Warhorses

Ron Dennis used to be based next door, during his Project Four days. His still-under-construction hi-tech temple to hi-tech, Paragon, lies only a few miles down the road, but it might as well be on Mars, such is the leap of faith, aspiration and budget it represents. Same sport, different world.

McLaren are a blend of style and content. Only the best will do. Which is why Gomm Metal Developments Ltd still craft handmade parts for them — even though their cramped Manor Way works in Old Woking would cause their former neighbour to throw a fit.

Product is what matters. Style is sacrificed. But the content is fascinating. The offices are time warp temples to scrapbooks, framed letters of thanks from John Wyer, steering wheels from old Ferraris, and a fusty library of dusty magazines. The workshop is a temple to low-tech machines that, in the hands of experts, do a job computers still cannot.

Gomm Metal are part of the vital underbelly of British Motorsport. Perhaps more famous than most of their blue-collar peers, but still known only to a few. But when I say it was they who created the beautiful Fond F3L sports-racer, built the original Tyrrell 001, fabricated pieces for the lightweight GT40 that won Le Mans in 1968 and '69, did the shells for Alan Mann's racing Escorts and the works rally Escorts, their importance to our Motorsporting success story becomes apparent.

And their talents don't stop there: the film version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the sleep pods from Aliens, a turret off the Memphis Belle, and the submarine in For Your Eyes Only were all constructed by the company set up by Maurice Gomm in 1950.

The one-of-a-kind Maurice, father figure to many young, impecunious racers, passed away in 1996, and son Frank has been in charge since. He's running a bit late, which is fine by me. I browse to my heart's content: Rodriguez's 1971 Monza 1000kms trophy, Stewart's 1970 Spanish GP prize, Graham Hill's old desk.

A dark red Doctor Marten appears from behind the door. It is followed by a mane of black hair. Frank has arrived. He is bemused by my enthusiasm for the Motorsport 'jumble' therein, and genuinely seems surprised when I point out some of the 'goodies'. Tyrrells, McLarens, works Escorts: it's just what they do. My anorak response seems as alien as some of the pods they've built.

But that's not to say Frank is as cold to every car as the sheet steel he forms them from. Tucked away in a small, disused office, in the corner of the rear workshop, is his 'weakness'. We skim pasta D-type and the Richard Utleydesigned 1960 FJ Caravelles to reach it: Nelson Piquet's 1978 F3 Ralt RT1, chassis 131, the car that won the BP Championship and ushered the Brazilian into Formula One. It's hardly wrapped up in cotton wool, far from it, but Frank's affection for the car is clear.

He bought it in 1980 for £1500 — even though there was nowhere for him to race it. That changed in '86 with the inauguration of classic F3 championships, and since then, barring two or three seasons, he has campaigned it Business commitments have always prevented him from undertaking a full programme, and will do so again in this season's HSCC Classic F3 series, but that sits well with his obvious do-it-for-fun attitude. He reckons to have clocked up 40 races this car, so striking a happy balance between keeping it aired and keeping it original. The only items replaced during his 22 years of ownership are the wishbones and front discs. The only mod is an upchange light on the front roll-hoop; the only affectation is an Main Prost gear knob (a present from McLaren); the only sop to political correctness is a silencer.

'He bought the car in 1980 for £1500 - even though there was nowhere for him to race it'

"It's easy to maintain." Frank says. "A cheap formula, really. A set of tyres [Avons in place of the period Goodyear G54s] will last us a season. We have the engine [a 2-litre Toyota Novamotor strangled to 6000rpm and 165bhp by the mandatory air restrictor] looked at once every two years. Straightforward stuff. Which is a good job because, give me a piece of metal and I know where I am, but give me an engine and I'm a bit lost.

'The only affectation is an F1 title-winning Alain Prost gear knob (a present from McLaren)'

"It doesn't give much warning of when it's about to swap ends, but it's brilliant fun."

This will be sweet music to RT1's creator, Ron Tauranac. The Australian is one of the greatest commercial race-car designers. During his 10 years with Brabham, the company built 600 customer cars. They were usually simple, rugged, a joy to drive— and competitive. While Colin Chapman was chasing the next big thing, Tauranac's designs were subtly evolving. And unlike Chapman, Tauranac was responsible for every nut and bolt on his cars — never more so than on the RT1, the car that marked the second phase of his career.

He left the now-Bernie Ecclestone-owned, now-F1-centric Brabham in 1972 and, after short spells with Frank Williams and Trojan, contemplated retirement And then set up shop at Snelgar Road, Woking, during the winter of 1974. Ralt was to be revived.

An amalgam of Ron's and his brother's (Austin Lewis) initials, the first Ralts were built in Sydney during the 1950s: two single-seaters for Ron, and a sportscar for Austin. Ron laid down a batch of the second single-seater and planned to sell them, but was whisked away to England by Jack Brabham before the project could be finished.

So Ralt lay dormant — until March 31, 1975, which is when Larry Perkins lined up his RT1 at Thruxton for the first round of the BP Super Visco F3 series. He might have won, too, but for a moment's inattention and the resultant off. He secured the European F3 title, though, with victories at Monza and Croix-en-Temois.

Ten RT1s were built (the early cars were constructed by Gomm) that first year: four F3s, three Formula Atlantics and three F2s, all based around the same tub: adaptability was a Tauranac watchword. Thirty were built in 1976, and 41 in '77, one of which went to Italy for Nelson Piquet Soutomaior.

The reigning Brazilian Super Vee champion had begun the European F3 series disastrously, in a March, and so swapped allegiances. This brought him an upturn in results, winning at Jarama and Kassel-Calden (a German airfield). The following year, he decided, he would thcus on Britain. The subsequent campaign would change the face of British F3 for ever.

A brand-new RT1 was ordered, but its build ran late, and the early season proved fraught, as Derek Warwick's year-old RT1 won five of the first six races. Piquet, however, had time on his side. Warwick was competing while holding down a full-time job at his family's trailer business, whereas Piquet had no such distraction and, along with mechanic-cum-manager, Australian Greg 'Peewee' Siddle, set about turning the tables.

"The main thing was the amount of testing we did," says Siddle. "We had a spare car by May, and we tested them continually. We really got to know the car." And maximise it.

The formula's strict regulations, the cars' straightforward designs, and Tauranac's desire not to be seen to be favouring one particular team, meant performance gains would be fractional, but precious and crucial. This RT1 became the best, most important, of the 150-or-so built because of a host of detail changes.

"We were critical on weight," continues Siddle. "There's not much you can do when the monocoque is aluminium and the wishbones are steel, but we were the first to use aircraft nuts and bolts, which are lighter. We had lighter fibreglass bodywork made, too. And what weight we had, we put as low and as central as possible: we resited the battery and extinguisher, and lowered the headrest. We were able to go a bit lighter in the duff, too.

"Another area we spent a lot of time on was the aerodynamics. We had about five or six different nose-cones, and were constantly assessing different Gurney flaps, which we ran on the nose as well as the wing. Nelson could tell if we changed a Gurney by an eighth of an inch. Towards the end, we even ran a venturi at the back, but we were guessing a little bit."

It was fitted also with cockpit-mounted front and rear anti-roll bar adjusters from mid-season; Warwick only got his towards the end of the year, and then only to the rear. Other tweaks included the wider Formula Atlantic front suspension (double wishbone) for slower circuits, revised geometry at the rear (top link, lower wishbone, twin radius arms) to generate anti-squat, and rubbers in the shock absorbers (usually Bilsteins, sometimes Konis, depending on the conditions) to stop them crashing out.

Tyres were another boon. Piquet found that some G54s were better than others, and he'd happily assess 20 sets to find five good ones. In contrast, Warwick used to take one spare, for the left-rear, to the abrasive Thruxton.

Mallory Park, May 14, round seven of the BP series, was pivotal: Piquet won; Warwick, who was flirting with March's 783 and, by his own admission, becoming confused, retired on lap three. This was the first in a run of seven wins for Piquet, induding a dominant drive in front of the Fl teams at Ricard. He would make his GP debut a month later, at Hockenheim, with Ensign, and drive Bob Sparshott's M23 McLaren in Holland, Italy and Canada.

Despite these 'distractions', he ran off four more F3 wins in a row, securing the BP title — and a Brabham F1 contract — in the process. He had won 11 of his 13 starts since Mallory, and finished up with 13 victories. Warwick beat him to the Vandervell title, Piquet missing two rounds because of his F1 commitments, but the Brazilian was content to sit out the last two races of the season, his future secure.

"We had raised the F3 bar [and doubled the usual budget to £70k]," says Siddle. "Some people said we were the works team. Yes, we were based in a shed at Ron's new place [near Byfleet], but that brought its own problems. He would stick his nose round the door, see what we were doing, and get on to the phone to his other customers. But he did pay us a great compliment by saying that, if we had worked to the same level in the 1970 Fl championship, we would have won it."

Warwick, too, had performed superbly, on a fraction of his rival's budget (he estimates £17k) to score eight championship race wins — yet had no such security of future for 1979. And even the determined Hampshireman was unable to ever fully close this gap. So Frank Gomm's cherished RT1 straddles the fine line from which such career paths diverge.

'...the first in a run of seven wins, including a dominant drive in front of the F1 teams at Ricard'