A charming man: Tyler Alexander’s reflections on McLaren

The death of Tyler Alexander has not only robbed the McLaren team of one of its founding fathers, but it also deprives the Formula 1 paddock of a charming and engaging man who lived and breathed motor racing.

For while he may not have played an active role in grand prix racing since he retired from McLaren on the eve of the 2009 season, he still kept a close eye on proceedings and was a regular visitor to races.

Back in 2014 he published his book 'McLaren from the Inside' – which offered a fascinating look at life behind the scenes at the team that he became synonymous with.

Ahead of the book's launch, Alexander also took the opportunity to host a media dinner, where he opened up about the memories of his time at the team – both good and bad.

It was a fascinating evening, as he reflected on the way the sport had changed - but also how McLaren's had experienced the lows of Bruce's death to recover and become a championship winning team.

Here then are some highlights of what he said that night, which gives us a glimpse of the kind of man he was.

What was your favourite era at McLaren?

"There were times when it was good, and then dropped. But we got it organised and it came back again. 

"As far as trying to think of a favourite era, for sure there was that period of 1998 and 1999 when Mika Hakkinen won both championships. He should really have won a third in 2000 but he had some reliability issues.

"One thing I do remember from then was that Mika had always tried to win the British Grand Prix, but there had always been a problem.

"In 2001, I remember he came to the track that Sunday and, although he didn't say much about what he felt, he didn't need to. I could tell by the expression on his face that day that he didn't go there to have fun that day – he was already annoyed that he'd been quickest most of the time before but had never won it.

"After he did it that year, he spoke to me and said, 'You know Tyler, the British Grand Prix is one of those races that you just have to win. And I had to win today!'

"Some of the stuff he did racing with Michael Schumacher you wouldn't have said it was possible to do – but he did."

What was your favourite McLaren?

"That's not so easy to answer. As far as the sportscars went, the Can-Am car from 1969 – the McLaren M8B with the high wing – was one of the best we had. If you could make that car with the materials that are available now, it would be fantastic. It was so good it won 11 out of 11 races.

"Beyond the success, it was easy to work on; it was quick, and obviously quicker than everybody else's. I don't think we changed anything on that car during the whole season other than the roll bars, and there were two wings, for slow and high-speed circuits.

"I do remember we had a lot of work to do on gearboxes every Saturday night before the races as we were always up until 1am or 2am.

"As far as picking my favourite F1 car goes, it's probably even harder. The Can-Am car was so easy as it was so good and easy to deal with, but I would have to say the car we had in 2005 with Kimi Raikkonen was one of the better ones.

"When you look at it, Kimi should have won 12 races that year, but we had a lot of engine reliability problems.

"That meant a situation where Kimi always qualified in the first three, then he went 10 places back, and he would still finish in the top three all the time.

"So you'd think if he'd started where he belonged, where he actually qualified, he would have won hands down. He was on form and the car was good. It was magic!

"There were several other good cars though. When Mika Hakkinen was driving for us in 1998 it was really good. We went to Barcelona to test the car when it was brand new and, after three or four laps, he was 1. 5 seconds quicker than everyone else who had been testing for two days.

"I remember saying, 'Let's put the car back in the truck and go home as we don't want to touch it!' We went to Melbourne and he and Coulthard were comfortably quicker than everyone else in qualifying."

What was Bruce McLaren like as a leader?

"Bruce had so much damn charisma. He didn't know it, but it oozed out of him. When Bruce died, Eoin Young wrote a letter to Bruce's mother and father and there was a sentence in that letter that summed up the whole part of Bruce McLaren. He said: 'We didn't work for Bruce McLaren, we worked with Bruce McLaren'. There was nothing better to say.

"I also remember a comment from Howden Ganley who said that if we all came to work one morning and Bruce said, 'Line up in single file, we're going to march across the Sahara Desert,' then we would all have followed him out of the door and not one would have asked why. Bruce had that special something about him."

How did McLaren cope when Bruce died?

"I was sitting on the Monday after the Indianapolis 500 in 1970 in our hotel with Dan Gurney having breakfast, when there was a PA message saying there was a phone call for Mr Alexander. It was Teddy Mayer telling me that Bruce had died that afternoon at Goodwood.

"I went back to England, straight to the factory, and everybody got together there. Gordon Coppuck, who was the chief designer, said to the factory guys that we all understood something not very nice had happened and that if people wanted the day after off to get themselves together that would be fine.

"But then Teddy did one of his classic things, which was actually really good and very gutsy. He stood up on the chair and said, 'This thing with Bruce has happened and it's very unfortunate. But we have a Can-Am race in two weeks, so it's best we get on with it.'

"That was all he needed to say. The next day everyone came to work. It was brilliant stuff really.
The next race was Mosport, and we had Dan in one Can-Am car and Denny Hulme driving the other one, even though he was still bandaged up from being burned at Indianapolis.

"Dan duly won the race, with Denny third, but Denny couldn't get out of the car at the end. He was worn out and couldn't lift his burned hand off the steering wheel. He shouldn't have driven the car that day, but said that he had to for Bruce.

"The cold hard reality was that those two guys, and the people at the factory, kept McLaren alive. You have to understand that – to me and a lot of other people, there's no question about it. Everyone got stuck in and did what they needed to do. And look around, it's still here."

What were the key lessons your learned from motor racing?

"You learn to keep your eyes and your ears open, and your mouth closed. And I'm still here. I have tried to do that within reason.

"The other trick part is you have to have some people you trust, and not just the casual people you trust. There are people at McLaren that I've known for decades and I trust them explicitly: they've never let me down and I will never let them down."

BOOK REVIEW

A life and times at McLaren is the epic Tyler Alexander biography released last summer by David Bull Publishing. 

As well as having a very straightforward writing style, Alexander was candid throughout the book. Take, for example, this extract regarding the 2008 Belgian Grand Prix, when Lewis Hamilton was penalized for passing Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, dropping him from first to third place in the results.

It seemed Lewis was meant to wait until he had gone around the next corner (La Source) after the incident before attempting to retake the lead. Where the hell did that rule come from, anyway? It was nothing more than a crock of shit made to validate the thinking of those who perpetrated it. In a previous race, a mistake that usually warrants a 10-second drive-through penalty was punished by issuing a fine, thus enabling the car that made the mistake to still win the race. And now it was the same car that was “given” the race win at Spa thanks to Hamilton’s surprise penalty. Our thinking was that it would probably be better if the rules were made before the race rather than after it.”

But the pre-1990 years may intrigue readers most of all. Alexander gives the impression that going racing for someone as smart, driven yet kind as Bruce McLaren was a dream, as was working with  Peter Revson and Johnnny Rutherford, who became McLaren’s Indy car spearhead for the majority of the ’70s. 

One of the keys to Alexander's longevity in racing was his ability to play a problem down, rein in his ego and not turn into a schemer, unlike some of those he encountered. He saved his ambition for the actual racing.

Alexander was in positions of authority for so long and worked with so many interesting drivers, often at the apices of their careers, that there’s surely not another person on this planet who knew everything that Tyler Alexander knew. At $55.00, this book is a very cheap way to educate yourself as a racing fan.

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Series Formula 1
Teams McLaren
Article type Special feature
Tags tyler alexander