Desiré Wilson

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Last updated: 21-August-2005


Biography

Before Formula One Formula One After Formula One

Before F1
1958-74

Starts in micro midgets, but soon makes her name in FFord

Over the years, many have wondered why there haven't been more women racing drivers, let alone F1 drivers. But as women pilots go, South African Desiré Wilson, from Brakpan near Johannesburg, was as good as there ever was. Although her one entry in World Championship F1 was comparatively a failure, her forays into the now-defunct Aurora F1 series in the late-1970s were much more successful, and in other categories from CART to sports cars she attracted much attention in the paddock for her ability.

Born Desiré Randall, when she was five years old she was already racing in micro-midgets built by her father, and as soon as she was old enough to go racing properly, she won club and provincial championships in micro-midgets, and came 2nd in the South African nationals. In 1973 and 1974 she competed in the South African Formula Vee championship, coming 4th and 2nd respectively, and the next year she became South African Formula Ford champion.

1976-78

Takes a win in Benelux FFord 2000 title

She successfully defended her crown in 1976, when by this stage her Merlyn Mk24 was three years old! The prize was a "Driver to Europe" award that had also previously sent Jody Scheckter to Europe. Basing herself in Holland in 1977, she competed in the Dutch, Benelux and European FF2000 championships, all in a Crossle 33F, and coming 3rd in each. This included wins at Zandvoort and Colmar Berg in Luxembourg (a Goodyear test track), plus two lap records and four fastest laps.

Having proven that she had what it took to progress even further, she returned to South Africa briefly and raced in two Formula Atlantic races at the start of 1978, but engine failures in her outdated Chevron B34 put paid to her chances in both events. But like other drivers from the Southern Hemisphere who have gone to Europe to forge a career, when she returned from South Africa the opportunities seemed to dry up, and for a time her prospects for 1978 looked rather bleak.


Plenty of success in Formula Ford 2000 greeted Desiré in 1977.
Plenty of success in Formula Ford 2000 greeted Desiré in 1977.

1978

Hello John Webb, and hello Aurora F1!

But doors opened, and Desiré took full advantage. In March, she blitzed the field in an all-women's race at Brands Hatch and gained a job with John Webb at the Brands Hatch Racing School. She also filled in for Nick Challis in a Crossle 34K at a Brands Hatch Formula Ford 2000 event, and ended up driving the car for the rest of the year! In addition, in the latter half of the year she also competed in British SS2000 in a Lola T490, in the middle of F1 commitments.

Yes, F1 - even if it was only the British Aurora AFX championship. But to have gone from Formula Fords in 1977 to some form of F1 in 1978 had been a meteoric rise, and it had happened because Webb did not only run a racing school, he was also promoter for the British GP. Having organised a promotional tyre test, Desiré was invited to drive a March 751 updated to 761, and she ended up 21st fastest out of 24 cars, proving without doubt that she could handle F1 machinery.

Formula One
1978-79
Aurora F1

Impresses with plenty of points in year one; takes the lead at Zolder

Having also married Alan Wilson (who generously provided much of the information for the updates to this bio) to make it an even bigger year, after that Brands Hatch test performance, Desiré was invited by Jack Kallay to drive an old Ensign N175 Cosworth for the rest of the 1978 Aurora series. In her very first outing at Oulton Park, she was set to stun her opposition when, with three minutes to go in a wet qualifying but a drying track, she held provisional pole position until two cars on slicks toppled her time.

Still, despite starting the series late, she recorded some excellent results, including 6th at Mallory Park, 6th at Snetterton, 4th at Brands Hatch and a podium finish with 3rd at Thruxton to come 10th overall with 34 points, placing her ahead of future F1 hero Elio de Angelis. It was also enough to secure a drive with Melchester Racing in 1979. With the SS2000 races in the same meetings as the Aurora events, often it meant that Wilson was participating in five practice sessions and two races in the space of two days!


Wilson starred in the Aurora F1 event at Zolder, taking the lead at one point, and finishing 3rd.
Wilson starred in the 1979 Aurora F1 event at Zolder, taking the lead at one point, and finishing 3rd.

1979

Plenty of points in Aurora; finishes 9th at Race of Champions

With Melchester Racing she drove an ex-Patrick Depailler Tyrrell 008 Cosworth. In the first race of the season at Zolder in Belgium, she qualified 11th and dropped down to 17th in the wet race, before charging all the way to the lead and building a 17s lead with three laps to go. But then the 1 on the 17 fell off the pit board and, believing her opponent behind to be catching her rapidly, she pushed too hard, spun, and had to settle for 3rd. In that context, fastest lap of the race was scant consolation.

Apart from that, she took three more 3rd places at Oulton Park, Brands Hatch and Thruxton, plus 4ths at Zandvoort and Nogaro, 5ths at Oulton Park and Silverstone and 6th at Snetterton to end up 7th overall with 28 points, ahead of bike legend Giacomo Agostini who was having a dabble in cars. That year she also took part in the Race of Champions event at Brands Hatch, where Aurora F1 cars mixed it with World Championship machines. Wilson acquitted herself well, finishing in 9th place.

1980

Becomes, at Brands Hatch, the first woman to win an F1 race

In 1980 she was on the move again, joining Teddy Yip's Theodore team to drive a Wolf WR3 Cosworth as team-mate to Kevin Cogan in the Aurora championship, and on 7 April in round two at Brands Hatch she became the first woman (and only, thus far) to win a Formula One race of any description when she led from start to finish, beating home Norman Dickson and Eliseo Salazar. She also recorded a fine 2nd place at Thruxton, and took 3rd at Mallory Park, before the team ran out of money.

But later in the year, she made one more Aurora appearance at the Pace Petroleum Trophy, also at Brands Hatch, in an old Lotus 78 which had already been driven by the likes of Dickson, Emilio de Villota and Gianfranco Brancatelli, and which had already been involved in a string of massive accidents. Wilson unfortunately added to the list when a wheel bearing failure resulted in yet another monumental shunt. She ended the Aurora season in 6th place though, with 21 points.


Wilson celebrating her win at Brands Hatch in the Aurora F1 series - becoming the only woman thus far to win an F1 race of any kind.
Wilson celebrating her win at Brands Hatch in the Aurora F1 series - becoming the only woman thus far to win an F1 race of any kind.

1980
RAM

Entered in the British Grand Prix, she stuns in test session before race

Also that year, when the World Championship British Grand Prix took place at Brands Hatch, Wilson was entered by John Macdonald's RAM team to drive a Williams FW07, a 1979 version of the car sweeping the 1980 championship. Two weeks prior to the race in an unofficial test session, Wilson was an incredible 12th fastest. What made it even more amazing was the fact that this was the first time she had driven a car with sliding skirts. Coupled to her Aurora results, she had every right to be confident.

But when official qualifying came around, Wilson was way off the pace, two seconds slower than what she had done in the test. It felt like she was driving a completely different car. In fact, that was exactly what was happening. In the test, she had driven a well-tuned car privately used by de Villota in several Grands Prix. Now, she was in fact driving Salazar's Aurora car, the same car her Wolf had beaten in April! Salazar had also just crashed the car at Monza, and it had not been properly repaired either.

1980

Notches a DNQ after she's given a different, substandard Williams car

Since the Aurora championship did not allow skirts, Salazar's FW07 usually did not have them. When the car was delivered to RAM for Wilson's use, untried skirts had been hurriedly added, so it was no surprise that they weren't working properly. Didier Pironi scored pole in his Ligier with a 1:11.004 lap, but Wilson was 5.311 seconds slower. She was last of the 27 entrants, and 0.892s behind Jochen Mass' Arrows, the last starter. Wilson joined Jan Lammers' Ensign and Keke Rosberg's Fittipaldi in non-qualification.

It was to prove Wilson's most disappointing moment in racing, and if she had already been rorted by driving a much-inferior car to the one she had been expecting to race, there had been further salt in the wound as well. For the last 15 minutes of the qualifying session, she had been sitting idle in the pits, unable to go out on qualifiers because they had been placed on rims that did not fit the front hubs. The qualifying specials would have been worth over a second a lap...


Wilson failed to qualify for the 1980 British Grand Prix, but she was driving a sub-standard car and was given little chance.
Wilson failed to qualify for the 1980 British Grand Prix, but she was driving a sub-standard car and was given little chance.

1981
Tyrrell

Gets another F1 chance, at Kyalami, where she runs as high as 6th

But, as Tom Prankerd tells us, at the start of 1981 none other than Ken Tyrrell had been so impressed by Wilson's efforts in 1980 that he offered her a drive in her home race, the 1981 South African GP. Caught in the middle of the FISA-FOCA war, the race was run under FOCA rules, and Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo did not show up. In what was essentially a race for Cosworth-engine cars only, Wilson was entered in one of Tyrrell's 010 cars, with Eddie Cheever as her team-mate.

In qualifying Wilson did very well, especially since this was her first outing in 5 months. Out of 19 entrants she was 16th quickest, just 0.61s slower than Cheever who was 12th. However, the race started disastrously when she stalled on the start line, costing her 15 seconds. After a push, she finally got away, and revelled in the wet conditions. She caught up to the rest of the pack, and passed both Salazar and Siegfried Stohr, before even having the nerve to pick off Cheever in the sister Tyrrell.

1981

Impresses Ken, but Zunino and Alboreto's money talks

At one stage, she was up to as high as 6th. But then conditions cleared and Wilson was suddenly on the wrong tyres. She battled briefly with Nigel Mansell (who, accordingly to Alan Wilson, was the only one to do the ungentlemanly thing of trying to push her across the track) before getting on the marbles as she let leader Nelson Piquet past, touching a wall and damaging her gearbox. After 51 laps she was out of the race, but far from disgraced.

Tyrrell was so impressed he offered her the drive for the rest of the year, provided that she could raise $100,000. Whilst she was searching desperately for the funds, the drive went to Ricardo Zunino for the South American rounds in Argentina and Brazil, but after that Wilson had still not found the sponsorship necessary. Furthermore, a promising young Italian called Michele Alboreto arrived on Tyrrell's doorstep with $1 million from Ceramica Imola. Needless to say, he got the drive, and Wilson's F1 career was over.


Ken Tyrrell picked up Wilson to drive at her home GP in 1981 - she performed brilliantly, at one point running 6th. The race did not have Championship status, though.
Ken Tyrrell picked up Wilson to drive at her home GP in 1981 - she performed brilliantly, at one point running 6th. The race did not have Championship status, though.

1981

FISA-FOCA wrangle leaves Desiré with just one WC Grand Prix entry

What's more, because of the political wrangling in the background, the 1981 South African GP was stripped of World Championship status. As a result, in the records Wilson's DNQ at the 1980 British GP stands as her only World Championship entry. She had been the 4th woman in World Championship F1, after Maria-Teresa de Filippis, the excellent Lella Lombardi and British skier Divina Galica, and the only woman after her has been Italian pay driver Giovanna Amati.

And what chance another female F1 driver in the future? At the time of writing, perhaps not as far off as it seems. American Sarah Fisher drove demo laps in a McLaren at the USA GP a few years ago, but a string of crashes made her a liability to team owners. However Danica Patrick has been setting the track on fire in her rookie IRL season despite coming from a road racing background, while Katherine Legge took out the Toyota Atlantic round at Long Beach recently. Might they end up in F1 one day?

After F1
1980-81

Great success in sportcars, with victories at Monza and Silverstone

What we've neglected to mention thus far is that in 1980, apart from impressing with her F1 efforts, Wilson had also made a name for herself as a sports car driver. In the World Championship she had been taken on board by Alain de Cadenet to co-drive the latter's Lola LM Ford. After finishing 3rd together at Brands Hatch, they won both the Monza 1000kms and the Silverstone 6hrs. It left Wilson in 41st place with 30 points in the World Challenge for Endurance Drivers.

Apart from rally driver Michelle Mouton, Wilson thus became the only woman to win a World Championship event in any category. According to David McKinney, she may also have raced a March 77B in the New Zealand Formula Pacific series in 1980, and drove a Ralt RT1 to 6th place at Macau. The next year, in 1981, she drove in the World Championship for Drivers & Makes event at Brands Hatch in a Preston Henn Porsche 935 K3 with Henn, Edgar Dören and Skeeter McKitterick, finishing 8th.


Wilson teamed up with Alain de Cadenet in sportscars, with some success. Here Wilson sits in the pits at Silverstone in 1980, a race she went on to win.
Wilson teamed up with Alain de Cadenet in sportscars, with some success. Here Wilson sits in the pits at Silverstone in 1980, a race she went on to win.

1982

Le Mans attempt ends after 6 laps, but she keeps busy in IMSA

1982 was perhaps Wilson's busiest year behind the wheel. In the World Endurance Championship she watched her Le Mans evaporate after only 14 minutes when de Villota parked the GRID Racing Grid Plaza S1 Ford he was sharing with Wilson and de Cadenet with engine failure. But at Brands Hatch, where she shared a Ford Werke AG Ford C100 with Dr Jonathan Palmer, she came a fabulous 4th. The 10 points gained for this result was good enough for equal 46th place in the series.

Wilson also competed in a non-championship 9 hour race at Kyalami, sharing a John Fitzpatrick Racing Porsche 935 with Fitzpatrick himself, but they retired with engine problems. However, Wilson's main racing that year was in IMSA, where she competed in 6 events, in a Porsche 935 Turbo, a Preston Henn Racing Ferrari 512BB/LM (at Sebring, in an all-female team with Janet Guthrie and Bonnie Henn), and the Grid Plaza S1 Ford, with drivers such as Marty Hinze and de Villota, but she retired in all six events.

1982-83

Fails to make Indy 500 grid, more attempts at Le Mans and IMSA

In 1982 Wilson also took up another open-wheeler challenge by attempting to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. She was only the second woman to enter the event after Guthrie, and she passed the rookie test easily. On the third lap of her qualifying run, she set a record (at the time) of 191.042mph for a lap by a woman in her Eagle Cosworth, but was forced to abort the run after one of six engine failures which plagued her during 'the month of May'. Eventually Desiré failed to make the grid.

There was more sports car racing for Wilson in 1983. She was 7th at Le Mans in an Obermaier Racing Porsche 956 with Axel Plankenhorn and Jürgen Lässig, and at Kyalami the Fitzpatrick Racing 956 she shared with Thierry Boutsen and David Hobbs was running 2nd when Hobbs crashed. It left her equal 63rd in the WEC with 4 points. In the British Thundersports series, she took pole in the Porsche 908/03 Turbo she shared with Siegfried Brunn at Oulton Park, only for fuel problems to strike whilst leading.


Wilson in the Ford Werke AG she shared with Dr. Jonathan Palmer at Brands Hatch. They finished a fine 4th in the race, which was a round of the WEC.
Wilson in the Ford Werke AG she shared with Dr. Jonathan Palmer at Brands Hatch. They finished a fine 4th in the race, which was a round of the WEC.

1983

Takes to CART, scoring points - but still can't make Indy 500

In IMSA, she drove in two events in a March 83G with Gianpiero Moretti at Lime Rock and Brainerd, qualifying 2nd on both occasions. But the car broke in Moretti's hands at Lime Rock, and at Brainerd the front suspension broke, sending Wilson into a huge accident that broke her leg. Three weeks later she was back behind the wheel in a CART open wheeler at Road America, where she qualified 11th with her leg still broken and therefore unable to brake properly!

That was just one of a series of impressive outings in CART that year. In a March 82C Cosworth, she failed to complete her rookie refresher test at Indianapolis, and therefore did not race, but was soon picked by the Wysard team to drive a March 83C Cosworth, replacing Derek Daly. On her debut at Cleveland, car co-owner Rose Wysard was full of praise: "She is aggressive on the track and has that great intensity that the great drivers possess. This is her first race, but we expect her to be number 1 very shortly."

1983-84

Takes three points from Cleveland; drives at Road America with broken leg

Wilson was indeed impressive at Cleveland. In hot conditions, she battled on to finish 10th, and scored 3 points for her troubles. But in her remaining 7 starts for Wysard, she only finished 13th at Phoenix, but retired in the other six races, twice from accidents, and once each from transmission, suspension, engine and gearbox problems. That brave drive at Road America with the broken leg was one of those retirements. But those points she gained at Cleveland left her 28th overall in the final standings.

In 1984 she failed to qualify at Long Beach in a March 83C Cosworth, and in the same car at Indy she passed the rookie refresher test but did not attempt to qualify. In sports cars, in the WEC she was 4th at Brands Hatch in a Kremer Racing Porsche 956 with George Fouché and David Sutherland (which was also a round of the Deutsche Rennsport Meistershaft), and in the Thundersports series she retired from an engine problem at Brands Hatch in a Kellygirl Ford turbo shared with Divina Galica.


Desire had a notable CART career, and despite never making the Indy 500, she showed that she was in no way out of her depth. Here she is in her point-scoring drive at Cleveland in 1983.
Desire had a notable CART career, and despite never making the Indy 500, she showed that she was in no way out of her depth. Here she is in her point-scoring drive at Cleveland in 1983.

1987-89

Wins in SCCA Stock Endurance; has one round in F3000

As something of an occasional racer now, doing it for the love of speed and for the spirit of competition when it caught her fancy, she sat out 1985 but returned for three more CART outings in 1986 in a March 86C Cosworth. At Mid-Ohio she finished 13th, but crashed out at Elkhart Lake and had an engine failure at Laguna Seca. Out of 11 starts in her CART career, she had picked up US$102,765 in prizemoney. In terms of open wheelers there were also starts in Atlantic and Indy Lights races in the following years.

Our details for the years 1987 to 1995 are sketchy, although we do know that in 1987 she won an SCCA Stock Endurance Series in a Saleen Ford Mustang at Sears Point with Lisa Cacares. She also won the Mosport 24hrs, Sears Point 6hrs from pole and the Sebring 6hrs, all in Saleen Mustangs from 1987 to 1989. In 1989 she also did one round of British F3000 at Brands Hatch in a GA Motorsports Lola T88/50 Cosworth; from 7th on the grid she finished 4th and scored 3 points for 12th place overall.

1989-93

All-female assault on Le Mans crashes out; important role with SCCA

In 1989 she also made one World Sportscar Championship and one Japanese Sports Prototype Championship start at Brands Hatch and Fuji respectively, both in a Team Davey Porsche 962C with Tim Lee-Davey. They finished 13th on both occasions. Also in the 1991 WSC she had competed at Le Mans in a Euro Racing (AO Racing) Spice SE90C Ford in an all-female team with Cathy Muller and Lyn St James, but they crashed out of the event.

In IMSA in 1993 she had also taken part in the Daytona 24hrs classic in a Ford Mustang with Ron Fellows, Pieter L. Baljet and Tomika Yoshikawa, but a crash by Fellows put the car out. Also in 1993 she completed some Yokohama tyre testing for the SCCA, and in fact from 1991 to 2003 she and her husband handled the marketing and development of the SCCA World Challenge Touring Car and GT series for both the SCCA and for Speedvision.


Wilson was also a familiar face in Stock Cars over several years. Here she competes at Denver in 1990.
Wilson was also a familiar face in Stock Cars over several years. Here she competes at Denver in 1990.

1996-98

Starts up female PPG pace car team; joins husband in motorsports consulting

In 1996, apart from competing in a celebrity race in a Chrysler Neon, she drove the CART pace car at Homestead, which prompted the formation of the female PPG Pace Car Team. By 1997 she was living in Colorado, and that year she joined Bob Schader's team to run Mazda Xedos saloons in North American Super Touring. She did some of the early rounds, coming 6th in both Long Beach races, before returning for some more races in the ill-fated series in mid-year.

In 1997 she was also the keynote speaker at the SCCA Awards Banquet before joining Alan in his motorsports consulting business in 1998, called in to help the USRRC. Desiré assisted in computer programming for licensing and membership applications, as well as the registration of drivers, and also in marketing. As an aside, there is also currently a stand at Brands Hatch called the Desiré Wilson stand, plus she is also a qualified accountant, and she still occasionally races (and wins) in 125cc shifter karts!

1999-2002

Branches into track design; appears racing at Goodwood

These days, Wilson Motorsports Inc., the name of she and her husband's business, has branched into track design, including 19 circuits currently in use. These include Barber Motorsports Park, the re-designed Mont Tremblant track in Canada, and the circuit in Beijing, China, that was being touted for a Moto GP round. It's proof that Hermann Tilke and his company do not have a monopoly on the circuit design business! You can find out more about their work at www.wilsonmotorsport.com.

Wilson has also made appearances at Goodwood. In 1999 she was re-united with the De Cadenet Lola Ford she had driven in 1980, and in a 1hr race for closed-cockpit cars from 1960-4, she came 5th in an Aston Martin DB4GTZ with Gillian Goldsmith. In the same race in 2000, she came 14th in a Ferrari 250 GTO shared with Gary Pearson. At the festival she has also driven a Lotus Elite, a Willment Cobra, a Ford Anglia, a 1953 Cooper Jaguar, and even a Tyrrell 011 in a tribute to the late Ken Tyrrell in 2002.


1999 saw Wilson take part at Goodwood, not for the last time, on this occasion racing her 1980 de Cadenet Lola to a 5th place.
1999 saw Wilson take part at Goodwood, not for the last time, on this occasion racing her 1980 de Cadenet Lola to a 5th place.

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