#F1 History: 1991 Tyrrell 020 – So Near…Yet So Far…

Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler: Jennie Mowbray

“We can only do the best we can with what we have. That, after all, is the measure of success: what we do with what we have.”

~Marguerite de Angeli – The Door in the Wall~

In the three brief weeks between the 1991 Monaco and Canadian Grand Prix’s the world of Formula One had not been static. Ferrari’s team manager had been given his marching orders and Benneton designer John Barnard had departed in search of a more congenial work environment. The engineers and drivers at Tyrrell looked on smugly, anticipating that the dissolution and demoralization of their rivals would assist in propelling them further up the championship table. McLaren were going from strength to strength and had a healthy lead, but there were only a handful of points separating the next four teams.


Unbeknown to them they were about to join the ranks of the dispossessed when their designer, Harvey Postlethwaite, failed to show up in Canada as was expected. He had been recruited by Sauber to guide Mercedes Benz’s return to Formula One after a 35 year absence from the pinnacle of motor racing. Postlethwaite, irritated by Ken Tyrrell’s procrastination in discussing his contract renewal that was due at the end of the year, jumped ship. With no points finishes since the first race of the season and Tyrrell continuously going through seasons of financial famine, Postlethwaite decided the time was right as money obviously wasn’t going to be an issue where Mercedes Benz were concerned.


Ken Tyrrell had tasted victory early in his sojourn in Formula One, his first dozen years peppered with fighting for race victories and world championships. Starting with Formula 3 and working his way up he arrived for the 1968 F1 season with driver Jackie Stewart, a cutting-edge Ford Cosworth engine and a Matra chassis. Jackie Stewart won three World Championships in six years, the team’s success continuing even after they parted ways with Matra over a difference of opinion on engines. With backing from Elf and Ford, Derek Gardiner designed the first in house “Tyrrell” and the team went from strength to strength.

Fast forward 20 years and Ken Tyrrell was still there, but now the success of his early days was eluding him. From 1980 the points and podiums had been thin on the ground. Their last win had been in 1983, but for the 1991 season it seemed that it was all going to fall into place once more. 1989 had been the turning point with Michele Alboreto getting on the podium at the Mexican Grand Prix. This was followed by a ground breaking chassis in 1990, Harvey Postlethwaite designing a  high nose which forced the air under the car rather than over it. Jean Alesi had managed two second places and their revolutionary anhedral front wing looked to be the catalyst to catapult them back amount the big boys and fighting for wins…and maybe even the championship. Surely the re-emergence of Tyrrell was within sight.


Tyrell had begun in 1968 with Ford Cosworth engines and unlike the rest of the field had stuck with them through the majority of the turbo era, only using the Renault turbo for a single year due to the banning of normally aspirated engines before returning once again in 1987 to the Ford V8’s. This was about to change in 1991. McLaren were upgrading to Honda V12’s and there were some Honda V10’s available, the engine that had won the last two championships. A change was needed, something to help get them over the final hurdle to race wins, and Tyrrell went for what seemed a sure thing.

Unfortunately, to be successful in Formula One, you need everything to come together at the same time. Slowly but surely the odds against them added up. First they lost their star driver when Jean Alesi was head hunted by Ferrari and given a proposition he couldn’t refuse…even just the offer to drive for Ferrari was difficult for most drivers to refuse. Chief aerodynamicist Jean Claud Migeout was also lured back to the hallowed halls of Ferrari, hoping he could replicate and advance on his Tyrrell achievements.

Then there were difficulties with the design of the 020 chassis.  The 019 had been fully designed by Harvey Postlethwaite, but the 020 was left in the hands of George Ryton, using the aerodynamic outlines already planned by Migeout before he left for Ferrari. However, the Honda engine was heavier than the Ford had been which resulted in a car in which the overall weight balance was intrinsically flawed and no amount of tinkering was going to be able to fix its inherent handling problems.


Next to go was their “chief customer” treatment with Pirelli when they also signed Benneton. Tyrrell had relied on specialised tyre information for their computerized aerodynamic mapping but Benneton had more clout (and probably money!) and this vital information from Pirelli was no longer available. The last straw came when  Harvey Postlethwaite failed to turn up in Canada on May 30…

The 1991 Canadian Grand Prix would be Tyrrell’s last high point before their final decline into oblivion. Stefano Modena dragged his chariot from 9th on the grid into second place, aided by race leader Nigel Mansell having a brain fade on the last lap, somehow managing to stall his engine resulting in his car coming to an abrupt halt.

With the departure of Postlethwaite Modena became disillusioned and his driving never lived up to its predicted potential. Probably the whole team became disillusioned…this was the season where they were to regain their long coveted position at the front of the grid, rather than fighting with the midfield for a mere handful of points. They would only have one more points finish in the remainder of the season, dropping to 6th in the championship…and would never finish higher than that again. Senior Race Engineer Nigel Beresford later said, “Sadly, Tyrrell was doomed because in spite of the talent that passed through the doors there was never the will from the ownership to put the money-finding structure in place to support and keep such people. Nonetheless, all of us who worked there look back on it with nothing but huge affection.”

7 responses to “#F1 History: 1991 Tyrrell 020 – So Near…Yet So Far…

    • Thanks:) Just looked up the footage…it was only Alesi’s 9th race…side by side with Senna going around corners with walls on both sides – amazing!

  1. another great one, Jennie! gotta love ya!. while I prefer the looks of the cars from the ’60’s, these ’91 cars look awesome and bad assed. too bad the newbies of the F1 Strategy group are clueless 🙂

    • ’91 was a year with the prettiest cars in a long time and ever since. To paraphrase the great British philospher Jeremias Clarksonius: “Whenever I see the 1991 7up Jordan, I’m nursing a semi…”

    • The 1960’s cars are my favourites too…but I end up liking every car I write about…even the ones that don’t live up to what was expected of them:)

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