A bluff, tough Scot with a reputation for engineering excellence matched only by his willingness to bend the rules to his advantage, Tom Walkinshaw was a larger than life motorsport personality in every sense of the phrase
Although a talented racer in his own right, something he continued to excel until the late ‘90s, Tom Walkinshaw is best remembered for his role as an engineer and a team manager, a role he performed for iconic outfits like Mazda, Rover, Jaguar and, come the ‘90s, Benetton F1. He was successful in all spheres of motorsport life and his team, TWR, played a central role in Jaguar’s Le Mans success in the ‘80s and Benetton’s F1 championships a decade later. He even had a hand in the team’s decision to poach a young Michael Schumacher from Jordan after just a solitary race at Spa, which, when viewed with hindsight, was rather a good call.
Yet Walkinshaw’s forthright approach to motorsport and business earned him as many detractors as it did apologists, as did his commitment to bending – and often breaking – the rules of the category or series in which he happened to be competing. This didn’t define his career of course but he certainly became to be known for it, not least as it was invariably as ingenious as it was well hidden. These are some of Walkinshaw’s career highlights both as a driver and a team owner.
1976 – BMW CSL
Soon after giving up his ambitions of single seater stardom (the burly, stockily built Scot was ill suited for the confines demanded by such vehicles), Walkinshaw could be found man-handling the hairy-chested CSL around British and European circuits, and with some success. The move marked the first time a car had run under the TWR banner and the undoubted highlight was victory at Silverstone in 1976.
1981 – Mazda RX7, Spa 24 Hours
Tom Walkinshaw can lay a claim to have played a part in Mazda’s eventual success at Le Mans in 1991 through his efforts with the fledging team a decade earlier. The Mazda of the early ‘80s was a far less polished, less professional and less experienced outfit than the one which conquered Sports Car racing’s toughest challenge ten years later. It took a huge amount of graft to turn the quirky, thirsty and underpowered RX-7 into a competitive proposition, a task TWR set about with gusto.
Near constant development work on the 13b Wankel finally made the RX-7 a competitive prospect, and TWR’s reward was outright victory in the British Touring Car Championship in 1980 and 1981, thanks in no small part to the skills of Win Percy. The icing on the cake was TWR’s victory for Mazda in the Spa 24 Hours that same year, a result made all the sweeter for Walkinshaw himself having done half the driving. It also laid to rest any doubts as to the RX-7’s competitiveness.
1982 – 1986 – Jaguar XJS, Various
Impressed by his success with Mazda, BMW and Rover, TWR were entrusted with the XJS race programme from 1983 onwards – though only after Walkinshaw had proved his and the car’s potential by building, then successfully racing his own example throughout the previous year. It was a brave move in every respect, but the car and Walkinshaw’s success in it paid off. For 1984, TWR would be the official Jaguar back entry.
It should be remembered that the XJS was far from the ideal base for a touring car in standard fettle. The 5.2L V12 cars wre powerful, true, but they were also heavy, designed for comfort from the wheels up and lacked the poise of their ETCC rivals from BMW and Ford. However, the ETCC was run to production-based Group A rules, and as such the inclusion of the large engine, wide wheels and independent rear suspension were both real plus points, and so TWR set to work refining the big cat’s chassis.
Walkinshaw’s powers of persuasion were also fully utilised when the pithy Scot managed to harangue the FIA into allowing him to fit Cosworth built, F1-derived high left cams and modified pistons to his cars, pushing power to 450bhp and the rev limit to 7300rpm.
ETCC domination duly followed, with the TWR run Jags sweeping to 7 wins in 1984, a trio of which were commanding 1-2-3 in nature. Walkinshaw also scored another Spa 24 Hour victory that year, followed by an emphatic win the following year in Australia’s headline, the Bathurst 1000. The results cemented Walkinshaw’s reputation as a Jaguar race car builder par excellence.
1983–1986 Rover SD1, Various
TWR spent most of the 1980s making British cars go faster than they had any right, and when he wasn’t hustling Coventry’s finest, he was out and about in Longbridge’s flagship, the Rover SD1 V8. Impressive European success would soon follow (especially when the Rovers received financial backing from Bastos), but for 1983 the team had to make do with finding its feet in the newly Group A-run BSCC
It went well, at least initially. The brawny Rovers were comfortably faster than their rivals, until, a few races into the season, BMW pitched up with a 635i for Frank Sytner. Things became tougher for TWR at a stroke, and it all came to a head at Donington Park. Sytner’s team lodged a complaint with the authorities, claiming that the Rover’s inner wheel arch inserts were too wide and therefore illegal. Walkinshaw protested and countered that the liners were legal as they were fitted to those cars sold in third world countries, a way of allowing the fitment of wider wheels and tyres. Handy on an African track, even handier when searching for grip on a racetrack!
TWR and BMW spent most of the rest of the season submitting, then re-submitting protests against one another, and the upshot was that the matter was only finally resolved over a year later – well over halfway through the following season. The Rovers were deemed to have run illegal real bodywork and valve trains and were duly excluded. Andy Rouse took the title in his own, non-TWR run SD1.
TWR had rather more success running even more aggressively tuned SD1s in the ETCC, where the red and white cars waged a pitched battle against BMW (who else), Ford and Volvo, and also in Australia. While competing down under, the Rovers found themselves fighting against similarly V8-shod competition from Ford and Holden.
1988 & 1990 – Jaguar XJR, Le Mans, WSCC
The potential of the TWR-Jaguar relationship had been demonstrated through their ETCC success in 1984 and so there was little to stop the pairing aiming high, to the jewel in the endurance racing calendar – Le Mans. Jaguar had last triumphed here in the 1950s and while the team had the necessary skills to succeed, doing so once again – and at the height of the Group C era – would be no small task.
It took several years and several cars for the TWR-Jaguar machinery to truly mesh but they were competitive from the off, scoring their first World Sportscar World Championship race win in 1986, with the title following a year later. Then, in 1988, Jaguar finally went the whole hog and took an emphatic win at Le Mans, the honour falling to Jan Lammers. Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace in the XJR-9. TWR repeated the feat in 1990.
1991 – Jaguar XJR-14, WSCC
You know a race car is good when it somehow still looks cutting edge despite being well over 25 years old, and this most certainly applies to the most potent, most advanced and most expensive TWR-Jaguar creation of them all, the XJ-14. Group C was in decline by the start of the ‘90s, thanks in part to the FIA’s insistence that teams compete with 3.5l V8s identical to those used in F1, in effect a means of convincing the OEMs to ditch sports cars for single seaters.
The XJR-14 was powered by a 3.5L V8, and while it lacked the outright shove of its Le Mans conquering, V12 powered predecessors, it was a far, far more aerodynamically polished bit of kit. It was developed in part by Ross Brawn (later of Ferrari F1 fame) and was demonstrably faster than its opposition from the moment it debuted – a full 4 seconds a lap faster at Monza! It duly won the Sportscar World Championship titles, both for Drivers’ and Manufacturers.’
1994 – Volvo 850 Estate, BTCC
Proving that he was nothing if not versatile, Walkinshaw went back to the BTCC in 1994, this time in partnership with Volvo. Signed up for 3 full seasons of BTCC paint-swapping with Walkinshaw and co, but it was the first, 1994, that truly set paddock tongues wagging. The reason? Perhaps the most striking touring car ever to turn a wheel in anger, the 850 estate.
The clear PR and marketing benefits of running such a striking bodyshell were clear to see, though both parties claimed that the estate’s elongated boot provided a downforce advantage over the saloon variant.
The engine slated to power the cars bore evidence of Walkinshaw’s commitment to creative reading of the rulebook. BTCC regulations permitted teams to adjust all manner of valve train variables in their quest for extra performance, they just weren’t allowed to alter either the angle of the valves themselves or weld extra material to the inside of the head. TWR opted to cunningly circumvent the rules in the most literal of senses, by re-mounting the ‘production’ head at an angle, having first chopped out a portion of its underside in order to achieve a suitable mounting face between block and head. This in turn created a more advantageous inlet and exhaust valve angle, which, when combined with the enlarged valves and chunky cams, gave well over 300bhp in race guise.
While not all that successful in terms of race wins and championship silverware, the TWR Volvos were a fan favourite and remain so to this day. Few race cars were, are, or will ever be cooler. Fact.
1988 – 1992 – Jaguar XJ220
Road cars grew to become a TWR specialty, with both Holden and Jaguar benefiting from his team’s engineering expertise. The most iconic of these was the XJ220, the machine borne out of Jaguar’s attempt to redefine the supercar world in the late ’80s. As you all almost certainly know, the car unveiled to much fanfare in 1988 promised the 1500 eager, well heeled parties that placed an order a technological tour-de-force, with all-wheel drive and a mid-mounted V12. It didn’t come to pass and Jaguar, faced with rising costs, outsourced the programme to TWR.
Ever the wily operator and faced with a tightening budget (not to mention a cloudy economic forecast), Walkinshaw picked up the phone to Austin Rover. He eventually managed to secure a deal for the company to supply him with stocks of its newly useless V64V, the V6 designed for the Metro 6R4. Contrary to popular belief, the engine isn’t actually the same as that placed in the Group B Metro, not least as it was fitted with a pair of turbos, had its capacity increased to 3.5L, was forged and given a new name, JV6.
The resulting engine sent all of its 540bhp to the rear wheels and the rear wheels alone, and the loss of traction and cylinders caused many of Jaguar’s orders to dry up. It was still 200mph+ fast, still the fastest car in the world and easily one of the best looking. Best of all TWR produced 6 homologation specials to enable the ‘220 to go GT racing, the impossibly cool TWR Jaguar XJ220S.
1994 – Benetton B194, F1
And so, Walkinshaw took his final step to the very top of the motorsport ladder, to Formula One. He’d long wanted to make the jump but had imagined doing so with Jaguar, off the back of its success in Sportscars. When guys at Browns Lane proved less than positive about the mooted move to single seaters, Walkinshaw opted instead to look to pastures new.
Come 1991, and the wily Scot had instead hitched his trailer to Benetton, establishing a partnership with Flavio Briatore and, in time, signing Ross Brawn. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Michael Schumacher joined the team from Jordan, a move Walkinshaw was instrumental in organising. For 1994, the combination of Schumacher, Benetton, Briatore, Brawn and Walkinshaw was expected to challenge Williams and Senna for F1 supremacy.
And so it proved, albeit not in the manner in which anyone would have planned or indeed desired. The Rory Byrne penned B194 proved to be more than a match for the Williams despite having a less powerful engine, and when Senna crashed and died at San Marino a few races into the season, the way was clear for Benetton domination. The season duly unfolded as such, with the B194 allowing Schumacher to claim the first of eventual seven titles.
The team’s victory was mired in controversy from before Schumacher was crowned, though. Rival teams suspected Benetton of cheating by using a form of launch control; legal in 1993 but regulated against for 1994. A thorough investigation did indeed reveal such software hidden within the ECU, and while the FIA couldn’t prove that it had ever been used by Schumacher, it was hard to dispel the shadow it cast.
The final straw for Walkinshaw came in the wake of the German Grand Prix, when the car of Schumacher’s team mate Jos Verstappen was engulfed in a terrifying fireball while pitting for fuel. Investigation revealed that an essential filter had been removed in order to save a second or so while fuelling, leaving the pump open to being jammed by an errant piece of detritus. Walkinshaw was blamed for making the call and while no further action was taken, it was only because he agreed to part ways with Benetton at the end of the year.
1997 – Nissan R390 GT1
Back in the ’90s, going Sportscar racing involved car makers going through most exclusive homologation process yet devised, with the nominally road based cars having to spawn just a handful of road legal prototypes. Nissan’s was the most exclusive of the lot, the R390 GT1. A total of 8 examples of the VRH35L V8 powered cars were built, with only one (now owned by Nissan itself) designated for road use. It says much about TWR’s standing at the time that Nissan entrusted the project to the firm.