The Revolutionary 312T began a golden period for Ferrari. Niki Lauda and its creator, Mauro Forghieri, tell Alan Henry why it was so good
From ‘the moment’ Niki Lauda first tried Maranello’s 312 `trasversale’ in late 1974 it was clear to the young Austrian that his new car might well be the class of the field in the following year’s World Championship.
So it proved. Powered by the brilliant 3-litre 180-degree V12 which had been the cornerstone of Ferrari’s technical armoury since the start of 1970, the 312T added a transverse gearbox to the package to produce one of the most consistent, neutral F1 cars of its generation. It was also superbly rugged, reliable and powerful enough for its derivatives to keep Ferrari in play as a leading light through to the end of 1979.
For Lauda, the 312T was the making of his reputation. For Ferrari, it won a Constructors’ Championship hat trick between 1975 and ’77 with 16 Grand Prix victories. But just how good was the 312T family set against its opposition?
Niki Lauda joined the Ferrari team at the start of 1974 and won two Grands Prix with the original Mauro Forghieri-designed 312B3. This had a conventional, gearbox and, Lauda remembers, was always prone to a touch of understeer. But when Forghieri took the wraps off the new 312T immediately after the ’74 United States GP, Lauda admits that he was a worried man.
Forghieri’s avowed intention was to pursue the lowest possible polar moment of inertia by packaging as much of the car as possible between the front and rear wheels. The new fivespeed transmission cluster was positioned across the car ahead of the rear axle line with the shafts lying at right-angles to the centre-line of the car and the drive taken via bevel gears on the input side of the gearbox. “When Mauro Forghieri first showed me the drawings of the 312T,” recalls Lauda, “I felt indifferent about the whole project. I didn’t really appreciate the advantages that it would offer because it seemed to be such a very big change away from a chassis about which we knew everything.
“But then, when I got to drive it around Fiorano, Ferrari’s test track, I quickly appreciated that it was a much more competitive proposition. It was clear that it was in a different class. The problem with the B3 had been its inclination towards understeer. No matter how you tried to tune the chassis, it always understeered very slightly. We had also used up all its potential, so we just had to switch to the new car. There was simply no choice.”
However, Lauda firmly believes that the 312T enjoyed only a slight power advantage over the rival Cosworth Ford from McLaren, Lotus, Shadow and Tyrrell. What it did provide, along with its totally neutral handling, was a wide torque curve from the superbly flexible flat 12 engine. Driveability, Lauda says, was the key.
“Those suggestions we used to hear alleging that we had a 30bhp advantage over the Cosworths really used to infuriate me,” Lauda says, “although I did try to push them the back of my mind at the time. If I had really enjoyed as much as an effective 30 horsepower advantage over the others, I’m certain I would have been walking away with the races using only one hand. The 312T chassis was so good that any power benefit of that nature would have left me with an enormous advantage. The chassis was just perfect; it was totally neutral and progressive.” In 1975, Lauda won five Grands Prix to take his first World Championship crown. The following year he won the Brazilian and Argentine races with the 312T, then Clay Regazzoni won at Long Beach, and the evolutionary 312T2 emerged victorious in Belgium and Monaco. Then came a spate of engine failures caused by a machining error which produced infinitesimal cracks at the point where a flange taking the drive to the ignition was pressed into the end of the crankshaft.
This problem was rectified sufficiently quickly for Lauda to take a distant second place to James Hunt’s McLaren in the British GP at Brands Hatch. This was subsequently translated into a victory on appeal to the FIA after Hunt was excluded from the results for a rule infringement following a first lap shunt which resulted in the race being red-flagged to a halt. Then Lauda almost lost his life in a fiery accident on the second lap of the German GP at Nurburgring. This disaster handed Hunt a priceless opportunity to have a tilt at the championship, the Englishman squeezing home by a single point after Lauda who had made a fantastic recovery to return to the cockpit by Monza pulled out of the final rain-soaked race at Japan’s Mount Fuji circuit.
The hard fact of the matter was that Ferrari’s chassis development programme had been allowed to drift while Lauda was in hospital. For 1977, the Austrian turned things round and bounced back to take his second title.
Yet there was a gradual, almost imperceptible deterioration in the Ferrari T2’s performance in 1977 which served as a reminder that F1 cars are complex technical packages. Maranello was also slightly irked that Goodyear’s latest tyres seemed more suited to the rival McLaren M26, a development which resulted in Ferrari switching to Michelin radials from the start of 1978. That incredible flat 12 engine’s reliability continued to underpin Lauda’s 1977 efforts. In the South African GP, his T2 ran over debris from the tragic accident which killed the Shadow driver Tom Pryce and the mighty flat 12 lost all its water and most of its oil. But it still finished, cockpit warning lights flashing alarmingly, to post yet another well-deserved victory.
At the end of 1977, Lauda quit and joined Bernie Ecclestone at Brabham. But the flat-12s kept winning through 1978, with Carlos Reutemann and Gilles Villeneuve notching up five more victories. Then, in 1979, Jody Scheckter won the championship (the last to go to Maranello) with the 312T4, winning three races, a tally matched by Villeneuve. But that, effectively, was the end of the story.
At Lotus, Chapman’s ambitious work on under-car aerodynamics had ushered in the ground effect era and Mario Andretti surged to the World Championship in 1978. Then Williams picked up the challenge, refining Chapman’s concept to a brilliantly competitive pitch in time for 1980. Ferrari was being left behind.
The 1980 Ferrari 312T5 was a hopeless waste of time. Forghieri desperately tried to engineer in some ground effect credibility, but the wide flat 12 engine precluded any serious attempt at harnessing the airflow beneath the cars. Add to that a succession of engine failures and Maranello was relegated from champ to chump in a single season. It was time for the turbo era.