“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
~Roald Dahl – The Minpins~
Ron Dennis was suspicious…very suspicious. Ken Tyrrell was up to something. Why were his mechanics flying home from the races in Europe? With available resources typically thin on the ground, it was rare to see frivolous squandering of hard earned cash by the smaller teams. Flying was certainly not the customary mode of transport for mere minions of mechanics. He questioned Tyrrell and the answer he got was…nothing…nothing at all. Shortly afterwards the motoring press received an announcement that there would be “something of interest” on display at Ford’s exhibition room in London on August 17. Those curious enough to attend were stunned when the first Tyrrell Grand Prix car was presented for public view… splendidly clad in blue livery for French Elf, blue livery for American Ford and blue livery for the Scottish born Stewart.
Matra International, Ken Tyrrell and Jackie Stewart had won the 1969 championship with Ford engines, but Matra had now merged with Simca, the French arm of Chrysler. This enabled them to take advantage of Chrysler’s vast European network and so obtain a wider exposure for their niche product. Unfortunately Ford and Chrysler were in direct competition and Matra now refused to sell Tyrrell a chassis unless he agreed to use their in-house engine. Ken Tyrrell had significant financial backing from Ford and although the combination of a Matra chassis and the Ford-Cosworth DFV engine had looked like a marriage made in heaven, separation now appeared inevitable. Ken Tyrrell commented that “Right to the last minute we hoped that Matra would relent and build us a car. Failing that, I thought we might do a deal with Brabham or McLaren but their Goodyear tyre contracts clashed with our Dunlop ties, and in any case, Stewart without a car wouldn’t be opposition…”
Tyrrell had a championship winning driver and a championship winning engine, but they were never going to get off the starting line without something for them both to sit in. March were the new boys on the block and willing to sell their product to anyone for the eminently reasonable price of nine thousand pounds. Unfortunately it wasn’t in the same league as the Matra chassis. There was only one solution…to build their own. But could they? First Tyrrell made sure that he had enough money; this car wasn’t built with sponsorship dollars. It was Ken’s own money that was put at risk in the venture. His next step was a meeting with Derek Gardner.
After a boyhood spent making and flying model planes, Derek Gardner began studying aerodynamics before switching to mechanical engineering. Employed by Ferguson Research and specialising in transmissions, his most recent project had been the 4WD Matra MS84. He had just “retired” and set himself up as an independent engineering consultant…which was perfect timing as far as Tyrrell was concerned. Tyrrell and Gardner met in a pub and Ken outlined his proposal. Could Gardner design them a Formula One chassis…and have it finished by August? It was March 7, which gave them only six months to bring the plan to fruition. Gardner remembers that “I spent some time considering whether I could design one, and when I decided that I could, I began to wonder whether I should! But all along, I knew the answer would be ‘yes’!”
Setting up a bedroom as a design office, Gardner later recalled that, “There was this horrible realisation that I had never done anything quite like this before, so I started quite literally with a blank sheet of paper.” Ken Tyrrell had two requests. Not surprisingly he wanted the car to be fast. But it also had to be kept a secret. He didn’t want rumours of his activities affecting his access to the March chassis for the beginning of the season. The project was given the code name of “SP” and its existence was known only to Tyrrell, Gardner, Stewart and Tyrrell’s wife Norah.
The car started out reasonably simple. Gardner and Tyrrell were already well familiar with the Matra chassis. Although Gardner considered modelling it after the wedge shaped Lotus, he couldn’t fit in the fuel tanks so it was back to the bulging “lemon” shape which gave ample allowance for the necessary combustible liquid in the rounded curves surrounding the driver. The wooden mock-up was built in Gardner’s garage with supplies bought from local manufactures. Once they got to the construction stage the project was moved into a woodshed at Tyrrell’s lumber yard in Surrey. This had the advantage of being far enough off the beaten track to put off any curious journalists that might have been suspicious enough to start snooping around. Rumours didn’t start to circulate until Tyrrell’s mechanics started flying home, needing every possible minute to keep the project on schedule. But by then it was almost finished. It had cost 22,500 pounds.
Six days after their presentation to the press Tyrrell and Stewart turned up at Oulton Park to pit their new creation against the opposition in the Gold Cup. As is typical with testing, things didn’t go particularly smoothly. There were major issues with the fuel injection and minimal track time to get it sorted. Stewart qualified his March on the second row while his mechanics continued to work frantically on the fractious Tyrrell 001. Eventually the decision was made to change the whole engine and Stewart chose to start from the back of the grid with the fledgling car.
With a sticking accelerator on the second lap nearly resulting in disaster, he was forced into pits for a quick adjustment. Re-joining a lap down he proceeded to carve his way through the slower cars in front of him. He bettered his old lap record set the previous year in the Matra MS80 by two seconds before his Cosworth DFV gave up the fight. When Stewart came in he was smiling. The car was fast…really fast! It was possible to make a fast car more reliable but much more difficult to achieve the opposite. Fuel supply issues continued to torment them at their first Formula One race at Monza, and Stewart raced the March to second place while Gardner went back to the workshop to rework the intricacies of encouraging smooth and steady delivery of the required propellant to the engine. It was then time to pack up and head overseas to the Americas for the final three races of the season.
In Canada the Tyrrell 001 continued to struggle with reliability, a sticking throttle once again requiring rapid problem solving. Once that was sorted and the car was able to stay out on track for longer than a lap or two, the wheel nuts then proceeded to become detached from the rim with disastrous consequences. These were eventually persuaded to stay put by the application of extreme force to a six foot lever attached to the end of a spanner. Jackie had been putting the March through its paces (and had qualified it in third) when it broke down on the far side of the track…maybe in a vain attempt to get its fair share of attention. Jackie dashed across the infield, jumped into the Tyrrell, sped out onto the track and with only seconds to spare set a time 0.1 faster than Jackie Ickx whose Ferrari had been provisionally on pole.
As could only be expected, the car didn’t finish the race…though Stewart demonstrated its latent potential by pulling out a second a lap on the rest of the field. His display of dominance was bought to a halt on lap 32 by a broken axle. This was followed by two more front row qualifying positions and two more DNF’s, but at least the speed was there. Now all that was needed was for the car to reach the finish line.
It had been speculated (or at least hoped and dreamed by the Tifosi) that the 12 cylinder engines would reign supreme in the 1971 season. The Ford-Cosworth was now four years old and the Ferrari engine was starting to make its presence felt. It had won four of the last five races of 1970 and they had continued in 1971 where they had left off. Jackie Stewart’s lone Tyrrell near the front was invariably surrounded by the might and power of multiple Flat and V12’s, with the remainder of the Ford powered vehicles left behind in their wake. As well as their deficit in speed, the Cosworth DFV was also struggling with reliability…Ford finding it difficult to keep up with the massive demand for parts and servicing. For 1971 they would build and service only fifteen new engines. Elf Team Tyrrell would get two of them.
Development continued over the winter break and for the first race at Kyalami there was a long wheel base Tyrrell 002 for Stewart’s teammate François Cevert…who was significantly taller than the diminutive Scott. The effect of the increased length made the car less twitchy but Jackie was equally fast in both. His skills as a driver meant the nimbleness of the 001 through corners outweighed any handling issues inherent in the shorter wheel base. After getting another pole position the car struggled with grip during the race, but Jackie managed to keep the car on the track to get their first race finish…second place and twenty seconds behind Mario Andretti who got his first win for Ferrari. Ferrari continued their dominance at the following non-championship races, Jackie having to settle for two more second places behind the seemingly unbeatable power of the Flat 12.
At the Spanish Grand Prix, held at the picturesque Montjuic circuit, Jackie Stewart may have only qualified in fourth with his new 003 chassis, but no-one informed him that he wouldn’t be able to keep up with Ferrari. He and pole sitter Jackie Ickx were in a different class, the handling of the Tyrrell more than making up for any speed deficit it might have had. Stewart passed Ickx on the sixth lap for the lead and from then on the blue Tyrrell and scarlet Ferrari were stuck together like glue, both drivers breaking lap record after lap record in their quest for victory. The battle eventually culminated in the first win for the Tyrrell chassis. Derek Gardner was still worried about his design when he commented after the race, “Jackie’s car looked terribly ragged, but I console myself by the fact that the only car looking as ragged was Ickx’s Ferrari.”
As the season continued the Tyrrell continued to evolve. At Zandvoort Gardner placed an air box inlet above the driver, designed to capture the cool, undisturbed air flowing high above the car and convey it down onto the engine. This cold, higher pressure air increased the amount of oxygen available to the engine, which in turn increased its power. Lotus had some small ducts funnelling onto their engine, and Matra had an unsealed intake behind the driver’s head. In comparison the Tyrrell variation was sticking out above Jackie’s head, capturing as much of the cool air as possible. As the duct twisted to take the flow onto the engine, the air slowed which further increased its pressure. With their results at the Dutch Grand Prix unspectacular, no-one took much notice…at first.
Matra had deviated from the popular chisel shaped nose at the beginning of the season and Gardner again took note. After carrying out wind tunnel testing a new front nose appeared on the Tyrrell car at the French Grand Prix, making it look like a sports car had invaded the hallowed precincts of Formula One. The nose covered the whole front of the car, sending the air either directly onto the front radiator or flowing over the top of the car rather than through the mass of front suspension. This enabled the whole car to be set lower on the ground as no longer did the front suspension have to be hidden away under the chassis. It also achieved the holy grail of increasing downforce while at the same time decreasing drag.
The 1971 French Grand Prix was held at the brand new Paul Ricard circuit, with some bemoaning the wide run offs and open spaces…possibly the first of what we now call “Tilke circuits”. Denis Jenkinson described it as “Nice and hygienic, not to say clinical…rough and tumble drivers like Ickx or Rodriguez had not really got their hearts in the business of going fast round the most modern Autodrome in Europe.” Tyrrell’s new front nose provided an advantage both in cornering and at high speed. It was a win-win situation. More downforce increased their cornering speed while the lowered drag increased their top speed…essential at a track with a back straight so long that it could have been used as a runway…an interminable 1.8 km.
Stewart led the timing sheets for all three sessions, his pole setting time almost a second faster than the two Ferraris beside him on the front row. He further cemented his dominance by leading every single lap of the race. His teammate François Cevert grabbed sixth place off the start and then gradually moved his way through those ahead. He passed the Matra’s of Chris Amon and Jean-Pierre Beltoise, attained third when Clay Regazzoni spun his Ferrari on lap 21, and then inherited second place when Pedro Rodriguez’s BRM broke down on lap 28. With their first one-two finish Tyrrell and Gardner finally came to the realisation that possibly their car could be considered an unqualified success after all.
Air boxes multiplied and grew in size like mushrooms after rain as the other teams tried to catch up to Tyrrell. The effect of Jackie Stewart decimating the field behind him despite his supposedly uncompetitive engine meant everyone was determined to unearth their secret weapon. The paddock was running rife with gossip and innuendo. After the French Grand Prix Tyrrell’s Elf fuel was checked to make sure they weren’t pushing the boundaries of legality with their mixture…they weren’t. After the British Grand Prix Stewart’s Cosworth was taken off to be measured as rumours abounded that he had a “special” 3.5 L edition…he didn’t. As one mechanic cynically put it, “This bloke Stewart’s been winning and we’ve all got to pretend it’s something on his car, so we copy what he’s got. If tomorrow he came along with a long purple pole stuck out the front of his car, by next week we’d all have long purple poles as well!”
It may not have been a purple pole, but the Tyrrell undeniably had something magical about it. By the end of the year Stewart had his attained his second World Championship title with almost double the points of his next closest competitor. The only other team to do as well in its first full season was the 1955 Mercedes W196, a car that is difficult to compare in any way to the 1971 Tyrrell 003. Mercedes had the might of German brains, engineering, and finance behind it. Tyrrell had a rookie designer, a woodshed and 22,500 pounds.
It was Tyrrell’s first one-two finish at the French Grand Prix that gave the paddock undeniable proof that the Ford engine was still a force to be reckoned with, that Derek Gardner was a fair dinkum designer, and that Jackie Stewart was without doubt the best driver on the grid. Tyrrell’s success wasn’t due to money and might. It could only be put down to the passion and perfectionism of Ken Tyrrell himself. I’m sure there are many who would disagree with his assessment of his own talents after his retirement: “I don’t think I had any – I think I just liked motor racing. For 30 years I did what I loved doing – what a lucky man I was!”