Band of Brothers

With Alex Hawkridge at the helm, Toleman took Formula 2 by storm in 1980. Chris Witty, a motor sport writer, was hired to head up PR and recalls a season like no other, where an unlikely collection of characters pulled off a sensation

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Engineer John Gentry checks the time as his driver Derek Warwick prepares for action at the Nürburgring

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July 1979, the first corner at Enna, Sicily: my life as a freelance reporter covering the European Formula 2 Championship was about to take a different turn – much like title contender Brian Henton’s Ralt RT2.

Anticipating the chaos that normally ensued at the Vivalo corner at the start of a race, we’d made our way there to witness the inevitable fun and games. Beforehand, Henton had voiced concerns about those around him crashing into each other and, with a victory putting him into a strong position to win the European title, he had one eye on the escape road in an effort to steer clear of the melée.

Henton’s fears proved to be right. He got pole position but was allowed to choose the opposite side of the track to start, thereby giving Beppe Gabbiani in one of the works March 792s the better track position for the first corner, which was a tight left then right combination. Brian was convinced that by having Beppe on the dirty inside line he’d lock up on the dust and grit and “have an accident”. But it didn’t work out like that. Brian made  a good start and moved over to the racing line, and yet Beppe still came barrelling up on the inside, locked up and slewed sideways across Henton’s path. Brian had little option but to take the escape road as the customary Enna first-corner chaos ensued.

The track re-entry was quite some way up the road and it was where Brian rejoined, allegedly ignoring a startled Sicilian marshal who was wildly waving a flag, that was to cause the controversy. Henton moved behind Eje Elgh and then proceeded to go on and win quite comfortably. Thereafter, there was a protest and Henton was disqualified for his actions, one accusation being that he had premeditated his actions at the start to gain an advantage, disobeying a marshal in the process.

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From left: Teo Fabi, Manfred Winkelhock, Toleman team manager Roger Silman, Henton, Warwick, Rhonda Warwick and Tim Schenken at Mugello

After the post-race decision, Henton’s Toleman Group Motorsport team boss, Alex Hawkridge, approached a number of us who’d been watching at the first corner. What had we seen? Would anyone be prepared to be a witness? They were going to appeal the stewards’ decision. I agreed to give an account of what I saw. Months later, after Marc Surer, March and BMW had ‘won’ the European F2 title at Donington due to Brian’s Enna disqualification, I found myself at an Italian CSAI court hearing giving my account – which differed from the version of FIA observer and BARC chief executive Sid Offord. Thereafter, a further appeal to the FIA was thrown out and Surer was officially confirmed as champion. Alex thanked me for my time and asked if I planned to carry on writing about F2 for the following season and beyond. He explained that, undeterred by the court ruling, he was determined to push ahead not only to win the Euro F2 Championship with a car bearing the company’s name, but also had plans to go into Formula 1. Would I like to go and work for them? I took it on board, gave it a quick assessment, and took up my position handling the team’s public and press affairs from the start of 1980.

Brentwood-based Toleman, whose mainstream business was providing nationwide car delivery straight from the factory to dealerships and on to customers, had a long history of competing in British club racing. However, after South African Rad Dougall won both the British Formula Ford 2000 championships in 1977 driving one of two Royale RP25s (one car for each series no less), the company’s managing director, Hawkridge, decided they would forego the usual path of moving into Formula 3 for 1978; instead he bought two brand-new customer F2 March 782s with BMW power prepared by Swiss engine guru Heini Mader.

What’s more, Hawkridge, who had raced a Formula Ford Royale RP21 in the 1976 Dunlop Star of Tomorrow series with some success, was able to persuade Royale’s young South African designer Rory Byrne to amicably leave the highly successful company that Alan Cornock had just taken over from Bob King, to engineer the Toleman race programme.

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BP wanted an all-British F2 line-up at Toleman in 1980, so paired Brian Henton with Derek Warwick. Henton (right) replaced Stephen South, who lost the drive after failing to tell the team about his McLaren F1 test

For 1979 Toleman switched tack, Rory and Alex deciding to align themselves to Ron Tauranac and his Ralt RT2 design as the best way of beating March. Following Enna and Henton’s subsequent championship near-miss, Hawkridge and Byrne took the ambitious decision to press the green light on their own Toleman chassis for 1980, thus triggering the birth of what was to become the greatest, most successful underdog team to rattle the establishment in F1.

The Toleman TG280 F2 cars were built by BS Fabrications in Luton, which had been formed in 1972 by ex-race mechanics Bob Sparshott and John Woodington. Their attention to detail was superb. Every TG280 chassis was built at BS Fabs, which turned out to be the four works cars together with six more for customers, plus a test bed for the Hart F1 engine. They were 20 per cent more expensive than a March, but Toleman wasn’t after a customer market. It wanted a title and a team that would eventually lead to F1.

The first chassis was finished in time for a press launch at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho in January 1980. We shoehorned a TG280 into the foyer of the small, smoky venue, chosen by Pirelli’s UK PR manager Tom Northey through his friendship with manager of the club Peter King, a decent club racer himself. BP, through the efforts of its UK motor sport manager Les Thacker, had now become the team’s main sponsor. This was a break in tradition from the previous five years where Les had initially backed the British Formula 3 Championship and supported a number of drivers in that category, mainly emerging British talent. He’d helped Derek Warwick and continued to do so, despite a disastrous F2 season in 1979 when the Warwick family ran their own March 792. Les had also helped Stephen South, who had struggled to fund his racing, and had now emerged as a proven front runner in F2 driving for Ron Dennis’ ICI March-BMW outfit.

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Henton finished third at Pau in May. Here he leads Bruno Corradi’s Minardi-BMW

With BP launching its new VF7 multigrade oil, a higher profile of sponsorship and an increase in expenditure and technical support was required. Taking South on as team leader was a given, but Hawkridge had concerns over Warwick, who’d had his fair share of incidents the previous year. Nevertheless, this all-British line-up was approved.

The first wheel turned in anger came at a chilly Goodwood soon after the official launch. What was planned was an extensive tyre test programme with Pirelli in Italy using Vallelunga and Mugello to try out dozens of different constructions and compounds to decide which would be best suited to the TG280. Vallelunga, just north of Rome, has a very pleasant climate at that time of year and there was no restriction on testing. If you could afford it, you just went out and did it.

The big shock for us, just as we started the tyre test programme, was South asking Rory if he could be excused for a day as he had another engagement elsewhere. What none of us knew was that he’d be testing a McLaren M29 F1 car at Paul Ricard. His actions led to him being sacked with immediate effect as we saw the story in the French sporting newspaper L’Équipe the next day. It was unfortunate but understandable. Who his replacement would be became a major talking point and Tiff Needell, who’d raced for the team in the final Hockenheim F2 race in 1979 and might have finished on the podium if it weren’t for an engine issue, was told by Alex to fly out to Mugello to join Warwick for the tyre test programme. Tiff enjoyed a better ‘audition’ at a Silverstone test, but it was almost inevitable that without South, the driver best suited to the task of winning the European title would be Henton.

Although no longer a ‘coming man’ at 33, Henton was the best British driver on the market at that time. Brian was eight years older than Warwick and, by Derek’s own admission, racing beside him would be the making of the ex-Superstox world champion.

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Henton (on left) won the title at Misano, where he finished second

I remember arriving at Thruxton for the opening race of the 1980 F2 season in confident mood. Our pre-season testing had been encouraging and despite Henton damaging his brand-new race car in unofficial practice when he tangled with a spinning Manfred Winkelhock, we’d regrouped by the time official practice had started. Alex was understandably nervous, smoking like a chimney and pacing around. But he didn’t need to be. The Pirelli race tyre proved better suited to the warmer weather on race day and, while Brian and Derek strolled to an emphatic 1-2, the Goodyear runners found their tyres degrading after 10 laps.

A week later, our rivals March, BMW, Goodyear and Teo Fabi redressed the balance at Hockenheim and also at a wet Nürburgring, where the Pirellis weren’t quite up to spec. But Henton finished second in both those races. His consistency and eye for the prize that had eluded him the previous year allowed him to build on his championship lead. Brian Hart’s 2-litre bespoke 420R engines, first produced in 1974 and effectively designed while sunning himself on a beach in Malta, were certainly up to the task in every department. They matched the BMW for horsepower and, being made of alloy, were lighter too.

It would be fair to say that March, BMW and Fabi never gave up the battle in 1980, but the Toleman cars were just so reliable and fast. When the tracks suited Pirelli more than Goodyear, Brian and Derek would disappear off into the distance with the never-say-die Andrea de Cesaris always giving his best to hang on. Eventually he got his moment of glory at Misano. That was the race where Brian and the team clinched the championship with Derek a confirmed runner-up with a race to go.

We enjoyed the week leading up to Misano; the vibe was very different from the previous year. Pirelli was understandably happy seeing all its hard work pay off, particularly when two of our customer cars driven by Huub Rothengatter and Siegfried Stohr, run by the Docking-Spitzley team, had also won at Zolder and Enna, giving the TG280 six wins in total.

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Warwick was often quicker in practice

On the track, Derek was often the faster of the two in practice but Brian had the experience to be the quicker on race day. He switched to a new chassis mid-season at Silverstone as Rory had come up with a new rear suspension design that took the springs and dampers up and out of the airstream and repositioned them on top of the gearbox. It was to help both aerodynamics and our straight-line performance. Derek didn’t get the modification until two races later at Mugello, but it didn’t seem to make too much difference because he scored a superb maiden F2 victory at Silverstone that day, while Brian suffered a rare technical glitch. In fact, illustrating the superb reliability we had, Brian finished nine of the 11 races on the podium. Derek also did a stellar job and finished on the podium seven times.

We elected to miss the final round in order to focus on our move up into F1 but the overall performance of those works TG280s in 1980 will long remain a happy memory in my life.

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Henton and Warwick kicked off the 1980 F2 season with a fine 1-2 at Thruxton