A Mexican Muddle: The Shortest Formula One Career on Record

By Jonathan Williams

Fortune Does Not Always Smile on Talent

By any standard, 1967 was a pretty wretched year for Ferrari. Lorenzo Bandini succumbed to the terrible injuries he sustained during the Monaco Grand Prix. Gunther Klass was killed instantly when his lightweight Dino slammed into a tree at Mugello, and Mike Parkes broke his legs so badly in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa that his career at the highest level was effectively finished. Lodovico Scarfiotti retired temporarily to ponder the meaning of all this, leaving just Chris Amon and me to carry on at Maranello.

The Scuderia continued to field one Formula One car for Chris but could find very little use for me. I had been hired the previous winter with a specific brief—to drive the brand new F2 car that Mauro Forghieri and Co. had come up with. The rules for that formula stipulated that the engine had to be built around a production car block, in an admirable but futile attempt to curb costs. Enzo Ferrari took advantage of this situation and persuaded Fiat into making a lackluster duo of road cars powered by what was basically a Ferrari V-6 race engine. At this point, it was assumed that I would drive it around, making the likes of Jochen Rindt, Graham Hill, et al, look foolish with only their unworthy four cylinder Cosworth engines to push them along. But the genius of Messrs. Costin and Duckworth had been sorely underestimated by Maranello, as Alessandro De Tomaso had forecast one winter’s evening in Cantone’s restaurant across from the legendary Palace Hotel, and in any event, the pretty little Dino raced but once before being ignominiously retired, only to return Phoenix-like to victory in the Argentina Temporada series a year later, amid much speculation as to the true size of its engine. In order to give me something to do, the powers that be, chez Ferrari, sent me all over Italy in the prototype Dino 206 GT to sort out the suspension, and in a 275 GTB/4 in an unsuccessful attempt to break things before the first customers managed to. Other than that, I occasionally shook down various privately owned sports prototypes at the Modena Autodromo for Gaetano Florini’s customer service, all of which was amusing, but not very useful for honing that fine competitive edge.

In the meantime, the Commendatore had grown fond of Chris Amon and, taking advantage of this, Chris managed to sell him the idea of competing in the next CanAm series, or, more accurately, the part that took place in the western USA, namely Riverside, Laguna Seca and Las Vegas. I was as delighted as I was surprised when Franco Gozzi informed me that two cars were to be prepared, and that one of them would be for me. The cars in question were a pair of rebodied P4s with wider wheels and the engine capacity stretched to 4.2 liters, and Bill Harrah, well known car collector and gambling mogul from Reno, was to be the entrant. We had time for a bare minimum of testing at Modena before the cars were shipped off, which indicated that they were impressively quick in a straight line, but a bit of a handful to drive. Lack of time curtailed any changes being made.

California, when we got there, was all that I had imagined, and more. Beautiful weather, fun people, and brilliant food, by the standards of America then. To add to my already brimming cup of joy, Chic Vandagriff, the Hollywood Ferrari dealer, kindly loaned me a metallic blue 275 GTS for the duration. Life, in a word, was good. In the first two races the CanAm cars performed predictably enough, considering their lack of development, netting a fifth and eighth place at Laguna Seca and an eighth at Riverside for Chris, where I was forced to retire with a damaged exhaust system incurred in a minor collision.

There remained two weeks before the last race at Las Vegas, and the official plan was for Chris and the team to go down to Mexico to run in the GP, so it came as a bit of a surprise when Team Manager Franco Lini informed me that I was coming along too, to add my support to the enterprise. My rebuttal that I could watch motor races anytime I felt like it, but there was a finite limit to the number of times I could take my new friend to lunch at places like the San Diego Yacht Club in “my” Ferrari convertible, fell on deaf ears. Franco’s tone became sterner. I was to come along, and that was it, no excuses accepted.

Mexico 1967

Mexico 1967

Once we arrived in Mexico City I was happy that I had been coerced into coming along. There was a good feel about the place then; you could breathe the crisp thin air at nearly ten thousand feet elevation under a clear blue sky, no resemblance to the ghastly pollution cloaked megalopolis that it is now. The first day of practice passed off uneventfully enough, with Chris alternating between the two cars until he finally made up his mind which one he preferred. The next day, Saturday, if my memory serves me right, Chris did a few laps to confirm his choice, after which Franco Lini told me to get changed while the mechanics produced bits of foam rubber and sticky tape to attach to the seat so that I could reach the pedals, and so here it was… the big moment.

I have to confess to feeling rather nervous at this point. I was about to mingle with some very exalted people, on a track I didn’t know, in a car I had never driven - the very car that the highly knowledgeable Mr. Amon didn’t want. After a few laps, the inevitable happened. Upping the pace, I misjudged a corner and ran over one of the half moon tires set in concrete to discourage people from doing exactly that. Back in the pits they sheared off the damaged nose cone and bandaged it with duct tape—there wasn’t a spare cone to replace it with. I went out for what remained of the session, qualifying dismally near the rear of the grid.

The race the next day was scarcely more fun. I remember being ahead of Jackie Stewart in the H16 BRM, eloquent testimonial to how bad that car must have been, and of the embarrassment of having Jean-Pierre Beltoise yapping at my heels in an oversize Matra F2, who was there as a prelude to that company’s full involvement in F1.

I spent a lot of time looking in my rearview windows to see what JPB was plotting, and, more importantly, to make sure that I got out of the way of Clark, Amon, Brabham, and Hulme when they came up to lap me. At the finish it was Jim Clark first over the line ahead of Jack Brabham, with Hulme a lap down. I finished in eighth place behind Beltoise whom, to my great chagrin, I had allowed to slip past. Poor Chris, who had been in contention throughout, and could have won, ran out of petrol and was classified behind me in ninth position. Most unfair.

Jim Clark and Jonathan Williams

Jim Clark and Jonathan Williams

At the final CanAm race, the so called “Stardust Grand Prix” held in the desert outside of Las Vegas, I was eliminated in a multiple shunt at the first corner of the first lap. Chris crashed on the last corner of the last lap as a result of what is known today in the tennis world as an “unforced error.” Symmetry we could have done without.

Back home in Italy, my telephone had fallen ominously silent. However, one day it did ring, and on the line was Franco Gozzi inquiring whether I was free to do a few laps of the Autodromo the following day in an F1 car. No explanation was given, but it’s my belief that Jacky Ickx was proving more expensive to sign than they had initially thought, and somebody must have remembered me. The seat fitted me much better this time and quite soon I was shown a pit board with a time only one tenth of a second shy of the lap record. Although Modena was a boring little track, there were a couple of places where I felt sure I could improve. Seconds after this thought entered my head I dropped the whole thing into the stout hedge that served as a natural armco, shedding a couple of wheels and some lesser bits. This, I knew, must be the end of the road, and I had confirmation when, arriving back at the pits on foot, the mechanics who were as fond of me as I was of them, wouldn’t look at me so as not to show their embarrassment. They knew. And thus it was I was free to move on to Turin, ostensibly to drive a new Formula One car for Carlo Abarth, a car that both he, and I, deep in our hearts, knew would never start a race. With hindsight, a wise decision, as it was a rather outmoded space frame design, and monoque construction had now become the norm.