The following article by Rosalind Nott,
was first published in the June 1986 issue of Powerboat and Waterskiing
On September 22 1985, Bob Spalding
crossed the finish line on the Indroscala in Milan, some way behind American
Ben Robertson. On this occasion, the Ipswich driver happily settled for second
place and six Championship points. It was enough to give him an unassailable
lead in the World Formula 1 title race which had undoubtedly been the most
competitive and hotly contested battle since the formation of F1 competition.
Spalding started the 1985 season as a
relative outsider, almost an ‘also-ran’ who had not tasted a Grand Prix victory
since 1981, but at the age of 44, the Ipswich marine dealer proved the media
wrong, giving a demonstration of skill and tactical driving well worthy of a
Almost before Spalding had time to
savour his glorious victory, the journalists were asking the inevitable
question – would he now retire? His answer last September was quite simple,
‘I’m just too old to retire now’.
Ironic that fate should deal the
unthinkable blow two months later, when he took to the water in Seville for an
almost nonchalant practise session. His boat barrel rolled after a turn and
Spalding was taken to hospital suffering from diagnosed severe concussion. The
story of the ensuing weeks is almost a novel in itself, for he did not seem to
make a full recovery and while the rest of the world were preparing to decorate
their Christmas tree, Spalding collapsed at work. He was rushed to the National
Hospital in London where neuro examinations showed an aneurysm, which is a
weakness in the artery to the brain and probably congenital. It had not burst,
but was leaking and he underwent immediate surgery.
In the past five months, Spalding has
put in the sort of quiet determination he shows behind the wheel of an F1
catamaran, into his recovery, but the man who thought he was too old to retire
was told by doctors on April 23 that driving an F1 boat this year was out of
‘Realistically,’ he said, ‘that means I
will never drive again.’
British powerboat racing without Bob
Spalding is almost unimaginable. His climb to the top has spanned some two
decades or more and if you think of any classic event, you can be sure that
Spalding’s name will be engraved on the cup. Paris, Bristol, Parker… Three times European Champion, twice
British Champion and on and on it goes.
Bob was the only British driver to be
employed by Mercury Marine, not only as a team driver, but to test equipment at
Lake X. He has held the World OZ speed record and won the F1 World Championship
in 1980. From 1980 until last season, however, his racing achievements went into decline and many put
the onus wrongly on the driver, not his equipment.
‘I must admit that I began to wonder
whether it was me. But looking back I really spent no time in the boats, in
fact in 1984 I had no practise in the Molinari at all. The boat was certainly
quick, but it was not ‘honest’, it would suddenly do the most peculiar things.
If retirement ever entered my head it was about then.’
Last year Chris Hodges formed Percival
Hodges Racing and invited Spalding to be one of the drivers. After an
impressive launch, not only of the team but for the advent of the safety
cockpit, Spalding was sold, hook, line and sinker.
‘I loved the new Hodges. It was totally
honest and I was happy from the moment I was strapped into it. The team hired
the course in Munich for two days before the first Grand Prix, and I can
honestly say that those two days put right three years. I know that I can pace myself very well and
the new 50-lap format certainly tipped the scales. In a 10-lap sprint, you can
get the ‘hot-shot’ who steers his way through to the chequered flag with his
right foot. But a 50-lapper you have to think your way through.’
Spalding was a tactical driver and
immensely kind on his equipment. It never failed to amaze his crew how little
Spalding burnt compared to his teammate, Bertil Wik of Sweden. Even during
practise, Spalding would stand and watch with his experienced eye to see how
the other drivers and their boats handled the course.
Apart from being a ‘thinking driver’,
he remains a favourite among the drivers, spectators and media. He is the
archetypal ‘Mr Nice Guy’, an enigma of the grit needed to take the risks in a
150mph catamaran. In fact, if you met
Bob Spalding socially, one of the last sports you would place him in would be
F1 powerboat racing. So what is hidden under the surface to make a winner?
It’s a pretty difficult question to
answer, even for those who know him well. He has not shown a fierce temperament
in the pits, or even behind the closed doors of the team transporter; he
doesn’t appear moody, vindictive, critical or filled with his own self-importance. He is always
willing to stop for television interviews, even minutes before the start of a
Grand Prix. And yet, on the water, he is capable of unleashing a calculated,
tenacious determination to succeed.
Perhaps his childhood has something to
do with it, for our British favourite spent the first eleven years of his life
in Buenos Aires, where he became competent on horseback and learnt the skills
of fishing. He did not go to school until the family returned to Britain. He
had learnt to run free.
Even while at school he tried his hand
in some small way, at steeplechasing and went onto farming, where he struggled
with acres of land to make ends meet.
As a farmer Spalding discovered
gambling. ‘I was shown how to make as much in a few minutes as I had tried to
earn in two years. I went on to own three casinos in Ipswich but when the new
gaming laws were introduced, I was granted a licence but not in my home town. I
got involved in second hand boats and cars and ended up with a marine
Racing became part of his life, whether
he was winning or losing, and he hopes that racing will be part of his future.
‘I know I will never drive again, but
perhaps I can handle a younger driver and pass on the benefit of my experience.
Perhaps I can have a powerboat school somewhere, I just don’t know at this
Younger drivers could certainly learn a
lot from Spalding. His easy and relaxed manner, even when disaster strikes; his
genuine friendship with other drivers; his professional approach with sponsors
and the media coupled with a tenacity to win which is only apparent on the
The sport may have lost Spalding as a
driver but not as a supporter. And in years to come, I am sure that his smiling
face will be seen on the sidelines, imparting that hard-earned knowledge to