The James Hunt, Niki Lauda duel of 1976 is the first season of Formula One I remember being truly hooked on a fascinating sport.
It grabbed my heart, my mind and made my body react. Other earlier recollections of Formula One races on lazy Sunday afternoons with Murray Walker's voice drifting around the family room remain, but it was the 1976 season that got me hooked. Thanks to my F1 and car loving, mother.
So it was one sleepy Saturday afternoon on May 8th 1982, the Gilles crash at Zolder is the deepest F1 memory burned into my soul. Niki's horrorific crash in 1976 was alarming and heart battering to watch, but he always looked like he had a small chance as he did not fly through the air like a broken doll. Anyone with even a modest grasp of physics, or a love of the human condition, could see Gilles was in horrid, deep trouble the second his car fractured.
The violence of the crash, his Ferrari shattering, and he flying unprotected through the air into a tangle of the catch fencing in use at the time is a scene I can witness any time I care to close my eyes and recall it. Mum was ironing at the time. The iron fell to the floor and my mum burst into tears. She did not need to see any more to know that was the last time we would see Gilles on this earth. Any later repeats in the news mum would rush to turn them off.
We didn't watch the race.
We didn't watch the next race at Monaco either, but were back as a still shocked family for the Detroit GP on the 6th June. It was a sober, quiet affair in the Noble household. With Tambay in the Ferrari it simply wasn't the same. When they had the Canadian GP next, on the 13th June, my mum cried again.
Slowly we rebuilt our love for the sport, and with a mildly tense feeling watched Keke Rosberg take the championship. Somehow it didn't feel as wholesome as it used to. Yet as the river of constant change keeps flowing, so pain fades, and memories grow less emotional.
Five years later and on a lazy Sunday afternoon at Stokes Bay on the South coast of England we are watching the massive rooster tails of off-shore power boats screaming around the Isle of Wight. The family had a beach hut, so it was not unusual to find us at the beach on a Sunday, regardless of the English weather presaging more of an indoor pursuit.
So it was that, unknown to us, when we saw one of the distant rooster tails suddenly become a massive plume of water, then cease, that Didier Pironi had just met an abrupt end on Sunday 23rd August 1987, aged 35. When we learned of it on the evening news my mother was very sad, but she did not cry.
Rewinding to the James Hunt Championship victory. At that time Texaco was a big sponsor of the McLaren James raced to victory. After his success they toured his winning car around the UK on a trailer, placing it on the forecourt of their petrol stations around the nation. Local papers (remember those?) would advertise when the car would be at a Texaco service station near you.
So it was near Southampton on the South coast of the UK, that one cool, yet sunny Autumn day the winning car was parked on a petrol station forecourt not far from us. Mum instantly set about moving her working day around so she could drive me to see it. We arrived around 3:30pm, mum having collected me from school, and soon I was standing in awe of this machine sitting proud, yet relaxed, before me. This was the Championship winning car, and it knew it. The paint was better than I expected, the interior far more basic, yet the visible welds on the frame around the cockpit were flawless and things of beauty. The tyres looked, well, tired.
"Do you want to sit in it?" asked mum.
"What!" says I pointing at all the "Do not touch", "Do not climb" signs around it.
"Go on," said mum, "You'll never get another chance. Let me go inside and distract the attendant."
Off strides mum in her business attire, pausing at the entrance to the service station office to turn, smile, wink and nod. She then grabbed several spare parts from the product racks near the door and strode purposefully towards the cash desk.
My heart rate no more than 195 beats per minute I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and vaulted onto the trailer and into the cockpit.
It was spiritual. I was still just a school boy, yet the cockpit was a tight fit, and was utter purpose. Nothing unnecessary existed. Basic steering wheel, couple of controls, gear stick smaller than a pepper pot. Seat belts, pedals, wing mirrors easily big enough to display small flying insects and lesser ants.
Like the moment Gilles flew through the air to his tragic end, this was a moment that froze forever in time. I close my eyes and I'm back in that cockpit. I can smell the oil and raw metal. I can feel the, to my mind, too narrow steering wheel in my hands. I can feel the harsh unforgiving seat underneath me. I can feel the sides of the cockpit bite my elbows as I pretend to turn the wheel.
I felt like I had just spent the entire season sitting in that cockpit. In truth it was around a minute.
At which point the attendant had noticed my cheek, and I heard shouts from across the forecourt.
"Oi, get out! Don't touch that! Off!"
Turning I saw him trying to force his way out of the shop past my mother who was still brandishing car spares in his face, demanding to know which was best for our Ford Escort. Again it is an image that remains with me, and generates a smile whenever I recall it.
Minutes later we were on our way, with my mum having promised the attendant to never bring me to his service station ever again. We giggled all the way home.
I fell asleep with a huge smile on my face with images of the McLaren dancing through classic corners filling my dreams.
Not long after mum gifted me a model of that car, which was to sit on my home study desk for many years to come.
Family arguments over Nigel Mansell. Oh dear. My mum a true Lion supporter. My father irritated by both the moustache (either be clean shaven or darn well grow a beard), and his 'act' of exhaustion after a trying race (help me from the car, I cannot stand...). So it was I learned the diplomacy of agreeing with both parents at the same time, when their views were totally opposed. A useful life lesson.
Damon Hill and Schumacher, dear Lord, Adelaide 1994. We respected Schumacher was a good driver, but we were 100% Damon fans. As a family we jumped to our feet and screamed at Damon not to pull back on track where Michael could side swipe him. Sadly, inside his race helmet, Damon did not hear us. My mum just shook her head. My dad was furious and had to leave the room. I sat and watched the final moments of the race, hoping for a miracle which didn't come.
I reflected long and hard on the lessons of that moment. Still do today. You can only act with conviction based on the information you have right now.
My respect for Michael was a minor cause of tension with my dad, who never liked him, but never an issue with my mum, who loved all the teams and drivers equally. Gilles had been special to her, yet she respected them all, and would always praise a good drive, or the winner, regardless of who it was. She would note they were the most deserving on the day, and they all had to work sensationally hard just to be on the gird.
My respect for the entire grid, the fact I do not have a favourite team. The fact I love the racing, the engineering and the courage to drive that fast. That I applaud a fine lap by any driver, that I cried, leaping to my feet, the instant Romain cashed for I feared he was dead, yet he survived that horror crash to the delight of us all. Are all gifts of understanding and wisdom from my dear mother.
Flash back. Sliding out of a curve in the rain in our brand new Ford Sierra, at a speed slower than we used to take it in our Ford Escort was the birth of my dislike of Pirelli tyres. Mum always had the Pirelli taken off her company car after that. She never trusted them again, and I followed her lead.
So Gilles. Now mum is there with you. Could you be so kind as to discuss her favourite races with her, tell her what it was like to drive a Ferrari flat-out? Share with her that part of your soul that is special, that makes life worth living, because it is a life well lived. And should you want to tell a few lengthy tales that matter to you that folk don't normally have time to listen too... well don't worry. Mum always makes time. You talk, and she will listen.
She will smile, share the moment with you, chuckle about what an imp Jacques turned out to be... and then let you know it is ok. Everything is just as it is supposed to be. So rest now. Eternal.
• Should you care to honour my mum's (or Gilles) passing please consider the following...
• Donate to Cancer Council of Australia (mum was a big supporter)
• Go hug a family member that needs it (we all need support on bad days)
• Be kind (if we all do our best to be kind we all end up with a better life)