GP teams have come and gone, but Tyrrell has made it through the good times and bad… until now. Adam Cooper discovers the secret of keeping a team afloat in 1998
The 1999 season will see a significant change to the Formula One entry list. Tyrrell, the third oldest marque in the Grand Prix pitlane after Ferrari and McLaren, will no longer as exist as we know it now. In its place comes British American Racing, without doubt the most ambitious and best funded new team the sport has ever seen. Make no mistake, this is a serious project, one that is expected to attract current World Champion Jacques Villeneuve as its lead driver in 1999. BAR’s ambition is nothing less than to be in a position to win its first race.
Considering the record of some recent entrants, you might think it was a little ambitious to talk of beating Williams, Ferrari, McLaren et al so soon. In most cases, just surviving the first year in this most expensive of sports is seen as a triumph. But the BAR name represents something very different from what we’ve seen before; it’s a joint venture between an entrepreneur (Craig Pollock, Villeneuve’s manager), an established racing car manufacturer (Reynard) and a massive international corporation which is not just pumping in sponsorship funds, but also taking a 50% stake in the business (British American Tobacco). The projected budget is big enough to make even the likes of Ron Dennis and Frank Williams envious…
Despite all the resources, BAR’s team principals have still seen fit to get a foot in the door by acquiring Tyrrell. But it has not bought out Ken to make use of his staff, Surrey premises or hardware; a purpose-built factory in Brackley is already under construction, and at the end of next season the Tyrrell boys will have to re-apply for jobs with the new team, along with everyone else.
No, BAR wanted Tyrrell primarily for the paperwork, or more specifically access to Ken’s valuable FOCA membership and the rights that come with it. That guarantees you membership of ‘the club’, and a share of the profits Bernie Ecclestone generates from TV income. Of course, like McLaren and Williams, Tyrrell has recently been in dispute with Bernie over the projected stock market flotation of F1, but the signs are that all will be straightened out. When that happens, BAR will theoretically be as well placed as the most established teams, and eligible for a slice of the pie.
But there’s another good reason for piggybacking into F1 via Tyrrell. After the Lola fiasco last season, the FIA has decided that henceforth new teams need to display their financial commitment by handing over a US$24m deposit when they enter the series. This money is gradually drip-fed back to its rightful owners, but that’s hardly the point. Even for BAR, the prospect of shelling out such a sum was hardly appealing… It’s a further sign that the financial stakes are now so high that there’s no room for the little guys.
“One often forgets that there are so many teams in F1 today because of Cosworth’s DFV engine,” says Ken Tyrrell. “You could go to Northampton and pick an engine off the shelf that was capable of winning the next GP. All you needed was a car and you didn’t even need to build your own in those days and a decent driver. And that package was capable of going out and beating Ferrari or anyone else. Those days are gone…”
Pollock, Reynard and co are not the first entrants to link up with an existing team. At the end of 1980 F2 entrant Ron Dennis merged his fledgling F1 project with McLaren, and instantly became a major player. But recently there have been several major shake-ups, all involving big names who could have started new teams from scratch. Usually the buyers haven’t just been after the FOCA membership; they’ve also made good use of what already existed.
In the spring of ’96 Tom Walkinshaw moved in at Arrows, after an aborted attempt to take over Ligier; the French team, in turn, is now the domain of Alain Prost. Rally and touring car experts Prodrive and their boss David Richards have hankered after an F1 project for several years, and now he’s taken the first step by slipping into the managing director’s role at Benetton. Only he knows what the long term plans are. Unless the Benetton family one day loses interest in its F1 subsidiary, the only team which remains potentially up for grabs is Minardi, once a potential partner for BAR. Founder Giancarlo is still at the helm, but he long ago had to take shareholders on board to ease the financial burdens.
After 13 years of struggle, Minardi is still in business. And of the 18 teams which have arrived since the Italian outfit started, the only ones still going are Jordan (born 1991), Sauber (1993) and Stewart (1997). Remember Leyton House, Onyx and AGS? How about Lamborghini, Coloni, Eurobrun and Zakspeed? Along with many others, they have been and gone. And it’s not just the fly-by-nights; greats of the past such as Lotus and Brabham have also fallen by the wayside after their ownership changed and new regimes got their sums wrong.
Most recent entrants have committed to building cars and then gone out searching for the funds to run them. It’s a dangerous tactic which has caught out many. Keith Wiggins, whose Pacific team gave up after a brave fight in 1995, admits that finding the money should be the priority.
“First and foremost you have to be able to put a financial package together,” he says. “I think that there is a small minority of people who have the contacts and the profile to attract that sort of backer. Jackie Stewart has a lot of credibility which opens a lot of doors, which he’s used to the full. It’s rare to be able to that. It’s only those few people who can do it. Alain Prost is another.
“And you really need an engine manufacturer behind you, which again you’ll only get with a certain amount of clout and credibility, and proof that there’s a fair amount of depth in your resources.”
“To be successful you have to be the main team fir a major engine manufacturer,” echoes Ken Tyrrell. “If you have to have a customer engine, then you’ve got the problem of finding the money for the engine and the sponsorship to run the team as well.”
Just as Prost’s name attracted Peugeot backing to the erstwhile Ligier team, so Stewart had the huge advantage of corning in with works Ford support. And manufacturers also saved the other two ‘recent survivors. Eddie Jordan started out on his own in 1991, picked up sponsors here and there, and finished the year with crippling debts which nearly saw the team go under. He was saved by a works Yamaha engine deal for his second season. The team made it through the bad times, and now has an enviable level of support. Mercedes-Benz did not initially commit to joining Sauber in its F1 ventures, but the Stuttgart giant continued to subsidise the Swiss team’s early efforts, having paid to build up its facilities in their sportscar days. Without the three-pointed star, Sauber simply would not exist.
“Works support makes it easier,” says team principal Paul Stewart, “but it also increases expectations. If you’re paying you can’t be hauled over the coals. When you have works engines more is expected of you, so you have to spend more money in other areas of development.”
Even Stewart found that not being part of ‘the club’ was a rough ride, and the team recently faced the humiliation of a very public request from the FIA to prove that it had enough funds to get through its second season. That unprecedented demand followed news of the loss of one of its major sponsors.
Since its plans were first announced, everyone has been knowingly reminding Stewart that the second year is the most difficult one to make it to the end of. Simtek, Pacific and Forti all folded in their second seasons, while in Lola’s case the second race proved the stumbling block…
Paul Stewart is adamant that his team has got its sums right: “I don’t think it can be as difficult as our first year, in the way that we went about it and the stress we were all under. I may be proved wrong, and when the season starts our car could be struggling, but the way we’re gearing ourselves up, I don’t think that will be the case.
“People say it because in the past teams have started with limited funds, and they get to the end and then think, ‘Thank God for that’. But halfway through the season when they’ve discussed things like the budget for a wind tunnel programme they’ve had to say, ‘Hang on a second, we’ve got to can that development work because we’ve got to get to the last three races…’
“But we worked hard at protecting ourselves and made sure that we continued development planning for the 1998 car. We’ve structured ourselves quite well for that, I believe. The key is not taking away money allocated to your second year, which is the tempting thing to do.” Will Stewart be the last team to enter F1 in its own right? It may be that the door has closed behind JYS. If you’re not in now, then forget it. Ken Tyrrell certainly thinks that:
“One of the things Formula One has been good at is having new guys coming in,” says Ken. ‘The idea that any new team has got to not only do something it’s never done before, which is build its own car, but it’s now got to put up $24million as well, is a bit over the top.
“All of us were new guys once, except Ferrari. Everyone else was a new guy, and Ferrari’s the only one that’s always been there. It’s the new guys coming in who were able to get a competitive engine that are the big teams today. We should be encouraging new people, although I do agree there has to be something which prevents teams coming in when they don’t have enough money.”
Ken believes that it could be a while before we see an all-new team.
“It’s now so difficult for the next Tyrrells, Jackie Olivers, or Frank Williams. We all came in when it didn’t cost that much money. We’d scratch around and find a few quid here and there and go motor racing. I think the only way to get in today is probably as a major manufacturer; you can perhaps imagine some of the big car makers coming into F1 on their own account.”
What then of the BAR project? Adrian Reynard knows the pitfalls. His first experience of F1 came with the tail-end RAM March team, and then in 1990-91 his company was nearly scuttled by its own aborted attempt at breaking into F1. Aware that not all the pieces were in place, he pulled the plug; Rory Byrne and his design team went to Benetton and much of the original Reynard design was reproduced for one Michael Schumacher. Reynard also supplied Pacific with its first cars, and built a prototype for DAMS, a project which didn’t get beyond the testing stage. This time, Reynard is doing it right.
“They know how to make racing cars,” says Tyrrell. “They haven’t done F1 before, but they’ll soon learn. They’ve got the most important thing that any team needs to have; the money to do the job. Even if they have to buy their engines, they’ve got the sort of budget that can buy the very best. If you’ve got the budget and the engine, then you’ll get the driver, because the best drivers then want to drive for you.”
A final word from Ken. Is he proud to have kept his team afloat while so many around him have sunk without trace? “I can’t say that I feel proud for having hung on, I feel disappointed that we didn’t perform better. But there’s no one else to blame except the man at the top, and that’s me!”