Almost famous

You can be a champion in Formula 3 and a top runner in F2, but that doesn’t ensure success in Formula 1…
By Rob Widdows

Tim Schenken is an ancient pilot – and proud of it. A big wheel in Australian motor sport, the former racer, constructor and team owner is one of a group of old boys determined to preserve and nurture the health of the Anciens Pilotes, a club that accepts only Grand Prix drivers as members.

Along with Derek Bell, Howden Ganley and Jochen Mass he is canvassing for new members among the younger Grand Prix drivers, and those who have recently reached the end of their careers. And he has good reason to appreciate the heritage of a sport that brought him from his home in Australia to sit amongst the greats on the Grand Prix grid. He was the first man to race for Ron Dennis in Formula Two, his mechanic on the Broadspeed Jaguars was one Nigel Stepney, and at Tiga he and Howden Ganley gave a man called Mike Coughlan his first chance at the drawing board.

“I’m told there are only three hundred people in the world who have raced a Grand Prix car. That’s why the club is worth looking after for the future and why it shouldn’t become just a few old codgers who will eventually disappear,” he smiles ruefully, “and I’ve always thought there’s something special about the men, and the women, who made it to that level.

“Then there’s the few truly gifted ones like Moss, Clark, Stewart, Senna, Schumacher and now Lewis Hamilton – they are the ones with an extra something, that natural gift for the job. So if you want to get there, you can get there, and that’s true of all the people in the little club we call the Anciens Pilotes.”

What about the new generation, the billion dollar wonder-boys of modern Formula 1? Not many are known for their desire to reflect on the past. “Well, it’s a new generation, a new way of thinking and yes, the money is better, and of course it’s a hell of a lot safer. People constantly talk about the good old days – well, these are the good old days – in 40, 50 years people will look back and say these were great days. When we were racing we thought we were pretty professional, pretty commercially minded and certainly we were compared to the guys who came before us – it’s a generation thing, the sport changes with every new generation.”

Schenken has seen and learnt a lot in his long career, and tragedy played its part in his struggle to reach the top, as it so often did in those days.

“Yes, it’s true.” He casts his mind back to the events of 1970. “When Piers Courage was killed at Zandvoort in June of that year I spoke to Frank Williams, as many others did, about getting a drive with the new team. It sounds callous but I’d won the British Formula Ford and Formula Three Championships two years earlier, I was up at the front of European F2, but I hadn’t broken into Formula One. And I was very determined to get there. We all were. So I was in touch with Frank after the accident at Zandvoort and he signed me up for the last few races of the year in the de Tomaso. It wasn’t a great car and there was never any money; apparently Frank used each year’s sponsorship to pay the previous year’s bills. Anyway, I retired in Austria, Italy and America but we managed to get to the finish in Canada. So I’d got into Formula One in tragic circumstances.

“I was at Monza when Jochen Rindt was killed – he was a hero of mine and it was all very confusing. There I was, doing what I’d always dreamed of doing, and then a tragedy like that comes along. I had nobody to turn to that weekend, and I just walked around in a daze. Of course, once I was back in the car, it was all put to one side – we all believed that it would never happen to us.

“The following year I was still there, in the Brabham BT33. And it wasn’t so bad; we got sixth at the Nürburgring and third at the Osterreichring, up there on the podium with Jo Siffert and Emerson Fittipaldi. And the Brabham was by no means the fastest thing out there.”

Not content with simply being one of 25 drivers on the Grand Prix grid, Schenken hankered after getting more involved in the team, in the engineering and design of the car. And this desire probably explains why things didn’t go too well when he joined Team Surtees for the 1972 season.

“Well, I guess it was never going to work,” he smiles. “John will have his own views on this. I think his ideal driver was one who just turned up, drove and left immediately. John always did the bulk of the testing but I did lots of laps at Goodwood and that was a role I enjoyed. I wanted to be more involved than that, more closely involved with the team. It was just absolute opposites with John and me.

“I was already driving for Ron Dennis in Formula Two and he had this vision of building a car and going Grand Prix racing so I decided to throw it all in with Surtees and hang in there with Ron Dennis. But as it turned out his plans took some time to come to fruition and I never did get to drive a Formula 1 car for him.”

In the end, 1972 was a good year for the man from Sydney, despite the ups and downs at Surtees. He won in Formula Two at Hockenheim and stood on the top step at Buenos Aires and at the Nürburgring in the World Sportscar Championship, sharing the works Ferrari 312P with Ronnie Peterson on both occasions. The sister car, in the hands of Ickx and Mario Andretti, won a further six races and Ferrari completely dominated the championship. “Great days,” says Schenken, “and it was fantastic to share that car with Ronnie.

“He was quite amazing. He only knew two gears – flat out, or at home in the garage. One night in Daytona we’d been out to dinner and Ronnie suddenly suggested we go for a drive along the beach. So of course we did, leaving the highway at enormous speed and sliding sideways all the way down to the edge of the ocean. Unfortunately, we failed to observe that all this occurred right in front of a police car. The speed limit, apart from anything else, was 25mph and we must have been doing over 80mph when we hit the beach. They escorted us to the police station, threw us in the cells with a load of drunks, and that’s where we stayed until we somehow persuaded them to let Ronnie go back to the hotel to retrieve our identity papers. Well, he was well and truly pissed off by now and left the car park in a cloud of smoke, rear wheels alight. The cops were not at all impressed and set up road blocks to catch him, which they did, and he came back looking very sheepish.

“In the end, Peter Schetty, the Ferrari team manager, bailed us out. We got a pretty frosty reception at the circuit the next day.”

Over the next couple of years he did another race for Williams again, and then came Trojan. There followed an outing with the new Lotus 76 at Watkins Glen at the end of ’74 and that was it for his Grand Prix career. Then came Broadspeed and the Jaguars.

“Yeah, it’s funny how things turn out,” he laughs. “That was 1977, and my mechanic on the Jag was Nigel Stepney. He was just a new kid on the block – I think it was his first proper job in a race team. It was a great car but we had all sorts of troubles with it and the engine was always suffering from oil surge. But by this time I was wanting to stop the driving and move on to running a team, become a constructor.”

Schenken formed Tiga Racing Cars with Howden Ganley, a New Zealander who’d raced for BRM and who’d come to Europe as a mechanic for Bruce McLaren.

“I reckon Howden taught Mike Coughlan all the basics of racing car design,” says Schenken. “He was just another young designer when he came along and I never identified him as anyone special, or particularly talented. Not like Adrian Reynard, who came to Tiga fresh from university and full of bright ideas. He helped to design a Sports 2000 car for us but he was keen to go his own way and, of course, the rest is history.”

Schenken was competing in F1 during an era that threw up some of the sport’s great heroes. He was on the grids with Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Peterson, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jackie Stewart, Jacky Ickx, Graham Hill, Jo Siffert – the list goes on and on. So which of his former racetrack rivals really stood out for him in those early years of the Seventies?

“It would have to be Ronnie,” he says without hesitation. “His car control was just fantastic. I’m not sure exactly what he had, but I know I never had it,” he laughs. “His balance, his sense of balancing the car, was incredible. But it’s funny, he was pathetic on the tennis court; he could hardly hit a ball, he was all arms and legs,.It was terrible to watch. But then you saw him in a racing car, it was wonderful, he had such beautiful car control. Jochen Rindt was very much the same. But Ronnie was always so unaffected by it all, none of the success ever went to his head.”

Tim Schenken is rarely given the recognition he is due. Mechanic, designer, engineer, constructor, and of course Ancien Pilote. He’s also a driving force within the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport, Clerk of the Course for the Australian Grand Prix and Race Director for the V8 Supercars series. Not content to sit back and polish the badge on the blazer, he remains energetically enthusiastic for the future of the sport that made his name. His old mate Howden Ganley is writing his memoirs, so no doubt we shall learn a lot more about Mr Schenken once the Ganley diaries appear on the shelves.

Meanwhile he wants to hear from both past and present Grand Prix drivers who have not yet signed up for the Club Anciens Pilotes. You know who you are.