Richard Robarts

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Last updated: 1-January-2005


Biography

Before Formula One Formula One After Formula One

Before F1
Background

Backmarkers often in the spotlight in F1

Sceptics have always asked whether or not Formula One results are indicative of a driver's true talent. After all, so much depends on the quality of one's car. But while many of the drivers on this site did not have the machinery to justify their ability, nonetheless Formula One does have a habit of separating the sheep from the goats. While some World Champions are undeniably greater than others, there has never been one who has been unworthy of that title, even if they had a vastly superior car.

On the other hand, Grand Prix racing also shines a harsh spotlight on the rear of the grid. Lower formulae reputation counts for nothing if it seems you don't have what it takes to cope with the pressure and competition of the highest league of all. While there have been some notable recent examples (hello Jan Magnussen), it is anything but a new phenomenon. High-quality drivers who proved their capabilities and ample talent in junior categories have often been found wanting upon reaching Formula One.

1969-72

Late starter in cars, at age 24

Take Englishman Richard Robarts, for example. Hailing from Bicknacre near Chelmsford in Essex, he was a comparative latecomer to racing, starting to compete only when he was almost 25. Mind you, Graham Hill never drove a car until he was 24, so that did not necessarily mean much. Robarts began competing in an Aston Martin Lagonda in 1969, but by year's end he had already moved into single seater racing in Formula Ford 1600 in a Ginetta chassis, continuing in 1970 without any particular achievements.

But having found his feet in the category, he started to come good in 1971, when he switched to a Palliser and scored three 2nds and a 3rd at Lydden Hill, as well as a 2nd and 5th at Brands Hatch. A further change to an Elden in 1972 for his third full season of Formula Ford 1600 reaped even greater rewards, as Robarts stormed to victory at Oulton Park, along with two 2nds, a 5th and a 6th at Silverstone, and, just to round out the set of top six finishes, a 3rd and a 4th at Brands Hatch.


Robarts (left) in his FFord Ginetta putting pressure on a Merlyn driver ahead.
Robarts (left) in his FFord Ginetta putting pressure on a Merlyn driver ahead.

1973

Three F3 wins, becomes equal Lombard F3 champion

With Richard due to turn 29 in 1973, there was now no time to waste if he was to progress anywhere significant up the motor racing ladder. So it was time for Robarts to step up into Formula 3, initially with a GRD and later an Ensign. He adjusted quickly to the increased power of an F3 machine, and was immediately on the pace. The result was three wins at Silverstone, Thruxton and Brands Hatch, three 2nds at Silverstone and Oulton Park, and three 3rd at Thruxton, Brands Hatch and Mallory Park.

Several other top ten finishes meant that Robarts shared the Lombard North Central Championship with the extremely talented Tony Brise on 52 points apiece, and was 3rd overall in the Forward Trust Championship behind Brise on 42 and Ian Taylor on 64. To put Brise's ability into perspective, that year he also won the John Player Championship, defeating future World Champion Alan Jones 123 points to 121. It had thus been a very good year for Robarts, and he was going to waste no time in taking advantage.

Formula One
1974
Brabham

Bernie's outfit needs Richard as much as Richard needs Bernie

In the early 1970s, one Bernie Ecclestone had taken over control of the Brabham team and, as incredulous as this may seem today, the outfit was struggling financially. At the end of 1973, Wilson Fittipaldi left to set up his own Copersucar team, and Bernie was more than happy to take on a paying driver as Carlos Reutemann's team-mate. With the backing of a wealthy real estate agent friend that had already seen him through the lower categories, Robarts grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

So the pairing of Reutemann and Robarts arrived in Argentina for the start of the 1974 season, to drive the Gordon Murray-designed Brabham BT44 Cosworth. At least both cars had BT44 bodywork; some suggested that Robarts' tub was actually Reutemann's BT42 from the previous year. At any rate, little was expected of him, and he didn't do too badly at all, qualifying in 22nd position, only 3.95s away from pole and just over 2.2s slower than Reutemann.


Richard was overshone by Reutemann in the Brazilian GP. Here Robarts negotiates the Interlagos circuit.
Richard was overshone by Reutemann in the Brazilian GP. Here Robarts negotiates the Interlagos circuit.

1974

Passable debut, but things become tougher in Brazil

In the race, he was up to 15th position when he retired with gearbox problems after 36 laps. However, it was perhaps Robart's misfortune that Reutemann had superbly shown the capabilities of the BT44, making Robarts look like he was underachieving though his was not a fully new model. Reutemann had actually led in the closing stages, until a loose airbox and not enough fuel caused him to stop just short of Ecclestone's first win as Brabham boss, which would have been a great fillip for the under-funded operation.

Thus, if an unconvincing debut performance in Argentina could have been excused, now the pressure was immediately on Robarts to demonstrate his ability in Brazil. But the Brazilian GP was at the old Interlagos, not a place for the faint-hearted or for rookies feeling their way in the sport. Reutemann put his still-sponsorless Brabham on the front row; Robarts only qualified 24th, and was 6.64s slower than the Argentine, and 6.88s behind pole-sitter Emerson Fittipaldi.

1974

Richard as Oliver, "Please Bernie, I want some more!"

Reutemann took the early lead but thereafter struggled on his softer tyres and eventually finished 7th, but Robarts had not taken the chance to shine either. He languished in 15th place at the end, 2 laps down on the victorious Fittipaldi. But with over two months before the next World Championship race in South Africa and the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch in the meantime, there was time for Robarts to regather his form on a circuit he knew.

It didn't seem to matter, though. Still in the BT42 tub uprated to BT44 spec, Robarts found himself dicing with the F5000 cars in the race, and eventually made a nuisance of himself by taking out pole-sitter James Hunt's Hesketh. With this series of unconvincing efforts behind him, Richard now desperately needed to recapture some of his F3 speed at Kyalami. There, however, according to Geza Sury, perhaps as a cover for his lack of pace, he approached Ecclestone and asked if he could get a fairer share of publicity!


Robarts' last race for Brabham, the International Trophy at Silverstone.
Robarts' last race for Brabham, the International Trophy at Silverstone.

1974

Carlos's showings not helping Robarts' cause

Bernie responded as only Bernie would, and promptly had Robarts' name painted in larger black letters on the side of his car! But it made little difference to his form. In a tightly-packed grid, Richard qualified 23rd, 2.02s off pole, while Reutemann was 4th. But while Carlos stormed to victory as several of the other leading runners fell out, Robarts once again did little to stand out, finishing a lowly 17th and a whole four laps adrift of his own team-mate. He was probably now well and truly in the last-chance saloon.

Brabham then entered the non-championship International Trophy at Silverstone. But there Robarts indeed was well and truly beaten by John Nicholson in the rather feeble Lyncar chassis. With that, Bernie had had enough, although to be fair Richard had always been hampered by his older machinery. There was some doubt as to whether or not Robarts' money had actually arrived, going by the still-unsponsored flanks of the BT44s, but his lack of speed alone was enough for Ecclestone to show him the door.

1974
Iso-Marlboro

Frank Williams plays "indian giver" with Richard's drive

In his place came another wealthy journeyman, Rikky von Opel, who ironically had won the Lombard North Central British F3 championship in 1972, a year before Robarts. Von Opel hung on to the second Brabham seat for a few races, doing only marginally better than Robarts, before he too had to make way for someone who brought not only finances but actually some considerable talent - Brazilian Carlos Pace. But meanwhile, all was seemingly not over for Robarts' Grand Prix career.

On the eve of the Swedish Grand Prix, the team of Frank Williams running the mildly promising Iso Marlboro FW02 chassis gave Richard the call-up to replace Arturo Merzario who was unwell. Robarts had actually qualified the car 25th, but his team-mate, Danish pilot Tom Belso, had destroyed his Iso Marlboro in practice. This being as close to Belso's home race as you could get, Williams gave Robarts' car to the Dane for the race. Thereafter, Merzario returned, and Robarts' stint in Formula One was over.


Frank Williams gave Robarts a drive in Sweden, and then gave it to Belso!
Frank Williams gave Robarts a drive in Sweden, and then gave it to Belso!

After F1
1975-76

Turns to sports cars, and then returns to single seaters

Now into his thirties, with a few nondescript Grand Prix outings behind him in which he had failed to fire, Robarts' brief racing career had hit a dead end. But keen to continue racing, and with the prestige of being an F1 driver presumably no small thing, in 1975 he secured four starts in the sports car World Championship of Makes alongside Robin Smith in a Chevron B23 Ford, at Monza, Spa, the Nurburgring, and the Osterreichring. In Italy and Germany the pair finished 8th and 10th respectively, 2nd in class on both occasions.

However, single seater racing was what he was used to, and for 1976 he acquired a Formula 2 March 752 with a BDA engine, taking it to the first round of the Shellsport Group 8 Formula Libre championship which featured old F1, F2 and F5000 cars, at Mallory Park. In a sensational return, Robarts qualified the car on the front row, but was forced to retire 15 laps from home with an ignition problem. Encouraged, he set off to race the car in the Formula 2 championship proper.

1976

Horrific Vallelunga accident spoils up and down year

There he found the going a lot tougher. Racing under the 'Team Myson' banner, Richard failed to qualify at Hockenheim, and only managed to finish 18th at Thruxton. He then switched to a Hart engine for the third round at Vallelunga, and yet again did not make the grid. Although this time he was counting his lucky stars, because he had survived a horrendous accident that completely wrote off his 752, but somehow left him with no more than a broken nose. Nevertheless, it meant an enforced time on the sidelines.

Three rounds later, Robarts turned up at Hockenheim with a March 762, still with a Hart engine, but an electrical fire in the first heat meant that he did not take the start for the second, and was thus not classified as a finisher overall. In his remaining F2 championship outings that year, he again DNQed at Rouen, Mugello and Hockenheim once more, but did manage to take 14th at Nogaro. But finding life on the continent a tough nut to crack, before the year was out Robarts was looking to Britain again.


The annihilated remains of Robarts F2 March at Vallelunga.
The annihilated remains of Robarts F2 March at Vallelunga.

1976-77

Fine drive to 2nd at Brands; continues form at BH Indy circuit

As the Shellsport series drew to a conclusion, Robarts entered his 762 for round 8 at Snetterton, its back coupled to the BDA engine once more. An average 8th there was followed by a 17th at Brands Hatch, but when the series returned to Brands for round 12, Richard was back to his best, finishing 2nd behind Keith Holland in a Lola T400. He then continued his good run at the Brands Hatch Indy track for the final round, finishing 3rd, thereby securing equal 9th in the Shellsport championship.

But with only such fleeting moments of success, interspersed by quite a lot of hard graft for very little gain, come 1977 and Robarts was winding down his brief racing career. He even tried his hand at F3 once again, driving an Anson at Thruxton and Zolder but failing to finish either event. But keeping his March 762, he installed a Hart 420R engine in it and entered it for the fourth round of the Shellsport G8 series at the Brands Hatch Indy layout, starting the race from 9th on the grid.

1977-78

Retires to run successful coach building firm

Partway through the race, though, after 27 of the 60 laps, Robarts was black-flagged and disqualified for having received outside assistance. It proved just about to be an unremarkable end for what had been, apart from his fifteen minutes of fame in 1973, a fairly unremarkable motor racing career. To prove the point, he and his 762 was entered by a Dr Joseph Ehrlich for the first round of the 1978 Formula 2 championship in Thruxton, but the entry never materialised. Perhaps his heart simply wasn't in it any more.

Indeed, Robart's final race proved to be a one-off effort in the Porsche 924 Challenge in 1978, where he finished 6th at Thruxton. Thereafter he walked away from racing, eventually settling in Steeple in Essex where he now directs a large, specialist, local coach-building firm. A motorsport career that had lasted less than a decade, which had been rather quotidian apart from one sterling F3 season and a brief taste of the big league, had come to a relatively quick end.

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