If you find yourself waiting in the Eurotunnel or cross channel ferry car parks over the next few days, don’t be surprised to see an amazing collection of cars, their drivers and passengers in various stages of motor racing guises, for this week is the run up to the classic Le Mans 24 Hour sports car race in France. Couples in MGB-GT’s wearing bowler hats and pinstriped suits, M3 BMW’s fully stickered to look like racing cars and even three wheelers with picnic baskets attached! Anything goes for this adventure across the Channel for the Brits: It’s personal you see…
Le Mans is perhaps the biggest motor racing ‘party’ in the world with fans from every corner of the globe making it something very special indeed and for me very importantly, it is the time for remembering the late, great Tom Walkinshaw who succumbed to cancer in December 2010.
Tom was a passionate racer and a passionate rugby man. He was also extremely generous and loyal to those he placed in his trust. He was a man who never did anything by halves and his commitment to a person/s or project was total.
He was also the driving force behind Gloucester rugby club and previously had been a high accomplished former racing driver himself. As such he knew all ‘the tricks’ and did not suffer fools gladly, he was however a great motivator of people…as Martin Brundle, former Grand Prix Driver, winner of Le Mans in 1990 with Price Cobb and John Neilsen and now F1 TV pundit with Sky said at Tom’s memorial service in 2011, “You knew you were special if you were part of Tom’s gang”…
I am proud to say that I was a part of that ‘gang’ and as a former TWR Group Director, I relish Le Mans year on year as not only is it unique, but everything that goes with it is, well, just special. It is 25 years ago this year that TWR took its race prepared Jaguar XJR9 V12 powered cars to Circuit de la Sarthe and dominated this classic sports car race – it did so again in 1990, but more of that later. In 1988, the winning number 2 car of Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace crossed the line after 394 laps and 24 hours of racing in front of ecstatic crowds of British fans and Tom Walkinshaw Racing, the British motor sport engineering firm took Jaguar back to victory. The image of Lammers standing on the roof of the car surrounded by admirers and fans will forever live with me.
That was in 1988 when I was still working in Formula 1 with McLaren and Drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. However, watching that race on TV, I was captured by the sheer passion of the fans, and the fact that racing cars could be driven flat out for 24 hours and the drive and determination with which the team principal, the late Tom Walkinshaw, showed to this his most precious project.
In the December of 1988, I met with Tom in a London hotel and a few days later at the teams HQ in Kidlington in Oxfordshire and after a long and hugely tough, but enjoyable negotiation, Tom shook my hand and with a grin said “Welcome to TWR”. As the newly appointed Race Team Marketing Director and TWR Board Director, it was my task to co-ordinate the various interests Tom had in racing, retail, specialist vehicle construction and a host of other engineering projects around the world.
After five years in the heady world of Formula 1, sports car racing was in truth a bit of a culture shock as in the late autumn of 1988 I had been at Suzuka and had seen Ayrton win his first Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship in front of in excess of 100,000 excited Japanese fans, but in spring of 1989 I went back there with sports cars to see virtually empty grandstands. Sports cars were most definitely not Formula 1 cars, BUT the other races in the Championship all faded to almost insignificance in relation to Le Mans and it was there in France that I was to truly understand what 24 hour racing was all about.
I first went to Le Mans in 1989 as part of the team, but this was not a great year for TWR Jaguar as we finished 4th and 8th – good results for many but NOT for Tom. Peter Sauber, latterly the founder of Sauber Grand Prix was running the Mercedes sports car team and they dominated the 1989 event and upon our return to Kidlington, a barely containable Tom made it very clear that in 1990 things would be different! Almost immediately we embarked on a 1990 Le Mans campaign of development and used the entire resources of the TWR Group to focus our efforts on winning again for TWR and for Jaguar.
In those days, TWR Jaguar also had a fantastic US operation based near Chicago in Valparaiso running the Castrol and Budweiser sponsored cars in the IMSA series. Under the guidance of Tony Dowe, now in Australia with the Aussie V8 series and interestingly, working for Ryan Walkinshaw, (Tom’s Son) as Manager of Development and Race Engineering, Tony and his team came over to assist in the Le Mans programme. His skills and organisational talents contributed hugely to the 1990 Le Mans victory of which very proudly I was a part.
There is nothing quite like the Le Mans experience whichever side of the fences you are on. It is a spectacular event with 24 hour of fun, excitement, noise, drama and special experiences. For me, as this year’s race starts it will be again a time to reflect on the achievements of that era, to think of the hundreds of thousands of hours of pre event preparation put in by the teams competing in this year’s event and the enjoyment that so many people will gain from attending this event of homage to sports car racing.
Sitting in one of the grandstands with a bunch of his mates from the UK, and no doubt clutching a beer or two and sucking up that atmosphere will be the eldest of my two Sons, Kristian. My younger Son Julian, will be engineering a BTCC racing car at Croft for the weekend. (What is it about motor racing Dad’s and their Sons?) I chatted with Kristian about the event yesterday and I reminded him of the Jaguar years, the 25th anniversary of their success this year, the 23rd anniversary of winning in 1990, of working for TWR Racing and some personal tales of the legendary Tom Walkinshaw, whose winning spirit washed over everyone he came into contact with.
The pit complex has changed, the garages more modern and spacious, the VIP’s most likely better catered for, but leaving those things aside, as you watch, follow or attend this year’s French classic at Le Mans, remember to raise a beer or two to Tom, and that ‘oh so special’ event his TWR Jaguar team won 25 years ago on the 11/12 June 1988 and again 23 years ago yesterday in 1990. As I often say when sharing a drink with friends “To present company and absent friends” - let that toast ring out over Le Mans this weekend…
Picture of Tom Walkinshaw with Richard West at Silverstone- Silk Cut Jaguar 1990- Copyright QuestFrance 1990