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Authors: Christopher Sherlock

Eye of the Cobra

BOOK: Eye of the Cobra
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Eye of the Cobra

 

By Christopher Sherlock

 

To marry an idea, to remain faithful to it all your life, is a fine thing. It is much more difficult to remain faithful to a woman all your life - that is perhaps impossible.

Enzo Ferrari

 

 

1980

 

 

 

 

May

Monaco

 

Perhaps it was the smell of oil and gasolene - a smell that got right into your nostrils and stayed there. Perhaps it was the danger, the excitement. Whatever it was, its effect on him was always the same: it
made him need to take risks, to prove himself.

After taking the world championship three times in suc
cession, it wasn’t the money or the need for fame that was driving James on. It was something deeper, less easy to explain.

He looked out across the flat expanse of tarmac and over to the Ligier machine on his right, then up at the dull grey sky. Damn. He hoped it wouldn’t rain again. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, driving in the wet, especially on a circuit like Monaco.

His six-foot frame barely fitted into the cockpit of the black and gold Chase Racing machine. The Cosworth V8 engine growled behind his head. His brother Danny leaned over, resting his hand on the roll-bar and giving him a few last-minute instructions. Danny was always there, giving everything he had to manage Chase Racing, the Formula One team they’d built up together. Further down the grid was their second machine, driven by the former Formula Two champion, Marcel Baudelaire, also carrying Calibre sponsorship. In a few years, maybe, James hoped his own son Wyatt might take that number two spot. Was he right to want that for his son? He pushed the thought away.

Focus.

Concentrate.

Danny moved away. James raised his hand in a final wave to Estelle, standing next to the car.

What was it Estelle had? He had never met another woman as attractive as she was. Now she was walking towards Reg Tillson, his chief mechanic for over ten years, who was in conversation with Bruce de Villiers, the ambitious young South African who was the team’s number two mechanic.

A giant of a man lumbered up behind them, came forward and put his arm around Estelle - Jack Phelps, the American entrepreneur, close friend and sponsor. But for how much longer? James asked himself. Sometimes, one could know too much about a person.

And there in the background was Wyatt, with the ruffled dark hair that swept back off his forehead, Wyatt, with the deep, booming voice. His dark eyes were set back deep in their sockets - restless, unafraid eyes that gave Wyatt the look of a hawk.

James could see Estelle behind those eyes. And already, though Wyatt was only seventeen, he could visualise in those dark eyes the succession of women who would fall in love with him. Passion was there, and so was courage - it made him fatally attractive.

God, how he wished he could be young again. At forty years old, with the first traces of grey in his hair, he raged against the advance of age. But now was the time to belie those telltale grey hairs - to prove to the world - and himself - that he could do it.

 

The one-minute signal came up. The scream of the engine directly behind his head blew the thoughts away, and he focused on the start, on winning. He rolled forward as the green flag and the thirty-second board came up, marking the start of the parade lap.

It was round four of the world championship. He was holding sixth place in the driver’s championship with two other drivers. He wasn’t going anywhere, yet.

Today, he was lying second on the starting-grid, after a time of 1 minute 24.882 seconds in the second practice on Saturday. Didier Pironi had stolen pole position from him by seven hundredths of a second. It had been dry and warm then, perfect conditions to race in. Today, most of Europe and his native England were basking in intense sunshine, enjoying an exceptional bout of hot weather, but here in Monaco it was grey, overcast and rainy.

His mind was clear as he swept around the narrow circuit, concentrating on the start. A few years previously, he had lost here, due to a bad start and a subsequent wheel-banging with another machine. He never made mistakes twice. That was how he’d stayed alive.

The start here was difficult. From the grid the machines would roar forwards into the tight right-hand bend called Ste Devote.

He ran through his mental checklist - the basic elements - to drive as fast as he could but always steady, always con
trolled, never making hard gear-changes.

Above and around him were crowds of spectators, looking down onto the narrow three-mile street circuit on which twenty cars would do battle. He caught sight of a vivid red and blue poster advertising the Monte Carlo Show. He won
dered what it was like to visit Monaco and not think of racing.

The starting-grid was in the narrow confines of the Boul
evard Albert l
er
. James knew the official starter, Derek Ongaro, would be battling to see the back of the grid, waiting for the green flag which would indicate that all the cars were in position.

Time telescoped, and he entered into another dimension of concentration. The start-light switched to red. Then the green light came on and his machine leapt forwards, just behind Pironi’s first-placed Ligier.

He was through Ste Devote, into second, and slightly sluggish on the uphill. Then the roar of another engine as Jones shot past him in the Williams.

Damn, damn, damn. Jones must have slipped back into first gear, giving himself the edge out of the bend. James had been thinking too much about Ste Devote and not enough about what came after. It was a bastard to pass anyone on the Monaco circuit, now he’d be hard-pressed to regain the second place that Jones had taken from him. Besides, Jones was eight years younger than him, and had nineteen points, lying second in the world championship.

Dammit. He might be forty years old, but he’d show them. There was no other way to live except to drive.

 

Wyatt watched James fly off past the pits, holding second place, pushing hard against Pironi’s tail. The black and gold Chase Racing machine’s V8 Cosworth engine bellowed power.

She came up next to him. He was conscious of her femininity and her mesmeric blue eyes. She looked more like his girl
friend than his mother. No wonder his girlfriends were jealous of her.

He squeezed her affectionately, then kissed her on the cheek. He could sense the other men watching her, and he didn’t like it. But he could never get away from the knowledge that she had this power over men.

Estelle moved out of his embrace and leaned back against the guard-rail that separated them from the pits. She shook out her blonde hair and winked at Wyatt. Blonde, yes, that was unusual for a Frenchwoman, but then there was nothing ordinary about his mother.

‘Do you think ’e is ever scared?’

A throaty voice. He imagined her in a black evening-dress, turning heads, the diamond tiara glittering on her head.

‘Would you be?’

'Non.
I would be thinking only of winning. You were looking so sad just now, dahling. There is something troubling you?’

She touched his deeply tanned face very gently with her hand.

‘It’s nothing. I wanted to be on the grid.’

She smiled sadly.

‘What has James done to you?’

 

Reg Tillson had a nervous twitch in his left eye when he was worried. Had they missed anything out in the preparation of James’s machine? As always the night before he had meticulously checked it over, section by section. He tried to reassure himself with the thought that de Villiers had been with him all the time - Bruce was very, very good. Everything Reg knew had gone into the preparation of it; all the small but important details that he had learned over years of working in motor- racing.

But a perfectly prepared machine was just the beginning of the job. What counted in the end was the willingness of the driver to take carefully calculated risks, to push himself and his machine just a fraction more than the man in front would dare to.

He liked James Chase, or Jamie as he preferred to call him. And he had grown fond of the boy, Wyatt. He hoped that he would see the day when Wyatt won his first Grand Prix.

Reg saw their sponsor, Jack Phelps, approaching. There’d been tension between James and Jack recently. Jack felt James should retire and put a younger driver in the number one seat. Jack had implied, but not said, that James was over the hill.

Phelps’s eyes rested on Estelle Chase, mentally undressing her. Reg felt his irritation rising.

 

The sirens erupted. All around them was commotion. They looked down from the pit lane towards Ste Devote. A massive pile-up had occurred.

Reg narrowed his eyes.

‘They’d better get those bloody cars off the track fast or someone’ll be killed - if they haven’t been killed already.’

Wyatt felt Estelle’s nails clawing into his shoulder. In the dis
tance the marshals worked frantically, clearing the wreckage.

 

It had been a culmination of disasters. Derek Daly had ploughed into the back of Bruno Giacomelli, cartwheeled through the air, caught the back of Alain Prost and landed on the back of Jean-Pierre Jarier’s machine. Meanwhile, trying to avoid the devastation, Jan Lammers had bounced over Ricardo Patrese’s rear wheel.

 

Standing in the pit lane, Wyatt put his hand on his mother’s shoulder. He wasn’t scared for his father because he knew James would handle it. James didn’t get ruffled, he just handled things. That was why he was such a good driver - because he never ever panicked.

Estelle was white. Wyatt knew she was always scared, but usually she didn’t let it show.

 

The crane was hovering over the curve, lifting the broken cars from the track. The marshals were working very fast. In the distance - the roar of the approaching cars. No one wanted to stop the race, but no one wanted a serious accident either.

 

Estelle was crying now. Jack came across and hugged her.

‘Don’t worry, James’ll come through OK.’

Wyatt knew that Jack was his father’s best friend, but he didn’t like Jack and he didn’t trust him. Jack had been putting pressure on James to retire. And there was something in the way Jack was touching and holding Estelle that roused anger in Wyatt. Jack never touched Estelle like that when James was around.

The cars shot past, James’s black and gold machine holding the third place behind Pironi and Jones.

‘Oh my God,’ Estelle said frantically.

But the track was clear and the cars swept safely round Ste Devote. Reg didn’t look happy and nor did Danny. De Villiers looked very cool, very much in control.

‘Shit, Jones got past him,’ Danny exclaimed.

‘And he’s not going to let Jamie return the favour,’ Reg added. ‘Pironi’s certainly not holding back, either.’

‘Just let him keep the pressure on Jones. This circuit is hard on cars, and ours is as tough as they come,’ de Villiers said incisively.

Danny shouted the information into the microphone attached to his headset - information that was instantly relayed to the headphones in James’s helmet over the direct radio link.

Estelle recovered her poise as if she had never lost it. There was a glint in Phelps’s eyes, and Wyatt stepped forwards instinctively, blocking the big American from his mother. Just you try, he thought, hoping in a way that Phelps would. Wyatt knew he could take on anyone who tried to tackle him. He felt the callouses on the edge of his hands; he’d have to drop the karate soon, to concentrate totally on driving.

 

James kept the pressure on Jones’s Williams-Cosworth. He wasn’t going to risk an overtaking manoeuvre till later in the race. He wanted to conserve his car and wait for a pit-stop to put on fresh rubber. After that, he would tackle Jones.

On lap twenty-five he saw the back of Jones’s car begin to twitch, and moments later the Australian was out of the race with a broken differential. James swept past, elated that he could now move into second position and start pressuring Pironi.

By halfway there were only thirteen cars left in the race. On lap forty, James put in the second-fastest lap time of the race. He could tell Pironi was having problems, and he was going to make damn sure that the Frenchman didn’t have a chance to solve them. He was in the rhythm of the race now, everything going very smoothly, everything under control. He just kept the pressure on the man in front.

Eventually, on lap fifty-five Pironi entered Casino a fraction too quickly and his car jumped out of gear, sliding out of control into the barrier of tyres. With his left front wheel splayed out, Pironi managed to keep going down the hill, and then reluctantly pulled off at Mirabeau.

James reeled in the laps now, taking advantage of the dry sections of the track. He backed off a little when the rain came down hard during the final laps, but when he crossed the line he was comfortably ahead of the second-placed Jacques Laffite.

He took the victory lap slowly, riding high on the elation of having finished first yet again. It crossed his mind that he should retire. Now was the time to pull out, while he was still winning.

 

Wyatt was buffeted by the crowds of people who stormed into the pit lane and embraced his father. Estelle was crying and hugging her husband.

Wyatt wanted that feeling for himself. He wanted to know what it was like and to hold on to it above all else.

His father came across and hugged him, then he was gone, appearing on the podium moments later, showering the crowd with champagne. Then he stepped across to the royal box and took the trophy from Princess Grace.

‘Now that’s what I call getting attention for my cigarettes,’ Wyatt heard Phelps growl.

‘Yeah, who cares about the racing,’ de Villiers countered sarcastically.

In that moment Wyatt hated Phelps and loved de Villiers. He would remember the moment years later, when he learned to trust his instincts again.

 

It was much later, higher up in the hills, when he was able to talk again to his father. It was James’s custom to go for a drive the night after a Grand Prix. Usually he went alone, but this time he asked Wyatt to come with him.

Outside the villa he handed Wyatt the keys to the red Ferrari. ‘You drive.’

‘No,’ he said to his father. ‘You said that it’s good luck to drive hard the night after the race. It brings you victory again.’ James stood staring at him, and for the first time Wyatt saw his father for what he was - a determined, successful man. A hard man, with a body of taut muscle and a finely constructed face, his thin blond hair blowing in the breeze.

‘I told your mother, just now . . . I’m going to retire from Formula One. I’m not going to race any more.’

Wyatt thought of his mother and how she’d reacted to the accident. He understood now. His father moved closer and held his wrists in his own strong hands.

‘You’re seventeen years old, not a boy any longer. You must make me a promise, Wyatt.’

He looked into his father’s dark-brown eyes. ‘As long as it’s one I can keep.’

‘You are just like your mother. I want you to promise me that when you start having fears, when you start having doubts, you’ll walk away from it. Just walk away from it.’

‘I promise.’

Wyatt took the keys, slipped into the driver’s seat and gunned the engine. His father sat beside him.

‘OK,’ James said, ‘let’s see just how fast you can go.’

BOOK: Eye of the Cobra
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