Ken Tyrrell

Sunday 23 February 2014 03:02
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Robert Kenneth Tyrrell, motor- racing team manager: born East Horsley, Surrey 3 May 1924; married (two sons); died East Horsley 25 August 2001.

Ken Tyrrell, the man who masterminded Jackie Stewart's World Championship successes, had many endearing traits.

Not the least was the way in which his infrequent but explosive temper tantrums would last mere moments, and then almost instantly be forgotten. Tyrrell "froth-jobs", as they were known within the paddock, could be as devastating for the recipients as they were amusing for onlookers, for he held forthright views and was never one to stay silent when he perceived candid comment to be necessary.

In the closing stages of his career as a team owner, Tyrrell's mettle and integrity were tested to the limit. He stood alongside his fellow owners Sir Frank Williams and Ron Dennis, of McLaren, as they held out against clauses within the Concorde Agreement, the document by which the sport is run, and refused to sign it. It was many years since one of his cars had won a race, and by then he lacked the clout of Williams and McLaren, but he stood by his principles no matter how unpopular it made him with the sport's powerbrokers Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley.

Few men contributed more to the sport, and Tyrrell had a deep love of motor racing. He entered the upcoming Belgian star Jacky Ickx in a Formula Two Matra at the 1967 German Grand Prix, and then made his pukka début as a team owner the following year with an F1 Matra driven by Jackie Stewart and powered by the Ford Cosworth V8 engine.

Yet he had actually been an F1 entrant 10 years previously. With his partner Alan Brown he entered a brace of Cooper-Climaxes at Casablanca. Later, when the manufacturer John Cooper was indisposed after an accident, Tyrrell temporarily ran the works Cooper team.

Like many team owners, he had once harboured his own aspirations as a driver, competing in 500cc racing in the Fifties. He even won a race at Karlskoga in Sweden before graduating to Formula Two, but was ruthless in his self-deprecation. "I knew in myself that I was never going to make it. I never had any ambitions to be an F1 driver anyway. You not only had to be skilful, and I'm not sure how skilful I was, but I don't think I really had the guts for it, either. I probably wasn't brave enough." After lending his car to the privateer Michael Taylor he discovered that he derived greater pleasure as an entrant, and thus his career changed direction.

Tyrrell shrewdly invested in the Ford engine and his alliance with Stewart was the stuff of legend. After their initial partnership in Formula Three they never had a contract together, but were both content with a handshake. It says everything of their respective characters that, though they bickered, they never seriously fell out nor needed to resort to written undertakings. They lost the World Championship narrowly in 1968, dominated it in 1969 with the Matra, and then won again in 1971 and 1973. By then Tyrrell had become a manufacturer in his own right, and his team won the constructors' title in 1971 as well.

Tragedy struck in what should have been Stewart's final race, at Watkins Glen in America late in 1973, when his team-mate François Cevert was killed in a devastating crash. Tyrrell had been grooming him to succeed the Scot, and was shattered.

The dashing young Frenchman Cevert was like another son in the close-knit Tyrrell family, and his death marked the downturn from which the team never fully recovered. Stewart is adamant that, had he lived, Cevert could have led Tyrrell to another world title in 1974. Tyrrell admitted that he thought very seriously of stopping:

I just thought, I don't want to do any more of this. That lasted several weeks, but you'd gradually look at the number of people around you that were relying upon you, and you knew that if you stayed in you might be able to do something about the safety aspect, whereas if you just gave up you couldn't.

The glory years were over, but Tyrrell harvested his funds with legendary thrift and continued to win the odd race up until Detroit (with Michele Alboreto) in 1983. After that he was more often than not an also-ran, but there were still the occasional flashes of promise, particularly with Jean Alesi in 1990.

If he was asked if his racing philosophy had changed since the Stewart years, he would reply, "I don't know if I have a philosophy." Suddenly his characteristic guffaw would burst out, and you would find yourself on the receiving end of his intense scrutiny, as if a preying hawk was about to attack, while he scanned your face for any hint that you hadn't got the joke. "For sure," he would continue,

if you are going to win races you need to have the best driver in the world. And I had the best driver in the world driving for me. That's how we won three championships.

In his later years, Tyrrell brought on upcoming drivers such as Didier Pironi, Martin Brundle, the late Stefan Bellof, and Alesi. His avuncular nature had long earned him the nickname "Uncle Ken", and Alesi in particular remembers him with great fondness. Speaking in the respectful tones of a child discussing a much-loved parent, he said, "Ken was the best guy I ever met in F1."

"Ken could be quite a bully with drivers," Stewart remembered. "We had terrible arguments. There were no subtleties in them, but it was never vicious. He was an absolutely straight shooter. That was his greatest strength." Tyrrell was always a competitive individual, but after the last win keeping going became a massive challenge. "You are all the time planning to drag yourself up by the bloody bootlaces and do something about it," he said late in 1997. "We know this is a fill-in year for us, everybody knows that. But it isn't good enough."

When the British American Tobacco team came knocking with a lucrative offer, he reluctantly decided that the time had come to leave the stage. But he did so after ensuring that his team would live on in spirit, with its head up. Not for Tyrrell the slow, debt-ridden demises that had characterised the grisly end of some of his greatest rivals. What he had loved most was the taking part,

but what I hated most was taking part at the level that we had fallen to. I hated that. We had to drag ourselves out of it, and selling became the only way.

Despite Tyrrell's glittering record of World Championship success he had no time for history, nor living on past glories. Failure to win hurt, but hope and determination kept him going in search of fresh triumph until he finally sold up. And even then he went in style. The intention had been to stay on in an honorary capacity, until the end of 1998, but, when the team's new management rejected one of his driver choices in favour of a paying pilot, he decided that enough was enough and pulled down the curtain before the season began.

The paddock missed his outspoken wisdom and down-to-earth pragmatism. Tall and raw-boned, with a distinctive hatchet-shaped face and teeth which appeared like tombstones whenever he smiled – which was often – Tyrrell was never one to bear a grudge. Within moments of the typhoon, he would be dispensing cups of tea and discussing cricket scores or his beloved Tottenham Hotspur, restored once again to good-humour. His outbursts were the product of a straight player who detested injustice and refused to tolerate it.

Tyrrell's lack of pretension was refreshing in an increasingly hyped-up world, and he could always see the wood for the trees, an apposite ability for a man who used to run his own woodyard and whose other sobriquet, "Chopper", harked back to the axe motif which adorned the side of his own racing cars.

Outgoing by nature, he was rarely at a loss for words. But it seemed that the day had finally come in December 1998 when he was called on to the stage at the Autosport Awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London to receive a trophy for technical achievement in celebration of his five decades in the sport. The emotion of the moment provoked a long pause, but typically, when he was able to speak, he brought the house down.

"I think the greatest thing that I look back on," he said, "has been waking up every morning for the last 55 years alongside a beautiful, naked woman." At her table his wife Norah blushed as the presenter Steve Rider rushed in to chide him gently that they were supposed to be discussing Ken's assessment of technical merit. "Sometimes I rather thought I achieved that," Tyrrell rejoined, with his habitual poker face, and again his audience exploded with laughter.

That's how his friends will choose to remember a man who remained in thrall to his passion. A wonderful fellow who would guffaw cheerfully while saying, "I've said it so many times now, but motor racing is a disease. The only way you get rid of it is to die. I just love it."

David Tremayne

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