Aw shucks, I just realized that it’s Saint Patrick’s Day, you know when you’re supposed to pinch somebody when they’re NOT wearing’ green, OUCH! Mary Ellen…
So with that in mind, I thought I’d pay homage to those plucky Irishmen who’ve boldly sat behind the wheel of a Formula 1 rocket ship and see just who’s “Kissed the Blarney stone” and who’s found the luck ‘O the Irish or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, eh?
Rosemary Smith actually had no intentions of being a racing driver, instead focusing upon becoming a fashion designer. Yet a co-worker enticed her to be her navigator in a rally and after getting hopelessly lost from holding the map upside down, Smith took over the wheel and became enthralled with driving. Smith then went onto a very successful Rally career as a “Works” driver for the Roots group, winning several class victories aboard different makes. Smith was denied entry into the 24 Heurs du Mans due to her gender and curtailed her driving career upon getting married.
Years: 1973-83, 1985
Teams: Brabham, Penske, McLaren
John “Wattie” Watson is considered to be the most successful Irish Formula 1 driver, having scored Grand Prix victories for Penske and McLaren, while being let down several times by the Brabham-Alfa Romeo. (V-12)
The son of a successful car broker, Watson began his Formula 1 career after graduating from Formula 2, debuting in the British Grand Prix with the “Privateer” Goldie Hexagon Racing team. Wattie also made a “one-off” aboard Brabham’s third works entry at Watkins Glen that season.
Watson briefly drove for the declining Surtees team before joining Penske as Mark Donohue’s replacement in mid 1974. Ironically “Wattie” scored Roger Penske’s lone Formula 1 victory exactly one year after Donohue’s death at Austria. Upon winning the race, he shaved off his beard as part of a bet he’d made with “The Captain.”
Moving to Brabham for three seasons (1976-78) upon Penske’s withdrawal from F1, Wattie eclipsed the performance of his World Champion teammate Niki Lauda in ’78 before moving to McLaren in 1979.
Watson was recruited to McLaren after their newly signed driver Ronnie Peterson had perished in the 1978 Italian Grand Prix. The Ulsterman would finish out his career with the Woking based squad, scoring the first victory under the new management of Ron Dennis in 1981.
Wattie’s best Formula 1 season came in 1982 with two victories, while enroute to finishing third in the championship, behind Ferrari’s Didier Pironi and World Champion teammate Keke Rosberg.
Edmond “EJ” Jordan originally planned on being a Dentist, but wound up as a bank clerk instead, upon dropping out of college. Going to work for the Bank of Ireland, during a strike in Dublin, Jordan was sent to the “Isle of Jersey,” a reputed French tax haven where EJ caught the “Racing Bug” while attending a karting hill climb event.
Returning to Dublin, EJ bought a kart and won the Irish karting Championship, followed by a stint in Formula Ford 1600 in 1974. The next year saw Jordan move to Britain where he broke both legs at the end of the season and missed the following year while recuperating.
In 1977, EJ bought a used Formula Atlantic chassis and ultimately won the Irish Championship in 1978 before teaming up with Swedish “Hot Schue, Stevie Johnson,” (A.k.a. Stefan Johansson) for a crack at the British F3 Championship in 1979 for Team Ireland. Jordan also drove a F2 race car at Donnington Park that year along with testing a McLaren Formula 1 chassis at the end of the season.
Yet, while struggling to fund his driving career, EJ set up Eddie Jordan Racing and began campaigning race cars in 1981 for aspiring F3 and F3000 drivers before ultimately forming Jordan Grand Prix in 1991.
Teams: Hesketh, Ensign, Tyrrell, March, Theodore, Williams
This feisty Irishman from Dublin worked his way up thru the ladder of racing to Formula 1 the old fashioned way, by sheer driving talent.
Daly cut his racing teeth driving stock cars in Ireland before heading “Down Under” to work in the Tin mines to pay for his future single seater career. Daly’s name first came to prominence upon winning the 1976 Formula Ford festival which landed him a ride in Formula 3 the following season where he won the British championship. IN 1978 Daly raced in Formula 2, winning twice while trying to graduate into Formula 1 which he did with the hesketh team, before scoring his first point upon finishing 6th at Canada for Mo Nunn’s Ensign team.
In 1979 Derek switched to Ron Dennis’s Project 4 team aboard an ICI sponsored March/BMW in Formula 2, finally winning a race towards the end of the season, while continuing to drive for Ensign in Formula 1.
Ken Tyrrell then offered Daly a third team entry for that year’s Canadian GP, which turned into a full time offer for 1980. Derek made quite a splash upon crashing into a hoard of spectators at the Monaco Grand Prix, after flipping several times. This accident garnered team sponsor Candy world wide attention.
Daly then drove for the RAM F1 team in 1981 with a reconstituted March 811 chassis designed by Robin Herd with BMW engines, which were essentially clones of the Williams FW07 ground effects car. Following a disappointing season, Daly moved to the Theodore team for 1982 before finally getting his big break at Williams upon Carlos Reutmann’s retirement. Daly was subsequently let go in order to make room for Jacques Lafite in 1983 and moved stateside to contest the CART/PPG championship.
Tommy Byrne made his name in the lower rungs of single seater racing, first impressing in Formula Fords in 1981. Byrne made the jump straightaway to F1 in 1982, albeit winning that year’s British F3 Championship while missing races to contest Formula 1 with the struggling Theodore team. Byrne appeared in the German and Las Vegas Grand Prix’s.
Byrne briefly returned to F3 before moving to the states and competing in the American Racing Series, (ARS) forbearer to the defunct Indy Lights series. Byrne contested the ARS from 1986-92, winning 10 races in 55 starts. (2nd in series victories) Tommy raced against such luminaries as Jon Beekhuis with his ARS best results twice in 1988-89 as the series runner-up.
Teams: Arrows, Lotus
Born in Belfast, Martin Donnelly made his mark in the junior ranks of single seater racing, winning the Cellnet award in 1988, awarded to Britain's most promising young driver. Donnelly finished third in the British Formula 3 Championship two years in a row. (1987-88) Driving for “EJ,” (1988-89) Donnelly then contested the European Formula 3000 Championship alongside Johnny Herbert, winning three races before moving to the Arrows Grand Prix team,
Donnelly made his Formula 1 debut in the 1989 French Grand Prix and after his debut season with Arrows, switched to Lotus for 1990.
Unfortunately the Ulsterman’s F1 career was cut short upon attempting to qualify for the 1990 Spanish GP.
When I think of Donnelly, I still can vividly recall seeing that bright yellow Camel Lotus Lamborghini (V-12) exploding into a million pieces… As this horrific shunt is one of the most rueling accidents I’ve seen via the “Telie” while watching Grand Prix, as the car simply disintegrated with poor Donnelly lying in the middle of the road strapped to his seat.
Teams: Jordan, Ferrari, Jaguar
“Irv the Swerve” gained this illustrious nickname for his unique driving style. Having been born into racing as his father was an amateur racer; Edmund first plied his hands at the wheel of his father’s historic racing cars before trotting up the traditional ladder route of most top flight drivers. Irvine’s laid back style confused many, but Marlboro was willing to appoint the Irishman a spot in its young lion’s program and Irvine progressed from Formula Fords and Formula 3 before his career sputtered to a halt in International F3000 competition.
Eddie then moved to Japan to contest the Japanese F3000 series where he won several races and made lots of money which he used to obtain a drive for Eddie Jordan in the 1993 Formula 1 season’s final two events.
Making his debut in F1 at Suzuka, a track he knew well, Irvine garnered world wide attention when he un-lapped himself from Ayrton Senna who punched the Irishman after the race for his overtaking maneuver. When asked why he’d repassed Senna, Irvine replied that Ayrton was simply driving too slowly!
This brand of insolence that Irv the Swerve would become famous for most likely netted him a three race ban in 1993 after EJ had appealed the steward’s decision to give Irvine a one race suspension after triggering a four car pile-up which sent Jos “THE BOSS” Verstappen skywards.
Thus it was surprising when Ferrari announced that Michael Schumacher’s teammate for 1996 would be the laid back Irishman, whom was always good for a quip while puffing away on a Marlboro cigarette. Yet ’96 was truly a learning year for Irvine, as his baptism under fire taught him just how blindingly quick the German ace was. Eddie kept plodding away, improving each season, ultimately winning his first grand prix in Australia in 1999.
Then when Schumacher suffered a broken leg in Silverstone that summer, Irvine was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the Scuderia’s sole hope for capturing the World Championship that season. Eddie went on to record a further three victories and trailed eventual World Champion Mika Hakkinen by two points going into the penultimate race. Yet Irvine would come up short with Hakkinen securing his second Driver’s title that season.
Irvine’s breakout season enabled him to sign a lucrative three year contract as lead driver for Jaguar beginning in 2000, although the British team was a disappointment, due to inadequate machinery. At the end of Irvine’s contract in 2002, Ford decided to drop Irvine, with nobody else interested in the Irishman’s services, Eddie found himself out of Formula 1.
Ralph Firman Jr’s father founded the Van Diemen production racing Car Company and Ralph began his racing career at the age of 11 before winning the British karting title four years later. In 1993 he switched to single seaters joining Paul Stewart Racing to contest Formula Vauxhall Junior. Finishing fourth overall, along with landing a test drive with McLaren,In 1996 Ralph won the British Formula 3 championship in his second try with PSR,
Unable to break into Formula 1, Firman headed to Japan where he ultimately won the Formula Nippon title with Nakajima Racing in 2002. Utilizing his Japanese ties along with landing a testing role with BAR, Firman finally gained a ride in F1 for Eddie Jordan’s Mugen-Honda powered squad in 2003. Ralph managed to score a single point as well as having to sit out two races after a huge shunt at the Hunga-boring race. After a largely disappointing rookie campaign, Ralph found himself once again out of Formula 1…
To continue, see: The luck 'O the Irish