By Mick Palmer
It has been two decades since Johnny Herbert crossed the finish line at the Nurburgring to take victory in the European Grand Prix. It was one of those races where keeping the car on the road while others fell by the wayside returned an unlikely, yet popular victory.
That one win for the Stewart Grand Prix team is often remembered as being one given from the mouth of a gift horse. Indeed the Ford powered SF3 was not by any means a pace setter, but in those 20 years what is forgotten is that in 1999 the team finished fourth in the championship, qualified well (including scoring a pole position in France,) picked up podiums and got in the mix with the top three teams on numerous occasions. To put it into perspective, in year three – from being a complete start-up – Stewart Grand Prix had won a Formula One race, and were competitive – on merit. It shouldn’t have come as a shock, Stewart Grand Prix had an excellent pedigree in the junior formulae under the guise of Paul Stewart Racing.
At the Silverstone Classic preview day in April Paul Stewart appeared as an ambassador for both the event itself and it’s partner – Alzheimer’s Research UK. With the news in recent months that his father – three times F1 World Champion Sir Jackie – had launched Race Against Dementia after Paul’s mother Helen was diagnosed with the condition, the Motorsport community has become involved in transferring whatever knowledge it can to help research scientists develop a cure.
Like his father Paul Stewart is a driven man who achieved an incredible amount in motor racing. Racer, team boss and F1 impresario look fairly decent on a CV, and with the event being all about the glorious history of our sport I thought it was fitting to ask what car he would love to see run at the classic in the future. The answer might seem obvious in retrospect, but it is an indication of the grounded, humble attitude of Stewart that it took a while to come forth with the obvious. “Bloody hell, that’s a curveball,” he said before it came. “I suppose it’d be a Stewart Grand Prix car, an SF1 or? No, an SF3!”
Even with over 100 race wins at the lower levels it’s no surprise that the F1 car that took the GP spoils would top the list. At the end of that season Stewart (the team and the man) were out of F1 thanks to a Ford buyout that re-branded the team Jaguar, before being sold on to Red Bull to form the basis of the team that dominated the sport between 2010 and 2013.
“I feel a connection,” Stewart states. “I’m proud that the seeds of what we created as Stewart Grand Prix has ultimately allowed Red Bull to be where it is and, the fact that they’re still in Milton Keynes is great. It’s good when you’ve made a decision on something like that, I love it and I wish it even more success. I don’t want to take any claim of any of it, but it does make me feel proud and very happy for them. They’ve done an amazing job.”
As Gene Haas is finding out the F1 political whirlpool isn’t always welcoming to new F1 teams, and it was similar for Stewart when they made the jump up to the top echelon. Haas is owned by a man who has overseen a successful NASCAR outfit and runs a huge international company, and his man on the ground, Gunther Steiner, is experienced in the ways of the sport, for Paul it wasn’t quite the same when he pulled up a chair to face the most powerful men in the sport.
“Was it intimidating?” Stewart wondered. “Probably not because we were so focused and driven by what we were trying to achieve. We couldn’t be intimidated, there was no room for intimidation. It’s like, we’re doing the best job the we can possibly do given our resources and we’re going to put as much energy into the whole factory and everyone in the team.
“ I remember the first Grand Prix in Australia. I was up in the pits and Ron Dennis came down to have a look at our garage and I was like ‘wow’ – and I knew Ron – but I was very proud that he’d took the time to come down and actually see what we had done with his own critical eye. It wasn’t intimidation, but rather feeling like you’re in with the big boys.”
On the surface it seems like it was a comfortable introduction to the sport, but then he quips: “I don’t even talk about these things anymore and it’s funny sitting here and reminiscing and these things come flooding back.
“It wasn’t just the racing, it was so much more. The business side of it, team principal meetings, I suppose that could have been intimidating. You sit at a table at Heathrow terminal four where you’d have the team principal meetings. I made sure I was there early – I was damned if I was going to be the kid who walks in late. You’d get there then you’d sit down then Tom Walkinshaw would arrive with all of his success and reputation, then Ron Dennis would arrive with all of his files all properly prepared and ready for the meeting, Eddie Jordan would arrive in his sort of, well, with his bag of sweets and his pencil stuck behind his ears. Flavio would arrive with all of his phones laid out in front of him, and then Frank Williams would arrive in his wheelchair and would be lifted up and would be doing his exercise, and then Alain Prost walks in to do his thing. Before you knew it there were 20 people for what? Ten teams as we were at the time?
“Then you’re waiting. Then Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone walk in and it’s like, if you understand racing you think yes, intimidating? Possibly in those circumstances! I take back what I said, I was just thinking in more of a performance point of view, but you couldn’t allow yourself to be intimidated.”
At this point Paul Stewart, former racing driver, son of Sir Jackie and race winning team boss has a glint in his eye that is accompanied by a wry smile spreading across his face. He leans back into his chair then spring forward, invigorated by memories of the enormity of his zenith moment.
“I had to raise my hand once when a meeting started off,” he chuckles. “It was a thing about prize money and I was given a piece of paper with a zero on it. I thought ‘oh shit, this is not right’ and I put my hand up and I said ‘excuse me there’s a problem here’ and Bernie said ‘I’m sorry about that, yeah, okay?’ in that Bernie way that closed it off!”
Letting the team go and everything that went with it might not have entirely been in his hands but it is something he is comfortable with. Surprisingly, unlike many drivers, he’s also comfortable in his choice to quit driving when he did.
“It was my decision, that was the main thing, so I never ever regretted it. My father stopped racing, he’d made the decision to stop and I always remember as a child growing up all of these drivers getting killed, so I understood very clearly why he stopped. For me, I had what you’d call limited success, I never looked back.When I was racing I was on it and quick and everything else you know? I qualified third in Macau with Schumacher and everyone else behind me and there were other races where I was battling with Hakkinen, but I didn’t have enough success to justify me presenting myself to Formula One teams and saying ‘here I am I’m ready for you guys.’
“I started at 21 so by that age I was 28. I was being realistic, it was ‘I’ve got to think about my life here.’ I could have become a Formula One driver, I don’t think that would have been too difficult. If I hadn’t delivered it was a bit of a target on my back for sure with the family connection, but I knew I wanted to be successful, I was ambitious and Paul Stewart racing was the platform to use for that, the perfect platform for it. I made a choice, I never missed it.”
The experiences of racing at such a high level meant that Stewart had a slightly different perspective as a team manager in F3000, F3 and other junior series. He understood the pressures that young drivers were under and understood some of the mechanisms that needed to be unravelled when things were going against them. It was a benefit to the drivers and the squad that this empathetic angle was a part of his skillset.
“As a driver myself, and I know through other drivers, it’s a trick to know how to make a driver feel loved if something isn’t happening right. Sometimes it’s the fathers getting involved – for all the right reasons – and dealing with that in a way that was appropriate, that’s a challenge, because at the end of the day you want your team to be successful, and if a driver feels unhappy, you don’t want that to blemish your work.
“For example Ralph Firman when he was racing for us (in Formula Three,) we had a great relationship, but there was a period when he was struggling, his father was not happy with the way things were happening and all the rest of it, but in that case we managed to move on. Obviously Ralph is a great friend nowadays and so you know maybe I played a part in sorting any issue that he had that might have been perceived, or real, and working that out. It’s beneficial to the team and the driver.”
The step from the junior level to the senior level does not mean that a driver is necessarily equipped to deal with the emotional pressures of racing. While Stewart ran a number of drivers in junior formulae who made it through to F1 and IndyCar, it didn’t mean that once he himself made that leap to that level that those responsibilities ended.
“Even in Formula One I was working with the drivers there. Rubens was one in particular. When Rubens had moments where he was unhappy about certain things – again perceived or real – you had to put your arm around him and say ‘right what can we do? Let’s sort this out, what do you need?’ You work it out and next thing you know he’s at the front end of the grid, and you think wow! That’s very rewarding and it’s a part of the job. The ultimate one though, can you imagine what Ron Dennis had to do with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost? Or Mansell and Piquet at Williams. It was child’s play for us compared to what we they doing.
Getting drivers to Formula One has changed dramatically since Paul Stewart Racing ran in the lower categories. The single seat ladder has become a much more homogenised path, especially with Formula Two and the new F3 championships sitting on the bill under F1. The qualities that his team had in getting a bit more of an advantage out of their package in a non-spec era is not as much of a determining factor presently, but Stewart doesn’t lament that change. “You evolve and the commercial realities are the things that change if it doesn’t work financially. We live in a free society and things sometimes sort of fade away,” he says.
The painful rebirth of British F3, and the wide sweeping downgrading of single seat racing outside of the FIA ladder, has had a knock on effect as to how Britain is perceived internationally in driver development. The championship is rebuilding it’s reputation, but the challenges of car development and mastering British circuits as an essential training ground for promotion to the top echelons is no longer a de rigueur factor in building the CV of a driver.
“Formula Three was a great barometer of drivers, so you knew that the guy who’d won the Italian or German F3 championship were good. But the British, and traditionally I think because there is more Formula One teams here, they’d pick the driver that came out of it. You couldn’t become a Formula One driver without having raced in Formula Three, but if you’d won the British Formula Three Championship it was a shoe in to become a Formula One driver.
“I think that’s somewhat more confusing nowadays, and also money has got so large that if you won the F2 championship it doesn’t guarantee a place in F1 the following year, it gives you a great chance of it, but if there’s no spaces there, teams are not going to risk it. Once people would think he’s won the British Formula Three Championship, I’m not letting this guy go, somehow I’m going to tie him up one way or the other, but that’s in the past.”
The Stewart family has left a huge legacy in motor racing. The numerous accolades of Sir Jackie as a formidable F1 champion, and the success of Paul Stewart Racing/Stewart GP are firmly rooted in the history and culture of British racing. We can only hope that the greatest legacy of the Stewart family is yet to come as they try to help motorsport thought processes integrate with medical research in the battle against dementia.
This article originally appeared in issue 3 of Motor Racing UK magazine. The pdf of the full issue is available for free here: