What could have been: When a top team boss missed a dream F1 test

David Sears is best known as the driving force of the Super Nova team that dominated Formula 3000 in the late 1990s, but was a promising driver in his own right. Lotus boss Colin Chapman was a fan and planned to test Sears, only for an unusual turn of events to deprive him of the opportunity

What could have been: When a top team boss missed a dream F1 test

“You’re kidding!” That was Norfolk hotshoe David Sears’s reaction when his late father, ex-touring car hero Jack Sears, told him that family friend Colin Chapman, boss of the Lotus team from just up the road in Hethel, had been on the phone to invite Sears Jr to an upcoming December Formula 1 test at Paul Ricard.

It was early November 1979. Sears had won two of the UK’s four major Formula Ford 1600 titles that season – the RAC British and the P&O – and then starred in the Festival at a soaking Brands Hatch. After victory in his heat and quarter-final, he spun his Royale in his semi-final when water got inside his visor and could only recover to seventh. From 14th on the grid, he stormed to fourth in the final – “I was the only person doing any overtaking” – and easily set the fastest lap.

“Colin was impressed by that and he spoke to my dad,” says Sears. “He used to come round to the farm for some shooting and dinner, and draw all these incredible things on a napkin – a microlite that would do 100mph and 100mpg, chassis for F1 cars and God knows what. When my dad told me he’d offered me the test, I thought he was joking but he said, ‘No, it’s definitely on.’”

After such a successful year, Sears’s then-partner persuaded him that there’d be time to squeeze in a relaxing holiday before the test.

“The mother of my eldest said, ‘You’ve done really well, you’ve had a good year, we’re going to go on holiday’, so we went to Kenya,” he recalls. That was in November, and we’d be back before the test.”

That was the intention, only for Lotus to bring forward the test to November: “Blow me, the weather forecast turned bad for December. In those days there were no mobile phones, no way of tracking anybody down. Colin said, ‘Where’s David?’ to my dad, and my dad had no idea.

“Of course, I’m running down a sandy beach in Mombasa thinking I’m going to drive an F1 car, and by the time we got home the test had already taken place… That shows you have to be available at all times, on standby, but that just wasn’t possible in those days.”

David Sears, pictured in 2005

David Sears, pictured in 2005

Photo by: Motorsport Images

A testing contract with Lotus was on offer. Nigel Mansell, who had already had an outing in the 79, was one contender; Stephen South the other: “I’d said to Colin, ‘Surely it’s too early for me coming out of Formula Ford’, and he said it is but he wanted to see how people at each level performed, and that’s why he asked me from Formula Ford, Nigel from F3 and Stephen from F2. ‘I’m not going to give you a race drive, but I can give you a testing contract.’ Nigel was more experienced than me, and he’d studied engineering, and Colin recognised him as having a good engineering brain.”

In parallel with his successful professional career as a driver, Sears established his David Sears Motorsport squad, which had huge success in the Opel/Vauxhall Lotus category before morphing into Super Nova. This became the standout team in Formula 3000, and had success in GP2 before becoming a victim of the A1GP collapse. Sears also became involved in the management of some of his DSM/Super Nova charges.

“That [the missed Lotus test] was the closest I got to F1 as a driver,” he says. “Most people would agree that managing Juan Pablo Montoya and Jan Magnussen into F1 is easy, but I got Taki Inoue in there and I think I deserve a bloody gold medal for that. I’m the only person who could have done it!”

There was also an amusing Mansell postscript to the late-1979 shenanigans. The moustachioed Brummie went to the works March team for the 1980 British Formula 3 Championship season, and Sears had a chance there too for his graduation from FF1600. But his backer, Glover Oil, thought it would be counterproductive for an F3 rookie to line up alongside the already-established Mansell, so Sears stayed with his pal Dennis Rushen’s Rushen Green Racing squad for the step up with the Norfolk-produced Argo JM6.

The fourth round supported the Easter Monday Formula 2 round at Thruxton. Sears had qualified 10th, but passed Mansell on the final lap for a fine fourth.

“I could go flat around the right-hander before Church in the Argo, and Nigel couldn’t in the March,” laughs Sears. “On the last lap I went around him and it was close going into Church, and afterwards he came up to me with a spanner and tapped me on the helmet and said, ‘Don’t do that again.’ I said Nigel, ‘If you lift, of course I’m going to do it again.’”

1998 F3000 champion Montoya is the best-known of Sears' management stable

1998 F3000 champion Montoya is the best-known of Sears' management stable

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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