Obituary writing and the demise of Tyrrell

A little while ago The Daily Telegraph newspaper in London published an obituary about a departed military man. It read as follows: "Major General Frank Richardson, who has died aged 92, was awarded a Distinguished Service Order in Eritrea, became a champion bagpipe player and was the author of "Mars without Venus: a study of some homosexual generals"."

On reading this curious sentence I was struck not only by the fact that this was obviously a most unusual man but also that the sentence, which described his life in so few words was a thing of beauty. It was a work of art.

The obituary in England is, in its way, an art form. It may seem distasteful to some, but every morning over breakfast the English turn merrily in their newspapers to the obituary notices and read of the lives of the recently-departed with great enthusiasm.

So popular are obituaries that there are even collections of the finest examples of the art, published in book form. Newspaper employ people to spend their days writing obituaries on people who are still alive, just in case they die and an obituary is needed at short notice. People are not allowed to read their own obituaries. It would be a rather disruptive thing to do. Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel - the inventor of dynamite and other high explosives - had the misfortune to read his own obituary and was so upset by what he read that he instituted the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and to the person adjudged to have rendered the greatest service to the case of peace, and left his entire vast fortune in trust for this purpose - in an effort to be remembered for something other than bringing death and destruction to the world.

Reading the obituaries of other people is often a most illuminating business and is sometimes very amusing. It is also the first occasion on which the whole truth can be told about a person. In life people with something to hide can always use the threat of legal action to stop a journalist bringing up unpleasant aspects of their personal history or their character.

Something may be true, but in libel law the journalist making claims has to be able to substantiate them. The writer is always guilty until he proves himself to be innocent - and that is not always easy. And so, while someone is alive, the truth cannot always be told. But dead men cannot sue. And so one does not need to prove what one knows to be true after someone has departed.

To give you an idea, I have photographs of a motor racing person dressed in an SS uniform during the last war. While not a criminal offence in itself, having been in the SS was not a desirable thing for a man with ambition when the war ended in 1945. Many former SS soldiers tried to hide their past connections and the man of which I write did exactly this. By not telling the whole truth about himself, he laid himself open to the charge that he was being dishonest - which is a very worrying thing for a man who wants to hold great office.

A journalist might argue that it is in the public interest for such a background to be revealed. Several tried, but the man in questions sued them all and his defence was never beaten. I have it somewhere in my files. It is a wonderful story - worthy of great fiction. He admitted that he was the man in the photographs but claimed that, at the time, he had not been working for the SS as the picture suggested but was in fact a double agent, working with an underground resistance movement. Unfortunately he admitted that he could not prove this, because all the people he mentioned in his story in connection with his resistance work were dead. This did not mean he was guilty - no-one could prove that what he said was not the truth and so he won every case. One day he will die and it will all come out and the reputation he has fought to defend will die with him.

Today I do not have such worries. I am writing the obituary of the Tyrrell Racing Organization. The team will not officially die until the end of 1998 but, in effect, it is dead already. The last season will merely be one of disintegration and decay.

There are some who will tell you it is a sad state of affairs - after 30 seasons in Grand Prix racing - but I am afraid that I do not subscribe to that theory. In some ways I think that eradication is a happy outcome for the team. At least this once-great operation - which was the dominant force of its (brief) day - is not going to the wall with vast debts as Brabham and Lotus and other great F1 names have done in the past.

While one can feel a little sorry for Ken Tyrrell, who has had to face up to the fact which he has been trying to ignore for years. There is no-one in the Tyrrell family who has shown any willingness - or any aptitude - to carry the team forward. But that blow has been cushioned by the fact that the Tyrrell Family is leaving the sport with about $30 million. The name may fade from the public eye but if the family is sensible it will never have to worry about finances ever again and can live happily ever after, in a warm glow of financial security. At the end of the day that is not a bad result. I know that I would be happy with it.

These are not romantic days in Grand Prix racing. You either swim with the piranha fish or they devour you. Tyrrell has been devoured and if I am being totally honest I am amazed that the team survived as long as it did - without a victory for 14 years.

You can call me harsh but the bare truth is that the Tyrrell team has not been a force within Grand Prix racing since Jackie Stewart retired from driving way back in 1973. The statistics bear this out. In its first six years in Grand Prix racing the Tyrrell Racing Organization collected 26 victories with Matra, March and Tyrrell chassis. Jackie Stewart won 25 times and Francois Cevert won once. The team was at the top of the pile. It was amply funded by Elf and everything went well. After Stewart departed, it was never the same again. The team added only seven wins in the next 10 years. Since 1983 Tyrrell has won not a thing...

The lack of success and other priorities drove Elf away and there followed a series of big sponsorship deals which were all lost to the team. Why that happened is a question that many people asked but there is no doubt that Candy, Benetton, Data General, Courtaulds and Braun - to name the most obvious - came and went. Often they went off to other teams. Tyrrell had more than its fair share of opportunity - and the chances were wasted.

Perhaps Tyrrell enjoyed too much success too soon. Williams and McLaren - the dominant teams of the current era - have shown incredible staying power at the top of the sport. This is because both Frank Williams and Ron Dennis had to endure many failures along the way. Their characters were hardened and their ambitions were sharpened. Even when the teams were winning Frank and (to a lesser extent) Ron injected the necessary energy and enthusiasm to keep the success going. With Tyrrell it was a different story.

Once the winning days were over the team did not reinvent itself. There were no new injections of energy and ambition. Once or twice the engineers came up with good cars and the team did well - notably with Jean Alesi in 1989 - but rather than holding on to the elements that had created that situation and building upon them, Tyrrell seemed condemned to always lose what they most needed.

This may seem harsh and even callous - but any F1 pressman will tell you that the team never made life easy for journalists. It did not matter whether you were trying to do an honest job and get the story right, the team always had the tendency to treat all journalists with contempt. In later years the team never seemed to understand why it was that when there was something they wanted to say no-one took it very seriously.

They say in Formula 1 that if you wait long enough you will get back what you give out and so, now that we should all be feeling sorry for the Tyrrell team, I find myself with no feelings of sadness at all.

And so it is time to read the obituary of the Tyrrell team. And the truth will be told. How should it begin?

"The Tyrrell Racing Organization was, for a few short years, at the top of the Formula 1 tree. It brought to stardom Jackie Stewart and Jody Scheckter, Didier Pironi and Michele Alboreto, and Jean Alesi - but otherwise achieved very little. And yet, despite the failures, the future generations of the Tyrrell Family will live in wealth - and perhaps happiness - thanks to the efforts of Ken Tyrrell, the man who built the team and then watched it slowly die."

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