by Russell Atkins
Respected grand prix design genius Gary Anderson has enjoyed a long and varied career in the top flight, working for front-running teams including McLaren
and Jordan as he climbed his way up the ranks from a lowly mechanic to one of the category's premier designers.
Here the Northern Irishman takes a look back over his distinguished stint among motor racing's elite, and reminisces on how the sport has changed during the past three decades since he took his first tentative steps inside the hallowed Formula One paddock back in 1973…
You had a long career in Formula One and motor racing in general. How did you first get into it?
It was a long time ago. Back in 1972 I came across from Ireland. I was 20 years old when I arrived in England, and I met up with a young lady who now happens to be my wife. She wrote a letter to the Brabham team, which was owned by a guy called Bernie Ecclestone. There was another guy called Colin Sealey who was running the production department. They made Formula Two and Formula Three cars and all sorts of stuff. My now wife wrote this letter for me one night to say I was a mechanic and was there any chance of a job? I got a letter back from Colin two days later saying there were no vacancies, then I got another letter the next day from Bernie to say there was one! So motor racing started off looking pretty confusing to me and it continued that way! I started working as a mechanic for Brabham at the end of 1972. I built Formula Two and Formula Three cars to begin with, then in 1973 they asked me to join the Formula One team and off I went.
Over the years would you say your career has been more about enjoyment or hard work, or a mixture of the two?
It has been everything to be honest. You travel the world, see lots of hotels, race tracks, ferries and aeroplanes, all sorts of stuff. I wouldn't change a day of it. I've always been quite determined, no matter what I've been doing in my life. I always want to try and do better and have always pushed. I went through what you might call Formula One's time of opportunity. It was a period during which the sport changed dramatically. I was lucky to start out as a mechanic on the spare car in 1973 and I ended it as technical director of a Formula One team. Very few people have that kind of opportunity in life. I was always asking questions and learned a lot from Gordon Murray, the Brabham designer of the day. Gordon taught me a lot of the basic principles. You have to take your opportunities in life with open arms no matter what the formula is. I've done sportscars, Formula Ford, Super Vee, the Le Mans 24 Hours, FIA GT racing… I've just been to a Brazilian stock car race which is their equivalent of NASCAR. Basically I've taken any opportunity and had a go at it. That's something I've always prided myself on. It doesn't matter if it's Formula One or a lower formula – you still have to be competitive. People still want to win and you still get cheesed off when you don't. It's a great life.
You worked for a number of different teams throughout your career. Are they all very different in the way they operate, or are the basics always pretty similar?
They're all very different. In my early career I worked as a mechanic at Brabham and McLaren, and in both teams I rose to the role of chief mechanic. I did some development work with both of them as well. Test teams didn't really exist back in those days, but you could always develop the car yourself. You just made new bits and tried them out to see if they made it any better. In the latter years I joined Eddie Jordan in 1990 to design the 1991 car. Eddie's team was always very family-orientated – everybody there counted. Because it was a small team everyone had to be capable of multi-tasking. It was impossible not to be. We started out as a tiny organisation in one of the units at Silverstone. That's where Michael Schumacher came and chatted to me on the bench before his debut Formula One test. It was a good little team.
I then moved onto Stewart Grand Prix with Jackie Stewart in 1999. Jackie was the best person I've ever worked for in my life. He is a three-time Formula One world champion, and by being involved in motor racing for so long and having experienced the ups and downs of it he knew what it was all about. You could really talk to Jackie about motor racing – it was something he truly understood. He understood all your frustrations and anxieties; he understood when you could fix something and when you couldn't. That was a fantastic experience. When he sold out to Jaguar and Ford came in it was a different deal altogether, and I didn't really get on with those people. That's when I decided to run my career down a bit – I had been at it long enough. I came back to Jordan for a couple of years but the team had changed. They had run out of motivation and out of money. After the final race meeting with Jordan the last guy switched the lights off because there was nobody left. Now you are looking at teams like Ferrari
who have 800 or 900 people each. We had 28 people at Jordan when we first went to Phoenix in 1991. It was a whole different world.
You mentioned Ferrari
and McLaren. During the mid-1990s while you were at Jordan, there was interest from both those teams in your services but you stayed put. How different do you think your career might have turned out if you had accepted one of those offers?
It's difficult to know. I had good offers during my career from the big teams, but I never saw myself as being a small cog on a big wheel as such. I was always a small team man and I always believed the small team could beat the big guys. Maybe I would have done better to go off and make lots of money with a big team, but my challenge was to go and take them on and on a good day we could and did beat them. We managed to race with them and beat them – it wasn't just given to us because they had a bad day. That's far more satisfying than the routine of just going to races because you're in a big team. For sure, financially it would have been a much better deal for me, but I believed we could keep the relatively small team attitude and working operation and challenge the big guys, and I felt it was better to be a part of that than be lost in a big team. I couldn't have worked for a team of 700 or 800 people. I like to know how many sugars a guy takes in his coffee. You need to know all the people by name, their kids and families, and that never happens in a big organisation.
Are there any particular high or low points as you look back over your career?