Toleman evolved into a permanent Formula 1 fixture as 'Team Enstone', yet its entry came through a moment of opportunism. Its route to success was also far from conventional

There are many ways that the Toleman team stands out. It was the team that gave Ayrton Senna his Formula 1 debut. It also was the team that would evolve into the modern-day 'Team Enstone', winning multiple championships in Benetton and Renault guises (although Toleman back then wasn’t based in Enstone, rather in Witney). And 37 years ago this week it made its F1 race debut, with Brian Henton driving at Monza’s Italian Grand Prix.

There was little standard about Toleman even then. It had dominated Formula 2 the previous year in 1980 so, while an F1 move for ‘81 seems a natural progression, it was anything but. Instead, it was a manifestation of the notorious FISA versus FOCA 'war' of the time, both sides quarrelling over control of F1.

More Formula 1 history

‘There was a big war going on between the Cosworth-backed teams and the turbo teams effectively, the big manufacturers,’ says Toleman’s team boss Alex Hawkridge, ‘and we were approached by Ferrari and asked what our plans were, and we said “well, we don't really have any firm plans”.

‘We would probably have carried on doing something with [engine-supplier] Brian Hart and maybe would have carried on in F2 for another year. But I felt that we should perhaps use the moment to get into F1 because you can’t always get in, it depends on the politics so much.

The team which entered Formula 1 by chance

‘It wasn't a burning ambition to be in F1 at that time but there was really no other options for us.’

Toleman also chose a much more difficult route than a then-standard route for F1 debutants, which tended to bolt on the Cosworth DFV engine. Instead, Toleman used a turbocharged version of the Hart it had won with in F2; alongside Ferrari, it was only the second turbocharged F1 engine after Renault’s trailblazer.

Toleman’s first F1 season in 1981 was a struggle on-track, taking until September to reach its first race after a series of non-qualifications.

‘We had to go into it very much with a cobbled-up F2 car because of the lack of warning,’ Hawkridge explains, ‘and that meant that the first year we knew we were going to have great difficulties in being competitive. But we would have got in the door of F1 and if we worked on a good car for the next year we could look forward to that. And we gave the team a huge warning about just how tough it was going to be.’

The difficulties didn’t end there. ‘In F1 at that time there were so many teams that they introduced pre-qualifying,’ Hawkridge adds, ‘which meant that you had to turn up a day early and, without any practice, you had to pre-qualify your car. For a team with no F1 experience and with a very poor car that meant that we would never pre-qualify. In fact, we did pre-qualify a couple of times…’

The team which entered Formula 1 by chance

Yet matters within the team were different from what might be expected of a backmarker outfit, especially in commercial terms. ‘We had a deal with Candy who was our main sponsor and we’d been totally frank with them and told them that we thought we would have very poor results,’ Hawkridge outlines.

‘But we felt we could still generate a lot of positive publicity, particularly with our tie-up with Pirelli and the good relationship that we had with their PR department. So we were constantly generating stories with a positive spin on them despite what was going on on the race track.

‘So Candy carried on with us. We didn’t lose a single sponsor, we had about six sponsors in the first year and all of them carried on with us into the second year. It wasn't as bad as it probably seemed from the outside.’

There was another way that the Toleman effort stands out, as even in its embryonic F1 days it contained technical figures who became in time some of F1’s most celebrated, including Rory Byrne and Pat Symonds. And Hawkridge knew their quality without hindsight.

The team which entered Formula 1 by chance

‘The reason we went into F1 was that we had such a strong team,’ he says, ‘although it was quite small in F1 terms the guys that we had I thought were just incredibly gifted.

‘I always believed that we had an incredibly talented engineering team with guys of the calibre of Rory Byrne and Pat Symonds and John Gentry and so on. And the one thing they had in common was that they’d never been involved in F1, so we were learning the hard way if you like. But we seemed to be learning and making ourselves a lot, lot stronger.

‘They weren’t just gifted in the motorsport sense. Rory Byrne, for example, was an industrial chemist by training, he had no engineering qualifications at all and yet he became one of the best engineers ever in F1. Pat had more of an engineering background but he was a complete novice coming from Formula Ford.

‘The Toleman secret was the quality of our people; we just had great people.’

The team which entered Formula 1 by chance

Come 1982, Hawkridge's anticipated improvements to a certain extent arrived, as the car qualified for races more regularly. But the team was discovering further barriers to establishing itself competitively.

‘What we didn't realise when we went into F1 was the grandee manufacturers who we were aligned with and the big teams in the Cosworth side, people like McLaren, they all had deals with all of the component suppliers that they were able to lock us out of getting supplied,’ Hawkridge continues.

‘So, for example, we couldn’t get turbochargers from those that supplied the big teams and we had to use road car turbochargers rather than competition turbochargers. We had a lot of issues like that on the electronic side.

‘We couldn’t get components from Bosch and Marelli, so we started our own relationship with a company called Zytek. In the long run that paid off because we produced better electronics than any of the big manufacturers and when we had Senna that was one of the major breakthroughs that we had.’

Senna at Toleman took three podium finishes in 1984 and the car’s engine management system even attracted envious eyes from Ferrari.

The team which entered Formula 1 by chance

‘It was much tougher in most ways in ‘82 than it was in ‘81 because we still had all the pre-qualifying nonsense to go through,’ Hawkridge continues, ‘and we still didn’t have what we wanted in terms of the quality of components, particularly on the engine side. But we’d learned a lot and we’d made some quite big progress, so it was a better year all around. It was constantly improving.’

Another thing you might associate with Toleman is the 1982 British Grand Prix where, again seeking publicity and sponsors, its cars ran light with half-filled fuel tanks. In a glorious run Derek Warwick got up to second place, passing plenty of prestigious cars, before running dry. Yet the car had qualified genuinely in mid-grid and Warwick didn’t run out until lap 41 of 76, so wasn’t running on fumes.

‘Yes it was [quick],’ Hawkridge adds, ‘Pirelli had a good tyre for Brands Hatch and we knew that already, and I think Brands was always a competitive circuit for us if you look at the subsequent years.’

Warwick also took fastest lap in the previous round at Zandvoort, after pitting to have an errant rear wing replaced. ‘Again it tied in with the Pirelli tyre being particularly good at that track,’ Hawkridge notes. ‘The tyres were a huge influence; perhaps generally they weren't up to level of the Michelins but every now and again, the compounds that we had, we would have one that worked really well.’

The team which entered Formula 1 by chance

Then came 1983, and a big regulation change as ground effect tunnels were out. Toleman hit the ground running with a distinctive new car that Symonds said was a result of reviewing the rules and applying a lot of lateral thinking in interpreting them. It looked a genuine pole contender at the Rio season-opener, though Warwick’s engine failed on his best run. He still started fifth.

‘We'd got on top of an awful lot of supplier problems by ’83,’ Hawkridge adds, ‘it’s a huge battle when you’re qualifying at the back of the grid or not qualifying at all, it’s pretty difficult to motivate your suppliers. But we were making progress and it was clear for anyone to see. We were the beneficiaries in ‘83 of having some better components on the car.’

Warwick scored the team’s first points at Zandvoort, for fourth place, in late August. From then on Warwick scored everywhere. It all reflected the better kit as well as the young team’s learning coming together.

‘It was very much that,’ Hawkridge concludes, ‘that we were getting some reliability which gave us a chance in qualifying [allowing higher turbo boost runs] and gave us a chance in the races. But until you get the reliability from your component suppliers you’re up a gumtree really.’

And for the following year, Senna was signed. Toleman was on its way.

The team which entered Formula 1 by chance

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images