Thirty five years ago today I watched my first Grand Prix from start to finish. We were crowded in the main room of what was my grandparents’ house in Italy, and watched Patrick Tambay score his first win, followed home by René Arnoux.
That Tambay was driving a Ferrari, back when they were proper rosso corsa and not suspiciously fag-packet branding red, made the win all the more perfect for a first-time watcher. The fisticuffs between Nelson Piquet and Eliseo Salazar kept it exciting as well.
As sometimes happens in sport, the story could hardly have been more fanciful had it been made up by a scriptwriter. Tambay was driving the No.27 machine, which had belonged to his friend Gilles Villeneuve until he was killed in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix earlier that year.
Villeneuve had been incensed, only one race earlier, by his team-mate’s refusal to let him past and believed himself betrayed, duped into defeat. He vowed never to speak to Didier Pironi again, and so it transpired, although Villeneuve only lived for another couple of weeks.
The day before Tambay’s maiden victory Pironi suffered career-ending injuries in a crash in the wet, hitting Alain Prost’s Renault in the spray. Apparently when Villeneuve died Enzo Ferrari cried as if he had lost a son; when told the new of Pironi’s crash he said Addio mondiale (“Farewell to the championship…”).
Back in England shortly thereafter, as a chorister in the Three Choirs Festival, I bought a copy of Grand Prix International, and my love for Formula One was cemented. Cracks have appeared in that cement over the last years, mainly thanks to the petulant behaviour of its drivers and owners and the move to pay-per-view, but the interest is still there, just about, in the background.
The following year, 1983, I received the first public performance of my work, and maybe it had already been written by mid-1982. I know that I had reams and reams of compositions by this stage, and was already determined to become a composer, and the love for that burns ever brighter, certainly brighter than that for F1.
A few years ago I ended up meeting René Arnoux, who had moved to Ferrari in 1983 and became my hero with his head-forward attacking style. I approached him and spoke to him in French, and I think he was rather taken aback, probably a little scared. Still, I got a signed photo of him, and for a forty-something to be excited by that, to be reminded a little of the fresh excitement of the twelve year old must mean something.