Matters of moment, April 2014

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Towards the end of our audio podcast recording with Gordon Murray, the former Brabham designer said the last of many things that had resonance – particularly in light of the magazine (this one) we were cooking back in the office.

Murray’s freewheeling career, indeed his whole life, has been rich in such variety it was hard to know where to begin for our chat show-style interview. Somehow, between BT44s and 52s, McLaren F1s and his current iStream technology that’s bringing F1 processes to road car production, we hadn’t touched upon his old boss and great friend: Bernie Ecclestone.

Then, right at the close, host Rob Widdows lobbed in what seemed an afterthought: “How long do you think Bernie will continue, Gordon?”

“As long as he’s able,” was the reply, as you might expect. “I can’t see him getting tired with it. It’s his whole life, isn’t it? I don’t know how much longer the old boy can go on for, but he hasn’t done a bad job, I suppose.”

That’s a matter of opinion. Rob said it, but we were all thinking it. “Well, you weren’t there when F1 was on its knees,” Gordon shot back, bristling ever so slightly. “I can’t speak for the period after I left [post-1989], but I certainly watched Bernie pick Formula 1 out of the dirt.”

At the turn of the decade in which Murray made his name, F1 was indeed in a shabby, rancorous state – but gloriously so, which is precisely why the spirited young designer, his peers and so many of you reading this magazine fell in love with it. Grand Prix editor Mark Hughes’s new book F1 Retro: 1970, which we plundered for an extract this month, captures that contradiction beautifully. The sport of Grand Prix racing was irreverent, spontaneous, romantic… and also cruel, amateurish and naïve.

With the know-it-all benefit of hindsight, we can state definitively that for all its glories motor racing had to change to thrive – and in the decades to come, just to survive. We’ll always linger on cherished past memories, but the bad bits mean we can never go back. We live in a comprehensively different world – and anyway, to rewind is not the natural way of Grand Prix racing.

Murray was spot on: Bernie Ecclestone grabbed hold of the sport and improved it in many ways – particularly for the band of chancers, the team owners, who made it all happen. Anyone who works in motor sport today – including us at Motor Sport – owe him a debt of gratitude.

But it was all so long ago. Ecclestone’s once-fresh influence has turned sour. The 83-year-old can still pull a fast deal (as the German legal system might well be about to discover), but we firmly believe his time is past. Slowly but surely, his controlling influence has squeezed the spontaneity out of F1 – the “punkish” spirit, as Mark puts it. And then came the killer deal: the gift of ‘ownership’, for 100 years no less, of a rebel sport that had become a cold, conservative commodity.

The start of a new season in Australia on March 16 will fascinate us, just as it always does, spiced this time by the complexities of challenging and well-intentioned new rules.

But our clarion call for revolution has little to do with energy recovery and fuel efficiency. Wholesale change far beyond ‘relevant’ F1 cars is required, not to recapture the past, but to make the most of the future – and we present our vision here.

As you’ll read, we don’t have all the answers. But we certainly offer a framework to address the fundamentals. Are we naïve to expect so much? Some of you might think so. But in reality, there is nothing stated in the article beginning on p34 that isn’t based in logic and pragmatism.

And the man to lead this revolution through the likely chaos of a post-Bernie wasteland? Mark has some well-informed thoughts on this too: there’s no need to look beyond one of the latest members of our Hall of Fame. And no, I don’t mean John McGuinness…

*******

Elsewhere in our podcast recording, I couldn’t resist asking Gordon Murray: do you think you’re finished with motor racing? The response was stark and more specific than I could have hoped.

“Not at all,” he replied. “I know my technical director here is champing at the bit. We’ve all promised ourselves that once we’ve got the licences and royalties coming in for our iStream projects, we’ll look again. I’ve got another supercar in me, for example…”

So what motor sport challenge does Murray still have an eye on? “I love sports car racing,” he said without hesitation. “It’s silly for someone who spent 20 years in F1, but then I did start in sports cars. I’d like to do Le Mans again, actually…”

Nearly 20 years since his McLaren F1 conquered the great endurance race, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the lure of Le Mans remains. “You get asked so many times what was your best bit in F1, but when I look back winning Le Mans stands out,” he told us. “People have no idea how difficult it is to win that race. It looks like Audi wins it every year and it’s easy, but even if you’ve done it that many times it’s not. It’s a Grand Prix season in 24 hours and it’s just so unpredictable.”

His pride in Le Mans and 1995 stems from how personally attached he was to the wonderful F1. “It really was a road car,” he said. “We should have driven it there and driven it home. And the other thing, too, is that there are very few F1 designers who have won Le Mans: men such as Mauro Forghieri. That meant a lot.”

At Le Mans this year, Audi, Porsche and Toyota will race for overall victory with three vastly different powertrain solutions to sports car racing’s new efficiency formula. That’s the challenge, right there.

No wonder it’s sports cars, and not F1, that still sparks the flame for one of the world’s greatest free thinkers.

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