Interview: Peter Windsor on Jim Clark, Williams and the early years

ImagePeter Windsor spent his early years in Australia and it was there, his love affair with all things Motorsport began. In the 1970s, inspired by Jim Clark, Peter then set his sights on journalism. Having worked at Williams and Ferrari in the past, Peter now concentrates on his commitments to ‘F1 Racing Magazine’ and his weekly YouTube show, ‘The Racer’s Edge’.

As our interview began, it became clear that  Peter’s childhood in Australia was a source of great inspiration to him. “I was lucky to have grown up in Australia. It is a nice country to grow up in if you’re a kid”, especially during the time of the short-lived Tasman championship.

The series first arrived in Australia in 1964 when a twelve-year-old Peter Windsor got his first real taste of Formula 1. Some top teams from the sport, including Cooper and Lotus, arrived during the off-season for the event. “It was absolutely brilliant”, he reminisces with a childlike enthusiasm. “I was not old enough to understand why, in 1964, Lotus weren’t there. In 1965, they were there but with only one car”. At the helm of the Lotus was Peter’s favourite driver, the one man who inspired him the most, Scotland’s Jim Clark. “Jim Clark was a great driver to follow. The series had a huge impression”.

Not only did ‘Jimmy’, as Peter often referred to him, introduce him to the incomparable excitement of Motorsport, he also inspired his career choice.

That same year, Peter would travel to school by ferry and browse the bookstands during his wait.“I saw one book called “Jim Clark At The Wheel’, it was the first book I ever got.” Peter quickly raised the funds to feel that bit closer to his racing hero.I was completely captivated by the smell of the book, the look of the words. Everything.”  Jim Clark would later sign his copy.

“He was the most important figure in my life besides my family”, he explained. It seems, as humble as Jim Clark was, he was responsible for gifting Peter with the love of motor racing which inspires his work everyday.

After reading Jim’s autobiography, a teenage Peter, “was driven to be a part of the motor racing world, though I could argue I have not made it at all”, he says with a modest laugh. “I look forward to Monday mornings as much as Sunday mornings. I am lucky in that respect”.

As Peter grew older, now fully influenced by his previous experiences, the more attractive journalism became. Now he just had to make it happen.

peterwithfrank“When I came over to Europe and began to write at a consistent rate, it wasn’t long before I was friends with the people I was writing about”. A close friendship began with racing driver, Carlos Reutemann. “It was not a driver/manager relationship”, he was quick to note.

After guiding Reutemann through a big drama at Brabham and into the safe hands of Ferrari, Peter began working with Williams F1 on a full time basis when he became Sponsorship Manager in 1985.

“If you look at most F1 teams today, they have Brand Managers. They look after specific sponsors. It may be one or two sponsors considering the limitations of the contract and the sponsor’s practicalities.” Peter explained that contract renewal was the most important aspect as it would keep the team’s prospects bright.

Peter was in charge of public affairs including graphics, logos and clothing. “The 1985 car was very different graphically speaking. We had the dark blue Mobil stripe at an angle from front to rear, the yellow on the top and the red and white of Canon on the lower half. That was my design. That year, we had six main sponsors on the car”.

Peter’s voice was, understandably, one of pride.

“Teams are beggers”, he admits with a mixture of laughter and honesty. Peter explained that, ideally, only one logo is present on the car but that is not a realistic target as Formula 1’s expenses appear to increase year on year. The concept of one sponsor like Yardley-McLaren, for example, just wouldn’t be realistic today.

We would think, let’s break the car down. We can sell the top of the engine cover for 4 million, the rear wing for 8 million and the front wing end plates for 5 million”. Juggling sponsors could also prove problematic at times according to which sector they belonged to.

I don’t envy anyone on that side of the fence right now”, he confesses.

After leaving Williams in  1990 to Ferrari, he later returned to the British outfit as Team Manager. “I was Test Team Manager as well. It was completely separate and had its own mechanics and transporters”. This meant Peter was leading “a team of 60 odd people” and was in charge of “hiring/firing, budget, logistics, problem predicting and problem solving.

Operations are probably more streamlined now”, Peter confesses.  Peter performed his role to this high standard because his friendship with Sir Frank was so close. Several times, Peter proposed that the motor home towed the cleaning equipment behind it. “Frank couldn’t stand this but nowadays this is completely normal. Lots of it was push and pull but equally trying to do what I felt was right”.

He gave me one example which simply explained how logistically challenging this particular role can be. Imagine what you would do in this scenario. “What time do the mechanics have lunch if they need to do an unscheduled engine change on Nigel’s car?” Such were the challenges he often faced.

nigel1986Nigel Mansell was a driver Peter knew as early as his Formula Ford days and they would later become a successful partnership at Williams. “Nigel was a driver I had known since 1978. For 6 or 7 years I spent 80% of my time trying to get Nigel in a great racing car. I wrote a million letters for sponsors and eventually it all happened. I understood him very well”. 

In addition to his other commitments Peter “was always seeking the best situation for him at any given moment”.  The real responsibility of this role soon became abundantly clear to me – drivers simply cannot survive without the dedication and belief of those around them.

Nigel became a further topic of conversation as Peter took me on a trip down memory lane, describing two unforgettable moments between the two.  

“Nigel was always larger than life”, Peter laughed once more. Before moving to the Isle of Man, Nigel bought a house in the Midlands where he was a member of the local golf club. They were shutting down the club house for renovations and the water feature was due to be drained.

“His immediate reaction was to wonder what will happen to the swans so he grabbed two swans and put them in the boot of his Jaguar”. Nigel looked after these swans for a few months until the club house had been restored.  “That is a story that always tickled me”.

In another detailed anecdote, a different side to their friendship was shown within which a much more serious Nigel emerged. “On the Isle of Man one time, we were driving back to his house and came to an accident scene where there had been a head on collision. It was a bit shocking and the dust was still settling.”

Nigel immediately checked the pulse of one driver before discovering there had been a fatality. “Immediately he was giving orders and remained in control. I could see why this guy, even when at Lotus and not taken seriously, wouldn’t have felt pressure. He has confidence and leadership built in his DNA. I remember feeling massively impressed. If there’s a war, I want Nigel Mansell on my side, thank you very much”.

What Peter described was Nigel’s complete in built belief in his ability. “He knew he was as good as anyone even in his early racing years; he was absolutely brilliant on the delicate corners. It is a shame he won the championship at a time that Williams gave him a good car. He could have won before that. He joined Formula 1 in 1980 but he was only rated as a GP winner in 1985”.

If there is one person’s opinion I will trust wholeheartedly, it would have to be Peter’s.

I then wondered whether other connections throughout his career had left a long lasting impression. “Jackie Stewart is always a thrill. I could talk to Jackie all day about motor racing. I enjoy talking to Nigel about anything and Rob Wilson – he is always learning himself. His ability to understand the management of the car is second to none on the planet”.

Enzo Ferrari, Gilles Villenueve, Tom Pryce and Enrique Scalabroni (“the best mechanic out there”), Jim Hall, Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti also appeared on a lengthy list. Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton (“just him the driver, I could never get enough of”),Kimi Raikkonen “is a good laugh and always says something intelligent”, Romain Grosjean for his “pure racing”, Mark Webber’s dogged determination and Patrick Depailler’s off track personality, also earned a  place on the list.

peterwindsor2I was astounded Peter’s level of humility despite decades at the forefront of Motorsport. Throughout the interview, I couldn’t help but think where he may have learnt this from – one driver he knew very well. Jim Clark.

For Peter, it always comes back to his inspiration, Jimmy from Fife.

This is the first of a two part interview with Peter Windsor in his feature for the ‘From the Pit Lane’ series. In part two, he will be discussing modern Formula 1, the differences between then and now and how he remembers Ayrton Senna.

I would like to thank Peter again for his time. To find out more about Peter, and to see his work, click on the links below.
A blog about life – and the racing life: http://peterwindsor.com/
The Racer’s Edge – http://www.youtube.com/user/peterwindsor

Photos are courtesy of Peter Windsor and Williams F1.

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