Perry McCarthy‘s name probably means nothing to many sports fans. But if a few things had gone slightly differently on August 30, 1992, his name would have been forever etched in stone as the 46th fatality in F1. And that wouldn’t have been his fault, but his team’s – Andrea Moda.
To tell the Brit’s story, we need to go back to 1980, when the 18-year-old McCarthy discovered motorsports. “I thought, oh my god, this is so cool. I also want to do that,” he recalled in Viaplay’s documentary.
However, McCarthy quickly realized that you need more than just desire and willpower to make it in the fastest racing series in the world. You also need money. An obscene amount of it. Thus the young lad started working on oil rigs.
After two years in the North Sea, he jumped onto the motorsports ladder, which he slowly began to climb. At first, he ended up in British Formula Ford.
Although the climb was gruesome, it worked. By 1986, he was already in the British F3 and after a couple of podium finishes, doors opened to the same series’ European counterpart. McCarty moved on to F3000 – the current equivalent of the F2 series – which in turn gave him the opportunity to challenge himself in the US alternative series.
Thanks to his determined work ethic, Footwork Arrows F1 team invited McCarthy for testing in 1991. Although displaying decent performances, the door to the royal series still remained closed for the Briton. A year later, Andrea Moda came knocking on McCarthy’s door.
High heels and F1 don’t match
Enter Andrea Moda. The most nightmarish team in F1 history. The team was named after and led by Andrea Sassetti, an Italian (women’s shoe) designer, who hoped to market his shoe business via F1 racing. Ambitious, to say the least…
In September 1991, Sassetti bought the Coloni F1 team, which had just gone down in history as the team that failed to qualify for a single race (!) in their two seasons in F1. Remember that due to the large number of teams, F1 used so-called pre-qualifications at that time.
Predictably, things didn’t change the following season under the Italian fashionista’s leadership. But when McCarthy got a call from the frontmen of Andrea Moda in 1992, he didn’t think twice about saying yes. “All I thought was, oh my God, it worked. I will become an F1 driver,” he recalled.
Although by that time, the first warning signs were already there.
Namely, Andrea Moda didn’t partake in the opening leg of the 1992 season in South Africa, because they had failed to pay the $100,000 deposit required to participate in F1.
At the second race of the season in Mexico, the team was already there, but without F1 cars, because they were still being built… Both team drivers, Italians Alex Caffi and Enrico Bertaggia, decided to openly criticize the team, which later cost them their seats in the team.
That’s when Andrea Moda contacted McCarthy. And the Briton, so desperate to get into the F1 series, immediately jumped on the sinking ship…
Drunk driving and a car in flames
McCarthy thus made his F1 debut at the Spanish GP. And what a debut it was…
As mentioned, there were still pre-qualifications in F1 back then, with the purpose to screen out the TOP 30 for the official time trial. It all happened on Friday morning at 8 o’clock.
The night before, McCarthy went to bed in his hotel room (more like a hostel room, given that he was sharing it with seven mechanics) with the expectation that the entire team would wake up together to make their way to the track. But when the Briton opened his eyes in the morning, there was no one in the room but him.
“I immediately thought, oh my God. It took me ten years, excluding two years on oil rigs, to get into F1. It should be my debut, but I’m sitting on the other side of Barcelona and I’m not even there,” he recalled.
In a flash, McCarthy threw on his clothes and rushed into the hotel lobby, where he bumped into the team leader’s brother.
“He must have just come from a night club, because he was completely drunk. I told him that I had to get to the circuit somehow, to which he bluntly responded: “Come on, let’s go”. So they got into the car and sped through Barcelona at full throttle, ignoring all the traffic lights.
“I thought I would die before I even got to the race. But we still got there. I made a beeline for the pits, put on my race overalls, jumped in the car, turned the ignition… nothing. The mechanics then took Quick Start spray and showered it into the air intakes above my head. But they used it too much, because at one point when the car started, it all caught fire.
I was surrounded by flames. They threw a blanket over me and I jumped out of the car. My heart was racing. When I finally got back in the car again it was 8:10 and I had 20 minutes left to clock in a qualifying time. I drove out of the pits, hit the gas and… the car rolled a few meters. That was all,” McCarthy recalled.
Things got even worse for McCarthy when his predecessor, Enrico Bertaggia, who was kicked out of the team, came to Andrea Moda’s doorstep with a new wealthy sponsor and demanded for his place back.
Of course, the team managers would have made the switch at the snap of a finger, but according to FIA rules, they were no longer allowed to change drivers. As a result, McCarthy was completely neglected by the team.
They paid absolutely no attention to him and essentially his F1 car was used as spare parts for the team’s main driver, the Brazilian Roberto Moreno. At his home Silverstone GP, where McCarthy sincerely hoped for a good result, he was sent on the track with wet tires, even though there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky.
After that, McCarthy went to talk to Sassetti, but of course it didn’t produce any results. Then the Belgian GP rolled around…
A few centimeters from death
Thanks to his European F3 experience, McCarthy was familiar with the track and hoped to prove to everyone in qualifying that he is not just a seat filler. Approaching the infamous Eau Rouge chicane for the first time, the Brit was going full throttle until suddenly he noticed something was wrong.
“With any other car or team, I probably would have kept on the gas, but at that moment all the alarm bells just went off in my head and I hit the brakes. And it was good that I did! Namely, I could not turn the steering wheel and flew straight towards the wall. Whilst heavy on the brakes, I managed to jerk the steering wheel and narrowly avoid the wall,” McCarthy recalled the moment.
Even with Andrea Moda’s car, they were racing at 300 km/h in that section of the track. Returning to the pits, McCarthy said to the team: “Guys, I almost had the biggest crash in F1 history. I think something’s wrong with the steering.”
Their answer was, “Yes, we know.”
Shell-shocked, he stuttered, “How do you know that?”
They responded that they had tested it last week with Roberto’s car. “Okay, you tested it, took it off Roberto’s car and then put it on my machine for qualifying?”
And they nodded…
At that moment I realized that I’ve had it. I did everything right, but I also got lucky. Very, very lucky. Because if I had reacted a little later or been a little less scared, I wouldn’t be here now,” recalls McCarthy, who is also known in Great Britain as one of the Stig’s in Top Gear.
Andrea Moda did not manage to put anyone’s life in danger anymore, because immediately after the Belgian GP, their frontman Sassetti was arrested for fraud and the team was eliminated from the F1 series. At the same time, as a result of this whole circus, the rules of the royal series were tightened so that anyone with a massive wallet could not just easily step on the caroussel.