West Surrey Engineering Group
West Surrey Racing
The racing activities of West Surrey Engineering commenced in early 1979 as a result of owner Mike Cox's personal interest in the sport. Having previously built his own sports car as a hobby, Mike decided to expand his horizons and set up a Formula Ford 1600 team, running a driver named Alan Timpany.
'Mike Cox Racing', as the team was initially known, attracted little public attention in those early days although the communal spirit that had arisen within the company was the most notable gain from the year's activities. In early 1980, as the team prepared for its second season, Alan Timpany told Mike of the plight of a friend of his who was without a drive for the coming season. As a result, Mike decided to expand the team to run a second car for this newcomer - an enthusiastic young man named Jonathan Palmer .
Jonathan, like most FF1600 drivers, was totally convinced of his ability to become a Grand Prix driver. The main difference was that whilst most were struggling to find enough money to go racing, Jonathan was also working something like a hundred hours a week as a houseman at Brighton's General Hospital - training to become a Doctor! Now renamed the 'West Surrey Engineering Racing Team', and running two Van Diemen RF80s in the Company's new corporate colours of white, red and blue, the team began the reputation for prestigious presentation that was to become their future hallmark. Jonathan's medical training prevented a more successful assault on the championships (he qualified as a Doctor during the season!) but results were more than credible and he was the highest based Briton in the end of season Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in Kent.
By this time Mike had already seen enough to be convinced that Jonathan had what it takes to become a Grand Prix driver and began to plan the next logical progression for both WSE and Jonathan - Formula Three! It was agreed that 'JP' would search for sponsorship to fund the operation while Mike would set the team up to be able to compete in Formula Three. At the time WSE were in the process of moving across Ashford to the much larger premises at Enterprise House and there was ample space to base the team totally within the confines of the parent company. Then, whilst present day McLaren supremo Ron Dennis was taking Swedish driver Stefan Johannson to the 1980 F3 crown in a leased Ralt RT3, Mike was negotiating to buy it from the manufacturer. Having scooped the car of the year, he then began to persuade the man who was engineer on Johannson's car, Kiwi Dick Bennett, to run the restructured team.
Bennett had an enviable reputation for preparation and already had a number of championships, with drivers such as Keke Rosberg and Niki Lauda, to his credit as well as Johannson's new F3 crown which was taken by a single point after the team had won the last four races of the season. When Dick returned home to New Zealand for Christmas, discussions continued until Dick finally agreed to join the team during a trans-global telephone conversation. Sponsorship, however, was proving a much bigger problem than envisaged. WSE was not able to support the high cost of a Formula 3 season and, under the banner of 'West Surrey Racing' a `Jonathan Palmer Support Gear' promotion was launched (the shortened name was actually registered just for this use). Actual cash raised was not significant but the awareness of public support was considerable. Whilst team confidence was good, nobody could have predicted the sensational start WSE made in the new formula. Jonathan won the first four races of the season and eventually took the title with eight outright victories, scoring points in all finishes despite running on a budget substantially less than any of the established teams.
Although WSE was now a highly successful F3 team, Mike knew that the partnership with JP could not progress any further. If the team was to continue then he would have to capitalise on his considerable financial investment and evolve the team into a commercial venture. Soon, with Dick Bennett as Team Manager, the team was relaunched as 'West Surrey Racing', and the quest began to find a new driver.
1982 saw Argentinean driver Enrique Mansilla become the team's driver which also resulted in a certain Juan Manuel Fangio visiting the WSE premises. However, the advent of The Falklands War was to cause severe financial problems and, eventually, West Surrey Engineering stepped back into the breech to provide sponsorship during the final stages of the season. The move proved positive as Mansilla was to develop into one of the best drivers in F3 and the team almost retained the F3 crown, being piped by a mere two points!
For 1983 the team signed another rising star from South America. The results of 1982 had convinced a young Brazilian that he could win the 1983 F3 Championship in a WSR car. 1983 became the year of Ayrton Senna! For the first half of the season, the Senna/WSR combination had a mesmeric effect on the opposition. Winning the first nine races Senna took multiple World Champion Nelson Piquet's record of consecutive victories in the formula. A hard challenge by Britain's Martin Brundle then followed which took the championship to the final round where a WSR development gave Senna the crucial edge to take the title. The team also travelled to the Portuguese colony of Macau for the inaugural Formula 3 GP where Senna took the trophy by winning both heats.
In 1984 another Brazilian, Roberto Moreno, was signed as number one driver as the team expanded to run a second car for Briton Gary Evans. However, a last minute offer from Ron Tauranac for Roberto to drive the second works Ralt F2 car saw WSR waiver it's contractual rights and leave the team without a number one driver until Spanish F3 Champion Carlos Abella stepped in after the season had commenced. However, by WSR standards, the season was disappointing with the team failing to gain a victory in a season for the first time since 1979.
1985 continued the Brazilian connection, with Mauricio Gugelmin joining WSR. Consistent from the start of the season, Gugelmin was always close to the championship leader. Engineering expertise proved crucial when a design fault on one of the car's front suspension components was identified, and then modified, by West Surrey Engineering. Gugelmin was the pacesetter by the end of the season, taking the title at the final round. Another trip to Macau saw the team take its second GP victory in three years.
1986 saw Canadian Bertrand Fabi sign for the team alongside novice Damon Hill as the team began to mount another strong challenge for the championship. However, tragedy was to strike the team in February when Fabi was killed in pre-season testing at Goodwood. Whilst the team's very continuance was initially in doubt, Damon Hill was eventually transferred to Murray Taylor Racing as Formula 3 plans were shelved and the team made a last minute move up to Formula 3000 and a renewed association with Mauricio Gugelmin. Unfortunately the team was lacking in testing and experience for the new formula. Although performances improved throughout the year, results were not spectacular and the team hired a Formula 3 car to participate in the Macau GP where a second place was achieved despite having no experience of Formula 3 racing for a season. The decision was then made to return to Formula 3 for 1987.
Belgian Bertrand Gachot became the team's first Marlboro supported driver. In a year that saw engines play a crucial part in the category, initial development of the team's Alfa Romeo engines saw Johnny Herbert open up a decisive gap at the top of the table. By May, however, the Alfa was a match for anything and the Gachot/WSR combination scored three wins and finished runners up in the championship. Austrian driver Roland Ratzenburger piloted a second car for the latter part of the season and took the laurels in the support race for the German Truck GP.
1988 saw WSR recruit double Formula Ford champion Eddie Irvine as number one driver. Although unlucky not to win any races, he proved very competitive and finished a close fifth in the intensely fought championship. Travelling to Macau he won the first heat but was taken out of the second heat during an accident.
1989 saw the team switch to Japanese Mugen Honda engines, fielding Vauxhall-Lotus Champion Allen McNish and Formula Ford Champion Derek Higgins. The Championship was fraught with controversy and although initially declared the Champion, McNish was eventually relegated to second place as engine legality problems were cleared up. Higgins finished a credible third in the championship that saw the first ever WSR first and second placing in the Easter meeting at Thruxton.
The new decade brought further expansion and saw WSR running a three-car team. The 1990 line up comprised the young Finnish driver Mika Hakkinen in the Marlboro backed car, Brazilian Christian Fittipaldi backed by Philishave and Japanese driver Minouru Tanaka backed by Leyton House completing the trio. Flying Finn Mika Hakkinen dominated the championship with nine wins, eleven fastest laps and five lap records. To top this winning season, WSR and Hakkinen also impressed in Europe by winning at Imola by seven seconds against the top flight Italians and then making a clean sweep of pole, first place and lap record at Hockenhein against the best that Germany could offer. Both events being the teams first visit to the circuits. The young Fittipaldi finished an extremely credible fourth in the championship. Out in Macau Hakkinen was all set to take the laurels when a collision with eventual winner Michael Schumacher took him out.
The 1991 line up consisted of Brazilian Rubens Barichello sponsored by Arisco, Spaniard Jordi Gene and yet another Brazilian Pedro Paulo Diniz, both in Marlboro sponsored cars. Barichello was to win five races on the way to WSR's fifth (and second consecutive) championship. Barichello and Gene then travelled to the Far East for the Macau and Fuji events but were both unfortunately involved in accidents and forced to retire. However, whereas Barichello's car was beyond repair, Gene's was repaired in time to allow him to win the Japanese race.
In 1992 the team became an independent company and, under the guidance of new Managing Director Dick Bennett, continued to set the standards in Formula 3 for the next few years. In 1996, Formula Three activities were shelved in favour of a move to the British Touring Car Championship where the team remains to this day, currently running BMW cars.