In the Spa paddock, the loss of Ken Tyrrell was on many a mind, not least that of Jean Alesi. “My first F1 drive was for Ken, at the French Grand Prix in 1989 — and it was supposed to be for just that one race. Eddie Jordan, my manager, made the deal. Ken said to me, ‘OK, it’s your first grand prix. Take it calmly, build up to speed.’
“Immediately, he gave me confidence, although sometimes I used to think he was very tough, in the sense that I would want to push more, and he would say, ‘We must have points, we must have points…’
“Many times we would go to a track and I would say, ‘Here, I am going to qualify in the first two rows’, and he’d say, ‘Forget it! You need to concentrate on preparing the car for the race’. He was always thinking about just the race.
“In 1990, I had a fantastic race in Phoenix, led a long way, got passed by Senna, repassed him, got passed again, and finished second. Afterwards Ken told me he was relieved Ayrton had passed me for the last lime, because all he wanted was those six points!
“Then, just before Monaco, he came to me and said, ‘Look, Jean, I know you’re pushing for this race, but I don’t want to have to come to the hospital to see you!’ I finished second to Senna again. Ken was always trying to cool me down.”
Everyone who ever drove for Tyrrell’s team would talk about the ‘family’ atmosphere there, about how you found nothing like it anywhere else. “Ken had a feeling for his drivers that was unique,” said Alesi. “If I can put it this way: he thought of his drivers more than he thought of his team. No-one else is like that.
“At the end of 1990,1 left Tyrrell for Ferrari — and yet I was sad to leave. Ken knew I was going to a big team, and he never complained about that. But he knew how difficult it would be for me at Ferrari. I could have gone to Williams also at that time, and that was what Ken thought I should do.
“There are so many memories, when it comes to him. One time in practice at Monza, in the wet, I spun between the first and second chicanes — completely my fault. I came to the pits, and said, ‘I prefer to wait for a little bit — it’s going to be dry’. Ken said, ‘Where did you spin?’ I told him and he said, ‘Hmm, quick place. I tell you what, go out again and get your confidence back. If you crash, well, there’s another car.’ As I said, he thought first of his drivers.
“I tell you, though,” Jean concluded, “what I remember most about my time in Ken’s team was him and Norah, always going out together, every night, to some nice restaurant. There was nothing to say this was a famous F1 team owner and his wife. They might just have been fans. They enjoyed their life together so much. And that feeling somehow spread throughout the whole team.
“That was my happiest time in racing. Ken was the most fantastic person I’ve met in F1, and the 1990 car — 019 — was maybe the best I’ve ever driven. I loved everyone there, and I really wish I could have won a race in a Tyrrell. I had fun, real fun.”
It was when Ken didn’t appear at Silverstone over the British Grand Prix weekend that we finally appreciated the gravity of his condition. It was in 1999 that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer but, following surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, he seemed to rally well through 2000, still boisterous when he came to the pub, still wanting to know all the gossip.
Those who worked for him held him in reverence, and in the days since his death so many memories have come back to me, of interviews I have done with his drivers over time, of my own dealings with him.
A dinner in Austria in 1978, for example. This was not an organised affair, involving sponsors, but simply an invitation to eat with a few members of the team, including Patrick Depailler. Rather like Alesi, Depailler had a ‘little boy lost’ quality which sometimes drove Tyrrell to distraction, but never got in the way of his affection for him.
“Where are you going from here,Patrick?” Ken enquired that evening.
“Not sure,” mumbled Depailler.
“How d’you mean, you’re not sure?” queried Ken.
“Well,” said Patrick, haltingly, “I drove down to Lyon to fly here, and my car is at the airport.”
“What’s the problem?” asked Ken.
“Well, there’s no seat on the flight to Lyon, so I think I have to go to Paris, then back to Clermont-Ferrand somehow. Then I have to find someone to take me to Lyon to pick up the car.” Tyrrell looked at the ceiling, disbelieving.
That same night I was mildly surprised to see Patrick drinking red wine. “Oh, I make an exception in his case,” Ken grinned. “He’s French.” For that reason, too, he put up with the clouds of Gauloises smoke which always told you that Depailler was in the vicinity.
Jackie Stewart likes to talk about the early days of Tyrrell in F1, when the team raced Matra chassis, with Cosworth DFV power. Get him onto the 1969 MS80, his favourite car, and he recalls the blend of Gallic flair and English common sense which came together in its conception.
“The manner in which it was created was bizarre; it was the first time aerospace influences came into racing. Matra engineers like Bruno Morin were fundamentally aerospace people, and Jean-Luc Lagardere, the director-general of the company, led the whole charge himself.
“A very dynamic guy, with a vision, he put these people to work on the project, but they wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for Ken, because they were boffins, and boffins are not very practical. And ‘Chopper’ cut through all of that stuff!Suddenly the car became a reality of practical application. Everything was done in the right way, by guys who were new to motor racing, and tackled it as just another engineering conundrum.
‘They needed quite a lot of direction from Ken, in that he would tell them what wasn’t going to work, from the mechanics’ point of view. The practicalities — how you got an engine in and out, how you changed the dampers — had to be considered. Ken was a master of practicality. The result was the most beautifully engineered and manufactured chassis I ever drove.”
In the team’s latter years, it was no secret that, financially, Ken was up against it, yet he never whinged about it, nor went on about the glory days — the three world championships with Stewart, the victories by Cevert, Scheckter, Alboreto. Invariably, he preferred talking about the future, and it tore him apart that the present fell Sp short of his ambitions.
But what impressed me most was his integrity. In 1996, for example, for reasons that need not detain us now, three team owners declined to sign a Concorde Agreement in the form on offer. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, it was one thing for Frank Williams and Ron Dennis, given their financial clout, to take a stand, but quite another for Ken Tyrrell.
“It’s a matter of principle, Nigel,” he said quietly when I raised the matter. There was something of a change in Ken by then, in that he, one of the founder members of FOCA, admitted for the first time that he had become disillusioned by, as he put it, “the way certain things are done in F1 these days.”
Not that his fundamental love of racing ever waned. In 1997, at the Nürburgring, we were shaken when at breakfast Ken suddenly piped up, “What a bloody awful race that was!” It wasn’t that we disagreed with the sentiment, but that it was expressed by Tyrrell. “Gawd,” muttered Alan Henry. “If Ken thought it was an awful race, it really must have been.”
“It’s a drug, motor racing, isn’t it?” Tyrrell said that morning in Adenau. “I’m 73 years old, and it’s what I live for. I can’t miss a race.”
He was a great man, and, more than that, a good one.