Cars and Guitars: Eric Clapton, frustrated Grand Prix driver

Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton at London's O2 Arena on Saturday night

I share my passion for 60s music with Ross Brawn, although the Mercedes GP boss has the advantage over me of having been there to hear it all first time around!

It doesn’t take long for any conversation to drift around to the subject of concerts we’ve been too, although these days Ross barely has time to catch his breath, never mind have a night off. When I spoke to him last week he was struggling with a cold and had spent the previous weekend hosting meetings at his home. So much for that idea he once had about early retirement…

He has got a soft spot for Eric Clapton, and thanks to the guitar legend’s connection with Ferrari – he’s a regular Maranello customer and has even played the company’s Xmas party – Ross has had a chance to get to know him a bit.

Back in 2005 I think I made Ross’s year (it wasn’t a great one on the track) when I got him tickets for the Cream reunion at the Albert Hall. He flew over from Italy with his wife Jean, went to the show, and was back at work later the next morning! That night was the first proper concert by Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in 37 years, and it was a memory to treasure.

Despite his friendship with F1 nut George Harrison, until recently Eric’s only trip to a Grand Prix had been Suzuka in 1989 or thereabouts, and I heard he didn’t enjoy the crowds. But in recent years he’s become matey with Bernie Ecclestone, having bought a boat from the FOM boss. He is now something of a regular visitor, especially in Bahrain, and is a big fan of Felipe Massa.

Although his love for fast road cars is well documented, I was amazed to learn – from a recent video interview on the Ferrari website – that like George, his interest in motor racing goes back to his fifties childhood. At one time he even entertained thoughts about becoming a racing driver.

“As a boy I was crazy about motor racing,” he said. “From my earliest recollections at the  age of five or six I remember Mike Hawthorn and Fangio. Then it was very simple, motor racing was Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, Auto Union [although they actually stopped six years before he was born!].  The cars were massive cars, V12, V16 engines, and very raw. If the car broke down, the driver would push the car. It was an incredible world. I suppose I had a fantasy to be a racing driver…

“For me the car that summed everything up was the Ferrari, it was the number one car. The interesting thing for me is that as a kid, Ferrari was number one, and it’s the only one that’s lasted through all of this time. Mercedes is back, but for a long time Mercedes wasn’t there. Of all of the cars, Ferrari is the only one that’s stayed number one all the way through.” 

Eric was in action last night at the O2 Arena in London, playing one of the nights made vacant by the unfortunate demise of Michael Jackson. I ended up sitting next to EC’s physio, who it turned out counted Mika Hakkinen as a previous client. What’s more, his son-in-law works in the McLaren composites department! Small world…

The show was opened by Jeff Beck, the man who replaced Eric in The Yardbirds in 1965. Another car fan and an occasional Goodwood visitor, Beck joins Clapton and Jimmy Page as members of the exclusive little club of British guitar legends whose career longevity makes Michael Schumacher like a beginner. Bizarrely, Beck still has the sixties hair style he sported in the cult swinging London movie Blow Up – although I think the jet black colour may have had a little help – and a bit like Keith Richards, he has refused to grow old gracefully!

I’d never seen him live before. His jazzy approach, backed by a string section, might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he got some amazing sounds out of his Fender Strat. Things got a little more interesting when a barefoot Joss Stone came on and belted out a couple of songs with him. You could almost hear the entire audience whisper, wow, she is tall!

Eric then did a set with his band, before Beck returned and joined them for the last third of the show. Until they did a few dates together in Japan last year these two had only ever shared a stage at the odd charity gig, so it was a privilege to see a couple of legends – who are both fast approaching 50 years in the music business – trading guitar licks.

Their joint set included a version of Moon River like you’ve never heard before, and which surely would be a worldwide hit if someone stuck it on the soundtrack of a Hugh Grant movie.

When they came back for the one-song encore a smiling Beck said: “We’re going to spoil a perfectly good evening. Eric wants to do this!”

And so they launched into Hi-Ho Silver Lining, a song that has followed poor Jeff around since he recorded it in 1967, and which will  no doubt still be played at Xmas parties and wedding receptions long after he’s gone.

It’s still hard to believe that had he turned his ambition and quest for perfection in another direction, Eric Clapton could have become a god of motor racing, rather than music. The Ferrari interviewer hit the spot. If he could travel back to the thirties would he rather see a Robert Johnson gig, or drive with Tazio Nuvolari? Eric had the perfect answer.

“Maybe we could drive with Tazio Nuvolari to a Robert Johnson gig…”

Clapton on a recent visit to Maranello


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6 responses to “Cars and Guitars: Eric Clapton, frustrated Grand Prix driver

  1. Interesting article, I am now a subscriber!

  2. Martin Collyer

    I have the very good fortune to have seen Eric Clapton several times at the NEC, not for several years though and Jeff Beck at Cardiff about 8 or 10 years ago.

    I am not sure that either is a loss to Motor Racing but they sure would be a loss to music.

    Adam, sorry this is so late but I have only just found your blog.

    • Good post though! With luck I shall see Eric and Steve Winwood in Belgium this weekend. Now he’d have been a good F1 driver, always complaining about ‘traffic’…

  3. Martin Collyer

    Adam, tell me how good the Clapton/Winwood concert was. I’ve seen the pics elsewhere on your site, did you enjoy it? (That could be a silly question)


  4. herowassenna

    I’ve seen EC in concert a couple of times, never had the pleasure yet of seeing Jeff Beck. But legends both.
    I am not sure if you have ever seen Prince in concert, but if you get the chance, grab it, massively under-rated guitarist.
    As above, just found your blog, I have it listed in favourites now.

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