“In a time when motor racing was conducted with integrity and passion, one unique character graced the stage of Formula One. His name was Ken Tyrrell.”
The narrator’s opening words set the tone of a fine new film about a man whose achievements, it seems to me, have always been curiously under-documented. It has been made by Mark Stewart Productions, and no company could be better placed for such a project than one owned by the younger son of Jackie, most celebrated of all Ken’s drivers.
I have watched Tyrrell – Surviving Formula One several times now, in rapture. They tell me it will be shown on ITV2 in the near future, and will also shortly be available on videotape. It is not to be missed. Despite entreaties from many of us, Ken Tyrrell has always refused to countenance an autobiography – “No, no, I can’t be bothered with all that…” and the film gives some considerable impression of what we have missed. Ken and his wife Norah contribute much to it, and there are reminiscences and observations from such as JYS, Jody Scheckter, Martin Brundle and Walter Hayes.
Tyrrell begins by relating how he failed at everything in his youth, including an attempt to join the RAE “But then I got lucky,” he says, “because the war broke out and then the RAF would take anyone…”
After the war, with his ‘demob’ suit and his £25, he went into the timber business with his brother. Passionate about football, he and some pals took a trip to Silverstone, and that first sight of motor racing was enough to ignite a lifetime’s obsession. When it comes to a pure love for the sport, Ken belongs with Frank Williams and Mario Andretti.
He raced with some success himself, but his great strength lay in team management, and in 1960 the Tyrrell Racing Organisation was founded. What really changed his life, though, was a call from the track manager at Goodwood one day in 1963. A young Scot was testing there, and it was worth taking a look at him.
Thus Ken Tyrrell met Jackie Stewart, and a test in one of the team’s Formula Three Coopers was organised. Bruce McLaren, then leading Cooper’s Grand Prix team, was on hand to set a ‘target’ time in the car, but Stewart beat it almost immediately. Out went Bruce again quicker still; Jackie responded. At the end of the day the novice was the quicker of the two.
“John Cooper said to me, ‘That boy’s good – get him signed up, Tyrrell remembers. “So we did…”
In Ken’s Coopers, JY Stewart dominated F3 in 1964, most significantly winning at Monaco, in those days closely watched by GP team owners. Remarkably, there is footage of this event, shot on a home-movie camera by Jackie’s wife, Helen.
The following season Jackie was Graham Hill’s team-mate at BRM, and by the end of it had won his first Grand Prix. He stayed with the team for three, increasingly frustrating, years, and by the end of 1967 was on the verge of joining Ferrari.
Stewart had, however, continued to drive in Formula Two for Tyrrell, which had begun an association with Matra. “Ken said, ‘Don’t go to Ferrari – drive for me instead’. I said, ‘Ken, you don’t have a Formula One team’. He said, ‘No but what if we did?’”
Thus the legend got rolling. What Tyrrell had in mind was a Matra chassis with a Ford DFV engine, and obviously it was in Ford’s interests that Stewart should race with, rather than against, them. When Ken asked Walter Hayes to guarantee Jackie’s salary – £20,000 – he did so without hesitation.
What is more, Tyrrell points out, the deal with Stewart was based on a handshake. “Nowadays, it would probably cost you £20,000 in lawyers’ fees just to have the contract drawn up.” It speaks volumes for Jackie’s faith in Ken that he was prepared to throw up the chance of Ferrari, but undoubtedly part of the attraction lay in the DFV, which had been streets better than anything else in its maiden season, 1967. “Can you imagine,” he says, “going out and buying a Formula One engine for £7,500? Nowadays, a team’s engine budget can be £12,000,000.”
Some wonderful footage is on offer, not least of the Nurburgring in 1968. So heavy was the rain, so thick the mist, that Jackie truly believed the conditions too bad for racing, and his employer – for the first and last time – was obliged to make a driver get into the car. Stewart then won the German Grand Prix. By four minutes.
The first of Jackie’s three World Championships came the following year, in the Matra MS80, which remains his favourite of all the cars he ever raced. And the sight of the blue car sliding through the swerves in Mexico is enough to make you curse anew the advent of downforce.
When Matra opted for their own V12 for 1970, it meant a sad parting with Tyrrell, who remained rightly convinced of the DFV’s superiority. Everyone lost: Ken was obliged to run the utilitarian March 701, and if Stewart won but a single Grand Prix, it was one more than Matra.
Clearly, the only way for Tyrrell to go was to design and build their own car, and in 1971 – its first full season – they won both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
Not surprisingly, Francois Cevert features strongly. He was, on the face of it, the racing driver who had everything: immense natural talent, strikingly good looks, charm. Cevert and Stewart became close friends, and it says everything about Jackie that he held nothing back from Francois – indeed helped him in any way he could. Quite clearly, when JYS decided to call it a day, Tyrrell had a driver ready to take over as number one. Cevert, without a doubt, was a potential World Champion.
In fact, Jackie made up his mind to retire at the end of 1973. It was another season of triumph for Tyrrell, the highlight being a dominant 1-2 at the Nurburgring, which was Stewart’s 27th, and last, victory.
Watkins Glen, the final race of the year, looked like rounding off his career to perfection. Already confirmed as World Champion, the American race would be the 100th Grand Prix of his career, but sadly he was not to start it, for Cevert was killed in qualifying.
Scheckter, due to be Francois’s team-mate in 1974, was first on the scene. “I jumped out, and tried to do something…” he says, but then he can speak no more. Devastated by the tragedy, Tyrrell almost gave up motor racing on the spot.
This was an exceptionally perilous time to be a racing driver, and the film does not pretend otherwise. “In my world,” Stewart says, “there was… death.” He retired at 33, and if he were still emphatically the best driver in the world, unquestionably the time was right.
After his retirement, the Tyrrell team never reached such heights again. There were fine drivers over the years – Jody Scheckter, Patrick Depailler, Ronnie Peterson, Didier Pironi, Michele Alboreto and occasional victories continued until 1983, when Alboreto won in Detroit This was Tyrrell’s last win, and also, fittingly, the last for the Cosworth DFV.
Like other British team owners, Ken was fundamentally opposed to the advent of turbocharged engines in Formula One; unlike the rest of them, he remained so. By 1984, only Tyrrell continued with a normally aspirated engine (the DFV, naturally), and ultimately was struck from the World Championship, following accusations of cheating.
“They said we were carrying lead ballast that wasn’t properly secured,” Ken says, denying absolutely that such was the case. Martin Brundle was his number one driver at the time. “It wasn’t a cheating issue – it was a political issue, and we all knew it.”
Had Tyrrell been hounded out because of his opposition to the turbo? “My vote only counted if I was in the championship,” Ken says, a tight smile on his face. “Draw your own conclusions…”
Max Mosley smoothly suggests that it might have been “prudent” for Ken to withdraw his opposition (in other words, to sacrifice his principles), but adds that, had he been the kind of man to do so, he might never have had success in Formula One.
True enough. Jackie Stewart’s parting words sum up the feelings of a great many of us: “This sport would be better by a million miles if there were more Ken Tyrrells in it.”