Features - Interview

JUNE 1, 1989

Ken Tyrrell


In Mexico City after the Grand Prix, Ken Tyrrell stood in his team's pit and proudly surveyed his domain. Michele Alboreto, driving the team's new 018, had just finished third. One of the first people to drop by to offer congratulations was Bernie Ecclestone...

In Mexico City after the Grand Prix, Ken Tyrrell stood in his team's pit and proudly surveyed his domain. Michele Alboreto, driving the team's new 018, had just finished third. One of the first people to drop by to offer congratulations was Bernie Ecclestone...

Bernie hadn't bought Brabham when the first Tyrrell chassis ran in 1970; no-one had ever heard of Ron Dennis or Cesare Fiorio; Peter Collins of Benetton was still a race fan in Australia; Guy Ligier had only just given up driving and was planning to build Le Mans cars and Frank Williams was years away from running a car bearing his own name.

The Tyrrell Racing Organisation is considerably older than that though. When it was formed in 1963, to contest Formula Junior with Cooper-BMCs, many of the present F1 drivers weren't even born: Alboreto and Jonathan Palmer were seven years old.

People tend to forget that Ken has been around as long as he has. They forget that once Tyrrell was looked upon as McLaren or Williams are today.

But it's been a few years now since people have been dropping into the Tyrrell pit with congratulations. Michele's podium in Mexico was the best result for the team since the heady days of 1984 when young guns Martin Brundle and the late Stefan Bellof had little respect for the established order of the day.

But if success has proved difficult in recent years, things reached an all-time low last season.

To say that the team had a bad year is a gross understatement. It was a disaster and it necessitated major changes for Ken Tyrrell and his crew at Ockham.

Even before the end of last year Tyrrell was planning for the future. He knows the Formula 1 game better than most and getting up after being down in no easy business.

In the course of the winter Tyrrell was surrounded by countless rumours of 'The Big Sponsor'. He smiled his knowing smile -- more impenetrable than any other in F1. 'Ken's keeping one one of his secrets' said the pundits, but come Rio de Janeiro in March, the Tyrrell cupboard was still bare. And so it remains. The team has no major sponsorship, and the likelihood of a mid-season deal is small. But Ken somehow fights on, unsponsored -- or at least without any signwriting on the car beyond the word 'Tyrrell'.

"We made a bad car last year," Ken says, "and we are suffering for it now." Suffering financially perhaps, but in terms of racing, Ken has an effective car and two good drivers on his hands.

"It's a bit of a nightmare," he explains. "Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night with my hair standing on end. Then I can never get back to sleep again. Yes, it is a problem, but we are talking to more people now. They are beginning to realise now that we do have a competitive car. I think the major problem now is that the people have already spent their budgets."

Although he continues to struggle financially, the groundwork has been laid for a stronger future. But it took a new broom to do it. The old design team went and in came Dr Harvey Postlethwaite and Jean-Claude Migeot, both refugees from the civil war at Ferrari.

"I had been trying to recruit Harvey since the year before," explains Ken, "but he had an obligation to stay with Ferrari until the end of 1988. But, after many discussions, he finally agreed to join me in September last year.

"He didn't bring Jean-Claude with him, but he strongly recommended that I try to get him because he thought that Jean-Claude was perhaps the best aerodynamicist involved in Grand Prix racing.

"Unfortunately we lost Brian Lisles. I would have liked Brian to stay on as Chief Engineer, a post that even now we haven't been able to fill. He wanted to move to the United States. He's married to an American girl and had the opportunity to join an American team."

With Postlethwaite only arriving in the autumn, things were already behind schedule. Designing a successful modern formula 1 car is not the work of a few weeks.

"My instruction to Harvey was to build a car capable of winning Grands Prix in 1989," explains Ken. "He said 'Well, we probably need a different engine to one we've got', and I said, 'I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that's the only one that's available at the moment, so let's do the best we can until we can find another engine supplier'.

"The reason why the car was so late in coming was partly because Harvey didn't start until September -- that's really far too late. But the major cause for not having the cars ready to take two to the first race in Rio was the fact that Harvey had called for a very high standard of engineering -- something that was a great deal in excess of what we had been used to. So we had manufacturing problems in producing the car to the high standards he required."

While Harvey and his team were working on the car, the factory was being rebuilt around them.

"It's taken much longer than it should have," says Ken. We've been using most of it -- all the carbon facilities and the offices, but we took ages to get the race car preparation area."

At the same time Ken was chasing sponsorship and trying to arrange his driver line-up. Jonathan Palmer would stay, but Julian Bailey was displaced by the arrival -- from Ferrari -- of a Tyrrell old boy, Michele Alboreto, the man who last gave the Tyrrell team an F1 victory.

That had been Tyrrell's 23rd Grand Prix win, but it was in Detroit in June 1983 -- six years ago.

"I'd been talking to Michele for a long time," says Ken. "He'd always said if he ever left Ferrari he would come back to us and that's exactly what he did -- and we're very pleased to have him.

"I think it's helped Jonathan tremendously. In any team where you get two competitive drivers it helps. They help each other."

Because of the delays, the year began with a hastily revised version of the 017B, but for Imola the team had the first new 018.

"The car had never turned a wheel until we actually took it to the official practice at Imola," remembers Ken. "That's not the way to go motor racing, to take a car that has never run and put it straight into qualifying.

"Because it was Italy we thought it was right for Michele to drive it there. He failed to qualify. We had the usual shaking-down problems and that lost him a lot of time and then we had to learn how to set up the car mechanically. We knew how it had to be aerodynamically, but we had to learn how to do it mechanically. We failed to do that which looked quite bad..."

Palmer, however, had managed to get one of the old cars into the race and the team decided the race the new car to find out what they could about it.

"After a long discussion between Jean-Claude and Harvey on Saturday night, they decided on a pretty different set-up for the race. Jonathan sat in the car for the first time in the Sunday morning warm-up and he was very pleased with it."

The Englishman put in a tremendous race, starting 25th, but charging through the field to finished the event in sixth place on the road.

"Then," says Ken, "we had the same problems producing a second car to the high standard we wanted and that wasn't ready until the second day of practice at Monte Carlo."

Such was the rush that Ken left his crew finishing the new machine and, there being no available heavy goods vehicle driver who could be released from the work, drove the team truck to Monaco. A fine way to celebrate your 65th birthday...

"Again that particular car came straight out of the factory and was qualified 12th and finished the race in the points (fifth) which was very pleasing."

Despite this Alboreto talked of the need for testing, soemthing which the team could ill-afford to do.

After Monaco, however, Tyrrell went to Paul Ricard for a couple of days to try to understand the intricacies of the new car. It was a frustrating time, but progress was made and in Mexico that promise came to fruition as Michele drove a strong race to finish on the podium.

With McLaren being out in front, everyone is struggling to keep up, but for Tyrrell to have achieved that podium was an extra special achievement, having bog standard engines and no sponsorship money.

Presumably, therefore, Ken is now talking to engine manufacturers for the future?

It's a pointless question for a journalist really, because you know that Ken is never going to tell you anything he doesn't want you to know.

There is no idle tittle-tattle at Tyrrell, no information leaks to the press. Everything is dealt with on a need-to-know basis and, to Ken's way of thinking, journalists never need to know until the very last minute.

Sometimes its infuriating, because you know that Ken enjoys being able to keep a secret better than anyone else.

That goes back a long way too, to the days when the designer of the first Tyrrell, Derek Gardner, built a mock-up of the Tyrrell 001 in the garage of his house -- to avoid prying eyes.

Ken will always answer the questions, but he doesn't often tell you anything you don't know already!

"Well, I suppose everybody is talking to manufacturers," he smiles, with his usual diplomacy. He knows the game we are playing.

"At the moment we don't have anything in the pipeline. To get a good competitive engine, you probably need the same formula as you do to get a major sponsor.

"That is to show that you can perform and get on the podium a few more times with your current machinery. It has been a magnificent engine really, but it is 22 years old now and its racing against 1989 units. To get on the podium at all I think says a great deal for the present engine."

You might think that at the grand old age of 65 -- which in English terms is officially the retirement age and means that you can claim a government pension -- Ken might be slowing down and thinking about hanging up his stopwatches.

But far from it. Ken he seems to get more energetic each year, noticeably when his cars are doing well.

How does he keep up the motivation to drag the team backs from the dumps? Isn' he fed up with struggling?

"It's funny," he says, "people keep on asking me this. Really I don't find it any different. It seems to me that I don't realise that I'm 65. I suppose this happens to everyone.

"I feel as though I am 40. Don't ask me to take part in a marathon or anything like that, but I still feel young.

"I enjoy my motor racing. I like it, and I'd like to continue. I realise that younger people have got to come in and I feel I shall gradually start to play a lesser role in running the team in the future."

When that will happen is hard to say. And, of course, the press will be the last to know.

If Postlethwaite, Migeot, Alboreto and Palmer continue to make the kind of progress seen thus far in 1989, Ken will probably have another 10 seasons of F1 in him by the end of the year. It could even be longer than that.

After all, Enzo Ferrari was 92 and had never really stopped running his race team...