The mechanics of Jackie's racing

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Rob Widdows

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“They were the men who put me on the race track, and on whom I depended every time. Rob Widdows spoke to the Tyrrell faithful about our happy days racing together”

Sir Jackie Stewart always cared for his race mechanics, being the first to acknowledge that his life quite literally depended upon them. Out of this relationship with his own crew came the Grand Prix Mechanics Trust (see p72), which has looked after the welfare of mechanics right across the sport since 1987. Jackie remains the founder and chairman of the trust to this day.

For this special issue of Motor Sport, edited by JYS himself, I have spoken to four of the men who looked after his cars at the height of his success with the Tyrrell Racing Organisation. We will meet Neil Davis, Roger Hill, Roy Topp and Roland Law who, in their different ways, made sure that their man was both safe and competitive.

Back in the late 1960s and through the ’70s, race mechanics were overworked and underpaid. They would not say as much, but it’s true. It was a different world, and so was life on the road compared to the modus operandi of 21st-century mechanics. They may still sometimes be overworked but they are far better rewarded. Gone are the relentless all-nighters, the endless trucking across Europe and the gritty conditions that faced mechanics at the vast majority of circuits.

One thing they had in common with today’s crews is the time spent away from home. In fact it is worse now, with 20 races in almost as many countries around the globe in a season that stretches from March to November. Today, of course, Jackie’s mechanics are retired and enjoying time with their families, getting to know their gardens in a way they probably never imagined. But their memories are as sharp as ever.
You don’t forget working for a World Champion racing driver.

Roland Law, who worked with Sir Jackie at Tyrrell from 1970 to ’73, has – like all good mechanics – a nice sense of humour. Sometimes they needed it:

“If Jackie came in and said the car was perfect, Ken [Tyrrell] would say: ‘Well, you’re not driving it hard enough then.’ Ken was known for his ‘froth jobs’ and I remember many of them with Jackie. We were testing a new car in France, with the inboard front brakes, and Jackie wanted to drive it. But François [Cevert] had the car first for the test and Ken told Jackie: ‘No, you’re not driving it.’ That got a bit frothy. But Jackie was no bother to me whatsoever, always the perfect gentleman.

“I was in charge of the spare car, the truck and all the parts. Jackie knew more about the car than anyone – if something was going wrong he’d come straight in, talk to Ken, describe exactly what he wanted and then we’d set about putting it right for him. He would never drive the car to or over the absolute limit. I remember in Canada, at Mosport, the tyres were rippling going through the fast corner towards the pits and the car was being shaken to bits by the vibration. After four laps he’d thought about the problem, found a way round it and just drove around it for the rest of the race.

“He had so many great races, but Monaco stands out for me. Anyone who can go round there really quickly can really drive, and at Monaco he was perfect. And, you know, the car always came back in very good order – unless he shunted, which was not very often. People say he was neat and tidy as a driver, and that’s absolutely right. So smooth and easy on the car.”

New Zealander Roger Hill, who still lives in East Horsley just down the road from the old Tyrrell base at Ockham, Surrey, joined the team in 1968, became chief mechanic and stayed for 30 years:

“I guess I was in awe of Jackie at first, but it was a great little team, we all pulled on the same piece of string and Ken was tough but fair. It was a family. I never saw Jackie throw his helmet around, never saw him lose his temper, even when things weren’t going well. He and Ken had some battles, but almost always away from us, and usually when Jackie wanted something he would go through Ken.

“He expected things to be right, but that’s how it should be, and it was our job to get it right. The car had to be reliable, we had good engines and we did a hell of a lot of testing in those days – testing before just about every race. Jackie was so consistent – lap after lap after lap he would do the same times whereas lots of other drivers, well, their lap times varied. It’s no good being quick some of the time – Jackie was quick all the time, and he only went to the edge when it was really necessary to do so.

“Jackie was so good mechanically, always warmed the car up properly, never destroyed the gear ratios, the dogs were always perfect. It was part of his job not to abuse the car and he just knew, just felt when it was the right moment to change gear. I remember once he came in and said: ‘There’s a strange tingling noise that wasn’t there last time out.’ We couldn’t make sense of it, but he’d heard this noise and then we found that one of the hose clips holding a heat-reflector plate next to the exhaust had broken and was flapping around. We replaced the clip and next time in Jackie said: ‘You’ve fixed it – that funny noise has gone.’ Well, we assumed it must have been the bloody hose clip he’d heard – that’s how he was. I mean, he’d notice if one of the two valve springs had broken, it was usually the inner one, and he would sense it. That’s how much attention he was paying to what he was doing.

“Did Jackie retire too soon? No. In those terrible days, if you did 100 races you were lucky. And Jackie must have thought about it, he was smart enough to know that, and the time was right. Don’t forget that in the years which followed Jackie did a huge amount for the safety of the sport – seat belts, medical facilities, track safety. Sometimes he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves for all that. The tragedy of that last race at Watkins Glen was that François could have been World Champion. He’d learnt a lot from Jackie, and towards the end I think maybe he could have beaten him.

“But the thing about winning is that you don’t talk about it, you have to get out there and do it, and with Jackie we had some truly great wins – Monaco, the Nürburgring, those kind of races. It was the best job I ever had.”

Roy Topp was another of Jackie’s right-hand men, a stalwart of the Tyrrell team who joined as a welder. Roy recently restored the cars now owned by American John Delane, a historic racer who has worked to keep the Tyrrell name alive into the 21st century:

“I never saw Jackie flustered – if the car wasn’t doing exactly as he wanted, he would aim all that at Ken who passed it on to us. And anyway he could drive around most things. Our job was to give him a safe, reliable car. He did the rest. He liked a neutral set-up, though he’d slide the back out if he had to. His style was so smooth and he wanted a car that he didn’t have to throw around. This was very different from someone like Ronnie Peterson, or later Jody Scheckter – they would throw the car all over the place. But Jackie was good on the car, smooth under braking and he looked after the tyres.

“And remember, the tyres had to do the whole race, you started on a full tank of fuel and the cars were heavier. So it was all down to the driver to look after the car and Jackie could do that better than anyone else out there. He was always concerned about safety and he relied on us to build him a safe car. Reliability and safety go together – if you have a reliable car then it’s more likely to be a safe car. And he appreciated that. When François was killed at Watkins Glen Jackie went straight back out in the next session. It was his way of saying: ‘Look, it wasn’t the car, I have faith in the car.’

“In terms of the great moments, well, there were so many. But the Nürburgring when we came first and second with Jackie and François, that was special. I was doing the watches for Jackie, with Ken on my shoulder, and he came round so far in front it was just unbelievable, and the next car round was François. It was such a long lap that you were never sure if they would come round, and you dare not miss them because you had one chance of hanging the board out over the fence at the back of the pits. Then they were gone again.

“That was a great race for us. Jackie won by 30 seconds from François, who was over half a minute ahead of Clay Regazzoni. A 1-2 like that was always the most satisfying result we could have.”

Neil Davis, a Tyrrell man from 1960 to ’98 when the team was sold to BAR, knew JYS from the day he tested for Ken at Goodwood in 1964:

“Jackie is just a lovely man – kind, caring and I can’t think of one bad thing about him. As a driver he was always in control of his emotions, in control of what he said to people. He was firm, he knew what he wanted – and he got it – but he was never aggressive or horrible in the way he went about it.

“You know, I don’t think Jackie has ever really been properly appreciated – I mean people talk about Senna, Fangio, people like that, but they don’t talk about Jackie Stewart. I’ve never understood that – he won over 25 per cent of his races and we all knew that if we gave him the right equipment he would win the race for us, and that was a good feeling. We would work day and night for Jackie, work our socks off for the man, but then he did things for us. At Monaco he would take us all out for dinner, and that was special. He wrapped the team around him, looked after his guys, and it was like a family with Uncle Ken and Auntie Norah. And when François came in, Jackie took him under his wing.

“He and Ken would have heated arguments, ‘froth jobs’ as we called them, but once it was said it was finished, on to the next thing. It was a special outfit, but I don’t think the team ever fully recovered from François’ death and Jackie’s retirement. The momentum was somehow lost after that.

“I do have one standout memory. Jackie took us round the Nordschleife in a Volkswagen Beetle and I will never forget that. It was just unbelievable what the man could do with a motor car, he was such a smooth driver. We were stamping our feet on the floor, putting the brakes on, while he was still accelerating… It was just an incredibly enjoyable experience. I felt very privileged to work for people like Jackie and Ken.

“The thing about Jackie was that you wanted to achieve things for him – he was always very calculating, knew exactly what he wanted from you and the car, and if you gave him that you just knew he would go out there and win. I never wanted to work for any other team.”

You cannot help but notice that JYS mechanics wear very nice watches on their wrists. Gold Rolexes, actually. Presents from the man whose racing cars they so lovingly prepared. But for these men, it is the memories that are the true treasures.

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