TYLER ALEXANDER: A LEGEND LOST
Veteran McLaren director Tyler Alexander died last week, at the aged of 75.
One of motorsport’s old-school pioneers, American Alexander was one of Bruce McLaren’s trusted sheriffs at the very beginning of the Kiwi driver and engineer’s burgeoning team in the early-1960s. Working closely with fellow American Teddy Mayer and McLaren’s countryman Phil Kerr, Alexander would help transform the UK-based start-up squad into winners in Formula 1, Indycar and Can-Am.
As happy machining aluminium and loading tyres into trucks as he was overseeing wins in World Championship Grands Prix, Indianapolis 500s and Can-Am races, Alexander was one of the very best of what’s now an increasingly rare breed.
From humble mechanic to team director, with the skill and enthusiasm to muck in and get things done at every level, Alexander was a no-nonsense grafter, with an irreverence and sense of humour that endeared him to those around him.
Hailing from Massachusetts, Alexander came to the UK with his legal-eagle friend Mayer, the pair soon joining forces with McLaren and Kerr. Starting in 1963 as chief mechanic, he quickly rose to director level and during the next 20 years witnessed the many highs and lows of life in motorsport at that time: joining the Formula 1 family in 1966 (winning for the first time at Spa in ’68), suffering the loss of the team’s inspiring and visionary owner in a testing accident at Goodwood in ’70, bouncing back to complete a run of five straight Can-Am titles with the brutal and beautiful Group 7 M8s, securing two Indy 500 wins, and winning F1 titles with Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt.
A second stint in America, alongside Mayer in Indycar, after a McLaren team take-over by Ron Dennis, time with BMW in the IMSA sportscar series, followed by a spell with the short-lived US Beatrice F1 team in the mid-’80s, accounted for a period of six or so years when he was not seen in a McLaren shirt. Dennis put that right, in 1989, by bringing Alexander back under his Woking wing. And there he remained until retiring at the end of 2008, the year in which Lewis Hamilton secured his first drivers’ title.
But Tyler Alexander didn’t really ‘retire’, as he was a regular visitor to races during the second decade of the millennium. The affection felt for a man who spent almost half a century at the top of his game was warmly expressed following the news that he had died last Thursday.
‘Right now, there’s every chance that Tyler Alexander is reminiscing somewhere ‘up there’ with Bruce, Teddy and Phil.’
I only met him on two occasions – the first some years ago in a supermarket local to us both. He seemed delighted to be recognised by a stranger while choosing his Corn Flakes and appreciated my wanting to talk shop for a minute or two. It was one of those impromptu moments for which I had no time to prepare, but just couldn’t let pass me by.
Just last April our brief retail interlude was reprised at Sir Jackie Stewart’s Grand Prix Mechanics’ Trust lunch at Williams’ F1 HQ, at which he made a brief but good-humoured appearance despite poor health. To be in the presence of these unsung heroes, many of them like Alexander with a lifetime of epic tales of adventure and derring-do, was humbling in the extreme.
Right now, there’s every chance that Tyler Alexander is reminiscing somewhere ‘up there’ with Bruce, Teddy and Phil, doubtless joined by fellow fallen McLaren heroes Hunt, Peter Revson, Denny Hulme and Ayrton Senna.
FAREWELL TO THE FIRST LADY OF F1
Italian Maria Teresa de Filippis, who died on Saturday at the age of 89, had a unique distinction in Formula 1: she was its first lady racer.
Born in Naples in 1926, de Filippis took up racing after disparaging suggestions about her ability behind the wheel from her two brothers. She soon proved them wrong by showing a good turn of speed in local Italian events, including finishing second in the national sportscar series in 1954.
Picked up by Maserati’s factory squad, she competed in a variety of events, a highlight being her runner-up slot aboard a 200S in a sportscar race supporting the Naples Grand Prix in 1956.
Just two years later she landed a deal to race at the very top – in F1. And, of all places, on the streets of Monte Carlo. She failed to qualify Maserati’s iconic 250F, but made amends next time out at Spa. Although she was more than 30 seconds adrift of the pole sitter, Ferrari’s Mike Hawthorn, she lined up 19th and last for 24 laps of the fearsome Belgian rollercoaster. That she finished 10th, only two laps behind the winner, Vanwall ace Tony Brooks, was testament to her bravery and right to be mixing it with her male rivals.
De Filippis raced in F1 twice more that year, in Portugal and at home at Monza, retiring both times with engine failure. Her dream of cutting it at the top of motorsport was ended when she failed to qualify a Porsche RSK at Monaco the following year. When Porsche top dog Jean Behra was killed in a sportscar race supporting the German GP a few months later, she walked away from the sport all together.
Twenty years later, having raised a family, de Fillipis was seen in motorsport once more, this time after accepting an invitation to join the Club Internationale des Anciens Pilotes for retired racers. In the late 1990s, she would become its low-profile but highly thought of vice president.
I had the pleasure of capturing a few moments on tape with this most elegant and fascinating lady, at the Goodwood Revival in 2011. Then well into her eighties, she reflected slowly and affectionately on her time in a golden era of motorsport, modestly explaining that she had not been good enough to make a success of it, but had had a lot of fun trying. I shudder now as I recall her final thought that sunny September afternoon in the Goodwood paddock, which came after a considered pause and a wistful look into the distance: ‘I lost too many friends…’
It’s worth remembering that since de Filippis’ efforts nearly 60 years ago, only one more lady racer (fellow Italian Lella Lombardi) has competed in a World Championship Grand Prix.
Maria Teresa de Filippis: pure class.
Images courtesy of LAT