Gary Anderson is a big man, but even he looks slightly lost in the cavernous workshop of the Jordan Formula One team’s Silverstone headquarters.
Today the workshop is quiet, with an atmosphere of calm after the storm and frantic activity that has only just moved on. The void was left by Jordan’s 2003 car, the EJ13, which departed the previous day for a crucial two weeks of testing in Valencia ahead of the first grand prix of the season in Melbourne on 9 March.
Anderson, Jordan’s director of race and test engineering, will follow within hours. Much as he loves his job, the genial Northern Irishman sometimes wonders how he continues to meet its punishing demands after more than a decade at the top of F1 and 30 years in motorsport.
Motor racing is often held up as a goal for young engineers to aspire to. But away from the race-day thrills, and people’s idea that it’s all glitz , girls and glamour is an unrelenting pressure for technical perfection, said Anderson. ‘There are a lot of young engineers we get in the sport who have a problem with the pace. It doesn’t stop and it doesn’t get any easier.’
In Spain he and his team will work a minimum of 16 hours a day – and sometimes as long as 20 – for two solid weeks. ‘It’s very, very hard work and people have to decide early on whether they want to dedicate their life to it or just do it as a job. There isn’t much room for the latter.’
Anderson is firmly in the former camp. In the nearby reception area sits the 191, Jordan’s first car, built by Anderson more than a decade ago after flamboyant team boss Eddie Jordan poached his fellow Irishman from Formula 3000.
By then Anderson was already well established in motorsport – not bad for a Coleraine lad who served a mechanical engineering apprenticeship at the local Massey Ferguson tractor plant and came to England ‘to see what was about’.
Anderson worked his way up from mechanic to racing car technical wizard, a difficult enough feat then and one that seems almost inconceivable now. He is a link with the sport’s past, in the days when an entire F1 team would travel in a camper van with Derrick Walker.
Walker – now a successful team boss in the US – has known Anderson from his earliest days in motorsport with Brabham. ‘When you look at where he started from and the job he is doing now, you can’t doubt his ability. But I suspect what has kept him going through some pretty stressful jobs is his enthusiasm,’ he said.
According to Walker, Anderson is ‘a racer’ at heart, motivated by a ‘passion for the sport that has dominated his life’. During Anderson’s short-lived spell on the US circuit Walker tried to persuade his old colleague to remain in the US ‘and live happily every after. But I think the pull of F1 was too great.’
But like most F1 people Anderson prefers looking forward to back, and 2003 could be the most significant in his sport’s recent history. Stung by accusations that its races have become a computer-controlled procession, F1 will phase in a series of technical restrictions designed to make it more of a contest.
Electronic aids that allow teams to fine-tune their cars from the pits will be outlawed. Traction control, launch control and fully automatic gearboxes will also go, and teams will face new restrictions on testing and use of spare cars. The idea is to allow middle-ranking teams such as Jordan to compete with the dominant, well-funded trio of McLaren, Williams and in particular Ferrari.
Anderson is broadly supportive, although he cautions against any expectation that the changes will see Italy’s red race-winning machine toppled overnight. He still expects Ferrari and the mercurial Michael Schumacher to claim top spot, although ‘things may be a little tighter’. If Jordan can advance on a respectable if unspectacular sixth place in the constructors’ championship that will represent progress, he feels.
The new regulations, said Anderson, are about rediscovering the thrills F1 possessed in his early days in motorsport. ‘This is about trying to bring F1 back to something the public understands. The further we took the technology away from everyday reality, the smaller the percentage of people became who were actually interested in it. What they want to see is a good driver against a good driver. That has been taken away, and it shouldn’t have been.’
In F1 the interdependence between driver and engineer is total, and Anderson respects their job as difficult and dangerous.
In the two Jordan cars this year will be Giancarlo Fisichella, the team’s Italian number one, and Ralph Firman, a Norfolk-born 27-year-old F1 rookie. Anderson is generous in his praise of Fisichella, whom he rates as one of the best drivers in the world, and he thinks Firman has ‘a fantastic pedigree.’
The phrase ‘no-nonsense character’ could have been coined especially for Anderson, and you sense that he has little time for prima donnas. ‘It’s a bit difficult when some drivers arrive with this entourage of people in tow – managers, helpers and the like,’ he said.
According to Anderson, Jordan’s number-two driver last season, Takuma Sato – since replaced by Firman – was a case in point. ‘The people who hung around Takuma last year were too much for me.’
The Northern Irishman is clearly not afraid to have a quiet word if he thinks off-circuit distractions are hampering the team, and there are rumours within the sport of some legendary bust-ups between Anderson and errant drivers.
Rubens Barrichello – now Schumacher’s Ferrari team-mate and runner-up to the German in last year’s championship – was also conspicuous for his hangers-on when Anderson worked with him at Jordan. ‘I told Rubens that he wasn’t deciding what to have for breakfast, he had other people to do it for him,’ recalled Anderson. ‘But when he was on the race track he had to make decisions every second.’
Anderson suggested that Barrichello should ditch his retinue and the Brazilian heeded the advice. ‘He actually came and found me last year and thanked me for that,’ he said.
Anderson’s three decades in motorsport mean he has seen many racers, engineers and team bosses come and go. ‘There are very few people who have been doing it that length of time. You’re probably talking no more than 20 or so.’
Anderson’s fellow veterans include many of F1’s biggest names. Among them are Bernie Ecclestone, now the sport’s mega-rich supremo, who gave Anderson his first full-time job at Brabham, and his old pal Jordan who persuaded him to rejoin his team last year after a three-year absence.
Anderson left Jordan in 1998 to join the team founded by Sir Jackie Stewart, another member of his formidable F1 contacts book. What seemed like a smart move to an up-and-coming outfit turned into a distinctly rocky patch in Anderson’s career when Stewart sold out to Ford, creating the team that is now Jaguar Racing.
‘When Ford management took over it wasn’t such a good place to be,’ said Anderson. ‘After a few, how shall we say, heated discussions they didn’t need my services any more.’
At Jaguar Anderson felt buried under paperwork and red tape. Back at Jordan with his compact technical team of about 40 he can resume the hands-on role he prefers. ‘I don’t like not being involved,’ he said. ‘We’re doing an oil tank test, and I’ll be out there as soon as this is finished to go and look at it – not waiting for a 10-page report to land on my desk.’
But he knows the final judgment of his work will come throughout the season in front of an audience of millions.
Budgets are tight – Jordan will start the 2003 season without a title sponsor – and other teams have massively bigger resources. ‘We won’t really know how we’ve done until we get to Melbourne,’ he admitted. ‘But if a smaller team like us can give the big boys a run for their money, that’s real job satisfaction.’