Man who mapped the road

 

journey through karts, Formula Ford, British F3, F3000, all on the road to the new Jerusalem of Formula One. It's a mantra chanted at every kid who steps into a kart at every circuit in the country. Plough the furrow, sift the detritus until finally you hit paydirt.

Once though, it was a road less travelled. Fifteen-year-old boys didn't accept awards and thank their sponsors as they plotted the most direct line between Cadet karts and the Formula Ford team with the biggest budget. Derek Daly, in Dublin to stand alongside the precocity of youth and accept a Hall of Fame award at the inaugural Alfa Romeo/Motorsport Ireland Awards for Excellence last week, recalled the longest journey of his road less travelled.

Harbouring a dream of racing cars, Daly borrowed £1,000 from a bank on the pretext of setting up a used car business. He would buy a used car with the money, but just one, a racing car. But he needed more and so on the advice of a friend he and fellow driver-in-waiting David Kennedy hopped on a plane for Australia.

"Somebody told me you could make money working in the mines in Australia, digging iron ore," Daly recalls. "He had come back with £5,000. David and I thought this was great, we could go make enough money and come back and buy into racing cars. So we did it. It was incredibly hard but we did it. We wanted to race and that's the kind of thing you had to do."

The road less travelled. Daly, though, doesn't tell the story as a hard times lesson in fortitude, however. It's just how it was when the maps hadn't been drawn.

"We hadn't a clue," he laughs. "I had no set plan. Back in those days looking at Formula One for me was like looking at people from another planet. The bank loan led to me and David Kennedy going to Australia. Australia led me to buying a Crossle. That led to a crash and I got a new Crossle. It was all just next steps. I just wanted to go as far as I could go.

"We didn't know if we had any talent or not. We just went racing saying `let's see if this goes well'. It was the summer of '76, a record summer for heat, and we were just a bunch of gypsies on the road having fun."

But the long, hot summer did go well. Daly won the 1976 Formula Ford Festival. It pushed him another step along the road, to Formula 3, where, in 1977, in a Chevron, he beat Nelson Piquet to take the BP Championship. He was offered a drive in F2, raced and finished fifth. In 1978 he joined the circus, Formula One.

"Again, I didn't have a clue," he admits. "I had gone from racing Formula Ford to Formula One in 13 months! It was a complete blur."

"The one thing I would like to have had access to was a coach, or a manager or something," he says. "Somebody to help you cope with the situations you find yourself in. I was in F1 so fast I didn't have time to find out the kind of discipline you need. I didn't have time to put all the pieces of the package together. I got in on instinct and reflex and that's not enough."

They were enough, all the same, to take him to a 10th place start on his debut. "That is one of the real high points, my debut at Brands Hatch in '78 in the Ensign, one of the smallest teams there. And I go out and the car feels good an I like it and everybody's there, friends and family, and I qualify 10th. I look over and beside me on the grid is James Hunt and that felt great.

"I didn't really have a clue what was going on, though, it was a complete whirl. I ran well, had a terrific race in Canada at the end of the year and got a point which kept Ensign in the constructors' championship and it was huge."

The corresponding lows were crushing, however. A disastrous second season with Ensign led to the happier hunting ground of Tyrrell but after two fourth places that relationship soured and Daly was propelled backwards through March and Theodore. Three races into 1982, however, salvation appeared out of the least likely side road. Williams, defending back-to-back constructors' championships, asked him to replace the retiring Carlos Reutemann?

It was the dream. Racing the premier series, in the premier car. But he blew it. He started well, finishing sixth in Monaco and bettering that by a place in the following race in Detroit. But the form disappeared and his season and F1 career disintegrated.

"I had personal problems in my marriage and I realise now that that screwed me up completely," he says. "So, when Frank (Williams) called me at the end of the year and said `we want to make a change', I thought `Hell, he's right, I don't blame him'. So to get away from it all, I decided to give it all up and start again, see what Indy was like, the 500.

"And I loved it. It was more power than I'd ever felt. It was oval racing, the most spine-tingling racing ever. It was what I thought racing should be."

The power proved too much. In Michigan, Daly lost control of his car, ploughing nose first into the wall, smashing his legs. He wouldn't race again for two and half years.

"That was the low point," he admits. "I'd never been hurt before that; it was a lesson. Rick Mears, a legendary racer who had twice won the Indy 500 was in the bed beside me. He'd crashed two weeks earlier. He'd smashed his feet and I wheeled myself into his room in a wheelchair and said `Rick are you going to do it again?' and he said `Yeah, I don't want to let this be the thing that beats me'.

"I thought about it and figured he was right. We both went back. Rick won the 500 again and when I went to Nissan and Jaguar in the sportscar era in '87 and '88 and I won bigger international races than I'd ever won before. And once I'd done that, bang! It was time to stop."

He couldn't leave it all behind, however, and has since split his time between running the Derek Daly Academy racing school in Las Vegas and working as motor sport commentator covering, among other series, Formula One. It's a series he's still passionate about.

"It's bigger than ever; the mystique is better than ever," he says. "Formula One hasn't lost anything from the old days. The good old days are now. I love to look back on the era I was racing, Regazzoni, Lauda, Hunt, Ronnie Peterson - what a glorious era - but I still believe it's better now. The technology has never been so good, the competition has never been as stiff, the rewards have never been better. People who say it's lost a lot of its lustre are just living in the past. I love it now. It's just rose-tinted glasses, there's no point looking back."

He prefers to look forward. Likes seeing talent shine through. He sees it at his race school. Sees it at home, sees the path he knows they have to travel. "I firmly believe that talent will out. If you're good enough somebody will recognise it. Look at Damien Faulkner. He comes from as far up the Donegal hills as you can go - how did he get where he has? David Kennedy saw something in him, as did (sponsors) Derek McMahon and John Hynes.

"Everybody puts a little bit together, he goes out and wins a race. Suddenly other people are coming on board saying `I'd like to help' and he's on the road." The road to a place in the sun, the route to at least a chance of greatness.

A road Derek Daly helped map.