How do you become a racing car designer?
"If you haven't got your own lathe by the time you are twelve, and are not a fully competent driver at the age of 16., you are at a distinct disadvantage". These were the words of Martin Waide, the 30-year-old chief racing car designer at Team Lotus, when Motor Sport asked him, "How do you become a racing car designer?" It is an over simplification of course, but very few of Britain's top designers have started late in life. Delving into their careers to find out the answers we found that the great majority had built 750 Specials in their teens.
We receive literally hundreds of letters a month asking the perennial question "How do I become a Racing Driver?". A lesser number write to ask "How do I become a Racing Mechanic?" and only a trickle wish to know how to become involved in the design of motor racing. The reason for this is that by the time they are reading Motor Sport they already have their own lathe and have started their own design projects.
There are, of course, precious few openings for racing car design staff in motor racing. Ten or twenty years ago Colin Chapman, Eric Broadley and others were able to form racing car construction companies around their own talent, and very little else. In the 1970s the construction of racing cars is a much more professional business and not one that can be entered with enthusiasm alone. If you want to be a racing car designer these days it is a matter of finding a position with one of the major firms. March, Lola, Brabham, McLaren, Surtees and Lotus usually retain a staff of around three or four whose main task is the detail drawings while the man at the top looks after the overall concept. How does one break into the game assuming one has been fairly successful as an amateur designer with a decent 750 or 1200 Formula car already to one's credit? Obviously there is no set formula—it's rather like how you become a motoring journalist. You keep pestering for a job and do your utmost to convince the people that matter that you know the subject.
A great deal of designing racing cars is purely intuition. Obviously one needs to have a very good working knowledge of engineering practice, preferably an apprenticeship and an appreciation of what has gone before in racing car design. But the text books are few and far between and largely out of date.
Without doubt our budding racing car designer should be a member of the 750 Motor Club whose monthly bulletin probably contains more up-to-date material on racing car design than any other publication. There are also a couple of magazines for the automotive design industry generally which have, from time to time, articles on racing. Harping hack to the 750 MC they have a section called the London Special Builders which is a hot-bed of budding designers.
The Club's 750 and 1200 Formulae are ideal training grounds for designers and a paddock of such cars always produces home-built machines with advanced technical thinking. The Monoposto Register, which used to be a part of the 750 MC, further caters for the budding designer, particularly the one who wishes to produce a single-seater. The Monoposto Formula actually allows proprietary chassis up to 1967 but also brand new one-off designs. In the past three or four seasons a home-built monocoque car called a Beagle driven by its designer Jim Yardley has been consistently successful. Yardley is a research chemist at Dunlop and is quite happy just to design racing cars as a hobby. The great majority of 750 and Monoposto members are probably the same but every so often the club throws up a member who goes on to much greater things—like Colin Chapman for instance.
Thus, having recorded the general, and unfortunately somewhat sketchy path to making the grade as a racing car designer let us look into the careers of some of the more prominent established names and how they have made their way to the top. Who better to start with than Colin Chapman, a businessman of extraordinary talent who is also generally regarded as the most brilliant of all racing car designers?
It all started when he was nineteen and studying civil engineering at London University. As much for fun as anything else he designed and built an Austin 7 based Special to double as transport and for use in sporting trials. A Ford-powered car followed and then, as a now enthusiastic member of the 750 MC, he set his brilliant mind to work on a car to win 750 Formula races. The Lotus 3 proved to be a controversial success due to some clever alterations he had made to the cylinder head. Soon he found a more wealthy enthusiast offering to buy a replica and then another customer also came along for a trials car. So on January 1st, 1952, Colin Chapman became a car manufacturer working out of a shed in Hornsey. In those early days he was employed by a firm of constructional engineers and operated Lotus Engineering during the evenings. The Lotus 6.went into production in 1953 and the start of the rapid Lotus expansion was on its way.
While still producing sports cars for his own company his talents. were used by both Vanwall and BRM for single-seater designs but by 1959 Lotus were in the single-seater market as well as having broken into the sophisticated GT market with the Lotus Elite. The success story has continued both in the road car and racing fields. From his drawing board have come trend-setting designs like the Lotus.49 and the still current Lotus 72 with its torsion bar Suspension. These days Chapman has a huge business to run yet the basic concept of the new cars are his but translated into detail by his design staff. Until recently much of the responsibility fell on Maurice Phillipe but he has just moved to the USA to make his fortune in USAC racing and he has been replaced by Martin Waide and David Baldwin, although Chapman has not produced a new racing car since Phillipe's 'departure.
Very few racing car designers come from a purely automotive engineering background—in fact an aviation grounding tends to be more popular—like Phillipe or Robin Herd for instance. Herd is now joint Managing Director of the March Engineering Ltd. concern and probably the most approachable and personable of all designers. In fact his down-to-earth attitude belies his brilliant scholastic career. After being an outstanding pupil at Monmouth School he won an open scholarship to St. Peter's Hall, Oxford. At the University he gained a double first in Physics and Engineering—a quite brilliant scholar. Even so he managed to find time to represent his college in eleven different sports and was good enough at cricket to be given a trial for the university team.
After leaving Oxford he went to Farnborough where he worked on the Concorde project and was promoted to Senior Scientific Officer at the age of 24, the lowest age anyone has reached this post in the history of the Civil Service. But, he felt frustrated by the slow progress of the supersonic airliner and, after four years with the Aircraft Establishment, his long-held interest in motor racing got the better of him. Through contacts he heard that Bruce McLaren was looking for a designer for his recently formed company. Herd was thrown in the deep end and was given the job of chief designer. Fortunately Bruce McLaren was very much more than a racing driver. He was an excellent engineer with plenty of practical experience gained. Robin Herd learned a great deal from Bruce McLaren and soon his technically interesting theories, tempered by McLaren's practicability, started to pay dividends, There were false starts like the Mallite F1 cars but by 1967 the Herd-designed Can-Am cars were sweeping the board. In 1968 he designed the McLaren M7A Grand Prix car and it came straight off the drawing board to win its first two races.
Herd later moved to Cosworth Engineering where he learned a good deal about engine design before setting to work on Cosworth's own Grand Prix car with four-wheel-drive. This proved to be a blind alley and the Cosworth never raced and it was about this time, mid-1969, that Herd became involved in a tug-of-war between two factions wanting to form a racing car company around his talents. Eventually Jochen Rindt lost the battle and March Engineering was formed with Mosley, Rees and Coaker. Herd's designs continue to succeed, last year's 711 finished second in the World Championship while the Formula Two cars were fantastically successful. This year Herd has broken relatively new ground by placing the gear cluster ahead of the crown wheel and pinion for his new Formula One car.
Sometimes one wonders if men of the academic brain power of Chapman and Herd would not be better employed in making this world a better place for us all to live in. Herd has thought about it too but motor racing has a rare effect on people and it is a hard business to get out of. Herd says, "I think if anything happens to Ronnie (Peterson) I would seriously consider leaving motor racing". It would be interesting to see to which field he would turn his talents. Tony Rudd, for many years chief designer of BRM chassis and engines, is now a happy and contented man as Lotus' Director of Engineering and never goes near the racing shop. He says if he did he would want to be back in racing full time!
Not all racing car designers come from a top honours degree background—in fact many successful ones have had little formal higher education at all. Ron Tauranac, until recently the designer of the consistently successful Brabham range, is an example of the practical engineer made good.
Tauranac was born in England 47 years ago but his father, a boiler-maker by trade, emigrated to Australia where Ron Tauranac received all his schooling. In fact he left aged 14 and went to work for an aircraft firm and became a junior draughtsman. Then he joined the Australian Air Force and won his wings but finally returned to engineering working with various firms, but particularly one by the name of CSR Chemicals where he learned a great deal. At this time he was by no means a motor racing enthusiast but on a Sunday drive in his Austin 7 he happened to stumble across a local race meeting. He heard noises coming from behind a hedge and his natural inquisitiveness got the better of him. He was hooked and he will tell you to this day, "I'm just crazy about motor racing". Soon Tauranac had become friendly with some people building and racing a JAP-powered Formula Three car. He decided to build his own car which was well within his capabilities as a competent engineer. However, he read all the available literature on racing car design and consequently he built —with help from his brother—a car which was good in theory but not in practice. A later and potentially better car saw Tauranac's first two outings with the machine land him in hospital, but he persevered and success started to come his way. In 1964 he became the New South Wales Hill-Climb Champion.
One of Tauranac's main rivals during this period was Jack Brabham and they became friendly and Tauranac advised on modifications to Brabham's car. Brabham went on to much greater things in Europe and at the end of his World Championship year of 1959 returned to Australia with an offer for Tauranac to join him as a partner in a new venture. Until then Tauranac's motor racing had been his hobby. However, he followed Brabham to Britain and MRD was formed.
But his first job was to work on Jack Brabham Conversion projects like the Herald-Climax and so on. In the evening he was working in his bedroom designing the first Formula Junior car and once it was complete he built it himself, learning to weld in the process.
Despite his lack of technical training Tauranac's deep knowledge of engineering has helped in producing some cars which are not only technically excellent, but always well made and easy to maintain. The first car adhered to these principles and was soon successful. Since then (1961) the Brabham firm of Motor Racing Developments have been the most consistently successful producers of racing cars. Jack Brabham went on to win the Formula One World Championship in cars bearing his own name and designed by Tauranac and he finally retired from motor racing at the end of 1970. Tauranac continued with the firm for a year before selling out to London businessman Bernard Ecclestone recently. Tauranac stayed on for a few weeks just as a designer but, last month, broke from the firm completely. He turned up at the South African GP recently helping the Frank Williams team but his future is uncertain.
At 30, Tony Southgate is probably the youngest of the "big name" racing car designers. He took over from Tony Rudd and his subsequent designs for Formula One, the P153 and P160, have to a degree revived the fortunes of the Bourne concern. As one of the younger designers his career may have more parallels for prospective racing designers than that of Chapman or Tauranac. In fact it does little more than to emphasise our early points about the 750 Motor Club. Southgate hails from the motor town of Coventry and studied at the local technical college before joining the Dowty Group as an apprentice. He was interested in motor racing from the age of 14 or 15 and half-way through his apprenticeship decided that his future lay in the sport.
By the age of 20 he was an enthusiastic 750 MC member and had built his own 750 racer. He says that the car was well engineered but he did not know much about suspension geometry or anything like that and, consequently, did not work too well. He then started on a Formula 1200 car but a chance to join Eric Broadley's Lola firm with an £8 reduction in wages proved to be an offer he could not refuse. He has been in motor racing ever since learning a great deal from Broadley in the early stages. Later he joined Brabham, returned to Lola and then had a spell with Dan Gurney's team, working in Britain and later moving to the States for a period before returning, in 1969, to join BRM.
These days Britain is very much the centre of Grand Prix racing and the budding designer has a head start if he lives in Britain. Some of our present designers, like Tauranac, have come half-way around the world to practise their art. Tauranac came at the invitation of Jack Brabham but others have come with nothing more than hope. Jo Marquart, now of GRD (see elsewhere in this issue), worked for the diesel engine firm of Sauer in his native Switzerland. He wanted to be a part of motor racing and moved to Britain but first had to start work with the Scottish Omnibus Company before a chance came to move to Team Lotus and then on to McLaren. One of the Surtees design staff, Shahab Ahmed, originally comes from Pakistan. He went to California and then worked for one of America's major motor manufacturers. But his desire to get into motor racing was so great that he got on a 'plane for Europe and simply went round knocking on everyone's door, first in Italy, then in France and finally in Britain. He is now an important member of the Surtees design team.
Yet, despite all these tales of specials built in the dead of night, part-time ventures on a shoestring and burning ambition leading to success, the man who designed last year's World Championship winning Tyrrell stumbled into motor racing unintentionally and relatively late in life. He is, of course, Derek Gardner, who less than three years ago was virtually unknown in motor racing. An introspective quiet 40-year-old, he fits perfectly into the Tyrrell mould. Gardner comes from Leamington Spa and obviously had a natural urge to create things mechanical. He was the youngest member of the local aeromodelling club and, by the time he left school at 17, he was very interested in aviation. He worked for a firm called Constant Speed Airscrews and studied at Coventry Technical College, first in aerodynamics and later in engineering. He did his national service in the RAF and was selected as a pilot but failed the medical on high-tone deafness, which was a great disappointment.
He left the forces at the age of 25 and joined the local Hobbs Transmissions who, at that time, seemed to have a great future. But the Hobbs firm later ran into trouble and Gardner moved to Harry Ferguson Research. There he came into contact with racing as he was engaged in work on the P99 racing car. In fact, he had no interest in racing but found the project interesting from an engineering aspect. He continued to work on various projects with Ferguson Research including the 4-w-d Novi Indy car and a 4-w-d BRM Formula One car. In 1968 Ferguson were commissioned to produce a 4-w-d system for the Lotus 56 and Gardner found himself working with Maurice Phillipe. He was asked to go to Indianapolis, the first time he had travelled, and he became increasingly more interested in racing, until he came to the conclusion he wanted to become involved much deeper.
However, he continued with Ferguson and moved onto the transmission design of the Matra MS84 4-w-d car which was being run by Ken Tyrrell. Gardner soon decided that, if he was to get more involved with motor racing, he would have to leave Ferguson. Somehow Ken Tyrrell got to hear of it and, having built up a tremendous respect for Gardner, offered him a job in early 1970. The task was to design a racing car, under clandestine conditions, which would be ready for World Champion Jackie Stewart to drive before the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Tyrrell team was to run customer March cars. It was one of motor racing's best-kept secrets although news did finally leak out a few weeks before the official announcement.
Gardner converted a bedroom at home into a drawing office and set about the task. Previously he had never been concerned in any great detail about suspensions or chassis design. He studied articles, photographs and all the other data he could, and set about designing a car which would be simple and efficient. He does, however, refute the suggestion that the Tyrrell was little more than a copy of the MS80 Matra. In fact he says that his car started off as a wedge-shaped design and only switched to the squashed lemon shape when he realised that all the fuel would not fit into this shape. He ordered various components and had a wooden mock-up built by a local joinery firm. The car quickly took shape and finally took to the track at the Oulton Park Gold Cup in 1970. Considering Gardner's lack of previous racing car design experience, it is something of a surprise that, after a few teething troubles, the Tyrrell proved to be a great success and became the World Championship marque in 1971. The present cars retain the same design and it will be most interesting to see what Gardner's next car is like now that he has amassed a great deal of chassis and suspension data to go with his obvious talent as a forward thinking engineer.
Over the last two years racing car design has tended to stagnate particularly at Grand Prix level. Perhaps the most advanced car is the Lotus 72 and that was designed in 1970 while the Tyrrell dates from a similar time. Recent developments with complicated rising rate suspension systems on the McLaren M19 now seem to be paying dividends but some quite different concepts like the Lotus 72, the March and even the Ferrari seem to produce remarkably similar results on the track. Perhaps there is room for a brilliant new and young racing car designer to come along and give the old hands something to think about. Possibly even this article has set a 17-year-old thinking.—A. R. M.