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Desire Wilson: Trying to qualify for my first Grand Prix

Desiré Wilson recalls having bad luck and no luck as she attempted to qualify for the 1980 British Formula 1 GP


The British Formula 1 Grand Prix of 1980 was one of the biggest disappointments of my life. Leading up to it, I had won some World Sportscar Championship races [with Alain de Cadanet] and a round of the Aurora AFX British F1 Championship. I was in peak form and I thought I was ready for F1.

At the tire test day, which, like the race, was at Brands Hatch, I drove a Williams FW07. It was the first time I’d driven a car with sliding skirts and massive ground effects, and I was five or six seconds per lap faster than I’d ever been in the Aurora car. It was an exciting time but I was under a lot of pressure because I knew it was a one-off.

At the test I was 10th fastest out of the 21 cars that were there – and that included all the F1 regulars. I was convinced I could make the race, even though there were 27 cars for 24 spots on the grid.

At the Grand Prix itself, the first thing I noticed when I got into the car was that the seat and pedals didn’t feel right. I asked one of the mechanics if the car had been run since I last drove it. He said no. Then the team manager, John MacDonald, came over and said: “Ah, well, we had to adjust the pedals, bleed the brakes, that kind of stuff. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” But something wasn’t quite right. The car was a different color, but that might have been the sponsor’s choice, so I didn’t think too much about it.

I went out and was two seconds a lap slower than in the test. The car was evil. I went back into the pits and said: “Are you sure? This just isn’t the same car. The other car was a dream to drive.”

In the first qualifying session I let Jacques Laffite [in the Ligier] pass me going into Surtees. I waved him past but he drove me straight off the track. Then we came to put on the qualifying tires for the second run and the wheels didn’t fit the car. So I had to go out on the regular tires. It was a comedy of errors. I missed the show by about half a second and that was my opportunity gone.

The next morning [fellow driver] Emilio de Villota called me and said: “I’m really sorry you didn’t qualify but I had to switch chassis. The car you drove at the tire test was my regular Williams. MacDonald just took my car and put you in it at the test. But I own it, so I told him he couldn’t do that. You landed up in an Aurora car that had been damaged the week before at Monza; they just threw some sliding skirts on it.”

So that was why so much had been wrong with it. It was so frustrating. You sometimes hear about unlucky drivers –
I think I was one of them.

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



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