Tim Schenken, 1971 French GP

Earmarked as one of the the outstanding talents in junior motorsport in the late 1960s, Australian-born Tim Schenken was a driver who was going places when his made his debut for Frank Williams’ little Formula 1 team in 1970.

In 1971, he made a big breakthrough, joining the Brabham team as Graham Hill’s number-two. Despite being saddled with the older-spec BT33 chassis, he outperformed his more experienced team-mate for much of the season, peaking with a fine podium finish at the Austrian Grand Prix. His pair of points’ finishes that season were scant reward for his efforts, although he achieved rather more solid results in the non-championship Race of Champions and the International Trophy.

Ron Tauranac & Tim Schenken, 1971 With Bernie Ecclestone buying the Brabham team, Schenken was hesitant about the team’s prospects and quit for Surtees, which proved to be a major misjudgement. Stifled by Surtees’ now-famous lack of management skills, Schenken’s long-term F1 ambitions were in trouble.

Despite this, it was in the field of sports cars where Schenken truly made his mark. He joined the Ferrari team, winning the 1000Km races at Buenos Aires and the Nurburgring – as well as claiming four further second-placed finishes – alongside Ronnie Peterson.

Hopes of helping Ron Dennis’ Rondel Formula 2 operation move into the big league when belly-up along with Dennis’ team, but Schenken was back the following year, reuniting with former Brabham boss Ron Tauranac in the ill-fated Trojan F1 project.

With no further opportunities in F1 forthcoming, Tim turned to sports car and GT racing, driving George Loos’ stable of Porsches between 1975-7, winning the Nurburgring 1000Km for a second time in 1977.

After retiring from competitive driving, Tim co-founded the Tiga racing car enterprise with fellow former F1 driver Howden Ganley, and the operation proved to be a huge success with Tiga cars achieving a multitude of wins in various open-wheeler championships.

In the mid-1980s, Tim took up a position with Australia’s motorsport body, CAMS, serving the long-time role of CAMS Race Director and clerk of the course for the Australian Grand Prix.

A leading figure in overseeing the running and safety of Australia’s V8 Supercars Championship, Tim kindly took the time out of his busy schedule to be interviewed by RichardsF1.com, discussing all aspects of his extensive and fascinating motorsport career. We offer our sincerest thanks to Tim – who you may recall we first met on the SENNA red carpet in Melbourne in July (below) – for his time and support to make this interview possible.

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TIM’S BIO & CAREER SUMMARY

Born: 26 September 1943, Sydney (AUS)
1968 British Lombank Formula 3, Sports Motors Brabham BT21B / BT28 & Chevron B9
  1st overall

British Formula 3 Championship, Merlyn MK11A Ford, 1st overall
1969 British Lombank Formula 3, Sports Motors Brabham BT28, 6th overall
French Formula 3 Championship, Sports Motors Brabham BT28, 1st overall
1970 European Formula 2 Championship, Brabham BT30 Ford,  12th overall
Formula 1 World Championship, Williams Cosworth De Tomaso 505
  4 races, 0 points, Not Classified
1971 European Formula 2 Championship, Rondel Racing Brabham BT36,  4th overall
Formula 1 World Championship, Brabham Cosworth BT33
  10 races, 1 podium, 5 points, 14th overall
1972 British Formula 2 Championship, Rondel Racing Brabham BT38,  11th overall
Formula 1 World Championship, Surtees Cosworth TS9B / TS14
  12 races, 2 points, 19th overall
1973 Formula 1 World Championship, Williams Iso-Marlboro Cosworth IR
  1 race, 0 points, Not Classified
1974 Formula 1 World Championship, Trojan Cosworth T103 / JPS Lotus Cosworth 76
  9 races, 0 points, Not Classified
1975 Interserie, Gelo Racing Team, Porsche 917/10 Turbo & Mirage GR8, 3rd overall
European GT Championship, Gelo Racing Team, Porsche 911 Carrera RSR, 2nd overall 
1976 European GT Championship, Gelo Racing Team, Porsche 934, 3rd overall 
Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft, Gelo Racing Team, Porsche 934, 5th overall 
1977 Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft, Gelo Racing Team, Porsche 934, 9th overall 

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What triggered your fascination with motorsport when you were growing up, and what was your very first experience behind the wheel?

I was born in Sydney before we moved to Melbourne when my father was transferred there by the company he worked for. When I was at Camberwell Grammar School, there was a boy there whose father had a hillclimb car. I used to go around to play at his house, and it was there that I saw the car. There was something about it that fascinated me.

There was a hillclimb even a week or so after, which I went to with his family and that just sparked something inside me, and from that point I just wanted to get involved.

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Did you have any motorsport idols in your teenage years?

Once I got into motorsport, both Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham were my idols, but Moss was more so my idol. Perhaps it was because I used to buy AUTOSPORT, Motoring News, and the like – all the motorsport magazines I could get my hands on – which in those days all came to Australia by boat. By the time they arrived here in Australia, they were all about 5 or 6 weeks old, and I used to buy them from the [sadly now closed] Technical Book Shop in Swanson Street. When I started working in the city, I used to go to that shop every day to see what they’d brought in!

On account of most of the publications being English, the focus was more on Stirling than Jack’s exploits, so it was certainly on account of this that I became a fan.

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You headed to the UK in 1965, and over the next couple of years you took the feeder series’ by storm, winning a host of categories, including Formula Ford and Formula 3. How did you adapt to racing in the UK, and how did you manage to juggle the requirements of these different championships – often competing in several categories in the one year – while proving to be so successful in all of them?

I’d learned a lot about the English and European motorsport scenes just through the magazines I was buying in Australia. I had a good idea about the various categories and the path I needed to take to get into Formula 1. I knew the names of the teams, where they were based, and the like.

So the first thing I set about doing when I arrived in the UK was to get a job. I rented a flat in Chiswick and joined a team called Chequered Flag, which was running a three-car semi-works Brabham Formula 3 team.

Tim Schenken, British F3 So I started there in 1967 with a Lotus 22, but didn’t prove particularly competitive at first. But the team knew a few tricks and set about putting some modifications onto the car, and we were soon very competitive. At the end of the year, I crashed the car, which I was actually looking to convert to a Formula Ford-spec chassis, as the championship had just started off in the UK.

I was actually offered a test drive in a Merlyn Formula Ford car at that time as well, and acquired one of the chassis to go racing in Formula Ford. I was actually preparing and transporting the car by myself to all of the races, and started winning quite a few of them.

I later picked up a Formula 3 drive with Sports Motors in Manchester, who were running a Chevron. They had a mechanic to look after preparation of the car and they could look after transportation as well.

In 1968, I landed up winning a total of 68 races. That sounds like an enormous amount, but you were often doing four races a day. For example you’d go to Oulton Park and have two Formula Ford and Formula 3 races apiece, and then go to Brands Hatch on the Sunday and do it all over again. I was in the car so often that it began to feel like an armchair, of sorts!

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You got the call to join Frank Williams’ F1 team at the 1970 Austrian Grand Prix, taking over from Brian Redman. What were your initial impressions of Frank’s operation, especially in light of this being his first formative steps into the world of Formula 1 racing?

Actually, I didn’t get the call to join Frank, I made the call. And that was only after the tragic death of Piers Courage [who was killed at the Dutch Grand Prix], who was extremely close to Frank. I had to take a lot of deep breaths before making that phone call, but I went to see him and asked if I could take over – by that stage, he’d already signed Redman to do a few races.

Frank was incredibly enthusiastic – as he is today – but he had none of the support around him that you see today in his team. He was good at the sporting and commercial side of the team, but when it came to running and preparing the car, he just left it to the mechanics, which was very much how you went racing in those days.

But he was very much struggling with sponsorship, often using the sponsorship from one year to pay the bills from the year before. We didn’t finish a single race on account of some mechanical problem or other, but it was a great year.

It was nothing like how it is today, but I’d done a lot of racing to get here and it was still the pinnacle of motorsport. It was a big travelling circus and I was thrilled to have the introduction to it.

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You joined the Ron Tauranac-run Brabham team in 1971 as team-mate to Graham Hill, with the outfit having undergone a change of ownership in the off-season [Tauranac was now solely in charge]. In many ways, this was you being paired with several iconic names – Brabham Tauranac and Hill. This may have been a daunting situation for some new drivers; how did you adapt to this environment, particularly on account of it being more established than Williams, and what were your relationships like with Tauranac and Hill?

I knew Ron [Tauranac] and Jack [Brabham] from my days in Formula 3, on account of having raced Brabham chassis’ in 1968-9. I was already very familiar with them from those days, and the relationship continued when I raced in Formula 2.

In those days, many Formula 1 drivers would dovetail their grand Prix driving with Formula 2, so I was already racing against the likes of Jochen Rindt, Jo Siffert, Pedro Rodriguez, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, and future World Champions such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Jody Scheckter, and so on.

My challenge in 1971 was being competitive, and I didn’t click initially with the Brabham and how I had to drive it. But it clicked fairly quickly and I was able to start beating Graham in a year-old car, who by that point was in the autumn of his racing career.

To me, this felt completely natural, being in Formula 1. I’d always wanted to race here and now I’d achieved the goal that I’d set out for myself.

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Your first championship point came at the German Grand Prix, and at the next round in Austria, you claimed your best F1 result with third place at the Österreichring after a mid-race battle with Emerson Fittipaldi (who would finish second). What are your recollections of that race?Schenken, snapped just hours before he claimed his only F1 podium, at the 1971 Austrian Grand Prix

I’d been running well in previous races – for example, I’d been third at Paul Ricard until a mechanical problem – but reliability was a bit of an issue with the Brabhams. The third place was something very special for me at the time, but unfortunately for me, I wasn’t able to replicate that result in any of the following races.

I’d heard at the end of the year that Tauranac was selling the team, and I asked him about what was going on, where he confirmed he’d sold it to Bernie Ecclestone. I knew of Bernie because of his involvement with Jochen Rindt and Emerson Fittipaldi, and I now needed to negotiate a contract with Bernie.

That was interesting, because Bernie wanted to sign me up for two years. But I wasn’t so sure about the future of the team under its new owners and I just wanted a one-year deal. History will show that we couldn’t agree to terms, so I left the team and joined Surtees for 1972.

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At the same time that you were driving for Brabham, you were also competing in Formula 2 with Ron Dennis’ Rondel Racing outfit. As we all know, Dennis has earned himself quite the particular reputation stemming from his time as McLaren’s team principal; what was he like as a team boss making his first foray into motorsport management in the early 1970s?

Schenken was one of Ron Dennis' first ever drivers, back in the days of his Rondel Formula 2 operation. Here is Schenken in 1972.
Schenken was one of Ron Dennis’ first ever drivers, back in the days of his Rondel Formula 2 operation. Here he is in 1972.
 

All of the trademarks that you see today at McLaren were evident in the Rondel operation in the early 1970s.

His ideas about the presentation of the car and the team were very different to anyone else at that time. He had a smart workshop, the car was immaculate both inside and out (and probably underneath, as well, if I know Ron!) and were beautifully prepared.

I mean, he had a briefcase, which was simply unheard of in motorsport in those days!

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Your time at Surtees started out promisingly with fifth at Argentina, but further points’ finishes would not eventuate as the year wore on. At the same time, you started to carve yourself quite the career in sports cars with Ferrari, often partnering Ronnie Peterson. How did you adapt to the longer-distance format of racing, and what was your relationship like with Ronnie, given he had such a reputation for such flamboyance behind the wheel?

I actually knew Ronnie as far back as 1968 when I was racing in Formula 3.

With many racing drivers, you don’t get to know them very well: you might see each other once a fortnight, and you may occasionally be at the same hotel or on the same flight, but that was the extent of it.

With Ronnie, it was different. We just clicked immediately. He lived in a flat near to where I live and we saw each other quite often.

  Schenken started to dovetail in endurance racing in the early 1970s, where he proved hugely successful. Here he races in the 1975 InterSerie Championship
Schenken started to dovetail in endurance racing in the early 1970s, where he proved hugely successful. Here he races in the 1975 InterSerie Championship.

Behind the wheel, he was just a natural. The first race we did together (the 1972 Buenos Aires 1000Km, which we won) was the first time that either of us had driven with a co-driver. To be sharing a win with someone else felt very odd indeed!

What amazed me was his incredible (and still famous) car control. There were times when I’d take over the car from him and it felt like it needed more adjustments to get the balance sorted out. To have a well-balanced car is crucial for endurance racing to avoid wearing yourself and the tyres out too soon, and I’d fix up the car, hand it back to him and think to myself, ‘He’s going to be so much faster now that I’ve sorted the car’.

But in fact, he never went any faster. He would just drive around the problems of the car, while I had to have the car sorted to get the best out of it.

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Your role with the Rondel F2 operation was meant to translate into a Formula 1 berth with their expected graduation into the championship in 1973, but this fell through, casting you onto the F1 sidelines. Aside from a one-off Grand Prix drive with Williams’ team, you were in the world of sports cars for the year. How frustrating a period was this for you?

My time with Surtees in 1972 was effectively a series of reliability issues with the car and a huge personality clash with [team owner] John Surtees – I know I’m certainly not the only Grand Prix driver to have suffered that! Whilst you have to admire the man given his achievements on two and four wheels, he was just impossible to deal with when it came to running and developing one of his racing cars. He just knocked the stuffing out of me during the year.Schenken's season with Surtees was not a happy one

But Rondel was looking to move into Formula 1 in 1973; they’d got as far as designing a building a tub at that point. So I through my lot in with them, but the project never came to fruition. So sitting on the Grand Prix sidelines, being unable to diversify my skills outside of my sports car commitments was certainly frustrating.

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You would reunite with Ron Tauranac in 1974 with his new F1 venture, the Trojan F1 team…

Having left Brabham shortly after Bernie Ecclestone took over in 1972, Ron teamed up with an Englishman called Peter Agg, who was a Suzuki importer. Agg wanted to go Formula 1 racing to promote Suzuki and his other business ventures, and so the Trojan concern was born and I was signed up.

Tim Schenken, 1974
The Trojan Schenken had the misfortune of driving in 1974 was “never really competitive”.
 

The car was never competitive. It had a basic problem in that it couldn’t put the power down due to (as Ron admitted to me years later) a fundamental design flaw.

And that was really the end of my Formula 1 career. Once you get the chance in Formula 1, if you lose it with poor results or a bad car, it’s hard to get back into it again. But I was achieving much better results in sports cars and in the DRM championship and having a great time.

I was also looking longer term for opportunities and prospects to commit myself to when I stopped racing. By now I was married and a father with our first child, so I was looking at retiring and setting things up for the future.

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Your motorsport career shifted from being a driver to effectively becoming a constructor when you teamed up with former Grand Prix driver Howden Ganley to create the Tiga group, which built countless championship-winning chassis for a host of open-wheel series. Can you tell us about some of the challenges and highlights from this chapter in your motorsport career?

Well, both Howden and I quickly learned that you never reap the same amount of rewards that you invest (in sheer energy) in a project like that. Often we’d get into the office at six in the morning and we wouldn’t get out until ten at night.

Howden and I started out on our own with a draughtsman, and then we started employing people to assemble the cars and so on.

But we also saw an opportunity to run a race team, and I took over that side of the operation after the first year. We basically had drivers coming to us with sponsorship, and we would run them. That was frustrating in many ways, because we also had drivers who didn’t have two pennies to rub together, while there were others with lots of money who could afford to buy a ride who had nowhere the skills or the ambition to be successful. They were just dreamers, and that seemed quite foreign to me.

I remember one time getting a complaint from one team that their car didn’t handle very well, and I went up to Silverstone and clocked a lap-time five seconds faster than their driver could. Two-tenths of a second in motorsport is like night and day, but five seconds was just ridiculous.

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You’ve been part of the Australian motorsport landscape since taking up your role with CAMS, and one of your biggest roles is with the V8 Supercars Championship. What do you believe are some of the biggest changes that the series has undergone over the course of your period with CAMS?

Australia was still a long way from the rest of the world when I returned home after retiring. The way that international motorsport was conducted was very different to how things were done in Australia. An example at the time was the Australian Touring Car Championship, which was just a string of races with the only thing being in common the points that drivers earned for a good result. There was no continuity, no proper thought in the scheduling of the races and even practice and qualifying sessions, for example.

I saw straight away that changes could be made, and I was keen on introducing a more professional approach. CAMS was initially resistant to this.

My role as Race Director came about in the mid-1980s when Australia first hosted a World Championship Formula 1 Grand Prix in Adelaide. Suddenly motorsport in this country blossomed, and I was a part of that in the early days. I was always keen to apply what I’d learned racing overseas and bring it into play here to get some standards set here.

The role with V8 Supercars came along a bit later when the ATCC rebranded, and a large part of that was [V8 Supercars Chairman] Tony Cochrane, who’d dreamed about exploiting the commercial opportunities that were available to the championship. Before him, there wasn’t anyone with the drive and the vision to take the championship to where it is today.

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Conversely, what are some of the areas that V8 Supercars needs to look at to build on the success it has enjoyed?

If you look at the broadcasting for example – in comparison to the DTMs or British Touring Car Championship – we’re way ahead of what rival series offer to fans.

From a sporting point of view, I’d certainly like to see some changes made. Presently, if there’s a situation that prohibits the racing, the current process is to red-flag the race and not restart it; we should in fact look to suspend the race (as is done in Formula 1). But that requires development in our timing technology, and that’s not an instant fix.

I also think we could have a better vehicle tracking system and live feeds from cars into Race Control to assist in speedier decision-making when it comes to penalties – currently there are too many that have to be applied after the race. Our timing systems could certainly be approved as well.

All of these things are on V8 Supercars’ agenda, and it’s a matter of prioritising them and getting them implemented over time.

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I’m interested in how you reconcile your past reputation as being something of a larrikin with your current role as a senior official in managing the safety and conduct of racing drivers. Very few drivers have been kicked out of a Grand Prix on the grounds of starting the race when they weren’t meant to, but that’s something you achieved at your last ever Grand Prix, which was the 1974 US Grand Prix with Lotus. Can you tell us more about that race, and how this compares with your current role?

In his final F1 outing, Schenken was disqualified from the 1974 USA GP for illegally taking to the start when he'd actually not qualified! In those days, you didn’t have the controls and the strictness that’s witnessed in modern motor-racing today. I was called up by Lotus to that race at Watkins Glen, and the Lotus 76 I was piloting was a disaster of a car for the team to the point that Peterson and Ickx were driving the older Lotus 72, which was actually ore competitive despite being well past its use-by date.

I hadn’t qualified for the race, but strangely enough in those days you were allowed to go onto the ground and do the warm-up lap before the race. The reason was that if a car broke down on the lap, then the fastest non-qualifier could start in their place. That didn’t happen, and I pulled up on the back of the grid instead of peeling off into the pits, which was something that Colin Chapman and I had agreed we would do. And I drove some laps before the officials realised that there were one too many cars on the track and they black-flagged me!

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This year’s Australian Grand Prix marked ten years since the death of Graeme Beveridge [the track marshal who was killed in a freak accident at Turn 3 after a collision between Jacques Villeneuve and Ralf Schumacher]. What steps has CAMS taken to improve safety since then?

Our circuits in Australia are very much in line with international standards. I’m on the FIA Circuits Commission, and I would very much say that all of our circuits could receive international FIA licenses. We’re quite advanced in that area, but motor racing is still motor racing, it’s a dangerous sport and it will never be 100% safe. All we can do is minimise risk wherever possible and learn from the mistakes and accidents of the past that cannot be foreseen.

Earlier this year we saw the start-line collision between Karl Reindler and Steve Owen at the V8 race at Barbagello. That both drivers escaped with minimal injuries despite the force of the collision and the cars being full of fuel says a great deal about the safety that is inherently built into motorsport in this country.

The new ‘Car Of The Future’ will, for example, house the fuel tank forward of the rear axle, and that was already in consideration before Reindler’s smash. Certainly it will go a long way to improving driver safety, and this is an ongoing process. If, for example, you were to compare one of today’s cars with one from just ten years ago, the older car looks positively archaic.

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Do you have the opportunity to actually take in the racing in the V8 Supercars championship from up in Race Control, or even after the race weekend itself on replay?

I’ve honestly never been able to afford myself the luxury of appreciating the action as a fan. You’ve got all this information available to you in Race Control: timing screens, TV monitors, tracking systems, and the like. But you don’t actually see the racing, because there are always small problems that are occurring. Most of these aren’t even obvious – it could be a bit falling off a car, or needing to contact a trackside marshal – there’s always something going on. Occasionally I’ll watch a bit of a race in reply, and only then am I able to see a side of the action that I don’t get to appreciate when I’m in Race Control.

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Conversely, are you able to take in the Formula 1 action as a very knowledgeable armchair fan?

I follow the Formula 1 action very closely and I love it, certainly from having been involved in it as a racer and also because I know so many people who are still involved. I’ll watch all I can of it, and for me, there are lessons to be learned from it that we can apply in V8 Supercars.

I’ll occasionally watch other motorsport categories, but certainly not to the same extent, or level of enjoyment, as Formula 1.

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When we spoke on the SENNA Red Carpet, we touched upon your trip to Porto to act as one of the FIA Stewards for the World Touring Car Championship round. Can you tell us a little more about that weekend, such as what you learned and the knowledge you were able to impart?

It’s always a great opportunity to have those experiences. As well as being on the FIA Circuits Commission, I’m also on the FIA Touring Car Commission, and that gives me the opportunity to be a steward at an international round of a touring car championship. This year I was in Portugal, but in previous years I’ve been to Germany, the Czech Republic, Macau, and so on.

To be honest, when I look at how well the V8 Supercars are run, I think there’s more of an opportunity for the WTCC to learn from the V8s. That’s not to say that we can’t learn from them as well.

I’m intimately involved in the work of the stewards given I work alongside the permanent stewards and standards observers who are part of V8 Supercars. One of the standout features of V8 Supercars is to have a Driving Standards Observer, and that makes a huge difference in officiating on-track incidents. Certainly the World Touring Car Championship could do with the same.

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Taking that Porto weekend, for example, there was that contentious collision between Yvan Muller and Robert Huff in the second race as the pair battled for the lead. There were valid arguments from both sides of the fence as to whether a penalty should have been applied [in the end, Huff was not penalised for overtaking Muller when he was forced off the circuit].

That’s an example of how the WTCC would benefit from a permanent driving standards observer, and that’s a feature that will come into play next year. There are lots of line-ball decisions presented to us in Race Control, and unless were absolutely confident that there’s been a breach, we cannot afford to apply a penalty. There’s always a lot of emotion involved in that – even for the spectators – and it’s important that these events don’t get out of hand.

Yvan Muller and Robert Huff, WTCC Porto Yvan Muller and Robert Huff, WTCC Porto Yvan Muller and Robert Huff, WTCC Porto
The World Touring Car Championship will benefit from having a permanent driving standards observer in 2012, Schenken says. He was part of the Stewards’ panel that had to make the difficult decision not to penalise Robert Huff for passing Chevrolet team-mate Alain Menu for the lead during the second race at Porto (above).

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We’ve seen that Formula 1 has brought on a former driver to be part of the FIA Stewards’ panel at each Grand Prix to help improve consistency in decision-making. If given the opportunity, would you take up the invitation if it were ever extended to you?

I’d want to think very carefully about that before I made a decision to accept or decline the invitation. Although I fundamentally believe that the driving standards have changed little since the days when I raced in Formula 1, I believe there’s a big advantage to have stewards who’ve been out of the F1 cockpit for less than ten years.

I’ve learned that, while I might have a view of a particular incident (and this may be in conflict with those who are also on the panel, although it’s invariably the same), I think it’s better to have someone who’s been in that class of racing within the last ten years.

[Images via AutoDiva, Bennett Motorsports, F1-Facts, Histomobile, The Cahier Archive, UCAPUSA]

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Richard Bailey

Editor at RichardsF1.com

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