Sunday, 11 July 2010

"From Drawing Board to Chequered Flag", Tony Southgate

For someone who first started to be interested in motor racing in 1982 Tony Southgate was consistently present in the background of the races I watched. It helped of course that he was associated with underdogs at that stage; teams like Theodore and Osella were never going to win anything, but with the latter in particular, they were doing something  different, that appealed to me. There was also the real attraction of an attempt to do something with extraordinarily limited resources, which is an ethos that appeals to this day.

In this light Tony Southgate's autobiography has been a long time comings, and it doesn't disappoint. Told in a concise and to the point manner the true richness of Southgate's career, which has involved winning the Indianapolis 500 with Eagle, the Monaco Grand Prix with BRM, and Le Mans with Jaguar and Audi, is revealed.

This is a story that strips away a lot of the glamour that is often associated with motor racing. The red in tooth and claw nature of the sport in the 1960s and 1970s, when death was common occurrence is exposed, but so too is the gritty unrewarded hard graft that working in the industry entailed. The frankly unpleasant birth of Arrows was before my day, but this is told clearly by one of the participants, who has managed to lose a lot of the rancour with the perspective of distance. Back in the 1980s Southgate would refuse to refer to Arrows, instead calling it Arrow (the team name was built up from letters of the founders Alan Rees, Jackie Oliver, Dave Wass, and Tony Southgate), feeling he wanted nothing to do with them. Reading now of his abrupt dismissal and the borderline fraud that valued his 10% of the company at £5,000 you can understand the level of bitterness felt, especially when put in the context of the court battle with Shadow and the supreme efforts in producing a string of cars in Arrows' early years.

The core message here is that while there's a lot of money sloshing around the sport, it says something that Southgate had to work all the way to 2000 to ensure financial security. This is the story of a career where as he put it "I had always been paid well, but there is a difference between living well and having excess money to save for a rainy day" (p.170). You do however wonder if Southgate would have wanted it any different way? He's clear that the excesses of motorsport hold no appeal to him, and in being compelled to work later into his career he got the opportunity to work on some marvelous machinery and make him a figure who neatly spans the era when an individual could have an impact on every aspect of car design to the present, when the complexity of design means that the nature of the beast means cars are now inherently designed by committee.

As well as being a genuinely good read, right up there with recent classics from Vic Elford and John Horsman, "From Drawing Board to Chequered Flag" brings some real new insight for the student of motor racing. In 1982 then Osella designer, Herve Guilpin quit in disgust at the Caesar's Palace Grand Prix, being fulsome in his criticism of Enzo Osella's approach including choice words such as "The reason is always lack of money. The result is the FA1D [Osella's 1982 car] is and always has been a potential public menace" and questions about resource allocation, such as questioning the building of a test track at the Osella factory. For those who want to know more, the full story is told on page 45 in the 1982 Caesar's Palace edition of Grand Prix International magazine.

Tony Southgate brings a different perspective. When he visited the Osella facility at Volpiano to discuss the project for fitting an Alfa Romeo V12 engine to the FA1E, not long after Guilpin's outburst, he was clearly pleasantly surprised. Summing it up he states "Compared with the likes of Arrows and Shadow, Osella looked very impressive. Where teams allocate their money is always a case of individual priorities, and in Osella's case he obviously spent a lot of it on the factory." (p.126). Different observers, different perspectives, and different circumstances, but it all clearly shows how primary sources can be so contradictory.

"From Drawing Board to Chequered Flag" is beautifully put together and tells a fascinating story. It deserves to be read by anyone with a real passion and interest in motor racing in the latter part of the 20th century.

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