Features - News Feature
NOVEMBER 17, 2000
Now you see it, Now you don't
BY DAVID TREMAYNE
The upcoming drama over Kimi Raikkonen's claim to an F1 superlicence will add some spice to an otherwise quiet time of year, and well-placed sources suggest that the Finn's quest will prove fruitless. But compared to Perry McCarthy, who went that route back in 1992, the reigning British Formula Renault champion is decidedly overqualified.
The FIA, in its role not only as governing body of the sport but also as the protector of its participants, sets criteria which drivers must usually satisfy if they are to qualify for the ticket to ride in the big league.
A top four placing in the F3000 championship is a starter. Nope, Pel didn't make that one.
A top three in five races, then? Uh, huh.
Okay, a top six in 10 races? Er. Would you accept a seventh at Spa?
A top three in Japanese F3000? Come off it!
What about a top six in CART? Nothing doing. Never raced there, mate.
A national F3 victory? Well&Mac226;...
Truth was, the one time that Pel was on the brink of the breakthrough win that he was surely capable of, at Silverstone's Club circuit meeting back in the summer of 1987, he ended up finishing second to one J. Herbert.
So McCarthy was not on the top of many shopping lists when the F1 seats were being doled out in 1992. In fact, he wasn't even on the lists. His days of F3 had ended in 1988 with a determined move up to F3000, and those who saw what he clawed out of that year's lamentable Ralt, particularly at Dijon, still talk about it. Likewise his Alesi-beating speed up a wet Eau Rouge at Spa in 1989 in a Lola. He had the talent, but not the results.
His career path took him west, to Uncle Sam's sportscar territory in IMSA. There he terrorized Jaguar and Nissan's works teams with some giant-killing acts in a modest Spice Chevrolet, though more often than not the impecunious team had to use his dramatic speed as an advertisement for pay-drivers, who would them temporarily replace him until the team got tired a) of being slow and b) of having to repair the car every time it went out.
While all this was going on an unusual fellow by the name of Andrea Sassetti, reputedly an Italian entrepreneur in the fashion business, had his sights on F1. Initially he took over Enzo Colini's old cars. The hapless Alex Caffi, a refugee from better times at Arrows, and evergreen F3000 pedaller Enrico Bertaggia were signed to drive the cars on their debut in South Africa. It was a disaster. Sassetti overlooked the $100,000 deposit that the FIA required from newcomers. Under a beneficial vote of force majeure the team was allowed to go to Mexico, where it was similarly dismal. When both drivers were moved to air their thoughts, Sassetti took umbrage and sacked them. So now he had no drivers, and then he had no cars, because the FIA said he now had to build his own rather than use someone else's cast offs.
Enter super-sub Roberto Moreno, dumped by Benetton at the end of the previous season. And&Mac226;... one P. McCarthy of Essex, England.
The Andrea Moda ride was not, you understand, the greatest that F1 had to offer. In the aftermath of the Kyalami fiasco Sassetti was steered via designer Nick Wirth to an elderly chassis that was initially to have been a works BMW, before the Bavarian giant had second thoughts about a return at the beginning of the Nineties. Part of the reason for its suddenly tepid enthusiasm may have been said chassis' failure to withstand its mandatory crash test. But now, as Sasetti voiced his aspirations, a sticking plaster of carbon fibre - wonderful stuff - was glued over the old weak area and the black cars were ready to roll. In McCarthy's mind it was an F1 car and that was all that mattered. It was a chance, and desperate men have made the most of them since time immemorial.
Somehow he talked his way into a superlicence, and hocked himself to find the airfare to Brazil. He got there just in time to discover that his superlicence had been revoked because he failed to qualify. At 6pm on the Thursday evening the precious document was actually taken from his hand. It was a devastating blow. Much is always made of how tough Nigel Mansell had it in his early days, but nobody has ever gone through so much for so little as McCarthy. He was sleeping on borrowed floors and counting the few quid he'd got from remortgaging his house yet again as he contemplated a bleak future in the garage.
Enter Bernard Charles Ecclestone, who for reasons unknown walked into the same area and was promptly cornered by one of McCarthy's friends, who aggressively wanted to know just what was going on. The situation was patently unfair. If McCarthy didn't qualify, the time to have told him was when he first asked, not this far down the road.
'It's a mess,' Ecclestone agreed. Had McCarthy simply accepted it, that would have been the end. But Ecclestone loves a fighter, and McCarthy fought. Before long Bernie had taken him under his wing and was asking people such as Flavio Briatore to support Pel's application to the World Motor Sport Council to have his superlicence reinstated.
If life were a novel, McCarthy would have gone on to win races and, eventually, the Championship. But though things may be grim in F1, there are never any fairy tales. The Andrea Moda was a dog, and the team kindly did its best to protect McCarthy by rarely letting him drive it. He did a couple of laps at Imola, and it was only at Spa in August, when the FIA threatened the team with dire consequences if it continued running only one car for Moreno, that he really got going.
'I went into Eau Rouge, desperately trying to take it flat,' McCarthy recalls, his eyes still on stalks. 'And the steering seized. I still don't know how I made it through the corner.'
When he mentioned the 'problem' on his return to the pits, one of the mechanics told him: 'Oh yeah, we know. That's the duff one we took off Roberto's car at the last race.' He, like McCarthy, had a remarkable tale of survival to tell that day.
By Monza Sassetti, his shades, leather jacket and appalling cars were gone, and so was Perry McCarthy's F1 career. But had he not fought it would never even have begun.
Arguably Kimi Raikkonen has better qualifications, and if he does make the big game, he will have an incomparably better chance of showing his true mettle with Red Bull Sauber Petronas than McCarthy ever did.
And if he has to wait another year, it's hardly going to be the end of the world for a 21 year-old who clearly has a big future.