The Time Lord

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Why, two decades after he quit the sport as champion, is Jackie Stewart returning with his own team?

He may, as one Ford executive suggests, be the customer from hell, but when it comes to being an ambassador, Jackie Stewart is surely heaven sent.

Which is why the manufacturer’s relationship with Stewart has spanned 31 years. And why it will sink an estimated 100 million pounds into his new Formula One team during the course of the next five years.

The reasoning behind Ford’s investment isn’t hard to fathom. In spite of winning the world championship with Michael Schumacher in 1994, the Detroit giant’s commitment has been insufficient to convince either McLaren or Benetton two of the largest players in the game that it was a serious long-term proposition to match the likes of Peugeot or Renault. Its relationship with Sauber, thus far a proven underachiever has merely led it further into the F1 wilderness.

“We are putting more into this joint venture than we have done in the past,” accepts Albert Caspers, the head of Ford Europe. “We, therefore, expect to get more out of it. We know Jackie is ambitious, and we know he is determined to make this thing happen.”

But what of Stewart’s motivation?

Many ghosts flit around the Formula One paddock; drivers no longer able to secure either a regular drive or their fix of adrenaline. Stewart, though, has professed no regrets since quitting the sport at the top, as world champion, in 1973. Just as he rejected approaches to return to the cockpit, so Jackie has recently turned down offers to buy his way into an existing team. So why decide to put his hard-earned reputation at risk?

In many ways it is, as he suggests, logical that Paul Stewart Racing’s success in Formula Vauxhall, F3 and F3000 “The staircase of talent” as he refers to it should lead to the threshold of the premier formula. But though Stewart describes the new venture as the biggest challenge of his career, his measured tones betray little of the passion which normally accompanies such a project.

“People have said to me, ‘Why the hell are you doing this? You’ve got your past, your reputation, why put it on the line?” he accepts. “My credibility is the most valuable thing I have. But if you live in cotton wool, your flavour is cotton wool, and I don’t think that tastes very good.”

Perhaps the key to his reaction is that throughout his career Stewart has always held his inner passion in check; his head has invariably won the tussle with his heart. Just as he successfully played the percentage game as a driver, that ethic underpins Stewart Grand Prix, the first new team to enter Fl with a manufacturer engine deal since Beatrice-Lola rode in on the back of Ford’s turbocharged V6 in 1985.

“I’ve been in the business of taking calculated risks all of my life,” he explains. “I don’t like risks. You try to eliminate them. That’s why I started to work for safety originally. I’m here today because I removed the unnecessary hazards from my life as a professional racing driver. As a Grand Prix owner, we are going to have to try to avoid the unnecessary pitfalls which have prevailed for so many teams. So it’s going to be a well-planned, well-structured, well-financed operation with wonderful partners.”

Just as he pioneered the safety movement, so he was one of the first to see that the future lay with Mark McCormack’s marketing group and leads the way when it comes to driver psychology. His ambition is to break new ground in F1, too.

“There is no point in us going into Grand Prix racing in the same way as everybody else is. I think that our sport, to some extent, has become rather incestuous in recent years. It has to have a new breath of air and a new way of doing things. You can’t suddenly come in and do things better on the circuit, do your pit stops faster than McLaren, for instance, so we have to work differently off the track. In modern GP racing, you have to be as successful off the track as you are on it.

“Some people approach Formula One as if it is a wildcat industry. It’s a rocket ship, moving too fast for those who forget the importance of diligent business procedures. It’s all about attention to detail.” And that is an area in which Paul Stewart Racing has had few peers in its brief but successful history. At a circuit, for instance, PSR’s crews are instructed to paint the tyres of the 30-foot transporters, then jack them up and position the wheels with the Bridgestone logos at the top.

When sponsors see that kind of professionalism, they know that every element of the racing equation will receive the same painstaking attention. Initially, of course, it was the subject of great mirth further down the pit lane. But you need to look no further than PSR’s record in the junior formulae eight championships and 88 wins in eight years to gather who has enjoyed the last laugh.

Victory in Formula Three, like a victory as an F1 driver, is no automatic passport to the winner’s circle in Formula One. So why should Stewart succeed where so many have failed? “Whether it’s business or any other sport,

why do some people succeed and others don’t?” he responds. “It’s just hard work, determination, focus and the people who you build around you. It’s a people business in the end.”

Which is one of the reasons why he believes this undertaking would have been beyond him when he quit the sport all those years ago. “To be able to drive a racing car successfully is one thing, to collaborate and bring people together, to be able to bring the sort of success the Ford Motor Company will want to have, is no easy matter. At that period of my life, I don’t think I would have been capable of doing it.”

A man who has overcome dyslexia to become one of the most highly sought after-dinner speakers in the sporting world, Stewart is as determined an individual as you could meet, but is careful to play down talk of his ambitions for the new team.

“We have to walk, and sometimes crawl, before we ever think of running,” he cautions. “I’m certainly not getting any illusions of grandeur. We’re thinking long term about this: within five years we should get on the podium and hopefully be a regular points, collector. If we can collect one point in 1997 I think that would be a great achievement. There’s been an awful big roll of drums about this whole thing, and we’re going to have to take a lot of stick from time to time. But you’ve got to stand up and be counted and we’ll do the very best we can.”

With a new team to be formed, and a car to be built, the subject of drivers is perhaps the least of Stewart’s worries at present. But he already knows the sort of character he is searching for.

“We need a hungry person, someone who is going to drive us as well,” he says. “I know that Jim Clark had a lot to do with Colin Chapman’s success; I hope that I had something to do with Ken Tyrrell’s success; I know that Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter had a lot to do with Ferrari’s success. It needs that.

“Michael Schumacher is going to a team that hasn’t won a world championship for 16 years, 250 Grands Prix. Now that’s a challenge for him. But I think he’s a determined German who is going to kick ass and push that team into doing things in a different way that they haven’t been doing for 16 years. Scheckter did it, Fangio did it because he was a tough guy God bless him and Niki did it for the same reason.

“In fact you need two strong drivers because one falls asleep. The best racing I’ve ever had was when I had a good team-mate because I had to deliver a little more than him and he was constantly sticking a pin in my backside to try to burst my balloon. That’s what Damon Hill had with David Coulthard. That’s what you need.

“PSR would never have done anything very well if we hadn’t had the crop of drivers we chose. Whatever we did in our engineering, and our preparation, it all came down to what the driver did on the track.”

Now 56, Jackie is by no means a slouch on the track himself. As the PSR youngsters find out at the start of every season, when they drive the boss around Oulton Park in a Cosworth and are then strapped into the passenger seat.

“This year we fitted telemetry to the car, and Jackie came out quickest,” admits Andy Miller, who currently oversees the F3 programme and will be part of the new F1 operation. “It’s all about mind management. Jackie might give away over 30 years to the guys, but when he enters a corner he just seems to have five seconds more than the others in which to react. He buys himself time. You find out a lot about the drivers on those days. Those who need most help probably get least out of it the good ones listen and learn. We find we get a lot more out of the test sessions after those days. The drivers think about what they are doing. rather than just hammering aimlessly around the circuit.”

The old master still has a few tricks up his, sleeve, but will they be sufficient to rewaro Ford with the success it craves? With the new Zetec VI yet to race. and Stewart Grand Prix never having built its own car, there are a lot of variables in the equation, But one thing is for sure: John Young Stewart wouldn’t be doing it if he wasn’t confident of delivering . . . M S