There are hard luck stories in Formula 1, and then there is Perry McCarthy.
He worked on an oil rig and mortgaged his house to finance his racing career in the eighties and early nineties. But when he finally got the chance to race in Formula 1, it was with a team which became notorious for their incompetence.
Before that, however, he made his F1 debut in one of Formula 1’s other unsuccessful forgotten cars. The Porsche-powered machine should have been an exciting proposition but, as McCarthy discovered during his first F1 in 1991, it was anything but.
McCarthy had previously discussed a potential move to Arrows during his stint in British Formula 3 in the mid-eighties. But by 1991 the team, now rebranded as Footwork, had gone from leading races to failing to qualify in the space of two years.
But the 3.5-litre V12 engine was under-powered, unreliable and enormously overweight. McCarthy remembers the engine, which was little more than two of Porsche’s V6 F1 engines from the mid-eighties connected together, as “a piece of junk”.
“We were running about 40 kilograms heavier than the other engines out there,” he told RaceFans. “They had to redesign the car.”
“It was massive,” he added, “you’ve got the crank vibration because it is too long. So they put a gearbox in, I think, between both the cranks and were taking the power out of the middle. It was abominable.”
Despite switching from a modified 1990 chassis – the A11C – to the new FA12, the team ditches thd Porsches after just six races. It reverted to a Ford Cosworth DFV which, in order to ram home to Porsche’s technicians the sheer corpulence of their 189kg engine, was weighed in front of them.
“Footwork signed a four-year deal with Porsche [but] the thing was just so cumbersome,” remembers McCarthy, who joined regular drivers Michele Alboreto, Alex Caffi and Stefan Johansson to test the car.
“Alex was failing to qualify the car, Stefan was failing to qualify the car. I think Michele was the only who was getting on the grid, like 25th and last a few times.”
For McCarthy the test gave him a vital opportunity to gain F1 mileage. “It was great working with the F1 team but there was never the opportunity at that time to actually come in and join the team, even though John Wickham [the team manager] was very keen that I did, I think there were commercial aspects with the owners.”
He recalls Alboreto, who was left with 15 stitches when he destroyed one of the team’s new FA12s in a high-speed crash at Tamburello during the San Marino Grand Prix weekend, took the time to welcome him to the sport.
“I arrived at the circuit for my first ever time and he came straight out to me and went ‘hey, Perry, welcome to Formula 1’. I always remember that, he didn’t need to do that, it was just really sweet of him to do that.”
There was no racing opportunity on the cards for McCarthy at Arrows, but following a successful stint racing in the USA he landed a race chance – in the loosest possible sense of the phrase – with Andrea Moda.
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Andrea Moda-Judd, 1992
The utter hopelessness of Andrea Moda’s F1 operation has passed into F1 lore: The cars team owner Andrea Sassetti purchased from Coloni, failing to realise he couldn’t race a chassis already used by another constructor; The departure of intended drivers Caffi and Enrico Bertaggia before they got to drive; And the utter shambles that followed.
McCarthy officially entered seven races in 1992, none of which he qualified for. Typically, this was because the team refused to give him sufficient time to make a qualifying effort. On one occasion he was even sent onto a dry track on a set of used, full-treaded wet weather tyres.
Unable to race their old Colonis, Andrea Moda acquired a design created by Nick Wirth of Simtek, the company part-owned by then-FIA president Max Mosley, which entered F1 with its own team two years later.
“The car itself was actually really pretty,” recalls McCarthy with surprising affection. “It was a very pretty car and we had the Judd engine in. But the fact of the matter is there was no money behind it and there was nobody capable of running the car.
“I always maintained Juddy, he obviously did the best he could. And the car itself, well, anything that looks quite nice can’t be a complete dog. So if it had been run correctly we may have started four grand prix or maybe five because other teams were in real trouble back then as well. We may have been able to do something.
“But not when they weren’t making a seat for me, not when I didn’t have a windshield, and not when I was getting smacked – and I mean smacked – around inside the car like you can’t believe.”
McCarty’s litany of woe began in Spain, round four, where he made his first pre-qualifying effort. McCarthy stalled as his car left the pits, and then had to hand his chassis to team mate Roberto Moreno, whose S192 had broken down. At Imola McCarthy managed seven laps, but the car was almost nine seconds off the pace.
From then on he seldom got the chance to even set a lap time. Miraculously, Moreno got his car on the grid in Monaco, but McCarthy wasn’t allowed to do more than an installation run. The team’s engines didn’t turn up in Canada, and while they blagged a spare Judd from Brabham for Moreno, there was nothing for McCarthy.
The entire team failed to reach Magny-Cours for the French Grand Prix after their trucks were delayed by a blockade. Silverstone saw the ‘wet tyres on dry track episode’ – especially cruel at McCarthy’s home race – and in Germany he was disqualified for missing the weigh bridge after his single lap.
After Hungary, where the team sent McCarthy onto the track too late to set a time, the FIA ordered Andrea Moda to get its act together. At Spa-Francorchamps their fortunes appeared to improve, as the disappearance of the Brabham team meant no more pre-qualifying.
McCarthy was determined to seize his chance to get on the grid. “At Spa I got out there and went ‘this car is not going to last long so I’ll just put a banzai lap’ because I knew Spa and I’d had success there. So I thought we’ll come round and go absolutely flat-out straight away. Forget learning it, that’s it.
“And I went into Eau Rouge and the steering jammed.” This came as a surprise to McCarthy but not to his team, who explained afterwards they’d noticed the problem on Moreno’s car. “They knew the steering rack was flexing,” said McCarthy.
The Andrea Moda episode came to an end that weekend when Sassetti was arrested. The FIA threw the team out of the championship for bringing the sport into disrepute.
The race was won by Michael Schumacher, who claimed his first grand prix victory in a Benetton. Not long afterwards, McCarthy got to experience what a real F1 team and car could do.
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Benetton-Ford Cosworth, 1992
McCarthy recalls he was “in meetings in London late at night” when Benetton team manager Gordon Message called the McCarthy family home to offer him a test.
“My wife managed to get hold of me and said ‘Perry you’d better get back here immediately, Gordon’s been on the phone and wants you at Silverstone at eight o’clock in the morning’. I was pretty much 90% full of Heineken at that time. I said ‘Get back to Gordon, tell him I’ll be there’. I wasn’t going to miss out running for Benetton.”
McCarthy was still feeling the after-effects of his ‘meetings’ when he got into the B192 the next morning. “They strapped me in and, I’m not kidding, my first few laps hitting bumps I was burping Heineken. Suddenly I’m in an absolute dynamite Formula 1 car and I’m slightly hungover from the night before.”
Despite feeling the worse for wear, McCarthy said the car “was absolutely brilliant.”
“Coming from the car I was in, which was slow and dangerous, then you’ve got this car where you turn the wheel and the car actually turned where you wanted it to go and you could trust the brakes… You were going so much faster in the Benetton yet had zero fear about dying.”
The team was developing its active suspension system at the time. “I was talking to Michael when we were down there,” said McCarthy. “They didn’t want him in the car because I was doing some more test work with the active ride suspension. Just in case it went down – which is fair enough – they didn’t want Michael in the car.”
At the time Silverstone featured a super-fast right-hander at Bridge. McCarthy was surprised to learn how the future seven-times world champion approached that daunting corner.
“I had been very fast considering I’d had a total of 13 laps that year. So it really was going well. I was still a bit off Michael. And I said to him, how are you taking this?
“He said ‘Bridge corner, I’m flat’. I said ‘No way’.” McCarthy took some persuading it could be done. “I’m coming up to that with my balls wrapped around my neck with a light tap on the brake, let alone a lift, a light tap on the brake and I’m coming through scaring myself.”
Nonetheless, he resolved to tackle Bridge flat-out next time. “I just absolutely jammed my foot onto the throttle so I couldn’t take it off. It was such a stupid thing to do.
“The car went everywhere. My hands were moving faster than Bruce Lee in a Kung Fu movie. Somehow I did all the right things, but I got unbelievably lucky that I kept the car out of both walls, the one on the inside, the one on the outside and everything else.”
Back in the pits after his run, engineer Pat Symonds asked McCarthy “did you have a little bit of a moment out there?” After McCarthy denied it, Symonds replied: “That’s funny because our telemetry is showing you on full opposite lock at 180 mph.”
McCarthy confessed: “I said ‘OK Pat but it was Michael, Michael said he could take it flat and I had to try it’. He said ‘You idiot. Michael was talking about when he’s on qualifying with no fuel in the car. You are on old race tyres with half a tank of fuel…'”
This was only a one-off chance for McCarthy as a substitute for the team’s regular test driver. While he did get a subsequent chance to test for Williams – the world champions at the time – they chose David Coulthard over him to be their test driver.
“David Tremayne had been pushing Frank [Williams] really hard to put me in. And finally Frank agreed so I got in. I was kind of being led to believe that this is maybe the opportunity to be the test driver for Williams, after my year in grand prix with Andrea Moda, so this is now the beginning of ’93.
“But the only thing was David was on the scene as well and he was being considered. And there’s a couple of things that went against me. [It wasn’t] that I didn’t get on with the test team manager, it’s that the test team manager had made an absolute decision even before I got there that he hadn’t wanted me in the car.
“The more he showed that he was going to make life difficult for me, I’m not exactly a retiring violet, you know what I mean? I kind of mouthed off to him as well just thinking this is really stupid. He wasn’t even bothering to make a seat for me properly. You can’t drive these things without being properly supported.
“But the thing was, David was in the background anyway. And I think Dave was always going to get the drive, he was 10 years younger than me, he’s incredibly fast and much better looking.”
That spelled the end for McCarthy’s F1 chances. But a successful career lay ahead of him in sports cars, where he raced for Audi in America and at the Le Mans 24 Hours. He later became known for being the original, black-suited ‘Stig’ who expertly drove a vast selection of performance cars on the hugely successful rebooted Top Gear television series.
But for Formula 1 fans, McCarthy will probably always be best known for wearing a black racing suit and getting to drive very little at all.
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