Ferrari's English connections

“The great thing about Ferrari,” explained Harvey Postlethwaite, “is that they not only have a tremendously quick response time, but they will try anything. You haven’t even the faintest idea of how many experimental things are tried and discarded without ever seeing the public light of day. De Dion suspensions, turbochargers . . . you’ve no idea!” The Ferrari team’s English chief of Formula chassis development was chatting to us on a recent visit to the team’s Maranello headquarters and that particular remark set us thinking. One might add that not only do they try anything in terms of components, but Ferrari has often shown a willingness to look outside Italy for not only drivers, but also engineers like Postlethwaite. In the early 1950s, when one might say it was almost a pre-requisite for Grand Prix success to be Italian, Ferrari recruited Britain’s Mike Hawthorn and forged an unusually sympathetic partnership with the young English driver that ended only with Mike’s retirement as World Champion at the end of 1958. Mike, and perhaps to a lesser extent Peter Collins, both occupied the position of Maranello favourites for much of their time in the Ferrari team and to the outsider, it must have seemed curious to see the way in which Italian drivers like Luigi Musso and Eugenio Castellotti were kept on their toes by internal political pressure while Hawthorn seemed to lead a charmed life within the company corridors of power. Collins fell from grace slightly when he got married during his last season in the team, but he was still held in high esteem until the day he was killed at the wheel of his Dino 246 during the 1958 German Grand Prix at Nurburgring.

In the wake of the Hawthorn / Collins partnership it seemed as though Ferrari was going to rely on effervescent Frenchman Jean Behra to lead his Grand Prix team, but when that extremely cool gentleman Tony Brooks came onto the market in the wake of the Vanwall team’s withdrawal, he chose the calm and stylish Englishman as well. Brooks’s personality was as a dramatic counterpoint to Behra’s temperament and it came as no surprise when the reserved former dental student put the seal on his status as team leader with fine victories at Reims and Avus. Behra, by contrast, wound up punching the Ferrari team manager during a heated row in the Reims pits and found himself fired for his troubles!

Brooks’s rather distant relationship with Enzo Ferrari lasted only one season as the Englishman decided to drive for the British Yeoman Credit team in order to be close to his fledgeling garage business in Byfleet. After that, Ferrari didn’t flirt with British drivers again until John Surtees joined his line-up at the start of 1963. Impressed wlth Surtees’s effective and speedy transition from motorcycles to cars, Ferrari actually offered Big John a drive in 1961, but Surtees was canny enough to appreciate he didn’t have sufficient experience to join such a demanding organisation. When the ofter came again at the end of ’62, Surtees was ready and helped reassemble Ferrari’s reputation which had taken such a caning in 1962. The Englishman worked well with designer Mauro Forghieri and they went forward to win the 1964 World Championship, using the 125-degree V6 and 90-degree V8 engines. For the start of the 3-litre formula in 1966 Surtees and Farrari seemed well set to produce some reasonable results with the sports car-based 3-litre V12, but in a political battle between Surtees and team manager Eugenio Dragoni, pro-British sympathy was stretched to breaking point and Big John left the team mid-way through the season. It was a parting of the ways that both men would have some cause to regret.

On the pure driver front, Kiwi Chris Amon seemed to fall under the magic spell that advantaged English-speaking members of the Ferrari, even though he was only “British Commonwealth” in the strict sense of the word. We outlined Amon’s Ferrari career in the feature in last month’s MOTOR SPORT, so there is no need to elaborate further in this article. However, it is certainly worth talking about another Englishman who fulfilled a crucially important role as not only a test and development engineer, but also as a driver of no mean repute — Michael Parkes.

The son of a former Chairman of the Alvis company, Mike Parkes served a five year apprenticeship with the Routes Group in Coventry from 1949 to ’54, staying with the English concern until 1962 by which time he’d been heavily involved in the development of the rear-engined Hillman Imp. Throughout this time he’d also started motor racing at an amateur level, joining forces with the wealthy Tommy Sopwith to drive Equipe Endeavour Jaguars by the start of the 1960 season. The Sopwith connection saw Parkes handling a Ferrari on the odd occasion and the English importer, Maranello Concessionaires, also took him under their wing.

On January 1, 1963 Mike Parkes joined Ferrari full-time, dividing his tasks between prototype development testing, both for the sports car and Formula One teams, and work on pre-production prototypes right up to the point where the production design was finalised and the cars began rolling off the exclusive Maranello production line. Sharing a Ferrari 250P, Parkes finished third at Le Mans with Umberto Maglioli in 1963 and won the Sebring 12-hour classic the following year with the same Italian co-driver. Over the years that followed he built up a highly respected reputation within the Ferrari organisation, his formal engineering training proving invaluable in the effective development of the sports-racing prototypes in particular. Unfortunately, although one might have expected Parkes to get on well with John Surtees, both being Englishmen within a European team, this didn’t turn out to be the case. Parkes, as an engineer, was irritated when Surtees tried to impose his own requirements on car development. By the same token, Surtees was suspicious that Parkes was trying to wheedle his way into the Grand Prix team. A cool, subdued atmosphere built up between the two men. When Surtees stormed out of the team in 1966, Parkes finally got his chance in the Formula One team and acquitted himself extremely well with second places in the French Grand Prix at Reims and the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. For 1967 he was scheduled to have more regular outings in the Formula One team, but although his season opened on a promising note with victory in the non-title BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone, it came to a premature end at Spa where he rolled his 312 on the opening lap of the Belgian Grand Prix. Hurled out onto the trackside, Parkes sustained leg injuries which took more than a year to mend. It was the end of his career in Ferrari’s Grand Prix team.

Enzo Ferrari clearly saw Mike Parkes as a considerable asset to his behind-the-scenes development team and, when the Englishman had fully recovered, the Commendatore made it crystal clear that he didn’t want him to race any more. Parkes, however, wanted to get back into the cockpit again, so there was nothing left for him to do in the long term but leave Ferrari at the end of 1970. He got a drive for the Scuderia Fillipinetti, handling their privately owned Ferrari 512 prototypes, but although he had a handful of decent races the spark of true competitiveness had been extinguished back in 1967 with the Spa accident. Parkes retired from the cockpit by the start of the 1972 to manage Filipinetti’s team of Fiat 128 saloons in the European Touring Car Championship, and later Frenchman Jacques Coulon’s F2 March-BMW in 1973. He later became involved beneath the Fiat competitions umbrella as a member of the Lancia competitions development team, tragically to be killed at the wheel of a road-going Lancia when it hit a truck near Turin in heavy rain during the late summer of 1977.

Ferrari’s continuing enthusiasm for promising British drivers led to Derek Bell’s inclusion, albeit briefly, in the Grand Prix team during late ’68 / early ’69. Unfortunately for the personable Bognor driver, Bell hit Ferrari just when the team’s fortunes were slumping like seldom before: 12 months one way or the other, and Derek’s experiences at Maranello might have been very different . . . And one also shouldn’t forget Brian Redman. Recruited into the Formula 2 team in 1968, he drove an electrifying race in the Eifelrennen at the wheel of a Dino 166, climbing back to fourth place and setting a new lap record as he sought to recover from a pit stop to change smashed goggles. The popular Lancastrian, who recently won the much-publicised Miami sports car Grand Prix in one of the Jaguar XJR12 prototypes also drove Ferrari’s magnificent 312PB sports cars in 1972 and ’73: his most notable triumph with these beautiful flat-12 machines was in the 1972 Spa 1000 kms where he put in a masterly performance on the old, “unspoilt” Francorchamps circuit.

Employing British drivers, of course, was one thing. Employing English technicians was another. But having a Ferrari Grand Prix chassis built in England was a quite remarkable step which the Italian team took at the end of 1972. The Forghieri-developed 312B2 was reaching the end of its long development life and the talented Italian designer had been briefly, discredited after producing the chunky, short-chassis B3 replacement which was never raced. This was a typical example of Maranello failing to give a good idea a chance: the initial Forghieri B3, dubbed the “snowplough” because of its chunky, unattractive looks, was damned on the strength of a few cursory test runs at Monza in the hands of Jacky Ickx and Arturo Merzario. Forghieri was thereafter banished to “Special Projects”

and, dovetailing a practical response to labour problems in Italy with a desire to explore British chassis building methods, Ferrari commissioned John Thompson’s TC Prototypes company of Weedon, near Northampton, to build three bare monocoque tubs for the start of the 1973 season.

The “Thompson B3s”, as they were informally dubbed, were delivered to Italy in the early Spring of 1973 and Jacky Ickx drove the first such machine in the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona. But the cars were never fully developed and Ferrari’s star seemed to be waning dramatically by this stage. The decision was taken to withdraw from a couple of races mid-season and it was only when Forghieri was dragged back to oversee a crash development programme, giving rise to the development car driven by Merzario in Austria, that the organisation seemed to jolt itself back towards competitiveness once more. The Thompson B3s may not have been a great success in themselves, but they certainly provided Forghieri with the raw materials with which to develop the successful 1974 312B3s, raced to such good effect by Nilci Lauda and Clay Regazzoni.

The following five seasons saw Ferrari chassis development reaching reasonable levels of competitiveness which, allied to the powerful flat-12 engine and the driving ability of such people as Lauda, Carlos Reutemann, Gilles Villeneuve and Jody Scheckter, kept the team in the forefront of competitiveness up until the end of 1979. In 1980 ground effect technology left the 312T5 dramatically behind and things had not significantly improved when the first 126 turbos took to the track the following season. Enzo Ferrari never had any reason to doubt the efficiency of his engine development people, but clearly something had to be done on the chassis side because not only had his team failed to master ground effect aerodynamics adequately but they lacked experience in advanced chassis construction techniques. To rectify this situation, Ferrari recruited former Hesketh and Wolf designer Harvey Postlethwaite mid-way through 1981, the Englishman at this time finding his design ambitions thwarted by a chronic lack of finance within the Fittipaldi team to which he’d transferred after its takeover of the Wolf team’s assets. A practical, down-to-earth engineer with a keen sense of reality, Postlethwaite moved his family to Italy that summer and has remained at Maranello ever since. Harvey’s first task was to tackle development of the existing 126 chassis which Gilles Villeneuve had taken to victory in the 1981 Monaco and Spanish Grands Prix. “I knew what state of development the team had arrived at,” he admits, ”and I discussed with Mr Ferrari and Mauro Forghieri what we should do for the following year. I felt I had enough knowledge to build a carbon fibre composite car immediately, but the team didn’t have the necessary resources in-house, so we eventually decided to build an aluminium honeycomb chassis, the like of which I’d already had experience with at Wolf and Fittipaldi. We also developed pretty reasonable aerodynamics for the car and it went quite well . . .” In fact, the 126C2 went very well indeed and, despite the tragedies which involved the team’s drivers Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi, won Ferrari the Constructors’ championship in convincing style.

Unfortunately those two accidents understandably upset Postlethwaite who’d never previously gone through the experience of having anyone seriously injured, let alone killed, at the wheel of a car he had designed. He was even more irritated when not only some British rivals, not to mention sources within Italy, called into question the design integrity of the C2 monocoque.

Talking about this matter, Harvey Postlethwaite is cautiously modest, not wishing to draw undue attention to regrettable events which are past if not forgotten. But he does admit that the Ferrari team went to exhaustive lengths to examine the comparative strength between the original 126 and the honeycomb monocoque C2. Examples of each car were run through the standard US crash test — hitting a brick wall at 65 kph — and the C2 stood up to the impact significantly better. But the tests were sufficient to convince Postlethwaite and his Ferrari colleagues that few, if any, of their critics understood the forces involved in such enormous accidents.

“The bland facts of the matter are that if you hit a solid object square on at 65 kph, you’re dead,” insists Harvey. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a Ferrari, a Brabham, a Rolls-Royce or a Fiat Uno. What a lot of people forget in this business is the speed at which a Formula One car decelerates is quite remarkable. If you lift your foot from the throttle at 170 mph, without braking, the car will decelerate at around 1 1/2 G just because of the aerodynamic drag on the aerofoils and the tyres. So although cars may go out of control at high speed, they’ve probably slowed to around 40 / 50 mph before they even hit anything so much as a glancing blow.

Many designers build up particularly sympathetic relationships with the drivers they work with and, although Harvey Postlethwaite now concentrates his work at the factory, visiting races only infrequently, he admits that he built up a tremendously high regard for the late Gilles Villeneuve in the fleeting nine months or so they worked together. “Gilles was just a disarmingly honest, totally non-political guy with no hang-ups whatsoever,” reflects Harvey affectionately. “Everybody here loved him because of that. But as a driver he knew no other way to drive than flat-out. If it was a question of going flat-out in the lead and destroying his tyres, or taking it easy, conserving the tyres and finishing third, then Gilles would do the former. Jody Scheckter would do the latter and, of course, that’s why Jody was World Champion. It wasn’t that Gilles couldn’t have done that. He could have done it as well as any man, of course he could. But there was something inside him which just wouldn’t allow him to do it. And that’s what made him the driver he was.

“Riding on the road with him was horrendous! He would go down the outside of a traffic queue just to warm himself up, with a lorry coming the other way and no apparent gap. He just had blind faith in his own ability to get through. But you were never scared sitting with him because you realised you were with probably the best driver in the World. . . .” Almost three years working for Ferrari have seen Harvey Postlethwaite ease gently into the often-relaxed, sometimes frantic Italian way of life, although he admits if anyone had suggested before he joined Ferrari that he would take to living in Italy as enthusiastically as he has, he would have been sceptical in the extreme. Reading between the lines, he clearly has a cordial, if formal, relationship with Enzo Ferrari, a relationship which extends to his being invited to watch the Grands Prix on television in company with the Old Man on Sunday afternoons throughout the season.

Enzo Ferrari’s enormous enthusiasm for Gilles Villeneuve can be proved irrevocably by one delightful Postlethwaite anecdote stemming front one of these Sunday afternoon sessions in front of the television screen. The race was the 1981 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. The occasion, Villeneuve’s tyre-smoking spin into the catch fencing as his stiffly-sprung 126 tramped off the Woodcote chicane kerbing. As the two men watched the scarlet Italian turbo went skating off backwards in a cloud of blue smoke, Harvey closed his eyes, thinking “Oh, no, what’s he going to saynow…

Mr Ferrari paused for a moment. Then he said thoughtfully, but with feeling: “That chicane. It’s far too narrow!” — A.H.