Years of famine

After a 12-year winless stretch long enough to put anyone off, Ken Tyrrell remains just as positive as he was during the glory days of the early 1970s.

This month marks the 12th anniversary of Tyrrell’s last Grand Prix win, achieved by Michele Alboreto around the streets of Detroit.

It is now a staggering 22 years since the Ken Tyrrell-Jackie Stewart Dream Ticket celebrated its last World Championship success. In the intervening years since the Scot’s retirement, his former team has scored just seven victories.

Tyrrell himself is a figure for whom Formula One cannot be measured purely in terms of statistics. While half of the grid arguably races only for money, it could be said of Tyrrell that he requires money only for racing. He is, says one of his former drivers, a man who goes racing for all the right reasons.

Nice guy or not, a losing streak is still hard to take. Particularly when it is big enough rival the Conservative party’s by-election campaign.

“Look, first of all it’s something that I like doing, and for the last 27 years it’s been my life, really,” he says. “That’s not an excuse for relatively poor performance, but it’s a matter of fact: I like doing it, I have fun doing it.”

The comment is offered almost with the hint of an apology. None is necessary. Only once in 24 full seasons have his cars failed to score a point, and that solitary failure presaged a re-structuring that has brought the team once more to the verge of the big time.

More than one young journalist’s interview has been torpedoed by Tyrrell’s refusal to lapse into misty-eyed reverie at mere mention of the glory days. ‘These are the glory days!’ he has often responded.

“Obviously, it’s always better if you are going to be winning,’ he smiles. “The bad times are just as bad as they were then, and the good times are just as good.”

The good times, though, have been few and far between in recent years. Tyrrell believes you don’t have to look far for an explanation.

“What those last 27 years tell us is that if you want to win in Grands Prix, then you’d better have one of the top four drivers in the world driving for you,” he insists. “If you don’t, you’re not going to win. We have not been able to achieve that since Jackie retired.

“It’s an easy excuse to say we haven’t had the money, and I don’t like using it, but it’s a matter of fact that if you haven’t got the budget you can’t afford the top drivers. Another way of doing it is the way Frank Williams has introduced both Hill and Coulthard — take them in at the bottom and see if they can make it without costing you too much money. Williams can put any driver they like in their car. They might get a bit of stick from Renault, perhaps, but they’ve done it with both of those drivers and they are winning. But a team down here,” he says casting his eyes down the timesheets to his cars, “can’t do that. Although we thought we’d done that with Jean Alesi, actually. . .” The sentence trails off into a wry chuckle.

Right now he can afford to chuckle because, in the shape of Mika Salo, he may just have done it again. “Mika performed so well in testing,” he recalls, “that he looked like a star in the making. The first races we’ve done seem to indicate that might be the case.”

With just two Grands Prix under his belt, and those in an uncompetitive Lotus, the Finn was the sensation of the opening race of the 1995 season, rising as high as third at one stage. He underlined that this was no fluke by running fourth in Argentina.

Inevitably, perhaps, the performances have sparked suggestions that Tyrrell’s long drought may soon end.

“I think to talk about us winning in ’95 is a bit over the top,” he counsels, “but I certainly think we are capable of a few podiums. That’s our target this year. Ukyo (Katayama) is now a very experienced driver, and he has a number of very exceptional drives under his belt. Mika is still finding his way around the various circuits, and learning to accept that fourth is quite a good finishing position (a reference to the tangle with Aguri Suzuki which ended his Argentine GP), but that comes with racing experience. That’s why the top guys are not just quick, but they know the score.”

Having seen in excess of 20 teams come and go since his car last took the flag first, Tyrrell too knows the score. There have, he says, been only two occasions when he came close to throwing in the towel.

The first dates back to Watkins Glen 1973, scene of Francois Cevert’s death in practice for the US Grand Prix. Team-mates Chris Amon and Jackie Stewart were withdrawn, the latter from what was to have been his final event before retirement. The loss hit Tyrrell particularly hard.

“Being slung out of the championship in ’84 was bad but, without doubt, our lowest point was when Francois was killed,” he intones. “It was awful to lose a driver who had become part of the family really, very close to Jackie, very close to all of us. That was the lowest point. We could have chucked it in then.

“After some weeks I thought that it’s better to stay in, and to try and prevent this sort of thing happening, so we continued.”

The team reached its technical nadir in ’84, when it was ruled guilty of weight deception and excluded from the remainder of the championship. The affair still rankles with Tyrrell, whose abiding belief is that his stance on the fuel allowance for turbo engines — for which he alone had no deal on the table for ’85 — did not aid his cause.

Into the bargain, the points his team had scored thus far that season were revoked. Not until 1993, the first term of his engine alliance with Yamaha, would Tyrrell’s operation again fail to register a point by the year’s end.

In need of pounds, as much as points, he nevertheless decided that drastic steps were warranted. Harvey Postlethwaite was brought back into the fold, from Ferrari, and the technical squad assembled under him has taken the team back to the brink of success.

Postlethwaite’s ability to galvanise Yamaha, to get across the message that participation alone is not enough, has been instrumental in the team’s resurgence.

“It’s been a twin-pronged effort,” explains Tyrrell of his links with the Japanese. “When one of us gets in a bit of trouble, the other one doesn’t go and clobber them. We talk about it, and try to overcome the problem. The relationship with Yamaha is a very close one and their performance has gone up in about the same ratio as ours has. We’re not a Grand Prix-winning team yet, but we’re moving in that direction.”

The last decade has lacked victories, but not valour. He may profess himself too long in the tooth for sentiment, but an unmistakable gleam nevertheless enters his eyes when the talk turns to Stefan Bellof’s drive at Monaco in ’84…

“It was unusual in that Martin (Brundle) was putting in a lap which, until he lost it by the swimming pool, was going to put him on the grid. But he lost it, the thing turned on its side and slid along the track. It was a big shunt. He came running back up the pits to get the spare car. I said, ‘Are you alright?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m fine, fine.’ So we got him in the spare car and were doing up the seatbelts when he looked up at me and said, ‘Where are we?’

“We undid the seatbelts…

“That left Stefan qualifying last on the grid. On race day it rained. The whole race was wet and they eventually stopped it. From last on the grid, he got himself up to third spot, and was catching Prost hand-over-fist. Prost had a problem, and was waving to the organisers to stop the race. The rain had, in fact, eased off. There really was no need to stop the race.

“Stefan was overhauling Prost and, the lap they actually flagged him, Prost pulled in because he had a brake problem. That left us catching Senna, who would have been leading, and he was catching him at one or two seconds a lap. They stopped the race…

“Then, of course, they took the result away from us. Whatever they thought we had done, it had nothing to do with Monaco, did it?

“Bellof was the best German driver that we’d seen since the war. No question, he was quite exceptional. He was driving a very much underpowered car but, when it rained, he probably had exactly the right car for the conditions. But, nevertheless, he still had to do it, and he had to pass all the other cars in order to do it. He was brave, and he was quick.”

As, indeed, is Jean Alesi. His exploits likewise catapulted the team back fleetingly into the limelight in ’90.

“Alesi at Phoenix and Alesi at Monaco sit in the memory.” Tyrrell warms to his theme. “I suppose they were equally spectacular.

“He led the race in Phoenix for 30 laps. How could he lead the bloody race? With a 20 year-old engine, an old eight-cylinder Cosworth opened up to three and half litres by Brian Hart. And he led the race for 30 laps! And who did he lead it from?

“I was praying for Senna to come through and pass him. I wanted Ayrton to get in front of him so that he could ease off. And what happened? Senna caught him just after third distance, passed him, and then Jean had repassed him before the next corner. Oh, shit!

“At Monaco he also did the most extraordinary thing. The sort of thing where it’s too easy to say you’ll never see the like of it again. He qualified third, and went down the inside of Prost at Mirabeau, first lap, down the hill, and made it. Outbraked Prost. Unfortunately, Berger saw Alesi doing it and thought, ‘If he can do it, I can,’ whereupon he couldn’t! He T-boned him and caused chaos behind — 15 cars in a heap.

“They stopped the race, and he tried to do exactly the same thing at the second start, same place: down the inside of Prost.

“He ought to have won a Grand Prix by now, shouldn’t he?” And so, perhaps, after 12 years out of the winner’s circle, should Tyrrell. But, as a successful timber merchant, Tyrrell knows the wood from trees; knows that the team has lived through an era when survival was in itself a success.