Everyone expected Ralt to dominate British F3 in 1983. Everyone was eventually proved right. But there was one day in the sun for unfancied Magnum, as Nick Phillips recalls
Do you feel lucky, punk?" queried Clint Eastwood, as that most famous of Magnum-wielders, Dirty Harry. His victims never were, of course. At Silverstone in 1983, Ayrton Senna was the young gun in the sights of a Magnum but it was an 833, not a .44.
Senna ducked round the outside of its 'wielder', David Leslie, and disappeared, to score the first of many Formula Three wins. But for a few hours, the brilliant Brazilian had been put off his stride by the combination of a down-to-earth Scot and a neat, effective car built and run on packed-lunch money by a Northampton engineer.
Round one of the 1983 British F3 Championship, and Ayrton and Martin Brindle in their Rah RT3s were embarking on an epic battle for the title but neither was on pole. Leslie was. His Magnum had stunned the established West Surrey Racing and Eddie Jordan Racing teams and their lead drivers Senna and Brundle with a lap of the Silverstone Club circuit that put him firmly fastest. This put the cat among the pigeons "Senna just could not understand why someone like me, in a car like that, should be on pole," remembers Leslie and Magnum boss John Robinson immediately found himself subject to cheating allegations. The controversy surrounded the Magnum's skirt system.
"It was advanced aerodynamically," says Robinson, who designed the car as well as building it, running it and even tuning its Toyota engine, "but we weren't doing anything wrong. The skirts were different to those on the Ralt [the RT3 dominated that part of F3 history], but that doesn't mean they were illegal.
"People who say we were cheating should remember that we were on the front row at Silverstone again later in the season with a very similar lap time. Anyway, we didn't worry too much about the accusations.
"Nowadays, Robinson is flattered rather than irritated by the barrage of backbiting, and chuckles when recalling the scene on the pit-wall after Leslie had set the time: "Eddie Jordan was next door to us, and he saw us put the time on the board. 'That's not real, is it?' he asked. But it was.
"Because we were on a shoestring, we often used to borrow gear ratios and so on. Later that day, though, we asked Eddie for a ratio and he just said: 'You're on pole, I'm not lending you anything."
Come the race, Leslie and Robinson had sought to improve the car and made set-up changes. But they simply ended up with severe oversteer.
"I thought I could make it better," admits Leslie. "Racing drivers always think they can go better, but unfortunately these changes made it worse, and so I finished down the field I don't remember where."
The car's potential was never fulfilled, and like so many before or since, the marque was unable to turn a competitive car into a commercial success. Lack of money was always the obstacle to on-track glory; both Leslie and Robinson are adamant that, had they found a budget to match those of their rivals, things would have been different.
"The car looked the part," recalls Leslie, "and it was as well made as anything on the grid. With the money to do what he [Robinson] wanted to with the car, I'm sure we could have taken the fight to the Ralts. It was the usual thing that,without money, you couldn't go testing, you couldn't put new tyres on as often as the others, and so on."
The 833 always seemed quickest at Silverstone, and that was down to its aerodynamics.
"The Silverstone Club circuit in those days was basically just a triangle," says Leslie. "It was all about straight-line speed, and the Magnum had plenty of that." An efficient skirt system and one-piece underbody generated the downforce, allowing it to run small conventional wings, and hence have relatively low drag.
Leslie's performance in that opening round was far from a flash in the pan, though things never quite got that good again. The car qualified on the front row twice more at Silverstone, and was a frequent top-six finisher. The Scot's best result of the year came late in the season, at Oulton Park, when he was third. He finished seventh in the championship, the best non-Rah driver, and was only pipped for sixth at the final round, which he did not contest.
The firm that produced Magnums then, as now, run by Robinson and his three sons, Stuart, Ian and Peter continued to build racing cars until 1992, producing several more Formula Three machines the last of which came out in 1987 a batch of cars for a VW-powered one-make single seater series in the Caribbean, and finally an IMSA sports-car, the SC206.
"They all look like the SC206 now," says Robinson proudly. The company now concentrates on making components for other racing teams -Jaguar Racing and Cosworth being among its biggest customers.
"They were good times, and they put us in good stead for what we do now," says Robinson.
Still, you can't help but feel there's a touch of regret that Magnum racing cars weren't a commercial success.
Robinson concludes: "We won races with the Formula Three car in the Swedish and German series, and we figured that, if the car was winning, we would be able to sell them. But we never could."