Former racing driver and team owner Tom Walkinshaw has passed away at the age of 64 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Walkinshaw’s lengthy motorsport career began as a driver – winning the Scottish Formula Ford title in 1969 – and he achieved considerable success in touring cars as both a driver and team owner, where his TWR empire achieved global acclaim.
It is probably his management exploits in sports and touring cars, as well as Formula 1 (where he was involved with Benetton, Ligier and Arrows) for which he is better known, and he earned praise and criticism in equal measures during his lengthy association with the sport.
Following his wining the European Touring Car Championship for Jaguar in 1984, his TWR operation was commissioned to head Jaguar’s return to sports car racing. His Jaguar Group C cars won three World Sportscar titles, as well as two wins in the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Following this, he made his first foray into F1 when he was appointed the team’s engineering director in 1991, and one of his shrewdest moves was to reintroduce Ross Brawn (who had worked with the likes of Haas Lola and Arrows, and then worked with Walkinsaw at Jaguar) to F1 as the team’ technical director. Brawn would of course go on to achieve success with Michael Schumacher at Benetton, and then later Ferrari.
The controversies of the team’s 1994 championship saw Walkinshaw move across to Ligier – which Benetton boss Flavio Briatore co-owned – but his stint at the helm was short-lived, and he fell out with Flav and left the team shortly before Ligier would go on to claim its final win at the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix.
He purchased a 51% controlling stake in Arrows, which was continuing (and would continue) its lengthy winless streak in F1 as one of the sport’s perennial midfield survivors, never achieving much in the way of continuity of engines, drivers, sponsors or management figures.
Under Walkinshaw’s watch, the pattern would continue during his seven-year helm, and a host of designers – including Alan Jenkins, Frank Dernie, John Barnard, Eghbal Hamidy and Sergio Rinland – came and went. Such a swift turnover meant that the team would begin a season with a car that bore no resemblance to its predecessor, and the newly-hired designer would be left trying to develop a car that they hadn’t designed!
The same applied to engine supply, where the team chopped and changed between Hart, Yamaha, Supertec, Asiatech and the extremely expensive Cosworths. In 1998-9, Walkinshaw decided to buy out the Brian Hart operation and badge the V10 engines under the team name in the hope of garnering a manufacturer to invest in the deal, but the engines were too gutless and underdeveloped to ever be an attractive prospect.
As for drivers, no pilot lasted more than two seasons with Walkinshaw in charge. A total of seven drivers would depart the team with some sort of an axe to grind. First came Jos Verstappen’s ousting at the end of 1996. Then came the in-fighting between Walkinshaw and 1997 championship Damon Hill, whom he had signed on the (unfulfilled) promises of a competitive package. Pedro Diniz was unsuccessfully sued by Walkinshaw for an apparent breach of contract when he left the team at the end of 1998 for Sauber, and in turn Mika Salo was kept waiting in limbo during the 1998-9 off-season, only to not be signed at the expense of Pedro de la Rosa’s sponsorship from Repsol. De la Rosa was in turn turfed at the end of the 2000 season for Enrique Bernoldi’s Red Bull money, and Verstappen (back for a second bite of the cherry) was dumped at the end of 2001 in favour of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who in turned walked out in mid-2002 after not being paid.
Come 2002, Walkinshaw was forced to pay damages to Diniz, Verstappen and Frentzen, which sent the team spiralling into a debt cycle it could not longer keep up with, one of the many factors that precipitated the team’s eventual closure.
For a man who seemed so adept at wheeler-dealing in his early years, a vast number of deals seemed to collapse during his role as Arrows boss, including the one that would end it all, headed by the shady Nigerian, Prince Malik Ado Ibrahim, in 1999.
Malik linked up with investment firm Morgan Grenfell, and that was the team’s undoing, when the bank remained in the background after Malik’s departure when he had failed to generate the sponsorship income he had promised. Walkinshaw turned to them to fill the void left by the self-proclaimed African prince, and the bank duly entered into a long-term, high-repayment loan with Walkinshaw that all but strangled the team’s finances. In turn, MGPE sold some of its shares to EM.TV, but MGPE lost an incredible $365M in the deal.
By 2002, Walkinshaw was forced to fund the team out of his own pocket, and kept hoping to find new backers. His newest trick was trying to get his hands on the former Prost team’s share of the TV rights (following Prost’s collapse at the end of 2001) revenue by involving one of his mates, Charles Nickerson, to buy the Prost assets and set up the Phoenix Grand Prix team, which he would quickly dissolve once the funds came through. The FIA vetoed that prospect from the get-go.
But MGPE wouldn’t budge unless the new investors bailed them out of their 45% stake in the team as well. Couple this with three lawsuit debts to ex-drivers, extremely expensive Cosworth engines and MGPE strangling the team’s finances, Arrows hit the wall mid-season and closed.
One always wonders if Walkinshaw was trying to create a successful racing team or simply treating this as another money-making venture, and what the team clearly needed was the stability that Walkinshaw appeared incapable and/or unwilling to provide.
Yet this is in direct contrast to the incredible success his TWR empire achieved in other motorsport fields, such as bringing Volvo to the British Touring Car Championship and ultimately heading its championship success.
His TWR-run factory-backed Holden Racing Team still continues in the V8 Supercars Championship, and it too has clinched six titles and six Bahurst 1000 victories.
How he could not replicate the same success in Formula 1 is a mystery that will no doubt remain unsolved.
Regardless, he was an important piece of the rich tapestry of Formula 1, which would be the poorer without his involvement.
RIP, Mr Walkinshaw.