Hard to believe that it was 40 years ago today: as a 19-year-old aspiring F1 journalist, fresh out of Sydney, Australia, Peter Windsor didn’t know what to expect when his plane landed in Johannesburg in March 1972 for the South African Grand Prix.
All he had in his wallet was a letter from the well-respected photo-journalist, David Phipps: “I can’t promise you a fortune,” David had written, “but I do need someone to do some writing for me. I suggest you fly to England via South Africa, where you can produce the race report for Autosport.”
Here Peter describes the events that transpired over the next few days - his emotions, his doubts and the extraordinary one-three finish for the Yardley McLaren-Ford drivers, Denny Hulme and Peter Revson.
Now the host of the highly-rated F1 weekly webshow, The Flying Lap, Peter is also the race analyst for GPWeek.com and a video columnist for SpeedTV.com in the USA.
This report was duly published on March 9, 1972 – exactly 40 years ago today.
Jan Smuts airport felt very like Sydney’s Kingsford Smith in early March, 1972: officials wore shorts, long socks and khaki shirts with epaulettes. A bright sun shone through the glassy structure. Outside, as I queued for a taxi, there was a smell of eucalyptus in the air.
And so I relaxed. It would be all right. I could to this. It was just like home. I gathered my baggage – one suitcase into which I had crammed my life – plus the Olympia portable typewriter I had bought a few days before, after the last Tasman race, from the talented New Zealand journalist, Donn Anderson.
“The Kyalami Ranch hotel,” I said, brimming with anticipation, to the driver of the Ford Falcon taxi.
And so my F1 life began…
I had met my new boss, the journalist and photographer, David Phipps, two months before, in London. I had asked him for a job. He had written to me a few weeks later, suggesting I fly from Sydney to the UK via Kyalami, where I could write about the South African Grand Prix for Autosport. I sold everything I owned – a Honda trail bike and a Komini (fake Bell) helmet; I cashed in my savings ($A725); I bought an air ticket with SAA; and I said good-bye to my family, friends and to our basset hound, Conkers. I had no idea when I would see any of them again. I was 19 and I was hoping – some day, probably 50 years away – that I would be lucky enough eventually to make it as a professional F1 journalist.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous than when the taxi pulled into the driveway of the Kyalami Ranch. I paid the driver. I unloaded my bag. I walked towards to the hotel’s check-in building, perspiring in the heat – and there, to my right, I saw them: on the grass by the pool, in swim-suits, sat Mario Andretti, Clay Regazzoni and Jacky Ickx. And there – over there! – was Graham Hill. And wasn’t that Francois Cevert, in blue swimming trunks, walking towards the pool?
Room 164 was on the far side of the compound. Sweating freely now, and drained from the long trans-continental flight in the 707, I timidly walked away from the crowd, out towards the trees by the back fence. Along the way, on my left, tapping furiously at his typewriter, I recognized the great Heinz Pruller, close friend of the late Jochen Rindt and world-famous writer. Was that how I was going to have to type? What was he writing anyway, this early in the week? What did he know that I didn’t? Doubts clouded my mind; I felt like turning around and going home.
Then, drowning the tapping, I heard the faint sound of an F1 engine. It was the bark of a tickover at first; then there was the up and down shrill of a Cosworth DFV at play. I stopped and looked over to the hill in the distance, straining my eyes in the glare. Yes! I could see the outline of the circuit in the veldt. The main grandstand was a silhouette against the African sky.
I rushed to my room, inhaling the smell of air conditioning, humidity and hot foliage that in years to come would become so familiar in summer-race climates. I quickly showered and changed into shorts and shirt. And then I walked back again towards the pool.
David Phipps – tall, schoolmaster-like, strode towards me: “Welcome to South Africa. Good flight? Come over here and I’ll introduce you.”
“Colin? This is my new assistant, Peter Windsor. He’s going to be helping me with reports this year. He’s just flown in from Australia.”
“How do you do,” said Colin Chapman easily. “Well. You’re making a good start. David Phipps is the best newsman in the business.”
“Emerson? Are you going to be testing later?” asked David. I looked across at the sunbeds next to Chapman. Emerson lay there, browning in the South African sun, black and gold sunglasses offering only tertiary protection. Peter Warr strolled up, wanting to talk to Colin about Dave Walker. I pretended not to listen.
Then David Phipps walked me over to the Ferrari group.
“Mario. This is Peter Windsor. He’s helping me this year.”
I spoke for the first time. “Very pleased to meet you, Mr Andretti. And congratulations on your win here last year. How’s the car going so far?”
“Not as well as in 71, I can tell you that,” replied Mario… and I was off. A conversation had begun.
Later that afternoon, at about 4 o’clock, David drove up to the circuit. I walked eagerly up to the garages, spying Elf Team Tyrrell on the left. I looked in to see the legendary Roger Hill changing gear ratios on Cevert’s car. The familiar smell of brake fluid and WD40 reminded me of F5000 races in Australia. This was different, though. These were the royal blue Elf Tyrrells of the World Champions. This was the top of the mountain.