Leyton House surprises F1 at Paul Ricard
JULY 1, 1990
BY JOE SAWARD
They were drinking champagne and bouncing off the walls with joy in the Leyton House pit. The team had pulled off the greatest comeback since Lazarus. A fortnight before neither Ivan Capelli nor Mauricio Gugelmin had qualified for the Mexican Grand Prix. Now they were celebrating. Capelli had been beaten, but it had only happened in the dying moments of the race when his fuel pressure suddenly dived and Alain Prost swept by.
"We have to say thank you to Mr Akagi," smiled a delighted acting team boss, Simon Keeble. "I hope that we have showed him what we can do. It's the best present that we could possibly give him. Everybody worked bloody hard but Mr Akagi for stuck with us through what can only be described as thick and thin."
The CG891 chassis was a disaster and the CG901 proved even more troublesome. In the first six races of this year Gugelmin failed to qualify four times, Ivan Capelli missed out twice. The best result was a lowly tenth for Capelli at the Canadian GP.
Such was the poor form that the team was on the verge of being pushed into pre-qualifying.
To make matters worse, the team boss Ian Phillips was hospitalised with viral meningitis. The team had its back to the wall. A few days before the French GP it was announced that the technical director Adrian Newey had left the team,along with the chief draftsman Tim Holloway. A new design director, Chris Murphy, was appointed and the team was looking ahead to the 1991 season and Ilmor V10 power. The 1990 car did not promise much potential success.
"We could liken the factory on the Monday morning after Mexico to a morgue," explained Keeble. "A lot of people put a lot of hard work into it in the composite area, machine shop, you name it, they had all worked very hard and it was very disappointing. Everyone felt it very deeply. Most people would probably have given up most of their pay rise just to see a few good races."
In qualifying for the French GP things suddenly changed. But how had such an improvement occurred?
"The changes were the result of work Adrian had started," said Keeble. "Because underbodies take a long time to come through it was only then that we got the improvement.
"There have been various versions of the changes, but it was basically number three. It seemed to be working a lot better. The guys were feeling happier and therefore they were driving better.
"Mauricio had a new chassis which was a lot stiffer and had a slightly different lay-out as well. It was quite a lot heavier but it took the load well and should now cope with other surfaces better."
The success in France provided a huge lift for the team, but how bad had it been before that?
"We were in a really dire state," he admits, "and we had a lot of bad luck. We made mistakes but people have still managed to pull it round and I think one thing that has done that is that now Ivan comes into the pits and he's joking and taking the mickey out of people. The whole atmosphere has changed.
"We made mistakes to get where we got to in the early part of the season but we think we are on the right path now! Gustav Brunner and Andy Brown have done a very good job engineering the cars so we'll just keep at it."
It has not been a process without casualties.
"There have been some wholesale changes in personnel," says Keeble. "Basically Adrian Newey and Tim Holloway have gone and we appointed Chris Murphy as the design director. He met Mr Akagi in Japan and it was a very good meeting. They both knew what we needed to go racing and it was very much a meeting of like minds.
"The thing about Chris is that he has the enthusiasm and interest -- not just the drawing office but also in turning Leyton House around and getting us back to where we were in 1988.
"His enthusiasm is probably just as important now as his ability on the drawing board. People can see that here is someone who is enthusaistic; who has given up a good job at Lola with very good prospects and come and joined us and is enthusaistic about it. That has helped lift morale in the factory.
"Adrian was very good at aerodynamics but Chris is more of an all-rounder and hopefully he will be able to put together a good team of people. We'll use the people we've got and recruit others who will be part of our design shop. It is really a good team we are trying to create now, I suppose. Rather than just being known for one person we want a team. We have some good experience in the team and we want to build on that."
How had the decision to hire Muprhy come about?
"I looked around and I spoke to one or two people," admits Keeble. "For a number of reasons Chris came out at the top of the list. I didn't want a dictatorial person. I wanted someone who could inject enthusiasm and purpose into it. Having met Chris a couple fo times and seeing how he got on with Mr Akagi, I though he would do a good job. He has worked with Gustav (Brunner) before at Maurer and his meetings with the team have been positive.
"He turned up last week at the factory in his Ferrari Dino and that helped create enthusiasm."
As a parting shot, however, Newey left modifications which transformed his CG901 into a winning car -- an extra boost for the team.
Many people have wondered what it was that had gone wrong at Leyton House. How does the team view this? Is there a simple answer?
"The purchase from March took much more out of the people than could ever have been realised," explains Keeble. It was a horrendous exercise to go through. At the same time we were building the new factory -- doubling our size, and also trying to run the race shop. It was a very difficult time and that left a large backlog of things to be sorted out afterwards. March Racing has existed as part of March for two and half years and it had other management structures there. The team came out of the March structure fairly quickly so some of the changes taking place now are needed to strengthen the management and then go forward."
The loss of Phillips was a bad blow for the team.
"Viral meningitis is not like a broken arm when you can say so many weeks then it'll be fine," says Keeble. "You can't strictly say when he will be fit enought to return but he's a lot better than he was.
"Because of the takeover and the results last year Ian was very run down and very washed out. He needed a break, but he didn't need a break like this."
There must have been times in recent weeks when Mr Akagi of Leyton House questioned what he was doing in F1?
"No, Akagi was advised to pull out of buying the F1 team originally," explains Keeble, "but because he felt he was committed to F1 through March Racing he wasn't going to have any of that. He stuck through and bought the team. He has shown a tremendous commitment through underwrting the Ilmor project entirely through his own resources. That's one year's development plus four racing years. I can't think of any other individual sponsor -- rather than a corporate sponsor -- who would undertake anything at that level. "Sure he was disappointed with what has happened because first of all he is an enthusiast who has gone into motor racing full time. He doesn't understand why in 1988 we were on top of the world and in 1989, when he buys the company, everything went wrong.
Keeble himself understands Akagi's enthusiasm, he is new on the F1 scene, but has long been a race fan.
"I am a chartered accountant by training," he says, "but I spent every summer from when I was about 13 or 14 going off to British GPs, Formula 3 races, Spa and Le Mans. I've been following it for a long time.
"I worked for Coopers and Lybrand and we were called in by Mr Akagi to do a report on March Racing. After that was done and Akagi bought it, I stayed on secondment. Last September they offered me a permanent job and I took it. I am finance director and the guy who is involved in finance and legal side of it. With Ian's illness I took over the role of acting managing director.
"It's a dream come true really. Sometimes you can say it is a nightmare but it is fascinating. I cannot say I enjoy it every day of my life, but it certainly isn't boring.
"I hope to be able to contribute to the change and help Leyton House get back on top. It also gives one a great opportunity to learn other skills."
Suddenly, within a few days, the future is looking rosy for the team. There are a series of fast tracks coming up and the Ilmor engine project is well-advanced.
"Ilmor is a very impressive organisation," he says. "It has a great track record and they are keen to get into F1. We have a new car planned which Gustav and Chris have already started discussing in a lot of detail. We are starting to look forward and lift up the level of professionalism.
"There is now so much money in F1 that you cannot afford to be unprofessional. With the budgets the teams now talk about sponsors demand to see their money spent properly. You cannot have waste or inefficiency on the amount they are chipping in. I don't want to see it get the stage where it is run like any other business because that would lose that special something about motor racing. The majority of guys in F1 are there because they like motor racing first and because it is a job second. I'd hate to have that turned the other way around..."
You could tell, standing in the Leyton House pit after the French GP, that the folk there were at heart fans.
"I feel very sorry for Mauricio," said Keeble. "He ran a good race. But he's pretty pleased for the team. We really needed the points. It's fantastic. A real high.
"I hope we can do better at Silverstone. We'll certainly be trying hard..."