Interview - Tim Lee-Davey
At the age of 35, Tim Lee-Davey's ambition is as clear as ever: to be a successful racing driver. Chances of breaking into Formula 1 have long since disappeared, and although he runs a two-car Porsche team in the World Sports-Prototype Championship TLD has rarely driven in the past two seasons, burdened as he was by raising sponsorship and keeping a pack of wolves from the door.
Despite an impressive pile of debts amounting to £1.5 million — offset by cars and equipment worth half that amount — Lee-Davey remains an optimist, and in November he was the first to register a two-car team for the new World Sportscar Championship. "It's an expensive game, with big numbers," he explains simply. "I don't have the faintest idea what I'd do, if I wasn't racing."
He would not be a barrister, even though he qualified for the bar in 1980; the idea simply doesn't interest him anymore, though he is vigorously pursuing lawsuits against Alfonso Toledano from Mexico, and Fulvio Ballabio from Italy, for sums totalling $1.5 million (£774,000). Both had contracts for 1990 and neither got beyond the first instalments of their alleged commitments. "If I can get a judgement I'll be alright," says TLD with a grim smile.
Lee-Davey is a gambler, at the table of life. But for Esther Rantzen he might have practised as a barrister and continued a career in karting, but her 'Big Time' programme changed all that. Generous assistance was given by John Webb, chairman of Motor Circuit Developments, and in the winter of 1979-80 TLD was transformed from a handsome, clever young lawyer into a still handsome, but struggling, young racing driver, committed in every sense to Formula Ford, then Formula 3, Sports 2000 and, eventually, the Big Time — World Championship racing with his own turbo-powered Tiga Cosworth.
No-one could say that his family wasn't warned. On Lee-Davey's wedding day in 1980 a £500 cheque from his father was instantly sunk into the racing team, and that's how the 1980s went along. By 1990 his Brazilian wife Iara had separated from Lee-Davey, taking their two children with her. In all honesty, though, Lee-Davey says that "She left because of me, not because of the racing," and hopes for a reconciliation.
"The trouble is, I can't even afford to take her out to dinner," says Lee-Davey, as he prepares a £2.2 million programme for the 1991 season. He sees the paradox, and shrugs. "All my money is in the team, every penny.
Every team owner has experienced pain and privation before success, and the likes of Ron Dennis and Frank Williams have taken terrific gambles, with numbers that frightened them, before turning the corner. Be that as it may, everyone in Group C racing has trembled for TLD a few times, and crossed their fingers for another Houdini-style escape.
Lee-Davey moved from single-seater to sports cars in 1985 when he canmpaigned a Tiga in the Thunderspot series, and he's quick to acknowledge a great deal of help from Howden Ganley who designed and manufactured Tigas at High Wycombe. A couple of appearance in the World Championship Group C class in 1987 heralded a full-scale effort the following year, in a British Racing Green Tiga powered by a turbocharged Cosworth V8 engine.
In theory the car should have been very competitive, because turbocharging had been the next stage for the DFL had Ford’s Stuart Turner not cancelled the entire Group C programme at the end of '82. The DFT (long-stroke turbo sports car engine) would have been developed by Keith Duckworth alongside the DFX turbo Indy engine, with which it had a lot in common and Lee-Davey received a good deal of support from Cosworth, through Graham Dale-Jones at Terry Hoyle's preparation concern, in the first half of the '88 season
Lee-Davey, though, suffered a calamitous setback at Brno, when his Tiga turbo caught fire during the first practice session and burned out before the marshals dealt with it.
That, we feared, would be a mortal blow to the team, but before the weekend was out TLD had placed an order with Porsche for a brand-new 962C, which was delivered and ready to run at the next race three weeks later, at the Nürburgring. The Porsche organisation was particularly helpful, both at Weissach and in Britain and Lee-Davey is rather proud of the fact that he is the only man to take delivery of a 962 without need of a down-payment.
With Tom Dodd-Noble, TLD took his Porsche to eighth place at Spa and earned, his first World Championship points, but it was at the non-championship race at Kyalami that Lee-Davey really earned his spurs, duelling hard with Sarel van der Merwe in a Kremer Porsche on his way fourth place in the first heat. . . . with a holed piston, which prevented him from racing again that day. The Kremer car had the latest Bosch 1.7 injection, TLD's the old 1.2 which was less suitable for the altitude.
"It's not hard to drive a racing car," says TLD. "The hard part is raising the money to do so. It has spoiled me as a driver because when I get into the car I tend to relax, free from the worries, and that isn’t the right frame of mind for the best performance.
"I will drive in the coming season though. It's the only reason I'm in the sport, to drive. I'm a very competitive person, not a nine-to-five man at all."
FISA's decision to make race attendances compulsory, on pain of a $250,000 fine, raised the stakes considerably for the private teams, none of whom really had adequate sponsorship. There have been suspicions that Lee-Davey's second car, silent in the garage, has been curiously high on its rear suspension, but the regulations clearly stated that a car has only to be presented for scrutineering to avoid the fine, not that it has to run ($3000 start money is dependent on passing scrutineering, but still the car needs not appear on the track).
Lee-Davey is a firm supporter of FISA, despite some brushes with the arm of the law. "What they're doing is right. They are making the championship more professional. It's for the manufacturers, not for the little teams like mine," he says disarmingly, "I'm not big enough. But if I can survive for another year or two, my team will grow with the championship, and then we'll get the backing we need."
Even by his own perilous standards, TLD had some close calls in the second part of the 1990 season. He borrowed £3000 from personal friends so that he could pay the team's expenses, then drove the motorhome all the way to Dijon himself. This overnighter caused him to miss a small FISA formality, being weighed for the second half of the season, and for that he was fined FF50,000, near enough £5000.
The episode was to cause some rancour, especially when a personal appeal to chief steward Alain Bertaut was rebuffed: "Your financial status is of no concern to officials of the event." Immediate payment was out of the question but FISA accepted a cheque, and Team Davey remained in business.
A record of sorts was established in the race, as TLD's car retired with a failure of the engine which had run for 46 hours without overhaul. Two Team Davey Porsches had started at Le Mans and both finished, a heartening result for the team, but without sponsorship of any sort one engine had to remain in service, with the predictable result.
Worse was to come a month later at the Nürburgring, where bailiffs moved in with a police escort on Friday evening and removed one of Team Davey's Porsches. The action concerned a relatively minor sum, less than £2000 allegedly owed by Lee-Davey to the German manufacturer of driveshafts, and it was settled within hours. Even so, with no paying drivers to hand, Team Davey struck camp and headed for base in Maidstone, to prepare for the next round at Donington.
Lee-Davey's fingerholds were greased for the trans-Atlantic races as a Porsche was rustled up from a museum for scrutineering at Montreal, as his second entry, while in Mexico he sweated as his second car remained in the hands of Rapid Movements, the official freight company, in England, through some apparent misunderstanding.
FISA has raised the bar a little higher for the coming season, ruling that new teams (such as Charles Hausmann's) must deposit $100,000 for the year, while teams such as Davey's which didn't score any points in 1990 must lodge accounts which prove their worth, with the governing body.
"They're trying to prevent people from getting into trouble, as I did last year," TLD assumes. "There's no ruling as to what the accounts should show, and I don't think my debts are greater than those of the ***** team."
The largest amount of sponsorship Team Davey has ever received was from Marakatsu, the Japanese importer of exotic cars, and this amounted to £75,000. . . . a good sum, until you realise that a proper budget for a two-car team is in excess of £220,000 per race.
Burago, the Italian toy manufacturer, was another sponsor in the past season, but Lee-Davey's reliance on his contracted paying drivers, Toledano and Ballabio, was compelling, and their inability or unwillingness to pay up as agreed has been quite devastating to the team's fortunes.
Fortunately a couple of late-season deals, to run Mercedes Stermitz at Montreal and the Jourdain brothers in Mexico, turned out for the best. Miss Stermitz, the former Miss Austria, failed to qualify in Canada due to rain on Saturday, but Lee-Davey drove well until a wheel stud broke 30 laps into the race; in Mexico the Jourdains were happy to finish 15th, having 'buzzed' an engine during qualifying and slowed with a broken turbocharger in the race.
Another man to be delighted was Dunlop competitions manager Bill Mack, who found himself with a fistful of dollar bills in settlement of an account. "It always takes Tim a while to settle, but he's never let me down," was the compliment paid that day.
Team Davey has certainly provided some generous hospitality, light relief, and centre for gossip in the past three seasons, in contrast to the dour exchanges between Tom Walkinshaw and the Sauber team at the other end of the pit-lane, and a large amount of goodwill helps to sustain TLD in his darkest hours.
The plan for 1991 is to run a single Porsche 962C in the All-Japan Sportscar Championship, and two Porsches in the World Sportscar Championship, up to and including Le Mans. In the second half of the season Lee-Davey hopes to switch to 3.5-litre cars, and is talking chassis with March Engineering and Brun Technik.
Lee-Davey has disclosed a mysterious V12 engine deal, and this is now revealed as a special project undertaken by Dale-Jones at Terry Hoyle preparation. The origins go back to the Weslake V12 of the late Sixties, though completely redesigned and reputed to give more than 600 bhp.
"I don't think that FISA should have lowered the weight limit on the Porsches, but again I am arguing against myself," says Lee-Davey. "We were given plenty of warning of the 3.5-litre formula, and there shouldn't be any turbos. Having said that, I'm glad of the chance to run Porsches for half a season, and I actually think they'll be competitive. There is a great opportunity ahead for little teams to make a good impression, and I hope mine will be one of them."
Some say Tim Lee-Davey is a hopeless dreamer, an inveterate gambler, and an incurable optimist. He has determination in plenty, though, and if he survives the '91 season with credit he should reach the plateau. Team Davey is rolling the biggest dice available this winter, and everyone hopes to see a six. MLC