A talented driver in his own right, Walkinshaw was even more successful as a team boss and became the architect of Benetton’s early F1 success
On the Saturday afternoon of the 2002 Belgian Grand Prix I visited the Arrows motorhome to do an interview with Tom Walkinshaw. I wanted to ask about a race that had happened two decades earlier, but my timing could not have been worse. All season the financial net had been closing on Arrows and its beleaguered boss. The team had missed the previous race in Hungary, and while it had a presence in Belgium, the cars had not gone out on track.
Before I set my tape running Tom was more interested in talking — or perhaps I should say baring his soul — about the situation. Let down by sponsors, tormented by a financial institution that had a stake in the team, and under fire from all sides, he was a distracted bundle of nervous energy. This was a man I was used to seeing in total control, so it was something of a shock.
Spa was to be Tom’s final appearance in a Formula 1 paddock as a team boss. In the days that followed Arrows finally passed the point of no return, and its failure brought down the whole TWR Group a few months later.
Folk with whom Walkinshaw had tussled on the track — or in business — expressed little sympathy when things went wrong. That included the many British Racing Drivers’ Club members who went apoplectic when in 1992 Tom persuaded the club’s board to invest £5.3 million in a 50 per cent stake in his garage business, triggering an acrimonious legal dispute which badly dented Tom’s reputation.
The BRDC saga was somehow typical of the yin and yang of Walkinshaw, the rough with the smooth, the good and the negative. His involvement may have ended in acrimony, but as chairman of Silverstone Circuits he kickstarted the process of bringing the track out of the dark ages, overseeing the 1991 redesign.
Tom had been chosen for the job because the BRDC hoped to benefit from the same forceful, driven personality that won Le Mans and the World Sportscar Championship (WSC) for Jaguar, and later helped to turn Benetton into a title-winning Grand Prix team. For decades Walkinshaw pushed the limits in every aspect of his life, achieving huge success along the way. His tough approach wasn’t appreciated by everyone, and he had many critics. But the employees who had worked for him over the years, and the drivers in whose careers he played a major role, knew him as an inspiring leader.
“He did come in for a lot of stick at times,” says former TWR driver Win Percy. “But as a loyal friend, as a partner in a car and as a boss, he gave 100 per cent, and I believe I gave him 100 per cent. Whenever I needed a friend, like when we lost our son and when I was disabled, Tom would appear. He was always there. He was hard, he was determined, but he was a good-hearted bloke.”
“He was a ruthless man, there’s no doubt about it,” says Martin Brundle. “You couldn’t mess about. He gave you everything, and you had to give it back. But that wasn’t a problem.”
Tom’s death from cancer last December turned out to be the final chapter in a life story that featured twists and turns of almost Shakespearean proportions.
From a farming family, he started racing with an MG Midget before progressing to an FF1600 Lotus 61. After one early outing at Ingliston ended in a crash he was presented with a bill for repairing the barrier, but he soon proved to be a winner.
In the early 1970s his focus remained very much on single-seaters, although an anklebreaking crash at Brands Hatch didn’t help. A Ford contract led to success in saloons and also gave him access to a Cosworth V6 engine supply for use in F5000, and in 1974-75 he proved competitive in the Shellsport series with Modus and March chassis.
Tom’s stocky build and aggressive style didn’t really suit single-seaters, and from 1976 — the year he turned 30 — he focused on saloons. While still racing a Capri in Britain, he joined forces with BMW for international events. The muscular CSL proved to be right up his street and he scored a string of major wins over the next couple of seasons.
Tom could have sustained a career as a paid works driver for many years to come, but his ambitions lay far beyond the cockpit. By 1977 he was officially BMW GB’s motor sport manager, and the Munich connection led to the birth of TWR.
“We were originally based at Bill Shaw’s workshop in Tottenham,” recalls Walkinshaw’s first employee, Eddie Hinckley. “We built a BMW 530i to run in the British championship. Tom decided that he wanted to look for some premises, and one day we drove up to Oxfordshire and looked at a unit in Kidlington. I remember thinking, how are we going to fill all this space?”
Tom and Eddie painted the factory floor at No1 Station Field Industrial Estate and set to work. The operation duly began to take shape during 1978. The original intention was to run Gunnar Nilsson in between his Arrows Formula 1 commitments, but the Swede’s illness put a stop to that, so Dieter Quester drove a Pentax-backed car, while Tom also fielded a Toleman entry for Rad Dougall.
Having initially focused on managing the team, Walkinshaw returned to the cockpit late in the season, providing the ubiquitous Capris with a stiff challenge. Frustrated by the RAC’s handling of the complex Group 1 homologation rules, he spotted a loophole and stripped out the interior to save weight, triggering controversy when he won a couple of races at the end of the year. It was not the last time that Tom would push the boundaries of rule interpretation.
The hallmarks of what made TWR so successful were established from the off, namely get the right people on board, scrutinise the rule book, do everything to the highest standards and, perhaps most importantly, attract manufacturer support rather than rely on the vagaries of commercial sponsorship. The BMW involvement also soon extended to aftermarket parts and conversions, establishing road cars as a key element of the business model.
The early years saw an incredible expansion. In 1979 Walkinshaw created the BMW County Championship and went international by fielding an M1 in the Procar series. However, the BMW origins of the company were quickly submerged. That year Tom demonstrated that he had no intention of being tied to a single manufacturer by running a Mazda RX7 in the British Touring Car Championship, which led to a heroic Spa 24 Hours win in 1981.
He continued to extend his relationships with other manufacturers, somehow managing to juggle seemingly conflicting contracts. In 1981 TWR added both Audi (with Stirling Moss) and Rover works BTCC deals to the roster. There were also rally projects, including the Range Rover that won the 1981 Paris-Dakar.
“He obviously had a master plan, but we never sat down and discussed where we were going,” says Hinckley. “It just seemed to roll along at a rapid rate! Obviously he was a great motivator, but it was hard work because there weren’t many of us initially. He was certainly very dynamic.” “He started work at 8.30am and never went home much before 9pm seven days a week,” says long-time right-hand man Andy Morrison. “He had a race most weekends, and if there was a problem everyone sat down on Monday morning, talked it through and resolved it. That was part of the DNA of TWR. The business was built on reaction times and a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, which came from the top and permeated through to everybody else. His energy levels were fantastic.”
The Audi and Rover projects had both been started by other teams, but the RX7 was not the last time that Walkinshaw would do something new and surprising. In 1982 he turned the Jaguar XJ-S into an unlikely European Touring Car Championship contender for the new Group A rules.
Initially there was no official support from Coventry, but early success meant that it came for 1983. The following year Tom won the drivers’ title, and when Jaguar’s involvement was subsequently refocused on the WSC, TWR remained successful in the ETCC with Rover. And Walkinshaw was still at the top of his game as a driver.
“It was an honour to drive with the bloke,” says Percy. “The beauty of it was that if something broke, he didn’t blame anybody. It was up to the team to put it right, to make it foolproof. He was hard on a car, so he expected that. Everything was so physical, but that’s the way he wanted it. He put 100 per cent into it, and so did you.”
“We used to reckon we should put him in a lion’s cage,” says Hinckley. “We’d wheel it up to the car and slide the door open! When he was in the car he was alright. When he was out of the car he could be a pain in the arse…”
In 1986 Walkinshaw created Holden Special Vehicles as a joint venture with General Motors, which led in turn to an involvement in the Aussie touring car scene. Tom’s last outing was at Bathurst in 1988, before he retired at just 42 to concentrate on running the expanding Kidlington empire.
As a driver Tom had inevitably been the main focus of most TWR touring car activities. The Jaguar sports car programme was the first time he had sat on the sidelines, but his personality continued to dominate the operation, even when he employed star drivers.
Having honed its collective skills in the ETCC, the team won the World Championship in its second full season in 1987, while its heroic Le Mans efforts captured the hearts of the public. Tom rewarded the fans with victory at the third attempt in 1988, repeating the feat in 1990. TWR also moved into the USA with an Indiana-based IMSA team that twice won at Daytona.
For 1991 the WSC rules demanded 3.5-litre F1 -style engines, and Tom prepared for the change by hiring Ross Brawn. The former Arrows designer duly set to work on what became the XJR-14, the car that moved the goalposts in terms of sports car design.
Jaguar won the title in ’91, but with the category dying on its feet the marque pulled out of racing. The XJR-14 subsequently had a second life as a Mazda in 1992, and — with the roof chopped off — eventually became the Porsche that won Le Mans in 1996 and ’97.
Walkinshaw was never shy about re-using existing technology, having previously turned the Metro 6R4 V6 into the Jaguar Group C turbo that later found its way into the XJ220, the ultimate expression of TWR’s road car involvement. However, it wasn’t the car that buyers had been promised — no V12, no fourwheel drive — which caused considerable acrimony. But he could also pull off surprises, such as running the Volvo Estate in the BTCC.
Tom had long hoped to take Jaguar into Formula 1, but he found another route. In the middle of 1991 it was announced that TWR had taken a significant stake in Benetton, and Tom was given the role of engineering director. The deal was simple — Flavio Briatore would take care of the money and Tom would do everything else. It suited both parties.
At the time the team was struggling. Key players had left for the Reynard F1 project because they could not work under John Barnard, only for the star designer to subsequently leave. It was a mess, and engine partner Ford was not impressed.
Tom put Brawn in, and when Reynard floundered, he brought back Rory Byrne, Pat Symonds and others. Later he created a stateof-the-art facility on the Enstone site that had been earmarked for Reynard. And most significantly it was Tom who fought Eddie Jordan for the services of Michael Schumacher prior to the 1991 Italian GP, creating the dream team that would go on to win the World Championship three years later.
“He had a great vision of lateral thinking about how things could or couldn’t be done,” says Brawn. “Tom never really accepted no as an answer.”
After Schumacher’s stunning 1994 season Walkinshaw was ousted in somewhat cloudy circumstances, having in effect been made to carry the can for allegations that the team had employed illegal traction control. Briatore now had sole custody of a team that Tom had honed into a formidable fighting unit.
“It was inevitable even with success or failure that that was going to be a bit of a fraught partnership,” recalls Brawn. “It was difficult to have two cockerels in the farmyard…”
Immensely frustrated, in 1995 Tom went instead to Ligier, then part-owned by Briatore. Running a team based in France was not ideal, but the carrot was that TWR would eventually gain full control. In the end Flavio reneged on the deal, and after a showdown in Melbourne in 1996 Walkinshaw was steered towards cash-strapped Arrows by Bernie Ecclestone.
The team was soon moved into TWR’s new technical centre at Leafield, which had been intended for the Ligier test team. Tom had a point to prove.
“I think part of what drove Tom to do the Arrows and Ligier things was he felt frustrated that Flay got all the credit at Benetton, whereas he was the man on the ground,” says Brundle, briefly involved in the Arrows management. “There were a lot of good people at Benetton, but he put it together and was instrumental in getting Michael there.”
Walkinshaw put together an impressive package for the first full season under his stewardship in 1997. He was the first to commit to Bridgestone tyres, landed a works Yamaha engine supply and convinced Damon Hill to come on board.
Hill nearly won in Hungary — a race that could have transformed the team’s fortunes — but after a difficult first season he moved to Jordan and the Yamaha deal also ended.
For a while Barnard led the technical side, although his exacting standards did little to keep a lid on spending. All the time Walkinshaw was juggling sponsorship deals and potential investors, but crucially what was missing was the manufacturer support that had bankrolled so many TWR projects. Although he usually had one decent driver, Tom also had to take guys who brought funding. It was not the way he wanted to go racing.
A misguided flirtation with ‘Prince’ Malik Ido Ibrahim in 1999 led nowhere, but more importantly the Nigerian’s involvement left a share of the team in the hands of investment bank Morgan Grenfell.
Arrows stalled as a midfield runner, picking up points here and there, but little more. Engines were a regular headache. Tom bought out Brian Hart, and the team had its own powerplant for a couple of years. That was followed by a season with Supertecs (leased from Briatore), then another with the former Peugeot engines under the Asiatech name. The latter was at least a low-cost solution, but for 2002 Tom wanted the best package available and went to Cosworth to source the engine that Jaguar Racing was using.
In the course of that year the financial squeeze became unavoidable. A Cosworth deal cost US$20m in those pre-restriction days, and the engine supplier — then overseen by an unsympathetic Niki Lauda — held all the cards. More than once the cars remained in the garage pending payment for services rendered, and so began a downward spiral.
There were potential rescuers, notably Red Bull, which would eventually buy Jaguar Racing. But Morgan Grenfell wanted to sell its own stake rather than permit new investment, the men in suits seemingly oblivious to the fact that the market value of the team fell by the race. Tom himself summed things up just weeks before Arrows folded: “It’s a very gladiatorial environment that we have in F1, and it is part of its allure as well. It’s survival of the fittest…”
After Arrows folded the TWR Group — by now more involved in the industry than the sport — collapsed like a stack of dominoes, finally going into receivership in February 2003. For a workaholic who for 25 years had poured his heart and soul into building the business, it was a bitter defeat.
“That was the biggest shock Tom ever had,” says Percy. “Until then it was all forward motion — go, go, go. He was very much in control of his life and the people around him. He demanded respect and got it. Although he wouldn’t discuss it, it hurt him a lot.”
“He was completely devastated,” says Morrison. “I don’t think it helped his ultimate health problems.”
Tom retained his successful interests in Australia and later established a UK business under the Walkinshaw Performance name, albeit at a modest level. He also had his extensive involvement in professional rugby.
Some three years ago came another hammer blow — cancer. He fought it with every ounce of the determination and drive that saw him achieve so much both as a driver and team owner, although for a long time this intensely private man kept his true condition to himself, even from those who knew him well.
“That was typical Tom,” says Percy. “It was, ‘That’s for me to know and you to find out.’ When I last saw him there was no question of the cancer getting him. He was going to beat it. ‘I’m not giving into this…”
Last year he went to the Monaco and British Grands Prix, catching up with old friends in the paddock. But then in the autumn things took a turn for the worse and his planned trip to Bathurst in October was cancelled. On the morning of December 12 Tom lost his final battle, at the age of 64.
“It’s like a huge hole in your life because he’s not there,” says Percy. “You can’t pick up the phone and say hello, what are you doing? I haven’t come to terms with it yet. This one is as hard to accept as a member of the family.”