Catching up with Canada’s forgotten pioneer of Formula One
Legendary Canadian team owner reminisces about his time in Formula One and the Can-Am racing series.
It is interesting to sit in a semi-crowded press room at a small race track in rural B.C. and watch people come and go — totally unaware of the fact they are in the presence of a motorsport legend.
All they saw were two older gentlemen chatting animatedly about the days of such colourful race drivers as Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, Chris Amon, Jackie Stewart, Jody Scheckter and Canada’s own Gilles Villeneuve.
Here are excerpts from my conversation with legendary Formula One and Can Am team owner Walter Wolf.
Allan de la Plante: It’s been a long time since that Sunday when Jody (Scheckter) won the Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport (now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park).
Walter Wolf: It was on the 9th of October in 1977. It was the last Grand Prix held in Mosport and Jody won it in my car on Canadian soil. It was a huge day for me.
I guess that is why they invited me back for the large party they had two years ago to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Mosport. They brought the WR001 that Jody won in to this event.
The following year, it was in Montreal. I worked with Mayor Jean Drapeau to get the Grand Prix to Montreal and we all know what happened there. Gilles won his first Grand Prix and Jody drove my car to second. Bobby Rahal drove my second car as well. He retired with fuel problems.
AP: The Wolf Formula One car was considered at the time, and by many still, as one of the prettiest cars. What do you think of that statement?
WW: We surely didn’t build it to be pretty, but it really was a beauty to look at. Better than that, it was fast! The WR001 won all three of my Grand Prix wins in 1977. In 1977, the WR001 finished 11 races with 10 podiums.
AP: Like Rob Walker, it was often said that you, he and Ken Tyrrell were the ultimate in “hangers-on.” You couldn’t drive the car so you owned a team.
WW: Yes. That’s why we were such good friends. The difference was that Cooper was building the cars for them. I had no choice but to build my own.
Our cars were fabricated in our own shop, where we had 77 people employed. We made the first monocoque in the factory out of carbon fibre.
Harvey Postelwaithe, formerly of Williams, designed the car with assistance from Adrian Newey. Peter Warr, from Lotus, designed the suspension. I signed Jody Scheckter, who was first with McLaren, then he drove for Ken Tyrrell.
Jody drove for me for two years and, even in the final race with me at Montreal in 1978, he drove his heart out. He could have taken it easy. We knew he was going to Ferrari for 1979 but, still, he drove like the champion he became in 1979.
AP: The WR001 won right out of the box in its first race. Did you expect this?
WW: I challenged Harvey to build me a simple car that was easy to maintain. Many of the tracks were fast ones, so he designed a car made for top speed on the straights.
I remember it well. It was the 9th of January 1977 in Buenos Aires. The car suffered fuel-supply problems in qualifying, from the extreme heat. Harvey worked his magic on the Saturday night before the race and Jody, after starting 11th, drove to the front while all the others faltered.
We finished nearly 50 seconds ahead of Carlos Pace’s Brabham in second. It was the first time since 1954 that a new make had won their maiden Grand Prix.
(Juan Manuel) Fangio was at the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz that day. They said it was luck. It takes luck! That’s the name of this sport.
AP: Many know of your Formula One cars, but you also had a car in Can-Am. Tell us about this car.
WW: I was at Lamborghini and was developing a new car, the Countouch. I needed a test driver to help me develop the very powerful Diablo. Chris Amon was leaving Formula One, so I asked him to help me develop this car. I said I will see you get a car in Can-Am.
So we designed him a car we called the Wolf Dallara. They are still building the new Indy cars. It was designed by Gianpaolo Dallara.
Chris came to the first race at St. Jovite. There, Brian Redman flipped his car backwards on the hump in the back straight. The air got under the car and it did a slow roll backward. Chris, who is a good friend of Brian’s, was almost beside himself. He was about to have a nervous breakdown, so we had to replace him with Gilles (Villeneuve).
AP: Why would you choose Gilles over many drivers with Can-Am experience? He had only driven Formula Atlantics, with considerably less power.
WW: Gilles was the type of driver who was very aggressive. He thought he was unbeatable. He showed that in Three Rivers in 1976, when he won by beating James Hunt, Jacques Laffitte, Alan Jones, Patrick Depallier and Vitorio Brambilla.
I wanted a Canadian driver and Gilles showed he could win. Gilles showed me he was one of the most natural talents. He drove what Chris Amon said was an un-drivable car.
AP: You must get this question all the time. Who was the best?
WW: The best; the most talented? For me, it’s Schumacher. With seven world titles, how can you dispute that? Is he the most talented or the fastest?
Of a different era, some say (Ayrton) Senna. Lots of people, older like we are, say Jimmy Clark. Lots of people also say the most talented driver was (Jochen) Rindt, but it does not matter. They are not there. They are dead.
Schumacher is here and, for me, Michael is beside Fangio as the greatest of the past century. As for Gilles, of the top-10 most talented, I think he’s in the top five.
I have followed motor sport since the days of (Alberto) Ascari and, for me, Gilles had unbelievable ability. The problem Gilles had was he missed the patience on the brake. The (1977) incident with (Ronnie) Peterson in Japan proved that. Gilles braked late and hit Ronnie from behind. (Debris from the crash killed a marshal and a photographer.)
Gilles was at my house for Christmas in 1981. Jochen Mass and Patrick Tambay were there. My wife said that night to Gilles that if he drove like that, you are going to kill yourself.
He just said, “Barbara, you don’t know what you are talking about. I’m never going to kill myself.”
He was dead five months later.