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Tyler James Alexander

January 11, 2016

 I don’t actually remember the first time I ever met Tyler, which is certainly no reflection on his stature with the team, more so of my ‘rabbit in headlights’ type existence in my first few weeks in my new dream job. When we were introduced though and people began relaying the stories and tales of his time at McLaren, it quickly became clear he was someone who had respect.

I can’t talk with too much credibility about the Tyler of the old days, I’m sure many of us have read the incredible tributes and obituaries, if not either of his two brilliant books. What I can do is talk about the Tyler I knew, the guy who inspired me, taught me, rolled his eyes over the top of his glasses at me when I did something stupid…again, and the the guy who made me laugh until I cried on regular occasions in amongst the high pressure, often chaotic, environment that was a Formula One race garage.

Tyler, or TJ, as he was known to most of us, was a hugely important figure in the history of our team. I can liken him to an elder statesman to whom the younger ones in our group, as I was once, would turn to for advice or just to hear a fascinating tale of what life used to be like for the Grand Prix mechanics of old. Figures like him are important in enclosed, insular worlds like the Formula One fraternity, much like tribal elders play a crucial role in being the much revered link between old and new, he was our own encyclopaedia of knowledge and experience.

Where TJ differed from many a man in his 60’s, as he was when I first encountered him, was that this incredibly fast moving, hi-tech world of F1 had far from passed him by and left him in a distant era. His role as Systems Engineer to Mika, Kimi, Fernando and others meant he worked at the cutting edge of the complex electronic and hydraulic technologies on the car, a side of things that, at times, baffled the hell out of me. Despite understanding them, he did still think the levels of complexity were ridiculously over the top and that real racing could be done from anywhere with a hammer and an adjustable spanner.

Everything he did though, he did with highly structured accuracy. Working to his own checklists, not allowing anything or anyone to move until he was ready. Checking, double and triple checking that everything was as it should be before the car was set up, fired up or even cleaned up. 

I saw someone recently describe him as “the nicest grumpy bloke I knew”, which made me laugh. His disdain for anyone or anything that didn’t work properly, or to his liking, was well known. It was largely well known because when he went ‘off on one’ about something, the whole garage knew about it. It wasn’t so much that he would shout and scream, but more that everyone would stop what they were doing and listen to, what was almost certainly going to be, a hilarious rant.

It must be almost possible to collate a book from the sayings and phrases Tyler used to come up with when managing to so eloquently express his disgust or disbelief at certain situations. As I describe a few of these now, it’s important to try and read his quotes in the deep, gruff, slow, grumpy American twang that those who knew him remember so well.

One of my absolute favourites was from 2008, Lewis’ title deciding weekend. In the build up to the race the team had rightly decided the best way to approach the GP was not to change things, despite only needing to finish 5th to win. Inevitably over the weekend, amongst huge tension, engineers got nervous and changed some gearbox parts, thinking they’d be better. On Sunday morning, the guys on that car had gearbox issues during the engine fire up and a concerned crowd including Ron, Paddy Lowe, Pat Fry and others gathered around to desperately scratch heads.

– TJ walked up to me, peering over his glasses and shaking his head and said “You know what Elvis? You spend all year wiping your ass with one hand, half way through switch to wiping it with the other, it’s no wonder you’re gonna get shit on your thumb!” He turned and walked away and I watched his shoulders rise and fall as he was clearly chuckling to himself.

When the team moved into the hugely impressive McLaren Technology Centre with all it’s glitz and glamour a mile or so from our old factory, TJ was less than impressed. He just wanted to get on with racing and found the whole thing a distraction he could do without. He was a creature of habit and finding his way around the enormous new facility or waiting for a sensor to decide when you wanted to turn on the taps in the toilets, rather than him turning a handle when he was ready, frustrated the hell out of him for a while. I remember trying to fire up a car at MTC for the first time. A crowd of people gathered in attendance, we fitted the fancy new exhaust extractor unit emerging from the shiny tiled floor and it didn’t work. Health and Safety prevented us from starting the engine without it and Tyler became more and more annoyed until he burst.

– “Jesus fucking Christ! The only thing in this Goddam building that’s supposed to suck, doesn’t!” The race bays erupted into laughter and Tyler just shook his head in disbelief.

Sometimes the size of the modern team made things overly complicated in his view. Back in the day if something needed doing or a decision needed making he’d just get on and do it. So at one race, during a particularly lengthy discussion between a group of engineers and management over the intercom, about whether or not to fit wet tyres at the next pitstop, TJ just had to interject.

– “Jesus Christ here…why don’t you guys chuck a piece of string out the front of the Goddam garage, drag it back in, if it’s wet you need wet tyres…Jesus Christ.”

I could go on all day with his off the cuff sayings and reactions, but they’ll definitely keep me smiling for many years to come.

He was just a good guy who gave his heart and soul to win races. Some of my proudest moments at McLaren were as part of the close knit team that formed the crew for Kimi’s car between 2002 and 2006 and Tyler was very much a part of that. Him and I formed a close bond throughout that time and I looked up to him immensely. It’s not often in any line of work you get the opportunity to work with someone who’s such an endless resource of knowledge and unrivalled experience and also a great friend.

In late 2013 I was genuinely honoured that he, and his lovely partner Jane, made the effort to come to my wedding in East London. Shortly afterwards he fell seriously ill, which ultimately led to his incredibly sad passing. Despite not having seen him for a few months because of extensive work travel, I miss him already and will continue to do so.

There are definitely worse mottos to live life by than Tyler’s…
”It’s not that life is too short; it’s that death is too long. So best get on with things.”

Marc Priestley

@f1elvis

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From → Formula One

2 Comments
  1. Jono Brookes permalink

    Well said Elvis. I remember all the Tyler moments, he is a legend.

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