Bob Spalding - Fast On Water 2017

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Bob Spalding

Circuit > Hall of Fame
Born 18.4.41
Died 08.12.97
Started racing: 1961
F2 World Champion; 4 times winner of the Paris six-hour
1979 – F1 European Sprint Championship; British F1 Champion
1980 – winner of Parker Enduro; winner of Canon Trophy
1981 – 2nd overall in JPS F1 World Series
1982 – 6th overall in JPS F1 World Series
1983 – 10th overall in JPS F1 World Series; 8th= in Benson and Hedges Gold Series
1984 – 9th overall in F1 World Series
1985 – Formula One World Champion (winner of Munich, London and Lyon F1 Grands Prix)
Bob's career was cut short by a racing accident in 1985, after which it was discovered he had an aneurysm. He passed away in 1997. 
Bob with HRH Princess Margaret, Chasewater 1978
Bob, with Ken Stevenson, winning 
the 1980 Paris six hour
1978. Bob and Mike Seebold partnered up for 
the Paris six hour race
Bristol 1980. Bob in his Carlsberg Velden
Bob with Rosalind Nott on 8th Nov 1980, when 
she achieved the Women's World Water 
Speed Record on Lake Windermere 
with a speed of 109.435 mph
Bob with long-time friend and team mate, Tom Percival
The following article by Anna O’Brien was originally published in Powerboat 83 Yearbook.
The 1980 Formula 1 World Champion Bob Spalding looks back over a lifetime’s involvement with powerboat racing.
‘I started racing in 1960 – at the age of 20. Things were so different then.’ The laughter lines deepen around the eyes and the familiar easy grin spreads from ear to ear as Bob Spalding remembers those early days. The dapper, soft-spoken East Anglian with a wealth of experience second to none on the Formula One circuit is also renowned and respected as the sport’s ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ – a supremely talented driver whose professionalism is matched only by his good sportsmanship.
But unbeknown to many, Bob’s initial foray into the competitive world of racing was not at the wheel of a motor boat, nor indeed at the wheel of a motor car but in the saddle of a thoroughbred racehorse. The Spalding family have long been associated with the ‘sport of kings’ and at one point owned one of the largest racing stables in the country near Ipswich. Young Bob first savoured the thrill of the chase on the back of the family’s horses. He also tried his hand at the four-wheeled sport.
‘I had a little Lotus when I was about 18 or 19 which I bought for an absolute gift. It was an ex-factory racing car and a group of us used to go out and burn around a disused airfield belonging to a nearby farmer in the evenings after harvest. Then one of the lads went down to Snetterton to try the ‘real thing’ and discovered how expensive it was. And that’s when I decided car racing was out of the question. So I turned to water-skiing.’ And so motor racing's loss was to be boat racing’s gain.
‘The only reason I had a boat at all was because of the water-skiing we used to do at weekends. I became so keen that I bought myself a little ski boat and once or twice a year we used to have what we called ‘round the island’ races,  because we lived on an island, West Mersey, in Essex. The races formed part of our annual regatta and the first time I entered I won my class and was presented with a little trophy.’
‘Racing was never part of the plan at all initially – but, of course, I thought it was fantastic and I decided to look up the nearest motor boat racing club, which was Oulton Broad in Norfolk. I went up there one night to see the Thursday evening racing. The Oulton Broad club is one of the oldest in the country and they were racing all sorts of weird and wonderful boats. Monohulls, hydroplanes – the whole scene was so unusual that I was fascinated. Compared to car racing, it was not at all difficult for me to get involved from the start.’
‘I took my little water-ski boat there and had a go – I was absolutely stone last by a mile!’ Not an auspicious start for the man who was to win the 1980 Formula 1 World Championship. But the spirit of competition was deeply rooted  in the Spalding nature – as numerous rivals were later to discover. ‘I may have been last but I’d caught the bug. I spent the next two or three years racing locally with a fairly non-competitive boat – but I kept on catching up a little. Then I bought the smallest and cheapest boat (a boat made purely for racing) I could afford – a little Fletcher. Today Fletcher is one of the biggest names in Europe in sports boats – then it was a relatively small concern.
‘So I started ‘serious’ racing. I think a third place was the best I managed with that – still very much in club racing. I can remember the other boats roaring past me and thinking ‘this is ridiculous – I can't have this’ – so we worked and worked and finally found that I was the one roaring past the others! I had to change boats three or four times before I got a competitive one. It was probably about four or five years before I had a boat  which even won a local heat – that’s how long it took!’
Powerboat races were frequently televised during those early days in the ‘sixties. And that was when Bob became seriously interested in the sport. ‘There was a series of British National races which were screened at weekends with stars such as Don Ross and Jackie Wilson. They were very competitive and incredibly exciting to watch and I would be glued to the box. This was around ’66, ’67 and it really got me going. In those days, of course, everyone was racing monohulls. The arrival of ‘cats’ was just on the horizon – but I was inspired. Frankly my reaction was ‘crikey, I’m as good as they are. So, in 1967, spurred on by all this, I bought my first big boat. A Tremlett. Again, this is a very famous name today which was very small in those days. The Tremlett wasn’t particularly competitive on the tight English circuits. But I started racing abroad in ’67 and I went to France for what was then one of the biggest races  in Europe – the Dauphine d’Or – a Gold Cup run round a little island just off Toulon. It was a mixture of offshore boats, circuit boats, all sorts, all on the open sea but on a circuit of a couple of miles. As soon as I got my boat onto the open sea I realised it was very competitive. It could handle waves very well.’
‘I won 53 prizes just for winning that one race! Unbelievable! From then on all I thought about was racing. I had no other interests. I’d given up skiing, given up everything. I had one aim in life and that was purely and utterly to succeed in boat racing. In those days there was no sponsorship but the racing itself was, relatively speaking, a lot cheaper. You bought your boat – you went off racing somewhere – it was all part of your holiday. Racing only took place on Sunday.  You’d take off on a Saturday and on Sunday you would race. We used to take three weeks holiday in the South of France every summer which included a race every two days!’ Ending up with the last port of call – Monaco.
‘There were always a dozen or so English drivers down there. Jackie Wilson, Clive Curtis and the late James Beard from Cougar boats. We’d do as many races in that period as we now do in a full season – and we’d even stop off at lake Geneva on the way back for a final thrash on the last Sunday and then catch the ferry back on Monday.’
Racing in those early days was very much an ‘amateur’ occupation. But it was the advent of the catamaran – a craft which made its first appearance in the hands of Molinari at the end of 1967 in Paris – which really lit the  fires of professionalism in the sport. Bob explains:
‘The cats really started to take over from the monohulls in 1968. The advent of the Mercury BP100 and BP125 engines meant that the powerheads were really too strong for the leading monohulls of the day – the Levi, Bristol and Tremlett literally started to nose-dive. Molinari only appeared on the racing scene in the first of the cats – which his father built for him to race in Paris. In those days 100 entries were allowed for Paris – I was second reserve and didn't get a ride – and I sat there and watched this cat blast everything off the water. I knew there and then that was my next step. I had to get myself a catamaran as soon as possible. So in 1969, I bought my first catamaran – a Schultz-Bobcat.  Mercury were providing me with the engine, not a Formula 1 engine, more a sort of Formula 2 engine, and prize money. So I went for a smaller boat powered by a Mercury engine which proved to be quicker than a Formula 1 boat. First time out, I raced with Jackie Wilson in Milan and we blasted Molinari off the water! It was unbelievable! We didn’t win because we made all sorts of mistakes – we ran out of fuel, our wiring was not right – everything was wrong – but we were still the fastest boat on the water. After that, there was no holding me.’
Bob’s first big international victory came the following year in Belgium when he teamed up with Tom Percival to win the Liege six hour race in the Molinari-Johnson ‘Scorpion’. And the same year he made the headlines for a very different  reason when he crashed spectacularly at over 100 mph on Lake Windermere during an attempt at the World Water Speed Record. His reaction at the time reflects his all-consuming passion for the sport:
‘Although the crash was pretty frightening it has not deterred me. I am planning another attempt on the record in a few weeks time. My wife said she hoped this would make me give up racing – but she knows I never will.’
It was at this juncture in the sport that the support of the Mercury factory began to take affect. Karl Kiekhafer, the founder of Mercury Marine, had arranged for two dozen specially prepared race engines to be distributed to promising young drivers on the circuit. Bob Spalding takes up the story:
‘It all started to come together in 1971 when the first real prize money was introduced. Kiekhafer put up the money – something in the region of £400, £300 and £200 – for every race we did in England and Europe. Plus he gave us the engine – all we had to do was buy the boat. I was just about the youngest guy racing in those days – apart from Molinari of course and we were up against the likes of Jackie Wilson, the Rossini brothers, John Reed of the RYA. But Molinari has always been the guy we’ve had to beat. He’s got more experience than anyone else, and his dad used to race before him, which helped. The family’s whole life revolves around building race boats. He just lives in his boats from day to day and he has he best facilities anywhere in the world for testing and building. And, of course, he has never ever been a bad driver!’
Bob’s own considerable ability behind the wheel became the target of attention for Mercury and, at the end of 1972, he landed a job in America as chief test driver for the factory. He spent most of 1973 in the States test driving and racing for Team Mercury and the same season finished second in the World Sprint Championships. He returned to England in ’74 and success followed success throughout the rest of the ‘seventies. But perhaps the most significant move which he was to make was to link up with Cees van der Velden.
‘When Cees first began building his own hulls in 1975 I was still racing a Molinari for Mercury. Within a year he had won a World Championship and when he left OMC in 1977 Mercury signed him up to build boats for them, as well as Molinari. Then  Molinari went over to OMC and we Mercury drivers inherited Velden hulls as a matter of course. When Cees went back to Johnson some three years later, I soon followed him because I have a lot of faith in his hulls.’
The loyalty to the Dutchman’s design certainly paid dividends in 1980 when Bob won the World Championship in a Velden hull – defeating none other than Cees himself for the title. And in ’81 the two finished joint second in the title chase behind Molinari. The 1982 season has been an inauspicious one for the Velden hulls and Cees’ horrific accident in Liege might have deterred even his staunchest supporters. But not Bob. ‘I’ll admit we were caught napping with our design at the start of the season. And we are certainly facing problems this year which we have never faced before. Previously in accidents, when a boat has flipped, the driver has been thrown clear because the boat has always climbed upwards and thrown the driver out backwards. This year, because of all the re-balancing due to the weight of the V8’s they are nose-diving. It’s a totally new problem that we have to learn to cope with.’
‘I think that, for the first time ever, the sport is really going places and I’m quite certain that this time it will undoubtedly take off. Thanks to the influence of John Player and Sons in the last two years, we have already made great strides – I just wish it had happened ten years ago! I wouldn’t like to leave the sport at all. I would like to race for maybe another three years then maybe do a ‘Graham Hill’ and take over as team manager. It’s been my whole life and I would hate to get to 43 or 44 after 25 years in the sport and say I’m done with it. I couldn’t do it. It’s all I believe in and I have to stay with it in some way or another.’
See article  first thoughts - diabolical! in Embassy Grand Prix programme, 1978
The following is based on an article by Anna O’Brien, first published in Powerboat 86 Yearbook.
He was the enigma of 1984. A lowly ninth in the series. A driver not seen on the victory rostrum since 1981. A former World Champion that had lost his touch? Bob Spalding put an end to all the doubts when he won the Champion Spark Plug world title. In  style.
But the questions had just begun…
Long acknowledged as Formula One racing’s ‘Mr Nice’, Spalding can parry the most searching enquiry with consummate ease with his soft-spoken charm. Only rarely do the blue eyes flash with irritation – seldom, indeed, with anger.  Rarely too, these days, does one glimpse the deep-seated, unbridled sense of mischief and fun which pervaded the boyhood days spent riding bareback across the Argentine pampas. What really motivates the now almost too quiet man who stamped his superiority on this year’s World Championship?
Tom Percival once remarked that the only thing that would make him stop racing would be, ‘if something happened to Bob’. Yet Spalding, more introspective than ever before, continued to contest the remaining rounds of the 1984 season after Tom’s death in Liege. Bob later admitted that he had not fully appreciated why Cees van der Velden had taken his stand in London at the following Grand Prix, until deeper reflection had revealed that the Dutchman’s motives had indeed been altruistic. And Bob Spalding continued to compete to the end of the season. Contrary to some of the British Press Corps, he did not announce his retirement at the end of the year. Far from it. Why?
‘By January I had already agreed a deal with Pro F1 to run my own one-boat team for the 1985 season. And then, in late February, Chris (Hodges) offered me a drive. Within an hour I had said ‘Yes’. Why? Well first, I really felt that Pro F1 would make things happen in the sport at last. And, second, I couldn’t resist Chris’s offer. The opportunity to go racing properly with enough money and equipment to make it a really professional outfit. I had felt during the last two or three years that I was only really being held back by the fact that I dare not risk the equipment. It had always been a case of ‘if it breaks, what do I do?’ Budgets were that tight. The Percival Hodges offer took a lot of responsibility off my back. I could concentrate purely on racing. I didn’t have to worry about the maintenance of the boat. And it also allowed me to spend more time with my own business. But I must confess that the safety element was all-important. I had decided  at the end of 1984 that the only way I was going to continue racing was if the safety cell was introduced. At the beginning of the year I ordered a boat from Molinari. I was sure he would build a safety cell. But when I phoned him and he said he had no  intention of building a capsule, I cancelled my boat!’
‘Then I ordered a boat from Cees, who promised a safety cell in his hulls for sure in 1985. I talked at length to Chris too and asked if he would build me a cell, just in case the Velden cockpit didn’t work. But at THAT time he said ‘no, I’m finished. I’ve worked all winter to provide something for the sport and now I’m through. But if you want a cell ‘X’ will build you one.’ So at least I knew I was assured of a cell and so I was prepared  to race. I must confess that I had taken some convincing about being strapped in! Only by talking in great depth to Chris and seeing the results of the first drop did I come round to the idea. Even after the helicopter tests I was still very concerned about the drowning aspects. Finally, Chris came down here to Shotley and did the final flotation tests – and I drove the crane! What I saw convinced me totally and made up my mind once and for all to go racing this year – with a cell.’
‘Without a cell, I will not even step into a boat now. I’ve had one or two offers this season, one for a super trip to New Zealand where I could just borrow a boat and drive – but without a cell, no way. You’ll never see me  in a boat without a cell again… The first time I sat in a cell was at the team press launch at Stewartby, just one week before Munich. It WAS very, very odd at first, being strapped in. But within a minute, I had actually forgotten about it. It was SO comfortable. It didn’t affect my driving style at all. If anything, I think the cell helps because you are so well held in the seat that you have no problems in cornering. You don’t get thrown around as much, which is even better this year, with boats being so much faster.’
‘I must admit the very first time I sat in the Hodges at Stewartby I was quite nervous. I hadn’t been in a boat for nearly eight months, since Milan. Usually it takes a fair bit of time to get used to being in a boat again. With the Hodges,  I just knew within three minutes that the boat was quite different from anything I had ever driven before. Far easier; a much better all-round boat. It was just so unusual to be able to tell so soon after such a long lay-off!’
The Spalding instincts, borne of more than 25 years in the sport, proved correct. Boat, team and driver won the first Grand Prix of the year in Munich. ‘Yes, Munich was a big surprise, honestly. I’d forgotten how good champagne tasted on the victory rostrum. Seriously tho’, I think we stole a big advantage going to Germany two or three days early and spending time on the circuit.  We certainly learned a terrific amount in that time which the other teams didn’t have the chance to discover and I’m positive that is what helped us with the result. And again, I have to underline the fact that I think the Hodges is the  best hull I have ever driven. Cees, Molinari, their boats are all good at one thing or another, but the Hodges is just a supreme all-round boat. And very safe to drive.’
And what of Spalding’s own future in the sport. The forty-four year old is getting used to this sort of question, as the oldest regular competitor in Formula One (van der Velden is five months younger!) ‘The way I’m driving at the  moment and the way I feel, I think I can be competitive for at least another year or two. Mind you, when I look at someone like John Hill who is still driving today at the age of…? And I see how well he is performing, who knows? I’m quite sure that if you put John in an F1 boat now he would be very, very competitive, so I don’t really know when I will be ready to quit.’
Having won the 1985 World Championship at the season’s penultimate Grand Prix, Bob unfortunately suffered head injuries during a crash in practice for the Seville Grand Prix. Although he recovered, he was advised to give up racing, as another similar accident could be fatal.
Bob died of a brain aneurysm in 1997. It is not clear whether this was caused by the accident at Seville.
Bob teamed up with ken Stevenson for the 1980 Parker Enduro
Bob winning the 1980 Amsterdam 3 hours
Amsterdam 1980
Bristol 1979
Bob followed by Cees van der Velden,
Bristol 1980
Simon Scott's fantastic shot of Bob's
JPS sponsored Velden boat being 
craned at Lake Como
Bob's world beating Percival Hodges F1 Hull

Bob and team mate Bertil Wik
The following article by Rosalind Nott, was first published in the June 1986 issue of Powerboat and Waterskiing magazine.
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 World Champion.
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 the question.
‘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 business.’
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 stage.’
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 water.
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 aspiring champions.
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