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Talent is not enough


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Richard Dallest


Ecurie Motul GPA AGS-Mader BMW JH17




XL Grand Prix de Pau (May 25, 1980) // photo: Christophe Holin

Richard Dallest, AGS-BMW JH17, 1980 Pau GP

Wandering across the Web during my researches, one theme that has always captivated me are the unfulfilled promises, the men of whom everyone said they would make it to F1 but in the end just vanished in the mist or built a career elsewhere, mostly in sportscars, GTs or across the Atlantic to the fertile soil of the American motor racing scene. On so many forums and webpages one name is a regular appearance in such lists: Richard Dallest, a Frenchman like many others related to the small and affectionate AGS squad. So when I wrote my previous article on Patrick Gaillard, I soon got to know more about this man who, in fact, could really be considered a lost talent. Let’s travel back to the Provence…

Richard Dallest came to this world in Marseille on 15 February 1951, from a middle-class family, and as far as his memory goes he was always very fond of playing with miniature cars. The Southeast of France is a region known for its huge passion for motor racing, and there was a lot of racing and rallying going on there – even including a circuit in Parc Borely, Marseille, which hosted GP races between 1932 and 1952 – and, at ten years of age, the young lad went to his first event, a hillclimb in the beautiful Provençal mountains. Meanwhile, Dallest’s father became involved in the car-selling business, which surely helped the young boy to foster his interest in everything mechanical, jointly with his neighbour and close friend Gérard Bacle, who was slightly older than Richard and soon-to-be driver. Both teenagers did some races between themselves as soon as Dallest got his license in March 1969, even if he didn’t pursue a racing career immediately. In fact, Dallest told Echappement Classic that he had several road accidents in his first months of driving and only used to drive his Simca 1000 against his friend Bacle for pleasure. Gradually, though, his passion grew, and by 1972 he decided to switch to a Simca Rallye 1 and entered some local hillclimbs, culminating in the Géant de Provence, the Mont Ventoux, where he won his class!

After these successful debut events, Dallest spent the first months of 1973 doing both rallyes and hillclimbs locally, and even a race at Paul Ricard. But it was his old friend Bacle who put him on the circuit-racing path definitively by enrolling in the Volant Elf racing contest at Paul Ricard later in the season… and convinced Dallest’s dad to enter Richard secretly. Of course Dallest became overwhelmed, as he had already been used to attending Bacle’s efforts and dreamed of the performances of the F1 aces while attending the F1 tests there, and this way he could fight against the most promising French drivers of his time, wheel-to-wheel: “I won the Volant beating Jean-Louis Iperti, a high-level kartist, and Bruno Saby. I was the third Pilote Elf, following Tambay and Pironi.” [Echappement Classic nº 41, p. 24]. Meanwhile, he had sold his Rallye 1 to buy a Simca Rallye 2 in order to pursue his versatile approach to cars, but after winning the prestigious Volant he rightly decided to dedicate himself to circuit racing and the ultimate dream of F1.

In 1974, Dallest relocated to Magny-Cours, more precisely to Didier Pironi’s lodgings, his teammate on the Ecurie Elf. The French oil company had an ambitious programme fostering young talents in France and the Volant Elf was the first step. In various ways they supported the most promising drivers up to F1, and Dallest, having won the 1973 Volant, earned a place in the team for the 1974 European Formula Renault Championship, driving a Martini Mk14. However, even if he soon befriended Pironi, Dallest understood he was the second driver in the team – Pironi already had a season of experience, having won the Volant in 1972 – as Didier’s way of dealing with the whole structure was far different and more mature than his, both on the level of human relations and the car’s preparation and tuning. And, worse than that, Richard soon understood politics were a vital part in racing as after debuting with a stunning pole position at Paul Ricard both Elf top executives François Guiter and Jean-Marie Dumazer told him: “Richard, that’s good, you’re fast, but this year it’s Didier who shall win. You’ll be nice and let him through. Next year, it’s your turn.” [Echappement Classic nº 41, p. 25]. He would later say that after comparing his and Didier’s attitude outside the car, he totally understood how their careers follow such different paths…

In fact, Dallest learnt the hard way how most of these junior programmes work – and we know a lot about this now thanks to Red Bull – implying a lot of manoeuvring behind the scenes, not only by the drivers but also by the sponsors and, after one year on the team, Pironi duly made certain with Elf that he be first driver. Dallest complied with the rules and waved Pironi past at Paul Ricard, but lost concentration and some more positions, ending up down in fourth. After that, he usually was a top-six finisher until he was simply superb at Monza and even decided to pass Patrick Langlois entering the Parabolica, accelerating out in first position instead of waiting for a tow from the car in front to outpace Langlois on the finish line. That day at Monza gave Richard his sole win on the season, but he was extremely consistent and scored points on eighteen of the twenty rounds of the championship, duly finishing fourth and as best rookie in the final standings, with 109 points. The champion was as expected… Didier Pironi.

It could well have worked that way, one year of learning, one year of winning, but Elf had other plans and managed to bring back Arnoux to their junior squad, promoting him to first driver! It meant that Dallest lost half of his expected allowance from the company, and his operation was mostly his own, once more based at Magny-Cours. Again, Richard proved he was one of the fastest drivers of the championship and gathered multiple pole positions, but in the races he remembers he was continually plagued by engine troubles, one of those on the last lap at Pau, robbing him of a certain win. However, he had impressed Ken Tyrrell – who was sponsored by Elf – and could have improved on it in Monaco if not for a personal mistake: “(…) Monaco was one of the few races where I threw myself out. It was raining at the beginning, I made a super start and when I looked in the mirror on the rise (to Casino Square) I saw nobody. It distracted me, I went too fast in the left hander and tapped the guardrails. I had time to put myself behind it before the second car arrived.” [Echappement Classic nº 41, pp. 25-26]. The season continued with ups and downs, and only in the final races Dallest reached the podium, finishing the championship in sixth with 83 points, while returning Elf protégée René Arnoux won the title… It was a cruel blow for Dallest, who could only dream of what he could have done if he had had the full budget and support from Elf… like Pironi had the year before.

However, with 25, he knew he had to win something soon to prevent himself from vanishing out of sight of the (scarce) big sponsors, and the 1976 Formula Renault season was to be his season. That year, Pironi was again the leading driver with the ORECA-operated Ecurie Elf – it’s worth noting that Formula Renault had a huge reputation in France while their national F3 category was languishing, and sometimes even the most promising drivers did two or three seasons before advancing to F2 and sportscars directly, just like Didier did it. Pironi was the sole driver with a Martini while Dallest and Cudini drove Danielson-entered Lola T410s. Elf’s sponsorship was reduced to a quarter of its original value, and it was mainly the Play-Boy shirt company (nothing to do with the Playboy magazine) which financed him. The Lola wasn’t a bad choice, even if it wasn’t as agile as the Martini but, apart from Pironi, Richard had a bigger rival in Cudini, another seasoned man from the intermediate steps of the single-seater ladder, and very technically-minded. Reflecting on the period, Dallest confessed: “I always encountered very strong teammates both on track and off of it… Pironi, Cudini, Prost! My biggest error in the first three years was not pay enough attention to the technical side. I just thought attacking was enough.” [Echappement Classic nº 41, p. 26]. That was what happened in 1976 alongside Pironi and Cudini, and after another huge shunt at Monaco, Dallest and his faithful mechanic switched to a Winfield-sponsored Martini Mk18 for the remaining season, his results slowly improving but nonetheless he could do no better than fifth in the championship and remained winless again. Moreover, switching to a Winfield School-backed team meant that his connections with Elf were severed and as with Gaillard it seemed that without Elf or an absolute God-given talent a French driver would be going nowhere at the time…

It was in this complicated juncture of time that Dallest met Henri Julien, the passionate owner from the small Gonfaron-based AGS squad. AGS (Automobiles Gonfaronnaises Sportives) is in itself part of French motorsport history as the small squad captivating everyone’s imagination just like Minardi has done in Italy. Ever since deciding to convert his passion into practice and building his first Formula France car in 1968 (after a brief stint as a club racer) Henri Julien and his small team of determined men fought against the best teams in France and the whole of Europe before taking the huge and decisive step of advancing into Formula 1 in 1987. Yet in 1977, they had several seasons of Formula Renault behind them and under guidance of Julien both self-taught engineer Christian Vanderpleyn and chief-mechanic Jean Silani managed miracles on a tiny budget, and it seemed the best way for Dallest to have a competitive season, with the advantage of a (small) team built around him. You may not have expected it but against the Martinis and Lolas the tiny AGS team managed to shine and even if Dallest had no wins he visited the podium no less than seven times and ended up fourth on the championship, mainly excelling on the tricky natural circuits such as the Nürburgring, Spa, Charade and Pau, places where driving was more important than a fast car, something that the AGS definitely wasn’t. It can even be said it was his best season, despite his stunning first complete year back in 1974, as this time he was driving inferior machinery instead of the best car from the best team in the field.

AGS had already tried F3 before but in 1978 they decided to jump up to F2 thanks to sponsorship by Motul and GPA, arranged by François Guerre-Berthelot. The brand new AGS-BMW JH15 would be shared between Dallest and José Dolhem, half-brother of Didier Pironi, who had arrived with more sponsorship. However, it was soon obvious that the step up was too big for the team, as they suffered severe teething problems from the beginning, Dallest finishing the first race at Thruxton without having completed enough laps to even be classified. The team then skipped a few rounds because of Dolhem destroying a chassis at Mugello, but neither Dallest nor Dolhem could do anything against the top teams. The best Richard managed was eleventh at Nogaro, having entered just four rounds. At the end of the season, Richard was both without a team and a sponsor, and at 28 it seemed obvious he had stopped being on his way of climbing what remained of the single-seater ladder.

This time Dallest was lucky because the Monegasque Damon Metrebian – the owner of the Super Bear Studios, located at Berre-les-Alpes – decided he wanted to do more than mere club racing and agreed to sponsor Dallest on the condition that the Frenchmen gave him some driving lessons. Metrebian had an enormous reputation in the music scene and among the artists and bands enrolled by his studio were Queen (Jazz), Paul McCartney (Tug of War), Elton John (21 at 33) and Pink Floyd (The Wall). This gave him the money to approach ORECA to create a two-car team of Martini-Renaults for the European F3 Championship. What Dallest didn’t expect was having Alain Prost as a teammate! The young 'Professeur' had won every championship he’d entered bar the occasional F2 drives. He was reigning French F3 champion and already labelled as an extremely dedicated, hard-working and cerebral driver. With Elf support, ORECA got him a Martini-Renault Mk27 while Dallest and Metrebian used Novamotor-tuned Toyota engines. The Japanese engines were far from bad but again Dallest felt like a pay-driver, 'the second one' and, by his own confessions, once more driving against a far more skilled driver in everything bar pure driving… and, of course, on track too since Alain was already showing he was one of those special talents that appear once or twice in a generation.

However, even with this disadvantage both Dallest and Metrebian weren’t humiliated. While the music producer-turned-driver did some average performances that put him level with the usual backmarkers and a bit better at times, Dallest suffered in the first part of the season – perhaps forcing himself a bit too much in trying to cope with Prost – but he scored some points all the same. In the second half of the year he gradually grew stronger and managed a scintillating performance at Kinekulle in Sweden, which gave him his sole win of the season and fifth place in the championship at the end of the year, with 21 points. Apart from an out-of-this-world Prost it has to be said that just fourteen points separated runner-up Michael Bleekemolen and seventh-placed German Michael Korten, and Dallest thinks that with a little bit more of support from ORECA he could easily have ended up second to Prost in the final standings. True or not, it is also said that during a summer test session Prost tested Dallest’s car and reckoned the Toyota engine to be a bit better, and only his far superior skills were able to turn his Martini-Renault into such a dominant combo. Richard also finished fourth in the French F3 Championship.

Having achieved his dream of a midfield run, Metrebian returned to his studios. Dallest found himself jobless again and almost without any sponsors. Another season of F3 made no sense as he was 29 now and even if he had already proven that he deserved his place amongst the big guys it wasn’t enough. And those out-of-car skills, not the technical side proper – to which he gradually paid more attention – but the ability to be insistent and a harsh dealer with sponsors and teams were still his main problem. In fact, being 'too kind for the sport' was what really stopped his progress. However, he had left great friends in AGS and after a failed deal with Patrick Gaillard for the 1980 F2 season – the Parisian had destroyed a car – Henri Julien decided to hire Dallest, thus allowing him to pursue his career. Considered rather bulky and with an extremely long wheelbase, the AGS JH17 powered by Mader-tuned BMW engines was far from a slouch and immediately Dallest was in the midfield, even though he was still miles away from the works Marches and the surprising Tolemans.

The first highlight of the year came in the third round, the Eifelrennen on the daunting old Nürburgring… Dallest was superb and took a stunning pole position in daunting rainy conditions: “I had recce'd the circuit the year before with Alain Prost, but we hadn’t raced because the F3 event was cancelled because of the snow! When the team told me I set fastest time I thought they were joking with me since I felt I was almost stationary. Thus I attacked and made the pole. The AGS was overdimensioned, with a long wheelbase and wide tracks. It lacked straight-line speed, but it was very effective in the rain.” [Echappement Classic nº 41, pp. 27-28]. Sadly, on race day, a broken wing and a faulty fuel pump ended his show on the fourth lap. But it had proven to everyone that even without budget to develop the car at the same pace of their rivals AGS was able to surprise, and it finally happened at Pau where Dallest gave himself and AGS their first F2 win. This time luck was with him because after a great performance Patrick Gaillard – again! – held a healthy lead when the battery of his Maurer gave up, thus handing the lead to Dallest who managed to contain his excitement on the final laps and kept the car on the road until the chequered flag.

During the remainder in the season Dallest could usually be found in the midfield and rarely near the points, but his consistency grew and by the end of the year the AGS was at its best and at a soaking Zandvoort weekend Richard proved his doubters how good he was, grabbing his second pole position and then, with a faultless drive in the rain, took another dominant win. He expected to be back in the top-10 at Enna-Pergusa, even more since AGS was forced to use the old JH15, but another great day gave him two more points before finishing the season with a strong fourth place at the fast Hockenheim circuit. This resulted in a total of 23 points and sixth place in the championship. He felt that he was ready for Formula 1, and one thing I noticed during my research was precisely that Richard was always regarded as a talented driver and after such a season it could have been the occasion for trying that the decisive step up. However, more lack of sponsorship and ill-timed opportunities ended Dallest’s dream. F2 already counted seven Frenchmen, which was a handicap for attracting new sponsors but thanks to José Rosinski he had contacts with Ensign, which had briefly run Gaillard in 1979 and 1980 – you may now see why I said both men’s careers are intertwined – but they needed money and Richard had none. Then it was Lotus that proposed a test to him but after an intensive English course and a lot of physical training to support the terrible forces exerted by ground-effect F1 cars the rendez-vous at Paul Ricard came to nothing when the truck carrying both Lotuses caught fire and everything was completely destroyed. It was too much bad luck to cope with, and the only way for Richard to keep racing was to remain with AGS in F2…

However, if the JH17 had been a very balanced car and pretty handy, the JH18 was late and, when built, showed a lot of teething problems. With the old car, Dallest tried his best in the first round at Silverstone but was injured after crashing out on lap 9: “I went out at the chicane, on slicks, on a track that was already damp, and a soaked wooden pole hit me straight on the head, cracking my helmet in two. It spoiled my season since I suffered from ocular problems as well as having to cope with injured vertebrae…” [Echappement Classic nº 41, pp. 28]. Richard tried to drive at both Hockenheim and Thruxton, but on either occasion was forced to retire, physically drained, convincing himself and Henri Julien that he had to stop. It would be… guess who? – Gaillard who replaced him at the Nürburgring. Coming back at Vallelunga, Dallest soon perceived the new car wasn’t nearly effective as the previous one. Nevertheless, he gave his all and was usually a top-10 contender, but only managed two fifth places at Misano and Mantorp Park, the last two rounds of the season, dropping to a lowly 17th in the final standings.

Henri Julien wanted AGS to become a usual outsider for F2 wins, so it was decided that the team expand to two cars in 1982. This demanded far more budget and implied that Dallest had to leave, as he could not by any means find any more sponsorship. With his F1 dreams over, Richard accepted an offer from the small Merzario squad to lead their F2 campaign for a (relatively) reasonable sum of money. One of the best Italian sportscar drivers of the seventies, the diminutive Arturo Merzario had been the second Ferrari driver in F1 back in 1973, and after running a semi-works March in 1976 and 1977 decided to become a manufacturer and built his own F1 car for 1978. It was the time in which a 'kit-car' could be developed around a Cosworth DFV engine but the appearance of wing cars made this type of project even tougher, and after two dismal seasons in F1 Merzario duly thought F2 was better for the tiny budget on which he operated. It has to be said that the F2 Merzarios were far from a disaster (unlike their F1 counterparts, but the F2 cars were more or less rebodied Marches) and in 1981 seasoned F2 driver Piero Necchi put one of them on the podium twice. So there was hope that the Merzario-BMW 822 could again provide Dallest with a small chance of winning again…

The 1982 Italian dream would rapidly turn into nightmare as the team overstretched themselves by planning to align three cars, and depended a lot on gentlemen drivers. This prevented any kind of organisation for a full season, and blocked any tiny improvement that was possible with the small budget available. For Dallest the season started on the grandstands at Silverstone, as his car wasn’t ready, and then retired with an ill-handling car at Hockenheim. However, if there were doubts about his talent, that Thruxton round would soon dissipate them, as he did an impressive job with the car to finish an amazing sixth, equalling Jo Gartner’s performance in the opening round. In fact, with above-average drivers the Merzarios weren’t as bad as the results sheets show us, and Richard could have done far better if after the Nürburgring he wouldn’t have had to give his place to Harald Brutschin, who arrived with more money. It was the end of the season for our man who naturally thought about what to do next with no more drives available.

Yet in 1983 he would race with Merzario again. Arturo had built the M28 and started the season with Guido Daccò and Fulvio Ballabio, but when the first failed on his sponsor commitments Arturo called in Dallest for the Nürburgring round, and from Vallelunga until the end of the season the Frenchman was the sole driver for the team. The new car wasn’t as good as its predecessors and even the great Dallest performances could not compensate for a less-than-reasonable chassis, a client BMW engine and a budget barely able to allow for a full season – in fact, the team had to miss Donington and Zolder – so Richard’s best performances were a seventh at Misano and two eighths at Jarama and Mugello. Totally off the F1 radar, and without any great interest in driving anything other than single-seaters, Dallest quit his career when the expected deal with Merzario for 1984 failed to materialise. It may seem strange for someone who started with firm intentions of driving hillclimbs and rallies, and who apart from a few sparse French Touring Car Championship entries in the mid-seventies never looked at a career in sportscars, something that would have enabled him to race at least as a semi-pro for a long time. He explains why: “(…), for me, single-seaters were the ultimate pleasure to drive. I also tested with Peugeot on the Michelin circuits, with the possible aim of driving a WM at the Le Mans 24 Hours. I wasn’t thrilled by being locked up, especially since the car caught fire. The response time of the turbos was phenomenal, though. I got several offers to drive at Le Mans, but didn’t want to go because for me the place combined all possible danger. I had only one goal, which was to race in F1” [Echappement Classic nº 41, pp. 28]. As a matter of fact, in 1981 at least he was listed as a possible entry for a WM-Peugeot, but I have no other records of Dallest in sports or touring cars until the end of his career.

After two sabbatical years, Dallest returned at the wheel of a Danielson-entered AGS-Cosworth JH20B. By then, AGS was already preparing for his F1 venture that would start in 1987, and it was Danielson that supported their F3000 effort after a year of entering a works team with Streiff. F3000 had been devised as a cheaper replacement for F2, and a place for all the Cosworth DFVs to go that were rendered useless since all F1 teams bar Tyrrell were using turbos in 1984. The big problem with Danielson was that they had almost no money and their car was basically the JH20 from the previous season, with little to no upgrades. So they planned a part-time calendar, and it was in a sponsorless white car that Dallest returned to Pau and, surprisingly, put it on the fifth row of the grid! Not bad for someone who had been away from the sport for so long. In the race, Richard managed an astonishing fourth place, even if he confessed of not knowing how he had been able to deliver such a performance, so tired had he become after the first few laps. It was undeniable that Pau was his favourite circuit – also to a certain Mr Gaillard – but there was nothing that could be done with that car in the following races. So after three more lacklustre performances Richard’s career was over, as well as the AGS F3000 adventure. Dallest did two more races in the French F3 Championship with KTR in 1987, but it was a one-off and he hung up his helmet for good.

When he took the final decision to retire, Dallest turned into a racing instructor, something he had done before – as Damon Metrebian confirms – for both the Elf/ORECA and Winfield schools at Paul Ricard. He also had a brief stint as sporting manager at Solution F. At the time he was at Paul Ricard developing new talents he was called by his old mates at AGS to become a driving instructor there, again meeting with Gaillard! After that, he tried to form his own team, R.D. Racing, entering Renault Clio V6s in the national saloon trophies, but the adventure didn’t last for long. Nowadays, apart from doing car tests for a few magazines, he is widely active in the French historic racing scene.

It seems undeniable that Dallest had talent, not to say a lot of talent. Known as a late-breaker, right on the edge, he wasn’t a crashing guy, and usually excelled on natural or street circuits and even more in rainy conditions, so in circumstances in which talent is able to mask the traits of an inferior machine, such as his AGS in 1980. Nevertheless, it is always said that talent is not enough in any area, and sport is no exception. Motor racing demands a lot of skills apart from pure speed, and even more so outside the car, I and certainly believe it was here that he and Gaillard failed. Both weren’t tough enough in dealing with their sponsors and teams, didn’t like to beg at every door for sponsorship and help, and didn’t involve themselves at all with team politics. Another thing that Dallest highlighted himself was the fact that he never had a close advisor or manager to help him follow different paths.

Also, there were lots of French drivers in F1 at the time, almost all with some kind of Elf background, obviously attracting a multitude of medium and small-sized sponsors, absorbing a lot of resources that could have been distributed among upcoming talents. Gaillard tried the English way, and if he had managed to follow up on his offer from the USA he could have been great there; Dallest chose to remain in Europe and when the invitations came he had stopped being a young promise and fate intervened. And, finally, his decision not to follow any other path than single-seaters, even if he had offers in both sportscars and saloons, definitely put an end his career, even if he later comtemplated a switch to those categories. But then it was too late…