12 February 2018
Fascinating F1 Fact: 76
If you were born in 1957 and your name was John Walton, it was almost inevitable in the 1970s that you were going to end up with the nickname John-Boy. The problem was that there was a popular CBS television series called The Waltons, which was sold all over the world. The lead character was called John-Boy Walton, who lived in a folksy world of backwoods Virginia in the 1930s, where a fictional Baptist family operated a lumber mill, went to church, held hands when they blessed their food and called their father “sir”. For reasons that perhaps one day social scientists will be able to explain, The Waltons became a massive international hit, drawing audiences of up 50 million every week… perhaps because it felt safe in a world when nothing seemed certain any longer.
Formula 1 had its own John-Boy Walton, but his story was rather less homesy. A Dubliner, John-Boy grew up in the tough Coolock neighbourhood on the Northside, where Alan Parker would later film his celebrated movie The Commitments. His father died young and the family struggled. He worked as a mechanic from the age of 13. He was then asked by a mate to help at a race in Phoenix Park, working for an ambitious bank clerk called Eddie Jordan, who was racing in Formula Atlantic at the time. The two began to work together and in 1978 Jordan won the Irish Formula Atlantic title and the pair moved to Britain in 1979, aiming to make it in British Formula 3. John-Boy was the first employee of Eddie Jordan Racing. Eddie and his wife Marie and their new baby daughter slept in a caravan at races, while John-Boy had a hammock and a second mechanic slept under the caravan!
Jordan was struggling for money all the time and John-Boy needed cash (to support several children he had in Ireland) and so he joined the new Toleman Formula 1 team and found himself as Ayrton Senna’s mechanic in 1984. When the team was transformed into Benetton John-Boy was appointed chief mechanic and oversaw the Benetton-BMWs of Teo Fabi and Gerhard Berger in 1986, when the Austrian gave the team its first F1 victory in Mexico City. John-Boy would remain as chief mechanic until 1990 when, tired by the political in-fighting that beset the team at the time, as Flavio Briatore fought to control the team, he took the opportunity to join forces with Eddie Jordan once again, as the chief mechanic of the new 7Up-sponsored Jordan Grand Prix, which entered F1 in 1991. One of the founding members of the F1 team, along with Gary Anderson and Bosco Quinn (who died soon afterwards in a road accident), Walton looked after the Jordan 191s in the team’s dramatic first year and the more challenging 1992 programme,with Yamaha engines. Things were better in 1993 with Hart engines but then teammanager Trevor Foster moved to Team Lotus and Walton was promoted to be Jordan team manager for the next three years. As Jordan grew bigger there was more of a need for a management structure and Foster returned in March 1996 as general manager. Walton decided to move on and took up an offer from his old Benetton workmate Gordon Message, who was in charge at Arrows, to become team manager of the Leafield team. The 1997 package, with Yamaha engines, Damon Hill and Bridgestone tyres was promising, but the team was struggling for money and Walton was dumped in a management reshuffle at the end of 1998. He spent much of 1999 in legal action, but was then called in to be sporting director of Prost Grand Prix in January 2000, thanks to his relationship with John Barnard, which had begun at Arrows.
The problem was that Prost did not have the money either and it closed down in 2001. Walton moved to Minardi at the start of 2002, at the behest of the team’s new owner Paul Stoddart, running the entire operation for the Australian, with his usual laid back and laconic style, disguising an uncompromising dedication to doing things properly.
In the summer of 2004 the team took part in the F1 display on Regent Street, in the days leading up to the British Grand Prix. Walton was in the thick of it as usual, making things happen and delivering the impossible, when he suffered a major heart attack. He was rushed to hospital but died the following day – at the age of only 47.
One of F1’s great unsung heroes…