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'A Hollywood movie script that you wouldn't believe': How a shy boy from Dundrum took on the world

It’s almost 40 years ago to the day when Derek Daly found himself on the starting grid of the British Grand Prix.

Updated Jul 22nd 2018, 12:51 PM

And it’s Derek Daly! Derek Daly! This is quite incredible! The Formula 3 driver Derek Daly – in his first Formula One race ever driving the Hesketh with the Cosworth V8 engine – has taken the lead. And he’s driving with an absolutely clear track in front of him as he goes down Hangar Straight for the first time in this race. A quite incredible achievement by this brilliant driver who won the BP Formula 3 championship last year. Hunt is second and Mario Andretti is in third place but coming towards us is the Olympus Hesketh of Derek Daly, with that distinctive yellow arrow showing on his helmet. The Irish driver with an enormous amount of grit and determination.”

There’s that famous Murray Walker quote.

“‘If’ is a very long word in Formula One; in fact, it’s F1 spelled backwards.”

Derek Daly knows all about the fine margins, the might-have-beens. On his first appearance as a Formula One driver in 1978, he led at Silverstone in the non-championship International Trophy.

In relentless, torrential rain, many cars didn’t even make it past the practice lap. Still, Daly did and, showing some remarkable driving skills, weaved his way to the front. He took on Hunt and beat him on the outside, burying the 1976 world champion in a torrent of spray.

Just three years after being a spectator at the same event, he seemed set to claim a remarkable victory and lay down a marker but on Lap 13, his helmet visor broke and he lost control, slamming into the fencing.

But, just a few months later – and almost 40 years to the day – Daly was on the starting grid for the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch.

It was the start of a five-year F1 career that saw him pick up a litany of top-ten finishes and mix it competitively with a conveyor belt of illustrious, iconic talent.

Formula One Grand Prix - Derek Daly Derek Daly driving for Team Tissot Ensign during the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch on 16th July 1978. Source: Leo Mason/Popperfoto

Not bad for a fella from Dundrum.

“I grew up with a fascination for cars, ” he says.

That’s sort-of in-built for a lot of kids. And I was walking home from school when I was 12 and there was a truck parked in our neighbourhood and it said, ‘Sidney Taylor Racing’ and I thought, ‘There might be a racing car inside’. When I went into our house, I told my Dad, who ran a grocery shop. He said, ‘The woman who lives there comes in here to get her messages and the truck belongs to her brother. Yes, he has a racing car inside and you can see it at 7 o’clock.’ So we go around later on and there it was – a beautiful white Brabham BT8 with an Irish shamrock on the middle of it. And my Dad said, ‘It’s going to race in Dunboyne tomorrow – I’ll take you out to see it’. And I can remember the noise and the smell and the colour and the speed and everything about it. It’s as clear in my mind today, like a HD video. And that’s the day that changed my life. That was it. I was going to become a professional racing driver. From then on, the mission was to do whatever was necessary to get to that place. Formula One was never something I aspired to in the early days. We wouldn’t even allow ourselves to think that far ahead. F1 was on a different level. It was filled with big stars and they were untouchable.”

“The attraction to speed was in-built. Even on motorbikes and road cars. I grew up in that era where you modified your car. You took the exhaust off and it made noise, you took the bumper off, you put tape on the lights. It was still acceptable then. But it was speed and competition and racing. It was the only thing that fuelled me. I went to Terenure College and I’d stare out the window every day thinking, ‘How can I get out of here?’ I was laser-focused on racing.”

At 15, Daly saw stock-car racing in Santry Stadium for the first time. He bought a basic model, painted it with whatever tins were lying around his Dad’s shed and began competing the following year. Still, it wasn’t until he was 21 that he started on the circuit. He needed a suitable vehicle. In order to buy one, he required a decent lump of cash. And in Ireland in the early 1970s, that was hard to come by.

1981 British Grand Prix Daly pictured competing at the 1981 British Grand Prix. Source: Bob Thomas

“I had two choices to get money fast,” Daly says.

I could either work in the Alaskan oil fields when they were building the pipeline. Or, I could work in the iron ore mines in Australia for six months in the winter of 1974/75. You’d make about the same money but the deciding factor was you’d have to pay £1000 in Alaska for clothing to keep you warm so you wouldn’t die. But in Australia, you cut the legs off your trousers and you were still well-dressed. So off we went to Australia and I came back with £5000 – more money than I’d ever seen in my life. I bought myself a Formula Ford and headed to Mondello. It was so raw and basic. There was no such thing as managers or coaches or racing schools. You lived on your wits and jumped in and made it happen.”

Incredibly, Daly was crowned the Formula Ford champion later that same year. The next logical step was moving to the UK and building on his momentum. So he took his championship-winning car, a Crossle 30 F, and sold it. The money went towards his grand plan: drive to England, live on the road and race as much as possible to develop a reputation.

“I bought an old bus from a fella in Dundrum,” he says.

“I took all the seats out of it, cut the back out of it and made a door. I made some wooden ramps. My mother made some curtains. My Dad put together some mattresses. And I literally set off with a racing car, a toolbox and a mattress. That’s how I said goodbye. I was going to race in England, go from racetrack to racetrack and see how it would come together. Back then, you won £59 if you won a race. That was enough to partially cover expenses for the following week. So, I was living like a gypsy, going from place to place. There was a great summer in England in ’76 and it was just one of those great times in your life and I won 23 races that year.”

Daly won the British Formula Ford Festival that year and his performances attracted plenty of attention. He got a call from the late Derek McMahon, who had a competing team in Formula 3.

Derek Daly, Grand Prix Of Italy Daly pictured before the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1982. Source: Paul-Henri Cahier

The last time the pair spoke was a year earlier, Daly had asked if McMahon would be interested in mentoring a fellow Irishman in his fledgling season on the British circuit.

“He was drunk at the time – at the bar in Kirkistown. He looked at me, took a second to balance himself because he was well lit, and said, ‘I need you like I need a fucking six-inch hole in me head’”.

But McMahon was impressed by Daly’s subsequent gumption and brought him on board.

“That’s when the rocket ship really took off,” Daly says.

“I won the Formula 3 championship in 1977 and it’s almost an unbelievable set of circumstances. I saw my first race – in Dunboyne – when I was twelve in 1965. Fast-forward to 1977 and I’m in Formula 3. We go to Austria for a Formula 1 support race. I was on pole, alongside (future F1 world champion) Nelson Piquet. I’m sitting on the grid and Derek is there. This guy shuffles up to him and they chat. Derek comes over to me and says, ‘That fella said if you win this race he’ll put you in a Formula One car before the end of the year’. And I thought, ‘Jesus, that’s great’. I went out and had a barnstormer, beat Piquet, won the race. And sure enough I was in an F1 car testing at Goodwood about two months afterwards.”

You know who the guy was? It was Sidney Taylor, the fella who had the truck in my neighbourhood in Dundrum when I was 12 years old. What I didn’t know was that Sidney managed a Formula One team called Theodore Racing and they were building the car when they saw me competing in Austria. Sidney Taylor was from Dublin and so everything fell into place. So, there I was in Goodwood in a new F1 car 13 months after I started in Formula Ford. The record at that stage was 18 months and that was Emerson Fittipaldi. No one has ever done it as fast ever since. It was unbelievable to think a fella from Dundrum – with no means or support or racing background – could go from that into F1 in such a short time. It’s staggering. It just doesn’t happen. It’s a sort-of Hollywood movie script that you wouldn’t believe.”

By the end of the 1978 season, Daly had picked up his very first championship point after a 6th-place finish at the Canadian Grand Prix. He spent the latter part of the year with another team – Ensign – and enjoyed much better return there than with Hesketh. Before Montreal, he put together back-to-back top-ten finishes in both Italy and the US.

But it still remained a blur.

1978 Dutch Grand Prix The iconic F1 driver James Hunt leads Daly at the 1978 Dutch Grand Prix. Source: Bob Thomas

“When I won the British Formula Ford Festival, it was called ‘A Tribute to James’ because James Hunt had just won the world championship,” Daly says.

So I win and go up to the rostrum and James Hunt hands me the trophy. That was the first time I met him and I was in awe of this champion. That was 1976 and a year-and-a-half later, my Grand Prix debut was at Brands Hatch and I qualified in 15th beside James Hunt on the grid at the British Grand Prix. I’m looking around and there’s Niki Lauda, Ronnie Peterson, Mario Andretti, John Watson, Jacques Lafitte. It was such a golden era. and I thought to myself, ‘This is the most amazing thing that could ever have happened.’”

But Daly never quite got used to it. Formula One was stacked with big personalities, big characters. There was an abundance of arrogance and ego and the lifestyle was luxurious and lavish. Despite staying the course for five years, Daly found it overwhelming. He lived in Monaco but admits he never really enjoyed it.

“For most of my F1 career, I was still a shy boy from Dundrum,” he says.

“It was a lot to take in. Years into my career, I was still starstruck by Lauda and Hunt and yet I’d sit beside them in driver meetings and talk openly to them. But it was still hard to wrap my head around it all.”

And as much as it was Formula One’s golden era, it was also the era of repeated driver fatalities. Between Daly’s debut in 1978 and his final race in Las Vegas in 1982, there were four deaths and one serious injury.

“It was filled with colourful characters but it was an an unbelievably dangerous era too,” he admits.

“My second ever Grand Prix was at Monza in 1978 and on the run to the first corner there was total chaos. Ronnie Peterson was in the Lotus 78 that had side fuel tanks and when he crashed, the tanks literally exploded. I got involved in the accident, as did other cars. I jumped out and there were five of us who ran back to this burning wreckage, it looked like a plane crash. We tried to pull Ronnie out and it was James Hunt who actually got in, undid his belt and pulled him out. He was so badly injured but was lying on the road in front of me. I’m so scared that I’m almost in shock at what I’m experiencing. Petersen was the only driver who could still beat Andretti to the championship.”

Formel 1, Grand Prix Italien 1978, Monza, 10.09.1978 Start Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari 312T3 Niki Lauda, Brabham-Alfa Rom The crash at Monza in 1978 that claimed the life of Ronnie Peterson. Source: HOCH ZWEI

“The race was stopped and I went back to the pits. I’m telling my team what happened and I just start to cry. Ronnie Petersen was a hero of mine. I grew up idolising him. I’m trying to pull myself together and 45 minutes later, the team owner Mo Nunn taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘The race is restarting and we’ve got the spare car ready so pull yourself together’. I’m thinking, ‘What?’ And you have to boldly and coldly strap yourself in and I ended up having an outstanding race, having seen that accident and having been part of it. And Ronnie Peterson died in hospital later that night. Another one gone. You were forced into these experiences without ever being prepared for it. But part of your mental makeup was putting that aside and just going about your business.”

“Gilles Villeneuve was a friend of mine, who lived close to me in Monaco and I’d see him there and chat to him and then he gets killed at Zolder in Belgium in 1982. Didier Pironi, who was the Ferrari driver and leading the World Championship at the time, tries to pass me at Hockenheim in the rain and crashes and his career was over because his injuries were so bad. Montreal in 1982, a start-line accident and Riccardo Palletti is killed.”

Daly escaped unhurt from his own mega-crash at Monaco in 1980 when he was part of the Tyrrell team and would go onto a fourth-place finish in the British Grand Prix just a few weeks later.

His best overall haul came two years later. Driving for Williams, he picked up six consecutive top-ten finishes and was agonisingly close to a first-ever race win when, just two weeks after Villeneuve was killed, he fell short in France.

“What would’ve happened if I won Monaco in 1982?” he asks.

“I was leading at the start of the last lap when the gearbox broke. Races can have defining moments. And they can change the trajectory of your career.”

He ended up in sixth that day and would pick up points in three more races that year. Team-mate Keke Rosberg won the driver’s championship but Daly stepped away from F1 at the end of the season.

He had become enthused by the United States’ motorsport scene and dedicated himself to the Indy 500, competing for the first time in 1983. Based in the US now for over three decades, he’s served as a long-time analyst for ESPN while he’s also racked up various speaking engagements for the likes of Goldman Sachs and Xerox and he also boasts many motorsport-related business interests.

Derek Daly - Indy 500 1980s Daly based himself in the US after walking away from Formula One and dedicated himself to indy car racing. Source: RacingOne

Yet, his relationship with F1 remains something special. For him – despite it being so long since he walked away – it’s still alluring and intoxicating and exciting.

“The last couple of years I’ve been a steward at a few F1 races – Azerbaijan, Sochi – and to have access to everybody, in the garages, in the grid…it remains the most fascinating form of motor racing on the planet. Some people say, ‘It’s somewhat predictable’…but they’re wrong. Because you just never know.”

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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