Monday, November 29, 2010

Toleman - The Last Romantics

At first sight, one might expect a book pertaining to the 'Last Romantics', to feature a bunch of androgynous men from the 1980s, sporting cheap perms and dodgy synth-pop melodies. On the contrary, this is the gripping tale of how a small group of innovative and hard-working engineers came ever so close to beating the Formula 1 establishment, just at the point where the sport was irreversibly transforming itself from a cottage industry to a high-tech corporate exercise.

The main protagonists in the tale are all fascinating characters in their own right: Ted Toleman, Alex Hawkridge, Rory Byrne, John Gentry, Brian Hart, Roger Silman, Pat Symonds, Brian Henton, and Derek Warwick. Hilton has encouraged them all to speak openly, and at length, about the Toleman adventure, and the result is inspiring and wonderful. It is a story which reaches both its zenith and its denouement with the arrival, and then departure of Ayrton Senna.

My first ever trip to a motor race of any kind was to the 1982 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. There, perched on the South Bank, the crowd watched with a mixture of excitement and amazement as Derek Warwick cut through the field in the underfinanced Toleman, powered by the underfinanced Hart turbo engine. It felt like a glimpse into a parallel universe, a feeling only accentuated when, before our very eyes, Warwick sliced down the inside of Pironi's Ferrari to take second place into Paddock Hill Bend.

I can also recall my complete astonishment months later when I discovered that the new TG183, an outrageously outre design, had gone fastest in the pre-season testing at Rio for the 1983 season. And in 1984 I fumed for days over the decision to stop the Monaco Grand Prix, just as Ayrton Senna's Toleman was about to overwhelm Prost's tentatively driven McLaren. Not only was the race stopped with a red flag, but in a flagrant breach of regulation, the chequered flag was shown at the same time, just to dispel any lingering thoughts of a re-start.

This book, then, is a chance both to re-live all those remarkable events, and to see them from the perspective of the participants. I love this book to bits, and I'm also deeply jealous never to have been part of such an adventure.


Hummingbird said...

Senna was catching Prost, but wasn't Stefan Bellof catching both of them? And you must have felt better at the end of the year when Prost missed out on the championship by half a point. If he'd come second in a full-length race in Monaco he would have scored six points - as it he was, he only got 4.5 for winning a shortened race.

Gordon McCabe said...

True, and Senna had a cracked suspension component which would probably have precipitated his retirement had the race run any further.

cinndave said...

Sounds like an underdog worth rooting for. I've been reading and watching on youtube a lot lately about another story about a privateer: John Britten, and his radically different home-made bike from New Zealand. He built every piece of a 1L grand prix racing bike

It's very romantic to think that in the early 90's, one man on a small budget could build a bike in his own garage, take on the Ducatis, the Suzukis, and all the big names with their teams of engineers, and beat them all through determination and clever design. Remarkable story. Remarkable bike.