THE HACK LOOKS BACK

on a driver whose career went wrong

Last year, I received a phone call out of the blue. At the other end of the line, speaking from Colombia, was Ricardo Londono, a racing driver with whom I had made friends in the early Eighties at a time when he was trying to get a foothold in F1 racing. I had lost touch with Ricardo long ago, but as the conversation flowed it became clear that our relationship had lost nothing since we parted in 1982. He had got my phone number, by chance, after meeting my brother-in-law at the city airfield in Medellin (Colombia's second city) where Diego keeps his single-engined plane, and he was overjoyed to hear that I was now married to a Colombian woman. As he reminded me more than once, this had been his advice to me all those years ago. He insisted that next time the Brunette and I went to Colombia, he would be our host.

Then, last weekend, my mother-in-law got a message to us to say that Ricardo Londono was dead and to let me know that reports of his brutal murder were all over the TV and newspapers. It was a horrific story. Surrounded by family and friends on the beach, he had been preparing to leave the restaurant where they had enjoyed lunch when six hit men suddenly appeared. The killers didn't mess around: the shooting lasted five minutes and there were 12 bullets in Ricardo's body, including three in his head. Two other men, believed to be his bodyguards, went down with him. The local police told a national newspaper that the assassinations were part of the settling of accounts in the drug trade. In a country still racked by the curse of drugs, nobody doubted that verdict.

To avoid any misunderstandings, it might help here if I insert a few personal details. I have visited Colombia three times, twice on motor racing business and once, in 2001, to meet my wife's family six months after we were married in England. Coincidentally, my best friend, whom I met through motor racing in England (and who was instrumental in introducing me to Mrs Hack 10 years ago), is a prominent Colombian figure who has political connections with two of his country's Presidents and currently serves it as a diplomat. He also happens to have a family relationship with Ricardo Londono. Let us call my friend Bill. Neither he, nor I, nor anyone in our immediate families, has ever been involved in the sale of narcotics. We deplore the use of illegal drugs. In fact I'm not particularly thrilled when Bill lights up one of his beloved Cuban cigars.

This does not mean that we have never had contact with people involved in the drug business. In Colombia, a troubled but democratic country of 30 million people whose economic output is distorted by drug exports valued in the billions of dollars, it is virtually impossible to know the background of the people one encounters as part of everyday social or commercial contact. Nevertheless, even a foreigner like me rapidly acquires a nose for a mafioso. He won't smell particularly bad, but he will tend to lack social graces and he often has terrible taste in clothes, jewellery and cars. More obviously, his companions will be scary-looking blokes with guns tucked into their armpits.

As a racing driver and a national celebrity, Ricardo Londono could not avoid being lionised by the narcotraficantes. Born in 1950, from his teenage years he was an extraordinary daredevil who raced bikes, cars and boats. Along the way he did a lot of crashing and broke a lot of bones - but always came back. His sharp wits earned him the nickname "Cuchilla" ("Koo-tchee-jah" in the local pronunciation), which roughly translates as "Razor." Colombian motorsport - karting and cars - is administered by FIA-affiliated federations, and there are several important championships. There have been some good Colombian drivers, as we know, but there's an air of circus about racing there, and top talent has to move abroad to find success and recognition.

The mistake that Ricardo made in his career was to stay at home, where his ability garnered him increasingly meaningless successes, not to mention enhancing his celebrity. It was only when his fellow countryman Roberto Guerrero, eight years his junior, started to have success in British F3 racing, that he decided to head for England at last. At the end of the 1980 season, at Silverstone, he arrived to drive an ex-F1 Lotus 78 in a round of the Aurora series. The car, entered by one-time Lotus mechanic Colin Bennett, was already thoroughly battle-scarred. Ricardo crashed it in practice when yet another tired component broke, but he drove sensationally well in the race, coming through to finish 7th.

Ricardo's talent, and the possibility of raising some money in Colombia, came to the attention of Ensign boss Morris Nunn, whose team was close to my heart and for which I worked, as its lap-charter, at all the GPs. Morris had always operated on tiny margins, and he was about to lose his best-ever sponsor, Unipart. There was going to be some sort of tie-up in 1981 with Colin Bennett, who was understandably pushing for the 30 year old Colombian. It was therefore decided, early in 1981, that Ensign should send an expedition to Colombia in search of sponsorship. This foraging party consisted of Morris Nunn, my Colombian mate Bill and me. No, I don't know why either. Perhaps the presence of a journalist added some weight to the expedition. Because I was owed some holiday by my magazine, Motor - then the UK's best-selling car weekly - I was happy to help out. I requested no fee, neither did I accept one.

The general plan, as I remember, was to concentrate our search on - for want of a better word - legitimate businesses. Cafe Colombia, the huge state-supported coffee exporting commission, was already on board, so we started with Pasta Doria, an old-fashioned business owned by devout Catholics whose products were available in every supermarket. They stumped up enough to buy a few stickers, despite some misgivings about the tearaway driver. So far, so legal. The difficult part came when we got word from some of Ricardo's less savoury backers that they didn't want to be left out of the bidding process.

Thus it was that I made the acquaintance of a notorious Colombian family, a father and two sons whose wealth and influence can have been generated only by a deep involvement in the business of distributing the product which has cast such a long shadow over Colombia in the eyes of the world. This was an invitation, however, that we could not refuse. We took a long trip to the family's farmhouse in the countryside on the eastern (Atlantic seaboard) side of the country. It may have been a working farm, but it also had a colossal runway, capable of taking even the biggest cargo plane. After a brief conversation, during which I found myself tongue-tied, we sat down to a delicious lunch of wild duck, shot personally by our host. I couldn't help wondering if he'd used a 12-bore or a Thomson machine gun...

My companions had to rush back to Europe that same afternoon, but our hosts insisted that I stay the night, to regale them and their friends with stories of F1 racing. My own flights home via Miami were magically re-scheduled so that I could fly out of the beautiful coastal city of Cartagena, about 100 kms north, and it was decided that we would drive down there that evening to have dinner by the harbour. The bosses chose to ride the bumpy road on their motorbikes, with their ladies on the pillion and me in one of the pickups that escorted them. At intervals of 10 kilometres or so along the way there were police roadblocks, designed (I was told) to facilitate the apprehension of wanted criminals. Every time we passed one, I couldn't help noticing that the cops had stopped a bus or a taxi and were far too busy searching crates of fruit and chickens to bother with us.

After overcoming my shyness over some excellent wine and food, I was escorted to a luxurious yacht in the harbour and shown my quarters, the air-conditioned master cabin. There I was left in the care of the crew, no more than ten or 10 of them. Next morning a man in a big Mercedes took me to the airport. While the other passengers had to check in and negotiate immigration, I was taken directly to the waiting plane. No questions asked.

The first race of the 1981 season was at Long Beach, where Marc Surer (talent but no money) was driving the sole Ensign. Although Ricardo was with the team, he didn't yet have a super licence. I was staying with my friend Chuck Jones, an American who later put some money into Ensign, and one night we organised a party. Chuck's neighbours, some of whom had pretty daughters, were there, and I introduced a particularly comely lass to Ricardo. He invited her to join him at the next race, in Rio de Janeiro, and to his delight she accepted. Several days later, we all set off for Brazil.

Because the JacarepaguĆ  circuit in Rio had not been used by F1 cars for a few years, the FIA had decided to have an acclimatisation session on the Wednesday before the race. The idea was that Ricardo would drive in the session in order to give the federation's observers an idea of his competence. He showed real flair at the wheel of that excellent little Ensign, setting respectable times and outpacing several of the up-and-coming big names. Perhaps his track etiquette was a bit raw, however, and Keke Rosberg took such a disliking to him that when an opportunity arose, the tough Finn brake-tested him. Taken by surprise, Ricardo understandably failed the test and thumped into the back of the Fittipaldi. The FIA observers noted the incident and the upshot was that Ricardo Londono never got his superlicence. Surer took over the car for the Brazilian GP and in a torrential downpour did such a sensationally good job (finishing fourth) that the seat was his for the rest of the season.

Undeterred, Ricardo at last did what he should have done years before and resolved to race in Europe. It was too late to contest a full season of F2, which is what I suggested, but he managed to finish ninth at the notoriously difficult Pau street circuit in one of Alan Docking's cars. He then showed up at Pergusa, still accompanied by the Californian sweetie. By now, however, she had met the other Colombian, Roberto Guerrero, and in a romantic midnight flit she shifted hotels (and her affections) to be with him. Ricardo swore revenge, and in the race a terrified Roberto was convinced that his rival would deliberately push him off the track. It didn't happen, though, and the story had a happy ending. At the end of 1982 - by which time Roberto had graduated to F1 - he and Katie were married at her home, with me as one of the witnesses. They have three delightful children and live happily to this day in Orange County.

Ricardo never did make his mark in Europe. In 1982, he showed up in the USA, driving one of those gigantic F5000-based central-seater Lola Can-Am cars, and I was invited to his first race, at Sears Point north of San Francisco. By now it was no secret where the sponsorship was coming from, and I became distinctly nervous to learn that half a dozen of his backers had showed up in person. We were all staying at a Holiday Inn where the manageress was so excited that she asked to have her picture taken with all her exotic South American guests. After the snaps had been taken she casually (but innocently) informed me that her husband was the Sheriff of Marin County. I thought it best not to pass on this information to the various gentlemen involved.

A few weeks later, one of the American news weeklies ran a story about the world's most wanted criminals. There were portraits of nine of them on the front cover, and three of the "most wanted" had stayed at that Holiday Inn, supporting the Colombian. I often wonder if the manageress ever found an opportunity to mention this to her husband.

At the age of 32, and downcast by the Brazilian experience, Ricardo eventually went home. I believe he did some more racing, but I never heard any results. What I did hear was worrying. He had started a business selling expensive American hardware - boats, planes and helicopters - to the bad guys. There must have been a lot of money in it, because in 2000 the Colombian courts issued a confiscation against him under legislation aimed at denying known traffickers the fruits of their criminal activities. Properties valued at several million dollars were seized.

When Ricardo called me last year, I had heard only the vaguest reports of these difficulties. He certainly didn't sound despondent and talked about coming to visit us in Europe. Rather naively, I invited him to come and stay with us in England. He was delighted to accept, perhaps because he was getting weary of having to look round every corner before he could go for a walk. As it happens, our little corner of Sussex doesn't see much in the way of hired assassins and million-dollar drug deals. It is a visit, though, which will not now take place.

I've made a lot of friends through motor racing. Ricardo LondoƱo was one of the more interesting ones, and certainly the scariest. Like Tommy Byrne, whose biography entertained us last year, he was undeniably and exceptionally gifted. Like Tommy, the circumstances of his life weighed against him and his talent was tragically mismanaged. I will speculate until the end of my life about what would have happened 28 years ago in Rio if he hadn't come up against a truculent Finn. For all his manifest faults, he was jovial company and a good friend. The sort of man with whom it is best to be friends rather than an enemy.

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In his last piece on this website, the Hack mis-identified the Australian magazine editor whose knowledge of the Nurburgring, gained on a computer game, so impressed him. An embarrassed Hack acknowledges that the ace driver was Tim Robson. In mitigation, the Hack pleads heavy pressure: he was writing the piece in a wifi-equipped Spanish bar where strong drink was freely available. It has also led him to wonder whether 40 years of travel and excitement is leading him to become dazed and confused. Apologies all round.

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