At the end of a week when F1 gossip considered a rumoured £200m cash injection and how that might possibly influence future driver selection at McLaren, obituary columns recalled the eventful life of Harry Stiller.
The two threads are related only insofar as Stiller gave a financial leg-up for a future World Champion and the McLaren story connects – in the mind of some sceptics – the purchase of shares by Nidala (BVI) Ltd with the thought that this venture by company associate Michael Latifi might be a means of easing his son, Nicholas, into a race seat in F1.
Sources close to McLaren have made it clear there is no such link, which leaves the setback of Latifi junior having neither a Superlicence nor a decent racing CV, something for others to consider.
Either way, the initial flurry of speculation indicates that so-called ‘pay drives’ remain in the F1 news, even if Williams go to strenuous lengths to refute the suggestion that this is the reason for choosing the present incumbents of cars #18 and #19. Depending on the situation and reputation of the team involved, financial assistance of sorts has always played its part.
The story of Harry Stiller is a classic case for the positive. Without the Englishman’s assistance, the doors of opportunity might never have opened further up the grid for Alan Jones.
Stiller knew a thing or two about racing, having won national championships in the incredibly competitive F3 era of the mid-Sixties. Following a serious shunt in 1969, the Londoner took to mentoring drivers, including Jones. The Australian raced for Stiller in Formula Atlantic in 1974, a series of decent performances in a March-Ford BDA placing his name at the top of Stiller’s list when making ambitious plans for 1975.
“I had never known what I was doing from one year to the next,” recalls Jones. “And then Harry rang me and said: ‘I’ve got you a Formula 1 drive’. I thought he was mucking around. But then he said he wanted me to go up to Easton Neston, which was where Lord Hesketh’s F1 team was based. I went into where they were preparing the cars and there was one for me. Everything was immaculate. I had a fitting in the car and they’re saying: ‘D’you want this altered? D’you want that? How’s this and how’s that?’ I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”
Jones may have been forced down to earth a few weeks later with his first F1 race but he handled the non-championship International Trophy at Silverstone with aplomb, finishing seventh ahead of Carlos Reutemann’s Brabham. In the four Grands Prix that followed, he retired from three – but not before turning heads by qualifying mid-grid for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, directly behind James Hunt in the sole works Hesketh.
“And at that point, Lord Hesketh was talking about running a two-car team; he got a bit excited - and so did I,” admits Jones. “At the time, the Hesketh was a half-decent car and James would win the Dutch Grand Prix with it. But before any of that happened, I got a phone call from Harry saying he was off to America – rather quickly, I think! Whatever the reason, I suddenly had no drive.”
But not for long. Jones had done enough to earn a place with Graham Hill’s team to replace Rolf Stommelen, injured when the Hill-Ford had vaulted the barrier at Montjuïc Park in Barcelona. A very fine fifth place on the Nürburgring Nordschleif led to a permanent drive with Surtees in 1976 and Shadow in 1977. An opportunistic and well-worked first F1 win in Austria then confirmed Jones’s credentials as a suitable candidate for Frank Williams’s revamped team in 1978 and the championship that followed two years later.
Stiller, meanwhile, had returned to the UK to run various successful business ventures until his death at the age of 79 on 13th of this month.
“There may not have been too much personal money forthcoming from my point of view,” says Jones, “but I really appreciate to this day Harry putting me in a Formula 1 car. That gave me a chance when I needed it most.”
Assisted drives, pay drives, sponsored drives – call them what you like – will continue to have their place. Some with more justification than others.