The Worst Drivers In F1 HIstory: Number 13 – Dave Walker

1972 British Grand Prix. Brands Hatch, England. 13-15 July 1972. Dave Walker (Lotus 72D Ford). Ref-72 GB MF01. World Copyright - LAT Photographic
1972 British Grand Prix.
Brands Hatch, England.
13-15 July 1972.
Dave Walker (Lotus 72D Ford).
Ref-72 GB MF01.
World Copyright – LAT Photographic

There is one competitor that each and every Formula One driver always wants to beat – the one rival that it’s a must to finish in front of at each qualifying session and race. That rival is, of course, your team-mate. He, after all, is the only person in the entire field who has the same machinery as you. If he is consistently quicker than you, you can’t blame the car, or the engine, or the team budget – fact is, he’s just plain quicker than you. In the same car, there can be no hiding place. Careers and reputations have been won and lost as a result of team-mate battles. Daniel Ricciardo is, these days, firmly Red Bull’s Number 1 driver, solely on the back of totally outracing 4-time champion Sebastian Vettel in 2014.  Jenson Button’s stock has actually risen since he became champion in 2009, because of his ability to hold his own against the supposed ‘modern greats’ Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. Conversely, 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen’s overall reputation has suffered greatly from the maulings he has received at Ferrari from his two team-mates –  first Alonso, and now Vettel. An inability to get on terms with a team-mate put paid, over the last few seasons, to the F1 careers of Lucas Di Grassi, Bruno Senna, Vitaly Petrov, Jerome D’Ambrosio and Max Chilton. And so on, throughout the sport’s history.

Which takes us back to 1972, and the Lotus team, who were running the now iconic wedge-shaped JPS Lotus 72D, once voted the best-looking F1 car in history. In the hands of Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi, the sleek black-and-gold machine won 5 of the 12 races on the calendar, finished on the podium in another 3, and indeed Fittipaldi went on to win the Drivers’ World Championship with 61 points, well ahead of runner-up Jackie Stewart on 45. Fittipaldi’s team-mate, the Australian Dave Walker, driving a largely identical Lotus 72D scored…..no points. At all. And achieved a “best” result of 9th place, 2 laps down on the winner.

This is the only time in the whole history of F1 that a driver has failed to score a single point while his team-mate won the title, and will take a little explaining. It’s the tale of a brilliant and determined Formula 3 driver who lacked the finesse, mechanical sympathy and mind-set to make the grade at the top level. Judged on pre-1972 form, Dave Walker would be nowhere near this ’20 Worst Drivers’ list, but for that year alone he merits his place, for despite the fact that he protests to this day that he received unequal and unfair treatment at Lotus, a substantial case for the prosecution still exists.

Born in Sydney in 1941, Walker was the archetypal rough, tough, gruff Aussie, described by the legendary motorsport journalist Denis Jenkinson as “like a grizzly bear among the fawns, the deer, the antelopes and the giraffes”. He caught the motor racing bug  at a hillclimb event in his native land, and throughout the 60s, he would spend his every last dollar making trips to England, trying to carve out a name for himself in the sport. On one occasion, flat broke after racing in Formula Ford in 1962, he had to hitch-hike the 10,500 miles home back from the UK – on another, after scraping together the cash to buy a second-hand F3 car, he criss-crossed Europe for a whole year, living out of the car’s transporter, and surviving on what prize money he could win. Described as “one of the most determined and focussed guys I knew” by a contemporary journalist who spent a lot of time covering the junior formulae, Walker’s big break came in 1968 when Lotus signed him for their Formula Ford team towards season’s end. His performances impressed sufficiently for Walker to be rewarded with a full-time seat for 1969, and he didn’t disappoint, winning the Les Leston Championship.

It was back to F3, again with Lotus, for 1970, and again the results were impressive – 8 wins and this time the Lombank Championship fell to the gritty Aussie, but 1971 was to be Walker’s year of years. At the comparatively old age of 30, he won an incredible 25 out of 32 races in the category and was utterly dominant. There was only one thing Lotus could do with him now, and that was give him a shot at F1.

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This they arranged as soon as possible, and indeed midway through his all-conquering F3 season, Walker was invited to drive the Lotus 56B at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. The 56B was not the regular Lotus F1 contender, but instead an experimental offering that had started life as a car for the Indianapolis 500, but had been modified for F1 races, and which sometimes saw action as a third car in selected Grands Prix. It possessed an unusual Pratt & Whitney Turbine Engine and had enormous fuel tanks that made it both heavy and unwieldy. It was, however, phenomenally quick in the wet. It had been driven by Fittipaldi earlier in the season at the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, and during a wet practice session it had been 2 seconds a lap faster than anything else on track.

At Zandvoort, qualifying was held in the dry, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Walker lined up for his first F1 race 22nd out of 24 in the heavy and difficult 56B. However, when he got out of bed on Sunday morning, the Australian must have thought his luck was in, for heavy, grey clouds were scudding in from the North Sea, and constant rain had made the track sodden, ideal conditions for the car. He certainly made a stunning start, and after just 5 laps, Walker had climbed up into 10th place and was the fastest man in the field. A points finish seemed likely, and perhaps – just perhaps – something even better than that. Except it wasn’t to be, for, pushing for 9th place, and trying just a little too hard, the Aussie overcooked it and spun off into retirement. It was a big chance blown, but still, he was dominating in F3, and had shown – given the right car – that he had the racecraft to overtake F1 drivers. Lotus boss Colin Chapman duly handed Walker a contract to race the works Lotus F1 machine in 1972.

His team-mate would be Emerson Fittipaldi. The Brazilian had shown his potential by winning only his 4th ever Grand Prix, back in 1970, and had shown signs of consistency and improvement in 1971, achieving three podiums during the year. Clearly, ‘Emmo’ would be the number one driver in ’72, and Lotus’s best hope for the season, but the idea was that Walker would provide adequate back-up, and hopefully make the same sort of stunning start to his F1 career proper that Fittipaldi had done. To this end, most of the pre-season testing was done by Fittipaldi – whereas Walker got half a day at a damp Brands Hatch. Although it’s entirely understandable that you are going to prioritise your number 1 driver, and best hope for the title, this sowed a seed of anger at perceived ‘favouritism’ in Walker’s mind, which as the season went on, grew into a monstrous paranoia that drove a firm wedge between team and driver.

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Things got off to an inauspicious start in Argentina – Fittipaldi qualified 5th, Walker a country mile behind in 20th. Fittipaldi had a new rear wing on the car that the Australian didn’t have, but he was also using an older chassis, so the gap should never have been that large.  Neither driver finished – Fittipaldi’s suspension let go on lap 61, but Walker was disqualified. His throttle had jammed, and he had gone into the pits to fix it himself with a hammer and WD40. Ingenious, yes, legal, no. And the jamming of the throttle was to become a recurring feature of the season.

His mechanic, Steve May said, “Dave would come into the pits and his engine would be red-lined. This happened on several occasions.” There was a big, big difference between F3, where the cars were relatively underpowered, and handling was key, and F1, where throttle control was absolutely critical, and where the cars were running 450-500BHP. As the season wore on, instances where Walker would rev the engine beyond breaking point became more and more frequent, and the team were exasperated by his seeming inability to spot an impending failure before the engine finally let go, and a lengthy and costly rebuild was necessitated.

They also spotted another warning sign early on, another sign that Walker had underestimated the leap between F3 and F1. In the second race at South Africa, where he had finished an undistinguished and anonymous tenth (whilst Fittipaldi was dicing for the lead, eventually coming second), a spent and exhausted Walker had to be lifted from his car by his mechanics post-race. “He simply wasn’t fit enough”, says another former mechanic. F3 races usually took place over about 10 laps – F1 races in those days frequently lasted 2 hours, or 200 miles.

At the third race, at Jarama in Spain, Fittipaldi lined up third on the grid but Walker damaged his car in practice, and was obliged to use the spare, lining up an embarrassing 24th. Both drivers were told that their cars were light on fuel, and that they had to conserve it where possible. Emerson did a masterful job of this, winning the race by 19 seconds from Jacky Ickx’s hard-charging Ferrari. Walker, as might be expected of a man for whom the term ‘mechanical sympathy’ was a foreign concept, ran out of juice with three laps to go, albeit whilst in a creditable seventh place. Once again, Walker has pushed his car too hard….

Monaco saw further embarrassment. By now Walker was utterly convinced that he wasn’t getting the same treatment as Fittipaldi – that the equipment Lotus was giving him was inferior, and the engines underpowered. Midway through the race, his paranoia to the fore, he came into the pits, complaining that the car had been ‘impossible to handle’ through the Swimming Pool section. His unimpressed mechanics pointed out that this might just have been because there was oil on the track there, as clearly indicated by the marshals waving the appropriate red and yellow flags…

At the chequered flag, Fittipaldi made the podium again, in third. After another undistinguished race, and his pointless pitlane excursion (albeit this time he refrained from attempting any repairs with some WD40), Dave finished 5 laps down on the winner, in 14th.

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In the next three races, Emerson won two and was second in the other. In contrast, Walker retired twice, and finished last in the other. By now the relations between driver and team were increasingly strained, as the team – realising that Fittipaldi had a shot at the title, were constantly adding updates to the Brazilian’s car, whilst Walker’s vehicle – its driver surly, paranoid and unhappy – got little attention. But even Walker’s mechanic from F3, Ian Campbell, saw the reasoning: “”Who would you give the best of everything to — the bloke who is going to win or the bloke who may finish seventh or eighth? You try your best for the number two driver, give him the best of what’s left, but you sure as hell don’t give him the latest engine or dampers, do you?”

There was another embarrassment in Belgium, when – perhaps overly sensitive to his mechanics’ grumbles about his lack of mechanical ‘feel’ Walker came into the pits to inform his team that he had no oil pressure. Again, he was left red-faced when his team pointed out that the needle had in fact fallen off the gauge, and that the engine was running normally….

In Austria, Walker finally got his hands on the latest engine, which Fittipaldi had been using since May. “I will never forget it even though it only lasted six laps before the thing blew up”, he recalls “Instead of cars going past me on the straights, I was actually able to pull up alongside and outbrake them into corners — a physical impossibility with the engines I’d had before. I thought, ‘This is a piece of cake’. And that was quite a shock.”  On the one hand, this statement from the man himself could be taken as evidence that perhaps Walker had been getting inferior equipment, on the other – the brand-new engine, blown after just six laps….now why could that have been?

The team had had enough, and when Fittipaldi’s car was damaged in a road accident en route to Monza, the decision was made to just enter the one car in the race, and it wasn’t for Walker. In Canada, Lotus’s erstwhile second driver, the Swede Reine Wisell, replaced the Australian. However, with three cars entered, our hero was back for the season-ending US Grand Prix, and by now, with his confidence and morale totally shot, and relations with the team practically non-existent, he qualified an abysmal 30th, and retired from the race – having once again blown the engine. It was a dismal end to a dismal F1 career.

Walker is in no doubt, even now, that he got a raw deal, that he was very much the ‘number two’ driver in a one-car team. But teams do not set out to deliberately hobble their own drivers, and as stated before, it makes sense to give any new parts to the better of the two. Walker contends that he was never allowed to make set-up changes. “Whenever I wanted to make a change to something, I pretty much wasn’t allowed to. I’d just be flatly told, ‘It’s set up the same as Emerson’s and he’s going a second quicker, so what’s your problem?’ Well, we were two very different drivers, you know!”. However, this is a version of history disputed by his then-mechanic, Rex Hart, who says that the team indeed stiffened the car at Walker’s request and “it made no difference at all.”

As far as inferior equipment and underpowered engines go, records show that Walker and Fittipaldi shared at least two DFV engines during the season, and Emerson never complained that they were down on power. In addition, other Lotus ‘number 2’ drivers in the late 60s and early 70s like Richard Attwood, Reine Wisell, John Miles and Jackie Oliver all scored points quite comfortably in their time at the team. And any further suggestions that Lotus didn’t have the resources to run two competitive cars were somewhat blown out of the water by the fact that in 1973 Fittipaldi won 3 races, and his new team-mate and Walker’s replacement, Ronnie Peterson, won four.

As for Walker, in 1973 F1 wasn’t an option – if his mediocre performances hadn’t trashed his reputation, then Lotus mechanics going up and down the pit-lane informing their peers about Walker’s lack of basic fitness and engine-breaking inability to manage his throttle certainly did. So, he took a step down into F2, but sadly, never had a chance to re-learn the ropes and re-build his career and reputation, as two off-track car crashes intervened. In the first, he broke a leg, and while recuperating from that, had a more serious accident where his left arm was nearly severed. Although he attempted a further comeback in motorsport in 1974-5, he eventually admitted defeat – the arm wasn’t strong enough and his driving had become increasingly wild in a desperate attempt to compensate, to recapture the form of 1971, the glory days before it all went so wrong.

And so Walker, the Formula Three maestro who couldn’t get to grips with Formula One, retired aged 34 with one of the most unwanted records in F1 history, by failing to score a single point whilst his team-mate won the title. So the next time you are watching a race, and your commentator says that a driver has “destroyed” his team-mate because they have just out-qualified them by half a second? Think of Dave Walker, and remember that all things are relative.

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