Letter to readers, April 1992

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Responsible

Dear Reader,

Some years ago, when Mr Ecclestone was getting the Formula One teams organised into a responsible body of people, the chief engineers at the time took a fairly close look at each other and realised they were all so busy designing and building racing cars to beat each other that they were getting a bit lax in certain areas of the standing rules. No one was deliberately cheating to gain an unfair advantage, but things like exhaust pipes, driver roll-over protection bars, the proximity of oil tanks to hot components like inboard brakes and exhaust manifolds, and similar things were not always strictly in accordance with the rules.

Rather than waiting for officialdom to become aware and throw a wobbly and introduce some fatuous new rule, the FOCA engineers got together and found a qualified engineer from the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough who was a rabid racing enthusiast, and invited him to attend a number of Formula One races as their guest. His brief was simple: “Look closely at anything and everything to do with the cars and tell us if you think we are going wrong”. Colin Chapman explained that there were lots of areas where they all knew they were weak on design or on the application of a rule, but were so hell-bent on new things that they did not have time to think about nit-picking rules.

After a few meetings Peter Jowitt, the RAF engineer in question, well versed in accident investigation in the flying world, said that almost every team was marginal on some rule or another, but more important was the fact that the cars were not as safe as they could be, especially in an accident, and a little helpful guidance could make a big difference without compromising performance.

This whole affair was a private venture by Ecclestone and the FOCA teams and everyone was willing to listen and act, and close co-operation between the team engineers and the FIA engineers became cemented for the good of everyone in Formula One. A glaring example that was soon corrected was the construction of cockpit roll-over bars to protect the driver in the event of an accident in which the car overturned. Some of the Cosworth DFV-powered cars had a sturdy tubular structure, but it was bolted to the engine. BRM with its H-16 and Lotus with its Type 49 had set the fashion for using the engine as a stressed member between the cockpit monocoque and the gearbox and rear suspension, and if the first big impact in an accident was going to break the engine away from the monocoque, it was the cockpit area that needed protection, not the engine. Thus great attention was given to the cockpit area and the monocoque became a “survival cell” in which the driver became cocooned, regardless of what was happening to the rest of the car. Fail-safe joints were introduced for fuel pipes between monocoque and engine and a lot of thought went into eliminating the fire risk in the case of an accident. Split oil tanks that spewed their contents over the exhaust pipes or on to the rear tyres became a thing of the past and many other hazards were eliminated, none of them affecting the quest for speed.

Today we see some pretty horrific-looking practice accidents due to driver error and nine out of 10 times the driver walks back to the pits to take over the spare car. Sometimes the television world films an accident, with wheels, suspension components, gearbox and even the engine parting company from the monocoque as the accident progresses, and I wince when I hear people exclaim that “The car flew into many pieces” as if that was bad. My response has always been “Thank FOCA that it did”, for all those bits represent kinetic energy and in an accident that energy has to be dissipated. If by breaking up, this energy can be spread in various directions, there is every chance that the “survival cell” will come slowly to a halt. The human body does not like high retardation forces, like hitting a concrete wall, but it can withstand a surprising amount of banging and bouncing about, providing it does not have to stop suddenly.

What we are seeing today is the result of responsible actions on the part of the engineers in Formula One, all stemming from those early days of an unbiased engineer “just looking around the Formula One scene” at the invitation of a group of responsible designers.

In the club world of old cars, whether they be Edwardian, Vintage, Post-Vintage, Historic or Classic, there is a healthy undercurrent of responsibility emerging spontaneously. This is in the overall scene of racing and competitions for old cars. One of the good things that has occurred since the old-car boom, is the formation of onemake clubs, especially for makes that have long-since ceased to exist. They usually start with a handful of owners running obsolete models or defunct makes, who get together for a spot of “mutual aid”. If there is an obvious need a register or club soon forms and inevitably the question of spare parts arises. Thanks to the enormous enthusiasm for the old car game, registers and clubs are organising the manufacture of “pattern” spares to keep cars on the road.

What started as a simple project of making spare parts to replace those bits that wear out, has grown to such proportions that for certain makes you can build a brand new obsolete car! Whether you call it the genuine thing, a replica, or a fake is neither here nor there but a responsible element within the ranks is looking at the way some replacement parts are made and what use they are being put to. If it is a rebuild for a “beauty show” the bits could be made of brass or even plastic, providing they looked alright. If the car is being used for racing it is another matter altogether, and it is this aspect of “pattern” spares that clubs and registers are paying closer attention to.

Racing on modern permanent tracks with smooth high-grip surfaces, cornering forces have gone up dramatically and things like king-pins, stub-axles and steering arms are being loaded to a much higher limit than when the old-car was new. Today very few old cars are racing on components made by the original manufacturer, which would be “time expired” anyway and some of the one-make spares committees are already double-checking the design and manufacture of their club spares. They may be made to original works drawings, but what of the material specification and the heat treatment, and even if you can give the machine shop the correct figures is there any real guarantee that they would pass inspection, in the manner of the original maker.

Just as the F1 teams did a bit of self-scrutiny it is heartening that the more active one-make clubs are also acting responsibly, before officialdom takes a hand. Old car racing is now so popular, and so fast and furious that this attitude of responsibility by the “racers” themselves is long overdue. May it flourish and keep the old cars on the track.
Yours, DSJ

This month’s Three Memorable Moments, from Mike Morrish of London SE:

1. As a 14 year-old schoolboy visiting my first motor race, the 1963 British GP at Silverstone, and seeing my hero Jim Clark win in the Lotus 25.

2. Ten years later and practice for the 1973 British GP, watching Ronnie Peterson through Woodcote in a full-blooded power-slide in the Lotus 72D.

3. The opening lap in the World Championship Sports Car Race at Silverstone 1991, seeing Teo Fabi pull out four seconds in the Jaguar.

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