With just the occasional foray into Formula 1, David Hobbs has forged a very satisfying career for himself in a motorsport career spanning over six decades.
The son of an Australian inventor who pioneered the automatic gearbox, Hobbs was born just months before the outbreak of World War II in Royal Leamington Spa after his parents migrated to the UK. After leaving school, David worked as an apprentice for Daimler, and cut his teeth in the early 1960s driving Lotus and Jaguar sports cars.
He graduated to Formula Junior, Formula 2, and then into ‘big banger’ sports cars in 1965 at the wheel of a Lola T70.
David’s big Formula 1 break came in the 1966 non-championship Syracuse Grand Prix at the wheel of a BRM, where he incredibly finished on the podium behind the factory Ferraris. Unfortunately, the big teams didn’t come knocking, but his first championship race came at the 1967 British Grand Prix, where he finished 8th on debut.
A driver of immense versatility, David won the 1968 Monza 1000km event in a Ford GT40, and raced in F1 again at the same circuit in a oneMi-off appearance for the works Honda team alongside John Surtees.
His wide-ranging involvement was acknowledged by the sport’s governing body, the FIA, when he was included on their list of ‘Graded Drivers’, an elite group of 27 drivers whose achievements were considered as the best in the world.
Formula 5000 proved a useful racing and income stream for Hobbs for the next few years from 1969 onwards, and he took the 1971 crown, also making another one-off appearance at that year’s US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in a McLaren M19.
In 1974, David finished fifth in the Indianapolis 500 in the cockpit of a McLaren, and it was the F1 team that called him up to deputise for the injured Mike Hailwood in a couple of races, peaking with an excellent 7th place at the Österreichring. A possible race seat for 1975 was not to be, with the drive going to Jochen Mass instead…
The sheer range of categories in which David has competed rivals that of few other drivers: F1, F2, endurance racing, Can-Am, Formula 5000, touring cars, IMSA and much more! Indeed, David competed in the Le Mans 24 Hours on twenty occasions, finishing twice on the podium but ‘never winning the bloody thing’, as he told us.
David has since carved out a very successful motorsport commentary role in the United States, his second homeland, a role he performs with the characteristic professionalism and good humour one would expect from such an experienced racing driver.
More recently, Hobbs served as the voice of ‘David Hobbscap’ – a 1963 Coombs Lightweight E-Type Jaguar – in the CARS 2 animation feature. The Hobbscap character is nearly identical to his own: a veteran in twenty 24 Hours of Le Mans races, now retired from motorsport to become a broadcaster.
David kindly participated in interview sessions with RichardsfF1.com to talk about his career and all things Formula 1. We offer our sincerest thanks to David for his time, support and good humour in making this interview possible.
|Full Name:||David Wishart Hobbs|
|Born:||9 June 1939, Royal Leamington (GBR)|
|First GP:||1967 British Grand Prix|
|Last GP:||1974 Italian Grand Prix|
|Wins:||0||Best Finish:||7th||Best Qualifying:||12th|
|1961||Nürburgring 1000Km 1600cc Sports Car Classic, 1st overall|
|1962||24 Hours of Le Mans, Team Lotus Elite Mk14, 1st in GT 1.3 Class with F. Gardner|
|1963||British Formula Junior Championship, 3rd overall|
|1964||24 Hours of Le Mans, Standard Triumph Spitfire, 3rd in P+3 Class with R. Slotemaker|
|1967||Formula 1, Bernard White Racing BRM P261, 2 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
|Formula 1, Lola Cars BMW T100 (F2 Class), 1 race, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1968||Formula 1, Honda Racing F1 RA301, 1 race, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1969||24 Hours of Le Mans, John Wyer Ford GT40 Mk-I, 3rd overall with M. Hailwood|
|1971||USA Formula 5000 Championship, Hogan McLaren Chevrolet M10B, 5 wins, 1st overall|
|Formula 1, Penske-White Racing McLaren Ford M19A, 1 race, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1974||Formula 1, Yardley Team McLaren Ford M23, 2 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1982||24 Hours of Le Mans, JFR Porsche 935/78 ‘Moby Dick’, 1st in GTS Class with J. Fitzpatrick|
|1983||TransAm Championship, DeAtley Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro, 1st overall|
|1984||24 Hours of Le Mans, Skoal Bandit Porsche 956B, 3rd overall with P. Streiff & S van der Merwe|
|1985||24 Hours of Le Mans, JFR Porsche 956B, 4th overall with G. Edwards & J. Gartner|
|1988||24 Hours of Le Mans, Blaupunkt Joest Racing Porsche 962C, 5th overall with F. Konrad & D. Theys|
|2009||Inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame|
We’re fresh from an exciting Australian Grand Prix. What did you make of it?
I thought it was a terrific race. It’s one of the best we’ve had for a long time. As my son said to me: ”If you shuffle them around and get the fast guys at the back, then you will get a lot of overtaking!”
Of course, it all started to go wrong for everybody at Turn 1. Jenson Button was incredibly luck to get away with it; [Fernando] Alonso and [Michael] Schumacher weren’t so lucky, which shuffled the pack big time. I thought it was a very satisfying race. It was a commentator’s dream!
It was helped by the weather conditions, starting off wet and then drying out.
We’re seeing a lot of modern-day autodromes cropping up everywhere as Formula 1 expands its global reach. How do you compare these circuits with the traditional Grand Prix venues on the calendar, such as Silverstone, Monza and Spa-Francorchamps?
You absolutely have to keep some of the traditional circuits on the calendar, there is no doubt about it. I fear that the ‘Tilkedromes’ are designed very much with austerity and view – inasmuch as they have a limited amount of land they can use – so they pack the circuit into a relatively small area.
Look at Malaysia: you have those very long straights and a couple of very tight hairpins, and then you have some nice sweeping curves. Tilke has this very keen idea than Turn 2 should immediately follow Turn 1 – Bahrain and China are exactly the same – which is not conducive to overtaking on the exit of the corner: you arrive into the corner side-by-side on the inside line, and on exit you’re then on the outside line and it doesn’t work anymore! I don’t like the shape of a lot of his circuits because he also tends to throw in little kinks before hard braking, which completely obviates overtaking into that particular corner because you can defend your line so well under braking with the small corner coming up to it.
Look at Bahrain: they added half a mile to the circuit, which contained about 9 corners. Everybody assumed that there would be a lot of overtaking there, but I can’t even begin to imagine where they got that idea from! And of course we saw the result: there was very little overtaking.
I can see the call for a massive press box, decent garages and facilities to get big crowds in – a place like Donington, in contrast, could never get 90,000 people through the gates. Places like Abu Dhabi and Singapore look spectacular but aren’t necessarily good race tracks for good racing. Singapore is not a good race track for overtaking, and Valencia is very poor for overtaking. In the end, it’s the racing that counts.
Places like Silverstone, Imola, Brands Hatch, Hockenheim, produce good racing. [When the redevelopment is done], I think Silverstone is going to be better than many circuits out there.
There has been a lot of debate following the Bahrain Grand Prix that the rules reintroducing the refuelling ban have had the opposite effect intended, with the race itself proving less action-packed than hoped. As someone who raced in Formula 1 when refuelling was also banned and when Grands Prix were something of an economy run, what was your take on that race and the subsequent debate?
We need to do more to spice up the show, and especially so if we’re trying to build our American market, which is used to plenty of overtaking in NASCAR and IndyCar.
Formula 1 has to address the issue of reducing the aerodynamic downforce of the cars. F1 cars create such massive holes in the air, but the trailing wake is so disturbed that it’s almost impossible to administer the coupe de grace in the car coming up behind.
Here’s an example: in 2009 with the double diffuser, which Brawn GP pioneered and which everybody felt was illegal. The FIA sat on its hands for the opening races, and by then Brawn had cleaned up and won several of the opening races, by which point it granted the concept. Hey presto, everybody has these super-efficient double diffusers and nobody can follow another driver closely anymore.
Additionally, the additional weight of the fuel load is causing drivers to be very cautious with their brakes and not wanting to wear their brakes out so early on. The FIA should also have allowed the teams to fit bigger brakes on the cars to counter this.
There has been much debate about the success, or lack thereof, of American drivers who have graduated to Formula 1. As a commentator for the United States TV audience, just three American drivers since Mario Andretti (Eddie Cheever, Scott Speed and Mario’s son, Michael) and only a handful of IndyCar drivers have attempted to make the move to Formula 1. What’s your take on the lack of American drivers in Formula 1?
From my point of view and from a ratings point of view – in addition to a point of view from Grand Prix racing in the United States – we definitely need a young, up-and-coming, fast American Formula 1 driver.
But you run into a number of issues, one being that Bernie Ecclestone seems dead set against America and American drivers in Formula 1, and is not going to make their passage any easier.
The other problem is that for young drivers over here in the US, it’s so easy for them to just slide into the NASCAR route. They don’t have to travel far from home, the races are all in North America, and there’s been plenty of money and massive name recognition in NASCAR. It’s very easy to veer off.
To be a serious contender in Formula 1, you have to play by the Formula 1 rules; to be a serious contender in NASCAR, you have to do it the NASCAR way. They expect you to “pay your dues”, do ARCA, and then the Nationwide Series, before you even think about doing the Cup Series’.
But Formula 1 is the same: they expect you to come through the lesser formulae, for example Formula 3, GP2, and they expect you to hang around and hope to get a Formula 1 drive. When you’re talking about an American driver trying to do this, they’re doing all this up to 10,000 miles from home. Your supply line is compromised, it’s expensive, and the chances of getting a drive – even if you do very well – is still a bit of a hit-and-miss situation, because Formula 1 drivers of today stay around forever. Look at David Coulthard – he drove for McLaren for ages! Vettel isn’t going to move from Red Bull for ever. Alonso and Massa are going to stay at Ferrari for a very long time. It’s very hard to find an opening in a decent team.
When you’re an American driver, you can go and drive for a mediocre NASCAR team and make yourself a couple of million a year. Alternatively, they could spend $3-$4M a year and go to Europe and struggle, and I might, at the end of about a three- or four-year gestation period, get a decent Formula 1 drive.
And the kid’s got to make his mind up to do this when he about 16 or 17 years of age! The likes of Vettel, Hamilton, Rosberg and Alguersuari were all involved in F1 before they were 22 years old!
Even if an American driver was to clean up in IndyCars, I doubt a Formula 1 team would give them the time of day. Take Graham Rahal for instance: I’m sure his father would have liked for him to be doing Formula 1. But they should have been over in Europe four years ago. Even though Graham is a very young guy, it’s too late.
Mario Andretti would like for [his grandson and IndyCar racer] Marco to compete in Formula 1. But Marco wanted to win the Indy 500 first – it might take him 20 years to do that! He seems to be a bit of a damp squib; he looked so promising in his first year, but his performance seems to have levelled off somewhat.
How big is the loss of USF1 from the 2010 grid? Can Formula 1 re-enter the American market with a United States Grand Prix?
I honestly don’t know what happened over there, but there was obviously some very poor management, very poor money management. I think Peter [Windsor, the team’s co-founder] was trying to work for us [he was a co-presenter with David on SpeedTV], and left Ken Anderson to run the show. Apparently, Peter was constantly getting phone calls from employees saying “What the hell’s going on? We’re not doing this… Something’s going wrong…”. He would call Ken, who would tell him not to worry and that everything was going fine.
Peter has been in Formula 1 for a long time, and probably should have known better. He was trying to do two jobs, and it’s hard to juggle everything. I wasn’t handled very well. It started off which such a lot of hoopla over here, and it’s very disappointing that they didn’t make it. It would have been a great help for Formula 1 to have had a US-based team.
The other thing that’s strange is the apathy of the US companies, who don’t seem to be going out of their way to help American drivers get into Formula 1.
How did you come to be involved in motorsport? Did you always harbour ambitions of making it to Formula 1?
My parents were Australian, from Adelaide. My dad was an inventor, and he came up with the idea of an automatic gearbox in the 1920s. My parents moved to England to get this going, as it was the centre of automotive manufacturing at that time.
So he went to England to develop this gearbox, but it didn’t work out like it should have done, so in the end they ended up in England without returning to Australia, much to my mother’s disgust.
So I was brought up in England. I was born just before the War started, and was brought up in a house that had at least one vehicle, because my father had a special fuel allowance on account of the automotive development work he was doing for the British government’s war effort.
When I left school, I went to Daimler Cars as an engineering apprentice, and joined the apprentices’ motor club, and we would do rallies and autocrossing, and that sort of stuff.
I took over my mother’s Morris Oxford, and the BMW B-Series engine from a test rig at my father’s factory and put that in the Morris so it had an overhead valve engine in it. I also put in an engine inlet manifold and some carburettors from Daimler – which I must give back one of these days! – and I went off racing.
My very first race was a club race in 1959 at Snetterton. I entered the saloon car class, but the organisers felt my car didn’t comply on account of the automatic gearbox so they put me in the GT Class. So there I was in this Morris up against TR2s, Lotus Elites, and the like, and obviously didn’t do very well.
In 1960, I raced my father’s Jaguar XK140 which also had the automatic gearbox, and I managed to roll it in my very first race in Oulton Park! My father told me I had to fix it, so it never really looked much good after that. It was pretty quick, however, and I won four races in it. It got some publicity as well because of the automatic gearbox.
And then the following year, we bought a Lotus Elite to race and to promote the gearbox. I did about 18 races in that car, including the Nürburgring 1000km, and I won 14 of the 18 races and that got me going.
Several famous people put this gearbox on their cars – Stirling Moss, Jim Clark – and Colin Chapman was very interested in the concept of putting one in a Formula 1 car.
I went professional at the end of 1962 and won my debut open-wheeler race, a Formula 2 meeting at Oulton Park.
Your Formula 1 debut was a non-championship event in 1966. Can you tell us about it?
I drove a Lotus BRM for Tim Parnell at the Syracuse GP in Sicily. It was a non championship event, there were quite a few back then, I came third behind the factory Ferraris of John Surtees and Lorenzo Bandini. I was pretty pleased with myself and waited for the phone to ring but it didn’t.
That started my mediocre racing career, and I carried on for the next thirty years, winning a few things and losing a lot more.
Later that year Bernard White called me up and asked me to drive a GT40 in the Kyalami 9hr in South Africa; Mike Hailwood was the other driver. We stayed on and did the Springbok Series and had an absolute ball for nine weeks in SA. We had not met before the trip and were a bit wary of each other but we became great friends and had some marvellous times together right up to the time of his tragic death. So that is how Bernard asked me to drive the BRM the following year, and I made my championship debut at the 1968 British Grand Prix, where I finished 8th.
You made a one-off appearance with Honda at the 1968 Italian Grand Prix, driving alongside John Surtees. How did that opportunity happen, and what was John like to drive alongside?
In 1965 I was given a drive in a Lola T70 and was in on the development, John Surtees was the first customer and did a lot of the testing. We were both in Canada when he had the accident at Mosport and broke his neck, I was the only person to visit him in Toronto, after that he took more interest in my driving and I drove his T70 a bit in 67 68 and drove the first Surtees, the TS5 F5000 car in 1969 for team Surtees, having his first win at Mondello Park in 1969. He sent me to the USA to do the SCCA F5000 series. He was pretty disorganised and we missed half of the races and I finished second in the championship by 1 point!!
So to cut a long story short, I was on John’s radar in 1968 and that gave me the opportunity to take the drive in Italy. We tested at Silverstone and I broke the lap record held by Chris Amon in a Ferrari, so the Honda people were happy with that. Mr Honda was dead keen on air cooling and they had their own car, a magnesium chassis with the engine hanging off a sort of horizontal pylon. The car was way too flexible and the engine was horrible, no go at all until about 6800RPM and blew up at about 7200RPM, so it was not easy to drive. Anyway, I tested both that car and the Lola with the V12 water cooled lump at Monza. The time would have been better spent concentrating on the V12, because towards qualifying they gave me the choice, I think I was about 15th on the grid, but I did get her up to about 4th when the engine dropped a valve.
The plan was for me to do the USA, Canada, and Mexico races, however Jo Bonnier came up with some money and did at least Mexico. John had promised me a role in 1970 but Honda withdrew to concentrate on lean-burning engines for the US market.
It was a further three years before you graced the F1 grid again, but in the meantime you contested an enormous range of motorsport categories. You have contested in the 24 Hours of Le Mans on some 20 occasions, achieving a pole position and two podiums. How do the disciplines of endurance racing compare with the relatively shorter sprints of a Grand Prix?
Back in those days long distance driving was an art. You had to pace yourself and the car, we always only had two drivers, so race times were always way off qualifying times. Brake pads were not easy to change so you had to be very careful with the brakes and of course the gear box, so it was very different to a Grand Prix or any sprint race. Now the cars are so strong, there are at least three drivers and everything is so quick to fit, the whole brake assembly can be replaced in less than a couple of mins so now it is probably much more of sprint for each driver.
Your final F1 outings came at the Yardley McLaren team in 1974, where you replaced the injured Mike Hailwood for the Austrian and Italian Grands Prix. The M23 was a very successful and competitive car in its day, what were your impressions of the car?
Hailwood broke his legs in the German GP in the Yardley car. I had driven for McLaren that year in the Indy 500 and came fifth so was familiar with some of the team. I was hoping to drive for them in 1975 but after Italy they took on Jochen Mass.
The car was pretty nice to drive, but Phil Kerr who had been with Bruce from early days, another Kiwi, was acting as my engineer and I think I would have done a better job with my own set up, but cest la vie as they say, So I did OK, but not what I had hoped.
The Österreichring was, of course, blindingly fast and a bit nerve racking to make my debut in the car.
You’ve had a long-standing commentating career in the United States, and have commented on almost as many disciplines in which you’ve competed. What was the most exciting race you’ve commentated on?
The one that sticks out in my mind was the 1979 French Grand Prix when Rene Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve battled for second place at Dijon. I’ve covered a lot of very exciting Formula 1 races – and a lot of very unexciting ones too! – but that one certainly would jump right out at me.
You would no doubt have witnessed some incredible technological innovations in your 30-plus years of broadcasting motorsport. What have been some of the innovations that have enhanced your role as a commentator?
The transition in the last couple of years to digital TV, and high-definition has improved things enormously. Satellite technology has improved, cameras have improved, audio has made big strides. The way of communicating this information and the broadcasts have been the biggest changes, particularly with the internet.
How did you come to be involved in CARS 2?
The first I heard about Cars 2 was when our executive producer and his boss went to the Canadian GP last June to watch Saturday practice and qualifying. When he returned on Sunday he was all excited as some one from Pixar was there and asked for my contact details.
Ultimately I went to Pixar’s studios in San Francisco and laid down my voice tracks.
Are you happy with your being mocked up as an E-Type Jaguar?
They want me to basically play myself, a retired driver turned commentator. Initially, my character was going to be called Twit Anglia after the old Ford Anglia.
But John Lasseter – who is Mr Pixar – wanted to use a name close to mine, and hence ‘David Hobbscap’ was created.
I am a 1963 Jaguar E-Type coupe in British Racing Green. Along with Darrell Cartrip and Brent Mustangberger, I call three races on the screen, one of which is the Porto Corsa race set on the Mediterranean coast.
Images via Corbis Images, David Hobbs and Disney/Pixar