Sunday, 2 October 2011

Looking back: Al Pease - (not) the worst F1 driver ever

As part of my life on Twitter I like to dig out 'things that happened on this day' historical F1 snippets. Recently, I found one that intrigued me particularly. It concerned the 1969 Canadian Grand Prix, and the fabulous tale of a local entrant by the name of Al Pease.

To cut a long story short, in that race Pease became the only driver in history to be disqualified from an F1 race for being too slow. At the point he was kicked out he'd completed 22 laps, fewer than half the total that the leaders had managed at that point.

And Pease's other two attempts in Grands Prix weren't much better. In the 1967 Canadian race he did finish, but some 43 laps shy of the winner, and in the same Grand Prix in 1968 he failed to start because of engine problems, after setting a qualifying time way off the back of the pack.

So, Al Pease is a good candidate to be called the worst F1 driver ever? Well, no actually. As is often the case in F1 things aren't quite what they seem on the face of it.

Local entrants of F1 races, for one race only, were common in the 1960s, one of the many things to go by the wayside in Bernie's brave new professional F1 world. Usually a local driver, inspired by enthusiasm or commerce, would enter in a car bought or hired from elsewhere. Occasionally they were successful, most acutely in the 1967 South African Grand Prix when veteran Rhodesian John Love, driving a privately-entered Cooper, led until he had to pit for fuel late on, which dropped him to second where he finished. Later, a host of Japanese entrants participated in the Japanese Grands Prix of 1976 and 1977, and in the first race Masahiro Hasemi genuinely bid for pole position before crashing in practice as well as set the race's fastest lap, while Kazuyoshi Hoshino, driving an old Tyrrell, placed as high as third for a time in the race. More often though, like Pease, they'd achieve little more than add numbers to the grid as well as swell a little local interest and give the odd sponsor an airing.

But Al Pease is worthy of a lot more respect than the usual names cited among the ranks of worst F1 driver ever. Within Canadian motorsport he is a living legend. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he was close to ubiquitous in local sports car, and in the '60s single seater, races. What's more he was highly successful, winning just about every regional and major class title in Canada, and he was inducted into the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1998. They had this to say when they did so: 'It is doubtful that any other driver in history of Canadian motorsport has collected more trophies than Al Pease, winning a steady stream of regional and national championships in a variety of cars for almost 30 years'.

And there is a lot more to Al Pease's three attempts in F1 than the bare results betray. First off, 1967. By this time Pease was close to his 46th birthday and Castrol, who at that point were sponsoring his sports car exploits, wanted Pease to take part in the Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport, a track that Pease had helped to design. But Pease reckons they made a big mistake at the outset: 'they decided instead of renting a car, to buy Dan Gurney's Formula One car that he ran in Europe (an Eagle T1G, powered by a 2.8 litre Climax L4 engine they'd got their hands on). And of course at that time, it was competitive enough to get on the grid, but it wasn't really very good compared with other cars'.

Pease's qualifying time was 7.7 seconds shy of Jim Clark's on pole, though he did set a time quicker than those of three other entrants (one of whom wasn't allowed to start due to qualifying outside the compulsory 10% of the pole time). And while Pease did finish 43 laps down on the winner there were genuine mitigating circumstances. 'Dan Gurney told me that if I didn't get it started with the first push of the button, that would be it. The battery would be flat' said Pease. 'Something to remember in light of what happened later'.

Pease initially lost six laps to the opposition when his engine wouldn't start up on the dummy grid and his mechanics had to change the battery. Then a number of laps, and pretty strong ones, after he had got going in wet conditions he spun on the part of the track furthest from the pits, and the engine wouldn't restart, the battery again flat. But rather than give up Pease decided to do what it took to continue. He ran back to the pits (really!), a journey that was mainly uphill (and it was still raining), to retrieve another battery, and ran all the way back to his car and installed it. As Pease said: 'that's where all the laps went'.

Had Pease thought about just retiring from the race? 'I never considered it at all, I just thought about finishing. It would never occurred to me to quit - not at all! Because I was so used to that circuit and loved driving there. As long as I could keep going I did'.

Castrol entered Pease into the Canadian Grand Prix again a year later (with the same car and engine - now even less competitive), this time at Mont Tremblant. He didn't start the race after the engine crank gave up, but the event contained another amusing anecdote. When trying to discover the source of an engine problem in practice, Pease single-handedly stripped the engine down (he was clearly very practical and self-sufficient!) to discover an Allen key jamming the thing!

So to the 1969 Canadian Grand Prix (by now back at Mosport), which is where we came in. Between the 1968 event and this, Pease's Eagle was put on display in Montreal at the 'Man and His World' exhibition for three months, perhaps not the best preparation!

The car/engine combination was by now a year older and further outdated, and amazingly Pease, now nearly 50, qualified not last but 17th out of 20, though 5.6 seconds slower than the next car ahead. But it was in the race that things went wrong.

The perception is that Pease was not only embarrassingly slow (as mentioned, only completing 22 laps when at the same time the leader had crossed the line 46 times) but also extremely obtrusive to other nearby cars, most of whom were trying to lap him. He managed to shove one rival, Silvio Moser, off the track on the first lap. Pease's sudden changes of direction going into corners also resulted in him damaging the suspension of Jean-Pierre Beltoise's Matra after a clash. Then after another swerve in front of leader Jackie Stewart, in the other Matra, which almost removed Stewart from the race their team boss Ken Tyrrell decided to lodge a protest, which resulted in Pease being kicked out, officially for 'insufficient speed'. And Pease 'doesn't blame them'. But in Pease's defence, the car's poor handling and low speed made it very difficult for him to stay out of the way of those lapping him. Plus, much of his large deficit to the leaders was down to two lengthy pit stops (one over 15 minutes in length and the other over ten minutes!). Pease's lap times were still tardy though: they fluctuated between fifteen and twenty seconds longer than those of the front-runners.

Pease didn't let his F1 experience put him off motor sport and he continued to race, first in Formula 5000 and Formula A, before racing vintage cars right up until 1988. As outlined, as well as having a fascinating F1 story he was far from the worst driver to set foot in an F1 car.

Interview with Al Pease on F1 Rejects

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