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My life in F1 race programmes: 1979 Race of Champions

Submitted by on March 12, 2012

Imagine you are 12 years-old, and you spent the day in the pits at an F1 race getting autographs from racing legends. Let’s go back to 1979 and Brands Hatch.

By Andy Hallbery

It’s time for another trip down Memory Lane… For me the Race of Champions was always brilliant. As a non-championship Formula One race it was so much more low-key than a Grand Prix, yet it still drew the names. It was made better by being at Brands Hatch, a brilliant venue, and a place I practically called home.

Unlike today, you could get access to the pits, and basically hang out. With the pressure off, the drivers were relaxed, and chatty. As an over-excited 12 year-old, I was in heaven when we made it to the pits on race morning. At various points this year I will share my autograph book with you. I have no idea what it’s worth (and will never be sold!), but it has in it the signatures of at least 10 F1 world champions, and many, many other Grand Prix winners in it.

Most teams only brought one car to the Race of Champions or the other non-championship race, the International Trophy at Silverstone. Even so, in 1979, the driver line-up was stellar.

One Ferrari (Gilles Villeneuve), one Lotus (then reigning World Champion Mario Andretti, two Brabhams (Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet), a Shadow (Elio de Angelis), an Arrows (Jochen Mass) and a McLaren (John Watson).

That doesn’t look like much in black and white, but the grid was bolstered with the Aurora F1 field – a British series full of Williams, Wolf, Lotus and Tyrrell F1 cars, and some not so shoddy drivers either.

The race was initially all about Lauda, then Andretti, then a brave move from Villeneuve. Piquet, in his first full season, was in the mix too. Having got all of their autographs on race morning in the pitlane, who should I cheer? I was torn between young guns Villeneuve and Piquet. But then there was Andretti and Lauda…. Decisions, decisions, not easy for a 12 year-old. I eventually chose the Brazilian (the start of things to come – he’s been a hero ever since).

We had been to a number of the Aurora F1 races too all over the UK. Aurora, the series sponsor was like a mini scalextric set. They had a competition in the sales area where a track for the 1/72 scale cars was set up. Whoever set the fastest lap of the day, won a game set. By the end of 1979 I had won it three times, and by then had enough Aurora track to rival the 14-mile Nurburgring Nordschliefe!

The race was great, the crowd amazing. It came down to tyres. Most were on Goodyears, and most had to pit. Villeneuve was on Michelins, and as the race wore on, he was the strongest. I tried to switch to being a Villeneuve fan. My Dad wasn’t having it!

Villeneuve took the lead with a very brave move into Paddock Hill Bend, wheel-to-wheel with Andretti.

The atmosphere and the size of the crowd was incredible. We were parked on South Bank. The sound of Ferrari’s flat 12-cylider engine was glorious. The massive tyres, the powerslides… I was absorbed. Then as Andretti dropped back as his tyres went off, newcomer Piquet closed in. When he passed him for second. The place went nuts – as the reigning British F3 champion Piquet had already been adopted by the British fans.

For many reasons it was a day, and a race, to remember, and cemented the fact that I loved F1, and the drivers and cars in it. Of course being a dreamer on the verge of his teens, I figured I would of course be an F1 driver. Then I grew up!

I still made racing my career, as a writer and editor, and bringing this story full circle, had the ride of my lifetime in 2003. Working for CART I returned to Brands Hatch for the first time in years, and was offered a pace car ride – which naturally I jumped at the chance of. Helmet on, I waited in line, and when it came to my turn the previous guest got out of the black Audi TT with a massive grin. All he said to me was: “You are really going to enjoy that…” I got in the car, was strapped in. When the driver got back in the car, he turned to me, shook my hand and said, “Hi. I’m Mario”…

Three laps of Brands Hatch later driven at high-speed by Mario Andretti? Yes. My smile is only just starting to fade.

Which leads me to thinking… Why not share photos of your autographed items with us, and the stories behind them, on www.facebook.com/MotorSportRetro ?

Follow @MarioAndretti on twitter

By Andy Hallbery follow me on twitter @hallbean

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