Oliver's army

The Arrows F1 team is 20 years old and has yet to win a race. Is founder Jackie Oliver downhearted? Adam Cooper found out

When Damon Hill’s Arrows A18 faltered on the last lap of the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix, he lost the chance of proving that he could win in something other than a Williams. But there was so much more at stake than Hill's personal pride. Had he stayed in front of Jacques Villeneuve for another lap, Damon would have registered the first Grand Prix victory for a Formula One team which has the unfortunate stigma of being the least successful for the longest period of time.

Since its formation in 1978, Arrows has led races, had a pole and numerous podium finishes. It has survived through 21 turbulent seasons and more than 300 races, during which time dozens of upstarts have been and gone, and great names of the past like Lotus and Brabham have disappeared. But, to date, it has not won a race. And no one is more painfully aware of that fact than founder Jackie Oliver.

"I was gutted in Hungary," he recalls. "Tom Walkinshaw was very nice. He said, 'If we had won, I would have wanted you to go up on the rostrum as the constructor.' It was a very nice gesture.... He would have done it because he knows the reasons why I'm in partnership with him."

Oliver is no longer in the frontline, having ceded control to partner Walkinshaw, but make no mistake — the team is still his baby, and the desire to notch up that first win bums as brightly today as ever.

"The key to the Arrows ups and clowns, because we never had enough money to do it properly, is trying to get a combination of two good drivers together, a good talented designer, and a very efficient workforce. The most difficult thing in the business is to make the car, and you need a good little manufacturing base. There is a little bit of luck associated with getting the right engine, designer and drivers together, but you can get pretty close to the front. And we did it four times in 20 years."

The man hired by Colin Chapman to fill Jim Clark's shoes, Oliver took part in 49 Grands Prix with Lotus, BRM, McLaren and Shadow, and won Le Mans in 1969. He left F1 at the end of 1973, racing for a while in CanAm and the US F5000 series, before concentrating on running the Shadow team on behalf of colourful American owner Don Nichols. In August 1977 Alan Jones scored an opportunistic debut victory for the team in Austria, but all was not well.

"Alan Rees and I felt Don was not contributing towards the team properly. When we lost UOP and got other sponsorship, things were even tighter. When you have disagreements and you're not a majority shareholder, you have no other choice but to leave. So I left, and everybody followed us."

Through November and December Oliver and team manager Rees set up their own organisation. There was talk of buying a secondhand chassis, but when designer Tony Southgate and his assistant Dave Wass joined, work started on a new car. For a while it had no name, until a friend of Oliver's played with the initials of the team principals, added an extra and created Arrows'.

Oliver had commitments from ex-Shadow driver Riccardo Patrese, and Lotus ace Gunnar Nilsson. However, at the time nobody knew quite how ill the latter was, and he dropped out of the project before the 1978 season started. Meanwhile, work progressed at record speed.

"It was a lot easier then to build a car. You could use a Cosworth engine which you could just get off the shelf, and then all you had to do was build a chassis. It was a car ahead of its time. Tony had spent some time at Lotus, so he knew about ground effect. It was a super little chassis, and Riccardo, as his later career would prove, was a fantastic driver. It was a good combination, we didn't have any engine advantage or disadvantage, so it all came together."

The new FA1 was rolled out at a snowy Silverstone, where it was announced that the job had taken 54 days from start to finish. The team missed Argentina, but the car was ready for the Brazilian GP, where Patrese qualified 18th and finished 10th, four laps down, after suffering fuel system maladies. Next time out in South Africa the new team caused a sensation. After qualifying seventh Patrese scythed past the cars ahead; he was leading by 14 seconds when his engine blew with just 14 laps to go. Arrows came that close to winning its second ever race...

"It was a question of money. The nose had come off in practice, the car had got too hot. We knew that if the engine temperature had gone through the roof we should have changed it, but we took the risk, as we didn't have another engine to put in the car..."

Suddenly everyone was taking note. In the Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstorp, Patrese finished in second place behind Lauda's uncatchable Brabham BT46B fan car, but not before he'd managed to infuriate Ronnie Peterson with his defensive tactics. At Brands Hatch he was again running second, ahead of the eventual winner, Carlos Reutemann, when he picked up a puncture. A first win was surely on the cards in the very near future, but "then we had to build another car, so that put us back."

You didn't need to be a copyright expert to realise that the FA1 was almost identical to the latest Shadow DN9, and the new team was taken to court by a bitter Nichols.

"We lost the case. Tony had taken the drawings with him when he stopped working for Don, in the belief that he was an independent consultant and the designs were his. Which was clearly wrong. There weren't very many of them, and it would have been better if he hadn't taken them. What we got fined for was the six weeks' work that he'd put into doing the drawings."

Knowing what was likely to happen, Southgate had already started work on the all-new A1-B. The effort of making a second new car mid-season was huge for such a small outfit, and the momentum faded. The awful A2 'doodlebug' of '79 further set the team back, and for two decades, it struggled to find the form of the first half-season.

"There are several milestones in Arrows history. The first season was one year where the car was good and the driver was good, but we had lots of trouble. Another time was when we had the A3 in 1981, and started off the year in storming fashion. Riccardo was on pole in Long Beach, but Michelin wouldn't stay with us when Goodyear came back, and we had to go with Pirelli. That set us back. Things go wrong for you and we just didn't have the political muscle."

Form improved a little in the mid-'80s when the team acquired a BMW turbo supply and big bucks from America financial concern USF&G. The best season in Arrows history came exactly a decade after the team's formation; 1988 was a transitional year of mixed turbo and normally-aspirated engines. Like Honda, Oliver reckoned that a strangled turbo would be a better bet. He was right; 23 points secured equal fourth place with Lotus in the constructors' championship, behind McLaren, Ferrari and Benetton – and ahead of Williams.

"We had talked BMW into keeping the engine, and got one of USF&G's companies, Megatron, to sponsor it. Much to BMW's surprise we managed to make the engine work on the pop-off valve. Derek Warwick and Eddie Cheever were a great combination. To finish fourth in the championship was a credit to Ross Brawn, whom we took out of obscurity as an aerodynamicist at Beatrice Lola, and a guy called Gerhard Schumann, who I got out of Porsche. He was a wizard with regard to the turbo programmes. That's what it's all about; you get good technical guys, two good drivers, and you produce good results with a small amount of money."

That highlight was soon followed by the all-time low. In the late 1980s mega-rich Japanese entrepreneurs decided that F1 was the place to be seen, and Oliver landed one of the biggest spenders in Watara Ohashi, boss of the Footwork transport concern. It was a dream come true, but there was a price; by '91 the team had become Footwork Grand Prix International, and the cars were named Footworks. The Arrows name was submerged.

"Ohashi was a fantastic bloke. He wanted to win the World Championship in five years. Here's $100m! He bought the thing 100 per cent, and gave a five-year contract to win the championship. It was all planned out, budgets, engines, the lot. Ross left before we put it together, but we found a great replacement designer in Alan Jenkins. The choice of engine was a toss-up between taking the Ford HB, which eventually went to Benetton, or the new Porsche V12. I thought Porsche was the answer. My mistake..."

Porsche had been out of F1 since the TAG turbo project folded at the end of '87, and Oliver was delighted to have beaten other contenders to an exclusive deal for 1991. But struggling to keep up in Group C and embarrassed in Indycars, the German marque was evidently going for a hat-trick of flops. I can remember seeing the new engine at a Weissach press conference; it looked for all the world as if Hans Metzger had bolted together a couple of his beloved TAG V6s. As it turned out, that was not far from the truth...

"Ohashi wanted to announce it in Tokyo, and I didn't go to the factory to look at the engine until after we came back. My stomach just dropped like lead. I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, what have I done?'

"When Alan Jenkins and I came back, we decided the situation was not at all good, and we even tried to persuade Hans to start another engine. We wrote to him privately at home and I've still got a copy because we didn't want to cause him any trouble at work. We said let's start another engine now. We will start the racing programme off-with the V12, but we need a Version B in case it doesn't go as well as we think. I never heard from him. I left it for 10 days, I called him and said, ‘Did you get our letter?' He said, 'Yes, and I was really offended you don't trust us.'"

Heavy, unreliable and gutless, the engine was a joke. Michele Alboreto and Alex Caffi rarely qualified, nor did Stefan Johansson, who subbed for the injured Italian in a few mid-season races. A panic switch back to Cosworth power made little difference to performance, as the chassis had been designed around the shape of the bulky German lump.

"Ohashi left me entirely to run it, and it was only when the Porsche thing went wrong he put someone in and started to change things. He went all-Japanese. He wanted to run a Japanese driver Aguri Suzuki and Japanese engine, which Honda charged him a fortune for. I didn't object to that. To try to keep things going you've got to replace the failure with something else."

At the end of 1993, Ohashi decided to cut his losses. Oliver did pretty well out of the deal.

"He'd just spent too much money and hadn't had any success. Because it was a failure, he had to do it all on his own; USF&G went away. Then with the economic problems that came in japan, he wanted out. He wanted to stop completely, but I did a quirky thing in 1994 and leased the company from him, and then in 1995 I bought it back."

It went largely unremarked at the time, but at the start of '94 Arrows had a tidy little package. Gianni Morbidelli qualified sixth in Brazil, Christian Fittipaldi finished fourth at Aida, and then the pair started sixth and seventh at Monaco. Not bad for a Ford V8.

"We'd got our own wind tunnel, and Alan developed the slot principle on the diffuser. It was absolutely fantastic, and we got phenomenal downforce. We had two good drivers in Gianni and Christian, and I did a helluva deal with Cosworth on the price of the customer engines. We just had a fabulously aerodynamically efficient car, and we even embarrassed Ferrari.

"But yet again, there were the politics. Ayrton died, they felt like they had to do something, and they said let's chop the diffuser off because that's going to bugger up Arrows and save further embarrassment. We went to the back of the grid. All those things just get to you you've got to be really big and powerful in this business to withstand the manipulation that goes on."

In early 1996 Oliver did a deal with Walkinshaw, who'd been frustrated in his attempt to turn Ligier into a pukka TWR F1 team. "I'd spent too much of my own money. I was buying poverty basically! I was looking for a joint venture. I've still got 49%, Tom's got 40%, and someone else has the balance. Tom's got a five-year programme as chief executive, with full control.

"I'm sure Tom will do it in the end. My objective with the joint venture was to see Arrows win a race. It was clear I'd got to a stage after 19 years that the perception of Oliver at the helm; trying to make Arrows win, was not there. In Tom I've got the right partner. The perception is very strong that he can produce a victory and a championship for the name Arrows. That's what I want to do."

Under Bernie Ecclestone's current financial arrangements, established teams like Arrows enjoy a level of security they never had before. But making that big step is hard as ever.

"I'm sure we'll get there. I started it, but Tom has carried the Arrows name forward. I hope we can finish it together, and that will be an ambition of mine fulfilled, and one that I know is quite dose to Tom, as he's succeeded in every other thing in motorsport that you can imagine. I sincerely hope that he achieves it."