Almanack: Drive of a nearly man

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The Independent Online
PERRY McCARTHY knows Damon Hill as 'Demon'. Johnny Herbert of Lotus and Mark Blundell of Tyrrell are Perry's mates, fellow members of the 'ratpack' of top British racing drivers. But this evening, as Damon and Johnny and Mark sit on the grid in Sao Paolo and wait for the green light to flash on the 1994 grand prix season, Britain's unluckiest driver will be in a pub in Woking, watching them on a wide-screen television and commentating for a group of fans. 'Nobody tries harder than Perry,' Mark Blundell told Almanack from Brazil, 'but his real problem is that he has just been in the wrong place at the wrong time and hasn't had the breaks.'

'I was in grands prix in '92,' Perry said when Almanack rang to commiserate, 'and I tested for Williams and Benetton last year. But if there was to be a second chance I would have to bring some form of sponsorship to the party. Probably two to three million dollars.' The Almanack current account fell short of the sum required, but just about ran to breakfast for two in the restaurant adjoining his London base.

Perry has the ideal physique for a grand prix driver: that of a jockey with a weight-training habit. He has a dramatically receding hairline for aerodynamic efficiency, a sharp Essex accent, and a penchant for the full English breakfast.

As he tucked into bacon, egg, sausage, tomato and fried slice he reflected on his grand prix career, which so far consists of his unsuccessful attempts to qualify a ropey Italian car for a number of races in 1992. 'I'll tell you what,' he said, 'most people will never know how brave I was being in that car.' The Andrea Moda team were as shambolic as their vehicle. They showed up for the Canadian Grand Prix without any engines. They failed to show up for the French Grand Prix at all. Perry had to make his own way to races, sometimes acting as a courier to pay his fare. It was a far cry from the pampered, private-jet existence of Mansell and Senna.

The crunch finally came at the Belgian race, when the team sent McCarthy out on to the high-speed Spa circuit in an ill-prepared car. As he attempted to negotiate Eau Rouge, taken at 170mph and widely regarded as the most frightening corner in grand prix racing, the steering jammed. 'How I never got wiped out there is one of the luckiest points of my entire life,' Perry recalled, momentarily putting down his knife and fork. 'I pulled my shoulder out getting the car back. It was like, do it now or become part of the Armco for ever. I went . . .' he mimes wrenching the wheel right 'and it didn't go right. It had to be the steering rack.' The team, he says, knew the car wouldn't work. He puts on an Italian accent and shrugs: ' 'Oh yeah, we know.' It was after that the team got banned.'

And that was the end of Perry McCarthy in grand prix racing - for now. He'll be rooting for his fellow ratpackers tonight, he says, but his thoughts will also be on resurrecting his own career. Frank Williams has promised him another test, and meanwhile Perry hopes to compete in the high-profile, televised British Touring Car Championship.

Money is still a problem. But Perry has 'done a deal' on a swish office in Docklands, in London, has produced a snazzy brochure for his racing company, Garland, and works the phone non-stop. Everything he does is dedicated to getting back behind the wheel.

It's a convincing spiel, and one that deserves to succeed. Perry says he is ready to compete at the top level as soon as he finds the right sponsor, and he still talks a magnificent race. 'Some of my attributes are just what grand prix needs,' Perry declared. 'Like the mentality to say, it's like do or die stuff, foot through the floor, complete aggression, I want to win, there's no cruise and collect, I'm out there, I will take round the outside, round the inside, sideways, in the rain, whatever. You know?' He laughs, in a slightly deranged manner. 'That's it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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