The Constructors —3

Van Diemen

There is an old chestnut about a young man being interviewed for a job at Ford. "Tell me, what do you think we make here?" he was asked. "That's easy, sir," the interviewee replied, "you make cars." "Wrong!" he was told: "We make money and we make money by making cars."

Much the same could be said of the Snetterton firm, Van Diemen International Racing Services Ltd. Its founder, Ralph Firman, has seen dozens of constructors come, and most of them go. Yet, after 13 years as a constructor, his company will soon join Lotus, Lola and March as a member of an unofficial but exclusive club, those makers who have produced over 1,000 racing cars. Van Diemen has restricted its sights to just the Ford formulae but still manages an annual turnover in the region of £1,000,000.

The aim of this series is not only to profile individual constructors but to examine, through them, the British motor racing industry which, last year, provided the cars which won over 95% of all single-seater races in the world, excluding purely national formulae. We began by looking at the recent struggles of Richard Owen Engineering and Design, a company in the process of establishing itself. Last month, it was the turn of Reynard Racing, which is trying to progress from being merely a Ford formulae constructor into F3 and F3000, with F1 as the stated goal. Van Diemen has been chosen as the third tube examined because it provides a contrast with its predecessors.

Unlike Richard Owen's company, it is established with a long record of successes and a firm dealer network in every country where racing is taken seriously. It also has an entirely different, but equally successful, philosophy to that of Reynard Racing. Unlike Reynard, Van Diemen has no ambition to progress beyond the Ford formulae, which it knows so well. It is true that this year there will be a Van Diemen Can Am car but the company has acted as coordinator in this project, subcontracting most of the work, including the design. It will, however, assemble the cars which will bear its name and take overall responsibility for them. While Reynard tries to build everything in-house, Van Diemen subcontracts 70% of components mainly to small firms run by ex-Lotus men which are dotted all round Norfolk. Part of the work undertaken by Glenn Waters' Intersport Racing, for example, is subcontract work for, among others, Van Diemen — it helps to keep the most visible part of his business, his F3 team, on a secure financial footing. Since Van Diemen places large orders (the company built 121 cars last year, exactly the same as Reynard Racing, not counting the 30 Reynard kits supplied to Rondeau to start FF1600 in France), Firman can negotiate keen prices while the subcontractor has the assurance of a fairly substantial amount of work over the year.

Van Diemen's total workforce numbers 20 and like all racing car manufacturers faces problems of assembling most of its products during the short "building season" over the winter months. Subcontracting the bulk of components means that the company is not overmanned during the relatively slack period from May to December. It is not unusual for racing mechanics from the smaller teams to spend the winter months working for constructors during the "building season" while some teams retain their men and have them assemble new cars in the constructors' workshops.

At the time of my visit to Van Diemen, mechanics from the Silverstone-based British Racing Prospects team were preparing their 1985 cars, something which is beneficial to both parties. It enables the team to obtain its finished cars more cheaply, to retain the mechanics over the winter, to give the men the chance to know the last nut and bolt on the new cars and to incorporate the minor modifications which every team likes to make to a standard car. Van Diemen benefits by having the assembly of a number of cars taken care of.

Look at many constructors and you will find a partnership of two complementary talents: Frank Williams and Patrick Head, Ron Dennis and John Barnard, Adrian Reynard and Rick Gorse, John Wickham and Gordon Coppuck and so on. In the case of Van Diemen it is Ralph Firman, who founded the company, looks after the business side and who runs the works teams, and Dave Baldwin, the designer.

Firman began life as a mechanic and, while employed by his brother-in-law, Jim Russell, worked with Emerson Fittipaldi when the great Brazilian came to Britain in 1969. He subsequently set up his own race preparation business and ran Carlos Pace in F3 in 1971. Two years later, he teamed up with a Tasmanian, Ross Ambrose (Van Diemen's Land is the original name of Tasmania) with a view to building racing cars and also a hot water cleaning system which Ambrose had designed. The partnership lasted only three months and Ambrose left, taking his cleaning system with him.

The FF1600 FA (Firman Ambrose) 73 was one of those cars which was right straight out of the box and Donald MacLeod switched to one mid-season and proceeded to win the BOC Championship. The same design, now named the RF (Ralph Firman) 74, was extremely successful the following year but started to flounder in 1975 which was the year in which a number of rival makers started to produce cars with the first significant development modification in Formula Ford — new engine mountings. Previously, standard Ford side mountings had been used but then came mounting the engine at the front and using it as a semi-stressed member to produce a more torsional rigidity.

1976 saw few FF1600 cars made and the firm was kept going by building ten variants of the GRD 763 F3 car after GRD collapsed. At the end of that year, Dave Baldwin designed a new car, the RF77, which became the mainstay, with modifications, of Van Diemen up to the end of 1983.

Donald MacLeod and Chico Serra gave the car numerous wins in 1977 and the following year saw it successful both in FF1600 and, to a lesser extent in F2000. In 1980, inboard front suspension was introduced followed by inboard rear suspension the following year and so on, with small changes up to the end of 1983. There has been a suspicion in motor racing circles that Firman employs a press gang in South America foes large number of talented South Americans, especially Brazilians, have come over and driven for the works team: Scans, Gugelniin, Roesel, Mansilla, Serra, Guerrero, Moreno and Toledano with Paulo Carcasi joining Mark Blundell in this year's works FF1600 team. In fact, it all operates by word of mouth, a new driver coming to Britain naturally feels reassured that a fellow-countryman, such as Ayrton Senna, has successfully gone the same route before.

Psychology plays an enormous part in racing, hence the small differences between each year's new cars. The RF77 was basically the same machine as the RF83 but customers like to feel they're getting the latest and, therefore, the best. If scar runs with side radiators one year and a radiator in the nose the next, the new location has gusto be quicker, whether or not it actually is so. It's important for a driver to feel that he is driving the best machine.

Most production racing car constructors make these changes year by year to encourage new buyers. Sometimes the modifications give improved performance, frequently, however, they are cosmetic. Ifs new car works better in a spaceframe formula like FF1600 it is often because all the components are fresh and the car is bought by a serious competitor, not because of an inherent design advantage.

In thirteen years, there have in fact been only four basic Van Diemen designs, 197376, 1977-83, the slim-line car of last year and the new RF85. The tightness of the regulations in FF1600 gives a designer little leeway, he is a painter of miniatures where every brush stroke has to be precise, rather than the painter of large-scale landscapes where occasional lack of attention to detail is not noticed.

Under normal circumstances the RF84 would have had at least a three year production life but last year, a new American design, the Swift came good. The design had been widely admired by British companies when it appeared in 1983 but America does not have the same motor racing industry and many thought that the company would not be able to produce sufficient cars at the right price in order to pose a threat to British dominance. The Swift company proved doubters wrong, partly by buying components from Britain, and it is now the design to beat. Since the American market accounts for a substantial percentage of the sales of most British FF constructors and F2000 is being introduced there this year, Van Diemen is effectively building its 1987 car now. So seriously is the challenge from Swift taken that Calvin Fish has been recruited to drive a works FF1600 car in the States.

The RF85 has an unusual front suspension layout with the dampers mounted vertically just behind the dashboard and operating via levers onto the front rockers. This helps to achieve a very small frontal area, for reduction of drag is currently the most important design variable in the Ford formulae and Baldwin has recently been spending time with a wind tunnel. At the rear of the car, the bulky front end of the Hewland gem box has been cut off to reduce drag and the box is now mated to a casting which contains the oil tank while, underneath, an aluminium sump bolted to the front of the casting gives greater stiffness. The spring / damper units of the rocker arm rear suspension are mounted within this casting well out of the air stream.

Dave Baldwin expands on his design: `We have constantly to look at costs and so the specification of the front dampers was chosen because we happened to have 300 of them in stock. We have to make a compromise with the car so that it will work for European FF1600 which uses a single compromise tyre, Dunlop in Britain, Avon in most of Europe; American FF1600 which allows for treaded and slick racing tyres; and F2000. This year the matter was further complicated by the proposed introduction of Formula Turbo Ford. FTF now seems unlikely to happen but, at the design stage, I had to take account of it for it is only financially viable for us to produce one frame to cover all formulae.

"Last year, our 1600 cars were very successful in the major British championships but Reynard overwhelmed as in F2000 because their design compromise had a bias towards the bigger category while ours was towards to smaller. Our new F2000 car has gone very well in testing but Reposed has had some initial problems so a number of teams will be running last year's cars initially to see which way the wind blows before putting in their orders. We know we will build well over 100 cars this year, including 25 for Ford for use in the 'Champion of Champions' race at the British Grand Prix meeting and those cars will then launch FF1600 in Portugal, but we have no way to knowing how many will be for F2000."

Like moss racing car designers, Baldwin is a straight-forward man. Now just turned 44, he served his apprenticeship with Pye, the television people. "I was so lucky, I had a super grounding. When you think of television you think of wires but Pye are a good general engineering company involved in, among things, fighting vehicle design for the Ministry of Defence. Most of my work involved jig and tool design and I got a grounding in fabrication as well as precision engineering."

At the age of 24, he answered an advertisement in The Times and found himself working at Cheshunt for Lotus Components, the division of the company which built the production racing cars. He previously had had no special interest in racing but soon caught the disease. As a junior design engineer, his experience covered single-seaters, sports cars and the racing Lotus-Cortinas. In 1971, he spent a short time with GRD and worked on McLaren's Indianapolis cars before returning to Hethel, this time with Team Lotus during the last days of the Lotus 72.

An approach from Mo Nunn, whom he had first met when working on the Lotus F3 cars, saw him designing the Ensign 176 which was driven by Ickx and Amon. This was a widely admired design which, despite the team's small budget, was generally to be found just behind the leading bunch. Before he completed the Ensign 177, he moved to Fittipaldi and designed the FA5 which had a strong resemblance to his Ensign cars.

"To succeed in F1, you have to be 100% committed. My wife became ill and I could not make that commitment, being away from the family so often." Baldwin then became a freelance working for Van Diemen from the end of 1976 and joining the company full time in 1980. Among his projects was designing a new chassis for the Panther Lima. "The original Lima was based on a Vauxhall floor pan and was not very stiff— if you parked with one wheel on the kerb, you couldn't open the doors!"

For a company to produce 1,000 racing cars of any type is a remarkable achievement and it shows how well the Firman / Baldwin partnership works. Baldwin sometimes regrets not competing against the very best designers in F1 but has his priorities, and his family comes first.

Firman has seen too many small firms over-reach themselves by attempting to move into the higher formulae and has made a decision to stay in the world he knows and in which he has been very successful. "We have our ups and downs, sometimes we're on top, other times we're coming second. Coming second doesn't damage us, though coming third might. In the past, we haven't always taken F2000 seriously though we had a great year in 1982 with Ayrton Senna.

"Part of my motivation is to work with young drivers at an early stage in their careers and it's good to follow their progress later. I knew from the start that Senna was going to be sensational, he was not only quick, he had the right approach to racing. Some people say that running a works team in FF1600 is unfair because you're competing against your customers but every manufacturer runs works teams, except that some have special relationships with particular outside teams and drivers. Everyone has to have these relationships, you naturally want the best drivers souse your cars."

Baldwin says, "Look upon it as a research and development team. We are not competing so much against our customers as against other manufacturers. If we come up with a new setting, we can pass it on within days, a new component takes longer but, in the end, our customers benefit."

One problem which FF1600 teams have is that they are dealing with relatively inexperienced drivers who might diagnose oversteer in a car when really they may be inducing oversteer by turning into corners too soon. "Some don't know the difference between oversteer and understeer," says Ralph. "Sometimes," says Dave, "they'll ask us to change settings and we'll pretend to, or else change them in the opposite direction. We have to be able to decipher what's really going on with a driver before we can act on it. This is where a really promising driver, like Senna, shows himself."

FF1600 is a tight little world within the broader context of motor racing. As I've written before, its overall health is important to the British motor racing industry as a whole for the sheer volume of work it generates keeps so many subcontractors in bread and butter business, so they are there when teams from the higher formulae need to use them. Firman estimates that Van Diemen keeps 50 subcontractors' employees occupied full time on work it farms out.

In view of Jenks' recent articles about fake historic cars, it's interesting to comment that there is a sub-industry in producing low-cost replacement parts, nose cones and the like, for almost every volume-produced racing car. These "pirates" do not have to offset research and development costs and so can undercut manufacturers. "I bet," says Dave Baldwin, "that someone is offering RF85 nose cones even before the season starts." In years to come when an RF85 becomes an "historic" (collector's item, must appreciate) I wonder whether there will be arguments over fake period nose cones!

1985 will be a crucial year for the company, for many people will buy the RF86 on this year's performance. In F2000, to which Van Diemen is now committed, it must claw back some of its reputation and customers which were lost to Reynard last year. In America, it must show that it has the measure of the Swift or it may start to fall behind in that crucial market.

Sentiment plays no great part in motor racing and if the Swift continues to lead the way in the States, then you can be certain that examples will soon be seen in Britain and Europe. My hunch is that 1985 is going to be a good year for Van Diemen for the RF85 is a clever, elegant design, it may not dominate but it should be competitive and, of course, some time this year we will see the one thousandth Van Diemen. Even if the car wins no championships, then the building of car No 1,000 will still be a remarkable achievement. — M.L.