Good housekeeping drives a patriarch

Andrew Baker visits Silverstone to see the cornerstone of a racing family
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The Independent Online
The pit-lane at Silverstone was a serious place last week. Five teams were fettling their cars for this weekend's race, trying tweaks, making minute adjustments. Drivers frowned, team managers scowled, mechanics groaned. But there was an exception to the general mood of high tension, in the garage at the far end of the pits. Jokes were cracked, backs slapped, and country music played on a stereo system. They weren't quickest, not by a long chalk, but they weren't letting that get them down. Light-heartedness is traditional at Tyrrell, the team that Ken built.

"We have a different attitude from the other teams," Mike Gascoyne, Tyrrell's Deputy Technical Director, said. "We have a friendly atmosphere, a simple management structure and absolutely no politicking. At the end of the day you'll find us in the motor-home having a glass of wine and laughing. But don't mistake all this for a lack of desire to do well: we're always pushing."

The team's philosophy reflects Ken Tyrrell's belief - almost archaic these days - that motor racing should be enjoyable. "He is a very funny man," according to Mika Salo, the team's Finnish No 1 driver. "It's great to have him at every race. I am new in Formula One so it is good to have someone who has so many examples to draw on. But often he is asking me the questions."

Tyrrell, universally known in the paddock as "Uncle Ken", is now 72 and relishes the role of elder statesman. "I keep an eye on them all," he said. "Make sure they don't spend too much money."

Money has all too often been the watchword at Tyrrell in recent years. The world championship years with Jackie Stewart (1969, 1971 and 1973), and the constructors' titles (1971 and 1973) are long ago, the last grand prix victory was more than a decade ago, and for season after season the team's neat little cars have raced with white spaces where sponsors' logos might be. But while once-great motor racing teams such as BRM, Lotus and Brabham have long since folded, Tyrrell has survived, still a privately owned, family team. How?

"With difficulty," the patriarch declared. "But what we have always managed to do, which some others haven't, is stay within budget. If we have had money left over after a good year, we have saved it for leaner times. It's good housekeeping."

Part of that is Tyrrell's role at a grand prix. While the day-to-day running of the team is in the hands of Gascoyne and the technical director Harvey Postlethwaite, and Tyrrell's son Bob searches for sponsors as commercial director, the chairman is everywhere, encouraging the drivers, glad-handing sponsors, exuding bonhomie and keeping an eye on everyone.

He has a great reputation as a talent-spotter, having developed the grand prix careers of Stewart, Jean Alesi and the late, sadly unfulfilled Stefan Bellof. Salo is the latest to benefit from his patronage, and is now much sought-after by other, richer teams.

"It sounds corny," Mike Gascoyne said, "but he is a father figure to us all. During a race weekend he always wants to know what you are doing. He is always poking his nose in, asking questions."

Busybody or not, the elder Tyrrell is a useful man to have around, not least because in not having missed a grand prix in 29 years he has become friendly with the powers-that-be in Formula One, notably the sport's multi- millionaire ringmaster, Bernie Ecclestone.

But Tyrrell finds the idea that he is some kind of power-broker hugely amusing. "When people say that I am well-connected, they just mean that I am old," he said. "Anyway, I don't go as far back with Bernie as everyone thinks. I was talking to him about this the other day. He gave up racing the old 500cc Formula Three cars in 1951, and I started in 1952. It's just as well - I'd probably have crashed into him." What a sad loss that would have been. Tyrrell laughed like a drain. "Which one of us?"

Tyrrell has seen many new teams come in to Formula One. Most have lasted only a short time, victims of inadequate planing or finance. But next year Tyrrell's most successful protege launches a team of his own. How difficult does he think it will be for Stewart Grand Prix to become established?

"When Jackie was racing with me," Tyrrell recalled, "you went to Ford, gave them pounds 7,500, and they gave you an engine that could win the world championship. Things are harder these days. When you have an engine, you have to design and build your car. Then you get the driver you hope is right, the tyres you hope are right, and so on. It is very, very difficult. But Jackie will get there." Will he be ahead of Tyrrell next year? Uncle Ken did not laugh this time. "No," he said. "Not next year . . ."