A life and times with McLaren: Tyler Alexander - Part Two
In the second and final chapter of our serialisation of McLaren legend Tyler Alexander’s autobiography, “A Life and Times with McLaren”, we continue his walk down memory lane with the start of a new era for McLaren, in 1981 after the formation of McLaren International.
Then came a change of direction, when the opportunity arose to set up a new team with his long-time friend and McLaren colleague, Teddy Mayer. Tyler was instrumental in the creation of the Haas Lola team in 1985, which despite many high points, endured more than its fair share of trials and tribulations and dissolved due to lack of funding at the end of 1986.
In 1987, Tyler went back to his native USA to work in CART with some of his Haas colleagues, before making a return to McLaren in 1990, to work alongside none other than a Brazilian driver by the name of Ayrton Senna.
From there, Tyler was lucky enough to work with a host of other McLaren legends, including World Champions Mika Hakkinen, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton.
A life and times with McLaren: Tyler Alexander - Part One
The extracts below document 27 years of Tyler’s incredible career, revealing fascinating anecdotes from a life lived well and truly behind the scenes of the glamour of the Formula One paddock. Tyler retired at the end of the 2008 season after a long and memorable career spanning more than 40 years, and is fondly regarded by those that worked with him as a true stalwart, pillar and much-loved member of the McLaren family.
On the new era of McLaren International: 1981 and the MP4/1
It seems there are many people today, including at McLaren, who think the M in MP4 was for Marlboro; where they got this idea is beyond me. The M was for McLaren, and still is. Marlboro was the sponsor and partner, and P4 was from Ron’s previous Project Four company.
…The momentum continued into the British Grand Prix, as Wattie and Andrea were reasonably quick and qualified fifth and sixth, with de Cesaris being quicker than Watson during some of practice. This wasn’t bad when you consider that the grid on this quick track was made up of both turbo and non-turbo cars, and that the MP4 was one of the latter.
I spent quite a lot of time talking to Andrea about staying away from Wattie for the first few laps to avoid having a mishap with him. By the time they got to Woodcote Corner at the end of the fourth lap, Andrea was very close to Wattie, who suddenly slowed to try and avoid an accident among the leaders at the chicane. Andrea didn’t see the trouble up ahead. When de Cesaris moved left to avoid Wattie, he looked up and went straight into the barriers! So much for my chat before the start of the race.
Watson, meanwhile, had come to a standstill but had managed to avoid contact. Once he got clear of the shunt, Wattie drove a quick, sensible race and got up to third place. When there were problems with the two cars in front, Wattie outlasted them both to win the race – the first victory for the MP4/1, and the third good race finish in a row for Wattie. It was a great effort from everyone on the team and at the factory, along with a very pleased Mr. Barnard and Mr. Dennis.
I don’t know why, but some people had thought Ron Dennis and his people would take away the feeling of being competitive again for some of us, but this wasn’t the case for me and the other hardworking members of the whole team, that’s for sure. I guess what they probably meant (or thought) was that Ron and John Barnard would take all the credit. Say whatever the hell you want, but with the MP4/1, a much better car was built and raced than what we’d had before. The world of motor racing is not always easy to deal with.
A new chapter: Haas Lola, 1985
Starting a new Formula One team requires the following: first, a lot of money. Then there’s trying to find a suitable factory in a convenient place, acquiring all the machinery and equipment needed (a somewhat relentless task in itself), and assembling a group of very good people who will have to work quite hard a lot of the time. And on it goes, as you will see as this story goes on.
Coming back to a Formula One project after a few years was going to be interesting and challenging. We knew that a huge amount of work was going to be needed from everyone involved.
…Neil Oatley had come from Williams to join us as a chief designer. Neil was followed later by Ross Brawn, who would be involved in the aero side as well as suspension design. John Baldwin was already there, and he was joined by George Ryton, working on gearbox design. D. C. Patrick Brown would make the model for the wind tunnel, with direction from Ross. He was known as “Dustpan and Brush,” as he was always cleaning up the shavings from working on the model.
…The main sponsor/partner for the team (which would run under the Haas Lola name, due to Carl Haas’s role as a Lola distributor) was Beatrice Foods, a worldwide conglomerate that found the promotional environment of Formula One ideal. Jim Dutt, a friend of Carl Haas’s, was the CEO. Mr. Dutt was also a good friend of Donald Petersen’s, president of the Ford Motor Company at the time. An engine deal was sorted out with Cosworth, who, we were told, were building a new turbo Formula One engine. Believing in Cosworth as we did, this seemed okay. The rather large stitch was that the turbo engine was not going to be ready until November! This would be just the beginning of a relationship that became very contentious.
…The warm-up on Sunday morning (in Monaco) went okay, but the fun really started as the cars got to the grid. We had the last pit before the exit to the race track, and I was finishing work with the spare car when there was a cry on the radio about a problem with Patrick (Tambay’s) car.
Patrick ran back to the pit exit, where we had pushed the spare car onto the track just before the pit lane closed. We only had one seat for each driver at the time, and Patrick’s first comment was, “There’s no seat in it”” I replied, “Just get in and drive the bloody thing to the grid!” While this panic was going on, several people had noticed that we had a rather large amount of ballast under where the seat would normally be, indicating immediately that we had a nice, light car!
…Despite all the problems, the car had quite a few good aero bits on it, thanks to Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey. At one point, Teddy had hired a young aerodynamicist named Mark Hanford who developed something called an “Aero Map” program long before anyone else knew what this was. In simple terms, it was software that helped you to set up the car after making some changes to the front or rear wing.
In Austria, there were some improvements with the engine, but the main problem remained: The increased boost pressure for qualifying only produced higher temperatures rather than power. Nonetheless, we finished the race with both cars in the points, even though one had a slipping clutch due to a gearbox oil leak. After a spate of problems in the earlier races, this really helped to improve morale. And it wasn’t a bad result for a new team.
The incredible skill of Ayrton Senna: Monaco 1992
Qualifying was the usual deal with an hour each afternoon, but of course the difference at Monaco was the first day of running was Thursday, with Friday left free. That first qualifying session had only been going for 20 minutes or so when Gerhard (Berger) had a big accident at the top of the hill, where the road goes left toward Casino. A front suspension failure was thought to be the cause, and Gerhard was lucky to climb out unhurt. The suspension wishbones were strengthened on Friday and he eventually qualified fifth, with a last-minute effort to improve on that resulting in a spin coming out of the last corner.
Ayrton also hadn’t been without his dramas. On Thursday he had been in a great fight for fastest time with Williams’s Nigel Mansell who had won all five races so far), and that was set to continue on Saturday afternoon. You could see that Ayrton was driving the wheels off the car, but it got away from him going down the hill to Mirabeau, where he backed it into the barrier. He got the car back to the pits (but only after losing the damaged rear wing in the tunnel!) and then used the spare MP4/7 to go after both Williams drivers. In the end he had to be satisfied with third, behind Mansell and Patrese.
On Saturday night, there were some issues with the T-car engine and it had to be changed around midnight; I’m not sure why it was so damn late. The next morning I asked Rick Goodhand, the number-one mechanic on the T-car, if he got any sleep. The answer was “No, I just went back to the hotel, had a shower, a couple of rum and Cokes, and came back here!”
There was constant work going on with the gear-change bits and software. I seem to remember that when the race cars were on the grid, I was finishing some mods on the hydraulic system on the T-car, as there had been a couple of Moo valve O-ring problems.
Gerhard retired with a gearbox problem while lying in fifth about halfway through the race, but Ayrton had been pushing Mansell as hard as he could for the lead. As Ayrton admitted afterward, “I knew there was no way I could beat him. It’s impossible with the superiority of his car, and we were in no position to win. But you never know what will happen at Monaco. So what I tried to do was go hard enough to be in a position to benefit if something happened to Mansell.”
That “something” happened on lap 71 when Mansell, whose car was acting a bit strange, stopped because he suspected a loose wheel nut. He came out of the pits just five seconds behind Ayrton, and the last seven laps saw some pretty impressive driving by Ayrton on old tyres as Nigel quickly caught him on the new ones. The Honda engine was a big help going up the hill and out of the tunnel. But it was Ayrton’s ability to make the car as wide as the Monaco race track that won him the race by 0.20 seconds.
After the race and all the usual “thank-you” stuff, Ayrton made a point of thanking the little group of us working on the gear-change project. He said that being able to keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times had helped him hold off Nigel for those last few laps.
I was reminded recently by Nick Cross that just after the race I told the McLaren management regarding Ayrton, “Whatever you pay this guy, it’s not enough.”
The cool, calm, collectedness of Mika Hakkinen on his way to becoming the 1998 World Champion
…After the warm-up on Sunday morning (at Suzuka), I was out in the back of the garage with Mika, Keke Rosberg, and Didier Coton, who worked with Keke as Mika’s manager, and became part of Lewis Hamilton’s management in 2012. Mika was feeling a little bumpy, which was a bit strange for him. Then again, there was a lot at stake that particular Sunday. When Mika asked, “What am I going to do?” Keke, taking a long drag on his cigarette, paused, looked at him, and said, “Just go have fun and drive the car as fast as you want. That’s what you do.” After a short pause, Mika said, “Umm, okay.”
The outcome of the race turned largely on Jarno Trulli stalling his Prost in the middle of the grid. That meant a restart. We were quick to get the cooling fans to Mika’s car – certainly faster than the Ferrari guys. This was quite critical because it’s a long, slow lap to the grid, and then the front row can be sitting there for at least 30 seconds. Anyway, whatever the cause, when Schumacher engaged first gear for the second time, the engine stalled. That not only meant another restart, but also being moved to the back of the grid for Michael.
Predictably, Schumacher charged through the field to third place and then picked up a puncture from debris caused by a shunt by two backmarkers. Not that any of this affected Mika, who led from the start, won the race, and became the 1998 World Champion. In the process, McLaren won the Constructors championship by 23 points from Ferrari.
Kimi Raikkonen’s understated brilliance
Although Kimi never really said a lot, those who thought he didn’t know a lot about the race car were very wrong. If there was something that didn’t feel right about the car, he knew it straightaway. At the early tests in 2003, for example, we had running some new software. Kimi hadn’t driven in the early tests with this software but the other drivers had. Yet when he came in after the installation lap, Kimi told Mark Slade that the traction control was not working like it had been before, and that something was wrong. It took the software people quite a long time to find and fix the problem.
…There were several good things at Silverstone (2004): the Beach Boys doing a concert, the 19B, of course, and Kimi, who always liked Silverstone. Plus our hotel had some of the best scrambled eggs around, which probably had something to do with the price they charged to stay for the race weekend.
After a bit of a panic on Kimi’s car after changing the ECU just before qualifying, he went out and put it on pole! Kimi led the race for 11 laps before a different strategy for Schumacher put the Ferrari into the lead, where he stayed. Progress at last! DC, meanwhile, was seventh after having a hard time all weekend. He was never real happy with the car’s handling.
One person looking nervous was Bob McKenzie of the Daily Express, who said he would run naked around Silverstone if McLaren won a race in 2004. Betting against a Finn and a Scotsman suddenly didn’t seem to be too clever.
Spa had a bit of everything offer – from rain in practice, an “oops” from Kimi at the Bus Stop Chicane in qualifying, and DC getting onto the second row.
A multicar collision at the first corner brought out the safety car for the first of what would be three appearances during an eventful race. Having started from 10th on the grid, Kimi was on the move, picking off Michael Schumacher and DC when the safety car went in. By lap 12 he was leading as others ran into trouble, but his 13-second lead was lost when the safety car returned on lap 29. Kimi would teach Schumacher a great lesson in how to restart as he slowed down, thereby slowing the Ferrari behind him, and then went for it, leaving Schumacher struggling on his cooled-down Bridgestones. Then came the third safety car after DC had hit the back of Christian Klien’s Jaguar. Kimi had to do it all over again, which he did brilliantly – and Schumacher had no answer.
It was a great drive, with all of us holding our breath on the restarts, and the winning result helped by really good pit stops from the guys. It’s fair to say that Kimi’s drive and the result partly detracted from Schumacher winning yet another Drivers championship at that race. And Bob McKenzie was going to be running naked around Silverstone!
Lewis Hamilton’s masterful control in his championship-winning year
So we were now off to Brazil for the final race of the 2008 season, where the Drivers World Championship title would be decided. No sooner had we arrived in Sao Paulo that we were eating again! This time of course, it was the now-traditional Mercedes team dinner in Fogo de Chao, which was as good and as sociable as ever.
Perhaps not surprisingly, considering this was his home race, Massa was on pole. Lewis was fourth-fastest, with Heikki less than a tenth behind, our cars separated from Massa by Trulli’s Toyota and Raikkonen in the other Ferrari. As always seems to happen at Interlagos, it started to rain quite hard with about 10 minutes to go before the start. There was a bit of fumbling going on about the rain and whether it was going to last. Meanwhile, the system monitor got soaked and died, which meant I had to use the spare one at the last minute to download some new numbers.
But the real chaos would come very near the end of the race. Massa had led more or less all the way. Lewis, lying in fourth place, was doing all he needed to. Then the radar picked up some wet weather on its way. With five laps to go and the track becoming slippery, most people stopped for wet tires. Most people that is, except the Toyotas. Suddenly, things took on a very different perspective.
Everyone in the garage was asking, “Where the hell is the rain that the radar said was going to be here several minutes ago?” The order was Massa, Alonso, Raikkonen, Glock, and Hamilton. Fifth place would be good enough. But then with three laps to go, Vettel passed Lewis, dropping him to sixth – and out of the championship.
Massa crossed the line to win the race and, at that particular moment, the 2008 World Championship. The crowd and the Ferrari pits went wild, as you would expect.
Meanwhile, the rain had finally arrived and Glock, on dry tyres, slid wide in the last corner, allowing Lewis into fifth place. Holding his breath to keep the adrenaline under control, he climbed the hill and moved onto the long straight toward the finish line. The heart rate of those in the garage and on the “pratt perch” on the pit wall was rising rapidly.
Once he crossed the finish line, Lewis Hamilton, at 23, became the youngest World Champion in Formula One history. Being in the right place at the right time and now throwing it away sure as hell can do things for you when it really counts.
…It was a very emotional end to the race and the season, for both McLaren and Ferrari. Lewis had done all he could, and so had Felipe, who did a remarkable job of controlling his feelings on the podium, giving us all a lesson in dignity.
The end of an era
Oh, and one small note regarding the end of the 2008 season. Brazil was my last official race with McLaren. Though it wouldn’t be formally announced until the following spring, I was retiring. It had been 18 years since I’d joined McLaren International, and more than 40 since I’d joined Bruce and Teddy to help start the original team. One the one hand, 1964 seemed a long, long time ago. On the other, I thought of a great line that I remembered from when I was in high school, “The summer break seemed to go on forever, and when it was over it seemed like only yesterday.”
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