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Tom Walkinshaw - an obituary

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Andrew Benson | 11:43 UK time, Monday, 13 December 2010

Tom Walkinshaw, who has died of cancer aged 64, was one of the most powerful personalities in motorsport for nearly 30 years and, latterly, an influential figure in English rugby.

Walkinshaw's famous TWR racing team won championships in touring cars and sportscars, as well as claiming the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1988, giving Jaguar its first win in the race for more than 30 years in the process.

But Formula 1, motorsport's pinnacle, proved a tougher challenge. Although the Scot was instrumental in the success of the Benetton team with Michael Schumacher from 1992-4, his attempts to conquer it with his own team eventually led to his downfall and exit from top-level motor racing.

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Watch highlights of Walkinshaw's Arrows nearly winning the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix

When Walkinshaw joined Benetton in 1991, after nearly two decades of often controversial successes in touring cars and sportscars, his reputation preceded him.

He was known as an uncompromising and controversial character whose granite jaw reflected his determination - he pushed things to the limit, didn't mind who he upset to get his way and used his imposing physical presence to its full effect.

Walkinshaw was not a tall man but he was immensely broad and stocky, and he was not afraid to employ his physical strength to his own ends.

At a sportscar race once, he sought out a journalist to whose reporting he had taken exception, dragged him across the pit lane and hung him over the pit wall as cars passed by at nearly 200mph while he verbally harangued him.

But Walkinshaw had brains as well as brawn. He was a very competent racing driver in touring cars in the 1970s but he was a far better team boss.

One of the people he employed at Jaguar was Ross Brawn, later to transform Ferrari into the most efficient winning machine in F1 history, but then an ambitious young designer.

Walkinshaw took him on to apply F1 expertise to sportscars and the result was a game-changing car that won the world sportscar championship.

With that conquered, only F1 remained and the flamboyant new Benetton team boss Flavio Briatore, an intimidating character himself, decided that Walkinshaw and Brawn were the men he needed to turn Benetton from also-rans to winners. Walkinshaw was installed as engineering director, Brawn as technical director.

It didn't take long for Walkinshaw's ruthlessness to emerge.

He had witnessed Schumacher's talents driving for Mercedes in sportscars and when the 22-year-old German made an electrifying F1 debut for Jordan at the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix, Walkinshaw told Briatore this was the driver they needed. By the next race in Italy Schumacher was in the cockpit of a Benetton, the fact that he had binding contract with Jordan a minor inconvenience.

Together, Benetton and Schumacher made a formidable team and success was not long coming - by 1994 they were world champions. But, just as in the other categories in which Walkinshaw had competed, the whiff of controversy followed him to F1.

Benetton were accused of cheating. They were found to have illegal driver-aid software in their cars, but were not punished because the sport's governing body, the FIA, could not prove it had been used. Then, after a refuelling fire during the German Grand Prix, Benetton were found guilty of taking a filter out of their fuel hose without authorisation.

Jos Verstappen's Benetton catches fire in the pits at the 1994 German Grand Prix

Benetton's 1994 pit fire led to the end of Walkinshaw's career with the team

They blamed it on a "junior member of staff", but the rumour was that Walkinshaw had authorised it.

Benetton agreed with the FIA to part company with certain unidentified staff as an act of good faith. It was an open secret that a deal had been brokered behind closed doors that Walkinshaw would leave the company at the end of the year.

He moved first to run Benetton-linked Ligier, before in early 1996 taking over Arrows.

Such was the regard in which Walkinshaw was held that he was expected to make a success of a team that had never won a race in its 20-year history.

He pulled off a coup by convincing world champion Damon Hill to join the team for 1997 but the car was uncompetitive. Hill took a somewhat freak second place in Hungary but left the team at the end of the year.

From then on, it was largely all downhill, despite a few flashes of hope, namely when investment bank Morgan Grenfell bought into the team in 1998 and Walkinshaw signed a high-profile sponsorship deal with mobile phone network Orange in 2000.

Generally, his Arrows years were a struggle against the odds, and they ended in 2002 with the ignominy of a High Court battle with Morgan Grenfell and a damning judgement, in which Mr Justice Lightman described proposals Walkinshaw had made trying to ensure the survival of the team as "underhand and improper, indeed downright dishonest".

Why did it go wrong for him in F1?

Some said Walkinshaw too often had his eye off the ball, concentrating on his other business interests, such as his TWR engineering group and Gloucester Rugby Club, to the detriment of his F1 team.

Walkinshaw found money and new partners hard to come by, despite his long history in the car and motorsport industries - or perhaps because of it, some believed.

Walkinshaw was a hard-nosed businessman and sportsman, always viewed as the ultimate survivor, the man who could be guaranteed to pull off the last-minute saving deal.

But his failure with Arrows spelt the end of his association with top-level motorsport, although he did continue to run a touring car team in Australia.

He turned his business acumen and tough negotiating skills to a new role in rugby.

Related or not, the collapse of Arrows coincided with Walkinshaw's tenure as chairman of Premier Rugby, the top-flight clubs' umbrella body, from 1998-2002.

Later, he led the clubs' team negotiating with the Rugby Football Union over the release of England players, the details of which are now enshrined in an eight-year agreement that has largely ended what for a while were very bitter wrangles over the management of the men playing for the national side.

As chairman of Gloucester, he is remembered fondly for pumping in lots of money and keeping the team at the forefront of the game, even if he never quite achieved his ambitions either domestically or in Europe.

Walkinshaw was a complex figure who aroused mixed emotions but, although he had a dark side, plenty of people will remember him as a warm-hearted and generous man.

BBC F1 analyst Martin Brundle, whose long relationship with Walkinshaw included winning Le Mans and the world sportscar title, says: "He was a mentor to me.

"I wrote to him and asked him for a drive when he didn't know me from Adam and he gave me a chance. If he hadn't done that, I'd still be selling Toyotas in West Norfolk, for sure. He was an entrepreneurial racer and a great tactician."

And Hill, now president of the British Racing Drivers' Club that owns Silverstone, adds: "He was a very big-hearted guy who put everything he had into motor racing in all its forms. He loved motorsport and he liked business, too.

"Tom had competitive spirit and there were a lot of good things about him. He genuinely wanted to compete. He wanted things to turn out right.

"I certainly believed in Tom and his sincere desire to build a team. But it didn't work out.

"He was a major player in motorsport for a long time and that will be his testimony."


  • Comment number 1.

    Gloucester fan here. May I wish my most sincere condolences to all his family and friends, and anyone who knew him. As Andrew pointed out, he will be remembered extremely fondly at Kingsholm and I have some great memories of his time at the helm. He really did all he could to help the team win, but under his ownership we always seemed to miss out due to stupid little technicalities or some players not dealing well in high pressure situations, neither of which he could have helped! To summarize, I would like to say thank you to Tom for everything he did at Kingsholm. R.I.P.

  • Comment number 2.

    Just like to echo City Ground Residents comments. He did a lot for Gloucester during his reign

    R.I.P Tom

  • Comment number 3.

    Very sorry to read about Tom Walkinshaw's death. I worked for Tom's Engineering group (TWR Group) for 8 years in the 90s. There's an irony in reading this obituary as we often felt that the Engineering side sometimes suffered because he had his eye off the ball, concentrating on the F1 team. But I have very fond memories of the TWR years. Sad news. Rest in peace.

  • Comment number 4.

    RIP Tom. U gave us a Arrows Car that nearly won with Damon Hill at the wheel. I loved that race although the last 2 laps could have been better!

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    You have to give respect to a man who took a Volvo estate car racing and made it competitive. A real racer, R.I.P.

  • Comment number 7.

    Tom Walkinshaw was a ballsy driver too- Mount Panorama in a V12 XJS:

  • Comment number 8.

    This isn't the time to be going back over controversial incidents, Tom Walkinshaw was a great character and had many outstanding achievements from his time in F1 and motorsport in general, my condolences to his friends and family.

    R.I.P. Tom.

  • Comment number 9.

    Very saddened to hear of his death. I suppose words like 'uncompromising' could sit alongside some of the other plaudits, but I don't mean it in a negative way.
    The man had an irrepressible desire to compete and win. His own efforts on the track were of a hallmark of his efforts off it. Bullish, and determined. TWR's success with Jaguar was an overwhelming sporting and marketing success.
    Sure, sometimes in the heat of the moment the lines and limits may have become blurred, and no,the end doesn't justify the means. But Tom Walkinshaw was a 'doer' and men like him didn't achieve what he did by just talking about it.
    I was surprised his F1 ambitions failed, but he shot for the top and it didn't come off. Nevertheless, he was one of the sports clearer thinkers and gods knows it needs those from time to time.


  • Comment number 10.

    R.I.P Tom-
    1997 Hungarian GP Murray Walker saying 'Shades of 1994' when Schumacher and Hill were battling for the lead. The classic lines of 'And going through, Damon Hill leads, OH BOY!!! when Hill passed Schumacher. Shame Hill didn't win the race.

    My thoughts go to his friends and family.

  • Comment number 11.

    Sad day. Tom will be missed. He was a character who was prepared to get things done rather sit around and talk about them. In that respect F1 was not really suited to characters like him but, in reality, F1 could do with more Tom Walkinshaws! RIP Tom and thanks for the memories . .

  • Comment number 12.

    my thoughts first of all go out to toms family at this sad time. i was a 14 year old when i first met tom at brands when i was a helper to Barrie williams, i was travelling around with whizzo to most british touring car races at the time so had the the best time ever as a 14 year old and i remember tom taking whizzo and i to lunch at oulton park on good friday which for whizzo i am sure was normal but for me it was a huge event which i have never forgotten, it was also kind of tom to remember me several years later when i was helping out with the gloustershire county car in the bmw county championship. rest in peace tom i will never forget your kindness.

  • Comment number 13.

    Deepest condolences to the Walkinshaw family. He will be very well remembered in the city of Gloucester.

  • Comment number 14.

    As far as I knew. He was heavily involved in V8 Supercars recently. A very successful driver. Plus he had success with TWR in many forms of the sport.

    I didn't know he was ill. Quite a loss.

  • Comment number 15.

  • Comment number 16.

    It feel priviledged to have watched Gloucester throughout Walkinshaw's tenure. My greatest sporting memories and those of many of my family and friends came during that time. A true Gloucester legend who will be remembered and missed throughout the city. Thanks Tom, R.I.P.

  • Comment number 17.

    My condolences to Tom's family.
    I have always followed "Big Tom" since his success in Rover V8s, through the Jag Le Mans, Mazda, and the Volvo years as well as F1. I have been sorry he hasn't been around F1 and Motorsport these last few years.
    TWR will always be a bit special.

  • Comment number 18.


  • Comment number 19.

    Tom was my childhood hero, providing hours of great touring car racing in thrilling machines like the Bastos Rovers and Jaguars. I followed him to Le Mans and was given the thrill of a lifetime to witness an English invasion and famous victory (twice!). As I grew up I recognised that behind the racer was an extraordinary businessman who succeeded in all he did, yet retaining his likability. He's proven a great role model for me, and I will sadly miss him. To his family I send my condolences. Tom - may you rest in peace in a big fat V8! RIP

  • Comment number 20.

    A sad loss to motorsport we are loosing the great men that made things happen.

    Condolence to his family would be good to see all his cars in one place to celebrate his life maybe a goodwood fesitivel ?

  • Comment number 21.

    No doubt, a great figure in motorsport and a great driver in his day, his untimely passing is very sad.

    He took Jaguar to the top at Le Mans and some of those prototypes were the most beautiful cars ever built.

    I really thought Arrows were a great underdog team from 1996-2002 and wished they'd have done better.

    However, his legacy should also note his dodgy dealings, like at Benetton in 1994.

    What really sticks in my throat though is his treatment of Mark Skaife in Australia's V8 Supercars.

    One of the sport's best ever drivers pushed out of his own team and left broke when he should have been extremely comfortable.. by Tom Walkinshaw.

    In my humble opinion that incident went well beyond ruthless.

  • Comment number 22.

  • Comment number 23.

    Yes - certainly a driven, ruthless and focussed man but one who will be missed nonetheless. A key figure in Jaguar's racing presence and heritage.
    Jaguar XJ13 - Building the Legend


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