Ove Andersson, Japanese GP 2003

Ove Andersson, Japanese GP 2003 

 © The Cahier Archive

I cannot remember when I first met Ove Andersson, but I know that we had a disagreement at the time. I had written a lot about the error of Toyota in setting up its Formula 1 operation in Cologne in Germany. It was away from the F1 cluster in Britain, and that made it harder to attract the best F1 people. Ove disagreed. The team, he said, was what was important. He had a group of people who had worked together for many, many years. To break that up would not have been intelligent. Yes, he admitted, it was harder to hire people, but by the same token once they settled in Cologne they were more likely to stay for a long time, because they would have kids in school and so on. I was never wholly convinced, but I recognised the argument. He recognised what I was saying. We got on well.

I have a bad habit of telling people what I think. Some do not like it, but Ove did. There was no point in sugar-coating things and not telling the truth. We would often sit down and chat about the F1 scene in the quiet of an evening at race tracks around the world.

It was one of the pleasures of being in F1.

One year in Melbourne he asked me to meet him at his hotel, he wanted to have a quiet chat about something. This sounded interesting and we sat down with a couple of glasses of wine and he explained that he wanted me to write his life story. I was bowled over. The only rally I had ever been on was a Paris-Dakar, way back in the 1980s and I had no knowledge of that world.

It was not important, he said. If I had any questions I could ask him.

"Do you think it will sell?" he said.

I shrugged.

"I don't know."

He explained that selling the story was not really the primary purpose of writing it. If nothing else he would at least leave a record so that his grandchildren could read about his life and what he had achieved. If we were able to sell a few copies as well then all the better. We agreed to do it. If we made any money we would split it 50-50. So I started doing a few interviews, tracking down the people who had known him. I ordered him to do what we called his "homework", which was to write down his adventures in as near to chronological order as he could remember. I would sort it all out.

Eventually I received a large notebook with page after page of stories, all neatly written in impressively good English. It told the story from when he was born to the start of his international rallying career. I badgered him about getting on with the next notebook but there were always things happening. First he was working on the F1 things, then he was building a boat, then he decided to move to South Africa. I would send intermittent reminders about his "homework" but I knew that he was never a great student. We would get around to it one day. He sounded like he was enjoying his new life in South Africa. I was thinking about flying down there at the end of the year to move things along. It is a book that I want to do, if only because I love a good story.

"It is so unbelieveable," said one of his co-drivers, Gunnar Palm, when I interviewed him a couple of years ago. "I don't think anyone in F1 has any idea about where he climbed from to get to where he is. There was not much school. No money. Nothing. His parents were farmers. He was panel-beating in a garage that had an earth floor and just a few lamps. That was how he started. To get money he served with the United Nations in Gaza. That shows the sort of determination. Ove has a lot of strengths and one of them was not being afraid to leave Sweden. He knew no langauges but he started to get an international air early on with Lancia. From there he transformed into an international player without ever becoming a primadonna. He was still the same shy Ove Andersson. He does not look like a racing driver, he does not behave like it. He does not dress like a racing driver. Nothing. He has this Mona Lisa smile."

A mystery.

Andersson was never a boastful man and would let others tell his story for him. He was happy to listen and to smile.

They say that once when he was in Japan he lost his temper and slammed a door but his legendary calmness served him well as he dealt with Japanese executives, never an easy task. They call Kimi Raikkonen the Ice Man but Ove was famed for his coolness under pressure.

"In the Coupe des Alpes he lost the right rear wheel of the car and disappeared over a cliff, somewhere up near Val d'Isere," Palm remembered. "They police arrived and found nothing but the missing wheel. They did not know where the car had gone. And then suddenly Ove appears, having climbed up the cliff. He's got just a small bruise. The car was so far down the valley that you could not see it from the road. It was lying against a small pine tree and beyond that was another 200m cliff, but he was fine."

John Davenport, another co-driver, has similar memories.

"Ove was one of the coolest guys I can remember," he says. "We did the Acropolis and there were some tarmac stages up near Thessalonika and there was a place where they were making a bridge to cut out a loop of about 600 yards of road. Normally you would come over a crest and do a 60-degree turn downhill go over a bridge and then come up the other side. Anway they had this new bridge constructed and the road going to it, but it was just dirt. We asked the organisers whether we could use that shortcut and they said 'Yes. It will be open'. So we approached this thing flat to the floor, on a very fast road. We came over the crest and you could always tell with Ove if there was something a little big dodgy about to happen because he would shorten his arms slightly in the drivers seat. They had put a series of concrete filled barrels across the shortcut and we were committed to going that way. He got the car into a whacking great slide, put the back end in the ditch and we went about 200 yards down the road with the back wheel in the ditch to slow us down. I think his brow needed mopping a little bit, but he was pretty cool.

"You cannot really rate drivers because they deal with things very differently, but with Ove you instantly relaxed when he was driving."

His achievements were remarkable.

"I started in Belgium with three people," Ove said. "Since then I have set a lot of targets and I have achieved them together with Toyota. I cannot say that I miss rallying. There is basically no difference. I mean Formula 1 is motorsport, rallying is motorsport. We did Le Mans for two years - it's all motorsport. It's all basically the same, it's just that Formula 1 is so much more commercialised. Whatever you do you are in the media spotlight all the time - that's the main difference. But the strategy and the way you work is not different. I had a limited interest in Formula 1 I must say. As a person I would not go to a race and sit in the grandstand because I think you cannot follow anything. Maybe this comes out of my age, but being involved in it directly is fascinating - it's an incredible challenge. When the first Toyota F1 car appeared on the grid at the Australian GP in 2002, it was an amazing feeling for me. I will never forget."

In the end Andersson got little recognition. Toyota moved him out and left their men to run the show. Ove was upset about that, and for the last year or so has not been seen at races.

Now Ove is gone and suddenly the book seems more important than ever. There is story to tell and more than ever I want to tell it...

I just wish we could share a few more glasses of wine on the way.

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