Greg Moore - the lost F1 legend?

RickDikeman [CC0]

Today is an important day in motorsport. And one of incredible poignancy. As it marks 20 years since Greg Moore was lost, in an accident in the early laps of Champ Cars’ 1999 season-closing 500-mile race at Fontana’s California Speedway. He was just 24.

“‘Who was Greg Moore, daddy?’ said a six-year-old boy sitting in the grandstands,” David Malsher has recalled from a tribute to Moore 10 months later. “His father leaned towards his kid and said sincerely: ‘He was Canada’s best race driver. He passed away last year, but he was going to be a champion one day.’”

Moore was definitely a lost legend of US single-seater racing. Possibly he was a lost legend of Formula 1 too.

Five wins and five poles in four Champ Car seasons, and a best final championship positon therein of fifth, suggest nothing special. That four of his wins came on ovals doesn’t suggest someone ripe for F1 either. But you know what they say about lies, damned lies and statistics.

“If you look at the results, he didn’t get a chance to fulfil his potential,” said Moore’s close friend and contemporary Dario Franchitti, “but the potential was ridiculous.”

Those who witnessed Moore did not doubt his out-of-this-world ability. Nor did they doubt he had everything else required with it to achieve everything. 

“Moore was a once-in-a-generation talent,” said Autosport in a CART retro feature a few years back. “Blessed with abundant natural gifts and a work ethic to match, the Canadian also possessed humility and effortless grace.”

No-one doubted either that championships, of some description, would follow. “Everyone knew it,” Malsher noted. “For 20 years Champ Car racing has been played on as level a playing field as you’re ever likely to get in top-line single-seaters, and in an environment like that a talent like Moore’s will always get noticed.

“Already an established star at 24 when he was snatched away, given the right career decisions – his Penske deal was in the bag – he was going to be a legend.”

Formula 1 had him in its sights too.

If you look at the results, he didn’t get a chance to fulfil his potential but the potential was ridiculous - Dario Franchitti

For a time Moore’s progress was copybook. As a 19-year-old Moore in 1994 punched well above his cash-strapped team’s weight in his Indy Lights debut campaign. Then the following year – having been picked up by the Forsythe team – he took the Indy Lights title with a crushing 10 wins from 12 rounds. This got him his Champ Car debut campaign with the same team for 1996.

And Moore immediately made his mark there. He qualified sixth for his first ever Champ Car race, at Homestead. And then in the race, after serving a debatable penalty for passing under yellow, he famously caught and unlapped himself from the eventual-winner Jimmy Vasser, as well as set fastest lap.

“I’m leading and this kid blows by me in his first race,” Vasser noted. “I’m thinking, ‘who is this guy’?”

Moore in the following race proved it wasn’t a one-off. At the challenging d-shaped Rio oval he qualified fourth and was leading the race with 18 laps to go, only to stop with an electrical fault.

The following year Moore won his first Champ Car race, at Milwaukee holding off Michael Andretti despite fuel starvation, becoming the youngest winner in the series’ history. It also was the Forsythe team’s first win for three years. Then Moore again immediately proved it was no one-off, as he took his second victory in the next round at Detroit.

In 1998 there were two more wins and championship dark horse-status for a time, before a run of retirements contributed to fifth place in the final table.

By now though things were getting more difficult with the machine underneath him. “Mercedes had built a new engine for 1998 and peak power wasn’t bad – as good as Honda,” recalled Moore’s long-time engineer Steve Challis.

Max Papis and I were standing by the track in Homestead watching Greg qualify, and he pretty much did the whole track flat out. We just stood there shaking our heads - Dario Franchitti

“But Hondas and Cosworths were much more driveable, far more suited to road circuits and street courses. The Mercedes was good when traction wasn’t an issue, but it didn’t really have much of a powerband: it was all top end. In the rain…, well, it was pretty useless.”

It goes a way to explain why 80% of Moore’s Champ Car wins came on ovals. But still, even with this, one should not lose sight of that on those ovals Moore would give stunning demonstrations of his incredible skill and bravery. These were akin even to his countryman Gilles Villeneuve.

“Max Papis and I were standing by the track in Homestead watching Greg qualify,” Franchitti said, “and he pretty much did the whole track flat out. We just stood there shaking our heads and knew that he would be on pole.

“He had that ability, that feel, for driving a Champ Car on the very edge, right on the oversteery side, but also finding grip where others couldn’t – or didn’t dare. Just following him, sure, you could learn a heck of a lot. If you could keep up.”

He had a personality to go with it all too. Friendly, clever, well-respected, articulate, fan-friendly. Yet utterly humble and down-to-earth. He was without enemies. But not only that. “He was probably the coolest guy I ever met, the life and soul of any gathering,” Franchitti added.

The engine struggles contributed to Moore’s modest stats by the end of the 1999 season. But he was about to fix that and then some. He had a contract signed for the following year with Roger Penske.

‘The Captain’ himself had endured a five-year CART title drought, and even had gone well over two years without a race victory. But, just like his new driver, Penske was about to decisively correct matters, in his case by reverting to the mainstream Reynard chassis after years of struggle with his own product.

If you had put him in one of Penske’s Reynards in 2000 he would have had a great engine for road and street courses, and I reckon it would have been frankly embarrassing for the rest of us on ovals. The sky was the limit for what Greg could have achieved - Dario Franchitti

And the results would indeed flow. Gil de Ferran took the Champ Car 2000 and ‘01 titles for Penske as well as the ‘03 Indianapolis 500, while Helio Castroneves – who would get the Penske drive in the late Moore’s stead – took three Indy 500s with the team.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Greg would have won at least one of those two championships ahead of de Ferran,” confirmed Franchitti.

“If you had put him in one of Penske’s Reynards in 2000 he would have had a great engine for road and street courses, and I reckon it would have been frankly embarrassing for the rest of us on ovals. The sky was the limit for what Greg could have achieved.”

Then what? Could he with this success, and still aged in his mid-to-late 20s, have got a chance in Formula 1?

The path was well-beaten. Moore benefited from the same Gerry Forsythe patronage and Player’s sponsorship, looking for the next Canadian big thing in racing, that Jacques Villeneuve had benefited from, which had helped him to a CART title before crossing to F1 to win the title there too.

Autosport indeed in 2013 named Moore 15th in a ranking of the best drivers of all time never to race in F1, and Franchitti has confirmed there was tangible F1 interest in Moore.

“There was an interesting situation at Montreal in 1997,” Franchitti said. “We were hanging out together, watching the Canadian Grand Prix. Jackie was interested in me driving for Stewart GP, but he was also interested in having Greg drive for Stewart.

“With us hanging around together so much it was a case of Jackie saying, ‘Can you come back later for a chat... but each of you without your mate!’

“There was definitely interest there, and the Ferrari guys loved Greg, too. Jean Todt was a big fan.” Other haughty F1 team names have been linked with Moore as well.

There was definitely interest there [from Stewart GP], and the Ferrari guys loved Greg, too. Jean Todt was a big fan - Dario Franchitti

But of course none of this happened, as on what was due to be his final race prior to his Penske switch, tragedy awaited. At the Fontana superspeedway Moore started from the back, due to missing qualifying as he’d hurt his hand having been knocked off his scooter in the paddock.

Friends noted that Moore nevertheless was extraordinarily pumped that weekend, both about the race and about his Penske future. He promised rivals before the race he’d be with the leaders in a blink.

And indeed right from the race’s get-go Moore made astonishing, yet typical, progress towards the front, even passing four-abreast.

“He had wanted to get from the back to the front as fast as possible and that didn’t surprise anybody,” Challis observed.  “Even by his standards it was a shocking display of raw speed and courage,” added Malsher.

He hit a bump exiting a turn and snapped to a 90-degree angle to the track and slid onto the infield. Then, eventually, his car slammed into a wall. Moore died of head and internal injuries.

“This day he was going too fast even for Greg Moore,” Challis continued. “He had plenty of time to win a 500 mile race, but he wanted to be leading now. That was Greg.”