Spoiler alert. The title of his autobiography pretty much sums up Perry McCarthy’s flirtation with Grand Prix racing. Flat Out, Flat Broke, Formula One the hard way is a cautionary tale about an impecunious and barely credible journey to Formula 1.
His ascent of what Jackie Stewart calls the ‘staircase of talent’ was, to put it mildly, unusual. While most of his contemporaries were karting he was working for his Father's company painting oil rigs in the North Sea. A talented musician, he was also to be found demonstrating keyboards in a music shop and one day in walked Les Ager, an instructor at the Brands Hatch racing school. It was immediately clear that Perry had what it takes. A further course at the Jim Russell school led to a couple of Formula Ford races at Snetterton, one of which he won. To cut a long and tortuous story short, he joined the winning British team in the Formula Ford World Cup and was crowned the Autosport Star of Tomorrow champion.
Perry’s highly developed powers of persuasion finally produced a deal with Hawtal Whiting for an F3 season in 1986, one of the biggest sponsorships seen in the category. Autosport magazine reported that his progress was ‘astonishing’ and two highly competitive seasons with Madgwick Motorsport earned him an F3000 drive for 1988. I got to know ‘Pel’ well during his time at Madgwick through my friendship with team boss Robert Synge who’d named his team after the corner at Goodwood. He is one of the funniest guys you’re likely to meet, his book will have you crying with laughter.
McCarthy in his 1987 British F3 1987 Madwick Reynard 837.
Accidents and unreliable engines kept him away from the wins he deserved in F3000 but determination, talent, charm and humour had brought him significant support from within the sport and the media. His career, however, had become a textbook case of how talent is never enough when the funding dries up and Perry was by now constantly on the verge of being flat broke.
Sometimes dogged determination and self-belief can pluck an opportunity from the edge of the cliff. In 1991 Perry was drafted in to do some testing for the Footwork F1 team, his reputation boosted by comments from Lotus team manager Peter Collins who’d gone on record as saying that Perry had ‘that something extra’. His networking abilities were also beginning to reap rewards and it was Eddie Jordan’s lawyer Fred Rodgers who brokered a deal for him to realise his ultimate ambition. For 1992 he would be a Formula 1 driver, but it wasn’t quite the golden opportunity that it first appeared to be…
David Hunt (left), Perry McCarthy (centre) and Damon Hill (right) at Playscape Karting, London, 1988, having won a charity karting event.
Italian shoe manufacturer Andrea Sassetti had arrived in the F1 paddock with bags of lire and, having bought the Coloni team, fired drivers Caffi and Bertaggia, and re-named it Andrea Moda. He wanted Perry in the car but, as ever, there was a problem. He didn’t have an FIA Superlicence. After much ducking and diving he got the paperwork just in time for the Brazilian Grand Prix in April ’92 and was ready to join his old friends and rivals Johnny Herbert and Roberto Moreno on the grid. But… Here comes another punch in the guts.
Arriving in the Interagos paddock Perry was told that his new licence was invalid, an error in the paperwork. And the Andrea Moda wasn’t ready to race. There’d only been enough time to prep one car for his team mate Moreno who failed to qualify when the car broke down after two laps.
Perry’s season resumed, if you can describe it so, in Spain. The team was a shambles, the Judd-powered car was hopeless, but this was F1, his dream, and he was going to give it his best. Back then there were 32 cars entered for 26 places on the grid, so the Andrea Modas had to get through a pre-qualifying session on Friday mornings. In Barcelona the Judd V10 broke down as Perry was leaving the pit lane. At Imola he managed eight laps before the differential failed. Same in Monaco, just three laps this time, but Moreno did qualify which was some encouragement. On to Canada where, incredibly, the engines had been impounded against alleged debts owed by Mr Sassetti. Could it get any worse? It could.
McCarthy driving his Andrea Moda S921 Judd at Spa in 1992, just before the steering failed at Eau Rouge...
The team didn’t turn up at all for the French GP at Magny Cours, the trucks trapped in a blockade by striking French lorry drivers. Next was Silverstone, a chance to shine in front of his home fans. It started well, joint fastest of the pre-qualifiers, but then the clutch exploded. Next was Hockenheim, just one lap this time, and then at the Hungaroring, after a blazing row with Sassetti, he was held in the pits so long there wasn’t time for a flying lap. On to Spa where he was lucky not to be killed when the steering rack flexed as he was flat out through Eau Rouge. Mercifully he felt the steering tighten and somehow managed to avoid hitting the wall as the car careered off the road at 170mph. Later that weekend the Belgian police arrested Sassetti for alleged fraud and the team was banned from the rest of the championship for bringing the sport into disrepute.
So, having never raced the Andrea Moda, can we say that Perry achieved his goal of becoming an F1 driver? Yes, we can. His talent was never in doubt, both Benetton and Williams using his abilities as a test driver following the Andrea Moda fiasco. He later became the ‘Stig’ on Top Gear but that’s another story.
One thing is sure, he will never have to wonder if he could have tried harder.