019 the US Air Force came under heavy fire after whistleblowers made public some details about a U2 mission: the team was to be deployed to RAF Mildenhall station, in Suffolk, England, for what seemed to be a routine mission if wasn’t for one little detail: by August 2019, the Air Force was getting ready to airlift two Dodge Charger chasers to Mildenhall Air Base. Assuming the transport would be performed by a C17 Globemaster, that little round trip would have cost the taxpayer the modest amount of US$ 380,000.00.
-“What? Don’t you think the Brits might have fast cars that could perform the chase duty?” -“Wouldn’t it be cheaper to buy 2 brand new Chargers over there and then simply abandon the cars once the mission was over? – “Since we are burning money, why not buy 2 F-type Jaguars? It would still be cheaper than shipping those damn Chargers!” Well, among the many questions the taxpayers might have, one is very pertinent: Why does the Air Force keep flying this ancient airplane when the satellite technology is so advanced? To its defense, the Air Force says the U2 can be redeployed to different missions faster than satellites can be rearranged.
As useful as the Dragon Lady still is, the government has been slowly phasing out the program. According to the Air Force, the reason is purely budgetary.
It might sound crazy to dress a pilot like an astronaut, shove him inside a cramped cockpit and send the guy on a 10-hour long mission, flying on the edge of space in a 1950s era airplane. The U2 was supposed to be replaced by the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a modern, high altitude surveillance drone, but even being 43 years older than the RQ-4, the U2 still can fly 10,000 ft higher than the drone.
Whatever the future of the Dragon Lady might be, the plane certainly is a very interesting chapter in the history of military aviation. The cars that performed the chasing duty throughout the U2 career represent the birth, the peak, the near death, and the resurrection of the Muscle Car movement.
It is only natural for whoever likes speed and the sound of engines, to have an interest not only in cars but airplanes as well, as a friend of mine used to say: “Why do we like cars so much? Just because it is too expensive to have a jet fighter in the garage“.
As for the U2 spy plane, it is nothing short of amazing how the program brought together planes and cars, interacting with each other so harmoniously.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the most traditional and prestigious motor race in history. Every year, since 1923, the best race teams and drivers from all over the world go on a pilgrimage to the Circuit de la Sarthe, located in the city of Le Mans, France, for a gruesome 24 hours race, where everything is tested beyond the limits: the skills and physical strength of the drivers, the tactics of the teams, and the speed and reliability of the cars. The event is part of the Triple Crown of Motorsport, with the other two races being the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans has been, mostly, a European gathering, but we all know how much the Americans love to crash that party. From the Hemi-powered Cunningham roadsters and Corvettes to the smashing victories of the Shelby-Ford cars in the 1960s, the American Iron has been a constant presence in the race, but in 1976, the French crowd saw something a bit different from the land of Uncle Sam.
The 1970s oil crisis.
Before we move forward, let’s take a look at the events that triggered some radical changes in the world of motorsports in the 1970s: At the beginning of 1973, the oil producers countries in the Middle East imposed an embargo against the Western countries that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur war. As a result, the price of crude oil rose 300%, causing a severe economic depression around the world.
As one can imagine, motorsports started to lose its magic, it makes no sense to see race teams burning thousands of gallons of gas over the weekend when the average citizens couldn’t afford to fuel up their own cars. On top of that, many racing organizations around the world began to impose some restrictions to save fuel, making the sport less appealing. The rising cost of fuel and maintenance forced some privateers and small teams to quit racing altogether.
At NASCAR, all the races were shortened by 10% in length and the organizers were imposing restrictions on the use of big blocks engines.
Facing a decline in the number of cars on the grid, some race venues started to invite teams from other classes. In the 1976 edition of the 24 hours of Daytona, 8 NASCAR teams competed among the IMSA sports cars.
The negative effects of the oil embargo were more deeply felt in North America but in Europe, life was becoming increasingly hard as well. For the 1975 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the organizers imposed a new rule, no car should be allowed to refuel before completing 20 laps, and the size of the fuel tanks was also restricted. The idea was to force the teams to bring more fuel-efficient cars to the grid. To make matters worse, FIA removed the race from the Sports Car World Championship calendar, and big names like Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Matra just dropped from the competition.
The Le Mans organizers had to find a way to fill up those empty spots and by mid-1975, they called NASCAR big boss Bill France Sr. with an interesting idea, an exchange of classes between Le Mans and the 24 hours of Daytona, since Mr. “Big Bill” also owned Daytona Speedway.
The idea was to spice up the race, they didn’t want to bring only the sports cars from IMSA to Le Mans, the invitation was extended to the top three NASCAR finishers at the 1975 24 Hours of Daytona.
This new class was called Grand International and its debut was scheduled for the 1976 edition of Le Mans. The good old boys from NASCAR were amazed, they would be going to race in some fairy tale city, in France, against a bunch of toy cars. They would be not only representing the star and the stripes but also showing to the rest of the world the most traditional and grassroots motor race in North America.
The teams that finished Daytona in first and second position were unable to go to Le Mans but the guys who finished in third place, owner/driver Herschel McGriff and his son Doug, accepted the challenge, with a Dodge Charger, sponsored by Olympia Beer. The second team had to be picked, NASCAR chose the privateer Junie Donlavey with a Ford Torino, to be driven by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.
Le Mans and NASCAR paid for all the teams’ expenses.
The drivers going to France actually had some solid experience outside of the circle-track, Hutcherson was part of the Ford team that beat Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966, he finished third overall that year. The Torino guys also invited the French driver Marcel Mignot, who happened to be a driver instructor at Le Mans.
Another outstanding driver was Hershel McGriff, he remembers the reason he went to Le Mans in 1976: I’m guessing that’s one of the reasons they chose our team to go to France, I won the Carrera Panamericana in 1950 when was I only 22 years old, won 14 stock-car events at Riverside (road course) and ran the 24 hours of Daytona. So they knew I was capable on a road course because I wasn’t just a circle-track guy.” Keep in mind that McGriff wasn’t chosen, he qualified for Le Mans.
The McGriff/Olympia Beer team chose the third-generation Dodge Charger (1971-74) to race in France; at this point, Dodge had already released the fourth-gen Charger, a dull-looking car that not even the most fanatic Mopar guy can remember, therefore the teams racing Dodge decided to stick with the older model.
The decision to take a Charger to France was a bit odd since Hershel himself was more like a Chevy guy. He qualified for Le Mans driving a Nova (picture above), but the team thought the Charger was aerodynamically sleeker than the Chevy.
The engine that powered the car remains a bit of mystery, some of the information found on websites say it was the 426 Hemi, but according to McGriff it wasn’t, it was a 426 Max Wedge. Just like any other NASCAR stocker, the Charger was equipped with a 4-speed manual transmission.
The Ford Torino that went to Le Mans has a very interesting story, the car was completely restored a few years ago by Rhine Enterprise and during the process, the technicians found out the car is a 1969 model that had all the body panels replaced to look like a 1975 model. That was a widely used practice back then; the teams would go to the extreme of morphing a “B” body Mopar into a Ford Torino (and vice-versa) just swapping body panels (and the engine, of course).
Finding information about the engine that equipped the Le Mans Torino can be confusing as well, many sites will tell the car was equipped with a “Boss” 429, but according to Rhine Enterprise, the engine was a 358 small block “Cleveland”. The picture above shows the engine bay after the restoration and as you can see, it is not a “Boss” 429.
At Le Mans
Upon arrival at Le Mans, the two stockers immediately became the stars of the show, the European fans just couldn’t get enough of the cars, they fell in love with the badass attitude and the thunderous sound of the V8s.
According to sportswriter Randy Hallman, the cars and teams were swarmed. “From the moment they arrived in France, the hulking Detroit beasts created a stir, fans flocked around the cars wherever they went. Indeed, they looked as out of place as if they’d been beamed down from some hovering starship–and got almost as much attention.“
According to Hallman, car-owner Donlavey said just prior to the start of the race, “Everywhere we go, and I mean everywhere, there’s a big crowd following us. They took our car and Herschel’s on a parade through downtown Le Mans–right through the main square. It was so crowded, people were pressed against the cars on both sides.”
The French media affectionately called them Les Deux Monstres or The Two Monsters.
Among many interesting stories about that weekend, there is a rumor that McGriff brought a few cases of Olympia beer disguised as “lubricant”. When asked about it, he neither confirm nor deny: “I think that’s probably true,” he notes with a smile, “Didn’t drink much of it myself, but used to give a lot of it away when they were my sponsor.”
At the first drivers meeting, the others teams required the “big American cars” should be equipped with side-view mirrors, and they were promptly installed. The two cars were also fitted with tail lights, headlights, windshield wipers, and radio equipment.
The gas problem
The biggest problem faced by the Americans was the low octane French gasoline, they knew the 102 “race gas” couldn’t be found at Le Mans and both teams ordered low compression engines for the race, set up for 92 octanes. Later on, they found out that the gas available there was somewhere around 85/87 octanes. The Olympia team tried to install one extra head gasket to lower even more the compression but it was noticeable the big block Mopar was not enjoying the diet of crappy gasoline. McGriff melted a couple of engines during practice and qualifying.
The Torino was, somehow, doing ok, and even with the gas issue, both cars were among the fastest at the Mulsanne straight, blowing off those tiny Porsches as they stormed down at 300 plus Km/h, only to see them catching up again after a couple of turns.
The NASCAR boys did what they could but it isn’t easy to make those big and heavy cars go through all the corners of Le Mans, McGriff and the Charger qualified 47th out of 55 cars. Hutcherson and the Torino qualified 55th, the very last car on the grid.
Saturday, June 12, 1976, it was a glorious sunny morning. The NASCAR big boss, Bill France Sr. was there and his son, Bill Jr., had the honor to wave the starting flag. The expectations were high, it was supposed to be the first of many races with cars from IMSA, NASCAR, and the European GT racing together.
Unfortunately, the stokers didn’t live up to the fanfare, the Charger’s engine blew up after 2 laps, being officially the very first car to abandon the race.
The Torino bravely survived for 11 hours when the transmission gave up, and that was the end of the NASCAR presence at Le Mans.
It was very frustrating, no doubt about it, as Hershel McGriff recalls: “We didn’t do a good job of representing the class, and maybe that’s why it didn’t run a second year. If we’d have run the whole race, and finished, maybe it could’ve worked.”
Besides the fiasco, both teams enjoyed the experience and the affection of the French fans. NASCAR never returned to Le Mans but McGriff did, he was part of a team that raced two small-block Camaros in 1982. His car had transmission problems but they managed to finish the race, the other Camaro finished 17th overall and second in the GTO IMSA class. Not bad at all.
Note of the editor: You can find some cool videos about Le Mans stockers on YouTube. While the Torino is (allegedly) the actual one that raced in 1976, the Charger is a “tribute car”, built in 2006 by the Frenchman and Mopar maniac Christophe Schwartz. At first, the clone was equipped with a 426 Hemi but in 2010 it received a correct 426 “Wedge” engine. When the Charger is not being raced in some classic car event throughout Europe, it patiently sits still in the Le Mans museum.
Note #2: Olympia beer still exists, the brand has a long history in connection with motorsports, for a while they sponsored the legendary stuntman, Evel Knievel.
“Why do we even bother? He is different from the rest of us. On a separate level” – Jacques Laffite, talking about Gilles Villeneuve.-
A few years ago I was chatting with some friends, we were casually listing a few great Formula One drivers when I said: – Gilles Villeneuve -, while most of the guys nodded their heads agreeing with me, one friend said: I just don’t understand all the fuss about Villeneuve, he didn’t win a single World Championship.
Even if my pal was being superficial in his comment, he wasn’t wrong, Villeneuve achieved only 6 victories during his 6 years in Formula One, with such a mediocre career, why do the fans still remember him as one of the greatest?
Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, in the French-Canadian province of Quebec, on January 18, 1950. While most of the Formula-One drivers started their career racing go-karts, Villeneuve’s first love affair with speed was riding snowmobiles.
At the age of 19, he was already a professional racer and in 1974 he won the World Snowmobile Derby. It doesn’t get any more Canadian than that.
The skills he learned racing snowmobiles, set him apart from the other drivers when he decided to try racing cars. This is the kind of machine you have to “dive” the nose inside the turn and power slide the rear. This “drifting” style became his trademark throughout his career.
Villeneuve himself explains this experience:
“Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills — and I’m talking about being thrown onto the ice at 100 miles per hour. Those things used to slide a lot, which taught me a great deal about control. And the visibility was terrible! Unless you were leading, you could see nothing, with all the snow blowing about. Good for the reactions — and it stopped me from having any worries about racing in the rain”.
Villeneuve was also involved in drag racing, competing at local tournaments, which is also very unusual among F-One driver wannabes. He modified and raced the very first car he owned, a 1967 Ford Mustang coupe.
The Mustang still belongs to the Villeneuve family but it was abandoned in their backyard for decades.
The last information I have is the car was brought indoors in 2016 for a well-deserved restoration. Gilles was a Mustang guy, he owned quite a few of them.
In 1973, with the little money he made racing snowmobiles, Villeneuve bought a second-hand Magnum Formula-Ford and started competing right away at the local Quebec F-Ford championship. He dominated the season, winning 7 out of 10 races, and also clinched “The Rookie of the Year” title.
Villeneuve’s dominance of the season and his aggressive driving style certainly caught the attention of other teams. In 1974, with a little financial help from soft drink company Schweppes, he bought a Formula Atlantic car and started to compete. In the same year he won the World Championship Snowmobile Derby.
The Formula Atlantic was, at that time, the most prestigious category in Canadian motorsports. The regulations are similar to the European Formula 3/2 and for that reason, there were plenty of manufacturers supplying the cars, like Brabham, Lotus, March, and Chevron. The machines were powered by 250HP, 1600cc production-based twin-cam engines, mostly Ford-Cosworth, however other engines like Alfa Romeo were also eligible.
The 1975 season was a real challenge, Gilles didn’t have the financial means to hire a mechanic and he performed the maintenance of his car all by himself. He won his first Atlantic race in 1975 at Gimli Motosport Park, racing in heavy rain.
In 1976, Gilles went to Chris Harrison’s Ecurie Canada race team and with the help of factory March engineer Ray Wardell, he dominated the season by winning all but one of the races and taking the US and Canadian titles.
Gilles also won a special F-Atlantic race, held in Trois-Rivières, on September 5, 1976, where he had the chance to compete against some of the top Formula One drivers, like James Hunt and Alan Jones. He not only won the race but set the best lap time of the weekend.
Impressed with Villeneuve’s performance, James Hunt used his influence within McLaren (he won the 1976 World Championship driving for the team) to strongly recommend the Quebecois to be one of their drivers for the 1977 season.
Gilles finished his Formula Atlantic years winning the Canadian championship in 1977, and in the same year, McLaren offered him a position as its third driver. Villeneuve lied about his age, with 27 years he was considered a bit too old for a rookie in F-One, so he told them he was 25.
Villeneuve made his debut at the 1977 British Grand Prix, starting the race in 9th, driving the old McLaren M23, while James Hunt and Jochen Mass drove the newer version, the M26s. He finished the race in the 11th position after being delayed for two laps by a faulty temperature gauge.
Judging by the numbers, it wasn’t a phenomenal debut race but the media and the drivers knew there was something special about Gilles, the Canadian had what it takes to be a future champion.
Right after the British GP, Villeneuve was told by the team manager, Teddy Mayer, that McLaren decided not to renew his contract for 1978, alleging the Canadian could become a bit expensive. They hired Patrick Tambay instead. Gilles still has 7 races remaining before the end of the season and after that, he would be jobless.
Luckily Villeneuve was on the Ferrari’s radar for a while and in August 1977 he flew to Maranello to talk with Enzo Ferrari. The meeting was a success, Enzo pretty much fell in love with Gilles, his diminutive stature and his outspokenness immediately reminded the “Commendatore” of Tazio Nuvolari, a very popular Italian champion from the 1930s. Here is how the big boss Enzo Ferrari describes the meeting:
“When they presented me with this ‘piccolo Canadese’ (little Canadian), this minuscule bundle of nerves, I immediately recognized in him the physique of Nuvolari and said to myself, let’s give him a try.”
Things were moving fast, Villeneuve signed the contract and for the last two races of 1977 (Canada and Japan), he was already driving the gorgeous Ferrari 312T. (photo above).
For Gilles, it was like a dream come true, as he described: “If someone said to me that you can have three wishes, my first would have been to get into racing, my second to be in Formula 1, my third to drive for Ferrari…”
The first whole season driving for Ferrari was somehow a period of adaptation for Villeneuve, his best results were a third position at the Austrian GP and a memorable first victory at the Canadian GP, which was enough to elevate him to “hero” status in his home country. Some of the die-hard Ferrari fans in Italy asked the team to replace Gilles with a more seasoned driver but Enzo stood by his choice.
The next season proved to be a very competitive one indeed, Mario Andretti and Lotus Team lost the dominance they enjoyed during the previous year but they were still among the favourites. Other strong contenders were Williams, Ligier, Renault, and of course, Ferrari.
During 1979, Gilles Villeneuve consolidated his reputation as a daredevil driver, his “take no prisoners” driving style was making him popular, he would drive any lap like it was his last, even if sometimes it cost him the chance to finish the race.
Villeneuve was one of the pioneers of the “power shift”, he mastered the art of shifting gears while keeping his right foot at full throttle and using the clutch to control the oversteering. Once he wrote a telegram to Enzo Ferrari saying: “Ingegnere, yesterday I tried very hard to break one of the drive axles of the car and I just couldn’t. Congratulations”.
Gilles even used to disable the rev limiter of the car and make the engine spin at 14,000 plus RPM during the power slides. To the mechanics he was a butcher, to the fans he was an artist.
1979 was the best season of Villeneuve’s career, he won in South Africa, Long Beach, and Watkins Glenn, and finished in second in France, Austria, and Italy. He collected enough points to end the season in second, behind his teammate Jody Scheckter. Ferrari won the constructor’s world championship, closing a very successful decade for the “Maranello boys”. Ferrari wouldn’t see another driver world title until 1994 when Schumacher started his winning streak.
Here are some of the highlights of the season:
Villeneuve fiercely battled Alan Jones from the start for P1 and he finally got the lead at lap 10. The Canadian was managing to keep Jones at bay and it seemed he would win the race but on lap 51, just after passing the pits, his left rear tire exploded and he spun the Ferrari. He regained control of the car and just kept going, he drove an entire lap with only two tires touching the pavement, the right front was in the air and the left rear was shredding rubber and sparking with the pavement, halfway through the lap, the rear wheel, still attached to the hub, just fell off the car. When Gilles pulled over at the pits, he tried to convince the mechanics to simply replace the wheel and tire so he could go back and continue the fight for the lead. For this stunt, Villeneuve was equally praised as a warrior that never gives up and criticized as an irresponsible driver who unnecessarily put lives at risk.
If there is one race that sums up Villeneuve’s career, certainly is the French GP, 1979. During the final 4 laps of the race, Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari) and Rene Arnoux (Renault), fought one of the most intense battles in the history of Formula-One.
The turbocharged Renault had been plagued with reliability issues since the beginning of the season, but the team was working hard to improve the cars. By the time of the French GP, most of the problems were pretty much fixed and the whole team was focused on winning the race in their home country. Jean Pierre Jabouille made the pole position but Villeneuve jumped in P1 at the start and managed to lead the race until lap 46 when he was passed by Jabouille.
The Renault cars were performing superbly that day, on lap 76 Rene Arnoux passed Villeneuve and the French crowd went wild. That would be the most complete French victory ever: 2 Renaults, driven by two French drivers, riding on French tires (Michelin), and burning French fuel (Elf) were about to finish the French GP in 1-2.
But Villeneuve was willing to rain on the French parade, the Canadian knew he had no chances to fight for the lead, but he was determined to hold his ground on P2. Better than reading about the duel is watching it.
The fight is remembered by the fans as one of the most memorable pieces of racing in Formula One. Villeneuve, who crossed the finish line less than a quarter of a second ahead of Arnoux, later described the occasion as “my best memory of Grand Prix racing”.
The battle didn’t change their friendship.
The Renault cars were fast enough to qualify in the front row, but not fast enough to break away from the Ferraris. Throughout the race, both teams exchanged positions until Arnoux and Jabouille retired with mechanical problems, leaving Scheckter in first and Villeneuve in second.
Before the start of the race, the Ferrari’s team manager told Gilles to disregard Scheckter’s status as the #1 driver and fight him for a better position, after all, both drivers had a good chance to win the championship.
Villeneuve decided to respect the hierarchy and he didn’t challenge his teammate. Scheckter won the race and the driver’s title, Villeneuve finished the race in second place. That was a smashing victory for the Maranello team, on their home turf, but the race also was the only chance Villeneuve ever had to win an F-One championship.
It was pouring rain during Friday practicing and Gilles was easily outperforming all the other drivers, as Scheckter recollected: “I scared myself rigid that day. I thought I had to be quickest. Then I saw Gilles’s time and — I still don’t really understand how it was possible. Eleven seconds faster!”
When the race started on Sunday, there was a 50% chance of rain, and the pavement was still wet, most of the teams decided to go with grooved tires. Villeneuve jumped in P1s and was leading the race comfortably. As the pavement was getting dry, on lap 25, most of the cars came in for slicks, except the three leaders, Villeneuve, Jones and Arnoux. At this point, Williams instructed Alan Jones to “drop the hammer” and he started to close the gap, taking off two seconds per lap. By lap 31, Jones passed Villeneuve, and kept the pace, opening 3.1 seconds per lap. Ferrari called Gilles to the pits on lap 34 for a fresh set of slicks, when he returned to the track, he was 39.5 seconds behind Jones.
Now it was Jones’s turn for a tire swap, he came to the pits on lap 37. The crew responsible for the right rear wheel was having a hard time removing it off the car and they were a couple of seconds behind the other guys. When the crew chief saw the mechanics that were working on the other 3 rims raising their arms, he ordered the jacks off and Jones stormed off the pits before the right rear wheel had been locked tight. The wheel came off the car even before he reached the track.
With Alan Jones out of the race, Villeneuve easily won it, securing second place in the 1979 driver’s championship.
Villeneuve was the favourite to win the championship that year but the engineers at Maranello faced a very complicated situation: for 1980, the “ground effect” cars were allowed back to the grid and most of the teams developed new chassis for the season.
A “ground effect” car requires a big “air venturis” or air tunnels, on both sides of the car, all the way to the rear, and around the engine. For the teams running the narrow Ford-Cosworth V8, it was a relatively simple task to develop new chassis, but for Ferrari, running the extra-wide flat-12 engine, was impossible.
Ferrari was working on a much smaller 1.5 litre, turbocharged engine but it wasn’t ready yet, and the engineers had to deal with whatever they had available.
They came up with the T5, a semi-ground effect car with an overall performance way below the competitors. The season was a total disappointment for Ferrari, Gilles finished it in 14th and Scheckter in 19th.
Jody Scheckter retired from professional racing at the end of the 1980 season, he was replaced by Didie Pirroni, a promising French driver, coming from Tyrrel.
Villeneuve was such an easy-going person, always nice with fans and reporters. He became the cool guy that everybody wanted to be around in the paddock. When Pirroni joined the team, Gilles was very welcoming: “(Villeneuve) had a little family at Ferrari but he made me welcome and made me feel at home overnight. He treated me as an equal in every way” – Didier Pirroni –
Now Ferrari has two very different drivers, Villeneuve was more talented and faster than Pirroni but he was also too impulsive and sometimes erratic on track, on the other hand, Pirroni was calmer and more consistent.
Once again Ferrari let its drivers down, the new 126C wasn’t exactly new, most of the chassis design was a carryover from the year before. The new 1.5 litre, V6 turbocharged engine was able to produce almost 700 HP, making the car as fast as a rocket on a straight line, but very awkward on turns. This is how Villeneuve described the new Ferrari: “A hopeless fast red Cadillac”. “You put on new tires, and it is OK for four laps,” after that, forget it.”
This new Ferrari was a very difficult car to drive, to say the least, and the sheer talent of Villeneuve alone wouldn’t be enough to bring good results for the team. The Canadian only finished 6 out of 15 races of the season, closing the championship in 7th place; a better position than the previous year but still very disappointing.
Against all odds, Gilles brilliantly won two races in 1981.
With too many cars signed up for the race, a pre-qualifying session was implemented to bring the number down to 26 competitors (good times indeed). In an astonishing performance, Villeneuve qualified in second, right behind the future World Champion Nelson Piquet. The Brazilian led the race until lap 53 when he lost control of his Brabham and crashed into a barrier at Tabac. Alan Jones (Williams) took the lead and it seemed unlikely Gilles would be able to challenge him.
Driving like a truly gifted driver, Villeneuve began to close in, and to the amazement of everybody, on lap 72 he passed Jones. Four laps later he received the checkered flag, proving that, sometimes, a bad car wouldn’t be enough to hold him back.
Villeneuve managed to qualify in 7th place and the strategy for the race was pretty simple: pedal to the metal for as long as the new tires would last.
At the green light, Jacques Laffite, who was the pole-position, staled his Ligier-Matra, while Gilles blasted to the third position at the first corner, and even before the end of the first lap, he was already in P2. That was an amazing start of the race for the Canadian but Alan Jones was taking full advantage of his well-balanced Williams and built a 10 seconds lead over Villeneuve.
But Jones, too eager to secure P1, made a mistake on lap 14 and spun off at the Ascari chicane. Now, Villeneuve was leading the race, with Carlos Reutemann (Williams) in second, John Watson (McLaren) in third place.
Gilles now was desperately trying to keep the lead, he was taking full advantage of the turbo engine to break away from the pack on straights but on turns, they were all over him. The five front runners became a train of cars, nose-to-tail, until the end of the race.
The drivers behind Gilles kept changing positions and it seems Jacques Laffite would inevitably win the race, for a few times, he pulled his Ligier side-by-side to Villeneuve just to see him slip away as the horsepower kicked in into another straight.
Many consider the 1981 Spanish GP as Villeneuve’s finest victory, even under tremendous pressure, he kept his impetuosity under control and drove like a master. That race was a sign of maturity, he was ready to become a world champion, all he needed was a better car.
In Canada, that year, the world saw another “classic Villeneuve” stunt: The weather was cold and wet, and throughout the race, there were a lot of minor collisions going on.
Close to the end of the race, Villeneuve clipped the rear of Andretti’s Alfa-Romeo, the front wing of his Ferrari flipped and got stuck right in front of the cockpit, obscuring his vision. Doing the opposite of any sensible driver would do, Gilles carried on, using his peripheral vision and knowledge of the circuit. The track Marshals didn’t black flag Villeneuve, perhaps waiting for him to pull over at the pits, which, obviously didn’t happen. At some point, the damaged part fell off the car and Gilles kept going, without the front wing, in the rain, finishing the race in the third position.
1982, the tragic year.
Hopes were high at Ferrari for the next season, the team had hired Harvey Postlethwaite, a very experienced British engineer, he was working on a new chassis since early 1981, and the car was ready for the 1982 season. The new 126C2 had a more reliable turbo-engine and much-improved handling. Harvey made some remarks about the predecessor car, the 126C, and Villeneuve’s performance in 1981:
“That car…had literally one-quarter of the downforce that, say Williams or Brabham had. It had a power advantage over the Cosworths for sure, but it also had massive throttle lag at that time. In terms of sheer ability, I think Gilles was on a different plane to the other drivers. To win those races, the 1981 GPs at Monaco and Jarama — on tight circuits — was quite out of this world. I know how bad that car was.”
1982 proved to be a dark year from the beginning, in Brazil, Villeneuve was leading the race when he lost control of the car and spun on lap 30. In the USA, he finished third but was later disqualified because Ferrari equipped the cars with a “double” rear wing, considered as a technical infringement.
There were rumours, at the time, that the once enchanting relationship with Ferrari had begun to deteriorate, thanks to the lack of good results and also to Villeneuve’s unrelenting punishment to the team’s cars. To Enzo, his cars were much more than just machines and Gilles had no finesse driving them.
The Villeneuve-Pirroni feud.
The fast Imola circuit was the perfect environment for the turbo cars, Ferrari and Renault were the favorite teams to win the race. At the start, Rene Arnoux (Renault) jumped into P1, with Villeneuve and Pirroni following. At lap 44, Arnoux retired with a blown engine, leaving the two Ferraris leading the race.
It seemed the Maranello guys had the race in their pockets, the crew manager ordered to hold out “slow” signs from the pit wall, to save fuel. Villeneuve, who was leading the race, understood both drivers should slow down, avoiding any fighting for the lead, but Pironi saw it as an opportunity. On lap 46, completely disregarding the orders, the Frenchman hit the gas and overtook Gilles. The battle for the lead, the very situation the team was trying to avoid, was now at had full throttle, 3 laps later, Villeneuve passed his teammate, taking the P1 once again. They changed position a few more times; as Villeneuve slowed down each time he took the lead, Pironi would overtake him again. Eventually, Pironi won the race and for Villeneuve that was nothing less than betrayal. After the race, still enraged with the situation, he spoke to a reporter:
“I’ve declared war. Absolute war. Finishing second is one thing – I’d have been mad at myself for not being quick enough if he’d beaten me. But finishing second because the bastard steals it…”
Gilles vowed never to speak with Pirroni again. This animosity didn’t make things any better for either one of them and the team as well.
The end of a very short career.
Two weeks later, Villeneuve was blasting through the Zolder circuit, during the last minutes of the qualifying session for the Belgian GP. He had already worn out his second set of super sticky qualifying tires, he knew there was no time to go back to the pits for a fresh set. On his last flying lap, he failed to beat the time of Pironi, but instead of calling it quits and heading back to the pits, Gilles continued to go flat out, after all, it was “total war” against his teammate, and he couldn’t accept this partial defeat.
Halfway through the lap, Villeneuve exited a chicane (that nowadays bears his name) into a fast left-hand turn, as he was leaving it, he saw a much slower car ahead of him, right on the middle of the track. That car was Jochen Mass’s March.
In a split-second decision, Gilles chose to pass the car to the right, but at the same time, Mass veered his March to the same side, hoping to clear the left side of the track for the incoming Ferrari.
Villeneuve rear-ended Mass’s car at 200Km/h, his disintegrating Ferrari flipped over several times, throwing his body in the air and against the fence, on the other side of the track. Watching the terrifying video, it seems like he was shot from a catapult.
Jochen Mass left his car and run as fast as he could in a desperate attempt to do something, Arnoux, and Warwick did the same. They removed the body from the fence and waited for the medical team to arrive, there was nothing else they could do. Pirroni was also there, he grabbed the badly damaged Villeneuve’s helmet and walked back to the pits.
Gilles was taken to the nearby hospital by helicopter, once there, the doctors kept him alive until his wife Joann arrived and authorized the medical team to turn off the life support system.
It was the evening of Saturday, May 8, 1982, Enzo Ferrari told the team to pack the equipment and go back home.
The tragedies didn’t end at Zolder that year, Riccardo Paletti also lost his life in an accident at the start of the Canadian GP and Didier Pirroni survived a horrible crash during the qualifying session for the German GP, but his injuries put an end to his Formula -One career.
Villeneuve’s meager numbers never prevented the fans to idolize him, for the Ferrari crowd he is as much a hero as if he had won a world championship.
The three-times world champion Niki Lauda, said during an interview in 2001, that Villeneuve was “the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula-One”. The drivers, at the time, had mixed feelings about the Canadian, some considered him just an inconsequent daredevil but for others, he was a champion in the making.
Perhaps Jody Scheckter has better words to define Gilles: “I always worked very well with Gilles. We had an honest and open relationship, which was part of our success. There was no bullshit: if he made an adjustment and went quicker, he’d tell me and I would tell him. That’s what kept us in such a good relationship and was part of us winning the championship“. Jody thinks Villeneuve was honest to the point of being naive, perhaps that is the reason Villeneuve was so disappointed with Pirroni. Sheckter also thinks the crazy driver persona was staged: “I don’t think he tried to do things that put him in uncalculated danger. I think from that point of view he was a responsible driver. He always had this image of being crazy, and he wasn’t really. He was only crazy when he wanted to be, it was his image”.
We like to think that hasn’t the tragedy struck that day, Gilles would inevitably become World Champion; driving a Ferrari or any other car.
It was Gilles’s greatest fan, his son Jacques, that carried on the family’s racing legacy. The little kid that so very often accompanied his father at the race tracks, became a very talented and accomplished driver.
He understood that fast laps and crazy stunts don’t win championships, points do. He won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and the 1995 PPG Indy Car World Series, and in 1997 he became the first (and only to date) Canadian to win the Formula-One driver’s world championship.
Despite his brilliant career, F-One fans just don’t remember Jacques as one of the greatest, like we remember Gilles. Perhaps, for us, fast laps and crazy stunts can be even more important than winning world titles.
Gilles Villeneuve was one of a kind race driver, he can’t be compared with anyone else. His legacy still lives on, the Circuit Notre Dame Island in Montreal, the home of the Canadian Grand Prix, was renamed Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve, right after his death. Generations of drivers have been paying their respects to Canada’s greatest race drive, every time they see the message painted at the starting line: “Salut Gilles“.
On the foggy morning of January 15, 2022, the American carrier USS Kitty Hawk departed from the Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton, Washington for its last voyage, the destination is a shipbreaking facility in Brownsville, Texas where the emblematic vessel is set to be scrapped.
The ship was decommissioned in 2009 and had been on standby ever since, waiting for a possible reactivation that never came. The Kitty Hawk was sold for a penny (literally) to The International Shipbreaking Ltd, the same facility responsible for breaking up three other US carriers: USS Ranger, USS Independence, and USS Constellation.
Because of its enormous size, the ship won’t fit in the Panama Canal and it must be towed all the way around South America, in a 16.000 miles journey.
This is the closing chapter in the history of the last oil-burning American aircraft carrier, the ship saw action in every major conflict that the USA was involved in since the Vietnam war and for this reason, it was affectionately called “The Fighting Kitten” or the “Battle Cat”.
When completed, back in 1959, the Kitty Hawk cost $264 million in 1961 money, equivalent to around $2.5 billion in 2021.
The ship left for its first operational cruise in August 1961, right before things started to go sour in Vietnam. During its 47 years of service, the “Battle Cat” carried a variety of interesting planes, like the F8U Crusader, F4 Phantom, the legendary F14 Tomcat, and even some experiments with the U2 spy plane.
Besides being involved in many wars, the Kitty Hawk was also part of some very interesting events, for example, in 1972, while still serving in Vietnam, racial tensions aboard the ship came to boiling point and became a riot, injuring as many as 60 sailors. The incident led the Navy to implement the UPWARD (Understanding Personal Worth and Racial Dignity) program, intended to raise racial awareness.
But it was in 1984 that the “Fighting Kitten” was involved in a very bizarre and dangerous incident.
In March 1984, Kitty Hawk was participating in joint naval exercises called “Team-Spirit 84”, with South Korean forces, in the Sea of Japan. Thanks to the extremely volatile situation between North and South Korea, the ship spent around 10 years in the region, as a deterrent against any crazy idea from the “commies“
During the peak of the Cold War, it was a common practice for the Soviet Navy to closely follow NATO ships and when I say “closely”, I really mean it. That was a good way to exercise tactics and maneuvers in a real-world environment and also to force the Americans to show any new weapons.
Things were not different on that occasion, the Soviets sent a few warships, airplanes, and the K-314, the Victor-Class nuclear attack submarine, to follow the Kitty Hawk and its 8 escort ships.
Before we proceed let’s take a look at these two magnificent machines involved in this surreal event.
The Kitty Hawk.
The ship was completed in 1959 and entered service in 1961, it was the first of the so-called “supercarriers”, an evolution of the ” Forrestal-class” carriers that fought in WWII.
The Battle Cat is a massive ship:
Length: 325.8 meters (1,068 ft)
Displacement: 83,300 tons (fully loaded)
Beam (width): 86 meters (282 ft)
Power comes from eight Foster Wheeler boilers, providing steam for the Westinghouse turbines, generating a total of 280,000 HP. All this power is then distributed to four propeller shafts, allowing the ship to sail at a max speed of 33 knots (61 Km/h).
The carrier is capable to transport 85 aircraft, some of them could be armed with nuclear missiles. The ship is manned by a crew of 5,624 officers and seamen.
The K-314 belongs to the “Yorsh” family of Soviet subs and code-named “Victor-class” attack submarine by NATO. Its primary mission is to intercept any kind of enemy ship. It is smaller, faster, and more maneuverable than a ballistic missile sub.
It was launched on September 05, 1972.
Length: 94.3 meters (309 ft)
Beam (width): 10 meters (32 ft 10 inc)
Displacement: 4,826 tons
The K-314 was powered by one pressurized water turbine, receiving heat from a VM-4 nuclear reactor core, generating 31,000 HP, enough power to propel the ship to a max speed of 32 knots (60 Km/h) submerged.
The details of the armament are classified but it was armed with torpedoes and nuclear missiles. The ship is manned by a crew of 94 officers and seamen.
On March 14, the K-314 spotted the American armada and immediately started the chase. As soon as the captain of the “Battle Cat” got the sub on the sonar, he tried every trick he knew to break away from the Soviet sub. The two commanders kept playing this “cat and mouse” game for a whole week. Many times the Americans knew exactly where the K-314 was but sometimes it would simply disappear. The problem is the Sea of Japan is too shallow for maximum performance of the sonar equipment, and to make matters even worse, the region is constantly busy with the traffic of military and merchant ships, it can be a nightmare for the sonar operators.
At this point, the K-314 was also being chased by a submarine hunter Lockheed P-3 Orion.
In the early hours of March, 21, Captain Vladimir Evseenko lost track of the Americans, mostly due to bad weather. He decided to bring the sub to periscope depth, around 10 meters, to take a peek around but what he saw was probably the scariest thing ever: the Kitty Hawk at 4 maybe 5 kilometres away, steaming down at full speed, approaching the K-314 from the stern. He ordered emergency diving but it was too late, the collision was inevitable. Here is what happened, according to Captain Evseenko:
“The first thought was that the conning tower had been destroyed and the submarine’s body was cut to pieces“. “We checked the periscope and antennas – they were in order. No leaks were reported, and the mechanisms were ok. Then suddenly another strike! On the starboard side! We checked again – everything was in order…. We were trying to figure out what happened. It became clear that an aircraft carrier had rammed us. The second strike hit the propeller. The first one, most likely, bent the stabilator.”
Onboard the Orion plane, the K-314 signal got mixed with the sound of the Kitty Hawk, they thought the sub was going under the carrier when they heard a loud bang and a screeching noise that lasted for long minutes. The crew looked at each other in disbelief.
Onboard the Battle Cat, the collision caught everybody by surprise, here is the story, told by Captain David N. Rogers:
“I was on the bridge at the time of the incident, monitoring one of the two radars. “We felt a sudden shudder, a fairly violent shudder. We immediately launched two helicopters to see if we could render any assistance to them but the Soviet sub appeared to have suffered no extensive damage“.
News of the accident travelled fast, a seaman stormed into the mess room and shouted: “We run over the Ivans” and the whole room erupted in cheers.
Captain Evseenko had no other option but to bring the K-314 to surface and wait for help. After daybreak, the Kitty Hawk sent the choppers again for some precious pictures, after all, it is not every day you have a Soviet sub sitting still right in front of you. There was no sign of radioactive material leaking and the ship was not sinking, but it was not seaworthy. A Soviet cruiser stood at its side, for protection, until the tug boats came and towed the crippled sub away.
The Kitty Hawk didn’t leave the scene unscathed, the collision opened a hole in its hull and a considerable amount of jet fuel poured into the ocean, the ship was making water, but not much and it was able to make it to the base on its own.
Later on, the maintenance crew found a big chunk of the K-314 propeller stuck on the carrier’s hull and the piece was kept as a trophy.
Miraculously no one got hurt in the accident and there was no radioactive leakage. Both ships were armed with nuclear missiles but it was very unlikely that the collision would detonate the weapons since they need to be armed to pose any danger.
Even if a much bigger catastrophe didn’t materialize that morning, one can’t help but think: how could both captains let this happen? On the American side, there is a reasonable explanation: as dangerous as those exercises were, it was a peacetime operation, they were not shooting at each other and Captain Rogers knew the K-314 was mostly trying to disrupt the operation; in this case, from time to time the Kitty Hawk crew would turn a blind eye (or in this case, a deaf ear) to the annoying sub and just concentrate on the exercise and probably the collision happened during one of those period of time.
On the Soviet side, things were a bit more complicated, Captain Evseenko’s sole mission during the operation was to stalk the Kitty Hawk so, how could he lose contact with an 80.000-ton ship that was no further than 5 Km away?
For some specialists, the commander lied about what happened. The Soviet submarine captains were very reckless during the last years of the Cold War, one of their favorite maneuvers was to emerge, at full speed, right in the middle of an American task force, just to show to the enemy how daring a Soviet captain can be. Probably that was what Evseenko tried to do but he grossly miscalculated the speed and distance of the Battle Cat.
Evseenko was relieved of his sea Captain duties and spent the rest of his career ashore, but he always believed his punishment was too harsh. He sums up: “We didn’t sink, nobody died”.
This is just another story about those crazy years of the Cold War, a time when we lived mostly in peace but at the same time, awfully close to total annihilation.
The (north) American way of life has permeated the whole world, through movies, music, and TV shows and we, the poor cousins from South America are, perhaps, the biggest suckers of it, especially when it comes to cars and bikes. We sure love the European and Asian stuff as well but nothing sends a shiver down the spine like the sound of an American V8, and of course, the sound of an American V-twin as well.
For this reason, I wasn’t surprised when I found out that this masterpiece was built by a small custom shop, located in the city of Cordoba, Argentina; a shop called Lucky Custom
The project started with a mission: to celebrate the shop’s 10th anniversary. Even before the first sketch was drawn, Lucas Layum, the owner of the Lucky Custom, already knew this machine would be inspired by the “dry lake racers”, the kind of bikes you see breaking speed records at Bonneville or El Mirage.
There is something magical about those machines, they are so simple, so pure, every part you see has one purpose: speed. The Lucky Custom faithfully followed this design and they called it “Cheetah”.
The Lucky’s team started the project with nothing more than an engine, a 1337 cc (81,58 cubic inches) that came from a 1983 Dyna.
The displacement was increased to 1450 cc with the addition of bigger, forged pistons, and the engine was heavily reworked internally.
The cherry on top is certainly the turbo, which came from an Audi A6. With all those tricks the original power output of 67HP jumped to well over 100HP. To keep the engine heat from cooking the rider’s balls, the team installed an external oil cooler.
The next step was the frame, to keep things simple, a tubular steel hardtail unit was chosen but for the front suspension, the team exceeded themselves: they wanted a vintage look but instead of buying an “over the counter” springer forks, they created they own, gorgeous retro-style set. First, they removed the original forks from a 1960s Honda Dream, the piece was then reworked to accommodate the much bigger front wheel and the internal springs were beefed. Slits were cut into the sides to expose the springs.
The last touch on this true work of art was the headlight, the piece came from a 1940 Ford Sedan and it matches the bike like it was custom built for it.
The vintage personality is of this bike is completed with the adoption of a two-piece gas tank, while the left side half is the actual tank, the right side is where the fuel pump is concealed.
For the rims, the Lucky Custom team went over the top with their boldness, they chose a set of 23 inches, 5 spoke wire rims, in a perfect mix of classic and modern styles. The wheels are wrapped with Avon tires, giving an extra racing touch to the project.
The custom bikes universe can be a very wild one, it is amazing how the designers can create so much using such a small platform as a motorcycle. Out of hundreds of custom projects done by the shops every year, only a couple will stand out for their audacity and beauty, and that is the case with the Cheetah.
The bike is not exactly new, it was released in 2017, but it is so special that I had to bring it to pages of TCM, I hope you agree with me.
During the 1950s North America experienced unprecedented economic growth but on the other side of the pond, in Europe, things were a lot different: they were trying to rebuild the continent from the ashes of WWII, and the economic situation was awful.
For those fortunate enough to afford a new car, the options were not thrilling at all, the European auto industry focused on awkward, uncomfortable, and underpowered small cars; in most cases, those cars could barely fit two adults inside.
The French had the Citroen 2CV, the Italians had the FIAT Cinquecento, the Brits had the Morris Minor, and the Germans had (the best of the bunch in my opinion) the VW Beetle.
The head of the British Motor Company, Sir Leonard Lord simply despised all the small European economy cars and he set for himself the noble mission to clean the streets of them.
In 1955 Sir Lord assigned the chief designer of Morris (British Motors was born when Morris and Austin merged, in 1952), Alec Issigonis, to come up with ideas for a modern economy car.
This new concept should comfortably fit 4 adults and be small enough to be contained in a box measuring 3.0×1.2×1.2 meters or 10x4x4 feet. The car also should have a good acceleration and decent handling. Not an easy task at all but Mr. Issigonis was the right person for the job, after all, he was the designer of the Morris Minor, an astounding success in the UK and Europe.
An engineering masterpiece.
Every challenge presented by this new project was faced with ingenuity. The BMC team was not just creating a new economy car, they were creating a game-changer for the whole industry.
Body and powertrain.
The chosen design was a two-door hatchback, and even before the first line was drawn, they knew the car would be a front-wheel drive, with a transverse engine.
The “east-west” engine configuration wasn’t anything new at the time but the Mini was the first mass-production, commercial success car to use it. In the decades that followed, every car maker in the world adopted this configuration to provide more interior room and comfort for the occupants. There is a good chance the car sitting on your driveway right now has a transverse engine.
Sir Lord had put the team in a very tight situation (literally), with only a 1.2-meter width, there wasn’t enough space to place engine and transmission side-by-side. To solve that problem, Mr. Issigonis came up with a very clever idea: to install the transmission right underneath the motor, bolted straight to the engine block, having both systems sharing the same lubricant oil.
The team picked an “of-the-shelf” BMC engine, with the following specs: 4 cylinders, liquid-cooled, with 950cc and 37 HP. The basic transmission was a 4-speed manual unit.
To improve driveability, the axles were pushed as close as possible to the edges of the car (the longer wheelbase, the better the car will maneuver) and the traditional leaf/coil springs were replaced by compact rubber cones dampers, designed by Dr. Alex Moulton. This space-saving design also featured rising progressive-rate springing of the cones and provided some natural damping.
This revolutionary system provided not only the space-saving dampers the team was looking for but more importantly, it gave the car the famous go-kart-like handling that would be so much appreciated at the race tracks around the world.
To complete the package, the team approved the 10 inches steel wheels. Since such small rims were never used before, the BMC closed a deal with Dunlop to provide tires for the car.
The 950cc, 37 HP engine provided an unexpected performance to the little car; with only 585 kg (1,290 lbs) the Mini could easily reach a max speed of 150 Km/h (94 miles/h), The speed plus the superb handling made the Mini a fun machine to drive, there are many stories about BMC test drivers embarrassing cars like Jaguar and Aston Martin at the test track.
This kind of performance wasn’t meant for an economy car, and the team was forced to tame the little beast: the engine was downsized to 850cc, bringing the top speed down to 120 Km/m (75 miles/h), still pretty good for a small car.
The car was announced to the public on August 26, 1959, and BMC had 2,000 units ready to hit the showrooms. It was sold under BMC’s two main brand names: Austin and Morris. The Austin version is called “Seven” and Morris is “Mini-Minor”. In the USA, France, and Australia t was named Austin 850 and Morris 850, and in Italy, it was sold under the brand Innocenti.
The car was an instant hit: roomy interior, modern design, impressive performance, and affordability, the customers around the world just fell in love with the Mini.
The Mini Cooper.
The Mini (or the Seven) was born with a reputation: usually, an automaker is forced to increase the size of the engine to improve a shameful performance of a product, but in the Mini’s case, it was the other way around.
At the time of the car’s debut, there was talking among the engineers about bringing the 950cc engine back for a possible “GT” version of the Mini, but Mr. Issigonis was totally against it, he had a mission to create a new concept for the economy car market and the mission was accomplished with flying colours and that was it. There was no “racing’ involved at the beginning of the project.
But there was no way to hide the car’s performance capabilities, as soon as the Mini hit the streets, some customers were already racing it, (either legally or illegally).
It didn’t take long for the Mini to catch the attention of a very special guy, Mr. John Cooper, one of the co-founders of Cooper Car Company. This little shop became famous right after WWII, for building simple, inexpensive single-seat racers for privateers, often from surplus military hardware. Those cars were extremely successful and in high demand.
By the mid-50s, Cooper develop a rear-engine Formula car that had a much better weight distribution, balance, and handling than the typical front-engine cars of the time.
By the end of the 1950s, Cooper cars completely dominated the race tracks around Europe, forcing the other builders to adopt the rear-engine configuration. John was even invited to show his car in the USA and soon the F-Indy teams started switching to the new concept.
John Cooper didn’t exactly create the rear/mid-engine design, but he was responsible to make it a winner feature that become the standard in motor racing car manufacture.
Cooper immediately saw in the new Mini a future winner in the motorsports, and he knew Mr. Issigonis wasn’t very sympathetic to the idea, but he had an advantage: the two engineers were good friends. After some conversation, Cooper got the green light to make the little grocery-getter a real race car.
The engine grew in size to 997cc with a stroker kit, and the Cooper team extracted every drop of power out of it with a more aggressive camshaft, ported cylinder head, and twin carburetors, resulting in 55HP.
The suspension was reworked and received front disc brakes. This new performance-oriented car was called Mini-Cooper (either Morris or Austin) and hit the showrooms in September 1961.
In the years that followed, Cooper created the “S” version, first for competition only and later for street use, with engines as big as 1275cc and 75 HP.
The Mini-Cooper dominated Monte-Carlo Rally in the 60s. The tiny British car won in 1964, and again in 1965, driven by the legendary Scandinavian duo Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Mäkinen.
For 1966, the Mini-Coopers finished the rally in a smashing 1-2-3 position, but unfortunately, the organizers had imposed a draconian new rule for that year, stating the cars must be 100% factory original.
The Automobile Club de Monaco was firmly decided to put an end to the British winning streak. After the end of the rally, the technicians spent more than 18 hours, dismantling the cars, measuring and checking every single part. Everything seemed fine when they finally found something wrong: the original headlight bulbs had been replaced with a more powerful one, and that was enough to disqualify all three winners Mini Coopers. The drivers, the team managers, and the fans were furious, they vehemently protested against the judge’s decision and even the press joined them putting as much pressure as possible to reverse the decision, but it was all in vain.
The stolen victory in 1966 was just a small setback, in the next year, Rauno Aaltonen, driving for the British Motor Company official team, brought the Mini-Cooper once again to the highest place on the podium.
During the 1960s, the Mini also won the 100 Lakes Rally in Finland three times, the Circuit of Ireland three times, and the Rally Poland twice. There is no doubt that rally competition contributed immensely to the Mini’s popularity.
A pop culture classic.
Much more than a little monster at the race track and rally, the Mini became the standard of what a small, economy car should be, no more cramped, underpowered, and ugly cars for the younger buyers. If they were looking for something modern and exciting, they found it.
Soon the Mini became one of the symbols of the 1960s, adopted not only by the average first buyers but also by cool and hip people.
During its existence, the Mini changed very little and every update, (mostly cosmetic changes) was marked in the most traditional British way possible, with the “Mk” letters, just like Spitfires and Jaguars.
Mk I: From 1959 to 1967.
During the production of the first generation, BMC increased the Mini’s family with the addition of a station wagon, a panel van, and a pick-up.
Aiming at the North American market, the Mini got an optional 4-speed automatic transmission in 1965, this model became known as Mini-Matic.
During this time, production was based in UK and Australia.
Mk II: From 1967 to 1970
Only cosmetic changes here, but the success of the Mini made BMC install production lines in Spain, Belgium, New Zeeland, Portugal, Yugoslavia, South Africa, Malaysia, and Chile. The Chilean Mini has an interesting characteristic: its body is made of fibreglass.
Mk III: From 1969 to 1974
The history of the British auto industry is a history of never-ending mergings, sellings, and acquisitions, in 1968, British Motor merged with Leyland Motors to become British-Leyland. For the Mk III, the new company adopted concealed door hinges and the annoying sliding windows were replaced by regulator-operated ones.
In 1969 “Mini” became a brand of its own, but still under the British -Leyland umbrella, replacing Morris and Austin name tags. Also in the same year, the Mini Clubman was revealed, it was intended to be a bigger and more practical version of the regular Mini.
Mk IV: From 1976 to 2000.
By the time the Mk IV was released, in 1976, the Mini was already showing its age. It was a revolutionary car in 1959, but almost 20 years without major updates, made it unfit to compete with modern small cars like Renault 5, VW Polo, and Ford Fiesta, just to name a few. It was still part of the 10 best-selling cars in the UK but sales were slipping. In 1977, the Mini lost a very important market when the USA stopped importing the car, thanks to a more strict emissions regulation.
Around this time, after a restructuring process (which included a government bailout), Leyland Motors became Rover Group. The customers were expecting the new company would finally give them a replacement for the Mini but what they got instead was the Metro, released in 1980 and sold under Austin, MG, and Rover brands. The Metro was unveiled during tough times, the UK was facing one of the worst economic crises in its history and the Rover Group, desperate for money, decided to use the Mini’s drivetrain and suspension in the new car, which was not very well received by the customers.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the Mini experienced a shifting in its purpose, it was going from a mass-production economy car to a fashionable, retro-cool icon, but that wasn’t enough to keep the Rover Group afloat. In 1994, BMW bought the company’s assets from the British Aerospace Engineering (I know it is hard to keep track but before BMW, Rover Group was bought by an aircraft company).
BMW and Rover kept the “classic” Mini in production for as long as they could but selling “collectible items” not always pay the bills. The last Mini rolled out of the assembly line on October 4th, 2000. A total of 5,387,862 cars had been manufactured, nearly 1.6 million of which were sold in the UK.
BMW sold all the companies that came with Rover Group: MG and Rover were sold to a new British consortium, and Land Rover was sold to Ford. The Germans only kept the Mini brand.
Also in 2000, BMW unveiled their retro-inspired, modern version of the Mini, called R-50, or simply “Mini”, keeping the legend alive ever since.
Much more than a cool car.
Since a worn-out, 1960s Mini beat me on a highway race, (I was driving a 4 litre, V6 Ford Ranger) back in 2003, this tiny little car has intrigued me. I knew I had to write about it but for some reason I kept postponing the task, perhaps because the Mini had beat me in more ways than just one (irresponsible) race, let me explain: In 1999, a panel of renowned automotive journalists elected the Mini as the second most influential car in history, second only to the Ford Model T. For me, it was a blow, being a hardcore fan of the VW Beetle, I just couldn’t believe my car lost to the Mini, after all, it was in production for much longer (65 years vs 41 years), and sold a lot more cars (21,529,464 vs 5,387,863), but after a while, I understood the reason, although the Beetle had a more successful career, we can hardly see any trace of its engineering in modern cars, (besides the flat-four Subaru engine), on the other hand hand, the basic concept of the Mini, hatchback style unibody and the transverse four-cylinder engine, front-wheel drive, became the standard for the whole auto industry, and as far as I can see, this concept will only die when the carmakers stop producing internal combustion engines.
The Beatles are back in the spotlight, thanks to the “Get Back”, the wonderful documentary about the band’s last work, the album Let It Be. The director Peter Jackson (the same director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) had the access to over 50 hours of never seen before video and audio recorded during the making of the album and he masterfully condensed it into an 8 hour long, 3 parts documentary.
Jackson, who also is a passionate Beatles fan, created a masterpiece that is already changing the way that we, the fans, always saw the band during their last days together.
All this Beatles talking for the last few weeks reminded me that George Harrison was an avid car guy and this passion started very early in his life, pretty much at the same time as he became passionate about rock and roll.
The year was 1955 and George was only 12 years old, his father decided to take the whole family to see the British Grand Prix, which happened that year at the Aintree race track, located in the Merseyside County, only 6 miles away from downtown Liverpool.
What George saw that day was nothing less than amazing, Mercedes-Benz dominated the race with a 1-2-3-4 result and the British driver Stirling Moss (picture above) won his first Formula One GP, narrowly beating his teammate, the Argentine Manuel Fangio. Although many people believed that Fangio allowed Moss to win his first race in front of his home crowd, that didn’t change the fact George Harrison fell in love with cars and speed that day.
George’s talent as a guitarist would bring him to join, in 1958, the Quarry Man, a skiffle/rock’n roll band led by John Lennon, and the rest is history.
All the Beatles members came from lower/middle-class families and naturally, the automobile was something way too expensive for young guys trying to make some cash playing music in small pubs.
When Ringo Star joined The Beatles, in 1962, he was already a respectable drummer in the Liverpool scene, playing for the Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, a very popular band in town. He was the only one of the Fab Four with enough cash in his pocket to own a fancy car, a 1960 Ford Zephyr Zodiac. As Paul McCartney recollects: “Ringo had a car when the rest of us didn’t even dream about it. When we saw him driving that Zodiac we thought he had stolen it“.
In 1962, Harrison got his drivers license and, naturally, he was looking for his first car. Brian Epstein, the band manager, immediately called a friend who worked at Hawthorne Motors, a Ford dealership in Warrington.
George got an interesting deal: a blue, 1955 two-door Ford Anglia Deluxe with a very special discount in exchange for a couple of advertising photos with his new ride.
George agreed with the deal, and on the day of the pickup, Ringo offered him a ride to Warrington. Money changed hands, photos were taken and on the way back to Liverpool, the two musicians raced each other on the highway. During the recording of Beatles Anthology, in 1995, George, Paul, and Ringo were talking about their first cars and some memories of that day came back:
Ringo: You had a green Anglia
Ringo: I took you to get that car.
George: Did you?
Ringo: Yes, to…
George: (remembering) Warrington?
Ringo: Yes, and as we were coming home, you may not remember…
George: (smiling) Oh yeah?
Ringo: You were speeding and I was speeding and we were both bumper to bumper and then you overtook this car in front, and I was ready to overtake, and just as I got right up his arse a dog ran out in front of him so he slammed on his brakes (BANG) I smashed right into him, wrote the f*ck out of my car but was lucky it was by a garage cos I drove it ….well pushed it into the garage… and I had no licence or insurance.
George: Did I stop or did I keep going?
Ringo: No you kept going
George: I didn’t see what happened?
Ringo: No, you just didn’t give a damn
George: Even to this day I never knew about that!
After a couple of months after buying the Anglia, George had already collected 2 warning tickets for speeding.
The Anglia was a nice first car but with a 997cc engine and 40 HP, it was nowhere near to George’s expectations. By 1963, The Beatles had already taken the UK and Europe by storm and finally, George could afford to buy a real car, a brand new Jaguar Mk2.
There is not a lot of information about this car around, apparently it didn’t catch the attention of the The Beatles maniacs.
The Second Jaguar
As the rumor goes around, Brian Epstein bought this 1964 E-Type as a gift for Harrison’s 21st birthday, and that makes sense since the car was registered only 3 days after the party.
The car was equipped with an ultra-cool dash-mounted record player (only good when the car is not moving).
Harrison loved his Jaguar so much that in a rather funny letter sent to a fan, Susan Houghton, posted by Letters of Note, he provided her with a seven-step instruction on how to wash to his car. In the end, he tells the young lady to pour the “muddy greasy water” onto a nearby Ford Classic, more than likely owned by Paul McCartney. Here is the letter in its entirety:
42, Brodie Ave.
Mossley Hill, Liverpool 18
I hope you had a good Chrimbo, and have a happy nuclear peace too. Thank you for giving my mum flowers and chocs (it was you wasn’t it??) Thanks also for the card, in fact, THANKS A HEAP SUSAN. “Your too kind” John Lennon.
Instructions for washing car:-
Use plenty of soapy clean water, preferably warm.
2) When car is [though it may take a lot of water]- clean, leave to dry off for about 20 minutes. [You can have a cup of tea now].
3) Now ask mother to find some dusters, [2 each] and with the polish, apply with no.1 duster over an area of about 1 sq foot at a time, in a circular motion. Don’t leave it too long before polishing off. This should be carried out until the car is spotless, and gleaming clean. [Don’t forget the wheels!]
4) Take 1 brush or vacuum cleaner, and have a bash at the carpets. They too can be made to look like new.
5) The windows [interior] should be polished now, after which you can retire for another tea.
6) Before returning home, I suggest you look over the car again, for any parts you may have missed out, on finding, they should be cleaned accordingly.
7) Now proceed to 20 Forthlin RD. with about 6 buckets full of dirty muddy greasey water, where a shiney Ford Classic will be seen. Spread contents of the buckets evenly, so as to leave a nice film of muck over the car. You can now return home knowing you have done your deed for the day. Thank you!!!
Proceedings should be carried out about the 8th of January.
Thanks again for the cheerio for now don’t forget Ban the Bog.
Love from George [Harrison]
The Aston Martin
In 1964 another icon of pop culture was born, the James Bond movie, Goldfinger, debuted in theatres around the world. For the first time, we saw the most intrepid British spy in action and we fell in love with his car, the gorgeous Aston Martin DB5.
George just couldn’t resist, in the beginning of 1965, he got his own Aston. If the E-Type was a purebred sports car, the DB5 was a purebred race car, powered by an all-aluminum, 4 litre, dual camshaft, in-line 6 engine, fed by a trio of SU carbs, producing 282 HP, enough to push the lightweight coupe to a 240Km/h.
Aston Martin became a popular choice among British rock stars in the 1960s, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger also owned cars from the DB family.
In 1965, each Beatle won an Austin-Cooper as a publicity stunt for the British Motor Company. Harrison’s car was customized and painted in metallic black by the coachbuilder Harold Radford, and then, in early 1967 it was repainted with some psychedelic/Tantra art motifs.
The Mini appeared in the Magical Mystery Tour movie, released by BBC in December 26, 1967.
Apparently, the Mini still belongs to the Harrison family, its last notable appearance was in the 1998 Goodwood Festival of Speed, where some related celebrities took the car for a spin.
Celebrities like Ringo Star and Damon Hill,
and Stella McCartney.
The Mercedes Benzes
Harrison was a notorious British car aficionado but in 1967, he decided for something different, he bought a “600”, the top of the line Mercedes-Benz, he chose the short wheelbase, the car Mercedes called “personal luxury sedan”. For the hardcore Beatles fans, this White Mercedes is somehow familiar, it is the car George used to go to the Apple headquarters, on January 30th, 1969, for the famous rooftop concert.
George became hooked on Mercedes-Benz, he owned quite a few of them during his years as a car enthusiast, and on one occasion, in 1972, he and his wife Patty almost lost their lives inside a white 300SEL, when George hit a lamp pole while in route to a party in London. (pictures above).
Another interesting Mercedes was the 600 Pulman Limousine that Harrison bought from John Lennon in 1971. Lennon was about to move to the USA and was selling some of his “stuff”. Later on, in 1975, Harrison sold the limo to the American group ” The Supremes”, the car was shipped to America and used by the Motown stars for a few years during their tours. The car now belongs to a collector, and the picture above shows the “600” after a complete restoration, done in Germany.
If there is one car that can be considered Harrison’s daily driver is this amazing, all-black 1984 AMG 500SEL. George drove it for almost 50,000Km during the course of 18 years, the car was auctioned in 2018 for £43K.
George Harrison never stopped buying and selling cool cars throughout his life.
He had them all, Porsches…
It was only after the break-up of The Beatles that George had more time for his hobby and he started to follow the Formula One up close.
Harrison became a regular presence at many F-One paddocks around the world, sometimes accompanied by Ringo Star.
During this time they made some good friends in the Formula One circle.
Nelson Piquet, Harrison, and Ringo having fun with Jack Stewart.
The friendship with Emerson Fittipaldi (above) allowed Harrison to visit Brazil, when the two times champion invited the ex-Beatle to see the 1979 Brazilian GP and stay for a few days at his beach house, in Guarujá.
George’s passion for Formula One inspired him to write a song as a homage to the circus and to honour the death of the Swedish racing driver Ronnie Peterson. In an interview to the Rolling Stone Magazine, Harrison said he was satisfied with the lyric of the song because it wasn’t just corny: “It is easy to write about V8 engines and vroom-vroom; that would have been bullshit”.
Harrison on the track, driving a Formula-One.
In 1979, Harrison was invited to drive the legendary 1960 Coventry-Climax Lotus 18 at the Gunnar Nilsson charity campaign. It is the same car that Stirling Moss won at Monte Carlo in 1960; the hardcore gearheads will recognize it as the one Lotus Team often removed some body panels to make it lighter. The event happened at Donington Park, on July 14th, 1979.
George’s recollections of the charity event were published at Goldmine magazine, 27 November 1992 issue:
“I’ve never raced seriously myself, but I had a go in a Formula One car, with quite an old 3-liter-engine car. I’d drive round Brand’s Hatch in one. And I drove in a charity for Gunnar Nilsson, a Swedish driver who died of cancer, because I gave the money from the ‘Faster’ single off George Harrison to Gunnar’s cancer fund.
Anyhow, they had this day for the Gunnar Nilsson campaign at the track in England and they asked me to drive this 1960 Lotus, which had won a race in Monte Carlo when driven by the great English driver Sterling Moss. This car had no seatbelts, and because it had been in a museum for 20 years the tires were hard with no grip on them, yet the car was still pretty quick! But they assured me it was just a demonstration run, going round for five laps in formation and then five laps at your own pace. So I said I’d do it.
I got there, and it’s Jackie Stewart in the Tyrrell he won his ‘73 championship in; JamesHunt in the McLaren. Phil Hill in his famous Ferrari. I’m walking to my car while chatting with driver John Watson about the pleasure of the run we’re about to take, and he says, ‘You’re joking. There’s no racing driver that goes in formation! As soon as they drop that flag, they’ll all be gone like crazy!
Sure enough, as soon as the checkered flag fell, the other cars went whoosh as mine puttered along in a haze of smoke! By the time I got to my first lap they were already coming behind me for their second lap, screaming away! Scared me stiff! [wild laugh] But at least I did better than James Hunt, who broke down on the first pass.”
Harrison became a close friend to Gordon Murray when the South African was the chief designer for Brabham and McLaren.
Murray was involved in the development of the “Rocket”, an ultra-lightweight, open cockpit roadster powered by a 1-litre Yamaha engine, inspired by the 60’s era Grand Prix car. Harrison was one of the first customers of the car.
Gordon Murray was part of a more popular project among the gearheads, the McLaren F1, the gorgeous 1990’s supercar, powered by a V12 BMW engine.
All Things Must Pass…but George wouldn’t pass the opportunity to own a supercar designed by his good friend.
Harrison ordered a custom-built F1, according to his taste. During the process he called McLaren several times, impatiently asking for the date of delivery.
In 1994 the ex-Beatle received the car, chassis #025, painted in Dark Purple Pearl, with black satin wheels, a very unusual combination at the time.
Harrison was an ardent devotee of Hinduism and he asked the bare chassis of 025 to be covered with symbols of his Hindu faith as well as hand-written quotes and song lyrics applied in silver ink by Gordon Murray. George loved this McLaren so much that his family decided to keep it after his death.
George Harrison left this world way too soon, in 2001, when he lost the battle against cancer. For most of the fans, he was an amazing musician who was part of the most influential rock and roll band in history but he was much more than that.
“I play a little guitar, write a few tunes, make a few movies, but none of that’s really me. The real me is something else” -George Harrison-
If George was a bit elusive when talking about himself, perhaps one of his good friends from the Formula-One circus, Sir Jack Stewart, gave us a simple but sincere description of Harrison’s character:
“One of the great enthusiasts, one of the nicest men. He also had one of the biggest brains that I’ve had the pleasure of being around. People might say ‘you can’t be serious, he was just a singer in The Beatles’. But with his worldly knowledge and his beliefs, he was very articulate. He was a great one for coloring pictures of life. He could really graphically describe something, it was like you were seeing a picture in front of you that someone like me could understand, perhaps outside of my normal ability“.
On August 6, 1945, a solitary B-29 Superfortress dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, 3 days later, another bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. It was the only time in history that nuclear weapons were used in an armed conflict, together, the two bombings killed more than 220 thousand people and brought Japan to surrender, saving thousands of American soldiers lives that didn’t have to fight to take over the country.
WWII was finally over but another war had already started the Cold War. Since 1945, the Soviet Union spies gathered a consistent amount of intelligence from the Americans, allowing them to successfully detonate its first nuclear bomb on August 29, 1949, ending the American nuclear monopoly much sooner than the Western world thought.
Throughout the 1950s, both superpowers kept piling up their nuclear arsenal, but since neither one of them had the technology of the intercontinental ballistic missiles yet, the only way to deliver the doomsday payload was flying bombers over the enemy territory.
If the Americans want to reach Moscow, the heart of the Soviet Empire, that is a staggering 18,000 Km round trip, starting from Alaska, which is the closest American territory from the Soviet Union. The B-29, the most advanced bomber at the time, has only a 9,000Km range.
The United States Army Air Force was already thinking about a strategic intercontinental bomber as early as 1941, considering the worst-case scenario of the whole of Europe (including United Kingdom) falling into the hands of the Nazis and the necessity of flying bombing mission from USA all the way to Germany and back without stopping for refuelling.
Consolidated (which would later on merge with Vultee Aircraft and became Convair) won the contract with its B-36 (the other competitor was Boeing and Northrop) but since the Allies held their ground in Europe, there was no real need for this “super-bomber” during the war.
Preparations for the end of the world
With the prospect of a confrontation against the Soviet Union looming on the horizon, the USAAF gave the green light to Convair to go ahead with the production of the B-36. The prototype flew on August 08, 1946.
The B-36 was a revolutionary aircraft, designed to be powered by nothing less than 6 radial piston engines mounted on a “pusher” configuration (at the back of the wings). It is a massive machine, the biggest piston-powered airplane ever produced. Let’s check some numbers:
Length: 49.40 m (162 ft)
Wingspan: 70.10 m (230 ft)
Empty weight: 73,371 Kg (166,165 lb)
Max take-off weight: 185,973 Kg (410,000 lb)
Payload: 39,000 Kg (85,980 lb)
In ideal conditions, the range of the B-36 is 16,000 Km but when fully loaded and combat-ready the range would drop dramatically.
Such a colossal aircraft would need some serious horse power, and that was provided by 6 Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major, air-cooled, radial engines, with 28 cylinders (4 rows of 7 cylinders), displacing 71,489 liters ( 4,362 cid). It is the largest-displacement aviation piston engine to be mass-produced in the United States, and at 4,300 hp (3,200 kW) the most powerful.
Even with all this raw power, the B-36 needed a very long runway for take-off, but Convair solved this problem by adopting four General Electric J47 turbojet engines, with 5,200 lbs of thrust each, mounted on pods, close to the tip of the wings, the addition of these engines created a popular B-36 slogan: “six turning and four burning”.
The ideal operational ceiling of the B-36 was 40,000 ft but with the extra power provided by jet engines, the bomber could comfortably fly at 50,000 ft, and reach a top speed of 700 Km/h, well above the reach of most of the fighters of that time. When flying at cruise speed, the jet engines were shut down to save fuel.
The B-36 was designed for conventional bombing, with a payload of 39 tons, but it could easily be converted to become a nuclear bomber. The plane also had heavy defensive firepower, nothing less than six remote-controlled, retractable gun turrets alongside the fuselage, one on the tail and one on the nose, each one equipped with a pair of 20mm cannons.
The first units of the B-36 started to be delivered to many Bomber-Wings across the USA in 1948, the first 60 planes didn’t have the jet engines but later on Convair retrofitted them. They were also delivered without the gun turrets, which were also installed later.
Thanks to its impressive performance and range, the B-36 was also used for high-altitude reconnaissance missions, for this role, the plane was stripped of every defensive armament
The Wasp engines when mounted “backwards” (pusher configuration) have the inconvenience of exposing the carburetors to the incoming cold air and inevitably getting frozen when flying at high altitude, causing engine malfunction. In some extreme situations, the frozen carbs would allow too much gas inside the engine (rich mixture) and this unburned fuel would ignite when touching the very hot exhaust manifold. The ground crew then changed the plane’s slogan from “six turning, four burning” into “two turning, two burning, two smoking, two choking and two more unaccounted for.” The problem was fixed in the later version with the adoption of a carburetor heater device.
During gunnery practise, the vibration of all the 20mm cannons firing at once commonly caused the aircraft’s electronics to malfunction, leading to failure of the aircraft controls and navigation equipment; this contributed to the crash of B-36B 44-92035 on 22 November 1950. Later on, the gun turrets were removed, (only the tail guns stayed, operated by radar), the Air Force concluded the gun turret was an obsolete piece of equipment and the biggest enemy of the B-36 would be anti-aircraft missiles. That brought the crew member down from 15 to 9 and saved a lot of weight.
The first version of the bomber was designed with single-wheel main landing gear, equipped with gigantic tires, the largest ever manufactured for an airplane, up to that time, 9 feet 2 inches (2.79 m) tall, 3 feet (91 cm) wide, and weighing 1,320 pounds (600 kg), with enough rubber for 60 automobile tires. Since most of the airplane’s weight was supported by two tires only, they placed so much pressure on the pavement that the B-36 required at least 17 inches thick concrete runways, restricting its operations to the Fort Worth airfield (adjacent to the plant of manufacture) and to a mere two USAF bases beyond that. It didn’t take too long for Convair to realize the single-wheel design was a mistake and it was soon replaced by a four-wheel boogie.
A typical doomsday mission would consist of crossing the Soviet border flying from bases in Alaska or Greenland, dropping the nukes and safely landing at any allied air bases, in the Middle East or Europe.
The Strategic Air Command (SAC) wanted maximum alert to retaliate any Soviet attack; to achieve this, different bomber-wings took turns flying the B-36, fully loaded with nuclear bombs, close to the border, 24/7.
The crews had the confidence to carry out the mission successfully but just a few of them actually believed the plane was fast enough to escape the blast of a 15 megaton nuke.
During training, it was common to fly the B-36 for over 24 hours non-stop, but the bomber was fairly well equipped to give the crew a minimum level of comfort during those long missions, with bunk beds, a toilet, and a little stove.
The B-36 was a controversial weapon, it was very expensive and complicated to build and maintain, but in the early 50s, it was the only airplane capable to carry out a nuclear attack anywhere on the planet.
In a time when neither of the superpowers had the ballistic missile technology, the plane was considered the perfect deterrent against the USSR and for that reason, it was nicknamed the Peacemaker.
An experimental airplane by nature
The 1950s was an era of extreme aeronautical developments, the jet engines, supersonic speed, and the space race, and besides all that, every crazy idea was worth the shot. The B-36 was employed in a variety of experiments throughout its service life, and perhaps one of the most interesting is the nuclear propulsion system where a small reactor would provide power to keep the plane flying non-stop for weeks, maybe months.
Another curious project was the idea of carrying a parasite F-84 jet fighter and releasing it in case of incoming hostile fighters over the battlefield or simply for reconnaissance purposes.
During the Korean War (1950-1953) the Americans came across the new generation of the Soviet jet fighter, the MIG-15, this new plane was powerful, maneuverable, and well-armed; at this point, the Air Force knew the B-36 career was over.
By 1952 the USAF had already approved the B-36’s replacement, the Boeing B-52, but thanks to military budget restrain of the mid-50s, they kept the B-36 operational until the end of the decade.
Between 1946 and 1959, a total of 384 B-36 were built, in different versions. Out of this number only 5 units, sent to museums, escaped the scrapyard.
The US Navy called the B-36 a billion Dollar blunder and advocated that this money should have been used in more efficient, carrier-based, jet bombers. Although the Air Force was always sympathetic to the idea of well-trained crews flying heavy bombers over the Soviet territory, it was the ballistic missile technology, (either based underground in the US soil or carried by submarines) that became the ultimate deterrent weapon against the full-scale Armageddon war.
The B-36 remains today as a 1940s engineering marvel, the plane came into service just when the aeronautical designs were shifting from piston to jet engines, and that was primarily the reason for its early retirement.
During its 11 years career, the B-36 was never sent into combat, and that is the uncontested proof it lived up to the name Peacemaker.
“And suddenly I realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension.” – Ayrton Senna-.
Brazilians are passionate about speed and that passion produced a few names that became legendary; most of them are well known only within the country borders but others became legends all around the world, and sure enough, Ayrton Senna is at the top of the list.
Senna was born on March 21st, 1960, in a wealthy family that provided him with all sorts of opportunities during his childhood.
At a very young age, like all racing drivers, Ayrton was captivated by cars and speed. At the age of 4, his dad gave him a home-built “go-kart” powered by a lawnmower engine and it became his favorite toy for many years.
When he was 13, he started competing in go-kart races across the country. In 1974 and 1976, he won the municipal championship. In 1978, 1979, and 1980, he became the Brazilian go-kart champion, as well as the South American champion in 1977 and 1980. He would later recall this time as the most joyful of his career: “I only have good memories of my go-kart years. No money, no politics, just pure racing.”
It is a well-known fact that Senna had an extraordinary ability to race in the rain and that is more related to hard work than to raw talent. During his early years racing go-karts, Senna failed miserably to achieve a decent result in a race that happened in the rain, determined to never face this situation again, he decided to train hard on the wet pavement, every rainy day he would rush to the race track and drive hard for hours until he mastered the art of racing in the rain.
With all those titles under his belt, it was easy to find a position in the British Formula Ford, and in 1981 Senna was hired by the Van Diemen Racing and he completely dominated the season, winning 12 out of 20 races. Oddly enough Ayrton couldn’t find a sponsor for the next season and giving in to the pressure of his parents, he returned to Brazil to assume one of the family’s hardware stores.
The new enterprise didn’t last long, in 1982 Senna was back to the British Formula Ford and again he didn’t leave any room for the other competitors, winning 20 out of 27 races of the season.
Ayrton Senna superb performance granted him a position in the “West Surrey Racing” for the 1983 Formula 3 season, but that year another talented rookie gave Senna a good fight, Martin Brundle secured enough points during the season to bring the battle for the championship to the last race, in Silverstone.
It was an amazing race, both drivers used the dominant Toyota 2T-G powered Ralt RT3/83, making their performance very close. At the end, Senna won the race and the championship. For the Brazilian, Silverstone became something like his second home, to the point the media nicknamed it “Silvastone”, in relation with Ayrton’s last name “Silva”.
Jumping into the Formula One Universe.
In the same year of his F3 championship, Frank Williams invited Senna for a test drive at Donington Park. The car that was waiting for him that day was the same FW-08 that gave Keke Rosberg his only world title, in 1982, the team got it ready with whatever they had at the moment, the tires were not the “qualifying” type and the engine was not running at 100%.
Right before jumping into the cockpit, Senna did something that became folkloric among his fans, he gently tapped three times the rear wing of the car and said: “Today is the day“; and in fact it was, driving a car that was in no way set up to be fast, he not only beat the time of the Williams official test drive but also broke the track’s record. Senna knew he couldn’t get hired by Williams since the team had already signed contracts with Keke Rosberg and Jacques Laffite, but he also knew his impressive performance would bring other teams to the table.
Frank Williams was asked once if he regretted missing the opportunity to have hired Senna, which he responded: “I was actually relieved that Ayrton went to another team, our cars for the 1984 season were a total disaster and I would be very disappointed to see him wasting his first year in Formula One driving for us“.
Senna was also in contact with McLaren and Brabham but he ended up signing with a much smaller team, the Tolleman-Hart.
The First Season.
The strongest contender for the 1984 title was McLaren, the new MP4/2, powered by the Porsche turbo V6 engine was a superb car and the team had two brilliant drivers, Alan Prost and Niki Lauda. Nelson Piquet, the winner of the 1983 season, also had good chances with his BMW turbo-powered Brabham.
Ayrton Senna scored points at South Africa GP and also at the Belgium GP, which can be considered a big deal for a rookie driving for a small team, but it was at the Monaco GP that he showed the world he was not your average midfield driver.
On the day of the race it was pouring rain and the experienced Niki Lauda raised a very important concern, the pavement inside the tunnel was dry but covered with a thin layer of oil and grime, with the cars coming in with wet tires, spraying water all over it, the tunnel would become as slippery as a hockey rink. Bernie Ecclestone sent a fire truck to wash away the dirt as much as possible and to get the tunnel as soaked as the rest of the track, delaying the start by 45 minutes.
The circuit of Monaco, under normal circumstances, can be a very challenging one, but on a raining day it becomes extremely treacherous, all the drivers were going around very cautiously, but Senna, who started the race in the 13th position, imposed an insane pace, leaving behind one competitor after another. All those long hours training in the rain during his go-kart years were paying off. Senna clocked the fastest lap of the race and the only driver between himself and the highest place on the podium was Alan Prost, who was leading the race since the beginning. At lap 29, Prost desperately waves his arm, begging the officials to end the race, alleging it is too dangerous to go on.
At lap 32, Jacky Ickx, the race official, gave the order to raise the red flag, but Senna still had time to pass Prost and cross the finish line in the first position. The only problem was: according to the rules, the positions counted are those from the lap before the red flag, giving the victory to Prost with Senna in second.
Ickx was relieved of his duties as the race official for finishing the competition without consulting the track marshals but that didn’t change the final results. Jacky Ickx was at that time the number one driver for the Rothmans- Porsche GT Team with powerful links within the company, rumors say that his decision not only saved Prost of the embarrassment of losing the race to a rookie driving a far inferior car but also favored McLaren, whose cars were powered by Porsche engines.
The 1984 Monaco GP was a very contentious and exciting race and marks the beginning of the Senna X Prost feud, which is, perhaps, one of the most bitter rivalries in the history of Formula One.
The wall moved.
The mystique surrounding the 1984 Monaco GP perhaps overshadowed another interesting story about Senna’s debut season, during the Dallas GP, Senna crashed his car against the concrete wall, in what appeared to be a common rookie mistake, but Senna came to his race engineer, Pat Symonds with a different complaint. Here is a part of Symonds’s interview:
“The car was reasonably competitive there, so we expected to have a good race, but Ayrton spun early in the race. He then found his way back through the field in a quite effective way and we were looking for a pretty good finish, but then he hit the wall, damaged the rear wheel and the driveshaft and retired, which was a real shame. The real significance of that was that when he came back to the pits he told me what happened and said “I’m sure that the wall moved!” And even though I’ve heard every excuse every driver has ever made, I certainly hadn’t heard of that one! But Ayrton being Ayrton, with his incredible belief in himself, the absolute conviction, he then talked me into going with him after the race to have a look at the place where he had crashed. And he was absolutely right, which was an amazing thing! Dallas being a street circuit, the track was surrounded by concrete blocks and what had happened – we could see it from the tire marks – was that someone had hit at the far end of the concrete block and that made it swivel slightly, so that the leading edge of the block was standing out by a few millimeters. And he was driving with such precision that those few millimeters were the difference between hitting the wall and not hitting the wall. While I had been, at first, annoyed that we had retired from the race through a driver error, when I saw what had happened, when I saw how he had been driving, that increased my respect for the guy by quite a lot“.
Niki Lauda won the 1984 championship just 0.5 point ahead of Alan Prost, making evident the superiority of the McLaren/Porsche cars. Senna finished the season in 9th position.
The Lotus Years
In 1985, Senna signed a contract with Lotus, replacing Nigel Mansell, who had signed with Williams. The team had a good car, the Lotus 97T, powered by a Renault -Gordini turbocharged V6 engine. The combo Senna + the 97T would give Lotus real chances to bring back the glory days of the 1970s.
For old fans like me, it was interesting to see Ayrton driving a Lotus wearing the legendary black and gold JPS livery, it immediately brought memories of Fittipaldi, in 1972.
Ayrton’s first victory came in the Portuguese GP, 1985, he started the race in the pole position, under heavy rain and once again he proved to be a hard-to-beat driver on the wet pavement. Senna set the fastest lap of the race, and by the end of the competition, he had already lapped every driver up to the third position. Senna received the checkered flag with over a minute ahead of the second-place, Michele Alboreto (Ferrari).
On several occasions, the Brazilian would remember this race as the best driving of his entire career.
Senna drove for Lotus for 3 seasons, 1985, 86, and 87, he scored 48 races, 15 pole positions, 6 wins, 22 podiums and 150 points. The team helped him to reach his full potential as a seasoned, professional Formula One driver, not only on the track but behind the scenes well, but it failed to provide competitive equipment, the Lotus cars were fast and nimble but very unreliable.
Lotus finished the 1987 season in third place and that was the last time the original team, founded by Colin Chapman, was among the greatest constructors, thanks to Senna’s talent and the power of the Honda engine.
The team had signed with a new sponsorship, Camel, and for the first time in 14 years, the cars were not painted in the iconic black and gold JPS livery that became the image of the team.
Senna also had the honour to give Lotus its last victory in Formula One, in the Detroit GP, 1987.
The McLaren years
Those 3 years Senna spent driving for Lotus showed the world he was a superb driver and had unbelievable confidence in himself. When he finished the 1987 season in third place, everyone knew it was just a matter of time for him to win the world championship.
Ron Dennis, McLaren’s big boss, was trying to bring Senna to the team for 2 years already when the contract was finally signed by the end of 1987. The Brazilian was about to join a bigger enterprise, with a more consistent car, that would ultimately give him the chance to win the title but despite all the expectations, the biggest obstacle would be his teammate, Alan Prost.
By the time Ayrton joined McLaren, Prost had two world titles already under his belt and he was the number one driver for the team since 1984, but he knew (just like everyone else) that Senna would not accept being the number two, from now on both drivers would have the same equipment and the same opportunities within the team.
The feud between Prost and Senna became a very important chapter in their professional lives. Even after more than 30 years, it will still generate passionate debates about who was right and who was wrong.
The driving style of each one of them played a very important role during this battle, Prost was nicknamed “The Professor”, he was a strategist, cerebral driver that would patiently wait for the right moment to make a move, while Senna was the “road-warrior”, always driving by instinct and going flat-out at any opportunity. Most of the fans immediately picked Senna as their favourite driver since he provided the kind of material they were looking for: bold maneuver, crazy takeovers, and pure speed.
The 1988 season started with some changes from the previous year, in an attempt to slow down the speed of the turbo-cars, FIA restricted the boost from 4.0 bar to 2.5 bar, bringing the power down to (still insane) 1,000 HP, and also reducing the fuel capacity of those cars. They were just paving the way for a complete ban on turbos for the next year.
Ayrton Senna won his first championship this year, with 8 victories and 90 points, against Alan Prost’s 7 victories and 87 points. The dominance of the McLaren team was flagrant, they have the best car, powered by the best engine and driven by the best drivers, but for those who thought the season would be boring, they were mistaken, the rivalry between Senna and Prost made 1988 an unforgettable year for Formula One. Here are some interesting races of the season:
The Brazilian fans packed the Jacarepaguá race track, in Rio de Janeiro, (now named after Nelson Piquet, to honor his third world championship, won in the year before) for the opening race of the 1988 season. The fans were there not only to see Senna debut at McLaren but mainly to see Piquet debut at Lotus, the two Brazilian almost spoiled the event when they engaged in a ridiculous exchange of insults (even involving aspects of their personal lives) in the days before the race. Senna dominated the practicing on Friday and qualified as pole-position on Saturday, Nigel Mansel got the second position with a non-turbo Williams and Prost was in third.
Right after the warm-up lap, Senna got a broken gear shifter, he raises his arms to advise the officials something is wrong and the start of the race was delayed. The mechanics even tried to fix the problem while the car was still on the grid but they were not able to get it done.
What happened next was the kind of stuff that legends are made of, Senna jumps into the spare car and starts the race from the pits, in the 21st position, he muscles his way up at an incredible pace, and after 13 laps he is already at 6th place, and before the 20th lap was over he was in second and the fans were going crazy. At this point, Prost was leading the race and everybody was waiting to see the battle for the first position but at 30th lap, the race officials disqualified Senna for joining the race with the spare car after the green flag was waved. The team accepted the punishment and there was no appealing after that. Some people say that the decision to disqualify Senna was agreed upon at the first lap of the race but they let him drive just for the sake of the “show”.
Prost easily won the Brazilian GP, Gerhard Berger (Ferrari) came in second and Nelson Piquet (Lotus) in third.
Senna qualified as pole-position and thanks to his “millimetric precision” driving skills, he was leading the race comfortably. On lap 54, Prost passed Berger to get the P2 but he was 50 seconds behind Senna. In an effort to close in on his teammate, he clocked the fastest lap of the race, not happy with that, Senna also dropped the hammer and both drivers started to compete for the fastest lap. With only 11 laps remaining, Ron Dannis radioed Senna and asked him to quit the foolishness and slow down, to guarantee an easy 1-2 win for McLaren. Ayrton even followed the instruction and Prost closed the gap to merely 6 seconds but at lap 67 the unimaginable happened, he lost control of his McLaren and crashed into the barrier at turn 8, called “Portier”.
Extremely frustrated and embarrassed that his mistake had caused him to lose an easy victory, he left the scene and walked to his Monaco residence. It took a while for the team to find out what had happened, meanwhile, Prost had no problems winning the race. Senna only came back to pits later on, by the time the crew was already packing and getting ready to leave.
At the Portuguese GP, the tension between Senna and Prost reached boiling point, the Frenchman who qualified as pole-position tried to block Senna right after the start, pushing him close to the grass, and later on, Senna paid back pushing Prost against the concrete wall at almost 300km/h.
Prost insisted that Senna should face some disciplinary action but it never happened.
The decision of the championship came down to Japan, the penultimate race of the season, a victory there would give Senna the title in advance.
Senna started the race as the pole position but he stalled the engine at the launching, but Suzuka had the only sloping grid of the year and so the Brazilian was able to bump start his car and bring the Honda V6 back to life but he had already fallen to P14, giving all the fans at home a heart attack. What we saw after that was a performance that helped to give him the status of a legend.
It took him just 4 laps to pass nothing less than 10 competitors, at lap 19 he was already in the second position, and once again the only driver between himself and the victory was Prost. Halfway through the end of the race, a light rain had started and part of the track was getting wet, Prost was dealing with a failing gearbox and at lap 26 he could already see Senna on his mirrors.
On lap 27 Senna overtook Prost on a beautiful maneuver, the Frenchman even tried to block him but it didn’t work, after assuming the lead, the Brazilian then put in a succession of fast laps, finishing the race 13 seconds ahead of Prost; the battle of the championship was over in a race that many consider one of the most existing in F-One history.
“Senna doesn’t want to just beat me, he wants to humiliate me”. -Alan Prost-
McLaren clinched its fourth constructor world title in an almost perfect season, winning 15 out of 16 races, Bernie Ecclestone, the FIA boss, said the team didn’t do anything extraordinary, “McLaren just accomplished what they were supposed to”, but he acknowledged that the Senna x Prost rivalry had brought new excitement to F-One and renewed the fans interest.
The 1989 season.
The big news for the 1989 season was the ban on turbocharged engines, this decision finally brought the smaller teams into the fight for a place at the podium. McLaren was still the strongest contender for the title but the team no longer had absolute dominance on the grid. Throughout the season the Senna x Prost war was at full steam, but they shared the victories with Nigel Mansell (Ferrari), Thierry Boutsen (Williams), Gerhard Berger (Ferrari), and Alessandro Nannini (Benetton).
Once again the Japanese GP was the battlefield that would decide the title between Senna and Prost. To win another world title, the Brazilian needed to win here in Japan and Australia, Senna qualified in pole position but Prost jumped in front of him at the start and established a strong pace, not giving any chances to his teammate, who was in second.
After Senna got a fresh set of tires, the situation changed, the Brazilian closed the gap and was furiously looking for an opportunity to overtake Prost. Finally, at lap 47, Senna got his chance but when the two cars were almost side by side, Prost tried to “close the door” but it was too late, the crash was inevitable. While Prost left his car and walked back to the pits, Senna, with the help of the track marshals, restarted his McLaren and immediately took it to the pits, to replace the damaged front wing set. He came back in second, with Alessandro Nannini (Benetton-Ford) in first, with only two laps left before the end of the race, Senna passed Nannini and won the Japan GP.
This amazing “Senna-style” victory should have opened a clear path to his second world title but instead, it became a nightmare, Jean-Marie Balestre the FIA big boss at that time decided to disqualify Ayrton for taking a shortcut back to the track right after the crash but if that wasn’t enough, Senna was considered responsible for the accident with Prost, and deemed “dangerous”, he was fined $100k and suspended for 6 months, automatically giving Prost the championship.
Alan Prost won his third World Championship in 1989 but he had to deal with the suspicion that without the little help from his friend (no exaggeration here, Balestre was in fact a good friend of Prost) he wouldn’t have beaten Senna.
The Second Title.
For the 1990 Formula One season the big news was Alan Prost who left McLaren and became the number one driver for Ferrari. The Frenchman had the honour to give the Italian team a real chance to win the championship for the first time since 1983.
Once again the battle for the title of the season came to Japan, Senna arrived in Suzuka with 78 points, nine more than Prost, a victory there would either give him the championship or make things a lot easier for the last race of the season, in Australia.
In Suzuka, the pole position starts at the inside lane, close to the wall, which is the dirty side, with less grip, Senna knew he would probably be the fastest in qualifying so he started putting some pressure on the organizers to swap the pole position place.
Senna’s request was denied, which made him furious, he got the pole position but Prost, who started on the better side of the track, jumped in P1, and a mere 800 meters later, the two drivers got entangled at the same turn they crashed in 1989 and once again both drivers were out of the race. Mathematically Senna won the championship even before the last race, but that crash would generate heated discussions for decades.
In 1989 Prost clearly threw his car against Senna, trying to stop him at any cost, but in 1990 it was the other way around, Senna went for a gap that was obviously too small, he knew the crash was inevitable and he did it anyway. It was payback time.
When questioned about the crash he just said: “Last year, I lost the title in a crash, this year, I won it. The only difference was that it happened at the beginning of the race”. When asked if it was sad to become champion without stepping on the podium Ayrton just said: “I’ve been on the podium more than any other driver this season“.
Senna had the machine and the talent to beat Prost cleanly, throughout the race but he chose revenge instead. For many fans, it was Senna being Senna, the hot-headed, determined driver that always performed by instinct, but for some fans (me included), just like the 1989 championship was tainted with shady negotiations behind closed doors, the 1990 championship was tainted with the dark cloud of vengeance.
The third title.
The 1991 season will always be remembered as the beginning of a new era as the guy who one day would be considered as the best Formula-One driver in history debuted that year, Michael Schumacher, the talented german racer was hired by Jordan when one of its drivers, Bertrand Gachot, was jailed for attacking a taxi driver in London.
The season also marked the reborn of Williams, the team emerged from the ashes, powered by the state-of-the-art Renault V10 engines. At this point, the car was still unreliable but they already gave the dominant McLaren-Honda a run for their money.
The season also was the last year of Nelson Piquet in Formula One, racing for Benetton-Ford. His career nose-dived after his last world title in 1987 and he was never able to come back as a real contender after that. It was also the last season of the original Lotus Racing Team.
Ayrton Senna effectively clinched his third World Championship winning seven out of 16 races of the season, the runner-up, Nigel Mansel (Williams-Renault) won five races. The year was a total disappointment for Alan Prost, who failed to win a single race and was fired from Ferrari even before the end of the season for publicly criticizing the team.
After winning in Australia and putting the world title in his pocket, Senna went to Suzuka for the first stress-free Japanese GP in years.
Right at the start, Gerad Berger jumped in P1 with Senna in second, Mansell, who was in third place and was the only threat to the McLaren’s duo, spun on lap 10 and abandoned the race.
Berger and Senna led the race with such an ease to the point that at the last lap, the drivers even “paraded”, driving in formation, celebrating Senna’s third world championship. The Brazilian didn’t fight for the P1, allowing Berger to win his first GP for McLaren.
The 1991 season marks the end of a very successful partnership between Senna, McLaren, and Honda. It was unlikely the team would be able to keep the supremacy for much longer, the wind of change was already blowing and everyone could see the next dominant team would be Williams-Renault. If Senna wants to keep winning titles, he must find a way to get hired by them.
The 1992 season confirmed all the predictions made the year before, Renault fixed the reliability problems the plagued the Williams cars during 1991 and Mansell became a more consistent driver.
The result was an absolute onslaught, Nigel won nothing less than 9 races, grabbing the title with five races in advance, his teammate Ricardo Patrese finished the season in second, and the young talent Michael Schumacher (Benneton-Ford) in third. Senna managed to win only 3 races and finished in fourth.
Senna’s former agent, Julian Jakobi, told in the podcast Beyond the Grid, that Ayrton had the chance to drive for Williams in 1992 but he decided to stay at McLaren for another year in loyalty to Ron Dennis but most of all to Nobuhiko Kawamoto, the president of Honda Motors at the time. Senna started a very good partnership with Honda while still driving for Lotus, and he always considered Mr. Kawamoto responsible for opening the doors of McLaren for him.
At the end of the 92 season, it was no secret that Senna was willing to drive for Williams but things got very complicated for the next year: Alan Prost, who took a year off in 92, replaced Nigel Mansell at Williams, and he simply blocked the Brazilian to be his teammate.
To make his hiring process easier for Williams, Senna made himself available for the 93 season, not signing any contract, but when the news of the Prost’s blockade came, the Brazilian found himself with not many options left on the table.
McLaren had replaced Honda with Ford as the engine supplier and the team’s car for 1993 was very much behind Williams in terms of technology. To make the matter even worse, Ford, under contract, had to give Benetton the best engines, leaving McLaren with inferior ones. At this point, Senna also considered going to the American Indy Series, following the advice of his friend Emerson Fittipaldi, he even went for a secret test on 20th, December 1992, in Phoenix, Arizona. He was testing for the Penske Racing Team, one of the most successful and influential teams in the IndyCar Series, but in the end, he concluded that F-One was his natural environment.
In February 1993 McLaren appointed Michael Andretti and Mika Häkkinen as the official drivers for 1993, but under a lot of pressure from Marlboro, Ron Dennis agreed to offer Senna a third car and pay the Brazilian on a race-to-race basis. Senna was no longer jobless for the 1993 season.
As predicted, Prost won his fourth world title in 1993, but Senna, driving a clearly inferior car, put up a good fight for the title, but he came as the runner-up, showing that the Williams supremacy was short-lived.
Senna won the last race of the 1993 season, the Australian GP, and Prost came in second and that was the last time both drivers stepped on the podium, Alan extended his hand, in a gesture of friendship and Ayrton pulls him to share the highest place of the podium and embraced his rival warmly. That emotional act put an end to years of bitter rivalry, it was like both drivers knew that was the right moment, and they might never again have another opportunity like that.
Later on, during the interview, Senna couldn’t hold the tears, after 6 seasons and 3 world titles, he was leaving McLaren. It was an emotional moment for Prost as well since he was retiring from Formula-One.
The Closing Chapter.
The Brazilian GP 1994, the opening race of the season, fans from all over the country flocked to”Interlagos” to see Senna’s debut at his new team, Williams. In our minds, there was only one thought: nothing would stop Ayrton from achieving his fourth world title now.
The big news for 1994 was the ban on most of the electronic driving aids that the F-One cars had accumulated over the years. It was very good news for the smaller teams since it would make the cars more affordable to build, but it also made things a bit more complicated for Ayrton and his teammate, Damon Hill: instead of building a new car from the scratch according to the new rules, Williams decided to reuse the 1993 blueprints without the electronic paraphernalia, resulting in a very unstable car.
In Brazil Senna started in the pole position with Schumacher in second, and he kept leading the race until the first pit stop when the Benetton crew was faster putting Michael back in the race.
Senna was having a hard time keeping his Williams on the track, specifically on slow corners, and to make matters worse, his transmission was acting erratically. Schumacher opened a 7 seconds gap from the Brazilian but after a second pit stop, it seemed Ayrton had got back to his game and he was closing into the German, but on lap 55, he lost control of his car and spun on Junction Corner. Unable to restart the engine, Senna just walked back to the pits, putting a sad end to his first race for Williams.
Determined to redeem himself from the disastrous Brazilian GP, Senna got himself in a spectacular battle with Schumacher for the pole position at the Pacific GP, held at the Aida Raceway, in Japan, at the end of the qualifying the Brazilian beat his opponent by 0s222 and secured the 64th pole position in his career.
Not totally happy with the performance of his car, Senna sat with his mechanics and gave them a lot of feedback on how they could improve the car, the techs then spent the whole night working on the machine. The next morning Senna was impressed with the car, it was fast and well balanced, everything he needed to go for his first victory of the season.
But all the excitement was short-lived, Ayrton was involved in an accident at the first lap of the race, here it is an account of what happened in his own words: “Since Schumacher had a better start than me, I slowed down to avoid a crash on the first corner. But then, Mika Hakkinen [McLaren] clumsily rear-ended me and took me out of the race. I was already out of the track when Nicola Larini (Ferrari) t-boned my Williams, bringing my race at Aida to an end. Rubinho (Barrichelo) and Christian (grand nephew of Emerson Fittipaldi) were all I could be happy about”.
Schumacher had no problems winning his second race of the season, with Gerhard Berger (Ferrari) in second, Rubens Barrichello (Jordan) in third, and Christian Fittipaldi (Footwork) in fourth.
The cursed weekend, San Marino, 1994.
So far, the Brazilian fans were experiencing mixed feelings about the season so far, we were disappointed to see Senna failing to finish a single race but we were happy to see Barrichello in second place, in the championship.
Expectations were running high for the next race, the San Marino GP, in Imola, another victory would put Schumacher in a very comfortable position towards his first world title, Senna desperately wanted to turn the tide especially now that Williams have found a way to tune their cars and make them competitive, and Barrichello would try to be on the podium again and keep himself in the fight for the title.
But it didn’t take too long before the world realize that there was something very sinister about that weekend.
On Friday, 29 April, during the first qualifying session, Barrichello slid his Jordan and hit the exit curb at the Variante Bassa turn, then his car took off and hit the tire barrier at 225Km/h.
The Jordan flips in the air couple of times.
Barrichello landed upside down but the track marshals didn’t waste any time turning it, he was knocked unconscious by the impact, measuring at an incredible 95g. he also had swallowed his tongue which blocked him from breathing but the doctor Sid Watkins, the head of the F-One on-track medical team, quickly saved his life. Miraculously he suffered only a broken nose and sprained wrist, which kept him from competing that weekend.
Ten years after the accident, Damon Hill told during an interview, the general feeling after Barrichello’s crash: “We all brushed ourselves off and carried on qualifying, reassured that our cars were tough as tanks and we could be shaken but not hurt.”
The 1994 season was the debut of the Austrian race driver Roland Ratzenberger, he had been hired by Simtek Racing, which was also debuting at Formula One that year. During the final qualifying session, on Saturday, Roland runs over the curb at the Acque Minerali turn, damaging his front wing, and then, making a typical rookie mistake, he decides to go for another fast lap instead of going to the pits and getting the front wing replaced. Engineers believe that going over 300Km/h at some points of the track, Ratzenberger further damaged the front wing of his car, making it uncontrollable when he came to the Villeneuve Curva, he crashed against the wall, full throttle, almost head-on.
Ratzenberger was treated at the track hospital and later on, he was airlifted to Maggiore Hospital. The session was restarted approximately 50 minutes later, but several teams—including Williams and Benetton—took no further part. Later on, Bernie Ecclestone officially announced that Roland Ratzenberger had died, a victim of multiple injuries. He was 33 years old.
Every driver was deeply shaken by the death of Ratzenberger, that accident marked the first fatally in Formula One in 12 years.
Doctor Sid Watkins recalled in his memoirs Senna’s reaction to the awful news:
“Ayrton broke down and cried on my shoulder. I tried to convince him not to race the following day, asking “What else do you need to do? You have been world champion three times, you are obviously the quickest driver. Give it up and let’s go fishing.” Senna replied, “Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on“
Senna made the pole position for the race, with Schumacher in second, right at the start, JJ Letho stalled his Benetton and was rear-ended by Pedro Lamy (Lotus), the safety car came in and kept the grid formation for 5 laps until the debris of the accident were cleared.
The safety car withdrew on lap 6 and the race was resumed, with Senna at P1, but on lap 7, the tragedy struck again.
The Tamburello Corner.
“Tamburello was always a corner where your heart was in your throat,” because you knew, if you went off there, that how you hit the wall was simply a matter of luck, good or bad.” -Keke Rosberg –
In lap 7, Ayrton was trying hard to get away from Schumacher and as he went flat out towards the exit of the Tamburello corner, Senna’s Williams suddenly veered to the right and smashed against the concrete wall.
The onboard telemetry showed that Senna crashed at 211km/h (131 miles per hour). The right-front wheel snapped, and flew back toward the cockpit, striking Senna’s helmet. He was airlifted to the hospital but after 5 hours he was declared dead. The accident was caused by mechanical failure, the skid marks on the pavement show that Senna slammed on the brakes as the last resort to avoid the crash. The Italian authorities launched an investigation and they found out that Senna had requested a shorter steering shaft and instead of making a brand new one, the technicians cut and welded the old one, making it weaker and unsafe. Quite a few people from Williams and from the Imola race track administration were prosecuted for manslaughter but they were all acquitted under Italian law.
Senna died two months after his 34th birthday, three days later his body was repatriated and carried on a firefighter truck through the streets of São Paulo, escorted by the Army Cavalry. Thousands of fans packed the streets to give the last goodbye to their idol.
The picture above shows Emerson Fittipaldi, Gerard Berger, and Alan Prost as pallbearers, Rubens Barrichello was also there, behind Berger. Brazilian government declared 3 days of official mourning.
Senna tragically left us way too soon, by the time of his death, he had accumulated 3 world titles, 41 victories, and 65 pole positions, for today’s standards it might not sound like a lot but keep in mind that Formula One was way more competitive back then. According to many, he was the most brilliant F-One driver ever, but I believe every F-One legend (Fangio, Clark, Moss, Stewart, Fittipaldi, Lauda, Senna, Schumacher, Hamilton) were the best during their own time, according to circumstances around them and the machines they drove.
How to create a superhero.
Besides Senna’s superb driving that day, in 1983, at Donington Park, when he test drove a Williams car, there wasn’t much else happening at the track; young talents test driving for F-One teams is quite common and it does not draw the attention of the local media, but the “Rede Globo”, the biggest Brazilian TV channel at that time, sent a popular sports reporter and a camera crew to cover Ayrton’s first contact with an F-One car. The company was determined to make the young race driver known to the Brazilian fans, who were at that time, focused on Nelson Piquet, fighting for his second F-One World title, in 1983.
Senna was nice to journalists and seemed to enjoy being in front of the cameras, the complete opposite of Piquet, and Rede Globo immediately started to build a “hero” image of him. By the time when Senna joined F-One, the Brazilian media figured it was the right time for a new sports idol, after all, the national soccer team failed to win the World Cup in 1982, and Piquet was doing well in F-One, but he was not charismatic at all. The scenario in the years that followed just helped to consolidate Ayrton Senna as a national hero, as he started to win races and championships, the soccer team didn’t win again in the next two world cups.
Senna became admired around the world thanks to his perseverance and extraordinary driving skills but in Brazil was a different story, he was worshiped, the Senna phenomena brought fans that didn’t even care about racing before. For us, living in a country with a systematic failure of its institutions (corruption, unemployment, inflation), Senna was our weekly dose of pride, he was the proof that we could be really good at something.
The Toronto International Air Show is Canada’s largest and longest-running aeronautical event and it happens right in the heart of the city’s downtown, over Labour Day Weekend. Thanks to the Covid pandemic, the show was cancelled in 2020 but it was back for the 2021 edition.
It all started in 1946 when the National Aeronautical Association of Canada organized the first event at the de Havilland Canada manufacturing plant, located at the Downsview Airport. In 1949 it was transferred to the Exhibition Place, in downtown Toronto.
The TIAS is a bit different from other air shows in North America since it is not held at an airport, which means there are no static displays, only the airplanes performing maneuvers above lake Ontario.
My wife and I went to see it for the first time on Sunday, September 05, and we concluded that the lack of static display is perfectly replaced by the charming Toronto’s Waterfront, the event’s attendees had 14 kilometres of stunning beautiful Lake Ontario beaches, adorned by well-trimmed gardens. We sat on our camping chairs in the shade of a tree, the day was sunny but not too hot, 26 degrees Celsius; a Sunday afternoon doesn’t get any better than this.
The show is a 3 days event, Friday is reserved for practice, from 10 am to 2 pm and Saturday and Sunday the pilots perform their stunts from 12 to 3 pm.
Here they are, the most interesting participants of the show:
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II
Perhaps the most anticipated performer this year was the controversial F-35 Lightning II.
The stealth fighter was piloted by major Kristin “BEO” Wolfe, she is the first female commander of the USAF’s F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team, leading a 13 member squad. The performance was breathtaking, it was truly amazing seeing the Lightning II in action, right in front of us.
Canada has a complicated relationship with the F-35, the country was invited to be part of its development and then to acquire it as a replacement for its ageing fleet of F-18 Hornets but when the Lightning II finally became operational, the Canadian government refused to place an order, alleging the high costs of maintenance and the fighter’s capabilities are much above the necessities of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
The F-35 was born already bearing a huge responsibility, to live up to the name of its predecessor, the Lockheed P38 Lightning, one the most advanced and successful American fighters in WWII.
The F-35 is a single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole fighter, with a singular advantage, the main design can be modified to adapt the aircraft to the necessities of the three American military branches, the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines. The development has been plagued with all sorts of problems, from severe design flaws to ballooning cost and orders delay. The Lightning II is the most expensive weapons program ever, expected to cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion over its 60-year lifespan.
McDonnell Douglas CF-18 Hornet.
No Canadian air show is complete without the presence of the CF-18 Hornet, the Canadian variant of the American Navy fighter AF-18. The plane has been performing the fighter duties for the RCAF since 1982, and now that its lifetime is pretty much over, the Canadian government is having a hard time finding a replacement, since they don’t want to spend a lot of money. Even second-hand Hornets from the Australian Air Force are being considered as a good option.
P-51 D Mustang “Quick Silver”
Probably one of the most beautiful P-51 you can find now a days, the Quick Silver is a father and son project, Bill and Scooter Yoak built this plane from over 200 Mustang parts and projects.
According to the website quicksilver mustang.com, Bill Yoak did all of the metalwork and a lot of parts are handmade. Unlike the hurried war effort parts, these are made with the skill and care of a master craftsman and obtain the utmost attention to detail necessary to restore this Mustang to a condition better than factory new in 1945.
It is impossible not to have goosebumps seeing the Quick Silver in action, the sound of the V12 Merlin and the powerful meaning of the black and white D-Day stripes make the performance one of the highlights of the show.
Canadair CT-114 Tutor
The Tutor was the primary jet trainer for the RCAF from 1963 until its retirement in 2000, generations of Canadian fighter pilots had their first contact with a jet plane at the controls of a Tutor, and for that reason, the little jet has a special place in their hearts.
The plane was chosen to equip the 431 Air Demonstration Squadron when it was created, in the early 1970s, the squadron, more popularly known as “The Snowbirds”, is a guaranteed presence at any Canadian air show, and the public just love them.
The CT-114 Tutor is a simple, sturdy and reliable machine but the RCAF can’t keep them flying forever, the avionics, ejection seats, and brakes are utterly outdated and on top of that, there is the natural difficulty of finding spare parts. The consensus among the military is that a jet plane designed in the late 1950s doesn’t reflect the image of a modern air force and the procedures to find a replacement began as early as 2003, but the Canadian government decided to modernize the Snowbirds Tutors instead of replacing them, pushing their life to 2030.
Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina
I am fascinated with old flying boats since I was a kid and seeing one in action that day was just amazing. The Catalina probably was the most widely used seaplane of WWII, thanks to its incredible long range of 4,000 plus km and its load capacity of 2000 pounds of bombs and torpedos. The Catalina fought extensively against the German U- boats in the Atlantic and also during the Pacific War against the Japanese Navy.
The Canadian Catalinas are known as “Canso” and they were built by either Boeing Canada or Canadian Vickers, the one that performed at the show belongs to the Canadian Heritage War Plane Museum which has an amazing collection of airworthy warbirds, including an Avro Lancaster. https://www.warplane.com/
A little history lesson
Cansos served with eleven RCAF Squadrons in WW II. They operated from both coasts and were employed in coastal patrols, convoy protection and submarine hunting. RCAF No. 162 Squadron, when stationed in Iceland and Scotland in 1944, accounted for the six German U-boat sinkings made by RCAF Cansos.
After the Second World War, Cansos served with the RCAF in photo reconnaissance and search and rescue roles, until they were finally retired November 1962.
The Museum’s Canso was manufactured in 1944, by Canadian Vickers in Montreal and served with the RCAF until 1961. It continued in commercial operations until 1995. The Canso was acquired in 1995 through generous donations from Canadians Resident Abroad Inc. It is now painted in the colours and markings of RCAF No. 162 Squadron and is dedicated to Flt. Lt. David Hornell, VC, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. On June 24 1944, he and his crew sank the German submarine U-1225. During the attack, the aircraft was shot down and Hornell and his crew spent more than 20 hours floating in the cold Atlantic, before being rescued. Sadly, Hornell died from exposure shortly after his rescue.
The uncertain future of the show.
For those who crave speed and the sound of engines, air shows are like paradise, but for some residents of the downtown Toronto area, the TIAS is just a nuisance. Certainly, the noise and the traffic jam can be pretty annoying and during a time when the Canadian government is trying to cut down the carbon emissions, an event where hundreds of gallons of fossil fuels are burned in the name of entertainment really seems odd.
Another concern is that Toronto has a large population of refugees who came from war-torn countries and the sound of military jets blasting over the city can bring some painful memories and accentuate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But for thousands of Torontonians, the show is a delight, undoubtedly it is an inspiration for the kids to one day become a pilot or an aeronautical engineer. The show can also be a history lesson, another opportunity to remember those who gave so much fighting for our freedom.
Between 2008 and 2015, I had the privilege to work for one of the most traditional speed shops in Brazil, Powertech, the company was founded with a noble mission: to bring performance parts from the USA to South America, helping a legion of gearheads who craved speed but had nowhere to go. Powertech’s founder, João Alexandre de Abreu, is probably the most knowledgeable car guy I ever met. He is also responsible for bringing drag racing to a professional level in Brazil, but this might be a story for another post.
During my time at Powertech, one of my responsibilities was to take care of the “classic cars” the boss had for sale. One can’t complain about a job that requires cleaning, fixing little issues and driving around a collection of classic cars, from the 1930s to the 1970s, including some cool hot rods too.
Even though I remember most of them (if not all), some stand out, such as this 1929 Ford Tudor rat rod
The car was pretty much finished when it arrived at Powertech and only a few changes had to be made to bring it up to the boss’s level.
The hot rod was first powered by a 318″ small-block Mopar but when it came to us, the engine had already been replaced by a more “classic” unit, a 221″ Ford Flathead V8. The engine is easily identified as a first-gen, by the two water pumps placed in front of the cylinder heads, built between 1932 and 1936. The mill is bone stock but the team installed a pair of Stromberg 97 carbs, mounted on top of an Eddie Meyer Hollywood aluminum intake.
The Flatty is bolted to a 3-speed manual tranny that was removed from Chevy pickup truck.
The spoke rims were custom built by the Powertech team, 17″ in front and 19″ in the rear, wrapped with Firestone whitewall tires (4.75 x 5” and 5,25 x 5.50″).
The radiator grille came from a 1934 Ford and the big headlights from an REO truck that we don’t even know the year, very rare indeed.
The roof was chopped 2 1/2″ and to give this ultra-low stance, the body was channelled but I don’t remember how many inches.
A little explanation for those not really into the Hot Rod universe: channelling is a process of removing the car’s body of the frame, cutting the floor loose and reattaching it higher inside the body. This modification allows the entire body to rest closer to the ground without messing up with the suspension.
The interior is very simple, as a hot rod should be in my opinion. The gauges came from a 1939 Ford and the steering wheel from a 1970s Chevy SS.
Although the car is “too clean” to be qualified as a Rat Rod, the team considered it as such. After a while, it became known simply as “rato”, the Portuguese translation for rat. Old-timers like me called it “ratoeira” (rat trap), a term well known at race tracks, referring to a race car so poorly built that would most likely kill the driver.
The Rat Trap took an awful long time to be sold, and during that time we drove it to many hot rod/classic car meetings that happened in our town. Naturally, the team became attached to the car.
Now I just wonder if the new owner is treating it with as much care as we did.
Note of the editor: “The Flatties have their own music so, let them sing“. Check it out the video below and listen to the Rat Trap sound.
By the time when I began to better understand the Formula One universe, during my teenage years, Emerson Fittipaldi was struggling with the Copersucar race team and he naturally fell into obscurity. Fans like me were waiting for the next guy who would restore the Brazilian pride in F-One and that guy was Nelson Piquet.
Pique was born on August 17th, 1952, in Rio de Janeiro, and his career in sports started far from the race tracks, as a tennis player. At the age of 11, his father sent him to spend some time in California, to improve his game, training against American players, during this time he learned two very important things: first, the English language and second, he was not good enough to pursue a professional career as a tennis player.
At this point, racing was nothing more than a passion but now, free from his tennis obligation, he had more time to dedicate to his hobby. At 14 years old, he bought a Go-Kart in partnership with two other friends and he started to compete in the national circuit. Since his father was completely against his career as a race driver, Piquet started to used his mother’s maiden name Piquet (of French origin and pronounced as “Pee-Ké”) misspelt as Piket to hide his identity.
Nelson won the Brazilian Go-Kart championship in 1971 and 1972 but since he had no financial support from his family, the beginning of his career was slow and painful when compared with more fortunate young drivers.
In 1974 Nelson dropped out the Mechanical Engineering course he was attending for two years and found a job at a garage. Eventually he saved enough money to buy a Formula Super Vee.
Piquet was never afraid of turning wrenches himself, he extensively modified his F-Vee, especially the body. Going against the majority of the other racers, he eliminated most of the aerodynamic stuff that provided the ground effect for the car, making it fast on straights. When asked how he would drive a car that behaves badly on turns, he used to say: “Don’t you worry, I will deal with it.” Nelson won the regional championship in Rio de Janeiro in 1976.
The twice Formula-One World Champion, Emerson Fittipaldi, saw Piquet as the next Brazilian prodigy, he advised Nelson to pack his things and leave to Great Britain as soon as possible.
Piquet arrived in Europe with enough credentials to secure him a position at the British Formula 3, and a good sponsorship (Brastemp/Arno is a very popular appliance brand in Brazil). In 1978 he not only won the championship but also broke Jackie Stewart’s record of the most wins in a season. Now his career seems to be taking off.
In the same year Piquet was invited by two small Formula-One teams, Ensign and BS Fabrication, to do some tests and even before the end of the season, he had signed a contract with Brabham.
The Brabham Racing Team drivers for the 1979 season was Niki Lauda, occupying the first spot, and Nelson Piquet as the second. The season proved to be a fiasco for the team, the BT48 was a hard-to-tune car, powered by the unreliable 3 litre, V12 Alfa-Romeo engine.
Even driving a problematic car, Piquet qualified in the top 5 several times, often out-qualifying Lauda, the big problem was reliability, he failed to finish 11 races out of 15 races participated that year.
Brabham had the new BT49 ready for the Canadian Grand Prix in 1979, now powered by the trustworthy Ford-Cosworth V8 engine. Unexpectedly, Niki Lauda quit Brabham right before the race, leaving Piquet as the number one driver.
In the final race, the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, Piquet started from the front row and took the fastest lap in the race, clearly showing the new BT49’s considerable potential.
It was in 1980 that the battle for Piquet’s first World title began. The BT49, designed by the South-African Gordon Murray, was at its peak performance, the car even had some very interesting features throughout the season, like water-cooled brakes and hydropneumatic suspension.
The water-cooled brakes became very controversial during the early 1980s, it was used by most of the teams racing naturally aspirated engines because the water tanks helped to bring their cars to the required minimum weight, during the pre-race inspection, turbo cars didn’t need it since they are basically heavier. The trick here is, the water evaporates pretty quickly along the race, making the car a lot lighter, improving considerably the overall performance. In most of the cases, (if not in all of them) the brakes never needed the extra cooling and there was no need for the driver to pit-stop to refill the tanks.
The 1980 season will always be remembered by the fierce battle between Nelson Piquet, driving for Brabham and Alan Jones, drivinf for Williams. At the end, Jones won the championship 13 points ahead of the Brazilian.
The First World Title.
Nelson’s first World Championship came in 1981, in a very dramatic season, he fought not only against his old rival, Alan Jones but also against the Williams second driver, Carlos Reutemann, from Argentina.
The battle for the title was carried on to the last race of the season, the Ceasars Palace Grand Prix, held in Las Vegas. Piquet was only a point behind the leader Reutemann.
It was a dreadful race in many aspects, Reutemann had a failing gearbox as early as lap 2 and he was falling behind pretty quickly. On lap 17 Piquet was getting ready to pass him when Reutemann slammed on the brakes much earlier for the turn, but fortunately, Nelson was able to avoid the crash. There is the suspicion that Reutemann deliberately tried to involve Piquet in an accident; he knew with a broken transmission he had no chance to score points in the race and the only way to secure the World Title was stopping Piquet, but of course, this is just a speculation.
The race was no smooth sailing for Piquet as well, suffering from heat exhaustion he could barely keep the car on track, at the end he finished in fifth position, just enough to score two points. When Piquet stopped at the pits, he was so weak that the mechanics had to pull him out of the car. He became World champion by one point ahead of Carlos Reutemann.
The turbo era and the second World Championship
By the early 1980s, Renault and Ferrari were actively racing turbocharged cars and even if the Ford-Cosworth V8 was still the dominant source of power for most of the teams, (it won the 79, 80, and 81 seasons), everybody knew the glory days of the old Ford V8 were numbered.
In 1982 Brabham closed a deal with BMW to supply turbo engines for the new BT49 D. For the first 4 races of the season, the car was still powered by the Ford-Cosworth, and it was only in the Belgium Grand Prix that the Germans finally delivered the turbo engine. The remaining of the season was used for developing the car, with no chance of fighting for the title.
For the next year, 1983, Gordon Murray presented the arrow-shaped BT52, a fully developed brand new car, powered by the 1.5 litre, in-line 4, BMW turbocharged mill. The unit was based on a production engine; some of them were even built with well run in blocks that had covered over 100,000 km and were sometimes retrieved from scrap yards. This controversial idea actually has a good point: a well-used cast iron block had gone through all the possible thermal stress; the expansion and contraction caused by the changes in temperature. The cast-iron block was fitted with a bespoke alloy head with four valves per cylinder. A KKK turbocharger helped to boost the power to 640 bhp in race trim and well over 750 bhp in qualifying mode.
Piquet won the opening race in Brazil, a second place in France and another second at Monaco also taking the fastest lap, but close to the end of the season, Alain Prost was comfortably leading with 14 points ahead Piquet, with only three races left in the season.
Pique managed to win the next two races, Monza and Brands Hatch, closing the gap to only 2 points, bringing the decision to the last race, the South-African Grand Prix. Post retired at lap 35, and Piquet had no trouble finishing the race in third, winning his second world title. It also was the first time a turbocharged car won the championship and was BMW’s first and only title in Formula-One.
For Nelson Piquet, Brabham was like his second family, he had a very good relationship with the mechanics, with the management, and especially with Gordon Murray, who was like a friend to him.
Right after his second title, Piquet was feeling the big boss was taking advantage of the situation, he was receiving one of the lowest wages in F-one and he was also frustrated by the fact that the team was making some decisions without consulting him, for example, the adoption of the controversial (at the time) Pirelli tires.
He was in contact with a few teams, like McLaren and Ferrari but was Williams who offered something impossible to refuse: a 3 times higher pay and a fabulous machine, the FW10 powered by the engine that would soon became dominant in F-One, the turbocharged Honda V-6.
After 7 seasons and 2 World titles, Piquet left Brabham at the end of 1985.
His start at the new team wasn’t easy, he was hired as number one driver, but Nigel Mansell, who was hired a year before, was already enjoying that position. This conflicting situation created a bitter rivalry between the two drivers.
The 1986 season became one of the closest and most fiercely disputed championships ever in Formula One, Piquet and Mansell went head-on against each other and this “inside war” was causing them to make too many mistakes, allowing Alain Prost, from McLaren to jump as the leader of the season.
However, Piquet was the best option to beat Prost, and Williams was under a lot of pressure from Honda to play “politics” on the track. The Japanese company wanted the slower driver to concede in favour of the faster driver, in other words, every time Mansell was to finish a race in front of Piquet, he should hit the brakes and allow the Brazilian to pass and collect the points.
Williams never did such a thing, even if this kind of politics was part of the contract signed by both companies. Prost became the first Frenchman to win a Formula One Championship, and Williams won the constructor’s world title.
The third championship
For the 1987 season, Nelson decided to leave the emotions aside and be more reasonable at the race track, even if the tensions between him and Nigel Mansell were still at the boiling point. Piquet played an important role in the development of the new Williams FW11 and the car was the best machine on the grid. The year was supposed to go by with no surprises and the title would be decided between the two Williams’s drivers.
The Brazilian suffered a severe accident at Imola, during qualifying, and following medical recommendations, he did not participate in the race. At the end of the season, Mansell won more races, but Piquet managed to collect more points and win his third world title.
Even before the end of the season, Piquet announced he had signed a contract with Lotus, to be the undisputed number one driver, a promise that was never fulfilled at Williams.
The beginning of the end
Piquet debuted at Lotus in 1988 with great expectations, after all the 100T was also powered with the same unbeatable Honda turbocharged, V6 engine.
The season proved to be a total frustration, Piquet didn’t win a single race and he was completely overshadowed by another Brazilian driver, Airton Senna, who won his first World Championship that year.
The 1989 season was a little bit better but not enough to bring him to the “Top 5” drivers. In 1990 he signed a contract with Benetton with his salary based on the results, but the good results never came and he quit Formula One all together in 1992.
The controversial one.
Nelson Piquet was never an easy-going guy, he always had a complicated relationship with the media and not a lot of teammates have good memories of him, but things got way worse when his career took a downturn. Piquet started to fire insults at people he didn’t like, he called Nigel Mansell “an uneducated blockhead” and also made remarks about the looks of Mansell’s wife, saying she was “ugly”. He called Airton Senna a “taxi driver” and later he said Airton “doesn’t like women”. Piquet had to public apologize for those horrible statements when he was threatened with legal actions.
The Indy series
After his retirement, Piquet followed the steps of many ex-Formula One drivers and he tried the American Indy car series. He was hired by the Menard Racing Team, to compete in the 1992 Indianapolis 500.
He seemed comfortable on the oval and was doing quite well during practice until he run over some debris on the track and he decided to go back to the pits, that was the moment when he made a typical rookie mistake while going around turn 4 at full throttle, he abruptly took his foot off the gas pedal, to enter the pit lane and his car spun out of control, hitting the wall at 300km/h.
“A picture is worth a thousand words“, and that certainly is the case of the photograph above, it shows how horrifying the accident was. Surviving that crash was nothing less than a miracle but Piquet suffered serious foot and ankle injuries. Even after all these years and lots of physiotherapy he still walks with the aid of a cane.
He came back to Indianapolis in 1993 but had to retire at lap 38 due to engine failure.
During his career as Formula- One driver, Piquet was also involved with Sportscar/GT competition. In partnership with the German driver Hans Stuck, he raced in the legendary 1000km of Nurburgring in 1980 and 1981, driving a (also legendary) BMW M1. The duo scored a victory in the 1981 edition.
In 1996, well into his retirement, Piquet competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, driving a McLaren F1 GTR, having Johnny Cecotto and Danny Sullivan as teammates, finishing eighth overall.
During 1996/97 he actively promoted the GT series in Brazil. In partnership with the Venezuelan driver Johnny Cecotto, they dominated both seasons, even winning the most traditional endurance race in South America, the “Brazilian 1000 Miles”. Always driving the McLaren F1.
“The last time I saw Piquet in action was in 1996 when the GT Series was brought to my hometown, Curitiba, in Brazil. What I saw that day was the Piquet like the good old times, not the retired F-One driver but the three times World Champion. He was bold but precise – no mistakes – leaving no room for the other drivers. Of course, the car he drove helped a lot, the gorgeous McLaren F1, powered by the sublime V12 BMW engine, a GT car made in heaven. At some point during the race, the guy driving in the second position was trying so desperately to close the gap that the engine of his Ferrari F40 exploded while he was going flat-out, right in front of the stands, 20.000 fans rose from our seats and we went like “wooooow” in unison!!!! “
“I have so many good memories of my hometown race track but that Sunday afternoon is one of the best.”
On January 20, 2006, Nelson Piquet won the 50th edition of the Brazilian 1000 Miles, in Interlagos, at the wheel of an Aston Martin DBR9. The driving duties were shared with the 4 times Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, the French race driver Christophe Bouchut, and Piquet’s eldest son Nelson Junior. At the end of the race, an exhausted Piquet was quoted saying to a friend he would “never sit in a cockpit again.
Now a days Nelson spends his time taking care of his businesses: fleet management software and GPS vehicle tracking and he keeps himself close to the race track managing the racing career of his two sons, Nelson Jr. And Pedro Piquet.
Piquet is also an avid classic car collector.
Nelson Piquet is the kind of character that inspires “love or hate” feelings among racing aficionados, especially because the Brazilian fans love to compare him with Airton Senna. For the majority of those fans, Senna will always be the “good guy”, the gifted driver that tragically died in pursuit of more titles and Piquet will always be “the jerk” who loves insulting people.
For me, he is the fellow Brazilian who won 3 Formula One world titles and remained a true gearhead ever after; the guy will always have my admiration.
When I went to see Mad Max for the first time, in 1985, the movie was already 6 years old and its two sequels had been released already. To be honest, the sequels never caught my attention, I was there to see the original. Even after so many years I still remember leaving the theatre in awe, the dark, dystopian, decaying society created by the director George Miller just blew my mind. At that time I had a pretty bleak vision of the future as well, I always imagined the big cities taken by hordes of criminals where the police had to use tanks to patrol the streets. In my mind, all the weirdness of the movie and its characters just made perfect sense.
The plot couldn’t be simpler: a decent cop, Max Rockatansky, goes on a bloody vengeance against the gang of bikers responsible for the murder of his best friend (Jim “Goose”) and his family. The trick here is not the plot, but how the movie was crafted, had it been done by Hollywood and it would have been a very cheesy one, but the Aussies worked out a not so brilliant plot, with a very limited budget and created a masterpiece.
Mad Max was a pioneer in many ways, it was the inspiration for most of the ultra-violent movies that flooded the theatres in the 1980s. The movie looks tame for today’s standards but it was pretty shocking back in 1979.
Another important point is: for the first time, a car was considered more like a supporting actor in the movie. The black Interceptor is considered more like a mythical creature, the last of the V8s, created by a weird scientist/mechanic and kept in the dungeons of the police precinct. The car became the perfect partner for Max to achieve his revenge.
Mad Max was also an ode to the Punk movement, which was at its peak in 1979. The complete disillusion with the future of society and, of course, all the black leather clothing seeing there are the two most important ingredients of the movement. Those ingredients would make their way to the cyberpunk genre, and, perhaps, the 1999 movie Matrix is the best example of it.
Mad Max was a creation of George Miller, who not only directed the movie but also wrote the original story and the screenplay, in partnership with Byron Kennedy and James McCausland. The trio also produced and edited the movie; an indie enterprise at its best.
The production worked on a very tight budget of only $350,000, and they got into trouble right after the shootings. “It was very low budget and we ran out of money for editing and post-production, so I spent a year editing the film by myself in our kitchen, while Byron Kennedy did the sound,” Miller told the “CraveOnline”.
George Miller, who has medical degree, started to work on weekends as a emergency room doctor to help pay for the movie expenses.
Miller’s medical training is all over the film: Max Rockatansky is named after physician Carl von Rokitansky, a pathologist who created the Rokitansky procedure, a method for removing organs in an autopsy.
The production did whatever they could to save money, the Mazda Bongo van that was destroyed during the opening chase was Miller’s personal car.
Most of the bikers we see in the movie actually were real bikers, from a Victoria based motorcycle clube, the Vigilanties. Close to the end, the cash level was so low that the production had to pay some of those bikers with beer.
When the Times reviewed the movie, in 1979, the title of the article was: “Poetic Car Nage”, which gives an idea of how important the machines are in the movie. For all of us with little or zero knowledge of the Australian muscle cars, the ones we see on the screen are just, well… cars, and that helps to blend them into the post-apocalyptic, comic-bookish scenario of the movie. Let’s take a closer look into those cars, and bikes as well:
The average cruiser of the MFP (Main Force Police) is the 1973/76 Ford Falcon XB 4 door, painted in a cool colour scheme that might be a little unusual for a police cruiser. The car shares its name with the American cousin but it is an exclusive product of the Australian Ford.
The Aussie Falcon was a complete line of cars, with 2 and 4 doors sedan, station -wagon, 2 doors coupe and even panel van.
The powertrain options were: 200cid /250cid inline 6 and 302cid/351cid V8.
The most popular version was the 4 doors and Ford even offered it in a “GT” trim, equipped with the 351 small block paired with either an automatic transmission or a 4-speed manual. Some of the yellow interceptors that appear in the movie are not GT but they had to be dressed to look like one.
The last of the V8s
Halfway through the movie, Max is introduced to the car that would become the perfect weapon to hunt down those crazy bikers. According to the mechanic who put the car together: The last of the V8 Interceptors… a piece of history!
The sinister black coupe, with a Weiand blower that could be magically turned on and off, is a 1973 Ford Falcon XB coupe GT. The car was slightly modified with some aerodynamic body parts to make it looks like something from a “near future”.
The Ford Falcon is, perhaps, the most beloved Australian muscle car ever made and a good example of this passion is the 2009 documentary Love the Beast, directed by the Hollywood star Eric Bana, where he talks about his 1974 XB coupe he bought when he was 15 years old. This documentary is another The Classic Machines certified recommendation.
The art director of the Mad Max movie, Jon Dowding, wanted a 71/73 Mustang to play the role of Max Rockatansky’s car but he had to drop the idea since the Falcon was cheaper.
If you have seen the movie, you might have noticed that pretty much all the bikes there are Kawasaki and the reason for that is simple, the producers score a deal with Kawasaki of Australia: in exchange for some publicity in the movie, the Japanese company gave them 10 brand new KZ 1000s. The bike is powered by a in-line 4, 998cc, 16 valve, air cooled engine, able to produce 90HP, which was some serious power back then.
The only problem is, the style of those bikes was not quite right for the movie, it looks too tame, too “1980s”. The actor Bertrand Cardant, who played the gang member Crank, received the task to bring those bikes to a more retro-futuristic looking. Cardant had some customizing experience since he owned a bike shop called La Parisienne.
Cardant even bought some molds and learned how to laminate fibreglass from a book. The fairings seen on Goose’s and Toecutter”s bikes are his own creation, inspired by the endurance bikes seen at the Bol d’Or. “It was amateurish stuff,” Cardant explains
The actor Hugh Keays-Byrne , who played gang leader Toecutter, and several others rode the 550 miles miles from Sydney to the movie set, in Melbourne, all dressed in their costumes. “It was a good rehearsal,” Keays-Byrne remembers.
Local motorcycle club The Vigilanties provided the rest of Toecutter’s gang. Actor Tim Burns recalls working with the bikers: “They all wanted to ride the bikes as fast as possible, as often as possible, by their nature. Their riding was individually and collectively superb.” The Vigilanties also worked as stuntmen as well, participating in the making of some very dangerous scenes.
The long journey of the Interceptor
At the end, the producers still had a lot of bills to pay and the black interceptor was sold to stuntman Murray Smith, who brought the car back to its original appearance. Eventually they bought the car back for the sequels.
At the end of the third movie, the only surviving black Interceptor was sent to be scrapped but was saved by a guy called Henry Warholack, who later sold the car to a collector named Bob Fursenko in the mid-80s. Fursenko restored the manacing coupe to a showroom standard and it became a popular attraction at car shows around Australia. In 1993 the Falcon was sold to the Cars of the Stars Museum in Keswick, England.
The car remained in display until 2011, when the entire collection of the museum was bought and transferred to the US by real state mogul Michael Dezer.
If you want to see this legend up close, you must go to the Orlando Auto Museum, where the car is on display. The black Interceptor is once again for sale, but Mr. Dezer has already refused a 2 million dollars offer.
As for the bikes, the seven surviving Kawasakis were offered as a lot for 5 grand. Byron said: “One day they will be collector’s items”, at that point he was just joking, he had no idea his movie was just about to become cult. Some of them were scraped and some were sold, if any of those bikes has survived to this day, nobody knows.
Mad Max is still considered one of the most profitable movies ever made, it was a box office success, grossing over $100 million worldwide, with a cost of only $400.000,00. With some serious money in their pockets, Miller and Byron went on producing two sequels, the 1981 The Road Warrior and the 1985 Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. George Miller even directed the 2015 Mad Max reinterpretation Fury road.
Mel Gibson wasn’t even supposed to play the role of Max Rockatanski, he was merely accompanying a friend who was auditioning for the part. When Miller saw him it was like love at first sight, Gibson was the perfect guy for the part.
The three Mad Max movies propelled him to become one of the most popular action-movie actors of the 1980s. He began a solid career as a movie director in the 1990s but after some homophobic statements he made in the early 2000s, Hollywood put him on the blacklist for a decade.
I always thought Mel Gibson was Australian but he was born in Peekskill, New York.
Mad Max is the kind of movie that the making of can be as exciting as the movie itself. There are a few websites that will tell you the whole story. A book could be written about it.
George Miller wraps up the adventure: “Mad Max is obviously very special to me. It was the first film, and after all these years it still means something to people. So even though it was a very hard film to make, we must have done something right!”
Does the movie still mean something for the fans? You bet! When my wife Estela bought her first car, a 1990 black Chevy Cavalier Z24, she inevitably named it Max.
Note of the editor: If you haven’t seen the movie, please do it, but be advised, Mad Max is a kind of weird movie, made more than 40 years ago, by Australians. This is not your average “Fast and Furious” stuff by any stretch of the imagination.
Brazil, if there is one sport that defines the country is soccer, after all, they won the World Cup 5 times, but there is another sport that the country won even more titles: Formula One. Brazilian drivers won nothing less than 8 F-One World Championships. Sir Jack Stewart once tried to explain the phenomena: “Must be something in the water they drink”.
The more contemporary Formula One fans will certainly remember the name of Airton Senna before anybody else but the Brazilian tradition in the sport began way before Senna, with the guy who paved the road for all other Brazilian race drivers, his name is Emerson Fittipaldi.
Fittipaldi was born in São Paulo, in 1946, son of a prominent Italian-Brazilian motorsports journalist and radio commentator Wilson Fittipaldi, also known as the ” Baron Fittipaldi”. His father was deeply involved with racing, Mr. Wilson was one of the founders of the “Mil Milhas Brasileiras”, in 1956, and the race became the most traditional motorsport competition in South America.
Emerson’s passion for speed started at a very young age, when he was 11 his father took him to watch a race in Interlagos and at the end, he convinced his father to ask one of his race driver friends to take him for a lap around the track. The little boy was exhilarated with the sound, the wind coming through the window, and with the thrill of the speed. Emerson was hooked for life.
At the age of 15, he was already racing motorcycles and at 16, he and his brother Wilson Jr. were racing hydroplanes. During one of those races, Wilson Jr. narrowly escaped death when he crash-landed his airplane and the duo agreed to give up air races and dedicate their time entirely to automobiles.
At the age of 17 Emerson won the Brazilian Go-Kart Championship, racing with a kart he had borrowed from a friend, and for the next year, the factory Renault/Willys race team hired him to be one of the official drivers.
In the early 1960s, the recently created Brazilian auto industry was heavily investing in competitions, race tracks were popping up all over the country, racing quickly became the second most popular sport in Brazil, in that scenario the young Fittipaldi blossomed.
In 1965 Emerson started to drive professionally for the Renault/Willys Racing Team, at the wheel of the race-specs Renault R8 (picture above), imported from France.
The Fittipaldi brothers abandoned the touring car races in 1967 in favour to the single-seater Formula Super Vee, with a car built by themselves. In his second season Emerson won the Brazilian Championship.
Not only a driver.
Emerson was not only passionate about speed but also about the machines. The Go-Kart he used to win the championship in 1964 was tuned by himself and he did such a good job that other competitors hired him to take care of their Karts.
In the same year, Wilson Jr. visited Europe and brought something that he couldn’t find in Brazil: a custom steering wheel for his mother’s car. The brothers quickly saw it as a business opportunity and soon they decided to produce something similar. The name of this new steering wheel was Formula 1.
In 1966 Wilson Jr. Bought a Porsche 550 1500 RS chassis that was abandoned in the back of a repair shop. To fix the powertrain and get the chassis ready for action was a no brainer, the real problem was to find a body in a good condition. Emerson, who at that time was studying automotive design, draw a new GT body and in a matter of 3 months the two brothers, with the help of the metal artisan Francisco Picciutto, hand-built a new aluminum GT body for the chassis.
The brothers called it “Fitti-Porsche”; the car was not only gorgeous, but it was pretty fast: at its first race, the 1967 edition of the “Mil Milhas Brasileira”, Wilson Jr. broke the 7 years standing track record, during qualifying.
The car was fast but, unfortunately, not reliable. The Fitti-Porsche led without difficulty every single race it entered until something broke down. Emerson won just one race with it, but the car was a good “hands-on” experience nevertheless.
Next stop: Europe.
Around 1968, Emerson and Wilson Jr. came to know the European Formula Ford, an affordable single-seater category that was the first step towards Formula One.
Emerson sold his Formula Vee, some other race-related junk, and with some extra help from his father, he gathered enough money to buy a second-hand Formula Ford and to support himself for 3 months in the UK.
Emerson finished the 1968 British Formula Ford Championship with 3 wins, 2 seconds, and 2 third positions out of 9 races; not good enough to win the title but good enough to catch the attention of the Jim Russell Racing Driver School; later on he was enrolled as a student but he also became one of the school’s official drivers.
In 1969 the young Fittipaldi was already at the wheel of a Formula 3, driving for the Jim Russell Team and he destroyed the competition that year, with 8 victories out of 11 races, easily winning the championship.
His impressive first season at Formula 3, immediately opened the door for a position at the Lotus/Bardhall Formula 2 Race Team for the 1970 season.
After a few races in F2, Emerson was spotted by Dick Scammell who convinced his boss, Collin Chapman, to offer the Brazilian a position as the third driver at the Lotus F-One Team.
At the pinnacle of motorsports.
The Team Lotus arranged a test for Emerson, in Silverstone, Chapman was there to see the test up close and so was the number one Lotus driver, Jochen Rindt. According to some people who were there that day, Rindt was not so happy to spend his day off at the track, teaching a rookie that could barely speak English. The Austrian drove the Lotus 49C for a couple of laps, to warm up the tires and then he “tossed the keys” to Emerson. After a couple of awkward laps, the Brazilian stopped at the pits complaining about the cockpit, which was still fit for Rindt, and also about the overall dynamic of the car. Rindt came to Emerson and said: “The faster you go, the better she will respond to you”.
Emerson followed the simple instruction to the letter and quickly he started to clock amazing lap times. Rindt who was distant in the beginning now was enthusiastically helping with the timing. At the end of the test, Collin Chapman said: “You start on the next race”.
The next race would be in Brands Hatch, the 7th of the 1970 season. The car Emerson received was the same Lotus 49C he drove that day, a “hand me down” from Rindt, who was already driving the modern (and yet to be legendary) Lotus 72.
Two years ago, Emerson Fittipaldi was racing Formula Vee in Brazil and now, he was already part of the most prestigious Formula One team in the early 1970s; if that can’t be considered a meteoric career, nothing else will.
The 49C was already obsolete at this point but was, nevertheless, a Lotus powered by the Cosworth Ford V8; perhaps the most glorious combination in the history of the Formula One.
The year of 1970 proved to be full of surprises, Emerson managed to compete in both categories, in Formula Two he finished third, only behind the more experienced Clay Ragazzoni and Derek Bell but his debut in Formula One was a bit more complicated, in September Jochen Rindt tragically lost his life in a brutal accident during the Monza Grand Prix, he became the only driver to win the championship posthumously. John Miles also left the team shortly after the accident, he was under a lot of pressure from Collin Chapman because of his poor performances and to bear the responsibilities of the number one driver was too much for him.
All of a sudden Fittipaldi was promoted to be the Lotus No. 1 driver on his fifth F1 race at the United States GP.
The young Brazilian proved up to the task and won the race, his very first Formula-One victory. The road for the Championship was wide open.
The year 1971 was spent with adaptations, the whole team had to face the new reality of having a rookie as the number one driver and Emerson had to deal with the revolutionary Lotus 72, the car at that point was still a rough diamond that needs a lot of polishing. He finished the season in sixth place, with 16 points.
The winner of the season was Jackie Stewart, driving a Tyrrell-Ford. (picture above).
For the next season, the engineers delivered the new Lotus 72D, this updated model had all the reliability problems that plagued the early version fixed. For the first time, the cars were wearing the iconic black and gold John Player Special livery, a partnership that would last for decades to come. Emerson Fittipaldi was still a rookie but a more seasoned one, in other words, Lotus had all the ingredients for a terrific season.
All expectations proved to be true, Emerson won in Spain, Belgium, England, Austria, and Italy, he became the World Champion even before the season was finished (there were 2 races left).
His dominance that year helped to propel the mystique around the Lotus 72D being the most perfect Formula One car ever built.
At 25 years old, he was the youngest World Champion in the history of the competition, an honour he held for 7 years.
The 1973 season wasn’t so good, Emerson struggled with the development of the new 72E and with the rivalry with his new teammate, Ronnie Peterson. The Brazilian finished the season in second place.
In 1974, he decided to leave Lotus and go to a new and promising team: McLaren.
At the wheel of the fabulous McLaren M23, Emerson was once again the favourite to win in 1974 but that was a hard-fought season: his second World Championship only came at the very last race when he finished with only 3 points ahead of Clay Regazzoni. That was the beginning of the McLaren vs Ferrari feud that would last a few more seasons.
The next chapter of the war, in 1975, was won by Ferrari, with the unstoppable Niki Lauda at the wheel. Emerson finished the season in second.
Fittipaldi was at the pinnacle of his career, a national hero, his face was everywhere. He was respected around the world and worshiped in his home country, Formula One became something like a fever in Brazil. At this point in his career, Emerson made the most controversial decision of his life.
The dream of a Brazilian Formula One race team.
While Emerson was in the spotlight, his older brother Wilson Jr. was competing for Brabham and at the same time, he was putting together the first (and only to date ) Brazilian Formula One team: the Copersucar.
Wilson, who was the number one driver and the team manager, drove the car on its inaugural season, in 1975, with mediocre results. The Coperçucar race car wasn’t that bad, Danilo Divila, a famous Brazilian designer came up with a sleek, ultra-aerodynamic body, and the power came from the trustworthy Ford Cosworth V8.
The name of the team came from its main sponsor, Copesucar, a giant sugar and alcohol exporter; the flow of money wasn’t unlimited but was steady, in Wilson’s mind, there was only one thing missing for the team to succeed: the talent and the prestige of a two-times World Champion.
The official invitation was made and Emerson accepted to be the number one driver for the Brazilian team for the 1976 season. For him, it was a gamble, he was leaving a very successful team that would likely give him his third World Championship, on the other hand, that was an opportunity to revive the old partnership with his brother and do what they know better: building and racing cars. It was also a matter of national pride, I don’t think his fans would have ever forgiven him if he had refused to help the team.
James Hunt was hired to replace Emerson for the 1976 season, which was, perhaps, the most exciting chapter of the war between Ferrari and McLaren. Niki Lauda was involved in a horrific accident during the German Grand Prix that year and had to quit the competition for six weeks to recover from his injuries. Hunt won the Championship just one point ahead of Lauda. Emerson finished the season at 17th position. (If you want to see more about the 1976 F-One season, please watch the 2013 movie Rush.)
The Copersucar team was a very enthusiastic bunch but with very limited know-how, the Fittipaldi brothers were expecting the team to grow as time passed and they gathered more experience but instead, they struggled with technical problems throughout 8 seasons and never achieved good results.
Emerson’s best result was a second place in 1978, at the Brazilian Grand Prix, in Rio de Janeiro (picture above). In 1980 he quit driving and became team manager. His last two years in charge of the team were very unhappy: “I was too involved in the problems of trying to make the it work, and I neglected my marriage and my personal life“. In 1982, deeply frustrated and bankrupted, the Fittipaldi brothers shut down the team.
The CART years.
A talented race driver like Emerson wouldn’t spend much time away from the race tracks. In 1983 he received an invitation from WIT Racing, a small CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) team, for a test and for the next year he was again at the wheel of a race car. He spend the next two seasons adapting himself to a different kind of open-wheel car and mostly, how to drive on ultra-fast oval race tracks.
In 1985 Emerson won his first CART race, the Michigan 500, driving for Patrick Racing (picture above). He stayed with the team for five years, a partnership that would eventually give the Brazilian a championship.
Fast-forwarding to 1989, Emerson was at the wheel of a superb combination, the coveted Penske PC-18, powered by the Ilmor/Chevrolet 2.7 litre, turbocharged V8, cranking up 800 hp. Just like in 1974, he was once again driving a car with the red and white Marlboro livery.
Emerson dominated the season, winning the championship with five victories and finishing among the top five in every race he completed. I took 15 years but “Emmo” (that is how the Americans nicknamed him) was once again a champion.
Among his wins, that year, was the Indianapolis 500. Emerson led 158 of 200 laps but close to the end, he got involved in a fierce battle with Al Unser Jr, making that race one of the most exciting Indy 500 ever. Check it out on the video above.
Emerson moved to the Roger Penske Racing Team in 1990 and continued to be among the top drivers in CART. Some unfortunate events prevented him to become some sort of the King of Indy 500: in 1990 he was comfortably leading the race went he got a blown tire and in 1991, the same situation happened, but at this time the gearbox box gave up.
In 1993 Emerson won his second Indy 500 when he passed Nigel Mansell, on lap 185 and managed to keep the lead until the end of the race. Mansell was another Formula One champion that migrated to CART.
The 1993 Indy 500 victory came with some unexpected drama: there is a decades-old tradition that the winner of the race must celebrate it by drinking milk instead of champagne, but that year Emerson decided to break the protocols and he drank orange juice instead. The reason for that is simple, Emerson owns orange groves in both Brazil and the USA but what was supposed to be a harmless advertising stunt, backfired enormously, the fans, the media, and the race organization never fully forgave him. Fans booed Emerson on several occasions even after he came publicly to apologize.
The end of his career.
The year was 1996 and Emerson was still driving for Penske and enjoying being among the CART top drivers. At this time, his car was powered by a turbocharged Mercedes-Benz V8, developing 1000 hp. Penske cars were dominating the season but during the first lap of the Michigan 500, Emerson was involved in a horrible accident, his car touched wheels with Greg Moore and he crashed against the wall at 320km/h. With internal bleeding and two broken vertebras he narrowly escaped death that day.
He fully recovered from his injuries but, at 49 years old, he decided it was time to retire. The accident was responsible for the end of his career as a professional racing driver but it also marks the beginning of a new life for him, Emerson saw his survival as an act of God and he became a newborn Christian.
Emerson Fittipaldi might be retired but he never left the race track, either managing teams or driving at special events.
Perhaps his biggest project right now is mentoring his grandsons through the beginning of their careers as race drivers. A whole new generation of the family has already started the long way to Formula One.