British-born and Australian-raised, Peter Windsor became a motorsport fan thanks to the annual Tasman Series of races that took place ‘in his backyard’ in the 1960s.
By the 1970s, the Formula 1 bug had well a truly bit, and Peter returned to the UK to pursue a career as a motorsport journalist, becoming regular Formula 1 reporter and Sports Editor of the weekly magazine, Autocar.
Having dabbled in some sponsorship-hunting from time to time, Windsor was offered a permanent post as the Williams team’s manager of sponsorship and public affairs in 1985, a position he held for the next four seasons.
His relationships with Frank Williams and Nigel Mansell were particularly close, and became closer still after Williams’ car accident in early 1986 – in which Windsor was a passenger in the car Williams was driving – that led to the team’s founder’s quadriplegia.
He followed Mansell to Ferrari after the Englishman’s move to the Italian team, and ran the team’s Guildford Technical Office for the 1990 season, returning to Williams with Mansell when the racer reversed his decision to retire from the sport.
Now serving as Team Manager for the Williams team, Windsor was famously involved in the pit stop blunder at that year’s Portuguese Grand Prix that ultimately cost Mansell a shot at the Drivers’ Championship title, indicating that his car could be released from its pit box before its right-rear wheel had been properly attached…
When Mansell quit F1 for the IndyCar scene at the end of 1992, Windsor followed suit and headed to the United States, later turning his attention to driver and property management, before he started to write again and returned to the TV screens.
At the start of the 1998 Formula 1 season, Windsor was offered a role in Fox Television’s F1 commentary team, and he found himself back in the F1 media centre over a decade after he left it.
He joined the SPEED F1 team, serving as the ‘on the ground’ correspondent to the channel’s US-confined F1 anchors, Bob Varsha, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett, and in the late 2000s, began to serve a similar role for Australia’s F1 broadcasters, Network Ten and ONE HD.
But Windsor always held ambitions of owning an F1 team of his own. After two previous attempts to either buy into or set up his own F1 team, he an former Ligier manager Ken Anderson paired up with the aim of creating an American Formula 1 team: USF1 was born in 2009 and granted entry into the 2010 championship. But the project dramatically failed to gel, and all investors withdrew their support amid claims that Windsor and Anderson were badly mismanaging the project. The team collapsed just weeks before the start of the F1 season, with the 2010 challenger barely designed and nowhere close to being built.
It was an embarrassment for all concerned, and Windsor remained off the F1 radar for the next 18 months, later returning to the scene as an F1 pod- and webcaster with his new The Flying Lap, weekly show, which proved an instant hit. That has now morphed into The Racer’s Edge, a popular live-streamed webcast show played to millions of Formula 1 fans worldwide.
Back in the F1 paddock once again, Windsor sat down and spoke with our Malaysian Grand Prix reporters, Ben Waterworth and Samuel McCrossen, and opened up for the first time about the real story of what went down as US F1…
You’ve been involved in Formula 1 now for over 30 years, can you believe you have been doing it for this long?
Well I can yes! Only because my first race I attended in Warwick Farm as a kid, the 1963 Australian Grand Prix, only seems like yesterday. As does the first Formula 1 race I ever covered for Autosport, which was the 1972 South African Grand Prix.
Winning the World Championship with Nigel at Williams in 1992 also seems like yesterday and it’s all there in technicolour! It does seem a long time in some respects, but equally it doesn’t. I’m always sitting around enjoying life!
Where did the passion for motor sport come from when you were growing up?
It was more from the detail of the sport rather than just motor sport in general. As a kid I remember being captivated by Scalextric, which was a new thing back in the early sixties. The white picket fences, the KLG sign, the BP flags, the grass, the paddock area, and I just thought ‘isn’t this a lovely world?’.
And then I started to realise there were things called racing cars! I’ve always liked the concept of a driver being in control of a car and everybody going in the same direction and having at his disposal steering, brakes and throttle and his choice of how he is going to use those and balance those in any corner.
I can remember being a flag marshal at Warwick Farm when I was 15, and I was on the entry to the esses in 1968 watching Jim Clark lap 45 laps, and the difference between Jim’s driving and Graham Hill’s in the same car was so huge that in that point I became really interested in the way drivers drive and what makes one driver do what he does with the car and why some are consistently quicker than others, minimising errors and recovering from errors. So I find all that really interesting.
I’ve never been a ‘petrol head’ as such, although I grew up at a time in the sixties in Australia when we had two Minis, my dad loved FIATs and we had a FIAT 850 coupe which I learned to drive with, a FIAT 124 coupe, we always had very nice road cars. I loved all that. I loved racing cars too. Frank Matich’s racing career was at its peak when I became interested in Australia. All the cars Frank raced his Elfins, Lotus 19s and then subsequently obviously the sports cars and the 5000s, I fell in love with. As I did with the Gagen brothers cars. I first learnt about immaculate presentation from watching Leo and Ian Gagen, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen something more beautiful than a sunny day at Catalina Park and Leo Gagen in a brand new black Lotus 27 with the total race stripes on the nose, Leo in a short sleeved black polo shirt, black helmet and chrome exhaust manifold. It was just absolutely gorgeous! And it’s a beauty, I think there is a beauty about motor racing that is difficult to describe sometimes.
You’ve written a lot about Jim Clark, is he the best racing driver you have ever seen?
For me Clark is still the best driver I have ever seen. In every dimension. And by that I also refer to him as a person, he was just poetry in motion. He really was. He was so fluid, so balanced and so subtle in everything he did.
Few drivers have that. Nigel Mansell was pretty near that, Ayrton Senna too, although Ayrton’s throttle response and the way he used to take up the throttle was far away from Jimmy’s. For me so far, Clark is the best driver I have ever seen. No question about it.
With the development of the cars over the years, is it harder today to see the ‘real’ drivers compared to back when Jim was racing?
I don’t think it is, no. I think it is if you watch television, I don’t think the television angles make it at all easy for the fans to see the differences because usually it’s a long lens shot and usually they go for the angles that maximise circuit signage or the beauty of the photography and not actually to see the difference in drivers.
But if you take a corner, even on television a corner like Copse at Silverstone, they occasionally have a camera head on at the turn in point and just keep it there and you can see one car after another and that point you can see quite a lot of differences. But for television viewers it can be quite difficult. If you’re at a race meeting, here in Malaysia say in the media centre and walk down to the window overlooking those two quick corners, there was only one other guy and I down while the rest of you were glued to the television screens for reasons that escape me! I was down there for most of the session and there you can see very large differences between every driver within his own team compared with his team-mate and indeed one car to another. So I think actually the differences are huge and they are still there to be seen, but you’ve got to be out there watching really rather than glued to the television.
You’ve spent a lot of time in Australia having grown up there, what brought you and your family out there?
My dad actually worked for a company which offered him a job in Australia setting up a new division for Reckitt and Coleman, which actually my grandfather had also worked in. It’s an interesting company that was originally called Burgess brothers and Reckitt’s were a much larger company, and in World War II, Reckitt’s was quite severely bombed and they were all in the starch industry, and Burgess offered to give a lot of warehousing space to Reckitt’s after they got bombed. After the war Reckitt’s were so grateful that they basically bought Burgess at a very good price and the two became amalgamated and became Reckitt and Coleman.
So Dad came out in 1957 by ship and I came out then as a baby, and I grew up in Sydney. I came out at a time – luckily for me – when Warwick Farm and Jeff Sykes were just at their peak, and that ten-year period of the farm was still as good a section scene of motor racing in every dimension that anybody can find anywhere in the world, I’m convinced of that. I worked in the ARC club rooms during my school holidays and joined them full time as soon as I left school with just the five of us in the office running the race at Warwick Farm. I loved it.
How did you find the Australian motor racing scene in that period? With the likes of Jack Brabham heading over to Europe to do well in Formula 1, were there many other Australian drivers trying to crack it into F1 at the time?
I would go to the 1964 International at Warwick Farm having read Sportscar World and Motor Magazine about Bruce McLaren, Jack Brabham and Chris Amon and the star Formula 1 drivers who would be appearing, and then I would go there with the fans and see Frank Matich on pole and think ‘wow we have a local Australian who is as quick as these Formula 1 drivers and he is driving the same car’.
So I grew up very conscious of how good Frank was and how important Australia was in the world of Formula 1. It never occurred to me that Australia was a ‘back water’ or we didn’t have the resources. I always took it for granted that at any given moment Frank could’ve gone over and won Grands Prix and I grew up thinking that way. Australian motor racing was brilliant a that time. Every support race was full grids and we had amazing machinery. There was such a high standard of driving with the likes of Kevin Bartlett, Neil Allen, Johnny Harvey and Spencer Martin. I think that what probably people don’t realise then is that touring cars were what I perceive touring cars as today; a lot of fun, a good support race, shouldn’t take them too seriously and certainly not the main event of the day unless it maybe the Australian Touring Car Championship.
But generally speaking, the main event of the day was always single seaters, whether it be Formula Two, Formula Junior, Formula 5000 or gold star that was what motor racing was all about. I think Australian racing has probably gotten a bit lost now because it’s so touring car-centric and that’s where it’s kind of gotten all out of skew.
Did it surprise you then that it took so long to not only see another Australian in Mark Webber come into Formula 1, but so long to get another Australian winner?
By the time Mark came along money was obviously much more of an issue in terms of having to pay your way, although Mark still did it based on talent alone. Mark didn’t make it to Formula 1 because he was successful in Australia, he made it in Formula 1 because he went over to Europe to race Formula Ford and then scratch his way into Formula 3. He did it like anybody else and because he has a lot of talent he made it. I think that applies today. It’s very easy in America or Australia where you have a very healthy V8 scene, for a young guy to immediately try and gravitate into V8s, or to NASCAR in America, and not try to come to Europe and do it the ‘hard way’.
But if you do, it’s all a question of talent. As Jim Clark said to me a couple of times when I met him at Sydney Airport and we had a bit of a chat, “If you really want something bad enough, never give up and you’ll succeed”. I think that’s definitely true today.
I help young drivers as much as I can, but obviously key thing is natural talent and the ability to listen and learn, and if you’ve got those three things then the rest of it is relatively straight forward. You’ve just got to be incredibly determined and never give up.
When I met Nigel Mansell, he had enough money to do five races in 1978. Then the money ran out. Nobody rang him, and he was writing ten proposals a day. He was running six or seven miles a day in army boots and he was hitting a punching bag in his garage at night for nine months and the phone never rang. This is a future winner of 31 Grands Prix! It’s tough. But if you can’t get through those moments, you shouldn’t be a race driver.
What was it like being at Williams during their most successful period in the late 80s and early 90s?
I’ve always been close to Williams and close to Frank [Williams] as anybody in Formula 1 really, and Frank has been one of my very good friends. We got together in 1978 when he was raising money in Saudi Arabia and I helped him with that.
Then I went to work for him as sponsorship manager then subsequently as race team manager. They were just fun times.
It was a bit like being in the army when you’re in that job, regardless of what team it is. It’s very regimented, you have to be the first guy at the track in the morning and you can’t leave until the last mechanic leaves his job. In those days we had no curfews, we had very complicated Adrian Newey cars and quite often the boys would be there until 4 or 5 in the morning and be back at the track at 7.
I was just talking to one of them the other day about that time and he said after day 3 it was difficult to do the buttons up on your shirt because the calluses on your fingers were so bad from working on the car you couldn’t do the buttons up! And if you could do the buttons up, you weren’t working hard enough!
That’s how tough it was, and is. It’s tough now in other ways, but obviously the system has changed a bit. It was a very satisfying time. For me it was satisfying because I met Nigel when he was ‘nobody’, and I helped him get into Formula 1 through opening as many doors as I could by pounding on doors and writing letters on his behalf, convincing people and getting him the first Lotus drive and then the Williams drive. To win the championship with him was a very nice thing!
A lot has happened between your time at Williams right through to today, what do you think the key reasons are that they are no longer winning and challenging for Championships?
Without wanting to point the finger at anybody, they haven’t done a good job in keeping their engine supplier first of all [Honda, Renault, and then BMW], and if you keep going through a major regurgitation of your engine supplier, that’s always going to have a big impact on your long term stability. Then beyond that they’ve lost a lot of good people, mainly to McLaren. Frank was and still is very dogmatic about wanting to retain ownership of the team as a private company. It’s no longer private but he is still the majority shareholder.
Adrian Newey left, he could’ve stayed and if he had stayed I think they could’ve won a lot more races. Honda left; if Honda had stayed they would’ve won a lot more races and championships. Other good engineers, Paddy Lowe, Neil Oakley. Nigel shouldn’t have left when he did. All those things. If they just kept the continuity I think everything would’ve been better.
Can they turn it around or are they destined to follow the path of a team such as Tyrrell?
Well it’s a bit of a pivotal moment right now for the team managerially right now and everything else. They’ve got two extremely good drivers right now and a pretty good technical line up, as well as a reasonable budget. So this year will be a pretty important year. They had a good year last year, relative to recent times. They’ve got to have a better year than 2012. It’s not easy. They won a race last year so they’ve got to at least win a race, if not two! Not easy, but they’ve got the drivers capable of doing that in my view.
You spent a brief period at Ferrari in the late 1980s, what was this period like?
Yeah it was good! Again the synergy was very good because I had helped Enrique Scalabroni, one of the very talented Williams engineers; go to Ferrari on the back of that. I then took over the operations of the British Formula 1 setup that John Barnard had created. John had gone to Benetton at that point and took all the employees with him. So I took over on November 1st 1989 and by the end of January we had to have three cars built and on route to Brazil for testing. When I took over I had one employee left! I had to employ 50 people out of the blue and get all that work done.
With Scalabroni, Ian Thompson and a few others we managed to achieve that. I think we built a very good car; it was a better car than the ‘89 car which was a bit of a difficult car. If you think the last race in 1989 they were mid-field and throughout 1990 Prost and Mansell in that Scalabroni car were frontrunners virtually every race. So I was very pleased with that. It was a great team of guys we built up and it was sad to leave them after two years. Equally, though, the Williams challenge was there.
RF1: Did it bring you joy then to see Michael Schumacher turn around Ferrari in the 1990s to bring them the success?
PW: Not really no. I wasn’t really a part of all that and I was never a huge fan of that operation anyway. I thought Michael brought in a very high standard of operation in terms of his driving and the way he ran the operation, but I didn’t really enjoy it because Michael wasn’t really a guy you could enjoy being with. There was nothing enjoyable about the team in terms of being around it. I’m not a Ferrari fan sitting here saying ‘I love Ferrari’. If anything I’m a team Lotus fan up until about 1974, and now I’m fairly Catholic in my taste! I suppose I’m more of a Williams fan than anything else right now.
We obviously know what happened with USF1, but if they had have been on the grid with Marussia, HRT and Caterham in 2010 how do you think they would’ve gone considering their struggles over the last three seasons?
Well the first thing is I don’t think anybody knows what happened with USF1 because I’ve never told the story.
The FIA have always said, “Peter, don’t go into detail about it, because there is a lot of stuff there that we wouldn’t like to see in the public domain.”
So I don’t think anybody knows what happened with USF1 except for the fact that it didn’t happen. I think we would’ve done a very good job. I still believe that. But I’m referring to the time when we wanted to do the team which was when there had been two or three empty places on the grid for at least three years after David Richards had decided not to take up his franchise.
Nobody was doing any efforts to do a Formula 1 team. We wanted to create a completely new team, build the car in America, operate it out of Europe and sneak on to the back of the grid and walk before we could run.
Before we knew what was happening and after we had put together our financial package, the whole thing was being changed around and there was a thing called ‘budget cap formula’ being devised by the FIA.
All of a sudden to cut a long story sideways, we were given our franchise in about mid-September, we had an empty factory with no tooling, no employees basically and the car was sort of half drawn but even that was changing all the time. We had to have the car finished and crash tested basically by the middle of February. It was completely absurd!
What we should’ve been able to do was to say “Thanks for the franchise, we’ll be able to operate in 2011”, but we couldn’t do that because they had created this budget cap thing and lots of ‘teams’ had suddenly materialised out of nowhere, and I use the word ‘team’ in inverted commas, and if we hadn’t have taken it they would’ve given it to someone else. We had to try and make the best of it but it was a ludicrous situation.
Even today, I ask myself if I could have seen that happening? Could I have imagined that six weeks after we had found the money to do an American Formula 1 team that the FIA would create a thing called a ‘budget cap formula’ and give us bigger wings, more engine power and more downforce than the regular Formula 1 teams and run us on the same grid and that would cause a major rupture within the Formula 1 world? Could I have predicted all that? Should I have predicted all that?
Obviously I’m quite hard on myself but obviously I can’t see how anybody could’ve predicted how that would’ve happened! And if they did then I take my hat off to them.
Is it something in the future you would like to revisit? Running your own Formula 1 team?
Well, I love the idea of giving very good people who don’t have an opportunity a chance to prove their worth. Like everybody in Formula 1, I think I have my own ideas about who does a good job and who doesn’t and people who have been given a chance, and I would love to do that.
That to me is the biggest attraction of doing a Formula 1 team; taking two drivers that nobody rates, three engineers that nobody rates, putting them all together and winning Grands Prix! I think it’s a wonderful thing!
Right now I’m writing a story about Adrian Sutil for F1 Racing because for many years I’ve been a big Adrian Sutil fan and I think the way he was treated by the Formula 1 world was very poor. Yes, he made a mistake, but yes he apologised, and no he didn’t deserve to lose his Formula 1 drive for the mistake that he made. So here he is now, doing well and I’m sure everyone will be around him like a rash but that’s life. You’ve got to say that the Formula 1 world is very very harsh. It’s a harsh learning environment.
You’re still writing for F1 Racing as you just mentioned, and I believe you’ve got an exciting online TV project that you’ve just started?
Yeah! After the USF1 thing I thought about what I was going to do next and I realised I hadn’t really done much in terms of ‘new media’ and understanding where it was going. So I spent quite a lot of time with that and thinking about that.
And obviously like you guys, I’ve always liked the idea of my own magazine or my own TV show and I’ve never been able to do that as I’ve been lucky enough to work for other TV stations and other magazines and so forth.
But with the internet we all have a chance to have our own magazine; it’s called a website.
Now we also have a chance to have our own TV show; it’s called a webcast.
So I spent about a year looking at ways to do that, and we still haven’t cracked it in every dimension but now two years on I’ve got a show now with I think a pretty healthy audience. We’re live streaming on YouTube and we have a really good offline download capability which I think is important if you are trying to do a one-hour show. We have what I’ve always expected, a lot of really interesting people who if you can talk to them for more than three or four minutes that is more than the average TV sound byte and you can sit them down for 45 minutes you can actually really get the audience to understand them and to take a new interest in people that perhaps they’ve never even heard of. That’s what I love, I love that challenge as well.
You’re former podcast/webcast The Flying Lap has ended and I saw a lot of people asking what had happened with that?
Well The Flying Lap was two years of hard work doing it in a production way that was very helpful at the time, but now as I say we’ve now got a live stream capability on YouTube so we’ve changed the entire production methodology of the show and given it a new name!
Purely because I am, as you say, writing for F1 Racing in a pretty full on way now with a lot of features and I’ve got a column called Racer’s Edge so it seemed logical to call the show Racer’s Edge! It’s effectively a live online reader interactive version of my column. That’s how I perceive it.
Images via Corbis Images, Jack Leslie F1, Peter Windsor and The Cahier Archive