1978 was an interesting year for me, as it was the year I was named to drive the Hesketh 308E in the FIA Formula One Championship.
I would be on the tracks with the great drivers of that time, six of whom were or would become World Champions: Emerson Fittipaldi (1972 and ’74), Niki Lauda (‘75, ‘77 and ’84), James Hunt (’76), Jody Scheckter (’79), Alan Jones (’80) and Mario Andretti, who would become that year’s champion. Plus, the iconic Gilles Villeneuve and Ronnie Peterson were in the mix as well.”
In all there were 27 drivers and 14 teams entered for the first race, which was held at the Oscar Galvez track outside Buenos Aires on January 15th. There was no pre-training on simulators those days or even straight line driving on airports. Instead, I was given one day of testing in the car in the rain at Snetterton Circuit followed by a press conference in London on December 13th and by early January I was on my way to Argentina. I recollect that I nearly missed the plane due to the train I caught from Victoria Station to Gatwick having some mechanical malfunction. Luckily the resourceful David “Beaky” Sims (now Team Manager at Risi Racing) had British Airways hold the plane for me.
We were staying in a beautiful old hotel in the center of Buenos Aires within walking distance from a host of restaurants — although crossing the roads was dicey as every car jumped the lights and the worst offenders were the buses packed with people with their fenders covered in other cars’ paint.
Every day, when I returned from the track, there were several journalists waiting for an interview, all professing to be from a different women’s magazine. So three hours of every evening were given up to talking about myself. In the end I got so bored with telling the same story that I would invent a more interesting life.”
I never did see what they wrote, but the British papers were kept informed by the four or five British racing journalists who were present at the track including the renowned motoring correspondent David Benson who was committed by The Daily Express to write a daily update on my progress.
The track was fast, but my car and I were not. Firstly there was the six speed manual gearbox. I was used to a five speed and kept getting muddled-up with the new position of the gears; secondly the clutch was not working and finally, after the mechanics led by Charlie Whiting had taken the box apart several times, Niki Lauda suggested they change the master cylinder which thankfully fixed it but not before I had wasted a whole day in the pits. Then I crashed the car after getting frustrated seeing Mario and Ronnie fly by me on Turn Three, the huge loop around a lake taken flat if you could. What I did not know was that they were driving the first ground effects cars the Lotus 78 and I was in a Hesketh which had attractive new bodywork but underneath was the suspension set-up from a 1976 chassis.
My car was fast in a straight line thanks to young engineer Frank Dernie’s aerodynamic expertise but it lacked the downforce to keep it stable. It was tough and, after every practice session I was wiped out from the heat and the effort. I would lie on the floor in the garage to cool down and count the spiders on the ceiling, no motorhome in those days.
Finally, I said to Dernie, ‘Let’s try stiffening the car,’ and he did. I went out and on my second lap screwed my courage up and entered the daunting Turn Three flat. Half-way ’round the car snapped and next minute I was going backwards across the grass in the infield. I recall trying to remember if there was anything in my way as I shot backwards at over 100mph and, as if to answer my question, I hit the corner workers station and sliced off the left rear and front wheels and eventually rolled to a stop.
When I walked back to the corner workers station I saw that they had been cooking breakfast over an open fire and, presumably when I hit their station, the guy holding the frying pan had thrown their eggs and bacon into the air as it was everywhere. I had to smile.”
Race control sent an ambulance for me and I piled all the remnants of my car into it and rode back in the front. I was unharmed although another foot to the left and it might have been a different story.
The crash couldn’t have come at a worse time as the following day was qualifying and the team had to do an all night session to rebuild the car. Needless to say, having lost so much track time from the gear problems and crash, I was way off the pace and failed to qualify. Other non-qualifiers were Hector Rebaque and Eddie Cheever.
Sunday, standing next to Niki Lauda’s wife against the pit wall at the start of the race, she turned to me and said that Niki had wanted to help me qualify but had realized that even he probably couldn’t have qualified my car. It was a nice gesture from Niki. who had been very supportive of my efforts. So I was pleased to see that he finished second in his Alfa-Romeo-powered Brabham to Mario Andretti in the now-famous ground effects Lotus.
So it was on to Brazil and the second of my Grand Prix adventures.