Lunch with... Gary Anderson

A former mechanic who set up his own race car business and went on to become an F1 designer, despite having no formal qualifications... writer Simon Taylor | photographer James Mitchell

In a working life spent in motor racing, most of it in Formula 1, Gary Anderson liked to do things his way. He preferred to work with smaller teams, striving to make their mark with tight budgets and meagre staffing levels. For him, a job at one of the bigger teams inevitably brought in its wake the dead hand of politics. He had his job to do: if there was interference from people who he felt weren’t qualified to interfere, he walked. 

He came into the sport entirely without qualifications, starting as a humble mechanic and ending up as a Formula 1 designer of standing. He worked for six different F1 teams, and he was a key player at Jordan Grand Prix from the team’s birth, designing and developing all its cars over eight seasons. He also did two stints in Indycar, and he was a manufacturer in his own right, producing several versions of the Anson single-seaters. 

He watches F1’s current tribulations with dismay, and is strongly critical of the way the rules are repeatedly changed without, in his view, any proper analysis of what the true problems are. Clearly lunch with Gary is going to be a trenchant affair.

His choice of venue is an old motor racing haunt: the Green Man at Syresham. Back when the A43 was a single-carriageway trunk road it was a no-nonsense English pub, good for a pie and a pint after a happy day at the original Silverstone circuit two miles up the road. But sadly it’s now a rather plastic adjunct to a dreary assembly of sleeping cabins known as a Premier Inn. However, soup plus cod and chips seem a reasonably safe bet.

Gary was born 65 years ago in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. “A cousin of mine was Freddie Heaney, who raced a Mini, and he took me to a few races at Kirkistown and Bishopscourt. But it simply never occurred to me that you could make a living out of motor sport. In my mind I never put together racing cars and getting paid. 

“I hated school, never showed any ability, certainly not for maths or drawing. But, you know, there’s something in the Irish culture: there’s not much of anything in Ireland, so if you want something you have to make it yourself. You have to work out how it’s done, and create it off your own bat. I think they have the same thing in New Zealand – and there’s a few New Zealanders who’ve done pretty well in racing. When I started in motor sport there was a lot I didn’t understand, but I wasn’t afraid to ask questions. And people would take the trouble to talk things through with you: not like professional motor sport today, when nobody has the time.

“As a teenager I worked in a chipboard factory, with huge steam presses that compressed the woodchips together. One day something went wrong with one of the presses and I was told to crawl inside and fix it, pulling myself on my elbows through the gap, with a rope tied around my ankles so my mate could drag me out. While I was in there the press started up again. My mate had gone out for a fag, and my squeals weren’t heard until the press was beginning to crush me. I decided it was time to go to England and see what was going on. 

***

“The only contact I had was another cousin who lived in Kent. I slept on his floor, and found work driving a dumper truck on a building site. Then a mate took me up to Brands Hatch, and there was a job going as a mechanic at the Motor Racing Stables school. I don’t remember what I was paid, but a bonus was that part of my wages was an occasional 10 laps of the club circuit.

“The school cars, old Formula Ford Lotus 51s, were absolutely worn out. There was me and one other mechanic, Bob, and our job was to keep those cars alive. Every day they’d be crashed and bent and twisted, and we’d work until midnight straightening them. I lived in the school’s Transit van, parked in the paddock and using the spectators’ loos. My 21st birthday consisted of a tin of beans, a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk in the back of the van. 

“One Saturday I gave Bob a lift home, and on my way back to Brands a Vauxhall hit me head-on. The Transit wasn’t driveable, so now I had nowhere to sleep. Bob was living behind a butcher’s shop in Swanley village with his sister Jenny, so I persuaded him to take me in. That was in 1972, and 43 years later Jenny and I are still married. That Vauxhall did me a good turn.

“Jenny reckoned I couldn’t work on school cars all my life, so she wrote a letter to Brabhams asking for a job, and signed my name. We got a reply from Colin Seeley, the motorbike racer who was working then for Bernie Ecclestone at Brabham. He said there were no jobs. By the next day’s post came a letter from Bernie, summoning me to an interview, and I was hired to work on the F2 and F3 cars, the BT40 and 41. 

“That winter Bernie decided that Brabham should have the biggest, smartest rig in the F1 paddock. He bought this huge artic, which had been a mobile catering school, and told Bob Dance and me to convert it into a state of the art transporter.” Dance, the legendary Lotus mechanic, was having a spell at Brabham. “Bernie wanted everything to be perfect. Every Tuesday he’d come down and monitor our progress. I think it was more important to him than the new BT42s.”

He must have liked what he saw, because Gary now found himself promoted to the F1 team. “With Bernie, everything was black and white. You could have a blazing argument with him, and then it would be done and gone. I’ve seen him pull a phone out by its roots and throw it at the wall because it rang when he didn’t want it to. One guy at Brabham had two calendars on the wall of his office. Bernie told him, “You don’t need to know the date twice,” tore one down and threw it out of the window. 

“I think he’s the same now as he always was, he’s never changed. Most of his humour involves saying outrageous things to wind you up. He wants to find out where you stand: he’ll push you to the limit to see if you really mean what you’re saying. 

“Gordon Murray was the designer, of course. A wonderful man. When I’d just been moved onto the F1 team, late one night we were setting up the cars, doing the cambers and so on, and he came in. I started asking him things – why is that like that, why did you do that there – and he sat down on a tool box and talked to me, took time to answer all my questions. 

“He was an original thinker, never wanted to follow other people’s ideas. You couldn’t do it in F1 now, but in the ’70s and ’80s the Chapmans, the Murrays could go off at a tangent and try new stuff. They wanted to see what was out there. The BT42, for example, had its triangular monocoque. It was what I’d call a considerate car, not just to the driver but to the mechanics who had to work on it, and to the people who had to make parts for it. Everything on that car was thought through.”

This inventive atmosphere drove Gary, in what little spare time he had at Brabham, to design his own racing car. He got together with Bob Simpson – the same Bob who’d been his fellow mechanic at MRS, now an F1 mechanic at Tyrrell as well as his brother-in-law – and behind the butcher’s shop the first Anson was built.

“The SA1 used some BT38 bits that were being chucked away at Brabham, and we made our own monocoque with a stressed engine bay: it was one of the first F3 cars to have that. I actually won a formule libre race with it at Castle Combe. But of course the problem was money. Until you actually get down and do it you don’t realise how much it all costs.

“By 1976 I was chief mechanic at Brabham, but at the end of that season I decided to leave and try to make a go of building Ansons commercially. The F3 driver Dick Parsons – he was killed at Silverstone 10 years later – introduced us to Unipart, and they said, ‘You build your new car, and we’ll sponsor it.’ So we built the SA2 for Dick, but then Unipart decided to switch to March. That left us high and dry, with a car and no money. 

“Then I had a call from a guy called Ted Toleman. ‘Come and meet us, we’ve got a proposition for you.’ He and his man Alex Hawkridge wanted to take over Anson. They talked big: plans for F2, even F1. Toleman was sitting there with gold dripping out of his shirt, and I wasn’t sure about these guys, so I said, ‘Thanks, but I’d rather keep going on my own.’ That was probably the biggest mistake of my life, because all that big talk was exactly what they went on to do.

“So it was back to F1, and I joined McLaren for the 1977 season. Teddy Mayer was running things then, with Alastair Caldwell, and Gordon Coppuck was the designer; our drivers were James Hunt and Jochen Mass. Jochen was a lovely guy, a real character. 

“As for James, he’d won the championship the previous year, but now he seemed to be doing a job that he no longer wanted to do. He had a real natural talent, but I don’t think he enjoyed the risk of F1. He was always up for a laugh, and we all enjoyed working with him, but I’ve never seen a driver so strung up before a race. This thing of him being sick is well known: in fact it was usually on the warm-up lap. He would throw up in his helmet. He’d leave the pits with two bits of rag under his legs, one wet, one dry, so on the grid he could wipe his overalls and his visor. He won three Grands Prix that year, but in 1978 his only podium was one third place at Ricard. Then he went to Wolf, and pulled out mid-season.

“To start with at McLaren my job was looking after the spare car, but in 1978 I was running James’ car with Teddy. Teddy called the shots, but he was out of control most of the time, he didn’t have the technical leadership.
I had to settle things down and see that the mechanics got things done. Alastair ran the second car, with Jochen and then with Patrick Tambay – another lovely guy. Alastair was hard work. He was a bit of a bully, and very confrontational. I was big and ugly enough to stand up to him, but it never did me much good. Then he went off to Brabham, and I was there in ‘79 with Tambay and John Watson. 

“In 1980 I went to Ensign, which really was like a small family. It was Mo Nunn’s team: he wasn’t a forceful character, but he pulled it all together. Nigel Bennett and Ralph Bellamy were the designers, and Clay Regazzoni was the driver. There were lots of problems, things falling off that weren’t stressed properly, and then at Long Beach, as Clay hit the brakes at the end of the long straight, the pedal snapped off. He hit the concrete barrier and the chassis folded up, forcing his knees up to his shoulders.” Regazzoni was in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, although later on, miraculously, he raced and rallied in cars with hand controls.

“The heart rather went out of Ensign after that, and Bob and I decided we’d have another go at making Anson work. We set out to make parts for F1 teams, like skirt mechanisms and radiators, but we soon realised we’d rather build cars. Racing is racing, and the other stuff is just making things in a factory. 

“It went quite well. We made more than 50 cars, and one took the German F3 championship. I think Franz Konrad still holds the F3 lap record for the old Nürburgring. We had a lot of success with our SuperVee car in America, and we built 18 Formula Fords. We even made a G2 sports car for James Weaver. 

“But you had to build the cars before the money came in, and it was a cut-throat business. Our cars were good, but Ron Tauranac could always offer a deal on a Ralt that we couldn’t match. 

“Then a couple of brothers came along and said they wanted to finance us: ‘We’ll put the money up, and you design and build the cars.’ Just what we wanted – until we discovered they had even less money than we did. While I was away in America with the SuperVees they borrowed money on the second mortgage I’d set up to fund Anson. I ended up owing £36,000. Finally I settled with the bank for half: it was one of those lessons you learn in life.

“While I was in the USA Rick Galles asked if I’d engineer the CART Marches he was running for Pancho Carter, Geoff Brabham and Roberto Moreno. That was a great experience. The ovals are a whole different game: especially the little ones, like Sanair, up in Québec. Seven-eighths of a mile, 19 seconds a lap, working out exactly, to within a metre, where in the pack each of your cars is, every second. It was mind-blowing.

“Pancho was good. His crash at Phoenix nine years earlier had left him with permanent leg injuries which made the pedals difficult for him, but he was a racer. And Moreno was like a breath of fresh air – although he could be a pain in the arse because he would never, ever give up. He had speed, he had intelligence. In F1, in a decent team, he would have gone all the way, but he was never in the right place at the right time.

***

“Our daughter was now school age, and Jenny wanted to come home. We moved to a village in Staffordshire, Kings Bromley, and in the local pub I met a wealthy builder called Ron Salt. One day he said, ‘Let’s start a racing team.’ He called it Bromley Motorsport. We converted an old bread van, hired a couple of mechanics and a truckie, got a Ralt chassis and did F3000. In the first year, 1987, we had various drivers like Cor Euser and Eliseo Salazar, but for 1988 I said to Ron, ‘We need Moreno.’

“We did a deal with Adrian Reynard on a chassis, which we developed quite a lot. Roberto won four rounds, and we took the championship by a healthy margin. Then Adrian offered me the job of designing the next F3000 Reynard, and I decided to find out if I could hold my head up in a proper design office.  I did that for a couple of years, but there’s no drama in the drawing office. It’s at the circuit where you see the end result. 

“Eddie Jordan was also in F3000, running with Johnny Herbert. At the ‘87 Birmingham Superprix he took me to one side and said, ‘I’m going to put together a Formula 1 team, and I want you to join me.’ I just laughed and said, ‘Well, give me a shout when you’re ready,’ and forgot about it. Two and a half years later I got that shout. ‘I’m going to do it, and I want you to come and design the car.’ I said, ‘You’re mad. I haven’t got the experience.’ I kept saying No until finally, with EJ harassing me on one side and Jenny harassing me on the other, I thought, ‘Well. I’ll probably get fed up with it after a couple of months, but why not?’

“EJ said, ‘It’ll all be ready for you, a drawing office and everything.’ But when I got there in February 1990 there was nothing. No staff. Zero. All EJ had was a little unit at Silverstone where he based his F3000 cars. So my first job was to build a mezzanine floor into that unit, with a partition and a drawing board. That was Jordan Grand Prix’s first home. Then I started to draw the car – just lines on paper. I thought about it as I went along, but that first drawing wasn’t far from how the car ended up.

“I’d spoken in confidence to a couple of lads at Reynard, Andrew Green [now, 25 years later, technical director at Force India] and Mark Smith [now technical director at Sauber]. They joined in March. I did the chassis and the aerodynamics, Andrew did the suspension, Mark did the gearbox. The months went by, and we lived from day to day. To be honest I never really thought there would be an F1 team at the end of it.

“Then one day EJ walked in and said: ‘We’re on.’ He’d just done a sponsorship deal with 7Up. Two drivers were bringing money, Andrea de Cesaris and Bertrand Gachot, and he’d decided the sums added up. We had the first car running in November.”

That first season, 1991, Jordan was fifth in the championship for constructors, which was a remarkable achievement. “By then our total staff was 28, still tiny compared to the other teams. Everyone came to the races except Mark, who stayed behind to switch the lights off. Marie Jordan and my wife Jenny made the sandwiches. It was Montréal before we got our first points: that day we were fourth and fifth. It was a good start, but not good enough: we had a better car than Benetton, and they were fourth in the constructors. What hurt us was that I was already working on the 1992 car, and we were too small to give enough attention to both.”

***

Having lived through the growing pains of Jordan Grand Prix Gary must, I suggest, know Eddie Jordan as well as anyone. “I don’t think anybody really knows EJ. Behind all his fun and bonhomie he’s very good at keeping himself hidden. He lets enough out to motivate everyone, but you don’t know where he really is. During those first seasons everything was financially very hard, but he never loaded the problems onto anyone else’s shoulders.

“Some people – people who haven’t achieved what EJ has achieved – may say, wrongly, that he’s just a wheeler-dealer. He is what he is, and he has done a lot for so many people. He’s done a lot for me. All the people who have worked at Jordan down the years, he can have a laugh with them about the good times and the bad, his friends are always his friends. But always, underneath, he’s a serious guy.

“By the end of 1991 EJ was broke. The 7Up sponsorship was only for one season, and now we didn’t have the money to carry on. It looked like the team was finished. Late one Friday night I was in the factory alone, and the phone rang. It was that American sports management guy, Mark McCormack: ‘I need to speak to Eddie Jordan urgently. There’s a sponsorship deal on the go, and if I don’t get an answer this weekend another team will get it.’ I gave him EJ’s home number, and the deal was done: a three-year contract with Sasol, the South African oil company. Without that phone call I think we would have gone under. It was that close. 

“The other thing that made a big difference was we no longer had to pay for our engines because Eddie had tied up with Yamaha. But its V12 was everything you don’t want. It was 30 kilos heavier than the previous year’s Cosworth, it used more fuel, it needed more cooling, it was unreliable. It was a horrible piece of kit. At Spa the year before, when we were trying to sell Michael Schumacher into signing for us, he followed Martin Brundle’s Brabham-Yamaha for a lap in practice. Afterwards he said, ‘That’s not the engine you want.’ 

“For 1993 we switched to Brian Hart’s V10s. We had to pay for them, but it was the best decision we could have made. Brian was a lovely guy: a racer, proper old F1, good to work with. Our drivers were now Rubens Barrichello and [by the end of the season] Eddie Irvine, a strong pairing but very different in their approach. Rubens had a good feeling for what the car was doing and gave useful feedback. Eddie was a bit of a gorilla. In the end their speeds were very similar. On a good day, with a good car, we’d do better with Rubens. On a bad day Eddie would probably get a better result out of it.

“For 1995 we had Peugeot engines. Again, the move was purely financial. Their V10s came for nothing, and they spent a lot of money. They were clever people with lots of letters after their names, but they were hard work, because they thought they understood when they didn’t. For example, the oil system in a racing engine is complex, because with the forces on the track there is a lot of oil going everywhere and you have to contain it. The Peugeot oil system was terrible. It would fill the valvegear up with oil, the air valve system couldn’t compress the oil, a valve head would break off and the engine would blow up. All their efforts were spent trying to make the valves stronger instead of getting the oil system right. I told them why it was happening, but they didn’t listen to me until the third year.

“Nevertheless we were second and third in Canada in 1995, and by 1997 it was a very good engine. We now had Benson & Hedges sponsorship, and they were loyal to the team for a long time. But for 1998 Peugeot switched to Prost, believing an all-French team could conquer the world. We went with Mugen: not a free deal, but a cheap deal.

“Jordan was much bigger now. It no longer felt like a small family. I’d designed the F1 car each season since 1991, but now I had a design team of 15, and my role of chief designer was more or less a management job. I was shuffling paper a lot of the time. At the start we had no management, we just got on with it. Now there was a hierarchy inserted between me and EJ, having meetings, and we were no longer a tight group of racers going racing. I decided it was time for a move. In the middle of 1998, after eight years with EJ, I left – just before Spa, when Damon Hill won and Ralf Schumacher was second. So Jordan had won a Grand Prix at last.”

***

From Jordan Gary went to Stewart, again as chief designer. Didn’t he find too much hierarchy there too? “No. At Stewart Jackie imposed his personality on the team, but he was very good at understanding his people. Every Tuesday morning he’d walk around the factory with me. I’d tried to institute this at Jordan, and after a good weekend EJ would come along; after a bad weekend he’d hide. Jackie always came, good or bad, remembered everyone’s name, had something to say to each of them.

“One of my reasons for going to Stewart was that it meant working with Barrichello again. Johnny Herbert was very good, too, especially after all he’d gone through with his old injuries. And he won us the European Grand Prix. 

“The 2000 Stewart – as it was to have been – was the last F1 car that was entirely my own design. At the end of 1999 the team was taken over by Ford and badged as Jaguar. All of Jackie’s way of running things was gone, switched off like a light. In charge was a Ford company man from Detroit called Neil Ressler, who had no understanding of how racing worked. He’d call a meeting of 30 team people and say, ‘If you guys won’t do this the Ford way, we’ll get some guys who will.’ 

“I had to manage groups of people who were doing my job, without being allowed to get involved myself. Aerodynamic development had to be done in a wind tunnel in California, and Ressler banned me from going. When an aero problem on the car emerged and they couldn’t solve it, I was sure I knew what was wrong. So I went to California anyway. We identified the problem, and the car was instantly better. 

“I stood it as long as I could, fighting a system that was never going to work. It was a great shame, because the car was potentially very good. In the little Stewart team we were all racers; Ford threw heaps of people at it, but none of them were racers. They didn’t realise that, rather than trying to manage, they should let the people with experience do their jobs. 

“In the end, at the Malaysian Grand Prix, I threatened Ressler with violence. We’d made some changes to the car, and after practice Irvine’s sitting there in raptures, saying it was transformed, it was handling better than the Ferrari he’d raced the year before. Then Ressler comes in. He’s been looking at the data, trying to understand it, and he says, ‘How come Irvine’s car is 3km slower than Barrichello’s down the straight?’ I say, ‘It’s usual to have some slight differences in engine performance.’ He shouts, ‘The Ford engines are perfect. There must be something wrong with the car.’ I say, ‘You have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. For the first time we’ve got cars that the drivers are really happy with. You’ve been standing in our way all year, and now it’s time for you to shut the f**k up.’ 

“Irvine went on to qualify seventh, and finished sixth in the race. When we got back to England Neil Ressler and I came to an understanding that I should move on.” Ressler himself was removed a few months later. But Bobby Rahal and then Niki Lauda taking over produced no significant improvement. After the expenditure of many millions of dollars, Ford gave up on F1 and sold Jaguar Racing to Red Bull – who went on to make a rather better job of it.

***

“I was now 50, and after nearly 30 years of chasing all over the world I thought I could live a quieter life, do a few little bits and pieces and survive. Then Adrian Reynard asked me to go back to the USA because nine of the 16 CART teams, including Penske, were using Reynard chassis and they were asking for engineering input from the factory. 

  “It all worked fine. Reynards won 10 of the 20 rounds, and Gil de Ferran was 2003 champion for Penske. I got on well with Roger, and he offered me the post of his IRL technical director. But I wanted to get back to Europe – and EJ had asked me back to Jordan. 

“Henri Durand was Jordan’s chief designer now, and my job was to keep everything working at the circuits. You could say Henri did the theory and I did the practice. I was back with EJ for two years, working at the coalface. And Giancarlo Fisichella won us the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix. That was a completely unbelievable experience. 

“The night before the race I dreamed that the weather was going to be bad, and the race would be stopped after 54 laps. I told EJ my dream, and I said, ‘If the race only runs for 54 laps we could bring Fisichella in really early, refuel him and get to the end on one stop.’ 

“A torrential storm flooded the circuit, and the race started behind the safety car. After six laps we radioed Fisichella to come in for fuel. It was a gamble, but we had to try it. He was shouting, ‘No, no, I want to race’, but we got him in, filled the tank to the brim, and out he went. He moved up the order, some crashed, others stopped for fuel, and he was second. 

Starting lap 54, he got alongside Kimi Räikkönen and took the lead. Next time round, just as they crossed the line, the red flag came out to stop the race. When a red flag stops the race, the order is decided by the positions at the end of the previous lap – which [race director] Charlie Whiting said was lap 53. So Räikkönen got to the top of the podium with Giancarlo, looking very glum, on the second step. 

“But EJ said, ‘We won that bloody race!’ and it took an FIA investigation in Paris five days later to confirm that we did.”  The FIA’s study of the timing data showed Fisichella crossing the line to complete 55 laps precisely 0.06sec before the red flag came out. So it was the positions at the end of lap 54 that counted, and Jordan had won.

Gary left Jordan at the end of 2003, and thought that was the end of F1 for him. “But I was bored being retired, and Dallara asked me to help them build an F1 car for two heavy-hitters, one from Russia and one from Romania. I met them – Alex Shnaider and Colin Kolles – and I decided they weren’t for me, but I did put them in touch with EJ.” At the end of a tortuous process Shnaider, under the name of his Midland Group, ended up buying Jordan. After further twists and turns Midland was sold to the Dutch firm Spyker: that lasted a single season before the team was reborn as Force India. 

In recent years Gary has covered F1 for Irish TV, then for the BBC and Star Sports in Asia. He also worked for Bernie Ecclestone again, on the FOM TV coverage. “Bernie is just the same, just as passionate and committed. People don’t realise what F1 would have been like if he hadn’t picked it up and run with it. He pulled it all together when it could all have fallen apart, and he kept it together. He’s done it single-handed, and he’ll stay doing what he’s doing until he drops. And when he does drop, God knows what will happen then.

“Bernie is openly critical of F1’s new regulations [he has said that he wouldn’t spend money taking his family to watch F1 as it is today]. He is right. Nobody wants to go to a race, or even sit at home and watch it on TV, if they know that one of two drivers is almost bound to win. They also probably know who is going to finish third and fourth. It’s only about who has the best chassis/engine package. Today’s races are won and lost in the factory and in the back of the garage, and the driver is just an ingredient.

“F1 cars need to be noisy, evil-looking beasts that are hard to drive, so the best drivers can stand out from the merely good ones. We used to have V10 engines developing 950bhp and revving to 22,000 rpm – what was wrong with that? They sounded like racing cars, they were demanding to drive. Remember when racers were heroes? When Mansell, or Piquet, would get out of the car after the race barely able to stand up? When Senna could use his genius to win races? Those days are gone.

“Now we’re going back to ground effects, which will make the cars 5sec a lap faster, but will it look any faster to the spectators? Will it give us better racing? Will it give us more overtaking? In fact you need a lot less downforce, because downforce is very expensive to maximise, and the rich teams will always do it better. The nose on an F1 car now costs £120,000 to replace – not to develop, just to put on a new one if you’ve dinged it. A rich team will have 10 different versions of wing; a poorer team can only afford half that. 

“What we need is big tyres again. Every team, rich and poor, gets the same tyres. So if you take away 50 per cent of the aerodynamic grip and get it back into the tyres, that will close the money gap. The racing will be closer – and the cars will look better. 

“But who will take these decisions? It needs one man to bang the table, like Bernie used to do. Now a group of people sit together and try to decide. A committee decision is rarely a good decision.”

As I expected, trenchant views, from a man who has always spoken his mind, whether it’s to a director of the Ford Motor Company, or to Bernie Ecclestone, or to a humble journalist. Given this man’s lifelong experience of F1 at what he calls the coalface, it’s difficult to disagree with him.