The efforts of the F.I.A. to be helpful to builders of Grand Prix racing cars have not met lately with signal success. In the bad old days, the great men of the world of motor sport used to meet in the autumn and tell manufacturers what rules they would have to race under in the following summer. This only gave them the winter in which to build their racing cars, and by the next autumn, as likely as not, the great men would set them quite a different problem.
Of course nowadays we have changed all that. As long ago as 1950 the great men were prepared to tell the builders of racing cars that until as long ahead as the end of 1953 Grand Prix races would continue to be for supercharged cars of 1,500 c.c. and unsupercharged cars of 4,500 c.c. This assurance would have made things much more convenient for the builders of racing cars—if it had not been for the builders of racing cars themselves. For better or worse some of them were discovering by the end of 1951 that their racing cars built to this formula were getting worn out, and others were apparently still failing to discover that their racing cars built to this formula were never going to get run in. As a result of all this, the only maker, at the beginning of 1952, who possessed any effective racing cars suited to real Grand Prix racing was Ferrari; but then whatever rules you decided on, Ferrari could apparently turn out a suitable racing car in about a fortnight. This meant, therefore, that if Grand Prix races had been run in 1952 as the great men had said in 1950 that they would be run, they would just have been races for Ferraris; and this, presumably, would not have been much fun, even for Ferrari, because I fail to see how, in these circumstances, even he could have prevented some of his Italian drivers from breaking his motor cars.
Such being the case, it was very lucky for Grand Prix racing that there existed Formula II. Formula Il was said to be designed for those who found building Formula I cars too expensive, which is a polite way of saying for those who found building supercharged cars too expensive. Formula II is supposed to be for unsupercharged 2-litre cars and 500-c.c. supercharged cars, but as anyone outside the lunatic fringe can be practically relied upon not to build 500-c.c. supercharged cars, Formula Il is really for unsupercharged 2-litre cars. These seem to be a very satisfactory sort of racing car from the point of view of the builder, with the result that it has proved possible to fill entry lists with them this year very comfortably. In spite of what the great men said in 1950, Grand Prix races in 1952 are for 2-litre unsupercharged cars.
At the beginning of the season all the pundits told me that this sort of racing car would prove abysmally slow. As at the same time they admitted that they would probably rush along at about 150 miles an hour, it is obvious that their abysmal slowness was something of a relative term. What the pundits really meant was that they would be slower than the Formula I cars of 1951. This is quite true, and on most Grand Prix courses they seem in fact to be about 10 miles an hour slower, with the result that no lap records seem to be in any immediate danger. This, however, is not what worries the critics; their real complaint is that lower speeds reduce the spectacular content of the competition, and therefore its popular appeal. With this view I am, I must admit, in complete disagreement. In my opinion, actual speed has only a very limited bearing on its spectacular value. Sixty miles an hour down Piccadilly, for example, is apt to be much more spectacular than 160 miles an hour at Silverstone. Yet I notice that the most ardent champions of the necessity for the spectacular appeal are the loudest in their applause for the modification of racing circuits which, by eliminating narrow, built-up sections such as the village of Gueux on the Rheims circuit, or the old hairpin at Le Mans, increase their actual speed at the expense of their spectacular value. Again, the spectacular value of a car on a corner depends, in my submission, less on the speed at which the corner is actually taken than on the extent to which centrifugal force appears to be defied. Now the total weight of Formula II cars is in general considerably less than that of their Formula I predecessors, while their unsprung weight tends to be very little different, with the result that on the whole Formula II cars look a good deal “dicier ” to me on a corner than did, say, the Type 158 Alfa-Romeos, which appeared to corner with such ease that other spectators besides myself must have been almost tempted to believe that they could do it themselves, if they tried. From all which, I conclude that Formula II cars are already quite satisfactory from the spectacular point of view–and are likely to become more so as they get faster and lighter.
They also appear to me to be eminently satisfactory from the technical point of view, as they resume a theme for whose resumption I have been waiting for some thirty years. In 1922 the capacity limit for Grand Prix racing cars was reduced to two litres, and Fiat won the races at Strasbourg and Monza with an engine developing rather less than 100 h.p. In 1923, however, the Italian firm decided to exploit the fact that while the rules specified a maximum engine capacity of 2,000 c.c., they did not specify a maximum induction pressure of one atmosphere; and since then we have really had no serious unsupercharged Grand Prix racing cars.
When a capacity limit was first introduced for racing in France, in 1911, it was immediately apparent to Marc Birkigt of Hispano-Suiza and to Georges Sizaire of Sizaire-Naudin that the way to crack it wide open was to use forced induction. Both proposed to do so in 1912, but neither succeeded—fortunately for them, I should imagine, as a 1912 supercharged engine would almost inevitably have blown up. Some inquisitive journalists, however, found out what they were up to and gave the show away, with the result that race organisers became alarmed and nipped their schemes in the bud in 1913 by banning superchargers except on two-stroke engines. Ten years later, for better or worse, this stipulation had been forgotten. Fiat found in 1923 that the rules allowed them to supercharge a four-stroke, and other people have been doing so ever since.
The development of the unsupercharged racing engine was thus arrested just when it had reached a most interesting stage. A capacity limit inevitably puts a premium on crankshaft speed, but as crankshaft speeds go up, it becomes increasingly difficult, with atmospheric induction, to fill the cylinders. Valves must obviously be as large as possible, but the larger, and heavier, they get, the more difficult it is to ensure their closure, in the limited time available. It was for this reason that in 1922 people were thinking about closing them positively, which is otherwise known as committing desmodromy. Of course the problem is eased if the number of cylinders is increased, and therefore the size and weight of each valve reduced, a consideration which, in part at least, accounts for the popularity of the straight-eight in the early ‘ twenties. But the trouble with these small multi-cylinder engines is that they tend to have a very sharply peaked power-curve, and are correspondingly “gutless” at anything other than their optimum crankshaft speed. This, it seems, was the trouble with the 12-cylinder Formula II Ferrari, which finally induced its maker to throw it away and replace it with a four-cylinder engine, such as most people, thirty years ago, regarded as completely demode.
Lampredi, I read, has taken great trouble over the valve-springs of this engine. As time goes on, however, and he wants more power and therefore higher crankshaft speeds out of this short-stroke engine, I suspect that he will have to take even greater trouble over its valve-springs.
It looks to me as if there will be plenty of time for this and other 2-litre engines to be developed. By the end of this season we shall obviously have become accustomed to the fact that Formula II is in effect the Grand Prix formula. During 1953, I imagine, no one will consider running Grand Prix races for anything other than 2-litre unsupercharged cars. In 1954, the formula is supposed to be going to change to 2½-litres unsupercharged or 750-c.c. supercharged. The great men said so as long ago as 1950. But as we have seen, the great men’s prognostications with regard to 1952 have not been borne out by experience. One may venture to doubt whether their forecasts for 1954 will prove any more successful. Technically, at any rate, it would seem very unlikely that there will be any object in increasing the capacity limit from 2,000 c.c. to 2,500 c.c. It would result, I should imagine, in putting engine power up by from 10 to 15 per cent. But that, it seems, may not by then be necessary. In any-case one manufacturer, in the course of conversation at Spa the other day, was prepared to forecast that by the beginning of 1954, 2-litre unsupercharged cars will be providing speeds at least equal to those of the Formula I cars of 1951. Lap records, in fact, may well by then be in danger again, without anyone bothering to change the present formula.
There are, however, other arguments which may prevail. The formula for 1954 was announced in good time so that intending entrants need not be hurried in preparing for it, and if, in fact, they have been busy preparing 2½-litre engines for 1954, they may insist on being allowed to use them. In discussing this problem I am on extremely strong ground because, in spite of swanking about talking to manufacturers at Spa, I know, in fact, no more about the intentions of manufacturers than what is absolutely public knowledge. What, then, would appear to be the situation? We know that in France Gordini now has what is already an extremely good 2-litre engine, and not even rumours have reached me of other French aspirants to Grand Prix honours. Gordini may, of course, have designed his engine for easy conversion to 2½ litres (which is, perhaps, suggested by the fact that he ran a 2.3-litre version of it at Le Mans), but even if he did, he should have no great objection to leaving it at its present size. It seems unlikely, therefore, that there would be any great outcry in France if the present Formula II remained on in 1954 as not only Formula I, but the only formula.
Similarly, in Italy, Ferrari has a 2-litre engine, and if by the beginning of 1954 he is worried about his valve springs, he will hardly want to make his engine, and therefore his valves, any bigger. By then, too, Maserati should have considerably developed his 2-litre six-cylinder, and apart from them, all I know is that both Alfa-Romeo and Fiat have 2-litre touring-car engines in production which might provide the basis for Grand Prix engines. It looks in any case as if the Italians might be quite happy to carry on with a 2-litre limit.
In Germany, Mercedes-Benz are, I suppose, edging their way back towards full Grand Prix racing. The 300 SL engine might, I suppose, have been designed for easy reduction to 2½ litres, and for all I know to the contrary the dimensions of the Spanish Pegaso engine may have been chosen with the 1954 limit in mind. Both these countries, Germany and Spain, would be returning to Grand Prix-type racing after an absence, in the case of the former since before the war and in that of the latter since 1910, when the Spanish-built Hispano-Suiza won the Coupe de l’Auto. In neither case would their views be likely to prevail over those of recently more regular contestants.
Last, but by no means least, where would this country’s interests lie in the matter? The present position, as I see it, is that we have several manufacturers such as H.W.M., Cooper, Frazer-Nash and E.R.A. with excellent Formula II chassis, but with nothing very outstanding in the way of engines to mount in them. The Bristol engine, for example, on which the majority of them rely, has, in my opinion, produced wonderful results in this form of exercise, but the design is by no means new and was far from being conceived originally as that of a Grand Prix engine.
Would we, then, be better off with a 2½-litre limit? Obviously the answer to this question depends primarily on the intentions of two firms, Aston-Martin and Alta, both of which possess engines of this size, which would be far more suitable for Grand Prix purposes than the 2-litre power units which our representatives are using at present. If they intend to use them, the fact should weigh powerfully with our representatives when the question comes up for discussion as to whether the 1954 formula should be confirmed, or the present one continued.
For the other British manufacturers of Grand Prix cars the burning question which would then arise would be whether these engines would be made available for their use, as the 2-litre Alta and Bristol engines have been in recent years. If not, what we clearly need is a new Grand Prix engine, and obviously it would be of the greatest assistance to the smaller manufacturers if this could be made on a communal basis, leaving such firms as H.W.M., Cooper and E.R.A. to concentrate on their chassis. Would not this business of producing a British racing motor be the best use now of the B.R.M. project? We all know who could build the engine if they would, and we presume that they would rather it were called a B.R.M. than say a Bentley. Let us then decide as soon as possible whether it will have to be a two- or a two-and-a-half-litre, and then get going, this time without a moment’s delay.