Remembering Tom Walkinshaw at Le Mans

TomRW

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

The benefits of being ‘A McLaren Old Boy’….

1984 Line Up

Between mid 1984 and December 1988 I was extremely privileged to be a part of an incredible organisation known as McLaren International and the Formula 1 team it ran.  The latter was entered as Marlboro McLaren TAG Turbo. During that time I had the role of Sponsorship Co-ordinator which entailed me in the main looking after the sponsor’s interests both on and off track and ensuring they received value for money.  It also meant travelling to all of the Grand Prix each year and in 1988 balancing the interests of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in the same team! (There has been much said and produced on that particular relationship, but truly not everything is as written/shown…so, more of that subject one day perhaps…)

During that period the team changed from TAG Turbo to Honda Turbo power units which from time to time changed the teams title slightly, but to those in and around the team, we were affectionately known as ‘The Red and Whites’ – clearly from the picture, you can see why!  For the records, yours truly is on the back row, seventh in from the right and Matthew Jeffreys, (more of whom later) is again, on the back row, ninth in from the right. This was the 1984 line up with Lauda and Prost as Drivers that won the World Championships that year – ah, happy days :)

Working with leader Ron Dennis, design gurus John Barnard and Steve Nichols and with Drivers Alain Prost, Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg, Stefan Johansson and the legendary Ayrton Senna the team was full of inspired men and women who I worked alongside as colleagues and frankly, the experience was almost like a drug to me and quite simply I could not get enough of it.  Importantly, it taught me the importance of hard work, commitment and teamwork where trust is everything.  It was also incredible fun…

The years have passed quickly it seems.   For me, McLaren was followed by a successful spell spent at Williams in the 1990′s where again I worked with Alain and Ayrton, Mansell, Hill and Coulthard, but the experiences and memories from those McLaren times have if anything grown stronger and fonder above almost everything else.  Much of what I learnt in those heady days seems to grow more relevant to business as each days passes and I frequently use my Formula 1 experiences in the work I present citing McLaren and its undying pursuit of perfection as examples to others seeking to better their own organisations.

By way of further background information to this post, former McLaren employees like to keep in touch and one of those people is ex McLaren design office man Matthew Jeffreys who served McLaren from 1979 to 2005.  Matthew like me and many others still burns a candle for his McLaren years and the time he spent there and in May last year he invited me to attend an event he was organising at The Brooklands Motor Museum, which linked to a visit organised by the team late Founder Bruce McLaren’s Sister Jan, (who now runs The Bruce McLaren Trust) was intended to get some of the real old hands, such as Bruce’s first ever employees together with more recent and still serving  employees, ex Drivers, Directors of the business and the likes of yours truly to generally enable us to talk about ‘the good old days’ and meet up again.  The event was a great success and this year’s gathering to be held on September 11th prior to the Goodwood Revival weekend is heading towards being nothing short of spectacular.

So I hear you ask, what is behind the heading of:  The benefits of being ‘A McLaren Old Boy’?  Well, it’s simple really:

I had last year and indeed have again this year, the honour of hosting the evening and interviewing many of those present as I did at Brooklands last year in an impromptu way. This year will require a little more planning and scripting as Drivers such as former McLaren and Ferrari star Stefan Johansson will be present along with Brett Lunger who not only drove a private McLaren, but is one of the unsung heroes who pulled three times World Champion Niki Lauda from his burning Ferrari at the Nurburgring in 1976.  Nico Prost, Son of four times World Drivers Champion is attending and is applying firm but gentle pressure to ‘Dad’ in order that he too can meet up with old and not so old friends.

Last year 81 British GP Winner John Watson revealed how he survived an enormous accident at Monza thanks to the carbon fibre designed chassis of one of John Barnard’s early creations, Tyler Alexander, once a Director of McLaren and an almost idolised figure in motor racing for his experience heaped praise on the many people in the room for their commitments over the years to the team and former GP Driver Howden Ganley and Bruce McLaren’s third only ever employee told us how it was in ‘those days’ compared to life in today’s ‘super teams’ that make up the Formula 1 grid.

The list goes on and on; Susie Dunbar, Bruce McLaren’s former PA who used to go to the office wearing Hot Pants, Italian Driver Bruno Giacomelli who drove a McLaren in the 1970′s, and Pauline Hailwood the wife of motorbike racing legend Mike Hailwood were present.  Gretta Hulme, the wife of ‘The Bear’ Denny, George Langhorn – ‘Mr Paintshop’ (the man who paints and directs the painting of the iconic racing cars and has done so since the 70′s)…..it is an enviable list from history to the current day.

This year with Matthew driving the event forwards, and with yours truly in the background making contact with old friends, sponsors and Drivers alike, the event will run to a capacity of 230 people.  Once again Jan McLaren will be making the trip from New Zealand with some 20 former McLaren employees and family members, the late James Hunt’s two Sons Freddie and Tom will be present along with wife Sarah.

Former McLaren motor home pairing Bob and Shaune McMurray along with ex factory man Leo Wybrott will be making the trip from New Zealand also.  Former Team Co-ordinator Jo Ramirez will be present and hopefully the delightful Jennifer Revson, Sister of the late Peter Revson who qualified his McLaren on pole in the 70′s at Indy will also join the evening along with a North American contingent representing McLaren’s success in Indycar and CANAM racing over the years. Many sponsors’ representatives are there too along with a strong presence from Shell and journalists Maurice Hamilton and the ever impressive Doug Nye, who last year brought some amazing black and white film of Graham Hill, Bruce McLaren and the stars of yesterday to wow the audience with.

Clearly, this year is the 50th anniversary of McLaren.  The factory will be hosting its own official recognition of this fact in September also, but this event as Matthew Jeffries says whilst ‘unofficial’ is for those people from all walks of life who have been part of the McLaren family over the years and who want to come together, renew old friendships in relaxed surroundings, over a few drinks and dinner and in company which would put many current celebrity shows to shame!

As Matthew says of the ex McLaren ranks, “You can leave McLaren, but McLaren never leaves you” and that is what everyone present is there to celebrate.  I close on this point for now as how many of us can claim we still burn a bright flame for something of which we were part, however long ago?  Being part of a team, experiencing gains and losses, winning and losing, having to constantly strive for better and better performances and driving forward as one cohesive force is something to which many aspire, but fewer ever attain.

As ‘the McLaren Old Boy’ charged with keeping the evening on track and teasing out those hidden gems and anecdotes from the audience after dinner, I look forward to the challenge greatly, for as one of ‘The Class of 88′  (which in 1988 won 15 out of 16 Grand Prix), my candle still burns brightly and I relish the challenge of being among so many with whom I shared so much.

So, thank you Bruce for starting it all off, thank you Ron for making my time with the Red and Whites possible, thank you Matthew for spreading your passion for the team so far and wide and thank you in advance to everyone who will be there on the night – as for this McLaren Old Boy, the journey continues undimmed!

Welcome to my Blog

Rodin’s the Thinker
(Photo By Drflet [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Hello and welcome to my blog.  I have been meaning to get this up and running for longer than I care to remember and with so much going on in the world of motorsport, Formula 1 racing and in my world of speaking, hosting and learning and development, I decided to ‘get my act together’ and share some of my thoughts and experiences.

Where possible I will be giving some insights into the challenges faced in business today from the experiences and insights I gain in working with a fantastic range of client’s.  We all work in extremely challenging times and therefore I hope some of these insights and observations may act as ‘prompts’ for ideas and actions for your own specific challenges – they is nothing like a good idea shared I say.

Do please drop me a line via email or LinkedIn if you want to share a comment or two, your inputs will always be valued, for like you, I am always looking for new opinions and ideas.

I am a great fan of thinking ‘outside of the box’ and a long time friend and colleague John Caswell is one of the most alternative thinkers I know – if you also like to approach your challenges with a different and broader brush stroke, take a look at John’s thinking on Linkedin in – you will find him as Founder and CEO of Group Partners, Business Consulting…
Thanks for reading
Richard



Richard West Associates
Mobile +44 (0)7770 722917

Credits and acknowledgements