The hidden hero behind Alonso’s Enstone F1 glory years

Fernando Alonso is back at the team with which he scored his two world championship titles in 2005 and 2006. Despite a tough start, he will hope it can recapture the winning spirit embodied by the late aero guru Dino Toso

The hidden hero behind Alonso’s Enstone F1 glory years

The nature of modern Formula 1 is such that cars are designed by committee, which means it’s near-impossible to single out the efforts of one person for any resultant success. But if it’s too simplistic to lay credit at the feet of one individual, equally it would be fatuous to suggest that individuals can’t make a difference, for they can lift the team around them to greater heights and push the collective effort forward in a positive direction. Such hidden heroes are common in racing, but few can live up to the story of Renault’s former head of aerodynamics Dino Toso.

In the four years that followed his diagnosis with lung cancer in 2004, Toso contributed to 17 grand prix victories (14 for Fernando Alonso, two for Giancarlo Fisichella, one for Jarno Trulli) and two world championship doubles with Alonso, leading by example until his retirement just two months before his death at the age of 39 in August 2008.

Never losing hope that he could beat the cancer, he endeavoured to take his rounds of chemotherapy at weekends so they wouldn’t impinge on the working week, and signed up for every trial available to him. But despite the physical transformation the steroids inflicted upon his body as this committed cyclist gained weight and lost his hair, Toso’s good humour and team spirit never diminished.

Thirteen years on, he remains a widely admired figure that his Enstone family remember fondly.

“It’s very easy when people are no longer with us to remember all the good things,” says former Renault engineering director Pat Symonds. “But Dino was a very clever person, very pragmatic and a genuinely nice guy.”

“He was a bloody good guy,” agrees ex-Renault technical director Mike Gascoyne, “and that’s why he achieved what he did.”

Dino Toso, Renault F1 windtunnel 2002

Dino Toso, Renault F1 windtunnel 2002

Photo by: Alpine F1 Team

Toso, half-Dutch and half-Italian, had studied mechanical engineering at Delft University before taking a masters in aerodynamics at Cranfield. Armed with this understanding, he cut his teeth in the Italian Superturismo championship engineering for Gianni Morbidelli. The Jordan F1 tester was suitably impressed and made the introductions to his superiors. Toso was soon hired by technical director Gary Anderson and Sam Michael, who at the time headed up the R&D department.

“I remember interviewing him for his first job at the end of 1996, and I gave him a job straight away,” recalls Michael, who went on to be technical director at Williams between 2004 and 2011.

“He came on board as a data engineer on the race team in 1997, and then we both became race engineers in 1998. We had done various test engineering during 1997, and then in 1998 I was the race engineer for Ralf Schumacher and he had Damon Hill.”

The 1998 season took a while to get going for Jordan, a legacy of delays with the electronics as the team adapted from Peugeot to Mugen power, until incoming technical director Gascoyne got to work in the windtunnel. “The front-wing flaps didn’t work,” he says.

"I had the sense that he had some brilliance to him. The potential was huge" Damon Hill

From mid-season the year turned around, with Hill scoring back-to-back fourth places at Hockenheim and the Hungaroring before scoring the team’s first win in memorable fashion at Spa.

Hill recalls “a lovely guy, obviously very bright”, who “always had a grin on his face like he knew all of the answers”. But was the 1996 world champion ever concerned about Toso’s relative inexperience in race engineering?

“No, not at all,” Hill asserts. “What I found with Dino was he was very open to listening to what I was trying to say and then turning it into engineering-speak. I got the impression that he was very much at the early part of a very steep learning curve.

Damon Hill, Dino Toso 1998

Damon Hill, Dino Toso 1998

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“He wasn’t forceful – some people would take charge of things – but he was very helpful and cooperative. He wanted like any good scientist to know the answers, and if he didn’t understand something he would want to learn more to try and understand what the answer might be.”

Gascoyne concurs: “He was a strong-minded guy who would listen and learn very quickly. Sometimes straight-talking, confident guys don’t actually listen to anyone because they think they’re right, but Dino wasn’t like that, which is why he became as successful as he did.”

“He was an incredibly smart engineer, really focused on aerodynamics,” recalls Michael. “We were both seven-day-a-week-type people, so got on very well. And even though Dino and I probably had more run-ins than anybody else, it was all brought out of passion to be successful and help the team be successful.”

Hill bowed out of F1 after a disappointing 1999, in which Schumacher’s replacement Heinz-Harald Frentzen won twice and finished third in the points, but he had seen the high regard his colleagues held for Toso.

“I had the sense that he had some brilliance to him,” he says. “The potential was huge.”

Michael agrees: “His intelligence level around aerodynamics was second to none and he had the drive with it as well, so he had the passion and work ethic to produce.

“He was a very blunt person as well, which as an Aussie meant I could easily understand him. In fact, probably in his early days that probably hampered his progress somewhat because he was very passionate and would very much put himself out there. But perhaps that turned into one of his great skills and he commanded a lot of respect.”

Jarno Trulli, Dino Toso 1999

Jarno Trulli, Dino Toso 1999

Photo by: Alpine F1 Team

Toso remained with Jordan to engineer new arrival Trulli in 2000 before following Gascoyne to Benetton in December, working under chief aerodynamicist John Iley.

“I didn’t actively court Dino, he approached me,” asserts Gascoyne. “He’d decided that being a race engineer was great, you’re in the pitlane and people talk about you, but if you want to be a chief designer or a technical director then you’ve got to go back and design racing cars. And race engineers don’t do that.

“He took a paycut to come in as one of three senior aerodynamicists and run a development team. He was obviously good at it, he was always going to rise up, but what was most impressive about Dino was the fact that he was prepared to step back from a very public role as a race engineer and he was confident enough in his ability that he would get there. He knuckled down and he was prepared to do it properly.”

"What I liked about Dino is that he’d worked as a race engineer at Jordan and he certainly understood what was required to make a car go fast as opposed to producing nice numbers in the windtunnel for the boss. I really appreciated that" Pat Symonds

Straight away, he showed Symonds what he could do, putting his real-world nous to use. Symonds had done basic aero work himself in the 1980s and early 1990s before focusing his efforts on track engineering as the field became more specialised, and found Toso a breath of fresh air.

“There are a lot of aerodynamicists who perhaps understand aerodynamics, but don’t understand what makes a car go fast or how to design parts on a car,” says Symonds.

“The classic sort of aerodynamicist may get you the best windtunnel figures, but an aero map that’s totally unusable on the track, or design structures that can’t support their own weight. What I liked about Dino is that he’d worked as a race engineer at Jordan and he certainly understood what was required to make a car go fast as opposed to producing nice numbers in the windtunnel for the boss. I really appreciated that.”

Gascoyne’s arrival coincided with an influx of investment at Enstone following Benetton’s takeover by Renault in March 2000. He focused on laying the groundwork by improving the windtunnel programmes and model quality, and found a key ally in Toso.

Giancarlo Fisichella, David Coulthard 2001 Belgian GP

Giancarlo Fisichella, David Coulthard 2001 Belgian GP

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“He’d seen it work at Jordan, so he believed that this approach was going to work and he threw himself in with all his energy into that drive,” says Gascoyne. “Where some of the established people were kind of like, ‘I’ve heard all this before, yeah, yeah, yeah’, Dino was ‘No, no, no, this is the way it’s got to be, we’re doing this.’”

It certainly had an effect – from back-row fodder at the beginning of 2001, the B201 was on the podium at Spa in September in Fisichella’s hands, and the renamed Renault team – which signed Trulli to partner Jenson Button – was firmly established as best of the rest behind the big three in 2002, Button narrowly missing out on a maiden podium in Malaysia.

When Iley left for Ferrari in 2003, Toso took over the aero department and it coincided with the team’s first win since Hockenheim 1997, scored by Alonso – a replacement for Button – at the Hungaroring. Symonds believes Toso had shown the capacity for leadership early on.

“Dino had a reasonably large group working for him and it was very obvious that he led that group through mutual respect rather than being dictatorial,” he says. “It would be probably looking at it through rose-tinted spectacles to say that we looked at it and immediately thought he was the future head of aero – although maybe Bob [Bell] did. You could definitely see that he knew what he was talking about and he was good with people.”

Dr Robin Tuluie, then head of R&D at Enstone, adds: “It’s rare that you come across someone who is both technically really strong but also has that kind, benevolent style of leadership and guidance and understanding towards his team. And not just his aerodynamics team, but his whole team.”

But it was another quality that Symonds liked most in Toso.

“He was very, very honest,” he says. “It sounds odd to say, but you’d be surprised by how many engineers have the ability to find the result they’re looking for rather than the result that’s there. If it didn’t work, he’d say that it didn’t work, where others would just keep on going trying to make it work and spending a fortune doing it, but more importantly losing time when they could have been working in a more productive area.

Fernando Alonso, 2003 Hungarian GP

Fernando Alonso, 2003 Hungarian GP

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“Dino was incredibly pragmatic, he really knew whether something was going to turn out good or not. And in that lead-up to the championship years, he contributed a massive amount.”

Renault’s progress continued despite Gascoyne departing for Toyota midway through 2003, with his deputy Bell taking over as technical director. The following year, Trulli took his maiden victory in Monaco, and Renault narrowly missed out to BAR for second place in the constructors’ championship. But the team was rocked by the revelation days before the Spanish Grand Prix that Toso – who had never smoked in his life and kept himself in good shape – had advanced lung cancer and had been given six months to live.

"If it didn’t work, he’d say that it didn’t work, where others would just keep on going trying to make it work and spending a fortune doing it" Pat Symonds

“I remember that day so well,” Symonds says. “I was over at [Renault engine HQ] Viry when I got a call from Dino, who wanted to know if I knew [F1 doctor] Sid Watkins’s phone number. I put him in touch with Sid and he was absolutely brilliant. Straight away, he started working with him.

“It was terribly hard because you couldn’t put it out of your mind. You’d be sitting in a meeting talking to Dino and know what the situation was. But he was just brilliant, the way he always wanted to be a part of what was going on.”

While liaising with oncologists around the world, Toso refused to allow his focus on the job to slip.

“I remember he came in and Bob said, ‘Look Dino, you don’t need to come in, go and look after yourself,’” recalls Tuluie. “And he said, ‘No, you don’t understand – I need to be here, I need the team and the interaction.’”

Symonds is the first to admit that the 2005 Renault R25 wasn’t as quick as the McLaren MP4/20, but feels it “certainly had the most complete package”, which proved crucial as Alonso saw off the challenge of Kimi Raikkonen to claim the world title.

Nathalie Toso, Fernando Alonso, Dino Toso

Nathalie Toso, Fernando Alonso, Dino Toso

Photo by: Alpine F1 Team

Michelin responded better to new tyre regulations that required a set to last an entire grand prix, pegging back the advantage Ferrari had established with Bridgestone, while revised aerodynamic regulations that raised the front wing, moved the rear wing forward and reduced the diffuser size meant that Toso’s aero department was put to the test to make up the shortfall.

But the influence of his group was felt in other ways too, not least the innovative V-keel suspension design, says Symonds: “The majority of the car is designed in the windtunnel these days, and without a doubt the V-keel would have come from the windtunnel I would say.”

The V-keel combined with the car’s tuned mass damper brought greater stability, and the R26 of 2006 was even better as Alonso defeated a resurgent Ferrari and Michael Schumacher. Even more impressively, as Symonds points out, that was despite Renault’s 2005 advantage being taken away by the return of tyre changes.

“It was a much tougher year, but the R26 was a great car,” he recalls.

By 2005, Trulli – who dedicated his 2004 Spanish GP podium finish to Toso and afterwards gave him his trophy – had joined Gascoyne at Toyota and their renewed partnership started well. The Italian was pipped to pole at the 2005 Australian GP by Renault returnee Fisichella, before finishing second to Alonso in Malaysia and Bahrain. While frustrated at being thwarted by his old team, Gascoyne takes satisfaction from knowing the involvement Toso had in the project’s success.

“It was good to see their success, especially once you knew Dino wasn’t well,” he says. “It was no surprise that he did what he did.”

For the 2007 season, all teams used Bridgestone tyres – the first time this had happened since 2000 – and Renault was caught on the back foot. Team newcomer Heikki Kovalainen scored the only podium of the year with second at a sodden Fuji as Renault slumped to fourth in the constructors’ standings, promoted to third when McLaren was booted out for its part in the spy scandal. But Toso had much more pressing matters to concern him.

Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher, 2006 European GP

Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher, 2006 European GP

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The cancer that he’d fought so bravely – and which for a while had been kept at bay by a pioneering new drug – had intensified. Toso left Renault in June 2008 and died just a few weeks later, leaving behind wife Nathalie – a rock throughout his treatment – and young daughter Isabella.

In his absence, ‘Team Enstone’ has gone through various guises as Lotus, Renault again and now Alpine, but is still waiting for a return to the glory days of 2005-06.

Symonds believes that Toso’s broad skillset would have made him an ideal candidate to one day become a technical director and have an even bigger role in shaping an F1 team’s fortunes.

"For any young engineer, Dino would stand as a pretty good person to judge yourself against. Actually, for any role in life to be honest" Mike Gascoyne

“Particularly these days, so many engineers are very compartmentalised and there are fewer and fewer people who understand everything about what makes a car go fast,” he says. “There are people who are very good at aero, there are people who are quite good designers, there are people who understand vehicle dynamics, but there aren’t that many people who can put it all together, whereas Dino was one of those.

“When you couple that with the fact that his personality was very good, his ability to work with people was very good and his ability to motivate was very good, he would have been an excellent technical director.”

Adds Gascoyne: “For any young engineer, Dino would stand as a pretty good person to judge yourself against. Actually, for any role in life to be honest.”

Dino Toso, 1998

Dino Toso, 1998

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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Author James Newbold
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