“It was just something you did,” said former Ferrari Formula 1 driver Stefan Johansson. “You didn’t really think about it.”
The Swede, like many of his contemporaries in the 1980s, made a habit of catching post-race rides back to the pits while holding onto the roll bar of a grand prix car. The haphazard era, when F1 became a live television product throughout the world, turned some of the sport’s most famous names into hitchhikers thanks to two circumstances.
“Those f***ing engines made like 1500 horsepower, and they banned refueling from Formula 1, so guys were always running out of fuel on the last lap if they did a s***ty job of conserving during the race,” Johansson admits.
“I mean, you’re trying to race Ayrton Senna or Nigel Mansell, and they also want you to take it easy on the throttle pedal. I can say, at least for my defense, I wasn’t the only one who had to pull off and park sometimes…”
Johansson’s throwback video from the 1986 Mexican Grand Prix could be the most impressive of all with three drivers piled onto Nelson Piquet’s Williams-Honda. With Johansson in his red Ferrari overalls perched on the right sidepod, Ligier’s Rene Arnoux on the left sidepod, and Arnoux’s teammate Philippe Alliot straddling the engine cover like he was riding a horse, Piquet turned his FW11 chassis into the world’s most expensive Uber.
“That one was crazy, man,” Johansson recalls. “Normally it’s one guy, but never three. I think it was a record!”
— Stefan Johansson (@SJohanssonF1) October 29, 2017
Surprisingly, sitting on top of sidepods carrying large radiators that struggled to keep the glowing 1.5-liter turbo engines cool was not a painful experience.
“You might think it would burn your ass, but it didn’t,” he said. “I don’t know why, but it didn’t.”
Possibly the most famous hitchhiking footage came from 1991 when another Williams chassis, the FW14 Mansell drove to victory at the British GP, was used to gather an out-of-fuel Senna.
Between Piquet and Mansell, the ride-giving was taken to new heights in 1988 by the Electramotive IMSA GTP team. With its win on the streets of West Palm Beach in Florida by Geoff Brabham and John Morton, an unprecedented form of celebration was established when the crew of the No. 83 Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo climbed atop the prototype’s expansive bodywork and toured the circuit with the checkered flag in hand.
With approximately a dozen people along for the cruise, it made for an unforgettable image that soon turned into a national newspaper placed by the Japanese brand.
“I still have that original photo,” said Kas Kastner, who turned Nissan into a four-time GTP champion. “When I saw that picture, I told our PR guy, E.C. Mueller, to go buy it.”
Decades later, the hitchhiking is a rarity – an illegal act, in some rulebooks. Still, we receive the occasional surprise, like this year’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
Sebastian Vettel conjured visions of the 1980s when he caught a ride with Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein after his Ferrari and yet another Williams – the FW40 of Lance Stroll –was involved in a situation that required another cool-down lap pickup. (Click here to watch the video.)
For all of the money and effort that goes into making motor racing a perfectly polished affair, sometimes it’s the unplanned moments, the most relatable ones, that bring big smiles. Need a ride? Sure, hang onto my zillion-dollar machine and I’ll get you there.