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GP Week : Issue 123
Terry Fullerton is the greatest driver Ayrton Senna raced against, according to the man himself. Not Prost, not Mansell. Certainly not Piquet! Terry Fullerton. Why did Ayrton say that? Because he meant it. Because ‘TF’ was the guy he could never quite master. So who is Terry Fullerton? And what was it that led Senna to elevate him above all others? While I was growing up, racing karts in New Zealand in the mid- 70s, Terry Fullerton, half a world away, was my karting hero. He’d been a top junior for some years and now, as a late teen, was making his mark at the very top in the senior karting world. Terry was born in Belfast, but the family lived in Viola Square, West London in a modest terraced house – Dad Mick, a teacher, Mum, brother Mick and an elder sister. Tragedy had struck the family when Terry was 11 – his oldest brother Alec killed in the week of his 21st birthday, racing a motorcycle. Mick Snr had seen some karting on TV and so it was this that the family veered into. They went racing as a family – Terry driving, Dad and brother Mick sharing the mechanical work. The Fullerton legend was born in 1973, when Terry dethroned the existing king of world karting, a well-heeled Belgian by the name of Francois Goldstein. Goldstein had won the world championship four times in a row leading into ‘73. He was The Man. He was one of the first to discover (this was the era of moulded Goodyear kart tyres), that different batches of tyre produced marginal different performance, and so prodigiously tested batch number against batch number to find the best. Others were then mounted on wheels and lightly ‘skimmed’ in a lathe to ensure perfect flatness and roundness. But Goldstein could also drive ... “He was the most amazing person to drive behind,” Fullerton told Kart & Superkart magazine some years later. “No matter how you pushed him, he would never make a mistake.. He was so tense, you could almost see him growing ulcers, but he never made a mistake ...” But as 1973 rolled on, it became clear that the 20 year-old Irishman in the distinctive British team green helmet with the ‘bubble- visor’ and the bristling moustache, was the one who stood the best chance of providing Britain’s first ever karting world champion. The show-down came in September, at Goldstein’s ‘home’ track, at Nivelles, in Belgium. Without going into detail, that 1973 World Championship, was one of the sport’s classics – a two-man, High Noon shoot- out. The remaining 32 drivers in the finals – including a certain young Frenchman by the name of Prost (who, incidentally, TF never rated), along with Andrea De Cesaris and Ricardo Patrese (who would win in ’74) – were bit-part players. Fullerton and Goldstein slugged it out, literally, over the three-race finals. They collided in one race and had to start mid- field in the next. Others moved aside to let them get on with it. They passed and re- passed. It was intense. The nervy Goldstein was on edge and threw everything he could into it but, in the end, Terry Fullerton became the first-ever British world champion. The King was dead – long live the new king. Goldstein was shattered – although, to his credit he returned to win a fifth title two years later, before quitting altogether. For most of the next decade, TF was indisputably The Man in world karting although, one way or the other – mostly through incredibly bad mechanical luck at the most vital moments – he was never to win another world title. And there, my from-a-distance story on Terry Fullerton might well have ended, except the best was yet to come. In 1977 I’d rocked up in England, having won my own NZ Championship and, as we colonials were wont to do, headed to the ’77 World Champs at Parma, in Italy, to have a go. We were out of our depth, particularly technically, so didn’t make the main event – but chose to stay on in England over the winter and see what eventuated. What eventuated was a ‘right-time, right- place’ opportunity, which was to provide one of the most intriguing years of my motorsport life. I got myself a job at Zip Kart. The Hines family had signed Fullerton for 1978 and part of the deal included a full-time mechanic. Martin Hines took me aside ... I seemed to know what I was doing ... would I like to ‘look after’ Terry? Hell yeah! So overnight I found myself preparing the equipment for The Man and, before long, the two of us were all loaded up in Zip’s Merc van and headed for Italy at the start of a huge year of racing all over Europe. That year I learned more about ‘motor racing’, how to go about it, and why the best are the best, than any time before or since. And, in retrospect, it validates why Ayrton would, 15 years later, say what he did. We won every race we entered that year. Up until the one that really mattered – the World Championship. More on that later. Terry was the ultimate driver. A total consistency at ten-tenths which made testing a meaningful exercise; a sublime self-belief combined with a ruthless streak which meant (as it later did with Senna) that when others sensed that unique green helmet, with the grimacing moustache, behind them, some were psyched immediately. TF at his best looked effortless, super-sensitive under brakes (rear only in karts of course), and always seemingly emotionless. Always. We won the first final, of two, at our first race, the season-opening Champions Cup in Jesolo. He’d done a deal with the Italian DAP engine factory, who had yet to register a major international win – and so they, from boss Angelo Parrilla down, were going a bit nuts after the race. Terry took me aside and sternly suggested I ignore all that crap, concentrate, and get sorted for the second, and deciding, final ... No emotion. Ignore these emotional idiots. Get it done. He won that too and, after we’d locked the equipment away (he was rightly paranoid about people spying on his ‘set- up’), well, that was a different story! Fullerton was a fastidious tester. The couple of days leading into such an event was hard work, but entirely logical. Using a set of super-consistent, even if slower, tyres, we’d back-to-back three slightly different ‘development’ chassis (literally switching a ‘mule’ engine, wheels and tyres from one to the other – as quickly as possible in case track conditions changed), put the best chassis aside then, using one of the others, back-to-back maybe five engines, then five different carburettors ... And only then some tyres (Bridgestone had now revolutionised the sport with its modern, high-grip tyres, and there was always something new for the ‘chosen ones’ to try ...). Come qualifying, he’d put the best of everything together and he’d go out, having never driven that actual kart/engine/carb/ tyre combination and, generally, nail it. It was one of the things that characterised the battle with Senna when, after debuting later that year at the World Championships, the young Brazilian did the full European The 1973 World Championship was one of the sport’s classics ... 32