Gary Anderson was fascinated by cars and indluged in the occasional bit of road racing with his mates in Northern Ireland before he crossed the pond and pursued a career in motorsport that ultimately led to him becoming one of Formula 1’s most acclaimed designers and technical directors in the 1990s.

He initially had dreams of becoming a racing driver, but subsequently found work as a mechanic at Brands Hatch’s Motor Racing Stables race school. That led to a job at Brabham’s Formula 3 team, and he was soon promoted to the Formula 1 line-up – ostensibly because he could single-handedly lift a Cosworth DFV engine, among other skills…

Between Grands Prix, Anderson worked with close friend, (future) brother-in-law and fellow mechanic Bob Simpson to build and design a Formula 3 car, which they dubbed the Anson SA1.

Gary Anderson

Gary Anderson

That and his promotion to chief mechanic – where he worked closely with design ace Gordon Murray – were the first triggers at a shift to a full-time career in engineering and design. He quit Brabham at the end of 1976 to pursue the Anson project full-time, but the costs proved too great and he had to return to F1, this time as chief mechanic with McLaren.

He stayed for two years before moving over to Mo Nunn’s little Ensign F1 team, but the project faded after Clay Regazzoni’s career-ending accident at the Long beach Grand Prix in 1980. Disillusioned, Anderson returned to the Anson project and this time it was a success, winning a number of races in Formula 3 and SuperVee.

Money remained tight, and so he headed to America to become chief engineer to Roberto Moreno in the IndyCar Series, and followed the Brazilian when he moved to Europe to compete in the Formula 3000 championship and win the 1988 title in the new Reynard chassis. Anderson was hired by Reynard to spearhead its chassis designs for the next two years.

It was at that point that Eddie Jordan – a rival from their old F3 days – asked him to join the Irishman’s graduation to Formula 1 as a constructor, and the Anderson-designed 191 proved a sensation in its debut season. He remained with the team until mid-1998, with the form of the team fluctuating along with its budget and the dedication of Jordan himself. Shortly after an acrimonious split from the team, it claimed its first Grand Prix victory with a 1-2 at Spa-Francorchamps.

He moved to the Stewart Grand Prix team in 1999 and remained there when it morphed into Jaguar, but was unhappy with new owner Ford Motor Company’s leadership and was ultimately forced from the team. He returned to Jordan in 2002-3 before heading into semi-retirement, working as a consultant across a number of categories as well as acting as a commentator.

Our own engineer-journalist Yassmin Abdel Magied spoke exclusively with Gary Anderson…

So how does a boy from Coleraine in Northern Ireland land up as one of the sports’ highest profile designers and technical directors in the mid-‘90s?

Well, thank you for the compliment first of all, but a lot of things in life happen by luck: if you don’t buy a lot, you’re not going to win it.  So, whenever an opportunity came up, I tried to take it.  Somebody offered me something where I saw an opening and needs something done, I jump into it.  I came to England from Ireland basically to have a look at living outside of Ireland.  Before I was a mechanic, I started to work on the building site to driving a dump truck.  So, that was my first job in the U.K. and I spent my apprenticeship on Massey Ferguson Tractors.

Then I got a job in the garage and I did a bit of work there.  One of the guys who worked there, his father worked at Brands Hatch’s racing school.  I went up there one day and they needed a mechanic and they said, “Do you want a job?”  I got the job there and started to work in Formula racing, school cars.  And then, through the experience, I ended up being involved at Brands Hatch.

We heard that Brabham were looking for people to build Formula 3 cars.  I applied for a job and I got a letter from this guy called Colin Seeley.  He was then the manager at Brabham, and told me there were no vacancies.  And I got a letter the next day from Bernie, saying yes he would have a position.  So, I took Bernie’s offer – I wanted to know when I could start work and that was it.

“A technical director’s job is about shuffling people to the right roles.  That is not the job for me.  I like to get mobile and get hands dirty.  I want to go and make things, do things, be in the wind tunnel, understand stuff.” – Anderson on the perception that he wasn’t a good delegator

At what point was your interest in motorsport triggered?  Did it occur at that arrival at Brands Hatch or was it there previously?

It occurred way back in Ireland. I used to help my cousin who raced, but I only did it because it was fun, not that I ever knew that you could make a living out of it or whatever.  So, I suppose it really happened when I was at Brands Hatch and there was a big race on one day.  I remember I looked over the paddock and started to talk to some of the mechanics and they told me they worked on the cars full-time and I thought ‘This is a good idea.’

At the beginning of my time in Brabham, I remember sitting down with Gordon Murray and learning why do you set the car up, why do you have camber and so on. I was trying to learn about everything.  I always questioned things and would always – when the teams that I worked for as a mechanic – when something needed to be done, changed, modified, fixed, I was the one they always come to. In those days, you were dead if you didn’t go back to the drawing board like you do currently.  It was fixed and fixed it in the middle of the field.  So, I was the one that usually got tasked to that sort of stuff.  And it’s good.

Now I read that one of the things that sort helped move you from Formula 3 to Formula 1 was the fact that you were singlehandedly capable of lifting a Cosworth DFV?

It is true actually. I think it weighted 138 kilograms or something.  Bernie came and said that Brabham had a vacancy in the F1 team and asked if I wanted to go on it.  And my task was to lift the engine into the back of that van.  And so I did.

It wasn’t really a job application, It’s funny because those times were very, very different.  In 1973, a guy called Bob Dance and I built the truck, the first of the articulated types in Formula 1.  And we converted the back end with workbenches and stuff and then he and I would drive it to the races as well.  It was a very, very different era, but you did everything.  The complete team consisted of about 20 people.  There was no surplus.  You had to do everything.

And because of that, you learn everything as well.  That’s the important thing.  You’re not stuck on your own little box.  You have to be able to do everything.  So, that’s very important in the early career.

I mean, I think, I find that particularly interesting because I find as an engineer, I think it’s really useful for engineers to have time on the tools and a lot of engineers these days don’t – you don’t get that at university and it’s difficult in the Formula 1 team to get that because you were in such a small niche area.  Do you think that’s something that it’s just a way the system is, or is it something that engineers should go at and try to get time on the tools?

I believe you should go and try and get as wide the variety of experience as possible.  All the people I have worked for – in the pit lane here, there’s Caterham’s Mark Smith.  He was a junior mechanic or junior design engineer of mine.  And he’s a technical director now.  Sam Michael started back with me, James Key, John McQuilliam (who is chief designer at Marussia).

We got them to have a wider experience.  They might be specialists in certain areas – for example, John McQuilliam is a very good concept designer but he still needed to learn about general mechanical design and stuff.  So you have to send these people around in different areas to get that breadth of understanding.  You don’t need to be a specialist in everything.

Formula 1 has moved on a lot.  To be honest, a technical director’s job is about shuffling people to the right roles.  That is not the job for me.  I like to get mobile and get hands dirty.  I want to go and make things, do things, be in the wind tunnel, understand stuff, you know?  I want to understand the whys and where for it.  So, there’s a very different discipline now from what it used to be.  But you cannot replace that experience.

I ran a little racing team when I was at university.  What I loved is just that I could be a part of all the different components and when I look at Formula 1, if I was a designer or engineer I would spend probably a big chunk of my career in a live factory working on a very small component.  How does someone go about getting such a broad range of experience if it’s quite difficult to do so in a team?  Or is it a case of joining a smaller team where you have fewer resources?

That’s an important thing, joining a smaller team.  I mean, people want to be in Formula 1 but you have to earn it.  I think it is necessary to step up.  There’s nothing wrong with doing work with GP2 or GP3 for a while.  But the thing about motor racing is that they have now has become a one-make formulae.

When I was doing my F3 cars or Formula 3000, you could go home and think, “I’d like to change the rear suspension geometry and get more camber change, or whatever.”  I think we often drop the parts, make the parts and put them the car to see what will work.  There is a lot in that, but you can’t do that now.

So when you get to Formula 1, it’s like, “Oh, it’s all new.”  Being an engineer in Formula 1 (compared to other formulae) is a completely different discipline because suddenly, the world is open to you.  In Formula 1, you can do anything you want – under the regulations obviously – whereas the other formulae leading up you can’t really do much.

I think that’s wrong. We talk to drivers and get experience but the engineers are as important, to be honest.  Would Red Bull be the same if they didn’t have Adrian Newey? No, they wouldn’t be.

Where did he come from?  He’s on the pit wall, he is starting to dream. But that’s that breadth of experience.  He’s been a race engineer.  He’s done all sorts of stuff.  He and I used to be race engineers in America at the same time.  I talked to him back and forth for many times on flights and he and I have a very similar way of looking at stuff.  You have to be able to picture it.

I used to say to my design engineers that the most important thing is when you’re designing something, it doesn’t matter what it is, but you want to have it pictured before you actually see it.  You don’t want to put it down the ground and then decide whether it’s a dishwasher or a washing machine.  You want to know what’s going to be…

People used to come to me whenever we had a new car.  Eddie Jordan was the boss and would say, “Oh, that’s really nice. Are you pleased?”  and I’d reply: “You’re seeing it for the first time but I’ve been looking at it for the last three months in my head.”

That’s the thing that you have to be able to do as an engineer and that’s what they’ve been able to train in the smaller formulae. It helps people to see that stuff because you’ve tried to do it.  A wide breadth of experience is very important.

“Never be frightened to say something because all you’re trying to do is lay your cards on the table and let the others try and pick stuff out of it.  If it’s a rubbish idea, so be it.  It doesn’t matter because you got it out in the open and it can be discussed.  And that may just light a little fire somewhere in somebody else’s mind.” – Anderson’s advice to aspiring engineers

You talked about Mark and Andy and James and how you’ve played in being a very formative figure in the early stages of their career.  How important were [Brabham designer] Gordon Murray, [McLaren designer] Gordon Coppuck or Bob Simpson [with whom Anderson worked when designing their own Formula 3 cars]?

Well, Bob is my brother-in-law.  Jenny and Bob and I, we started the original Anson.  Bob is one of these guys, he loves making stuff.  And that’s what he does now.  He’s got a business of making chassis and stuff for historic cars and he’s very, very successful.  And I still work with him.  At the moment we’re rebuilding the two Alfa Romeos driven by Mario Andretti and Bruno Giacomelli.

Working with Gordon Murray and Gordon Coppock, they were Godsends to me, and still to this day, they look at me like I look at Andy or Mark or James. They sat down with me, told me stuff and let me do stuff to give me that opportunity.  You need a mentor.

In terms of the young engineers coming into the field, what are the key qualities or key skills that they should learn? What will help them if they’re interested in working in motorsport?

Nowadays, it’s very different.  You have to go and get education and goals and work to be able to get something relative.  Aerodynamics is obviously still the big mover in Formula 1 so studying aerodynamics is not a bad direction to go in.  But there are other areas, such as hydraulic design engineering and mechanic electronics.  There are other disciplines.  It depends on where your interest lie and what you want to do.

One of the things I found was whenever you had a meeting with 15 or 20 people, they are frightened to say something because they’re worried that they’re wrong or it’s not a good idea or whatever.  The advice I give is to never be frightened of that because all you’re trying to do is lay your cards on the table and let them try and pick stuff out of it.  And if it’s a rubbish idea, so be it.  It doesn’t matter because you got it out in the open and it can be discussed.  And that may just light a little fire somewhere in somebody else’s mind.  “Oh, yeah, that would be good.  We can do it that way because…”

If you keep yourself all secretive, “Oh, I’m going to do this because I think it’s brilliant.”  Well, it might be, but it may also not be.  And you’ve just got to bring it out in the open because it allows it to be dissected and you’ll get a better product at the end of the day.

You shifted between a couple of organizations: Brabham, McLaren, and Ensign as well too under Morris Nunn.  Was there a difference in those environments, in terms of budget and leadership? At McLaren, at the time that you were there, it was still to become the competitor force that it became in the ‘80s.  What lessons did you take from each of those environments to then apply to the next phase of your career?

I think if you go through that time with Brabham, it was a good little team, very small obviously at that time.  They had one designer, Gordon Murray.  He made half of the car and that’s the way Formula 1 was.  We won a few races and one reason that it was successful was because of the Alfa Romeo engine.  It caused a fair amount of grief initially but then it became good.

In 1976, I wanted to drive in Formula Libre, our first F3 car.  I got married as well in ’76. During that period of building the F3 car, we lived in my wife’s father and mother’s house in what was effectively a garden shed.  We had a bed, I had a drawing board and that was it.

So, I used to get up and do things, draw bits and pieces and made the car.  I drove it.  All right, I was quite happy but just didn’t have the money, didn’t realize how much it cost.  A guy called Dick Parsons drove it later and it was very successful.

But because of money, I went to work for McLaren in 1977.  It was the same McLaren that won the World Championship in 1976. But they stuck with the McLaren M23 for too long, which had been around for years.  They were a very slow company move.  They had the M26 sitting in the corner and James Hunt didn’t like it because the cockpit sides were made of Kevlar and they were bolted in position.  He had been around the times of people getting turned upside down and die trapped under the car, and he couldn’t break the side of the car to get out.

The M26 also had a problem in the gear change, but they gave me that car to fix. I put slot holes in the Kevlar so you could punch it out.  We changed the gear change layout so it was easier to operate and it was perfect.

The M26 was a decent car.  It was still designed two years prior, so it was itself a two-year idea.  Then Lotus developed ground-effect technology and we never really reacted to that situation.  McLaren was very slow of moving on.  It was a good learning curve again for experiences above anything else.  Gordon Coppuck was a very talented mechanical engineer, but he really didn’t have any sort of aerodynamic depth of understanding.  So that’s where I tried to push my understanding into the aerodynamic world; it was going to be the big prime mover of a Formula 1 car.

And then onto the Ensign thing.  I joined for the high position but it was a very small team. We had no money but it was my first time sitting there, with a drawing board, a pencil, to draw a racing car.  It was nice.  It was good, a very, very good learning curve.

“At Jordan, if it was a good week, Eddie was beside you. If it was a bad week, then Eddie would be hiding.” – Anderson on working for Eddie Jordan

Eddie Jordan was your rival and then later became your boss.  You shot to prominence with the Jordan 191 in which Andrea de Cesaris almost won the Belgian Grand Prix.  What was that period like coming into a startup operation, growing and developing as the Jordan team did.  It had its ups and downs through that period as well…

On Christmas Eve in 1989 I got a phone call from Eddie; somehow he and my wife convinced me to go ahead with supporting his Formula 1 ambitions. He’d first floated the idea to me in 1987 and I thought he was mad at the time.

I started in February of 1990 and set it all up. There were three of us in the design office but the team built up.  I remember our first Grand Prix at Phoenix in 1991: the total staff was 28 people, with Mark Smith left behind to turn the lights off at the factory!

Gary Anderson & Eddie Jordan launch the Jordan 191

Anderson and Jordan unveil the Jordan 191, which proved to be a standout performer in the 1991 F1 season.

But what we didn’t really realize was the fact that we weren’t big enough to design and build a car for the following year and go racing in the current year. In 1990, we designed a built a car and then took it racing racing in 1991.  For 1992, we were in significant debt and the free Yamaha engine was certainly not the greatest thing in the world.

There are reasons for everything through the years.  The three cars that were the best were the ’91 car, the ’94 car, and the ’97 Jordan.  Between those years, there were other things that stood in the way of better results.

Eddie was part of it as well, you know, saving money or trying to drive me to delegate.  Politically, it becomes a pain in the ass and I don’t like that.  I just want to get a car designed and engineered.

I remember the ’98 car and changing to the Mugen-Honda engines.  We’d been with Peugeot for three years building it up from the lump that McLaren had in 1994 and in the switch to Mugen we lost something in the region of 70bhp compared to last year’s Peugeot.

But the 198 didn’t work. Whether it’s fast or slow is one thing; but when the driver doesn’t like it, that’s another thing. That’s where I actually try to rack my brain.

I tried to examine the problems. Wind tunnel testing only tells you so much and I wasn’t prepared to do the same stuff over again. There was something I was missing; the team should know how to make the car work. Look at McLaren that year, they had it sorted and Newey knew 100% what made it work.

If you knew 80%, you’re doing pretty good.  But you can still make a mistake and that 20% you don’t know and you don’t understand why.  So, that’s the bit you have to focus on.

So we end up trying to find this problem.  The main reason was aerodynamic steering sensitivity.  Whenever I went to the factory, they wouldn’t tell me that this was the problem and it took too long to resolve.

Finally, overnight, I worked at the wind tunnel trying to create some concepts and really steer it.  We tried three different angles, and finally settled on a solution which we put on the car for Silverstone. It was transformed.  The drivers loved it.

The team was in the points for the first time of the season…

I tried to get the stuff worked out.  I didn’t feel – and this is not a criticism of Eddie, it was other people in the company – I had the back-up I wanted. There was a lot of back biting, basically.  And I decided to leave.  I said to Eddie ahead of the British Grand Prix, “I think the 198 is probably better, but I’m sorry.  I’m going.”

We argued for that month about my leaving, and at the end of the day I just said, “No, I am leaving because, while you weren’t one of the ones that would stick a knife in my back, you could have fought for me and you didn’t.”

Come Belgium, Damon Hill wins, Jordan gets its first one-two finish and finally breaks the duck.  There’s a terrible sense of irony, but was that moment bittersweet, while also a sense of validation for the fact that you were right?

Oh yeah, it was a sense of validation. And that’s okay.  I knew what I did and I know what was done for Belgium and what could be done for Belgium.  It doesn’t hurt me.  The car became competitive at the British Grand Prix and the got the problem sorted.  Once they got the car to make sense for the driver, then you can develop it. I was just pleased for the team.

“Jackie Stewart was the most decisive man I ever worked for. There was no grey areas about Jackie.  He would just be straight, will tell you how it is.” – Anderson on working for Jackie Stewart

You moved to Jackie Stewart’s team in 1999. The SF3 was largely designed by Eghbal Hamidy?

Eghbal and Alan Jenkins were there, although Alan was already gone and ultimately Eghbal left after I started.  Jackie asked me if I want to do the job and I agreed. He was the most decisive man I ever worked for.

There was no grey areas about Jackie.  He knew enough about motorsport too.  When you’re trying to call him, he would just be straight, will tell you how it is.  One of the things that impressed me was just going around the factory, for example.

I used to visit the factory on a Tuesday morning after a Grand Prix and lay out the facts to the entire team. If everybody knows the facts, where you think you are, then everybody is going to the same direction.

At Jordan, if it was a good week, Eddie was beside you. If it was a bad week, then Eddie would be hiding.  And that’s not good enough.  Whereas with Jackie, he’d be there regardless.  I started the same thing with Stewart and we’d go to the factory where there were about 200 staff. He knew everybody, their wife’s name, kids’ names, who had a cold last week, and remember the details and spoke to them about it.  That was so much motivation for people.

My job, initially, was to go through the SF3 and identify the problems and what needed to be done with the few things that I felt were wrong. I would go to Eghbal and he was not happy with my recommendations. Jackie got in the office one day and said, “Look, this is how it’s going to be” and Eghbal said, “No, I don’t want it to be that” and he left.

For Alan, it was always planned that he would go when the car got built.  The best solution there would actually have been for Alan to stay; he doing the paperwork technical director role and me being the working technical director.  With Ford’s involvement on top of all of this – once they bought out the team – it became a nightmare.

Ford’s buyout and the switch to Jaguar in that first year was not a happy period for anyone who was concerned.  Jackie was effectively sidelined from that whole set up and you had the Ford Motor Company effectively managing by telephone, what were the factors that made it fail?

It was like a power cut: that was the change from Stewart Grand Prix it was like the lights just went out when Ford bought it all out.  We had a motivated boss and his son Paul there all the time.

When it went to Ford, it just was like a completely different place.  The management just changed unbelievably.  There was no motivation at all.  Everything that was built in the Stewart Grand Prix years had gone.  Ford’s attitude was, “If you don’t do it our way, we’ll get somebody else that will.” That’s how their new leadership motivated people.

During the buyout in 1999, we fought with Ford quite a lot.  But as far as they were concerned, everything they did was right and that was it.  You had to go their way, or…

We had some serious arguments.  An example of this is that we had two problems of that car [the 2000 R1]. I had a feeling I knew what was going on.  But I wasn’t allowed by the boss, the Ford boss, to actually interfere with the sort of aerodynamic direction of the car.

We had an ongoing issue with the gearboxes in Johnny Herbert’s car, he kept breaking the gearbox on his downshifts – clearly down to his driving style as it was evident with Eddie [Irvine].

We were doing a test at Monza, and Johnny broke the gearbox again. I was going out that night and I spoke to this chief mechanic and asked him to keep the gearbox off to have have a look at it when we got in the next morning. The mechanic was under instructions not to do that because Ford wanted me to delegate.

What we found that a little plunger – a breather hole – was jamming when it got covered in gearbox oil; this wasn’t happening with Eddie. So we put the 3mm hole in a slightly different position…

Let it breathe.  Wow.

It took 10 seconds to fix, just because I took the bits to my hands and got them dirty.

Looking at your experiences and observing the gap we see between the bigger and smaller teams, can the smaller teams every truly compete with the big players?

It’s very, very tough. It costs relatively the same amount for Ferrari or Caterham to rock up and go racing, but it’s the behind-the-scenes costs that really determine who can be competitive or not.

Imagine you at a four-way junction and you want to get to the seaside. A big team can go down each route.  When you get down Route A, they hit the forest, and think, ‘Well, wrong way, let’s turn back.” They end up getting to the seaside via a different route.

A small team – when it comes along to make the same the same decision – only has the money to go down one route; a big team has the money to go down all of them.  With three of these routes, you’re wasting it in the long term. A small team doesn’t have that money to waste.

My advice is to make sure you get out of the car and smell the air first to see where the salty air is coming from. Don’t sit in the car with the air conditioning on.

Once you’re on your way, you’re on your way. That decision is probably the biggest decision you’ll ever make.  It could be the one that gives you the return, the payback.

Do you support cost containments as a principle?

I don’t know how you’d do it.  What I would do is I would control components on the car as to how often you can change them, because the problem at the moment is that it’s open season and you can throw things at the car all day long.  The problem with the current approach is it doesn’t give you enough time to research all options correctly.  You’re trying to find solutions.  So, you’re firing bits onto the car blindly and a huge percentage of them end up in the skip at the back of the garage because they don’t work.

If you had some control over when and how much you could change in the car – it could be three, four races, or whatever you like – then I think: (A) you would have more time for more definitive, valuable research that (B) would develop better components to put on the cars.  They go in the car and it work first time out.  So I think you could control cost a lot more with that approach.

The big teams will always have more money than the small teams, but unfortunately that’s the way life is.  The air outside is still the same whether you’re a pilgrim, in a small house or in a mansion.  You can’t say that Formula 1 can be run for $40 million as they try to do.  That’s madness.

Take a look at a team like Ferrari: they spend upwards of $200-odd million and you expect them to cut back to $40 million?  They would find solutions out there to make that work.  For example, Ferrari see it similar – was that Fernando Alonso goes in and uses that, is that really a Ferrari cost or is that a fee effect?  They spend all the money and…

Do you think cost controls would stifle design creativity or encourage it further?

I have heard from a lots of people complaining that the regulations are too tight.  Not that long ago, you could go to a wind tunnel and find 1% more downforce.  Now you go there and you might get 0.1% more downforce.  That’s actually harder to do, and it takes better thinking.

If you are going to put controls in place, limit being able to change things every race of the season.  But also, give them the freedom – if they need to get out of a major hole – to have one race where you change anything you want.  So, there’s ways of doing it.  You still get that challenge but to make sure that you’re not wasting money. Cut the waste, but keep the challenge.

You are renowned for designing some of the most beautiful cars in the history of Formula 1, if we look at the 191, which regularly polls as being the one of the favorites from an aesthetics perspective.  With that in mind and looking at the 2014-spec cars, it’s so interesting to see the different aerodynamic solutions and ideas that have been developed. Would you prefer function over form?

There’s no reason to make them ugly.  If it has to be ugly, it has to be bloody quick because that’s the only thing that ultimately matters.  Those inside the sport are a bit different because they see the cars all the time. Your race-going fans might only see these cars up close once or twice a year. They are the people you have to satisfy.  We will all get used to the noise for example, but the public might only hear it once a year and think, “What the hell is that?”.

We have to satisfy the people that are just visitors, as opposed to the people that get deal with this every day.  There’s nothing wrong with being nice looking.  But it has to be driven regulation-wise and that’s what I’m saying about the grey areas.  The nose appendages on this year’s cars are awful.

Images via BBC, Macs Modeling, XPB Images

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Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Two-time Young Australian of the Year finalist, qualified mechanical engineer, social advocate, author and 'petrol head'

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