David ”Hobbo” Hobbs is a man of many talents. Part-time single-seater champion, part-time sportscar champion, part-time beloved colour commentator, part-time car dealership owner, and part-time F1 driver. Succeeding in just about every discipline he laid his hands on over a five-decade period, he is, in spite of all things, a reject in Formula 1, and among the most talented ever to hold that title.
|Date of Birth||June 9th 1939|
|Teams||Bernard White (1967), Lola (1967), Honda (1968), Penske-White (1971), McLaren (1974)|
|Best Result||7th (1974 Austria)|
“A super guy, down to earth. He’s a squared away professional with a really good perspective on life,” Mark Donohue on his former teammate
The Hobbs family home sits appropriately on Woodcote Road in Leamington Spa, England. When David was born, just a few months before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, his Australian father already ran a successful car business. It gave the young man a head-start of understanding cars as well as driving them. His father was very technical, and was one of the earliest developers of automatic transmission vehicles – his patented Hobbs Mechamatic developed, as did its competitors, into the system used so widespread on cars for decades. It would end up on many of David’s earliest machines, although never went into wider production.
The ingenuity of David’s father meant the family wasn’t able to emigrate during the war. They stayed in Britain and helped develop their technical projects, firstly in wartime, and then in peace. The family went on trips to see, for example, the very first modern F1 race at Silverstone in 1950, and as he grew up, David idolised his hero Sir Stirling Moss. Eventually, he grew up and went into cars himself – successfully enrolling in the Jaguar cars apprenticeship programme. With this came more than just an understanding of speed, but with a more thorough oneness with the technical side of the car.
He started off buying his way into motor-clubs and driving around recklessly, as a teenager in the 1950s was wont to do. It was in his boy racer days that the young man met his girlfriend and future wife Margaret. He was working at Daimler Motor Cars, and wanted to make something more of his life than what he had at the time. Taking her with him (he did that a lot), they eventually started to nurture his passion for cars and racing, and got him into his first event in the summer of 1959.
1959-1963: Opportunity Breeds Opportunity
It was here at Mallory Park that he took his mum’s 1952 Morris Oxford (his family had quite a car collection), before proceeding to gun it so much during the race that he trashed it. Whether from a blown engine or from rolling it, accounts differ, but what is for sure is that David’s father saw the whole event from television! Given the responsibility of fixing the car, David went ahead and won four races in it. From here, he moved incredibly quickly to regional and national events. With his father’s Jaguar XK 140 he moved up to a Lotus Elite, and won 14 of the 18 races he participated in, with just a little help from his dad’s automatic transmission!
It was this automatic transmission that also helped Hobbs take his first major event win, and that was the sportscar class of the 1961 1000 kilometres of the Nürburgring – the first race to have a winning car fitted with such a device. It was his first ever race abroad, and his car was 300cc off every other car in the class – it’s a race David remembers fondly.
His first race in the USA was at the 1962 Daytona Continental, the maiden event for what was then three hours, now 24 hours round the Daytona circuit. His outright speed meant that he didn’t have to work on finding the right cars for himself – he was simply lent them! Such a borrowed car was a Jaguar E-Type, which he raced against another young Brit by the name of Jimmy Clark! However, this article would be a behemoth if we noted down a fraction of the famous names David Hobbs has raced against (at this race alone we haven’t mentioned Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, the Rodriguez brothers, his hero Stirling Moss, Dick Rathmann, Jo Bonnier, Roger Penske, Innes Ireland, and A.J. Foyt).
In the same year, he took part in the first of his 20 starts at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and came fastest in the GT 1.3 class in his now-beloved Lotus Elite. In 1963, he partook in the British Formula Junior season – a hybrid of F2 and F3 at the time – which had a whopping 22 rounds throughout the year! Although he didn’t win any of the rounds he participated in, he was a fantastic fourth overall behind a very respectable group: future F1 champion Denny Hulme being one of them.
1964-1967: Hobbo the Professional
Hobbs has said that it wasn’t until 1964 that he “went professional”. It was from this point that he started signing up for full seasons, gaining favour with privateers and manufacturers, and starting on the road to the top. His on-off relationship with Lotus came back to do him favours, throwing him internationally into pro events around Europe and America, and putting him into contact with the places he would eventually settle down to in later age. For Formula 2 that year, he ended the season fourth overall, with consistency winning out over the big wins, perhaps.
With the work-life support of his wife, wins came without delay, including four for Lola in 1965 as he took part in another year on the UK racing scene. He brushed in and out of the top circles, such as with an appearance in the support race for the BRDC International Trophy. Coming second in the Tourist Trophy was just another step on the way to a career of glory in sportscars.
Then came Formula 1. Chances had come before, such as when Tim Parnell had offered him a ride in the 1964 French Grand Prix in a BRM. On that occasion, the unlucky David had broken multiple bones in a bad road crash only a few weeks prior, and such an opportunity obviously wasn’t possible. He had also turned up for the non-championship Aintree event the same year, but in his F2 machinery and competing in that class. A third of the way into the race, his engine had let go, but the opportunities were absolutely still there for him. Operating, as all these series did, so much more congruently in those days than now, meant that Hobbs was brushing with the possibilities of one-offs and full-time drives in the top series.
With a favour paying off from Lotus’ side, David’s real debut came at the 1966 Syracuse Grand Prix, which was in itself a bizarre event. Only 14 entries and 13 attendants. Of those, 10 started and five were classified by Sunday evening! And who should be third fastest, two laps down on the dominating Ferraris? David Hobbs. On his grand prix debut he was on the rostrum, albeit for a non-championship event.
Behind closed doors, in 1967 Hobbs was invited to test the then-secret Jaguar XJ13 at the Mira test circuit, where he set a 19-year record for the fastest closed-circuit speed: 269.5km/h (167.5 mph). In the meantime, he earned a large piece of sponsorship from Bernard White, which allowed him to run in his first championship-class F1 events. At the British Grand Prix, he started well down the pack in 14th, and made little impression on the runners around him. Keeping his machinery cool and between the white lines, he got himself up to 8th place by the end after attrition.
At the Nürburgring, he competed in F2 equipment provided by John Surtees, who was at that time running a junior team on the side. Hobbs and the F2 runners were unsurprisingly up to a minute off of Jimmy Clark’s pole time. Again, not much impression was possible considering what he had under him, but another finish brought him 10th and even ahead of Pedro Rodríguez in F1 machinery. David’s final F1 race that year was the Canadian GP, where he qualified last of the pack of BRMs, but again brought it reliably, if unspectacularly, to the finish line outside of the points.
Along the way, David also made some friends of his American cousins, because as the years went by he began to diversify his surroundings and even his teams. The Ford Motor Company, who had so recently taken Le Mans by storm, put Hobbs in their #40 car for the 1968 and 1969 World Sportscar Championship seasons. There, Hobbs and his teammate Paul Hawkins won at the 1000 Kilometres of Monza, just to add to his already-jam-packed CV. It was here that he took his joint-best result at the 24 Hours of Le Mans: third place overall.
That same year he was still running the occasional F1 race. With all the non-championship events occurring in England, he had ample opportunity to race his old BRM around and collect a few top 6 finishes, in spite of poor qualifying. He got picked up for the Italian Grand Prix by the Honda team, then not far from their unfortunate departure from the sport in many decades. With Surtees now his teammate, Hobbs was less than two seconds off pole in an incredibly tight grid, and without his engine blow-up two thirds of the way in, would have finished an easy fourth place. However, as Hobbo himself would say, “woulda, shoulda, coulda.”
1968-1975: Hobbs Goes to America
“David is such an icon here in the U.S., you’d never know he was an Englishman,” Bobby Rahal
In the latter year, he was also entered by Surtees for Formula 5000, which was America’s answer to a local formula series. Although it was initially closed off, it began to expand its calendar, and simultaneously the driver roster diversified, with Hobbs a clear leader among the Anglophone roster. In his first season he took six wins from 10 attended races, which was just one point off that year’s champion Tony Adamowicz, whose own motorsport career spans six decades! In this case, David and Surtees weren’t in time to commit to the full championship, and it left him runner-up in a series he was clearly very strong in, holding more wins from the year than any of his competitors.
F5000 was a series Hobbs would continue to do well in, and he left the series as its second most successful driver ever in terms of wins. He starred in the series for another six consecutive years, taking the championship in 1971 with nine wins from 15 races. Having trouble with a disorganised Surtees entry, he left the marque, joined another, and from there came the success. In his final three years, success began to wither, with only a single win to take from those seasons – but the commitment and the enjoyment was there, and it showed the quintessential Hobbs, who would go anywhere, drive anything, and usually win.
His good relationship in America landed him a seat in a Roger Penske McLaren back in F1, and in the United States Grand Prix of 1971 he went after the quarter-of-a-million-dollar prize fund that would be awarded to the winner. While François Cevert took his first and only F1 win (and a big pile of cash!), Hobbs, who was filling in so that teammate Mark Donohue wouldn’t have to do double-duty, came up the field from a poor qualifying to take 10th place.
His exploits extended into the early 1970s in other American open-wheel races, such as the obscure and little-known Indianapolis 500 event. He competed there four times, with a best result of fifth in the 1974 edition. His first go in 1971 saw him escape serious injury when his broken-down car was slammed in a freak accident by David Muther on the start straight. His next attempt in 1973 saw him involved in the aftermath of Salt Walther’s critical crash on the first day of race running, and on Wednesday when the event started, he didn’t even make the opening lap before his car suffered reliability problems and caused him to finish over 20 laps down.
It is perhaps worthy of note that Hobbs was always either one of two, or the only non-American to take part in the Indy 500 when he was doing so. He remains the only driver of the 1970s to take a top ten finish in the race who was not an American citizen. His final run in 1976 had him barely bumping his way into qualification, before retiring early regardless with more problems.
He started running in the Can-Am series in 1972 with Carl Haas. A whole season of running awarded him a 4th place at best at Watkins Glen. The next year, that venue would bring him more success with a second place and seventh overall in the championship. He would do the occasional USAC race that year alongside Indy, albeit without any points scored.
That fifth place at Indy in 1974 had given him further runs with McLaren, whose chassis he was driving at this point, back in Formula 1. Mike Hailwood badly broke his leg at the Nürburgring, effectively ending his motor-racing career, and Hobbs took his place for the following two rounds. This was to be his last time running in F1, and partnering Denny Hulme and Emerson Fittipaldi, David had a tough set of skills to match. Annoyed at being thrown at a track he had no recent experience of, he struggled to make any impression at the Österreichring, he nonetheless once again kept out of trouble, and consistently got the car to the end, though sadly for him, out of the points. Hobbs’ final run in Formula 1 was back at Monza, where he only qualified half a second ahead of the cut-off, without much in the way of heroics. Again, a top ten finish but outside the points.
“I was also frustrated by the fact that Henri Pescarolo…spent much of my Austrian GP practice session lurking in the back of the McLaren garage muttering ‘I am quicker than ‘Obbs’, which may well have been the case, although I was damned if I was going to give him the opportunity to demonstrate it.”
1976-1986: TV Career, and “Winding Down”
By the mid-1970s, his career wound down somewhat, as married life with children took precedence and importance. Throughout the early 1960s, David’s loyal wife Margaret had been accompanying him to the national and European races, standing by in the pitlane for support and advice. Hobbs has spoken of his occasional regret in his success, and how building a family meant Margaret had to stay home and raise the children as he dedicated his time to his career. Long trips around the world took their toll on the young David, and forced him into positive mindsets and the emphasis he has placed on his friends throughout his career.
Therefore, after his final races in Formula 1, and his last Indy 500, Hobbs stepped away from single-seaters for good and concentrated on a sportscar schedule, which was generally easier on his mind for time. This is not to say that he stopped experimenting and trying new things! No, of course not. David started off the 1976 season by debuting in NASCAR at the Daytona 500. He even lead two laps, before binning it in the wall! Another race in the late summer saw him finish 17th, and from thereon in he worked at IMSA GT gigs and sportscar appearances.
It was in 1976 that Hobbs took on his second career as a popular colour commentator for the United States motorsport broadcast teams, with CBS, ESPN, Speed Channel, and eventually NBC. As the resident Brit on the F1 team, he brought his vast experience of motorsport in the off-the-grid segments and pre-race sections, and (often) along with Bob Varsha, made a very strong team. His catchphrase of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” became infectious for every time a driver would have a bad excuse for their on-track mistakes. Alongside these broadcasts he also presented for Sports Car Club of America World Challenge throughout the 1990s and 2000s. His work ethic continued in this career as well, seeing him co-present 17 consecutive Daytona 500 weekends.
Again to clarify, this is never to suggest that David’s career slowed down to what most would refer to as “retirement”. Not yet mentioned have been his wins in the European Touring Car Championship at the end of the 60s; his win in the 1972 Tasman Cup; and the others of his 20 Le Mans appearances. He was still running the event year after year, and with a variety of European and US marques – anything going, even. Hobbs was nothing if not a hustler, and as he entered his 40s, his career regressed back into the pattern of his earliest career: switching rides, and riding anything.
His sportscar career took him to late-career glory into the Trans-Am Championship, which was and still is a US-wide series of different classes on various types of circuits. In 1983 he entered and won the entire season on his first try, with his maiden victory occurring on his second race at Summit Point.
1987-present: The Closest Thing to Retirement
In 1987 he opened his own Honda dealership in Glendale, Wisconsin in the United States, the country where he has resided for many decades. Just perhaps with retirement in mind, he used his connections with the Honda team to set up a new dealership in the state, an area he loves well. With his sons, he has made an extra living on the side from this venture, which still runs to the present day. His dealer has raised half a million dollars in funds for local charities and events, while he sits or chairs many social or automobile boards in the Glendale region. With the winters being so long, he and the family later bought a second home down in sunny Florida!
In 1993 he took part in and finished fourth in the Fastmasters Competition: a one-off custom championship for a $100,000 prize, featuring racing veterans over 50 from all variety of racing backgrounds. It was around this time when Hobbs finally decided to think that he might one day retire from motorsport. Indeed, that competition was his very last race outing, and concluded an incredible 34-year career of racing. David says that the moment he really knew he should retire was at a race three years prior, where he discovered at 51 years old that he simply couldn’t keep his head up for a race distance without aid.
If this author had to choose, Hobbs’ greatest career achievement had to be in 2011 when he voiced his namesake David Hobbscap, a Jaguar E-Type, in the film Cars 2. Feeling that he has given his all throughout his career, he actually refuses to take part in vintage races.
Hobbs has certainly fought his corner over the years. While he has been almost universally regarded as a pleasant chap, he has never been a pushover. As a commentator over the last four decades, he pushed for more and better coverage, more analysis, and more value for money for the viewer at home. When he was “retired” from commentary at the end of the 2017 season when ESPN took over the F1 rights deal, he went down fighting, not for himself, but for the quality of the deal going ahead for the fans at home.
“It’s so expensive to start racing unless you find a fairy godfather. Four or five of the [current] F1 drivers pay to be there. In my day there was a lot of stepping into a dead man’s shoes. That seems grizzly, but it was really how it worked. But I’ve never raced anywhere when I didn’t get paid for it. Even NASCAR.”
What has separated David Hobbs from many of his competitors in the cutthroat world of sports has been his personality. Hobbs has been anything but serious throughout his career, and the light-heartedness with which he has approached not just his job, but also in how he has engaged with his contemporaries, has made him one of the most popular sportsmen out there of his profession. It is his personality that has often done him favours, won him popularity especially with the Americans on the circuit and at home.
Meanwhile, at the end of the day, Hobbo remains in many respects one of the most successful and hard-working drivers of a whole generation of talent. 25 years of real competitive drives don’t come for free and without a lot of hard work, while it is really only due to David’s commitments elsewhere that he didn’t get a full-time drive in F1 and succeed there. Clearly it is also because he wasn’t interested in taking on such responsibility, because one would imagine he would have found it easy to make chances happen. That, in the end, is what it comes down to: Hobbo did what he wanted to, and is remembered rightly as perhaps among the most dependable hands of his era. In old money he got six points in non-championship F1 events, but remains pointless at the main events, and is one of the most talented drivers ever to be considered a reject. As a response to this very topic, David says as follows:
“Well it’s not something that I’m too bent out of shape over, although it would be nice to have scored some points. Especially as now I would.”
It should be noted, as a final word, that David Hobbs has never actually retired.
Sources: stuttcars.com; mshf.com; historicracing.com; carsyeah.com; nesn.com; speedsport.com; oldracingcars.com; racefans.net; archive.org; davidhobbs.com; evropublishing.com; jacksonville.com; statsf1.com; brdc.co.uk; rrdc.org; onmilwaukee.com; motorsportmarketingresources.com; mclaren.com; gpfactsandnumbers.com; f1forgottendrivers.com; forza-mag.com