<b>Reflections on Walkinshaw's greatest achievement in Formula One</b>
With the passing of Tom Walkinshaw last Tuesday, following a battle with cancer, motor racing will remember him as one of the most prominent figures within the sport over the past 30 years. A man of steely determination and character, his understanding of the requirements necessary to win saw his famous TWR racing team claim numerous championships in touring cars, sportscars and a triumph at Le Mans in 1988, which provided Jaguar's historic first success at the circuit for 30 years.
He was a well respected personality in such categories yet Formula 1, motorsport's zenith, appeared to prove a harder test. Along with Flavio Briatore and Ross Brawn, he was responsible for the transformation of the Benetton team from also-rans in 1991 into world champions 3 years later with Michael Schumacher behind the wheel. He ran the Liger team in 1996 before becoming owner of Arrows in an attempt to turn one of the sport's greatest underachievers into race winners, but what will the grand prix community remember him most for?
Arguably, it would be for the announcement, back in September 1996, that his Arrows team had just signed that season's eventual world champion Damon Hill, in one of the most surprising moves of the decade. Having struggled with his form during 1995 as he battled Schumacher for the title, Hill underwent his championship charge the following year before discovering - along with the rest of the world at that year's Hungarian GP - that his employer, Williams Renault had already chosen to replace him with Heinz Harald Frentzen for 1997. Angered by the teams' decision and the way the announcement was made, he set about finding a berth elsewhere yet felt he was financially undervalued by Ferrari and McLaren and thus unable to negotiate a deal with either team. Many observed that his next best choice would be the vastly improving Jordan team and within a couple of days, the general feeling was that a deal seemed inevitable. The money Hill was looking for proved a struggle for Eddie Jordan to meet however, as he struggled to persuade title sponsor Benson & Hedges to make up the deficit. Suddenly, Walkinshaw, who was trying to broker a deal with Yamaha engines after failed attempts to land Peugeot and Mugen Honda power plants, saw an opportunity to keep the Japanese engine builder in the sport and to take a more serious approach to F1 and so called Hill to discuss his situation.
It soon became clear that while it had been generally accepted that a deal between the would-be champion and Jordan was all but done, truth was that the two parties were further away than ever before. Keen to see if the offer of an enticing salary (largely paid for via Parmalat - personal sponsor of newly signed driver Pedro Diniz), a works engine deal with Yamaha and the exclusivity of running Bridgestone tyres would all contribute to impress Hill. Walkinshaw met the Englishman and was delighted at the interest shown by the driver. Although only for one year, the announcement that a deal had been struck and that Hill would drive for TWR Arrows Yamaha in 1997 took the motorsport world by complete surprise.
"Everything this man touches becomes a winner," Hill said of Walkinshaw when the deal was announced. "Tom has offered me more than I hoped for - a rewarding package and a great challenge to work in partnership with him to develop a winning Formula 1 team. He has fulfilled just about every single criteria that I set out for myself. I had a number of approaches from many different quarters and many different teams. It was not a very easy decision to make. There were a great number of very determined people out there who wanted to secure my services but I believe that the decision I have made is absolutely the right one."
For Walkinshaw, the signing of Hill was a monumental one and the first step on the ladder to success for a team that had failed to win a single race in 19 years: "It goes without saying that I am delighted that Damon has agreed to join TWR Arrows," he happily declared as the deal was announced. "The team's goal is to be F1 world champions in the shortest possible time. Damon's recruitment brings the day when we achieve that goal considerably closer and considering the other attractive options available to him, by joining TWR Damon obviously recognizes the enormous potential of our team." Once the title had been won at the final race of the season in Japan and Hill departed the Williams team, the New Year saw Walkinshaw and the new world champion launch the Arrows A18 and though apprehensive about predicting results for the new partnership, confidence was high of a respectable performance from the off:
"I think we have to aspire to have a car which is capable of finishing in the top three reasonably consistently in the second half of the year," proclaimed Walkinshaw at the time. "If we can do that there is no reason at all why Damon could not win one or two races. If we didn't have a tyre advantage I wouldn't be saying that we could win races in our first season."
Such aspirations were seen as far-fetched by many, given the teams' previous inability to win a race and the newness of the venture, yet Walkinshaw was adamant that under certain circumstances, there were possiblities to surprise:
"I haven't got stardust in my eyes or rose colored glasses," he declared at the car launch. " I'm being very analytical. With regard to our tyre deal, we have one technical aspect of our car which should give us a significant advantage over the opposition in 25% of the races. It is up to us to put a reliable car under Damon to enable him to take full advantage of that."
Unfortunately, the season was generally an uncompetitive one. The first race of the year was a massive dissapointment for all concerned as the defending champion only just managed to qualify for the Australian GP before retiring on the fomation lap on Sunday afternoon. It was not untill July that Hill would score his first point for the team at Silverstone, the which saw his many supporters celebrating as though their hero had repeated his British Grand Prix success from 1994. There were numerous mechanical failures throughout the rest of the season but without doubt, the highlight came at the very circuit where Hill and the world had learned of his impending unemployment from Williams twelve months earlier.
The Hungarian Grand Prix saw the defending champion line up third on the grid, before leading the race after an impressive pass on arch-rival Michael Schumacher earlier. Freak circumstances proved prophetic for the team, as his Bridgestone tyres were superior to the Goodyear rubber everyone else was running. Hill stormed into the lead and looked certain to claim an historic first win for Arrows, until the penultimate lap. A ten pence washer failed on the car and slowed the champion to a crawl and allowed a chasing Jacques Villenuve to take the chequered flag for Williams Renault. Though the Englishman finished second, it was a huge disappointment and merely served to highlight the troubles he had endured during his time with Walkinshaw and in the end, the Scotsman knew Hill was ready to move on and that there was little he could do to prevent it.
Eventually, Hill did as he had been expected to do twelve months previous and signed for Jordan on a 2-year deal. Despite an investment from investment banking giants Morgan Grenfell in 1999, Arrows began their downward slide, resulting in the extinction of the team midway during the 2002 season. It had been a tough last couple of years for Walkinshaw and his credibility took a hammering after a public High Court battle between Arrows and the investment bank saw the presiding judge describe the efforts of Walkinshaw to keep the team afloat, as being "underhand, improper and indeed, downright dishonest."
Although F1 will remember him mostly for the highs and lows of his time spent with Benetton and TWR Arrows, arguably, that one day, back in September 1996 when he managed to secure the signature of Damon Hill, will be seen as Tom Walkinshaw's greatest achievement in grand prix racing.