I have stopped reading the sports pages of newspapers. When I want to find out the latest developments in Formula One, I read the business section. It is in the business section of “The Sunday Times” that you find the interviews with Bernie and Luca because this is the way of the world.
Today, you cannot go motor racing at a serious level without a sponsor. There used to be a time when Formula One teams routinely gave tests to hot young drivers. Some still do, but if you want to test for a team like Minardi you first pay $100,000. This is akin to paying for a job interview.
I always thought that if you were in a professional sport, it was you who got paid. The superbly honed athletes of Arseanal FC (Go, Gunners. Go!) do not have to bring sponsorship to get a game.
John Cooper reckoned that his annual budget for 1959 and 1960, when Cooper won back to back World Championships, was £10,000. Multiply that by about twenty to get today’s value and that would still not run the motorhome of a top team. John towed the cars on a trailer behind his Ford and the cars formed part of the wages for Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren.
Each year they would take their cars Down Under, be paid generous starting money, pick up a lot of prize money, have a great time on the party circuit, and then sell their cars and return to Europe.
In those days, race organizers used to pay starting and prize money in cash, in the local currency. There were all kinds of currency restrictions operating and you were only allowed to change so many marks, lire or francs in any one transaction. Monday mornings would usually see Cooper, Brabham and McLaren trooping around every bank in the Surbiton area changing their money.
Imagine this happening today. You are a bank teller in Modena and a colleague says, “Don’t expect small talk from Michael—he was punted off yesterday. Rubens should be in a good mood, though—that was a great drive to 2nd place.”
Stirling Moss’ first big break was with HWM, which crisscrossed Europe pursuing a punishing schedule but actually made a profit. A British team appearing in a French or Italian race received good appearance money because it added an international flavor.
Drivers used to sometimes select cars for their starting money potential. When the 500-cc Formula Three got under way, it was soon wall-to-wall Coopers, but a driver who arrived in a Kieft or Emeryson got paid more because they were adding variety. A reasonably competent driver could actually earn a good living by driving only in Formula Three, and I have known several people who did.
They all had day jobs to pay the rent—everything else was pocket money. In 1953 Don Parker, the most successful F3 driver in history with 126 wins, won £1,000 for an afternoon’s work at Brands Hatch. Thirty years later, the winner of a British F3 race received less than that, and that’s not even taking into account that Don’s £1,000 had the value of £20,000 in the 1980s.
In the 1950s there would be bonuses from tire and oil companies and—whisper it softly—there were opportunities for the importation of goods which might otherwise attract customs duty. Alberto Ascari used to convert his winnings into gemstones, while motor racing in general brought a lot of Swiss watches into Britain.
In 1954, Stirling Moss began the F1 season with his own Maserati 250F. When he started to beat the works cars, the position changed and, before long, he was a works driver. He took a risk by investing in the car. It was about £5,000—big cash— but he recouped that many times over in starting and prize money.
If you could afford to lay out for a Maserati and were not hopeless, you could make a living and have a lot of fun. Take Horace Gould, a motor trader from Bristol. Horace tended to concentrate on the smaller races where he could earn honest money, but he did run in 14 Championship events.
Horace got an entry to the 1956 German GP; he was way off the pace but far from being last on the grid. As soon as he completed two laps he secured his starting money and then had a “sudden drop in oil pressure.” He came to a halt right where his mechanic was waiting. What are the chances of that happening on a 14.1 mile circuit? Before the race had finished, Horace had collected his money and the car was on its way to Maserati to be the first privateer to get a rebuild.
One of Britain’s top engine tuners in the lower formulae is David Minister and when Formula Ford 1600 came along in 1967, David made a living by being a successful—though not a star—driver in Formula Ford. He prepared his own engines and soon he had a lot of customers so he gave up driving. Minister’s customer list is headed by a certain Ayrton Senna.
While David was earning a living in, of all things, Formula Ford 1600, others were making a living in the 1-liter “screamer” Formula Three. The usual plot was a VW Caravanette, a Don Parker trailer and one long suffering mechanic. It was not a lavish living, but you could cover your costs, though you probably never wanted to look at a barbequed sausage again. Ronnie Peterson came out of the Formula Three Gypsy Experience and so did James Hunt.
By about 1981-1982, even Formula Ford drivers felt that they had to have a race engineer (a mechanic with a briefcase) and a team manager. Costs started to go through the roof.
There have always been pay drivers at all levels of racing, and there have always been patrons, but it must have been very early in the1970s when the last truly professional drivers flourished at anything below the major leagues. The Golden Rule is that expenditures increase to meet available sponsorship.