F1 Rejects Interview with

Desiré Wilson

Stock CarsAurora F11980 WSCSth African FVee in 1974

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Desiré Wilson When it comes to female drivers in motorsport, one name stands tall above most others: Desiré Wilson. She is one of the most versatile competitors in motorsport, making the grade in every category she has attempted: Formula Vee, Formula Ford, F1, Sports Cars, Indy Cars, Stock Cars, karting - you name it, she has been there, done that.

Her experiences in F1 depend on what championship you refer to. Back in the late-70s there was a British non-Grand Prix series called Aurora F1, in which contemporary F1 cars competed. Wilson impressed, and won one race - the only woman to win an F1 race! However, her attempts to qualify for a World Championship GP saw the F1 gods fail to smile on her.

In this interview, Wilson sheds light on her career and the difficulties of being South African and female in a 'man's sport'. We thank Desiré for her time and effort, and her husband, Alan, for helping us with her profile! For full details of Desiré's F1 races, and information on his career, please see our Desiré Wilson biography.

• What initially fuelled your interest in racing, and was it always your ambition to make it to F1?

My father, Charlie Randall, was a former South African Motorcycle champion, and he placed me in Micro Midget racing cars at the age of 5 years. At the age of 18 years was really the start of what I call my real racing career. I loved all forms of racing and had a passion that I could not explain.

However, as I came from a lower middle class family, I never had any idea that I would ever reach F1. I took each race one day at a time and each championship one day at a time. Only after winning the Aurora F1 Race at Brands Hatch did I really think I had what it took to be a competitive F1 driver - the hunger started!
• How did you feel about your extremely rapid rise to testing F1 cars and racing in the Aurora series? What were your impressions of the Aurora racing scene?

I was racing FF2000, Sports 2000, and the occasional Formula Atlantic race. I was extremely surprised when John Webb of Brands Hatch told me that I would be testing a F1 car at Brands during the tyre test days for the British GP in 1978. John started the Aurora F1 Series, and wanted a competitive woman in the field, so he started engineering my career without too many discussions with me. Of course, I had no objection!

The Aurora F1 series was a really great concept. It gave drivers the opportunity to race "one year old" GP cars. In the late 70s, the cars did not have the enormous performance differences as they do today. In fact, in the 1979 Race of Champions, I qualified just behind John Watson in the factory 1979 McLaren. I was driving a 1978 Tyrrell 008.

The series, although not always a full grid, was made up of some of the best of British and European F1 hopefuls. It was also a way to qualify for the Superlicense to drive in Grand Prix. It was a great way to learn how to handle a F1 car.
• What were the origins of your interesting helmet design?

The design started off as Blue helmet with a yellow stripe. Mainly because I liked blue and yellow together, and I was a great fan of Ronnie Peterson from Sweden. The crown evolved once I started driving in the Aurora F1 series - the press sometimes called me the "African Queen". So to make the design a little more feminine, we came up with the yellow crown on the blue helmet.
Wilson competing in British SS2000 in 1978, just before getting the call up to F1
• Sadly, the F1 World Championship round at Brands Hatch in 1980 turned out to be a fiasco for you, none of it your own fault. In hindsight, what are your reflections on that weekend?

The 1980 British GP was the most disappointing weekend of my life. I could not believe it at the time, and to this day still cringe when I think of the events that took place. Two weeks prior to the British GP, during the tire test days, I had an absolutely wonderful race car. I was 9th fastest of the 21 cars at the test day (the first time I had ever driven a "skirted" ground effects car). I was so confident in qualifying for that race. I did not know that the car was owned by Emilio de Villota at the time, and also unaware that Emilio did not know I was driving his "borrowed" car.

So for the British GP, one of Eliseo Salazar's recently crashed Aurora FW07s was put together, and delivered to the British GP for me to qualify. The car was evil! The qualifying tires/wheels did not fit the uprights, so I had no qualifying rubber, the issues go on and on. I will never forget that awful weekend and will never forget the con job. A lot of very good people were hurt in many ways on that weekend.
• On the other hand, you were one of the stars of the 1981 South African GP. What are your recollections of that event?

Bernie Ecclestone had being trying to put me into a third Brabham at the South African GP. A month before the GP, I received a call from Ken Tyrrell, telling me that the Brabham was not available and that I would be driving for him. I was really ecstatic. My dream was to drive for Ken. The Brabham was a much more competitive car, winning championships, but I always respected Ken as he was known to be a "talent spotter". I had no testing and the GP weekend was the first time I sat in the car. I qualified 16th, 0.6 seconds slower that Eddie Cheever in the first Tyrrell, who had been testing most of the winter.

I made a disastrous start, and found myself last off the grid. However, in the wet, I was pretty exceptional and started picking off drivers, including Eddie and Nigel Mansell (Lotus). I had worked my way up to 9th, with the track drying, when I started trying a little to hard, got on the power to soon, lost the rear end and spun. I touched the wall with my rear wing, drove back to the pits, but there was too much damage to replace the wing. I was pretty miffed with myself. But at the same time, I knew I was capable of racing with the best.

A few weeks after the race the FIA de-listed the Grand Prix due to political issues. The "de-listing" has had a great impact on my current life, as I did drive in a F1 Grand Prix, however as it is not listed as a World Championship, it was dropped off the calendar and all the history books. So I now have to say I drove in a non-World Championship Grand Prix!
• Were there other F1 opportunities for you after that? What factors went against you?

After the South African GP, I really felt I could be a good F1 driver, having raced and passed some very notable drivers in better cars. Ken was a bit annoyed at me for not finishing the race, but said that I drove really well. Tyrrell had not landed a major sponsor for the season, and Ken needed sponsorship to compete. He told me to get ready to go to Long Beach, Brazil and Argentina, but I had no sponsorship to offer. A week before the USGP, he called me and said that Kevin Cogan had come up with Michelob money, so Long Beach was off.

Two weeks before Brazil, Ricardo Zunino came up with the cash for the South American events. Then Michele Alboreto came up with the dollars for the rest of the European season. Ken really wanted me in his car, and he tried very hard to raise the 100,000 that he wanted, but we could not get past the "South African" label as this was the time when anti-apartheid activism was at its height. All during this time and for the rest of the year, I searched everywhere for sponsorship - all I needed was 100,000 for the season!

Later that season, Andy Marriot thought he had a sponsor for me to join Arrows for the 1982 season. It fell through late November 1981. To say how focused I was, I gave up a full season of any kind of racing, to try to stay in F1 after the South African GP in 1981. After Michele got the Tyrrell drive I then focused on finding the money for 1982.
Desire racing at Brands Hatch, victim of a 'con job'.
• Since then, you've raced sports cars and other tin-tops, as well as in Indy cars. Which do you prefer, open wheelers or sports cars, and why?

My absolute favorite race car was the Wolf WR3/4 Formula 1 car. This car suited my driving style perfectly. I like to use the power out of corners, with a little oversteer and slide the car under full power - the more horsepower the better for my style. I also loved driving the World Sports Cars of that era - De Cadenet-Cosworth, Porsche 935 and the Porsche 956/962 were a favorite. All high-horsepower and again suited my driving style. I dislike understeer immensely.

I never really came to grips with Indy Cars. I drove for the least funded teams and the car's performance reflected this. I even drove with a locked diff instead of a limited slip diff, so understeer was pretty much the name of the game. The turbo lag was awful, we never could afford the up to date engine management systems, so one minute (below 8,000 rpm) there was a bubbling misfire and then at 8,100 rpm, I had 800 bhp. If I had ever had the chance to drive a competitive Indy Car, I am sure I would have enjoyed it.
• What are your memories of Indianapolis, and the Indy car scene in general?

My Indy 500 career was a disaster. I was given the opportunity to drive in the 1982 Indy 500 by Teddy Yip. When the March Cosworth was the car to have, Teddy received very bad advice from Bobby Unser and bought an 1981 Eagle from him for me. Bobby charged Teddy as much as a new March for the Eagle and with a large smile on his face, promptly went and bought his driver Josele Garza a new March. The Eagle was evil!! It had never run, it came in boxes of parts, was put together and delivered to Indy for me to drive. To this day I will never understand why Teddy's British team did not choose the car and run it. Who knows what the outcome may have been.

I was really close to qualifying speeds, about a 1 mph off qualifying. One practice day I went over to Dan Gurney and asked him to put his driver Mike Mosely in the car to find more speed. He told me no, as I was doing 196 on the straights and averaging 192 mph, so no one would go faster than me - he said I needed a quicker engine - as the pole guys were averaging 200 mph with a 218 top speed.

On the first weekend of practice, I was so close to qualifying, but the team decided that my speed may not make the race, so waved off the qualifying run. My team mate was Gordon Smiley, who crashed fatally soon after. The team quit for the weekend (the time they waved off would have placed me in the field). The final qualifying weekend, we rented an engine, but fuel injection issues caused a piston to burn on the Saturday warm-up. The same happened with another rented engine on Sunday warm-up. The team kept putting in engines without changing the fuel log system - which was the cause! It took all day to change an engine in the Eagle, so I never got out for a qualifying run.

Luck sometimes plays in mysterious ways, on the other hand, is it fate?

I went back to Indy in 1984, practiced a car for a few days which was evil to drive and decided that risking my life to find 5 mph was not worth it. I practiced the car at 195 mph before I stepped out, and a veteran was then put in the car for qualifying and could not run over 192 mph (200 mph was what the last car on the grid managed). I never had any desire to go back. I also knew that the car was 90% of the effort. I remember sitting with Jim Crawford after he had qualified on the front row - neither of us made the grid the year before - I asked him how did he do it. He said "It's all in the car."

In my Indy Car day, the smaller teams were made up of "sprint car" or "dirt track oval" team owners and mechanics. So the scene was completely different from modern day Indy Car racing. Today, even the smaller, less funded teams are very professional.
On track in Indy Cars during 1983.
• You and your husband are into track design these days. What would you say are the prerequisites for a good circuit?

There is so much that goes into a really good race track. As a driver you only concentrate on the track and the safety areas. As a track designer, you have so many elements and sometimes these restrict you to achieving the "best track". Firstly there is the terrain, the size of the property, the environmental issues, level of racing, spectator facilities and safety, and then the piece of asphalt that fits on to what is left.

Here in the States, mainly due to liability issues and cost effectiveness, a lot of the tracks have scaled back on fast sweeping corners. Actual racing is just a small part of our race tracks. The tracks are mainly used for the average consumer or manufacturer. Our tracks are designed to be as safe as possible, with minimal impact, large runoff areas, and preferably designed for overtaking.

Our latest design at Miller Motorsports Park is quite awesome. It is 4.5 miles long with two twin tracks which can be used independently, man-made elevation changes, a 3,500 ft straight, some very fast corners and lots of overtaking areas.
• Clearly, motorsport is a male-dominated arena, but some have labeled it as 'chauvinistic'. Would you agree?

Being South African and a woman was a major stumbling block in my career. I could not convince the 'male chauvinistic' world of South Africa to support a woman in motor racing. At the same time, it was impossible to find a sponsor to support a South African in England or Europe, especially one who generated so much good publicity.

Most of my drives were given to me by 'mentors' and not commercial companies. Hey, if you want to take part in a "man's" sport you had better be ready for chauvinism. It is here to stay.
• Men have come up with all sorts of reasons why there haven't been more women in F1. What's your opinion?

All the men in the world can come up with all kinds of reasons. They really have no idea how difficult it is for a woman to participate in a man's sport. All I can say is that a woman in racing has to gain their respect, and prove that she is worthy. Most woman are not trying to be 'pioneers', but merely taking part in a sport which they love, and in which they have the talent.

It is all the influences that make it very difficult for a woman to achieve in motor sports. Hopefully both Danica Patrick and Kathryn Legge will be able to prove that they are good enough and then be given the 'testing' opportunity, just the same as the talented boys out there.
• What do you consider to be the best and worst moments of your career?

The worst are mentioned above. The 1980 British F1 GP and the 1982 Indy 500 - heartbreak.

The best we did not discuss, but winning the 1980 Aurora F1 race at Brands Hatch and getting fastest race lap, and winning the 1980 World Endurance Races with Alain De Cadenet at Monza and Silverstone. These WEC races were against the best drivers and cars in the world. I will never forget the reception we received on the podium from the Italians, or on my final lap in the lead - the spectators were literally hanging on the fences cheering me on. Awesome!

Chauvinists - eat your heart out.
Click here to read Desiré's Full Biography on our site!

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