Features - Interview

FEBRUARY 1, 1989

Peter Collins


The boss of Benetton is not an artistic Italian, nor a down-to-earth Englishman. Peter Collins comes from Australia and he admits that it was the romance of the sport which first attracted him.

The boss of Benetton is not an artistic Italian, nor a down-to-earth Englishman. Peter Collins comes from Australia and he admits that it was the romance of the sport which first attracted him.

"I think the thing that got me interested was the image of Grand Prix racing," he says. "I remember a film of the 1961 Monaco GP and then the Monaco Grand Prix cover of Road and Track magazine in 1962. It was the colour, the action and the speed of it that grabbed my attention.

"I went to my first motor race in 1964. It was a Tasman race at Warwick Farm. Jack Brabham won. I liked it and I started to read anything and everything about motor racing.

"From day one I was only really interested in single seater racing cars and I became an absolute fanatic and a real Jim Clark fan.

"I wasn't really interested in cars as such and, I suppose, to this day I'm not interested in cars. They are a means of tranport, they are not something I eulogise over.

"I was absolutely crazy about single-seater racing to a point where in a vocational guidance test they said that the only thing I showed any aptitude for was mechanics and that my maths wasn't good enough for that. They recommeneded that I should be a panel beater and spray painter!

"Well, I took no notice of that! I left school at the end of 1968, with the minimal pass in matriculation.

"I did a couple of Tasman races that year, as gofer with Chris Amon's Ferrari team. My brother had worked for David McKay, who ran Scuderia Veloce (the Australian Ferrari agents), and when the series moved to Australia Ferrari used Scuderia Veloce -- and me!

"My father had died and basically my mother packed me off out to get any sort of job to bring some money in. I joined a shipping company as the post boy. After two months I was promoted to the freight department as a manifest clerk for three months and then I was promoted again to marine claims manager. Three months later the assistant to the accountant left and I was offered that job." It was all very meteoric, but already it was wearing the race fan down.

"I began to hate it, so I left and went to work for Air New Zealand. That was only because, with the rebated air fares, I could come to Europe to see races!

"At the same time, I had got to know Geoff Sykes at Warwick Farm and I used to go down there every Tuesday because the English magazines would arrive and I could read all the reports about F3 races before anyone else in Australia.

"Sykes was a fantastic help, an inspiration really. I knew I wanted to work in motor racing professionally, but I didn't have a clue as to how. I didn't want to be mechanic, because it wasn't my forte, but I didn't know what was!

Peter Windsor had been working there as the Press Officer and, when he left to come to Europe to follow his career as a journalist, I thought that maybe that was what I should do to be involved in racing.

"I started as a freelance journalist at weekends. I used to cover Formula Ford and I did Tasman reports for various European magazines.

"Warwick Farm didn't have a press officer after Windsor left and Sykes said,' Why don't you come and do the press officer's job at weekends?' So I did

"Certainly Sykes had a big influence on me. Whenever I had a new idea, he would say, 'Well I don't see why not. If you want to do it, and if you believe in yourself enough, go and do it'.

"He had very high standards. He wanted things to be right. I think a lot of the standards he held high in that period really weren't appreciated. With the development of motorsport in Australia a lot of people have come to regret the passing of Warwick Farm."

Collins was now chasing round the world on madcap racing trips.

"In 1973 I came over, went straight to Thruxton for an F3 race, then I went to Rouen, slept under the stars, stopped off at Dijon and had a thrash around and turned up at Ricard for the French GP. Then I rushed back to England and onto the plane and back to work in Sydney on the Tuesday morning!

"In 1975 I was on my way to Europe and I went via Long Beach and watched the first Long Beach Grand Prix for F5000. I spent a couple of days with Warwick Brown. He was looking at setting up a team the following year with a North American guy as the sponsor and he thought I should come and manage it.

"Warwick got it all together, I jacked in Air New Zealand and went off to the States. It provided some good experience, but the sponsor lasted about four races before the whole thing folded."

Collins took to hanging out in Santa Ana, doing a couple of races with Dan Gurney's AAR team -- driving the truck, being a gofer. Next came an offer to run Chris Amon's Canam Wolf team, but it came to nothing.

"I went back to Australia and basically Jane (now my wife) supported me," he remembers. "I dug sewage ditches, ferried cars around and worked on a building site. I was 27 and going nowhere fast.

"I got married in December, and I had a telegram from Peter Windsor saying 'Congratulations -- if you are interested there is a Team Manager's job going at Team Lotus.'

"I was convinced I was the man. So I spent all of my wedding night on the phone trying to call Colin Chapman."

When he finally spoke to the team he discovered that the job would not be advertised until January. At the time he was building seven 'semi' Volkswagen Golf GTis" for a friends, GTis being impossible to find in Australia

"With the fee I earned from that, and selling everything, I bought two tickets to come here. My brother was working for the airline...

"We left Australia with #150, three suitcases and a record collection!"

He didn't get the Lotus job and, by the middle of February, the money had run out so Peter went to work for Ron Tauranac.

"I was meant to be doing a kit list for the production cars but as I was hopeless at it, I ended up as a storeman. I was pretty useless at that too, so I ended up driving a van.

"In November I got a call from Lotus asking if I was still interested. I had an interview with Chapman. He kept asking me what were my strengths and I kept saying I was very determined, I couldn't think of anything else to say. At the end of the interview he stood up, shook my hand, and said 'I am sure with all that determination you'll get somewhere'.

"Three weeks later I got the job and started in December 1978. It couldn't have been a worse time, right at the start of the big dip."

Collins stayed at Lotus for three difficult years but, towards the end of 1981, he had a disagreement with Chapman and left. Next stop was ATS.

"I went to see Gunter Schmid. I was still very naive. It was a big mistake and by March 1982 it was all over. At the same time Jeff Hazel was leaving Williams, so I went to see Frank and was offered the job."

He was to remain with Williams until the middle of 1985. He was looking at starting his own team, but to that point it had not worked out. When Toleman came up for sale, he was hot on the heels of a deal.

"Toleman ended up doing the deal with Benetton," he says. "but I got a call from Rory Byrne and I went to work for the team.

"I'll never forget going to Montreal that year. Another team manager came up and said, 'Ah, you leaving Frank! You must be a fool, you won't last five minutes there!' Two minutes later another team manager came up and said 'You're a ****, aren't you? Leaving a good bloke like Frank, you must have rocks in your head.'

"It is fair to say when I joined Benetton the team had never had a great deal of stability. It was always a seasonal thing, they never knew if they were continuing from one year to the next. We sat down and discussed things. It became obvious that we had to sort out the continuity and, regardless of the job that Brian Hart had done, we had to be aligned with a major manufacturer.

"Honda wasn't interested, Renault didn't think we were up to it, BMW were the only people really interested so we signed with them. I was quite happy about that. We were a customer and we weren't looking for anything special, just an even chance. We were happy to be compared to Brabham. BMW didn't want to be tied to us in case they didn't like the relationship, but the intention was that, if the relationship worked out, it would be a multi-year deal.

"In Montreal in June 1986 Peter Flohr and I had a dinner and we agreed terms whereby we would be the factory team when Brabham finished its deal with BMW. At Detroit Benetton shook hands with Flohr. When we got back to Europe, the bombshell dropped: BMW pulled out of F1. We were back to square one. We had to go on doing the job and we won a race!

"Because we had had such a stormy period from Benetton taking over, giving a small organisation the proper structure and capacity. We were so busy catching up and trying to run at the front, that we ran before we could walk. There was no alternative because, unless we had proved we could run, we would never get a chance to prove we could walk.

"It was disappointing to lose BMW and the only major manaufacturer that was a possibility was Ford, who had an unhappy arrangement with its existing team. It was a decision typical of Benetton. We went for something that no-one else wanted to know about and everyone said we had rocks in our heads. We wanted continuity, which we thought we would have with Ford, but halfway through that first year FISA knocked the guts out of the turbos, so despite the effort, we still ended up with an engine change. And as Cosworth didn't want to build a new normally-aspirated engine for the first year we were forced into an engine change every year.

"This year was the first time we had the ability to go to the first race with a proven car. We were always starting behind the eight-ball."

The constant disruptions aside, Benetton developed a reputation as a frontrunner, a team never afraid to introduce new talent: Gerhard Berger has been followed by Alessandro Nannini and Johnny Herbert.

"I don't think there is such a thing as a talent spotter," says Collins. "I don't believe the driver element in a team is any different to anything else. You have to make sure you have the best components in every part of the team and the drivers are one of the components you have to get right.

"The driver pay structures in F1 don't have a lot of parity really, I think the rateable value of the components are not assessed very much. There are some drivers who are earning an excessive amount if you relate it to the total team budget. A lot earn more than they are worth. Once you get past the top four there are some very good drivers, good but not the best.

"Our attitude has always been there are certain drivers we would very much like to have. For either financial or political reasons we have been forced to look past them.

"You have to say 'Is it best to go with somebody you know who will deliver 90 percent of what you want or take a flier and go with somebody who you feel has the potential to deliver 100 percent if given the opportunity'.

"We are gamblers and you have to be gamblers to make progress. We are prepared to take a few risks." Johnny Herbert was just such a risk.

"It's part of the job," explains Collins."The Uniden Benetton F3 scholarship is a continuaton of that. The concept is for the good of the young drivers, and maybe it's good for Benetton as well. We can't use all the drivers, but it's good for F3 because it gives F3 more glamour, and helps the youngsters to get money."

The eager Australian race fan with high expectations has certainly made it now, and he's enjoyed every minute of it.

"There have been bad times, of course, but it's a constant challenge. Not just the racing, everything. In GP racing there is never enough time to do everything you want to do. You're never short of a challenge of some type.

"I think relationships are the things that stand out more than anything. When I first went to Williams I didn't really think I would form a relationahip with Keke (Rosberg), yet he and I became very good friends. It was a very moving moment when Keke won the championship in Vegas in 1982.

"There have been three times when I can honestly say I've felt very moved: with Keke in 1982 when he was the underdog; Gerhard's win in Mexico when no-one expected us to finish; and Johnny's performance in Rio when a lot of people weren't convinced about his talent.

"Results are the only rubber stamp you get to show you have done something correctly. You can do a lot of things right running a team but you may not get the results.

"I honestly believe that if I hadn't been Australian, I would never have achieved what I have. Being a different nationality, with a different philosophical outlook on life, has allowed me to tread where other may fear to. I may come across as being a bit direct, but I don't see any reason not to talk straight. I'm sure there are occasions it has worked against me as well.

"When I lived in Australia, the weather was good, life was good, there was very little contrast, so you tended to take everything for granted. Coming here and having to battle makes you realise you are alive. It's not on autopilot, you are living life. There are lot of things about the lifestyle in Australia that are better, but the colour of life depends on variety. If it's all good you don't appreciate the quality."