On 10 June 1983, the Surrey Advertiser carried a picture of a Union Flag being raised in a former wood yard deep in the countryside. It was an informal ceremony with enough significance to have the weekly newspaper devote space to a local Formula 1 team winning a grand prix. Little did the editor know, he was recording an historic moment.
This proud achievement has since become a sad epitaph marking the final victory for the Tyrrell Racing Organisation. Fourteen years later, the name would be erased completely and replaced by British American Racing (later to become Honda, then Brawn, and now Mercedes). Tyrrell became one of more than 40 entrants lost to the vicious vagaries of F1.
This particular failure to survive had been made even more poignant by a proud history embracing three drivers’ world titles with Jackie Stewart in a golden period between 1969 and 1973. It was proof of how motor sport’s mighty are fallen: in this case, a slow demise that had been painful to watch.
It’s true that once-great names cannot rely solely on their histories to keep them afloat. Williams can relate, and there are stark similarities between the Grove outfit and the downfall of Tyrrell. Williams is currently up for sale, and has been anchored to the foot of the constructors’ championship for the last two seasons. There is a real risk that Frank Williams’ empire could follow that of the unfortunate Tyrrell.
The warmly patriarchal – and occasionally unyielding – Ken Tyrrell had tried to move with the times, but not quickly enough in a meritocracy driven by sharp thinking, instant results – and money. There had been vital moments of opportunity, but these were missed as F1’s aggressively competitive business raced on at a furious rate. A wonderful homespun spirit within Tyrrell had eventually been overwhelmed by the corporate thrust of rivals operating on a different level. That much was already evident as the flag-raising ritual was played out in the summer of 1983.
Keith Boshier had joined Tyrrell in 1967. Having served his apprenticeship with a local motor dealer, Boshier answered an advert in the Surrey Advertiser for a mechanic with the Tyrrell Formula 2 team. When Stewart won at Albi in France that September, Boshier “liberated from the paddock” the Union Flag that would subsequently be the totem of success at the factory each time Tyrrell won. It would be raised 33 times in recognition of grand prix wins that began with Stewart’s victory with the Tyrrell-Matra in Holland in 1968 and ended 15 years later. Boshier had long since renounced his role on the race team to concentrate on becoming a bodywork expert. When news came through of Michele Alboreto’s win in Detroit in June 1983, Boshier reached for the Union Flag and set off from home to perform his unofficial duty on the factory roof. “Typical Tyrrell,” Boshier fondly recalled some years later. “I knew there wasn’t a ladder at the place – I had to bring my own!”
Apart from being Tyrrell’s de facto Colour Sergeant, Boshier had earned a fine reputation as an artist in glass fibre and clay, particularly the moulding of drivers’ seats. Danny Sullivan was Alboreto’s team-mate, the American having made his F1 debut with Tyrrell that year.
“I could not have been with a better team,” says Sullivan. “Ken and [his wife] Norah created a family atmosphere; it never changed. Ken never treated anybody differently; there was no hierarchy, not even for the drivers. I never realised how much of an influence he had on my career. It was quiet teaching.
“I also learned so much from the guys who worked for him. Brilliant people. Take Keith [Boshier], who made my seat. It was the best seat I ever had in racing. [Sullivan would win the Indy 500 and CART Indycar title in 1985 with Penske]. I mean, no one even came close. I used to tell the other people I drove for – you know, big names with all the facilities – about this guy in a shed in the wood yard at Tyrrell. How he made me this seat and it was just perfect. He used clay rather than foam. We spent about eight hours doing it, but that didn’t matter. Keith would say: ‘Don’t worry. Just sit there and I’ll get you a cup of tea.’ That was the Tyrrell team. The most super place to be.”
Despite a dogged determination to remain with normally aspirated engines and hold out against the advancing tide of turbos, Tyrrell remained a desirable team, particularly for young drivers keen to learn the F1 ropes. Stefan Bellof and Martin Brundle grabbed what opportunities they could in 1984 by respectively coming close to winning at Monaco and on the streets of Detroit; two tracks suited to the nimble Tyrrell-Ford V8.
An inevitable switch to a Renault turbo for 1985 proved that horsepower alone was not the cure as a failure to score any points meant Tyrrell was barely mentioned in previews for the following season. Sadly, the pessimists were not far off the mark.
The introduction of a second F1 category specifically for non-turbo engines in 1987 would hardly be state of the art. But the Ford V8 (extended from 3- to 3.5-litres) would at least allow more reliable running than the French V6s, with Renault Sport focusing more on Lotus and Ayrton Senna at the expense of customer units for Tyrrell and Ligier. Tyrrell put in the miles, gasping behind the turbos at the head of a sparsely populated second division irreverently referred to as being ‘down among the dead men’ by loftier paddock parts. Vital signs of recovery came at the end of 1988. Harvey Postlethwaite had moved from Maranello where, latterly, he had been point man for John Barnard as the Ferrari designer carried out his work by remote control from an office in England. Puzzled by an inability to use the Ferrari wind tunnel when he needed it, Barnard was alarmed – which is putting it mildly – when he flew to Italy and discovered a renegade cabal, led by Piero Lardi Ferrari and Postlethwaite, testing their own F1 car.
According to Barnard, this prototype with a distinctive high nose would look remarkably like the neat Tyrrell 018 that appeared a couple of races into the 1989 season. A shortage of funds had delayed the build, the schedule being so tight that Ken, at the age of 65 and as the holder of an HGV licence, actually drove one of the trucks to Monaco while the other waited for the second car to be completed. The fact that the boss managed to scrape the truck against the side of a toll booth en route was seen as irrelevant collateral damage as the eagerly awaited car was delivered.
The precise parentage of 018 mattered little when it turned out to be quick – particularly when Jean Alesi finished a remarkable fourth on his debut in France. The rest of the season would be a learning process with 018, exacerbated by Tyrrell not being favoured Goodyear runners. Working closely with aerodynamics guru, Jean-Claude Migeot, it was clear to Postlethwaite and his crew that the potential was there. Lessons learned manifested themselves in Tyrrell 019, a much-admired car ready for the third race of the 1990 season. But not before 018 had one last spectacular shout in Phoenix, Arizona.
Postlethwaite and Migeot had persuaded Tyrrell to switch to Pirelli. Any doubts Ken had were banished when Alesi qualified on the second row, led the race, fended off Senna’s McLaren-Honda and came second. Tyrrell could hardly wait to get its hands on 019. Alesi was saying he could win at Monaco, an enthusiastic claim that doubled Ken’s efforts to convince him of the need for circumspection. Alesi kept his cool and finished a brilliant second in Monte Carlo, a car’s length behind Senna. It was to be a double-edged sword. Alesi’s obvious abundance of talent had not gone unnoticed and the emotional Franco-Sicilian would become distracted by the swirl of attention. By September, it was known he would drive for Ferrari. Tyrrell’s moment had passed in other respects as Migeot had been lured back to Maranello and team manager Joan Villadelprat would move to Benetton.
Villadelprat’s place would eventually be taken by Steve Nielsen, then in the early stages of a distinguished career that would lead to his present role as F1’s sporting director.
“I had come from Lotus,” recalls Nielsen. “I couldn’t believe how small Tyrrell was. Bits of it were modern but, compared to Lotus, it was tiny. Saying that, everyone had the right idea and it genuinely looked like Tyrrell had a bright future and was about to take off again.”
That optimism had been predicated on the latest car, 020, and backing from Braun AG, a German electronics company. A switch from the Ford V8 to a Mugen-Honda V10 finalised an impressive package. In fact, the heavier engine would turn out to be the car’s undoing. The change in weight distribution produced understeer that Satoru Nakajima and Stefano Modena found difficult. Modena would put his 020 on the front row at Monaco and hold a mighty second place until the Honda stuck a rod through its side. The Italian would actually finish second in Canada, but the year was a let-down, compounded halfway through by Postlethwaite moving to Sauber and leaving the team to struggle with inconsistent Pirellis, no two tyres – never mind a full set – rarely being the same. Development under such circumstances was impossible.
That failure to capitalise would be reflected by Honda taking its engine to Footwork, the late arrival of the 1992 Ilmor-powered car (which would lead to cooling problems with the V10) and Braun’s increasing disillusionment as the team slumped from sixth to ninth (out of 12) in the championship. It would be even worse in 1993. Despite, for the first time having an F1 engine Ken didn’t need to pay for, the Yamaha-powered Tyrrell scored no points.
This had come as no surprise to Ron Dennis. Two years before, the McLaren boss had prompted Tyrrell to have the benefit of the world champion’s marketing strategy. It effectively meant Tyrrell’s presentation and commercial modus operandi was dragged from the ’70s to the ’90s, more or less bypassing the ’80s altogether.
“We had a hand in engineering the supply of Mugen-Honda engines for 1991 and we took over the responsibility of finding and looking after sponsorship for the team,” says Dennis.
“I knew it was a bit of a shock for Ken, but he undertook the task on a clear understanding that a given percentage of the income had to be spent on marketing. I could never get Ken to understand the snowball effect: the better you are, the more money it generates. There was a point where we had improved the show by 90 per cent, and he just wasn’t prepared to go that extra little bit. That 10 per cent was a value-for-money percentage, but he didn’t see it. We would constantly argue, but we would always argue as friends. I think it’s fair to say he had more income in those two years than he ever had. But, in the third year, he still preferred to go back to being independent even though it cost him money. I saw that as being stubborn; he just saw it as a matter of pride, a wish to be his own man.”
Tyrrell had no reason to doubt his ability in 1994 as he gathered together a respectable fighting unit. Postlethwaite (assisted by a young and enthusiastic Mike Gascoyne) had returned to the fold and struck up a good working relationship with Fondmental, the Italian firm – in association with Migeot – carrying out research and aero development on a car driven by Ukyo Katayama and Mark Blundell. Sixth in the Constructors’ Championship was an improvement. But it would have been better but for a series of mechanical failures and incidents. A highlight had been a podium for Blundell in Spain.
“I got picked on merit; I didn’t take any funding with me,” recalls Blundell. “I really appreciated that because money was tight, and we couldn’t do all the things we needed to do. There were several things that should never have happened, like brakes exploding because they were old. That was very costly in terms of results. Ken was a great guy and I consider myself very lucky to have worked with him.”
The potential was enough to have Autosport predict that Tyrrell would have ‘its best season in a long time’ in 1995. The Tyrrell-Yamaha 023 looked the part, the appearance of well-being enhanced by sponsorship from Nokia, courtesy of Mika Salo making his debut in place of Blundell. Katayama’s presence ensured Mild Seven logos also. But it was a financial illusion. As was the thought of the revival many wished to see for this F1 icon.
Tyrrell would end 1995 as the most underperforming team. “We spent our money very wisely,” said Postlethwaite of his recollections of that season. “But we were not a wealthy team, and if you have a bad year, you will come eighth [out of nine teams]. We had to make too many compromises.”
The five points (132 behind champion Benetton) were a lost opportunity that would be another pivotal point in the team’s decline – particularly when disappointment turned to disenchantment in 1996. Yamaha produced a new engine that was smaller and lighter – and hopelessly unreliable. Tyrrell would post 16 retirements from 32 starts. Another finish just above the bottom of the championship was scarcely attractive to prospective sponsors.
The vicious circle continued into 1997, not helped by the teams directly above – Stewart, Arrows, Sauber and Prost – fielding more competitive propositions than a Tyrrell powered by a Ford V8. The 50bhp shortfall on Tyrrell 025 meant Salo and Jos Verstappen were beaten before they had left the pits.
F1 as a whole was leaving the team behind, Norah Tyrrell making sandwiches for ‘our boys’ being a stark culinary contrast to the lavish hospitality springing up elsewhere. Tyrrell’s workmanship was a match for any, but the end product was not quick enough, which would ultimately mean just one thing.
On Friday, 28 November, 1997, Ken Tyrrell made an announcement that was as difficult to listen to as it clearly was to articulate. Tyrrell had been sold to British American Tobacco. The good news that Ken would continue with the team he loved would be short-lived. By February, he revealed he would no longer be a part of an organisation that was moving into its 30th season of F1 racing. Although Ken would not elaborate in public, it was evident that he found it impossible to agree with BAR’s plan to hire Ricardo Rosset over Ken’s preferred choice, Jos Verstappen. The Tyrrell team – now in name only – struggled through its final year. For the intensely loyal personnel, it was like assisting at a wake.
Sentiment aside, there could be no denying that Tyrrell had failed to capitalise on opportunities that had arisen, albeit briefly. The same could be said more recently for Williams, a team currently in financial difficulties after missing the opportunity to take advantage of a Mercedes package (head and shoulders above the rest in 2014) in what was the second-best car in the field. Williams finished third in both 2014 and ’15. But it has been downhill ever since. Steve Nielsen (sporting manager at Williams from 2014 to 2017) witnessed both first hand.
“When you have the opportunity, you have to grab it,” says Nielsen. “In 2014, Williams had a fleeting moment and it failed to capitalise on it. That’s the thing about F1. It’s forever evolving and people catch up very quickly. The following year, the decline for Williams had already started. That moment in the sun wasn’t enough to keep pushing the team on.
“In some ways, it was the same at Tyrrell in 1991 and 1995. We had the opportunity and failed to do what we should have done. Then the moment has passed before you know it. It was a shame because the year when we had Braun on board, or the Salo year, you think this is the springboard; this has a genuine chance of taking us up. When it doesn’t come, that can be a fatal blow. You don’t get those chances very often.
“After Tyrrell I ended up at Renault and, looking back, I recognised that the Tyrrell just was not developed. The car was nicely put together and they were generally reliable – or, the bits that Tyrrell made were. But the car you built at the beginning was basically the car you ran all year. F1 is a vicious thing. If you are consistently at the back, something will happen to you – and it’s generally not good.”
“The engineering standards were those of a thoroughly professional team,” recalls Gascoyne. “The problem was, people didn’t notice because we were at the back. You’d walk up the grid and look at what was being done by some of the so-called top teams and think: ‘Well, that’s a shower of s**t.’ It made you appreciate Tyrrell more. Everything was done correctly. It was just that, most of the time, we never had proper funding. I don’t think people realised how little we had to work with.”
That impediment applied across the board at Tyrrell – even having to bring your own ladder to hoist the increasingly rare but cherished symbol of having beaten the best in the world.
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