Richard Dallest – Singin’ in the rain (with AGS)

Wandering through the web on my researches, one theme that always captivated me were the unfulfilled promises, those men everyone said they’ll made it into F1, and by the end they just vanish on the fog, or build a career everywhere, mostly on sportscars, GT’s or traverse the Atlantic to the fertile terrain of the USA motor racing scenario. In so many forums and pages, one name usually appeared: Richard Dallest. A Frenchman, like so many others, usually related to the small but affectionate AGS squad. And when I wrote the last piece on Patrick Gaillard, soon I saw a lot more about this man Dallest, and, in fact, he can really be considered as a lost talent. But let’s travel back to Provence…

Richard Dallest (Google Images)

Richard Dallest came to this world in Marseille, 15th February 1951, from a middle-class family, and as far as his memory goes he was always very fond of playing with car miniatures. The southeast of France is a region known for his huge passion for motor racing, and there was a lot of racing and rallying there – even including a circuit in Parc Borely, Marseille, which hosted G.P. races between 1932 and 1952 – and, with ten, the young lad went to his first event, a hillclimb on the beautiful Provencal mountains. Meanwhile, Dallest’s father became involved on the car selling business, which surely helped the young boy to foster his interest in everything mechanical, jointly with his neighbour and close friend Gérard Bacle, slightly older than Richard and soon-to-be driver. Both teenagers did some races between themselves as soon as Dallest took his license in March of 1969, even if Richard didn’t pursue a career immediately. In fact, Dallest told Echappement Classic that he had several road accidents on his first months of driving, and only used to drive his Simca 1000 against his friend Bacle for pleasure, but gradually his passion grew on, and by 1972 he decided to switch to a Simca Rallye 1 and entered on some local hillclimbs, culminating with the Géant de Provence, the Mont Ventoux, where he won his class!!

After these successful debuts, Dallest spent the first months of 1973 doing both rallyes and hillclimbs locally, and even a race at Paul Ricard. But it was his old friend Bacle who definitively put him on the circuits’ path, when he enrolled on the Volant Elf racing contest at Paul Ricard later in the season… and convinced Dallest’s dad to inscribe Richard secretly. Of course Dallest became overwhelmed, as he had already used to attend Bacle’s efforts and dreamed with the performances of the F1 aces when attending tests there, and this way he could fight against the most promising French drivers of his time wheel to wheel: “I won the Volant, namely beating Jean-Louis Iperti, a high-level kartman, and Bruno Saby. I was the third Pilote Elf, after Tambay and Pironi.” [Echappement Classic nº 41, p. 24]. Meanwhile, he had sold his Rallye 1 to buy a Simca Rallye 2 to pursue his wide path, but after winning the prestigious Volant, he rightly decided to dedicate to the circuits, and to the ultimate dream of F1.

In 1974, Dallest relocated to Magny-Cours, more precisely to Didier Pironi’s lodgings, his teammate on the Ecurie Elf. The French oil company had an ambitious program to foster young talents in France and the Volant Elf was the first step, and they supported in different ways the most promising drivers till F1, and Dallest, having won the 1973’s Volant, earned a place on the team for the European Formula Renault in 1974, driving a Martini Mk14. However, even if he soon befriended Pironi, Dallest understood he was the second driver on the team – Pironi had already a season of experience, having won the Volant in 1972 – as Didier’s way of deal with the whole structure was far different and mature than his, both on human relations and car’s preparation and tuning. And, worse than that, Richard soon understood politics were a vital part in racing as, after debuting with a stunning pole-position at Paul Ricard, both Elf top executives François Guiter and Jean-Marie Dumazer told him: “Richard, that’s good, you’re fast, but this year it’s Didier who shall win. You’ll be nice to let him through. Next year, it’s your turn.” [Echappement Classic nº 41, p. 25].  He would later say that after comparing his and Didier’s attitude outside the car, he totally understood how their careers follow such different paths…

Pushing hard on his first season (Google Images)

In fact, Dallest learnt the hard way most of the promotion programmes work – and we know a lot about this now thanks to Red Bull – implying a lot of manoeuvring on the backyards, not only by the drivers but also the sponsors and, after one year on the team, Pironi duly made certain with Elf he should be the first driver. Dallest complied with the rules and waved Pironi past at Paul Ricard, but lost concentration and some more positions, ending fourth, and then was usually a top-6 finisher till, at Monza, he was simply superb and even decided to pass Patrick Langlois entering the Parabolica, just accelerating in first instead of waiting for riding on the drag of the car in front to outpace him on the finish line, winning it promptly. That day at Monza gave Richard his sole win on the season, but he was extremely consistent and scored points on eighteen of the twenty round of the championship, duly finishing fourth and first rookie on the final standings, with 109. The champion was, as expected… Didier Pironi.

It could well have worked that way, one year to learn, one year to win, but Elf had other plans and managed to bring back Arnoux to their junior squad, promoting him to first driver! It meant Dallest lost half of his expected allowance from the company, and his operation was mostly his own, based again at Magny-Cours. Again, Richard proved he was one of the fastest drivers of the championship and gathered multiple pole-positions, but on the races he remembers to be plagued by engine troubles, one of them on the last lap at Pau, robbing him of a certain win. However, he had impressed Ken Tyrrell – which was sponsored by Elf – and could have improved it in Monaco if not for a personal fault: “(…) Monaco was one of the few races where I threw myself out. It was raining at the beginning, I made a super start and when I looked by the mirror on the rise (to the Casino Square) I saw nobody. It distracted me, I went too fast on the left hander and tapped the rails. I had time to put myself behind it before the second arrived.” [Echappement Classic nº 41, pp. 25-26]. The season continued with ups and downs, and only on the final races Dallest reached the podium, duly finishing the championship in sixth with 83 points, while the returning Elf protégée René Arnoux winning the title… It was a hard blow for Dallest, who could certainly dream what could have he done if he had the total budget and support from Elf… like Pironi the year before.

Dallest at Paul Ricard, one of his final races with Elf support (Google Images)

However, with 25, he knew he had to win something soon not to vanish definitively from the (scarce) big sponsors, and the 1976 Formula Renault season was to be HIS season. That year, Pironi was again the leading driver – it’s worthy to note the Formula Renault had huge reputation in France while their national F3 was languishing, and sometimes even the promising drivers did two or three seasons, then advancing directly to F2 and Sportscars, the way Didier did it – with the ORECA-operated Ecurie Elf, and was the sole driver disposing of a Martini, while Dallest and Cudini drove Danielson-entered Lola T410. Elf’s sponsorship was reduced to a quarter of its original value, and it was mainly the Play-Boy shirts (nothing to do with the Playboy magazine) which financed him. The Lola wasn’t properly a bad choice, even if it wasn’t as agile as the Martini but, apart Pironi, Richard had a bigger rival in Cudini, also a seasoned man from the intermediate steps of the single-seater ladder, and very technically-minded. Reflecting on the period, Dallest confess: “I always found very strong teammates both on the track and outside it… Pironi, Cudini, Prost! My biggest error in the first three years was not have taking enough attention to the technical side. I just thought attacking was enough.” [Echappement Classic nº 41, p. 26]. It was what happened in 1976 alongside Pironi and Cudini, and after another huge shunt at Monaco, Dallest and his faithful mechanic switched to a Winfield-sponsored Martini Mk18 for the remaining season, his results slowly improving but nonetheless he was no better than fifth on the championship and again winless. Moreover, switching to a Winfield School-backed team meant his connections to Elf definitively ended and, as with Gaillard, it seemed without Elf or an absolutely above-the-level talent, a French driver would go nowhere…

It was amidst this complicated conjuncture that Dallest met again Henri Julien, the passionate owner from the small Gonfaron-based AGS squad. AGS (Automobiles Gonfaronnaises Sportives) is in itself part of the French motoring history, and the usual small squad that captivated the imagination of everyone, just like Minardi in Italy. Since he decided to convert his passion to practice, building his first Formula France car in 1968 (after a brief stint as a club racer), Henri Julien and his small team of determined men fought against the best teams in France and Europe, before taking the huge and decisive step to advance into Formula 1 in 1987. Yet in 1977 they had several seasons of Formula Renault behind them and, under guidance from Julien, both the self-taught engineer Christian Vanderpleyn and chief-mechanic Jean Silani managed some miracles with a tiny budget, and it was the best way for Dallest to have a competitive chance for that season, with the big advantage of a (small) team built around him. The reader may not expect it, but against the Martinis and Lolas, the tiny AGS managed to succeed and even if Dallest had no wins, he went seven times to the podium and ended fourth on the championship, mainly excelling on the tricky natural circuits, such as the Nürburgring, Spa, Charade and Pau, places where driving was more important than a fast car, something that AGS definitively was not. It can even be said it was his best season, despite his stunning first complete year back in 1974, because this time he was driving inferior machinery, instead of the best team on the field.

Firs tenure with AGS, at Formula Renault (Autodiva Forum)

AGS had already tried F3 before, but in 1978 they decided to jump to F2, thanks to sponsorship of Motul and GPA, arranged by François Guerre-Berthelot. The brand new AGS JH15-BMW would be shared between Dallest and José Dolhem, half-brother of Didier Pironi, which had arrived with more sponsorship. However, it was soon obvious that the step was too huge for the team, as they had severe teething problems from the beginning and Dallest ended the first race in Thruxton without enough laps to be classified. The team even skipped some rounds (after Dolhem destroying a chassis at Mugello), but neither Dallest nor Dolhem could do anything against the top-tiers, and the best Richard managed was an eleventh place at Nogaro, having just entered on four rounds. At the end of the season, Richard was both without team and sponsor, and with 28 years old it seemed obvious he was no more on the way of climbing what remained of the single-seater ladder.

1978 didn’t bring much luck with the AGS campaign, sharing the car with Pironi’s half-brother José Dolhem (Google Images)

This time, Dallest was lucky because the Monegasque Damon Metrebian – the owner of the Super Bear Studios, located at Berre-les-Alpes – decided he want to do more than club racing and agreed to sponsor Dallest with the condition the Frenchmen gave him some lessons. Metrebian had an enormous reputation on the musical scene and, among the artists and bands enrolled by his studio it’s possible to find the Queen (Jazz), Paul McCartney (Tug of War), Elton John (21 at 33) and Pink Floyd (The Wall), thus giving massive money for Metrebian to approach ORECA to engage a two-car team of Martini-Renault’s on the European F3 Championship! What Dallest didn’t expect at all was to have… Prost as teammate too! The young “Professeur” had won every championship he’d entered bar the occasional F2 drives and was reigning French F3 champion, and already labelled as an extremely dedicated, hard-working and cerebral driver, and with Elf support ORECA engaged him Martini Mk27-Renault, while Dallest and Metrebian used Novamotor-tuned Toyotas. Sure the Japanese engines were far from bad, but again Dallest felt as a pay-driver, “the second one” and, by his own confessions, once more driving against a far more skilled driver on everything bar pure driving… and, of course, on the track too, because Alain was already showing he was one of those special talents that appear once or twice in a crop of drivers.

The “music car” of Dallest, sponsored by Super Bear Studios (Google Images)

However, even with this disadvantage, both Dallest and Metrebian weren’t humiliated. While the music producer-turned-driver did some average performances that put him level on with the usual backmarkers and even a little bit better sometimes, Dallest suffered on the first part of the season – perhaps he forced a bit too much trying to cope with Prost – but scored some points and on the second half of the year he was gradually stronger and managed a scintillating performance at Kinekkule, Sweden, which gave him the sole win of the season and the fifth place at the end of the year, with 21 points… Apart an out-of-this-world Prost, it has to be said that just fourteen points separated the vice-champion Michael Bleekemolen and the seventh, the Deutsch Michael Korten, and Dallest think that, with a little bit more of support from ORECA he could easily second Prost on the final roster. However, it is also said that, during a test session on the summer, Prost tested Dallest’s car and reckoned the Toyota engine was a little bit better, and just his far superior skills could turn his Martini-Renault in such a dominant combo. If this is true or not, I leave it for the ones who lived those years… And Richard also finished fourth on the French F3 Championship.

Having achieved his dream of a midfield run, Metrebian returned to his studios, and Dallest was again unemployed and almost without sponsors. Another season of F3 made no sense as he had 29 and, if he had already proven to be amongst the big ones, it wasn’t enough. And those out of the car skills, not properly the technical side – which he gradually paid more and more attention – but the ability to be insistent and a harsh dealer with sponsors and teams, were yet his main trouble. In fact, being “too kind for the sport” was what really stopped his progress. However, he had left great friends in AGS and, after a failed deal with Patrick Gaillard for the 1980 F2 season – the Parisian had destroyed a car – Henri Julien decided to hire Dallest, thus allowing him to pursue his career! Considered as rather bulky and with an extremely long wheelbase, the AGS JH17, powered by Mader-tuned BMW engines, was far from a slouch and immediately Dallest was on the midfield, even if miles away from the works Marches and the surprising Tolemans!

Rain in Pau paved the way to a rather lucky win (Google Images)

The first highlight of the year came by the third round, the Eifelrennen on the daunting old Nürburgring… Dallest was just superb and signed a stunning pole-position under daunting rain: “I had recognized the circuit the year before with Alain Prost, but we hadn’t raced because the F3 event was cancelled because of the snow! When the team told me I had the best time, I thought they were mocking me, because I felt I was almost stationary. Thus I attacked and made the pole. The AGS was overdimensioned, with a long wheelbase and wide tracks. It lacked straight-line speed, but it was very effective in the rain.” [Echappement Classic nº 41, pp. 27-28]. Sadly, on the race day, a broken wing and a faulty fuel pump ended his exhibition on the fourth lap. But it had proved everyone that, even without budget to develop the car at the same pace of their rivals, AGS could surprise, and it finally happened at Pau, when Dallest gave himself and AGS their first F2 win! This time luck was with him, because after a great performance, Patrick Gaillard – again!!! – had an healthy lead when the battery of his Maurer gave up, thus handing the lead to Dallest, who managed to contain the excitement on the final laps and kept the car on the road till the checkered flag!

During the season, Dallest was usually on the midfield, rarely near the points, but he was increasingly more regular and by the end of the year the AGS was at his best and, at a soaking Zandvoort weekend, Richard proved his doubters how good he was, grabbing his second pole-position and then, with a faultless drive on the rain, another dominant win. Sure he expected to be back on the top-10 at Enna-Pergusa, even more because AGS had to use the old JH15, but another great day gave two more points to Dallest, and he finished the season with a strong fourth place at the fast Hockenheim circuit, ending the year with 23 points on the sixth place! He felt he was ready to Formula 1, and one thing I saw during this research was precisely that Richard was always regarded as a talented guy, and after such a season it could be the occasion to try the decisive step… However, again lack of sponsorship and ill-timed opportunities ended Dallest’s dream… There were already seven Frenchmen on F2, which was already a handicap to grab new sponsors but, thanks to José Rosinski, he had contacts with Ensign, which had briefly ran… Gaillard in 1979 and 1980 – you may see why I said both men’s careers intertwined – but they needed money and Richard had none, then it was even Lotus who proposed him a test but, after an intensive English course and a lot of physical training to support the terrible forces exerted by the ground effect F1 cars, the rendez-vous at Paul Ricard came to nothing when the truck carrying both Lotuses caught fire and everything was completely destroyed! It was too much of bad luck, and the sole way for Richard to keep racing was remain with AGS in F2…

Another rainy day, another win, this time at Zandvoort

However, if the JH17 had been a very balanced car and pretty handful, the JH18 was late and, when built, immediately showed a lot of teething problems. With the old car, Dallest tried his best at the first round at Silverstone but got injured after crashing out on the ninth lap: “I went out at the chicane with slicks, in a track yet damp, and I hit a soaked wooden pole straight on the head, it opened my helmet in two and it spoiled my season, because I had ocular problems, as well as injured vertebrae…” [Echappement Classic nº 41, pp. 28]. Richard tried to drive both at Hockenheim and Thruxton, but on both occasions he had to retire, physically drained, convincing him and Henri Julie  he had to stop. It would be… guess who? – Gaillard – who replaced him on the Nürburgring. Coming back at Vallelunga, Dallest soon perceived the new car wasn’t nearly effective as the previous one, nevertheless he gave his best and was usually a top-10 contender, but only managed two fifth places at Misano and Mantorp Park, the last two rounds of the season, falling down to a lowly seventeenth on the final standings.

Nightmare with 1981 AGS (Google Images) By the way, I remember having the Portuguese version of this cards and playing them as a child (n.ed.)

Henri Julien wanted AGS to become a usual outsider for the wins in F2, and was decided to expand the team to two cars in 1982, which demanded far more budget. And it implied Dallest had to leave, because he could by any means find more sponsorship. With any F1 dreams over, Richard accepted the offer from the small Merzario squad to lead their F2 campaign, for a (relatively) reasonable sum of money. One of the best Italian sportscar drivers of the seventies, the diminutive Arturo Merzario had even been the second Ferrari driver in F1 back in 1973, and after running a semi-works March in 1976 and 1977, decided to become a manufacturer and built his own F1 in 1978!!! It was the time where a “kit-car” could be developed around a Cosworth DFV engine, but the appearance and generalization of the wing cars turned this task even harder, and after two dismal seasons in F1, Merzario duly thought F2 was better for the tiny budget he operated. And it has to be said that the F2 Merzario’s were far from a disaster (unlike their F1 counterparts, but the F2 ones were more or less rebodied Marches) and in 1981 the seasoned F2 driver Piero Necchi put one of them on the podium twice! So there was hope the Merzario 822-BMW could again provide Dallest with some slight chance to win again…

1982 Merzario wasn’t bad, but the team had no money (Google Images)

However, the 1982 Italian dream would rapidly turn into a nightmare, because the team was overstretched – they planned to align three cars – and depended a lot on gentleman pay drivers, which prevented any kind of organisation for a complete season, and any tiny improvement that could be done with the low budget available. For Dallest it started on the grandstands at Silverstone, as his car wasn’t ready, and then retired with an ill handling car at Hockenheim. However, if there were doubters of his talent, that round of Thruxton would soon dissipate it, as he did an impressive performance with the car to finish an amazing sixth, equalling Jo Gartner’s performance on the opening round… In fact, with above the average drivers the Merzarios weren’t as bad as the results’ sheets may show us, and Richard could have done far better if, after the Nürburgring, he hadn’t to give his place to Harald Brutschin, who arrived with more money… It was the end of the season for our man, who naturally thought about what to do when there were no more drives available…

Last F2 race on the old Nordschleife, in 1983 (Hans Fohr)

Yet in 1983 he’d race with Merzario again. Arturo had built the M28, and started the season with Guido Daccò and Fulvio Ballabio, but when the first failed with his sponsor commitments, Arturo called Dallest for the Nürburgring round, and from Vallelunga till the end of the season the Frenchman was the sole driver for the team. The new car wasn’t so good as its predecessors and even the great Dallest performances could do nothing against a less-than-reasonable chassis, a client BMW engine and a budget barely able to allow a complete season – in fact, they had to miss Donington and Zolder – so Richard’s best performances were a seventh at Misano and two eighths at Jarama and Mugello. Totally off the radar of the F1 circus, and without great interest in driving other than single-seaters, Dallest stopped his career when the expected deal with Merzario for 1984 failed. It may seem strange for someone who started with firm intentions to drive hillclimbs and rallyes that now, apart very sparse French Touring Car Championship entries by mid-70’s, he never looked for a career on sportscars, something that would enable him to race at least as a semi-pro for a long time. He explains that: “(…), for me, single-seaters were the ultimate pleasure to drive. I also tested with Peugeot on the Michelin circuits, with the possible aim to drive a WM at the 24 H of Le Mans. I wasn’t thrilled by being locked up, especially since the car caught fire. And the response time of the turbos was phenomenal. I had several proposals to drive at Le Mans, but I didn’t want to go because, for me, it gathered all the possible dangers. I had only one goal, drive in F1” [Echappement Classic nº 41, pp. 28]. In matter of fact, at least in 1981 he was listed as a possible entrant on a WM-Peugeot, but I have no other records of Dallest both on sports and touring cars till the end of his career.

Mike Thackwell leads Richard Dallest at the 1986 Pau F3000 race (Google Images)

After two sabbatical years, Dallest returned at the wheel of a Danielson-entered AGS JH20B-Cosworth. By then AGS was already preparing to his venture in F1 which would start in 1987, and it was Danielson who supported their F3000 effort, after one year of entering a works team with Streiff. F3000 has been devised to replace F2, with cheaper cars and all the Cosworth DFV’s rendered useless since all teams bar Tyrrell were using turbos in 1984. The big problem with Danielson was that they had almost no money and their car was basically the JH20 from the previous season, with little upgrades. So they planned a part-time calendar, and it was in a sponsorless white car that Dallest returned to Pau and, surprisingly, put it into the fifth row of the grid! Nothing bad for someone so long away from the sport. And, on the race, Richard managed an astounding fourth place, even if confessing not to know how could have achieved such performance, so tired he got after the first laps. It was undeniable Pau was his charm circuit – such as to a certain Mr. Gaillard – but there was nothing on the following races that could be done with that car, so after three more lacklustre performances Richard’s career was over, as well as the AGS F3000 adventure. Dallest did yet two more races on the French F3 Championship in 1987 with KTR, but it was a one-off and he definitively hung up his helmet for good.

Spa 1986 (Google Images)

When he took the final decision to retire, Dallest turned into a racing instructor, something he had done before – as Damon Metrebian confirms – both for Elf/ORECA and Winfield Schools at Paul Ricard, and had also a brief stint as sports manager at Solution F. And, at the same time he was at Paul Ricard developing new talents, he was recalled by their old mates at AGS to become a driving instructor there, again meeting with Gaillard!!!! After that, he tried to form his own team, R.D. Racing, entering Renault Clio V6’s on the national saloon trophies, but the adventure didn’t last long. Nowadays, apart doing car tests for some magazines, he’s widely active on the French historical racing scene.

It seems undeniable that Dallest had talent, not to say a lot of talent. Known as a late-breaker, right on the edge, he wasn’t properly one of a crashing guy, and usually excelled on natural or city circuits and even more on rainy conditions, thus on the circumstances where talent can so much mask an inferior machine, such as his AGS in 1980! Nevertheless it’s always said talent isn’t enough in any area, and the sport isn’t an exception. Motor racing demands a lot of skills apart pure speed, and even more outside the car, and certainly I believe it was here that he and Gaillard failed. Both weren’t tough dealers with the sponsors and teams, didn’t like to beg at all doors for some sponsorship and help, and didn’t mingle at all with teams’ politics. Other thing he highlights was the fact he never had a close advisor or a manager, who could help him following different paths.

And, at the same time, there were a lot of French drivers in F1, almost all with some kind of Elf background, and obviously attracting a multitude of medium and small sponsors, that way absorbing a lot of resources that could be distributed for the upcoming talents. Gaillard tried the English way, and if he had managed to follow the proposals form the USA could have been great there; Dallest chose to remain in Europe and, when the invitations came, he wasn’t already a young promise and fate intervened. And, finally, the decision not to follow any other path than single-seaters, even if he had offers both on sportscars and saloons, definitively ended his career, even if later in his career he thought about a possible switch to any of those categories. But it was too late…

 

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