The Multi-Talented Mr. Hobbs

During a 30-year career, David Hobbs drove everything from sports cars and NASCARs to prototypes to IndyCars and F1 cars—with more than a few Ferraris along the way.

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April 12, 2018

David Hobbs came to prominence as a racing driver in 1961, at age 23, when he won 14 races from 18 starts in a Lotus Elite fitted with a clever automatic gearbox designed and built by his father. The following year, the Englishman took part in the inaugural Daytona 3 Hours and entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first of 20 times (winning his class in an Elite). Thereafter, drives came thick and fast, and Hobbs turned professional at the end of ’63.

Like most pro drivers of the day, Hobbs piloted just about everything he could lay his hands on. He raced Lotus Cortinas for Colin Chapman, Formula Juniors, F2s, the Lola GT, then Lola T70s and Ford GT40s. He landed his first Formula 1 drive in 1966. In 1968, he won the Monza 1,000-kms and the 9 Hours of Kyalami with John Wyer’s Gulf team. He finished third overall at Le Mans in 1969 in a Ford GT, a feat he repeated in 1984 in a Porsche 956.

As much due to opportunity as planning, much of Hobbs’ racing took place in the United States. He competed extensively in Can-Am and Formula 5000, clinching the latter championship in 1971. He raced at Indy (four times) and in the Daytona 500, competed in several Grands Prix with McLaren, Honda, and Bernard White’s BRM. During the mid to late ’70s he raced BMW sedans, and in 1983, driving a Chevrolet Camaro, he was crowned Trans-Am champion.

And, of course, Hobbs piloted a number of privateer Ferraris. These ranged from a Dino 206 S for Colonel Ronnie Hoare to 250 LMs for White and David Piper to 512 M’s for Roger Penske and Escuderia Montjuich.

Hobbs continued racing sports cars until 1990, when he finally hung up his crash helmet, but his involvement in motorsport continued. Since 1976, alongside his busy race schedule, Hobbs has been a much-in-demand television racing commentator; many readers will know him from his place alongside Leigh Diffey and Steve Matchett on NBC’s F1 coverage.

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We spoke with Hobbs from his home in Florida following the publication of his autobiography — Hobbo: Motor Racer, Motor Mouth — in conjunction with Andrew Marriott and Evro Publishing.

Your very first Formula 1 race was the 1966 Syracuse Grand Prix, where you were up against Ferrari.
Yes. It was a non-Championship event but in those days most people went. I went with Tim Parnell [the son of Reg Parnell] and drove his Lotus-BRM. The Ferrari team were there in full force with John Surtees and [Lorenzo] Bandini. They came first and second and, miraculously, I came third.

It was a wildly dangerous place, particularly for the spectators because they were sitting there right on the edge of the road. As the race got nearer the end, they got closer and closer to the road. I remember on the slowing-down lap you were down to a crawl because people came onto the road. It was like driving through a market on a Saturday morning. You drove through them trying to make sure they didn’t nick the wing mirrors off it.

That same year, you first raced a Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, for Colonel Ronnie Hoare of Maranello Concessionaires, the U.K. Ferrari importer.
I’m not sure how I got asked, but I just about snatched his hand off when he did ask. I’d already done Le Mans four times, so I suppose he just looked at a list of drivers who had done Le Mans before. I was so pleased to be driving for the Colonel, as he had some very successful race cars [like the] #7 250 GT SWB (s/n 2119GT) that Stirling Moss drove.

At Le Mans he had three cars. He had my Dino [206 S] (s/n 012) which I shared with Mike Salmon. Richard Attwood and David Piper had a 365 P2/3 (s/n 0826) and Roy Pike and Piers Courage had a 275 GTB (s/n 9035).

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What was the Colonel like?
He was an extraordinary character. He was very successful as an importer, as a sales person, and as a race-car owner. The Colonel was just a caricature of the British gentleman with perfectly tailored cuffs and jacket, and looked a million dollars all the time—and spoke in that impeccable Eton type of accent, as did Mike Salmon.

Our team’s Le Mans drivers’ briefing was held at a little garage north of the town. It was the funniest thing I have ever been to. The Colonel treated us like a bunch of kids, telling me, Richard Attwood, David Piper, and Mike Salmon how to start the engines of the cars and things like that. Now today, with these modern hybrid cars, it may be a bit different but back then it was all pretty simple.

Mike had a great gift of mimicking the Colonel and a V12 engine. I was sitting next to Mike, and every time the Colonel would say something Mike would add some sotto voce comment to it, and it was pretty damn funny.

What happened in the race?
Unfortunately, our car was out after about 40 minutes with some gearbox malfunction. Piper and Attwood lasted about another three hours and then they were out. The 275 was the only one of the three cars that finished, and they won their class [and finished 8th overall]. Regrettably, that was the only time I drove for [the Colonel].

You raced some more Ferraris in ’66, didn’t you?
Yes, I raced a 250 LM (s/n 5907) for Bernard White. He was in the printing and publishing business, and came from just outside Hull in Yorkshire. He had plenty of money and he became very keen on racing. I remember driving that car at [the 500-km World Sportscar Championship race at] Zeltweg in Austria. The circuit was as rough as old boots and just about shook all the fillings out of my teeth. It’s a wonder any car finished there. I know I didn’t.
[Note: Hobbs also raced White’s LM to sixth at Brands Hatch and to second- and fifth-place finishes at Croft. He also drove Piper’s 250 LM (s/n 5897A) to fourth place with Salmon at the Brands Hatch 500 Miles, which Piper and Bob Bondurant won in a 289 Shelby Cobra.]

What did you think of those Ferraris?
Ferraris were pretty ratty cars in those days. The welding and just the general build—they weren’t terribly well-built, really. The only thing that was any good was the engines, which of course leaked oil like hell all the time. And I hated the gearbox. They had that big [shift] gate, and I thought it made shifting gears more difficult.

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For 1971 you were invited to drive the beautiful Kirk F. White/Sunoco Ferrari 512 (s/n 1040) for Roger Penske
with Mark Donohue. How did that materialize?

In 1968 and ’69 I was driving the Ford GT40s for John Wyer, but in 1969 I also did Formula 5000 in the U.S. for John Surtees. I only did half the races because we didn’t start until the season was half over. I won three or four races and had three podiums and a much better strike rate than anybody else by far, but I missed winning the championship by just one point [to Tony Adamowicz].

We came back to the U.S. in 1970 but again missed half the races and this time I only managed third. But I had some good races against Mark Donohue, who was driving a Penske-owned Lola, and at the end of the year they asked to meet me in London at the Dorchester Hotel. Roger proposed that in 1971 I drive the Ferrari 512 with Mark, which is enough to make you salivate, at Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, and Watkins Glen—and also to drive the Indy 500, the Pocono 500, and the Ontario 500 in an IndyCar.

How did you fit in with the Penske team?
Roger was very welcoming. Mark was reasonably welcoming, but he was dyed-in-the-wool Irish and had a natural kind of dislike for the Brits. He kept saying to me, “For a Brit, you’re a good guy.”

Roger and the whole team were very focused. The chief mechanic was Woody Woodard and he was a terrific race mechanic. Don Cox worked for him, and had been an engineer at Chevrolet, I think; Don was a real brain box. Karl Kainhofer was ostensibly the gearbox man. Everybody who worked for Roger was really good. You couldn’t get a better group.

With Roger, I couldn’t get over his grasp of everything. He was only a young guy then, and he had all sorts of businesses already going. His recall was quite extraordinary. He remembered everything you said and everything that everybody else had said.

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Mark was a real workaholic. He thought, If someone has got to sweep the floor, it may as well be me. I always thought that was a terrible waste of talent and of his time, cleaning up the workshop. He insisted on doing it because he thought that it made him more egalitarian and was good for morale. Very noble, but not really what you need.

Your first race with the Ferrari was at Daytona.
The car, compared to every other Ferrari I had seen, was so magnificent. It took your breath away; you could eat your dinner off the floor. And of course when we turned up at Daytona, all the British and European press were laughing, saying, Typical Americans, all spit and polish.

Our car also had an aircraft-type filler system, which all race cars have used ever since. Roger rolls up with this Ferrari with a plug-in fuel rig. The fuel rig itself was about 20 feet high, so the fuel came down at a colossal rate. Gulf [a Porsche team] were incensed and went straight off to the stewards, and the stewards said, there’s nothing to say that we couldn’t do it. Everyone else was using dump cans.

Mark was a graduate of Brown University and was a very bright kid and a very good driver. Probably not as natural as someone like Parnelli Jones or Jimmy Clark, but he knew exactly what he wanted on his cars. Mark had driven a lot of Trans-Am cars and he won the championship twice with Roger in the late ’60s, so he was very keen on very solid rear ends, no differential, just a locker, which he put in the Ferrari. It didn’t really need it; a good, tight limited-slip diff would probably have been enough. The first time I drove it, it understeered like hell, it wanted to push all the time. I had to adapt my style to drive it.

The fastest I ever went at Daytona was in the Ferrari 512. There was no chicane on the back straight like there is now, so we would arrive at Turn 4 at about 215 mph and just crank it in, which always took a little bit of nerve. But that thing had 20-inch wide rear tires which gave enormous grip. If it lost grip it would really snap, but once you got into the corner, over the transition point, the thing would hum round just glued to the track.

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The downforce plus the centrifugal force ground you into the deck, then going over the big bump over the tunnel between Turns 3 and 4—it’s not there now but it was then—this thing would bottom out at 190, 200 mph. You’d lose a bit of speed because of the scrub. It had about 5,000 pounds of aero downforce plus the weight of the car on a steep [32-degree] banking and it would bottom out, which gave you pause for thought.

In the end I matched Mark’s times, so we were very consistent together. We were about two seconds a lap quicker than the Gulf Porsche 917s, which up until then had been invincible. Gulf were pissed right off.

We were on pole and leading the race when Mark got involved in Vic Elford’s accident on a fast part of the track in the middle of the night. [Elford’s Porsche 917 blew a tire and hit the wall.] Mark slowed down to avoid all the debris and some guy in a Porsche 911 who he’d already lapped about 40 times ran into him. We taped the Ferrari back together and still finished third.

And then it was Sebring 12 Hours?
We were again on pole, and there were people like Mario Andretti and Jacky Ickx driving those really sleek, very quick Ferrari 312 [PB]s, basically a Formula 1 car with a bit of bodywork. Mario was on the front row with Mark. In the race we were running third when Mark got involved with Pedro Rodriguez in a Porsche 917. That was a real he said/she said thing, and I don’t know who did what to who. We finished sixth.

And then the Le Mans 24 Hours
On the Friday [before the race], Roger said, “Ferrari have given me a new engine and I want to put it in.” All our engines were blueprinted by Traco out of California, they did all of Roger’s Chevrolet engines [and] they did a really good job. They stripped all of those Ferrari engines down and rebuilt them and we never had any trouble with those engines at all. Our engines were always fantastic with lots of power and reliable. Beautiful. Mark and Woody were dead against [using the Ferrari engine], but being the boss [Roger] prevailed.

It was a hell of a job to change the engine because you had to have a special crane to get it out. Mark goes down the road and finds a front-end loader and drives that back to the garage, and they lift the engine out and put the new one in. Of course, in the race we’re running third early on and the bloody engine blows at about 7 o’clock at night. We had lent our engine to Luigi Chinetti’s [North American Racing Team], and they put it in their 512 (s/n 1020), which was a piece of shit compared to ours and we had already lapped them, and they went on and came third.

We probably wouldn’t have won that one because that was when Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep won in the Porsche longtail and we didn’t have their speed. The Ferrari 512 was never a long tail but we were a very solid third when we dropped out.

Your final race with the Penske Ferrari
was the Watkins Glen 6 Hours.

We were again on pole and Mark was leading the race comfortably, but after about 40 minutes the top snapped off the front [suspension] upright. We just couldn’t believe it. The best Ferrari ever built, we led every race, we were on pole every race except Le Mans, and yet Mark gets involved in two accidents—and Mark was not the sort of guy who had accidents—and we had an engine blow up and a suspension failure. That was the end of that. To me it’s a source of absolute wonderment that we didn’t win a race with that car. I still can’t get over it to this day.

What was your favorite Ferrari moment?
That would be when we arrived in the paddock with our Ferrari at Daytona in 1971 and we saw the Porsche and Gulf faces drop. It kind of made my day. I had been dropped by Gulf at the end of 1969. David Yorke and John Wyer [who ran the team] were very happy with the way I’d driven and were happy to keep me in the Porsche 917, but the Porsche guys wanted me out. At Daytona, not only was Mark quicker but I was quicker than all the 917s, too. It would have helped even more if we’d won the bloody race.

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