There were two weeks between the 1978 Grand Prix in Argentina and the race in Brazil so directly after the Argentine race we flew to Rio de Janeiro. When I arrived in Rio, I found the modest little hotel near the docks where the team was to be housed for the week prior to the Grand Prix.
On the plane I’d felt like I had some sand in my eyes and, after spending a miserable night, discovered I was loosing the sight in my right eye. I went to the hotel reception to ask if there was a good eye doctor nearby. The receptionist was great. Not only did he call the doctor, he also arranged for a taxi to take me there. The doctor, who turned out to be Swedish, confirmed that at some point I must have looked directly at the sun and that I had solar retinopathy. He said if I was lucky it would heal in a week. So I returned to my hotel room with an eye patch, some drops and a bottle of pills to relieve the pain.
After four miserable days I was summoned to see Anthony “Bubbles” Horsley, Hesketh Team Principal, who wanted to be sure I was OK. Bubbles had flown in on Concord and was staying in the Hotel Meridien, where I found him in bed with food poisoning. We looked at each other and laughed: here was a half blind driver and a sick Team Principal. The situation did not look good for qualifying, but we both recovered and, in the meantime, I moved into the InterContinental Hotel, where most of the drivers were staying. I did not have a reservation there as our team was booked into a different hotel. But whilst insisting to the receptionist that they must have lost my reservation, I met-up with Gilles Villeneuve and Jochen Mass and the hotel eventually decided that I was a bona-fide driver. They found me a beautiful room that they filled with flowers and fruit and a welcome note.
The Jacarepagua track was new and run in anti-clockwise direction. It was not the type of track my Hesketh was well-suited to, having only two short straights and a lot of constant radius corners. Adding to the ambience, the track was dusty and temperatures were up in the 90’sF (32+C). Each time I came into the pits to make a suspension change the mechanics blew compressed air into my helmet to try and keep me cool.
The highlight of my week was a bicycle race arranged by the organizers. I led the entire field for a lap with all the drivers laughing and hooting as they snaked in a long line behind me before most of them blew by me on the second lap. On track I struggled with the six speed box and the reluctance of the Hesketh to grip in the corners. Finally, in my hurry to put a good lap down I missed a gear in qualifying and blew a large hole in the engine so, once again, I became one of the four non-qualifiers along with Arturo Mezario, Eddie Cheever and Vittorio Brambilla. Carlos Reutemann won the race in his Ferrari ahead of Emerson Fittipaldi and Niki Lauda.
I watched the Grand Prix on TV from the comfort of my hotel room as I was still embarrassed about facing the team after destroying the Hesketh’s engine and not qualifying. But it proved to be not a sensible move as several drivers were negotiating with Bubbles to take over my drive.
The next race was the very fast Kyalami track in South Africa where I felt sure the Hesketh would be competitive.