Archive: The decade-long wait for a Dutch hero's F1 comeback
Formula 1's return to Zandvoort this weekend after 36 years has been made possible thanks to the efforts of promoter Jan Lammers and his team. The 1988 Le Mans winner endured his own personal long wait for a second shot at F1, and explained in Autosport's 10 September 1992 issue how he was approaching his return after a decade away
By the time of the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, no fewer than 162 Formula 1 races will have taken place since Jan Lammers failed to make the cut at Paul Ricard in 1982, unable to wring any more time out of the dreadful Theodore. When he packed his bags that Saturday night, he had no idea that a decade would pass before he got another chance to make the grid.
"When I was young I wanted F1 so badly, so desperately," he recalls. "I had this silly idea that I could get experience with a bad car and a bad team. You don't even think about dropping out of F1. You just think you're going to get in there, do good, and get into a better team, and that's it. It's not how it works. But I guess I needed all of those bad experiences to be the driver I am now."
Lammers was 22 and the European Formula 3 champion when he first appeared in F1 with the Shadow team at Buenos Aires in January 1979. James Hunt, Jody Scheckter, Clay Regazzoni and Emerson Fittipaldi were still in Grand Prix racing, and Riccardo Patrese was a controversial upstart with fewer than 30 starts behind him. Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell were yet to make their mark in F3, and Ayrton Senna was still two years away from his FF1600 debut. Michael Schumacher had just turned 10 years old...
Lammers' stop-start F1 career struggled through four usually incomplete seasons and 21 race starts with Shadow, ATS, Ensign and Theodore. All these marques had better days, but in 1979-82, they were the Andrea Modas of their time, harming the careers of anyone who got near them.
Lammers never drove a truly competitive car, and only rarely could he show what he was really capable of. At Long Beach in 1980 he hauled the ATS up to fourth on the grid, only for a driveshaft to break on the opening lap.
Jan Lammers, ATS D4 Ford
Photo by: Motorsport Images
But after those last few outings for Theodore in 1982, Lammers drifted away from F1. Initially he earned a living as the Renault Holland driver in various one-make championships, while also making his mark as a sportscar ace for Richard Lloyd's Porsche team. He went to IndyCar, but never won, and then settled into a long stint with TWW Jaguar in the World SportsCar Championship and IMSA, punctuated by a season of Japanese Formula 3000 in 1987.
He won Le Mans and Daytona, but at the end of 1990 he parted company with Tom Walkinshaw and signed a long-term deal with Toyota. As an interim measure he returned to Japan, leading the Dome team in the highly competitive F3000 series last year.
Lammers has built a good career for himself, and is hugely respected in the sportscar world for his pace and exuberance at the wheel. But through all those years, he nurtured the idea of returning to F1. And now, at the age of 36, he's achieved his aim.
"I had the opinion that if you have to bring money, then you're on a loser already. If they come up and ask you, that means they are convinced you're the guy to do the job, which means that you find yourself in a team that listens to you. The other way round, it shouldn't work" Jan Lammers
"An Italian journalist said to me, 'There are a lot of young and talented drivers who would have loved to have your seat, but they didn't have the money. Can you imagine how they feel?' I said, 'Yes, I can imagine, because I've had that feeling for 10 years. I was one of them!' I don't want to call myself a young and talented driver, but I know how they feel.
"Sometimes I read Nigel's story, and I see that at one time he had to sell his house to finance half an F3 season. I didn't have a house to sell. I didn't have money to buy a house in the first place! Some people think that I was born with a lot of money, but that's not the case."
It's been a long time since Lammers figured on an F1 team manager's shopping list. But Christian Fittipaldi was perhaps the final proof of the changing times. If the F3000 champion has to bring a big pot of sponsor's gold to a middling team, who is going to get in on talent alone?
"For years I had the opinion that if you have to bring money, then you're on a loser already," he says. "If they come up and ask you, that means they are convinced you're the guy to do the job, which means that you find yourself in a team that listens to you and is waiting with open arms. The other way round, it shouldn't work. But this came on a different way, at a different moment."
Lammers chats to McLaren's Jo Ramirez in the paddock at Estoril
Photo by: Motorsport Images
The key to the March arrangement is the involvement in the team of his friend and fellow Dutchman, Henny Vollenberg. March needed a replacement for Karl Wendlinger at the last to Grands Prix and it dovetailed perfectly with the end of Lammers' SWC season.
"I've had a good relationship with Henny for many years, partly through my team in the Opel Lotus series, and also doing some business with him," explains Lammers. "I think that he has helped March this year. From where I sit, he must have had a pretty big influence there to help save everything and just generate the cash from race to race.
"I have a good friend who has sometimes been my financial safety net in my career. I asked him if he would like to go and talk to Henny, to see if he might be interested in investing in the company. At that time I was just looking to see if I could do something for Henny.
"But between making the appointment and actually getting there, I started to realise that this might be the thin wire, the lifeline to F1 for me. So we started thinking about it. If they wanted to continue with Karl, a separate budget had to be created. With the money we were talking about, I just had to quickly make up my mind as to whether that sponsorship could be found in Holland. I just made the decision to go for it."
So did he do the deal and then go looking for the money?
"Yes, that's how I got into F1 the first time," he says. "Only now my financial credibility has gone up, so now it was really dangerous! In my Shadow time I signed for $800,000 and I think I was worth maybe minus $10,000! No, I knew what I was doing. I had to estimate who could give us what, so I knew when I committed myself that I was alright.
"It's incredible. When you're 23 and in F1, the people who are influential in television, the media, sponsors, the chairmen of the boards, they're all over 30. But at this moment, there are all sorts of buddies of mine who are working for television stations, or are managing directors of huge companies.
Wendlinger miraculously finished fourth in Montreal, but the team was running out of money - as the plethora of small stickers underlined
Photo by: Motorsport Images
"I find myself in a nice climate now. I've got a lot of people of my own generation who've received this thing with so much enthusiasm. There's a big body of people who have always treated me with love and care. All of a sudden, because they are a bit older too, they have some power to really help me.
"I have a task, and I'm tuned into that. I'm aware of all the obstacles between now and when the light turns green in Suzuka. I'll tackle them one by one and try to find the questions to all the answers, and see where it takes me."
What result would satisfy Lammers?
"I would be very happy if I could start and make sure that the performance of the team doesn't have a setback; I want to keep up the same sort of performance that Wendlinger has done.
"I'm sure a few people will think it's nice for me just to do the two races, they'll think it's a nice idea. That's not the way I see it. It's my whole life" Jan Lammers
"But I've got an open mind, I don't want to limit myself or anything. I don't know what the capabilities of the car are, what the capabilities are of myself. I can only get the most out of the whole thing. The most frustrating thing of all is that my best result in F1 was a ninth with the Shadow. That is awful! If I could just erase that..."
Suzuka is probably the perfect venue for Lammers. There's a bigger driver input than at many modern tracks, and he knows it well from his time in Japan. Anyone who saw him fling a Jaguar round an IMSA street track knows that he will love Adelaide. And if it rains at either race, he might surprise a few people...
Had Lammers been coming straight from the XJR12, modern F1 might have been a big culture shock. But last year he spent a season reacclimatising to top-level single-seaters. With Dome, he was the top works Dunlop driver an amassed a huge mileage.
"I'm glad I went to Japanese F3000," he says. "I was missing a bit of experience in modern single-seaters. In Japan, you have so much qualifying. I've had times when I've been through 10 or 15 sets of tyres in the morning and the same in the afternoon. I did a lot of driving last year, and it was good working with the Dome team as the car was the only one of its kind. You couldn't rely on a factory like Lola and Reynard."
Former Jaguar team-mates Lammers and Wallace teamed up again to drive for Toyota - even with its 3.5-litre F1-spec engine, a far cry from racing in F1 itself
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Lammers is hoping to get some testing in the March, but that's something the team has rarely been able to afford. But he's already had a brief demonstration run in the car at the Zandvoort F3 meeting.
"I only did 20 laps in total, but I enjoyed it very much," he says. "I was very impressed by the engine.
"The only thing which I found significant was the dimensions. Sportscars tend to be a little bit wider at the front than at the rear, but F1 cars are more equal or if anything the other way round. And on a sportscar you have very little steering lock, because otherwise the wheels would touch the bodywork. What I liked about the F1 car was the finesse you need at low speeds. I love cars where you can just sit there and flow, let it all happen. You go on your reflexes and your feelings."
Lammers is hoping that his return to F1 will last beyond these two races, but he knows it will be hard to shake off the 'sportscar driver' tag.
"The first thing I have to try is to get a larger body behind me," he says. "I'm sure a few people will think it's nice for me just to do the two races, they'll think it's a nice idea. That's not the way I see it.
"It's my whole life. I'm going to approach it with silk gloves and not leave anything to chance.
"It's a big thing for me. We all have our goals and objectives of course, but I'm as eager and passionate about F1 as most of the people who have been there for the last 10 years. Only with that same passion and desire, I wasn't in. Maybe there was way to get back, I don't know. But I never found the solution."
Lammers took a gamble to rejoin the F1 fray, but March wasn't a good prospect
Photo by: Motorsport Images
What happened next
Perhaps predictably, Lammers' return was tough going. Heading to Suzuka after limited pre-event testing at Estoril, he qualified 23rd on Friday and was unable to make progress due to rain on Saturday - although he set the sixth fastest time in the wet.
With no experience of the car on full tanks, thanks to a clutch failure after one lap in the warmup, he was further hampered by early gear selection problems changing up from second to third which grew progressively worse. Losing the clutch soon after, he was forced to stop, unable to find a gear, while running 17th on lap 27.
"I was totally green having missed the warm-up, but I now know a little more about what to expect on full tanks," Lammers said.
"Those first 15 or 20 laps were very interesting! I'm happy with the lesson; I would have liked to have a bit of a result as well. But there's another race in two weeks!"
It didn't get much better in Adelaide, spinning off on his first lap on Friday's afternoon session having lost much of the morning running to a misaligned throttle pedal. Stiffening gearbox disrupted his race, although at least he made it to the finish in 12th, Autosport reporting that he struggled with "fatigue problems during the final laps".
Lammers struggled to the finish in Adelaide, classified 12th in what was to be his final GP
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Lammers was originally slated to continue with March for 1993, only for it to fold pre-season. He remained active in single-seaters with a Formula 3000 campaign for Il Barone Rampante, but that team bit the dust mid-season too.
Following a season back in the TWR fold with the unwieldy Volvo 850 Estate in the 1994 British Touring Car Championship, his three outings for Vollenberg's Vortex team in the 1995 F3000 championship were his single-seater swansong.
Thereafter raced sportscars for Lotus and Nissan before setting up his own Racing for Holland team, winning back-to-back FIA Sportscar SR1 titles in 2002 and 2003, and finally called it a day after his 24th Le Mans start in 2018.
Lammers made final Le Mans start in 2018 aged 62
Photo by: Motorsport Images
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