Tiff Needell: wheel-banging with world champions
Tiff Needell has sparred with plenty of the world’s best drivers. Here are his favourites, including THAT battle at Donington Park in 1993
Tiff Needell is a television presenter and former racing driver who competed in Formula 1, British Touring Cars and at Le Mans.
While several of my Formula Ford sparring partners made it to the Grand Prix grids, Le Mans or, like Danny Sullivan, win the Indy 500, none made it to the very highest accolade of Formula 1 World Champion. However, as I gradually climbed the ladder of motorsport, there were five that I did battle with at close quarters. The first of those was...
Nelson Piquet (centre) with Niki Lauda, Jean Alesi, Pierluigi Martini and Alain Prost in 2015
Nelson made his UK debut in a Formula 3 race supporting the 1977 British Grand Prix. He had graduated from Brazilian Formula Vee and was contesting the European Formula 3 Championship, where he’d go on to finish third. Meanwhile I had left behind Formula Ford 2000 – and a job in Civil Engineering – for my first professional drive in the British Championship with British Leyland’s Unipart Team.
The grand prix support race was always a big draw and, with Formula 3 going through a golden era, 60 cars lined up in two heats to qualify for the final. Nelson and I shared the second row for Heat 1 with him heading me by just 0.01secs. Two young chargers dreaming of F1 and already in our mid-20s – how times have changed! After 10 frantic laps slipstreaming round the old Silverstone Circuit, we finished where we had started, fourth and fifth and still only 0.81secs apart!
It wasn’t quite the same in the final where I damaged my nose splitter in an early skirmish and fell back to finish seventh, while Nelson caught the eye of the British fans for the first time by climbing to third. But it wasn’t my last chance to beat the Brazilian.
Tiff chases Piquet at Cadwell Park
After his success in Europe in ’77, Nelson moved to the British F3 Championship for 1978, which was still regarded as the place to be seen if you wanted to further your career. I was now in my second year with the Unipart Team, still struggling with a Dolomite Sprint engine that couldn’t quite match the dominant Toyota twin-cam option but, when the field was faced with a wet but drying track at Cadwell Park, a chance to shine opened up.
After Derek Warwick had set the early season pace, Nelson really got into his stride and began a record-breaking six-win streak. After three on the trot he was on pole again at Cadwell Park while I lined up fourth on a track I loved, albeit over a second off the Brazilian’s stunning pace. But as we gathered in the assembly area, spots of rain began to fall.
Once on the grid most of the field made the swap to wet tyres but, of the front runners, only me and Piquet stayed on slicks. I had nothing to lose but he must have had divine intervention! We finished the first lap fourth and sixth but, once the rain abated and the track dried we gradually worked our way to the front.
I was able to close the gap to him and set the fastest lap, but couldn’t find a way past on the narrow circuit. The win was his and he’d make his grand prix debut just over a month later. Even now I think I should have taken a last lap lunge but at the time second was the best result the team had had, so I couldn’t risk throwing it away!
Prost during his McLaren F1 years
In 1978 this 23-year-old youngster was France’s new shining light, having won the previous year’s European Formula Renault Championship and was now having his first year in European Formula 3.
The Unipart Team had decided to take a trip to Dijon as a break from the British series but discovered a great little track that demanded a torquey engine – something the Dolomite powerplant wasn’t and the Toyota was!
I wasn’t the only one suffering by having to fly my nation’s flag, because Prost’s promotion to F3 had come courtesy of Renault, who were also struggling to produce an engine to challenge the Toyotas. The result? Having qualified 21st and 23rd out of the 37-car entry, when the field was split into two heats, we lined up side-by-side on the sixth row in 11th and 12th spots.
Mind you, I didn’t have much of a chance to bang wheels with him at the first corner because, being French in a French race, you tend to run under different rules, and he was gone before the flagman had even moved!
Tiff (orange helmet) and Prost on the grid at Dijon
It didn’t do him much good though, as he ended the heat in ninth, just a couple of seconds ahead of me. That meant we started back in 18th and 20th places for the final, where we both did a decent job to battle through to finish 10th and 11th.
Fortunately for Alain, Renault got their act together the following year when he dominated European F3 and soon found himself joining Piquet at the top table.
I did eventually join them as well for my very brief F1 grand prix flirtation, taking the place of the injured Clay Regazzoni in the single-car Team Ensign entry at the 1980 Belgian Grand Prix. But I was well aware that the team was waiting for Jan Lammers to become available and my position was only temporary.
Mind you, the Ensign was hardly top of the list for aspiring stars, with Clay qualifying 23rd at his last outing, so I was happy enough to equal his achievement in a field where only the fastest 24 of the 27 entries got on the grid. Piquet was seventh in his Brabham while Prost wasn’t too far ahead of me, 19th in his McLaren, but sitting alongside me, sharing the back row and 0.7secs slower than me was none other than one of my schoolboy heroes…
Emerson Fittipaldi and his marvellous sideburns
World champion in ’72 and ’74, Emerson was now in his last season of F1, driving for his own, far-from-competitive Fittipaldi team. His teammate and future champion Keke Rosberg sat right in front of me in 21st so it was, at least, a pretty classy back of the grid!
My call-up to race had been a pretty last minute affair and I found the whole thing an almost surreal experience. After the mechanics had fired up the engine and left, with two minutes to go, I remember the grand prix theme tune coming into my head and thinking ‘Me… Fittipaldi… Me… Fittipaldi’! I somehow found it hard to believe that after all the sacrifices, the dream had come true…
I got ahead at the start and led Emerson for half a dozen laps before he got by, and somehow I felt happy my hero had put me in my place as we settled down and chased after Prost. But then the engine let go and the dream was over.
Tiff in his Ensign at the 1980 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder
I would share a track with Emerson once again at the 2008 Goodwood Revival, that most magical of events where I get to drive cars I watched racing as a young boy and brush shoulders with my heroes of the day. Emerson was in a Chevrolet Corvette and I was in an Aston Martin DB4GT for the Tourist Trophy and once again we lined up side-by-side towards the back of the grid.
Amazingly I had once again qualified 23rd but Emerson ruined our rematch by taking 22nd! We battled away for half an hour or so before returning our cars to their generous owners and had a brief natter afterwards. Not that he remembered the 1980 Belgian Grand Prix in quite the detail I did...
With the grand prix dream over, and now concentrating on the World Sportscar Championship, the chances of racing against any more F1 world champions seemed pretty remote. Gone were the days when the superstars of our sport would want to get involved in 24-hour races, with all the inherent dangers of wildly differing speeds And that’s even if their multi million pound contracts would allow it.
Alan Jones in 1980 (photo: NL-HaNA on wikipedia.org)
There’s always an exception to the rule and one former champion that just wanted to just keep on racing was the rugged Aussie, Alan Jones. F1 champion in 1980, he quit at the end of ’81 and, although lured back for a one-off drive with Arrows early in ’83, began to race in the Australian GT and Touring Car series, running at Le Mans in ’84 in a Porsche 956.
An ill-fated return to F1 in ’85 and ’86 with Team Haas – the ‘Carl’ version and not the current ‘Gene’ one – brought little joy, so he signed up with Toyota for a season of touring cars and Group C in Japan, plus a return to Le Mans for a two-car entry that included me as one of the drivers.
If you think F1 stars these days are a bit tame, then Jonesy is everything but. He’s a man who speaks his mind and does as he pleases, and we had a hysterical evening after the Le Mans test day, dining at the plushest hotel in the town. It was doubtless an evening the head sommelier would remember for the rest of his life, as perhaps would the Toyota accountant who had to sign off the bill, as Alan decided it was time to research the most expensive vintage Calvados their cellars had to offer.
Tiff's Toyota at Le Mans in 1987
At the race itself we qualified our cars 14th and 16th, half a second apart, with the little 2.0-litre turbos busting a gut to keep up with the more powerful Porsches, Jaguars and Saubers ahead of us. Alan and I both started our respective cars and had a friendly battle together for the first hour of the race, occasionally swapping places down the long Mulsanne straight.
There was obviously a long way to go so neither of us were exactly giving it our all but I well remember meeting a Toyota executive in the garage after the stint, who was struggling to understand how this relatively unknown Englishman was able to keep pace with their highly paid superstar!
Neither car made it further than the three hour mark, which suited Alan fine as he sourced the first plane out. But he’s got to be one of the most down-to-earth and friendly world champions there has ever been, and I’ve been a great fan of Calvados ever since!
The man. The moustache
Then, of course, there’s Nigel. While our well-documented coming together at Donington Park’s 1993 TOCA Shootout was perhaps a little more than banging wheels, it was a fairly normal piece of Touring Car action. It was just unfortunate that our contact fired him straight into a rather solid concrete wall.
Nigel had climbed the ladder of motorsport a year behind me and greatly benefited from my turning down a third year driving for the Unipart Formula 3 team as he took the seat I’d chosen to vacate. Without that his career might have stalled for good.
As it was, he fared no better than me in trying to make the Dolomite Sprint-engined car competitive and ended the year eighth in the points, three places lower than his teammate. Fortunately, an introduction to Lotus boss Colin Chapman had got him a Formula 1 test with Lotus, in which he impressed sufficiently to also make his grand prix debut in 1980, five rounds after me, in Austria, driving a third works entry.
On his debut, Nigel managed to scrape into the race right at the back, in 24th spot, pushing Jan Lammers, now in ‘my’ Ensign, off the grid. He too would suffer engine failure and have to retire so, for one grand prix, my record was better than his! The rest, however, is history.
World champion in 1992 and then IndyCar champion a year later, he arrived at Donington for a Welcome Home tribute, racing not just in the Ford Mondeo touring car but a TVR Tuscan as well. It was all supposed to be a wonderful weekend until that fateful moment.
After a frustrating half season with a Nissan Primera in the BTCC, Top Gear Magazine had got me into a front-running Vauxhall Cavalier for this one-off outing that offered a substantial £12,000, winner-takes-all prize. Meanwhile Nigel had the new Mondeo that had dominated the last five rounds of the championship with three wins and two seconds. Oh, and an appearance fee a tad larger than the winner’s reward!
To add a little spice to the occasion, the grid had been decided on previous form – in reverse order! This led to sing and occasional racing driver Chris Rea being offered pole position, before choosing to start at the back to avoid the predicted carnage. It didn’t do him much good though as he would still be one of the 11 cars – from an 18 car field – to retire with accident damage!
Thanks to my poor results in the Nissan, I found myself on row four, with Nigel and his fast Mondeo a couple of rows further back. He’s been struggling to get up to speed, trying to adapt to the quirky skills required to master front wheel drive, and had had a couple of offs in practice.
Tiff in the Vauxhall Cavalier leads Nigel Mansell in the Ford Mondeo at Donington Park in 1993, with Steve Soper in the BMW behind
To say it was hectic from the start is something of an understatement. Although I got from seventh to fourth on the opening lap, I was unable to claim the lead before both Paul Radisich, the Mondeo star, and my own teammate David Leslie got past.
By half distance things had settled down a little, with nine cars already out of action. Radisich led from Leslie and myself, with Steve Soper permanently filling my rear-view mirror. After charging forwards early on, Nigel had fallen way back with a misfire and looked to be out of any chance of a win – but then the pace car came out to help clear some of the wreckage.
By the time the green flag flew again, not only had Nigel’s misfire cured itself, but the survivors were all back together in a tight nine-car pack. While I knew I had no answer to the speed of the Ford and Vauxhall ahead, I felt fairly comfortable holding off Soper in the BMW, even though I knew a gentle tap would be coming sometime soon. But if I could hold off Steve and those two in front clashed, £12,000 could be mine.
But the knock on the door wouldn’t come from Steve as, all of a sudden, the view in my mirror had changed from white to blue and a charging Nige was right behind me. Past the Pits and down to Redgate, I reckoned the gap was big enough not to need my putting a block on, but halfway to the apex there was a lot of clattering down my right side.
Lunging from way back, Nige had locked up and clouted into me, forcing me off onto the grass on the exit, which allowed not only him but Soper as well to get by. Down the Craner Curves we went, and I could hear the roar from the 60,000-plus crowd as their hero appeared now in third!
Into the Old Hairpin he went, eager to close the gap to the two in front. Out went the rear end and the Mondeo looked sure to spin into the infield. Soper went to Nigel’s left and I looked to follow him through.
But Nigel hadn’t given up on the battle to get the Mondeo back in line, and he piled on the opposite lock, arms twirling with the big steering wheel. Before he reached the edge of the road, his efforts had succeeded, and the car was more or less straight. Unfortunately, perhaps unknown to him, he still had half a turn of opposite lock on …
One of the reason rally drivers have a little line at the top of their steering wheels is that, unlike in single seaters, you sometimes need more than one armful of lock and Nigel certainly had that. Instead of going straight the Mondeo now veered left across the road and right into my path.
In Mansell World it was all my fault, but I have no idea what else he thought I could have done to avoid him. The Cavalier was patched up for the restart but wasn’t quite the same. I managed to limp home, sixth of the seven survivors, and I’m still waiting for Nigel to apologise for ruining my hopes of a £12,000 pay day...