Derek Daly will probably never shake the reputation of being both quick and accident-prone, for it is true that this bubbly Irishman has endured his fair share of incidents over the course of his motorsport career.
Born in Dublin, Derek’s first behind-the-wheel motorsport experience came in the world of stock cars before he took the jump to Formula Ford in his homeland.
However, motorsport being an expensive business and without the wherewithal to help finance it, Derek ventured to Australia with his friend and fellow aspirant motor-racer, David Kennedy, to work in the ore mines and earn enough cash to fund his next motorsport campaign.
With money under his belt after a hard slog in the wilderness, Derek returned to Ireland and won the 1975 Irish Formula Ford championship. He crossed the Irish Sea to the UK, and despite being cash-strapped and forced to live in a converted coach, he won the season-ending Formula Ford Festival in 1976.
Derek graduated to Formula 3 in 1977, and won the BP national title, beating the likes of Nelson Piquet along the way. He graduated to Formula 2 for the Estoril round, and finished fifth on debut. Such was the impression that he made in Portugal that he was offered a full-time drive for 1978, and the offers from Formula 1 also came by as well.
In hindsight, Derek will admit that jumping to F1 in 1978 was one step too far given his relative inexperience, but he signed on the dotted line with Hesketh and made an incredible debut at the International Trophy race at Silverstone, taking an early lead in soaking conditions until spinning out. However, reality would quickly dawn on him, and he would fail to make the qualifying cut in his first three championship appearances was walked out on the team.
Fortunately for Derek, the little Ensign team needed a replacement for Jacky Ickx and Derek was back in F1, picking up a precious point for himself and the team at the season-ending Canadian GP. This was enough to see him stay on with the team into 1979, but that year’s car was not up to scratch, and Derek dropped out and back to the Ron Dennis managed Project Four Formula 2 team, where he enjoyed further success until a late-season call-up from the Tyrrell team. He drove brilliantly at Watkins Glen before spinning out and this was enough for him to be offered a full-time drive with the team for 1980.
This year seemed to mirror Derek’s previous seasons: a bit hit-and-miss, with two fourth-place finishes in addition to several frightening shunts – a few of which were, in fairness, not of his own doing…
The following year saw him saddled with the uncompetitive RAM March team, which was saddled with an uncompetitive chassis that saw him fail to make the grid for the opening six attempts. He never gave up, and was thrown a lifeline by the Theodore team for the following season, jumping ship to the Williams outfit when Carlos Reutemann inexplicably called it quits.
Paired alongside the eventual championship winner, Keke Rosberg, Derek was very much put in the shade by dint of a lack of inherent qualifying speed, but put in a few gritty drives to earn points and support Rosberg’s championship tilt. He could so nearly have won the bizarre Monaco Grand Prix, but his form wasn’t strong enough for the team and he wasn’t retained for 1983.
Realising that his F1 career was finished, Derek crossed the Atlantic and tried his hand at IndyCars. After some promising early performances, his motorsport career was almost completely finished with an almighty accident at the 1984 Michigan 200 that ripped away the front of the car and badly smashed both legs. A lengthy, painful recovery ensued, by by 1986 he had fully recovered and was back behind the wheel. By the time of his retirement in 1992, Derek had won the 12 Hours of Sebring twice.
A complete natural, Derek transitioned with unbelievable ease into the commentary box and was a long-time feature in the ESPN commentary team, where his enthusiastic Irish twang was an instant hit with the viewers.
Also involved in the establishment of a driver academy, Derek penned a book on developing a champion driver after many years’ reflection on his own motorsport errors and mishaps. Derek also works as a motivational speaker, and now lives in the United States.
Derek kindly accepted our interview request and openly talked about his lengthy motorsport and broadcasting career, the current state of F1, and his self-penned book on becoming a champion driver. Undoubtedly candid about his bumpy career in F1, Derek gave us a wonderful interview that we take great delight in sharing with you, and for that, Richard’s F1 is extremely grateful to Derek and his team for their time and support in making it happen.
|Full Name:||Derek Daly|
|Born:||11 March 1953, Dublin (IRE)|
|First GP:||1978 British Grand Prix|
|Last GP:||1982 Caesars Palace Grand Prix|
|Wins:||0||Best Finish:||4th||Best Qualifying:||7th|
|1975||Irish Formula Ford Championship, 1st overall|
|1976||British Formula Ford Festival, Hawke DL17, 1st overall|
|1977||British Formula 3 Championship, Derek McMahon Racing Chevron Toyota, 1st overall|
|European Formula 2 Championship, Chevron Racing, 2 points, 18th overall|
|1978||European Formula 2 Championship, Chevron Racing, 2 wins, 4 podiums, 3rd overall|
|Formula 1, Hesketh Racing Ford 308E, 3 entries, 1 DNQ, 2 DNPQ|
|Formula 1, Ensign Ford N177, 6 races, 1 point, 19th overall|
|1979||European Formula 2 Championship, Project 4 Racing, 1 win, 5 podiums, 3rd overall|
|Formula 1, Ensign Ford N177 / N179, 7 entries, 4 DNQ, 3 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
|Formula 1, Tyrrell Ford 009, 3 races, 0 points Not Classified|
|1980||Formula 1, Tyrrell Ford 009 / 010, 14 races, 6 points, 11th overall|
|1981||Formula 1, March Ford 811, 15 entries, 7 DNQ, 8 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1982||Formula 1, Theodore Racing Ford TY01 / TY02, 3 races, 0 points|
|Formula 1, Williams Ford FW08, 12 races, 8 points, 13th overall|
|1983||European Formula 2 Champioinship, McMahon Racing, 1 race, Not Classified|
|IndyCar Series, Wysard / Provimi Racing Ford, 7 races, 4 points, 4th overall|
|1984||IndyCar Series, Provimi Racing Ford, 11 races, 26 points, 19th overall|
|1987||IndyCar Series, Raynor Motorsports Lola Ford, 12 races, 1 podium, 27 points, 15th overall|
|1988||IndyCar Series, Raynor Motorsports Lola Ford, 15 races, 53 points, 9th overall|
|24 Hours of Le Mans, Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-9LM, 4th overall with K. Cogan & L. Perkins|
|1989||IndyCar Series, Raynor Motorsports Lola Judd, 15 races, 25 points, 12th overall|
|1990||12 Hours of Sebring, Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo, 1st overall with B. Earl|
How did you come to be involved in motorsport? Did you always harbour ambitions of making it to Formula 1?
My Dad took me to a street race outside Dublin city when I was 12 (1965) to see a neighbours brother, Sid Taylor, race a Brabham BT8. I always thought F1 was an untouchable stage….I just decided to see how far I could get.
Growing up, did you have any motorsport idols?
Jackie Stewart and James Hunt. Jackie Stewart because he was one of the most visible of drivers by early “awareness”… James Hunt because he just drove and lived with such an uncluttered manner.
You worked in the iron ore and tin mines in Australia to try and bankroll your passage through the motorsport ranks. Can you tell us about that time?
In 1973 I borrowed £1,000 from a bank on the pretence of starting a used car business. The used car was a used Lotus 61 Formula Ford. At the end of that season, I had not paid the loan back and needed a race car upgrade. My girlfriends brother had just returned from Cliffs Robe River and told me I could earn £5,000 (about US$10,000) in six months as a labourer. The other option was the Alaska pipe line but for that I would have to pay $1000 for special clothing – for Australia all I had to do was cut the sleeves off a shirt and pair of pants and I was ready to go…..that was the decision maker for me.
It was the hardest, dirtiest, hottest most enjoyable thing I had ever done in my life. We were surrounded by criminals, drug addicts and general low life and a group of people like me who were on a mission, to buy a house – or a yacht or in my case a race car.
I returned for the 1974 season, and bought a Crossle 25F and my career began to take off fast.
The passage through Formula Ford and Formula 3 is always an intense period of competition for any aspiring driver. You raced against and even beat several big names, such as Nelson Piquet, during this time. How intense was the competition and what were your experiences like trying to finance your ambitions?
After Australia I won the Irish FF championship. The next move was to England so I bought a old school bus, took all the seats out, added a FF, a tool box and a bed and I left home. I managed to win 23 races in England including the big Formula Ford Festival at the end of the year. I received the trophy from one of my heroes, James Hunt, who was the reigning world champion.
In 1977 I moved on to British F3 and managed to win that championship also with what was probably the lowest budget to ever win it. Along the way I qualified on the pole for the Austrian Grand Prix with Nelson Piquet beside me on the grid. While sitting on the grid, a guy limped up to my sponsor and told him that if I won the race he would give me a test in a Formula 1 car before the end of the year. The guy was Sid Taylor, who I had gone to see race in 1965 in Dublin city.
I won the race and was in an F1 car that November – making my rise from Formula Ford to Formula 1 just 13 months – the fastest ever rise (Emerson Fittipaldi previously held the unofficial record at 18 months). I also watched Alan Jones win his first Grand Prix that weekend.
You performed well in Formula 2 and were signed by Hesketh for 1978, leading the International Trophy race in torrential conditions…
At the end of 1977 I got a chance to race an F2 car in Estoril and finished fifth, setting a new lap record. Along came the Hesketh opportunity in the rain at Silverstone. Half way around the first lap, I passed James Hunt for the lead. I spun on a river of water at Abbey curve on the first lap (as did Hunt, Mario Andretti, Niki Lauda, Ronnie Peterson) but got back into the lead a second time. But then my visor came off the left side the nylon clip on my helmet. The visor fell down leaving my eyes open to the lashing rain. I would hold my visor up on the straights and let it drop in the corners and of course I eventually could not see and went off the road.
Your official championship F1 debut came at the 1978 US GP West at Long Beach for Hesketh. The team had undergone a vast transformation since its earlier heydays in the mid-1970s. What was the environment like and what was your initial impression of the team?
The emotion of Silverstone spilled over to a World Championship attempt but we had to go through prequalifying because F1 was oversubscribed. Prequalifying was an early morning session for six cars where the fastest two went through.
The Arrows cars of Riccardo Patrese and Jochen Mass were much faster, so we just did the early session and watched for the rest of the weekend. Keke Rosberg was in the Sid Taylor run Theodore and he also failed to qualify, so we watched the rest of the weekend together.
Tough times for race car drivers!
Three consecutive failures to qualify saw you leave the team after the Belgian round and move to Ensign. How tough was this F1 baptism for you and what did you try to do to regroup?
I went back to F2 after Hesketh and immediately won the fifth and sixth rounds of the Euro championship in Italy. That led to the Ensign opportunity. I made my F1 debut with Ensign at the British Grand Prix in 1978.
You finished the 1978 season with a precious point for 6th in Canada. How much did that result mean to you and the team?
That one point meant that the team could survive and race in 1979 because of the FOCA support money that points scorers received from Bernie.
The following season was tough for you, and the revamped Ensign N179 was generally outclassed by the opposition. Can you tell us more about this period?
The 1979 Ensign was a dog and my career stalled. I again went back to F2 with Project Four Racing – Ron Dennis was my team manager – and won the Euro round in Donington with Ken Tyrrell in attendance.
Tyrrell gave you a call towards season’s end to replace the indisposed Jean-Pierre Jarier, and you peaked with a brilliant drive at Watkins Glen to be offered a full season for 1980. Was it a relief (of sorts) to be back in an F1 cockpit?
After seeing me at Donington, Ken offered to run me in a third Tyrrell in Montreal and Watkins Glen at the end of the year. It all went well and this was a big break for me.
1980 was a bit hit-and-miss, which saw two great drives to fourth place at Argentina and Britain, coupled with big accidents at Monaco, Zandvoort and the Österreichring. What happens in your mind in a “big one” like those?
Tyrrell built a copy of the Lotus 79 for 1980 and it was a pretty good job – but a little fragile. During the first test I had a front suspension break testing at Paul Ricard.
At Monaco I made a mistake by taking my eye off the car in front of me and had a monster and very famous crash.
At the Österreichring I had the bolts shear from the left side brake disc bell, which meant I had all brakes working except the left brake disc was no longer connected to the wheel or upright. When this happened the right brake pulled me right off the track under braking and I went off into a corn field.
At Zandvoort I had a left front brake disc explode at 186mph. The disc tore the bottom wishbone off and I had another monster accident.
What was the Tyrrell team like to work for, and how would you describe your relationship with “Uncle Ken”?
Ken was a great man and a great mentor.
It was off to the RAM March Team for 1981, and this was a very difficult year, with six consecutive failures to qualify in the opening six races. Were the issues with the car, the team, or both?
That season there was an rule that the ride height had to be a certain height in the pits. Of course the teams build hydraulic lowering devices for when they are on the circuit to get around the rule. March did not have theirs for the first six races. As soon as we got it we were OK.
Theodore offered you a lifeline for 1982, but Carlos Reutemann’s sudden retirement saw you propelled into the Williams team for the Belgian Grand Prix onwards. Here you were, finally presented with a team had achieved great success since 1979 – how did it feel to be a part of the team?
I had finally made it….this was the dream bream every driver waits and hopes for.
Your team-mate Keke Rosberg would go on to snatch the Drivers’ Championship. What was your relationship like with him during the season?
Our relationship as team-mates was good – Keke was a good guy – blindingly fast and very brave.
Monaco 1982 was one of those truly extraordinary races that almost – from the outside – no one seemed to want to win. Were you aware that you’d taken the lead after Patrese’s stall, Piquet’s retirement and de Cesaris running out of petrol, all within a matter of seconds of one another?
I was not aware I was leading. I had taken the wing off a lap earlier and the gearbox oil cooler was attached. The oil was pumping out of the gearbox during the last two laps (which is why Patrese spun).
After your most successful season of Formula 1 in 1982, where you finished in the points five times, with four of those occurring in five consecutive races, what made you decide to switch to the CART series at that point in your career?
Despite the package at my disposal, I did not have a good enough season.
I got fired from Williams and decided I wanted to try racing in America instead.
What were your first thoughts on the transition, and in turn how you thought you would cope from European road racing to American oval racing?
Oval racing in America was a huge thrill – unlike anything I had ever experienced. So fast, so dangerous, so different.
1984 saw you survive the worst accident of your career in the Michigan 200, when the car literally disintegrated around you (pictured below). Do you remember anything about the impact itself?
I have no memory of the impact – just the seconds before and the minutes afterwards. At the time, it was the hardest impact a driver had ever survived.
As a motorsports commentator, you would no doubt have witnessed some incredible technological innovations in your years of broadcasting motorsport. What have been some of the innovations that have enhanced your role as a commentator?
Slow motion video, on-board cameras, pit-to-car radios, live timing and scoring are several examples I can think of which have improved the show immensely.
Your other business interests include motivational speaking and you’ve also written a book: Race To Win. You refer to a ‘Champion’s Pyramid’ in your book – can you tell us more about this?
All my mistakes became a phenomenal education that I can pass on to young drivers. There is no set path to becoming successful in motor sports but there are specific skills that drivers need to become what I call “a complete” driver.
I did NOT have these skills developed which is part of the reason why my F1 career was so disjointed. I got to F1 too fast and therefore did not learn the skills or did not have anyone to teach me the skills.
The book makes young drivers and Mums and Dads aware of the skills necessary and how to develop the skills.
Your son Conor is progressing very well through the junior formulae. Is Formula 1 or IndyCars the goal for Conor?
He is very adventurous and wants to attempt the Formula 1 route.
What would you say were your best moments of your motorsport career?
Winning the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in the rain 1976. Winning the Euro F2 race at Mugello 1978. My fourth-placed finish at Brands Hatch in 1978 with Tyrrell. Returning to race at the 1985 Indy 500, just seven months after my accident.
What is your favourite racing circuit in the world?
The Osterreichring without a doubt.
What is your opinion on the current state of Formula 1? Does more need to be done to improve the show?
We’re seeing an era of the ugliest F1 cars ever – that hideous high nose design should be banned. The rules need to be changed to stop getting input from designers and engineers about how to change the specifications of the cars to make the racing better. To improve racing in Formula 1, you need to lengthen the braking zones and lower the downforce and grip levels. This is a simple formula but current active designers should not provide the input on how to do this because they have proven that they cannot do it… Just look at the speed of the cars into corners and the lack of overtaking we see today.
Also, we need to stop moving the people further and further away from the action with these new circuits. Circuit designers should work to move the people closer to the action and engage them at higher levels.
Ban blatant blocking in F1 and in all the lower formulae. The “one move” rule is ridiculous – if you ban blocking in F1, passing would immediately increase.
Images via Corbis Images, F1 Nostalgia, Sports Car Digest