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An interview with Ian Ashley

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Who?

Ian Ashley

What?

Hesketh-Cosworth 308E

Where?

Mosport Park

When?

1977 Canadian GP

Why?

Ian Ashley's huge exit from Grand Prix racing... The F5000 star never got the F1 break he looked for, instead endlessly falling for hopeless British F1 efforts which tied their cars together with pieces of string - literally.



This took place at Castle Combe on the 4th July 1999. Ian was racing in the TVR Tuscan Challenge, and during the lunchbreak he kindly agreed to talk to me. I mentioned that in all of the F1 statistic books, he is only ever listed as having completed four races in 1974, one in '75, one in '76, and four in '77. What actually happened?

'My main claim to fame really was F5000, which is like Indycars are now to F1, where I was essentially the fastest guy in F5000. We were certainly the most underfunded team, and I was very quick. My various contemporaries were Peter Gethin, who was older, David Purley, Guy Edwards and Bob Evans. These were the people who were starting to win, Peter Gethin having already won at Monza in '71, I think it was.

'In '74 the Token was to be driven by Tom Pryce. He wasn't able to qualify it, and he was taken up by Arrows. David Purley, and various other people tried to qualify it and couldn't, and David was asked if he would like to try it at Brands Hatch at the GP. He couldn't, and finally it was my turn. They were going through all of the F5000 people! It was the old Nürburgring, the German GP, and this is the week before, and I thought why not? Each corner takes a little bit of talent, and the more corners the less technical it gets, and 195 corners, I thought it was maybe possible, and it was certainly the only chance I was going to have, so I took it.

'It was quite a learning experience altogether - a 14.5 mile circuit in a car I'd never driven before. We managed, and at the start the two McLarens of Fittipaldi and Denny Hulme collided, and they didn't even cross the line. Then two corners later Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter collided, Lauda in the Ferrari and Scheckter in the Tyrrell, and then about three corners further down the road Depailler was in the ditch, so by the time I came around my first lap I was in last place, but I had already moved up about six places. I just got quicker and quicker, and I actually got up to eighth, but we had these wheels that were porous. We didn't realise it at the time, but the wheels were porous and they kept letting the tyres down, and sure enough with two laps to go, at the same place that I had had problems in practice, and on the warm-up lap in fact, I got another flat tyre going into the Foxhole, a very high speed corner, doing about 180mph. It was OK, I held it, but I had 10 miles to come back on three wheels, and we didn't have quick hammer jacks then and electrical things, we just had to bang bang with the hammer. So two minutes later I was on my way, and I guess I finished 12th or 14th, or something like that.

'I did the same thing in Austria, and I qualified behind the two Lotuses, right at the back of the grid alongside Graham Hill - not quite at the back of the grid, but very nearly. Hill and I had a long dice most of the race, before I had another tyre problem, and I had to come in and change that. Once more I had got up to eighth and dropped back to 12th or 14th or something like that, I can't quite remember. By now my friend's sponsors were getting a bit upset with this Token thing with all the wheel problems and so on, so they had an idea about getting the ex-John Watson Brabham. Meanwhile John Surtees rang me after my two forays into Grand Prix racing and asked me if I'd like a test drive, which I did, and I was offered the drive for the rest of the season. But because of the other situation, which had already come about with this Brabham which I hadn't actually seen, I felt obliged to do that because the alternative was that I would miss the Gold Cup, and we felt that I should do the Gold Cup in F5000. I did win it, but the Brabham turned out to be a bit of a white elephant.

'We got it from Bernie Ecclestone, and it came with four different shock absorbers! It was just a bitser, a diabolical piece of machinery as it was. The next year I didn't have anything other than F5000, and I was running away with the championship. Lotus offered me a drive at the Nürburgring because of this, but we had also done something with Williams, which at that time wasn't particularly good, Laffite being their number one. I was due to drive for them for a little bit of money, when Lotus rang me, so I was going to drive for Lotus. But then they said "What about Williams?" to which I said I had no contract, so they said to play the white man and drive for Williams then and us for the rest of the year. I reluctantly agreed.

'I did the Williams, and I had several things go wrong in practice, including a stuck throttle, which turned out to be a broken engine mount. There are four plates which used to hold the Cosworth onto the monocoque, and the top left plate had snapped. They didn't check any of the others, and on the final qualifying run, and I was up to 9th or 12th by then - I hadn't actually done a flying lap, only what they call a rolling lap, and my fastest lap was on my warming-up lap - I was ten seconds up on my flying lap when one of the bottom engine mounts snapped, and it just turned sharp left along the straight, and I went straight into the armco at 160mph. Nobody realised straight away what had happened, and I had chipped an ankle, so I missed one race of the F5000 series, but I managed to hang on to my lead. John Watson did the Nürburgring race for Lotus, and that's really what I should have done, as it would have been great for me to get into Lotus. After that, that was that, and Lotus went on with Watson.

'In '76, BRM approached me and I did the Brazilian GP. But they were losing confidence in themselves, and they had a ridiculous situation where we lost three engines. Well, we didn't really lose them, but they had bent an electrical pin in the electrical system, and we thought it was misfiring when all it was was this bent pin which they didn't discover until they had changed three engines. They discovered it before the race, but the engine they put in then wouldn't even start on the line, and I had to start after the field had gone half way round the first lap, and then the engine blew after 25 laps. It was a disaster. BRM decided to call it a day after 24 years, which left me with nothing. I tried to get into various teams, Ensign and so on, but everything was taken of course by then, so I went to Lola and they asked me to be their test driver. I did various bits and pieces - I raced their prototype F3 car for them a little bit at the start of '77, but it was awful. I got a few front-row grid positions, but it was just so unstable. I could do a flying lap, but that was it, it was just hopeless at racing. I think I was on pole at Cadwell, and we went down to Monaco, where I was about 5th in the wet or something, but it just wasn't very easy to drive.

'By Silverstone, the British GP, it was just awful and very uncompetitive, so they scrapped it, and I went to see the F1 lot. I was going to see Surtees, when Debbie Reece intercepted me and said no, I'm going to introduce you to Lord Hesketh. So I ended up sorting something out for the last few races. We were due to go testing, but we didn't, the time scheduling was such, so I went to Austria. The team was going to test, and then Hector Rebaque (I was the third member) tested, and Keegan tested, but Hector crashed, so there was no car for me to test, so I ended up not testing it. We had to decide whether I was going to race or not, so we assumed everything would be fine, but I was very much the third member of the team.

'We only had one mechanic to look after me, and we had no tyre temperatures or anything, and it turned out that we weren't getting the tyres hot enough. My driving style tends to be rather smooth, and it tends to not be not very hard on the tyres, which is fine if you've got soft tyres. Firestone did the tyres, and they didn't have any competition, so they only had a few varieties, and they didn't have any softer tyres. I didn't realise that I wasn't getting them up to temperature, and the car was all over the road. We didn't know why, and I didn't qualify, which was very disheartening. We then went to Holland, and had a similar position where we had to pre-qualify, and then suddenly the car slewed all over the road at high speed, at about 100mph, it just turned sharp right, just like the Nürburgring in the Williams had turned sharp left. Anyway, I did several 360s and continued back into the pits, extremely relieved, but they couldn't find anything. After practice they discovered that one of the bottom engine plates had snapped, so that's how we knew what had happened with the Williams. We cured that, but again we had electrical problems in qualifying, and I never got out to get a decent lap, so I didn't qualify. The same thing happened at Monza. I was stranded out on the circuit with a distributor which had gone funny - it just went on and on. Finally, I said "Look, we've got to go testing or let's forget it, I'm not even bothering with the last two races." We went testing at Snetterton.

'I went with a technical engineer, and discovered the problem with the tyres, and within no time we were knocking on the lap record, but the nose section collapsed past the pits. Everyone thought it was on fire. I braked going into Richies, you do about 120mph there, and the front brakes locked up, because the front wing had collapsed and was dragging on the ground putting no downforce. I turned in, nothing happened, and I went across the grass - the whole nose section went over my head. I missed the bank, got back to the pits where everyone had a nervous giggle. "Sorry", they said, "a fatigue fracture." So they put a new nose on after lunch, finished testing and let's go to America.

'In America, again I had electrical problems in practice, and I was 22nd or something. But that was alright, we had that sorted, and we would get it right the next day. Unfortunately it was torrential rain, and no-one went out for practice. So there I was 22nd on the grid, however, it rained for the race. So I set it up like my F5000, much to the disgust of the F1 mechanics, and I went from 22nd to 8th or 6th, I can't remember, in 18 laps in the wet. Past everyone, Jarier, Peterson, all sorts of people. I was up behind Laffite, and as I was just approaching the pits the car was slewing all over the road and I thought that I had two rear punctures, so I rushed into the pits and it turned out that the left rear wheel was coming loose. Unfortunately it had jammed on the spline, they couldn't get it off, and it took 4 laps to get it off, and finally I got out behind Reutemann. I think he was 4th or 5th at the time in the second Ferrari, and I tailed him for the rest of the race in the wet. I finished 12th or 14th or something, 4 laps down because of that.

'Rob Walker was very impressed in his review, which was very nice. We then went to Mosport, and I was 6th fastest towards the end of the first session of practice, trying new springs and everything, learning the circuit, trying to set the thing up. I had just been in to put a little more rear wing on, and there is a hump at the end of the main straight - I was doing 195mph on the gearing we had - and I had just slipstreamed past Jacques Laffite who was in the Ligier. I was approaching this hump for the 20th time which you fly over before braking for the right-left-right past the pits when the nose section collapsed, and I climbed 30 ft in the air, did two and a half backwards somersaults. Jacques went underneath me, and he said that he looked up and my helmet was already gone. It crashed down, ripped the engine and gearbox off, also the wheels. It bounced back 30 ft in the air again, went over the armco. There was a TV stand - it was Friday morning, first practice, there weren't any TV people in it (this was a 30 ft TV stand), there weren't any spectators just there. It was backwards, upside down, just the monocoque and 40 gallons of fuel. It righted itself, and then knocked the TV stand over as it righted itself. It then buried 10 inches into the ground, and my feet punched through the end of the monocoque. It took them 45 minutes to cut me out, the gear lever had gone through and shattered my wrist, and my ankles were crushed upto my knees - my right one was in 13 pieces and my left one in 5. This was a clean break in the left. Fittipaldi came with his own doctor, and Mass was helping to cut me out, and all the mechanics were helping to cut me out. They didn't know whether I had broken my neck, and put this thing around my neck, and in Toronto, at Sunnybrook (the teaching hospital) they had just had bought this helicoptor on the Monday, and 45 minutes later it arrived and it whisked me off to hospital. They weren't sure about any of my limbs as they had all gone blue, and that was pretty much that.

'That was late October, and I came back to race in April for the Long Beach GP in California in '78, but they wouldn't let me race - the medics said that I was still too weak. I didn't know what to do. I had met this TWA stewardess just before my accident, and she was there, and after a while I went back to New York with her.and after about a week she said "What are you going to do?" and I said "I don't know". So she said, "Why donít you learn to fly or something!" and went off in a huff shopping, so I did. Seven weeks later I was a private pilot.

'I shuttled as quickly as I could, and by the end of the year I had my instrument rating, my commercial rating and my instructor rating. I got into Learjets. Fittipaldi, who was my best friend in racing, was then doing Indycars, having become disillusioned with his own Copersucar in F1. He gave up, and then he was invited back to do some sportscars, and then he got into this Indycar, and he said "Ian, it's just like Formula 5000. You'll love it!" And he was trying to get me into Indycars, by the end of '84 and the beginning of '85. By the end of '85 I did my first race in an Indycar, after not racing for eight years, and I qualified 16th, ahead of Michael Andretti and Kevin Cogan, all sorts of people, and I got up to eighth before I got taken out by Jim Crawford. We both went out. And that was the possibility of a restart, a resurgence, but everything had become a lot of money by then. I did a few races with Dick Simon, but it was so badly prepared, I mean they forgot to put oil in the gearbox for practice for the last race! It was just one thing after another, and without money it was just a lost cause. I tried hard to get in, and with all the people I was flying in the Gulfstreams and the Learjets I tried to get someone interested, but it just never really quite happened. Nearly, nearly nearly, but never quite, and so on.'

And then there were the touring cars in Ď93...

'Oh yeah. No, what actually happened was that I realised I was still very quick, but I was out of practice in racing, so what I did was raced little things, little Formula 440s and so on until I saw them in practice after I had won a few races and I realised how pathetic they looked. I thought "This is fucking stupid", and I had always wanted to get a bike, a motorbike. I had always admired Barry Sheene, and how they all went around on their knees and all the rest of it. So I went to racing school so that I didn't kill myself, and having done that I thought that I should perhaps do a race or two. So I did a race or two, and I won those as a novice, and of course I was dangerous as I was like kindergarden on two wheels, you know, but I was very experienced otherwise.

'But I persevered, and I became a national rider the next year in '89, and I did a lot of endurance races, and I was finishing in 5ths and 6ths and things, and this was very good. I was going to get into 250s, because I was fairly small, and 750s were a bit large - I was having to lean it so far over I was forever kicking the front wheel up round a bend with the engine and having to save it with my knee, which was a fright a minute. I was just going to buy a 250 at the end of '89, and I had agreed with the guy that at the first race at Bridgehampton he was going to help me out, and I saw a video of Steve Webster and Tony Hewitt winning the sidecar F1 championship. I thought, "I donít know, that's sort of half way between the two. I may never be able to get back into F1, but perhaps I can get back into this F1." So I rushed over, sold everything, and I met Steve Webster at Mallory Park and Mark Reddington, and I ended up buying Steve Webster's brothers' outfit with the hope that I was going to get into the European championship the following year. They made me do 14 races - clubbies, nationals and so on, but come April of 1990 I had my international licence, and off I went in the European.

'I was coming seconds and thirds and a lot of retirements. I went through a lot of passengers, because everyone has their passengers, and you have all sorts of people - I think I had 19 different passengers in just over a year! They were chalk and cheese - some were fabulous and others were just awful. But the Grands Prix were over-subscribed, and there was no chance of my getting in, especially since I hadn't logged up anywhere near enough points, so I thought that was a waste of time, and I did a couple of other things. But then in '93 I went back to flying a little bit and did helicopters, and then I saw the opportunity of perhaps getting into the BTCC, the British Touring Car Championship, and unfortunately I chose the wrong car. What I thought was a '92 car was in actually the original 1990 car that they had originally made rear-wheel drive. Along with Cleland they didn't know whether they were going to have front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive, and I think Steve Hodgeson drove it. Anyway, they had put '92 front suspension on, but that was it, all the rest was the original. It really was a bit difficult to drive, and I should have taken the Ray Mallock/Ian Khan car, but I never did drive that.

'Anyway, my team were learning all about it, so they were making all sorts of mistakes - the diff was in backwards, you name it! Oh dear, oh dear... The rear shock absorbers were set differently because it took them a while to understand how to set them, and to have one completely soft and one completely high was just awful. Anyway, that was a disaster. There was such a big difference between the private entrants and the works cars that it was pathetic - I mean I led the championship in the privateers for three quarters of the year, but it was useless. By then I had run out of money and prospects, and I had to head back to flying again. So I became chief pilot of a Learjet charter outfit for four years, and got myself stabilised again, and then I had an opportunity to actually get back into Grand Prix Formula 1 sidecars, which I thought "Heck with it. Why not? Letís try it". So I did it last year, and stopped flying, and did it, did Formula 1 Grands Prix. I think I was 12th in the championship or something, it was awful! The car I had, I couldn't drive it, but the team was wonderful. I needed a Windell, which was a much shorter chassis and suited my size and weight better. But I did have a couple of good passengers though, Andy Hedderington (who was ex-world champion) and Darren Dixon (he came on for a couple of Grands Prix with me).'

Ian was called for the drivers briefing at this point...

'What I did do was join all sorts of racing schools as an instructor, a) to give me practice, b) to give me some kind of living, and c) to see what was actually going on in motor racing these days. And it was wonderful. There was the TVR thing, and it seemed to be the way into GTs if you could get it together, and I decided that's what I would do. Unfortunately, there's a load of problems - we didn't realise we had this electrical problem which has plagued us for six races - finally got it fixed. All they did in the end was completely replace the electrical wiring loom, the coil and everything, and finally this is the first race where we've actually had full power, so now we'll see what happens.'

I next spoke to Ian as he walked back into the pits with Ian Flux following an accident just after the start, the race having been red flagged.

'Motor racing can be terribly cruel. Ian [Flux] spun across in front of me, I braked and got hit from behind.'

'[Eugene] O'Brien pushed me onto the grass', said Flux. Ian Ashley's car was damaged beyond repair, and he did not make the restart or the second race.