Leo Mehl arrived in England just ever four years ago as the new overall chief of Goodyear’s extensive European motor racing operation. Now with ten hectic years of motor racing behind him he has decided to return to America to an executive job in the development section of the parent company, thus leaving the race tracks behind. Before he left last Month, and handed his Wolverhampton office over to Ed Alexander his successor, he talked to Motor Sport about what he describes as “a tremendously rewarding and enjoyable period of my life”.
Mehl leaves at a time when Goodyear’s fortunes have never been higher in Europe. The Formula 1 World Championship had long been his aim but during his period in Europe it became elusive. He was instrumental in persuading the company to back Jackie Stewart and the Tyrrell team for the 1971 season and this has proved a tremendously successful operation with Stewart clinching the title and winning in Spain, Monaco, France, Britain, Germany and Canada.
During his period in Europe Mehl has probably been one of the most influential men in European motor racing yet he has made very few enemies and a great number of friends. Somehow he lacked the brashness found in some Americans yet he commanded authority at all times and was always a master of diplomacy. He always had a smile on his face and a quick wit but nevertheless he took his racing seriously and the success of the last year has been the culmination of hard work by the excellent team he has built up around him.
Now aged 35, and married with two children, Mehl had graduated from University in 1959 and briefly worked for Goodyear before serving three years in the Air Force. On returning to the company in Akron, Ohio he was soon channelled into the chemical side of the racing development programme. After a year in the laboratories he was sent out on field work first working with NASCAR and then with sports cars, particularly the Shelby Cobras. Then he worked on the tyre development programmes with the Ford GT40 and came to Le Mans in 1964 and 1965. He also had a taste of Grand Prix racing in 1964 when the Goodyear company did some testing with Jack Brabham to evaluate whether they could break into Formula 1 racing. But then Mehl drifted away from European racing and worked as a tyre compounder on the all-important Indianapolis programme until late 1967 when he was chosen to come to Europe.
He is still not really sure why he got the job but says “big companies work in mysterious ways” but thinks that his Le Mans and brief F1 experience had something to do with it. In fact Mehl’s brief was a hefty one for he was given overall control of both the technical and management sides of Goodyear Racing in Europe replacing, in effect, two men.
One of the first things he found was that the European racing teams were very much more professional about their motor racing than the Americans without making nearly so much song and dance about what they were doing. But on the other hand he has found the race organisation in Europe pathetically amateur at some circuits. He particularly re-calls Monaco this year. In previous years the tyre firms had been messed about with only three tickets allocated to each company. So he, along with Firestone, decided to make a stand and threatened to pack up and go home. Finally the organisers reluctantly handed out six passes but Goodyear still had twelve personnel all with important jobs to do! However in contrast he was particularly impressed by the facilities and organisation at Paul Ricard for the French GP.
Mehl’s biggest success was undoubtedly acquiring the services of Jackie Stewart and the Tyrrell organisation. Stewart had long been a Dunlop runner and won the World Championship for them in 1969 and when the Birmingham company decided to pull out of racing at the end of 1970 there was obviously tremendous rivalry between Goodyear and Firestone to sign up motor racing’s No. 1 driver. The two firms are about equal pegging on tyre development and having the best driver could make all the difference between winning and losing. In fact Mehl had courted Stewart even before Dunlop pulled out for he feels Stewart has many more advantages than his ability to win races. He says Stewart is a marvellous ambassador and not only is useful for public relations purposes but even more important is the fact that the famed Scottish eloquence can be used internally to explain to top management why the motor racing programme is important to Goodyear. Mehl thinks that, apart from the other aspects, Goodyear is in racing because it is a challenge. Because Stewart is a household name and his success is so well publicised the company employees, right down to the shop floor level, feel they have played a part in the success.
Mehl is sure that the money spent by Goodyear obtaining Stewart’s services were worth every dollar and says, “working with Stewart and Tyrrell have been a real experience for me. All my years in motor racing I have never worked with a team where everything seemed to be planned so properly and seemed to work out right for such a long time.”
Goodyear policy will not allow Mehl to reveal the figures involved in securing Stewart or the cost of the motor racing programme but what he did say, and it certainly came as a big surprise, was that his budget for 1971 was exactly the same as that for 1968. In the earlier years much of the money went on dishing out free or highly subsidised racing tyres to all and sundry but now only the Formula 1 teams plus a couple of Formula 5000 drivers get this treatment. Thus costs have been held down and the only increases have been in retainers for the teams. Mehl says that it has always been Goodyear’s policy to keep the programme going at a reasonable level, and while they have done this, he has seen other companies get carried away with their contracts and general over-spending and are new no longer in racing.
To keep the budget right the company has had to concentrate mainly on Formula 1 although their sports car programme has yielded Le Mans victories. But it is one of Mehl’s personal regrets that they haven’t concentrated more on Formula 2 which he particularly likes as a class of racing. Another regret he has is that the company has not really promoted the racing activities as well as they might but feels that now with Stewart this is being remedied.
Unprompted the former Goodyear chief commented that one of the biggest surprises he had on arriving in Europe was finding out about the motor racing press. “US journalists” he says “do not know the difference between a G18 and a G800 and have always considered racing tyres to be just like any other tyre—round and black. It was a real eye opener to me to realise that European journalists really knew their racing tyres and also had tremendous integrity”.
Mehl has also been favourably impressed by the friendly rivalry between the racing tyre companies over in Europe and a cammeraderie exists here that is unknown in America. He was particularly sad when Dunlop pulled out of racing because “we are in racing to learn things and competition spurs us on. It was more enjoyable beating Firestone and Dunlop than just our American rival.”
During his four year stay there have been several important changes in the construction and materials in racing tyre manufacture. He sums it up like this. “Basically tyres have changed two ways—the obvious one is that they are much lower and wider but more important than that is the speciality tyre. We had resisted the “slicks” used at Indy until we were pressured into it because in the right conditions the tyres are faster. Specialisation with wet, dry and even intermediate tyres has been the biggest change in my four years”.
The compound changes which give just that extra bit of stick on the road have, according to Mehl, been a result of having many new materials to work with and there have been some particularly exciting developments over the past three years and it is only because of these that “slicks” can be run and hold together.
Mehl is quite categorical that the racing tyres of to-day are very much safer than their counterparts of five years ago. Tyres bursting because of too much heat are almost unknown now and the wider and lower tyres give a much larger safety factor all round. The safety studs developed in association with the car manufacturers have been an advance and particularly the safety ledge wheels used by Matra and Brabham.
He feels that, at this time, Goodyear have a very good racing tyre and he particularly pays credit to his British team who have made this possible in particular Bert Baldwin, the chief engineer, Sam Apticar who is chief compounder and Doug Nichols who is in charge of racing tyre production.
When he looks back over his four years in Britain he says he will particularly remember 1971 and Stewart’s victories but also individual races like those in 1970 that Jack Brabham so nearly won and Denny Hulme’s great drive in the South African GP this year as it came as such a surprise. He will remember the fruitful tyre testing with Jack Brabham and the late Bruce McLaren, meeting Princess Margaret when she visited the Wolverhampton works and seeing his young son all dressed up in British school cap and blazer.
Mehl feels that going back to road tyre development at Akron is a very good thing for him and the company. He says racing tyre development is rather like going to the moon—”you don’t really know what you are going to learn until you get there and by the time you get back you are really surprised the knowledge you have gained.” In racing he reckons that they probably learn things that the company as a whole does not always appreciate. So he is sure a former racing tyre engineer can bridge that gap.
Leo Mehl requested to leave his plumb job in Europe and explains the decision this way. “We have enjoyed living in Europe and it has been an opportunity of a life time. I have gained fantastic experience and I have been all round the world in the process. But there are problems when you have a wife and family and there is a race every couple of weeks in a different country and if you are not in trouble then you are not going fast enough. So after ten years of this sort of strain, the last four in Europe, I think it is wise to put someone in with a different approach and fresh ideas.”
I am sure that European motor racing will miss Leo Mehl but no doubt his talent will not be lost at Akron.—A.R.M.