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Desire Wilson: Battling Mansell at the South African GP

Desiré Wilson recalls her experiences at the 1981 South African Grand Prix


I had thought that after that session at the 1980 British Grand Prix, my career was done, there would be no hope of getting any further in Formula 1. Then Bernie Ecclestone called and said, “I don’t have a driver for the South African Grand Prix and I’m going to put you in my second Brabham.” A few weeks later, that became, “I’ve signed Ricardo Zunino as my second driver, I’ll supply a third car.” But I was still so excited because the Brabhams were winning everything at that time. It seemed like a dream come true.

Two weeks before the race, I was wondering, where’s the car? When’s the seat fitting? Then Ken Tyrrell calls and says, “Des, Bernie can’t supply a car, you’re driving my car. Is that OK?” I thought: Wow! Because although the Tyrrells weren’t as competitive, Ken was one of these people whom you wanted to drive for, he was the talent-finder. I asked if there was any chance I could test the car before we went to Kyalami, but there wasn’t. At least I knew the racetrack, albeit from years ago, but I didn’t know the car, which again had sliding skirts. Eddie Cheever was the number one driver and had been testing most of the winter at Paul Ricard.

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There was a fight going on at the time between FISA [under Jean-Marie Balestre] and Bernie’s FOCA [Formula One Constructors’ Association], so the Ligiers, Ferraris, Alfas and Renaults didn’t turn up. Bernie had a semi-breakaway series happening and we had 19 cars for Kyalami. I got in the car for the first session, having not driven at all for seven or eight months. I span a few times, and of course when you spun in those days, the sliding skirts disintegrated.

Second qualifying was OK but not great. They’d set the car up identical to Eddie’s; Ken said to me, “what do you need?” I replied that I needed to change the car, I couldn’t drive it that way. So we made some changes. I then had one more spin and came in again.

Ken took me aside and said: “My car’s not very fast. Right now, you’re driving my car faster than the car can go. So why don’t you just relax a little bit, because that’s all you’ve got, and you can’t make it go any quicker.” I went back out and went two seconds a lap faster, just like that! That was the kind of guy Tyrrell was, he didn’t tell you you were over-driving the car, or tell you you were a menace – he put it in a different way to give the driver confidence, which was fantastic. I qualified 16th, I believe Eddie was 12th, about six-tenths quicker than me, which I was quite thrilled with for my first time in the car.

I really messed up the start of the race. In those days there were only two lights, and the Kyalami straight was on a bit of a kink. It had started raining on the grid, and as I lifted up my visor to see where the lights were, I stalled the engine. Everybody drove away, but in those days without holes in the pit wall they could push-start you because you were in a dangerous position. Off I went about 15 seconds behind the last car.

I like the rain so I had a fabulous race for a while. I caught and passed Cheever, John Watson, Marc Surer, Chico Serra, Nigel Mansell in the Lotus, Siggy Stohr in the Arrows – a whole bunch of the number two drivers. Then it dried out. I’d said to Ken that I had a lot of experience in the wet, so if it dried out, I would come in to change tires. He said, “no, you’re a rookie, you’ll come in when I tell you”. So I stayed on the wets for what I thought was a little too long. Little did I know there was a big black cloud coming in and they were all waiting to see what it did! They’d split the strategy by putting Eddie on slicks.

So I went in late for tires and continued to have a pretty good drive, running in around 10th-12th place. I wasn’t being shown lap times. I really liked having the times to help judge the pace but Tyrrell said, “no, not in your first race”. As the track was drying I wasn’t really sure how fast I was going so I started pushing harder and harder. I’d passed Mansell earlier, but then they started showing me on the pit board that Mansell was catching me at half a second a lap, which was odd because he’d been having some problems. So I pushed harder and harder, and eventually [on lap 51 of 77] pushed too hard. I lost the rear end and spun inwards, but as I did so, Piquet came over a blind crest in the Brabham, so I turned and spun outwards [to get out of his way] and backed up against the wall, which broke the rear wing. I kept the engine running and drove back into the pits, but my day was done.

The funny thing was that Mansell was actually a lap behind and had pitted to change the skirts, so I was driving flat-out unnecessarily. But that’s the way it goes.

I never had the sponsorship to carry on, but Ken did try for a couple of races to keep me in the car. He flew me to the next race at Long Beach, but Kevin Cogan came up with the money for that one, then Zunino did a couple of races, and finally Michele Alboreto got the seat. At the end of it all, Bernie and Balestre made up before the next race. They said, “gee, we can’t have a true World Championship if Ferrari wasn’t there, nor Ligier or Renault, so let’s start the World Championship from Long Beach.” So the race was delisted and to this day doesn’t exist in the record books.

It’s pretty frustrating, but how many other drivers go through similar situations, even really good, top drivers? David Kennedy had the same thing happen to him; he had the 1980 Spanish Grand Prix delisted. At least I got to race an F1 car against the best in the world. You can’t ask for more.


The African Queen

The story behind Desiré Wilson’s distinctive blue-and-yellow ‘coronet’ race helmet starts with Ronnie Peterson. “Every race driver has a hero,” says Wilson. “I really loved Peterson as a driver, so that was where the blue and yellow came from. Initially I had a plain band but as I started getting more successful somebody said, you really ought to make your helmet a little more interesting. When I got into the Aurora British F1 Championship they started calling me the African Queen, so we thought, let’s do a coronet! It’s something a little more feminine, and totally different to anybody else.”



Desiré Wilson was talking to Graham Heeps at the 2010 Goodwood Revival



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