The other day I was trawling the internet (as one does) and stumbled upon an interview with Al Unser Junior who in 1991 had a brief flirtation with Williams during a winter test in Estoril, and it appears the sands of time have dulled his memory.
Little Al said of the experience, “It was great testing for Frank Willams! It was in December on 92’ [it has been verified the test took place in 1991] in Estoril, Portugal. I think the test came about because of my Indy 500 win. I never got to drive the active car [during the Estoril test] because I feel I was going too quick in the non-active car and they didn’t want me going faster than their drivers haha!”
At the time I was based in Cascais and could hear anything that happened at the Estoril circuit through my kitchen window and as a photographer for Reuters (and various racing magazines on a freelance basis) I would always pop down if the noise was unscheduled or part of the regular track schedule.
Because of this I did get to see first hand some interesting stuff as Estoril in the early nineties was a preferred destination for (often secret) testing by not only F1 teams but also DTM, sportscars etc.
Back to the Unser story… before I elaborate, let me put it on the record that I am a big fan of Little Al who at the time was 1990 CART Indy Car World Series champion – when CART was a big deal.
Williams then were at the peak of their powers, the mega-team of F1, and they called the shots. They agreed to have a look at Unser at a test in Estoril in mid-November of that year
Of course it was big news (for Reuters and the US media) that the Indy 500 winner was getting a shot at Formula 1. So I was assigned to stalked ‘Little Al’ around the paddock, and in true pro-American sports star style he was approachable, photogenic and full of good humour.
On track, counting against him was the fact that he had not sat in a single seater for around two months as the CART season ended mid-October, and was going to be measured against Damon Hill who was a testing machine – probably the best F1 test driver ever with huge mileage on his CV and also angling for a promotion to a Williams race seat.
In retrospect Little Al was simply not ready for, or uninterested in, the big task at hand. His fitness was simply not up to dealing with the forces and nuances required to race Formula 1 cars of that era, which were not the arrive and drive computer cars of today. You had to drive them and get physical, particularly if active suspension was not bolted onto the Williams F14 – which was the case during his time in the cockpit.
It was a long time ago and memory tends to fade, but I do recall quite vividly that Unser did not impress on track in what at the time was the choice piece of kit in F1, and ended over one and a half seconds down on Riccardo Patrese (in the same car) at a time when the Italian veteran was hardly at the peak of his career.
Williams were politically correct about the whole affair, but it eventually emerged that Unser had not impressed enough to warrant another look let alone be considered for a drive with the best team in F1 at that point of history.
In subsequent interviews with American journos Little Al claimed – the memory fades with time thing – that he was quicker than Patrese during the test, and the only thing between him and a F1 deal was a certain Patrick Head.
Unser told legendary American correspondent Gordon Kirby, “I was disappointed and a little upset. Frank [Williams] was very kind to me and I truly thought I had a shot at it. But from the time I landed I thought maybe Patrick [Head] was having a bad day because he just thought it was a waste of time.”
“I just wish I had known that earlier. He didn’t care about the lap times. I said to him: I ran a half second quicker than Patrese,” recalled Little Al, and added, “[Head] said: Patrese tests half a second slow.”
Indeed media reported after the test that: “Unser settled down to set respectable times on race tyres, and the team was impressed by the American’s approach to his first taste of Grand Prix racing.”
Shortly after word leaked out from Grove that Unser’s performance was actually quite embarrassing, his fitness woeful, feedback was dubious and he smoked! And the consensus among the Williams engineers was that Little Al was not taking the big opportunity seriously and thus did not deserve a go in the active car. Basically that was that.
And with regards to his claim that he was faster than Patrese, I would put down to Al’s memory being a tad clouded as it tends to get when we grow older. I for one am surprised I remember this stuff almost quarter of a century later!
These were the best lap times recorded during that Estoril test from 12 to 22 November 1991:
Damon Hill, Williams F14A – 1:12.21
Michael Schumacher, Benetton B191 – 1:12.75
Riccardo Patrese, Williams F14 – 1:14.28
Martin Brundle, Benetton B191 – 1:14.99
Al Unser Jr, Williams F14 – 1:15.90
Robert Moreno, McLaren MP4/6 – 1:16.75
Allan McNish, McLaren MP4/6 – 1:17.01
Note: Interestingly several sources have Al Unser Jr. (including himself) testing at Estoril in 1992 – it transpires the test took place in 1991.