The Brabham-Alfa Romeo fan

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Once again, whether he likes it or not, Niki Lauda has written his name indelibly in the Grand Prix history books, this time by winning the Swedish Grand Prix with a car that was subsequently banned. To be strictly accurate, it wasn’t the car itself that was banned but the device it carried. Outwardly the EcclestoneBrabham-Alfa Romeo team arrived in Sweden with two of their normal BT46 cars modified in the cooling system, using a large fan to aid the cooling and at the same time assist with the down-force on the car by creating a vacuum underneath the car.

To get a proper perspective on things we must look back to the origins of the BT46 by Gordon Murray. With the wide flat 12-cylinder Alfa Romeo engine, Murray opted for an overall dartshape for his new car, even though the principle had been tried and discarded by designers before him. This layout fitted in nicely with his triangular-section monocoque and having the widest part at the rear, where the wide Alfa engine could be carried. The clan-shape precluded any ideas of front mounted radiators and frontal width and openings were to be avoided at all costs. Having designed the basic shape the matter of cooling the Alfa Romeo engine was dealt with by surface radiators lying flush on the sloping sides of the monocoque. These were not simple orthodox radiators, but were very complex things involving a lot of cooling surface incorporated in a small overall Package. Unfortunately for Murray the system did not work satisfactorily and with the 1978 season fast approaching a hasty decision had to be made. The surface cooling was abandoned and a pair of conventional radiators were mounted on the nose of the car; a heart-breaking decision for apart from spoiling the dart-shape concept, it transposed a great lump of weight ahead of the front wheels, which is very undesirable if low polar-moments of inertia are being sought in the mterests of “quick” handling characteristics, but it was I lobson’s Choice for Murray.

In the hot weather of the South American races experiments were made with oil radiators lying flat on top of the Alfa Romeo engine, and also with an electric fan mounted under one of these experimental radiators. By the time of the South African GP ideas were germinating in Murray’s brain for ways of getting himself out of his design dilemma, due to the failure of the surface coolers. He needed to dissipate a certain number of BTh.U’s, resultant from the 500 or more horsepower being developed by the Alfa Romeo engine. Experiments were carried out with a large single radiator mounted vertically behind the driver’s head, but this spoilt the airflow over the rear wing. A suitable radiator mounted horizontally on top of the engine with ducting under it was not practicable, due to the fuel-iniecjion pump and the alternator on top of the engine getting in the way and making the whole layout higher than the permitted 90 cms. from the ground. Eventually a design was arrived at whereby a large single radiator was mounted horizontally on top of the engine, the whole engine/gearbox assembly was sealed off from the outside air and an extractor fan was mounted vertically behind the gearbox. Flexible skirts under the flat bottom of the car virtually prevented any air getting underneath so that the fan extracted all the air from the sealed-off engine/gearbox bay, and from under the car, causing a low pressure area underneath, with the subsequent benefit of a down-force on the car caused by atmospheric pressure on top of the car. At the same time the only way air could get into the sealed engine compartment was down through the horizontally-mounted radiator. It took a lot of experimenting with sealing skirts, fan performances and radiators to arrive at the desired flow through the radiator to dissipate the heat from soo b.h.p. All this testing and experimenting was carried out on the Alfa Romeo private test-track at Balocco, between Milan and Turin.

Now the rules for designing Formula One cars, and to my mind there are far too many of them (which is a sad reflection on the designing integrity of Formula One, but that’s another story), forbid the using of any moving device that might affect the car’s performance aerodynamically. The rule does not ban all moving devices, only those whose primary function is aerodynamic. Murray’s experiments and calculations convinced him that the extractor fan worked 70% to cool the engine and 30% to affect the down-force on the car, therefore its primary object was a cooling fan. In all good faith the layout was described to the CSI at a meeting in Madrid after the Spanish GP and they accepted Murray’s word, without seeing the car, So Ecclestone went ahead and prepared BT46/6 and BT46/4 with the complete extractor fan cooling system. With this layout Murray was able to get the cars back to his original needle-nose dart concept.

As we know the other members of the Formula One Constructors Association did not see eye-to-eye with Ecclestone, and before the race Lotus, Tyrell, McLaren and Surtees put in a collective protest that the car was illegal under the “movable device” rule. Then Frank Williams added his protest together with an extra one that the sliding plates fixed to the rear uprights to seal against the side panels of the engine bay contravened the rules. The Swedish stewards of the meeting rejected all these protests and let the cars take part in the race, and Lauda won. Whether he won due to the extra down-force caused by the fan, or by the better aerodynamics of the car without its front radiators, or because of the superior power of the Alfa Romeo engine no-one will ever know, they can only surmise. Following the victory by the Brabham-Alfa, Lotus and Tyrell pressed on with their protest and took it to the Swedish Federation, who rejected it and then they took it to the FIA in Paris, but later withdrew following the CSI decision.

Meanwhile the Formula One Constructors Association’s hierarchy had a lengthy meeting and came up with a remarkable compromise that can only illustrate that there is honour among thieves. They agreed to let Ecclestone and Murray race their “fan cars” until August 1st and then they had to discard the idea! This meant they could compete at the French GP, the British GP and the German GP. This compromise was put forward to a special commission of the CSI in Paris, which consisted of Alberto Rogano (Italy), Huschke von Hanstein (Germany), Jean-Marie Balestre (France) and Dean Delamont (Great Britain), with Pierre Ugeux (Belgium) as Chairman. They voted on this compromise, with Delamont and Hanstein being in favour of accepting it and Rogano and Balestre being against. Ugeux, as Chairman, gave his casting vote against the compromise and it was thrown out.

Much talk had gone on about the “ground effects” of fans and the possible outcome if they were allowed, and a final decision was made that Formula One cars fitted with fans would he banned from the date of the meeting, June 23rd, 1978. However, the results of the Swedish GP were to stand, so Lauda and the Brabham-Alfa Romeo have now become a part of Grand Prix history. The reasons given for banning Formula One cars fitted with fans were those of “safety”, in view of the possibilities such devices would lead to. It was felt, rightly or wrongly, depending on who you listen to, that fan-assisted “ground effects” would increase cornering power out of all proportion and that present-day safety measures on circuits would become obsolete very quickly. The ban was deemed advisable in the interests of the future and evolution of Formula One, said the CSI statement!

A technical commission from the CSI inspected the Brabham, measured it and were given any relevant infOrmation they required and they made calculations that they said agreed, more or less, with Gordon Murray’s figures of 70% cooling and 30% ground effects. By that reckoning the BT-46B was not illegal, according to the letter of the law, but the CSI banned it none-the-less. The Brabham “party-line” is to the effect that teams like Lotus, Tyrell and McLaren could see the car as an obvious threat and a challenge and ganged-up to get rid of it by fair means or foul. It would look as though Bernie Ecclestone’s friends are not in the Formula One Constructors Association.

On the Sunday night of the Swedish GP as Colin Chapman was flying his plane back to Hethel from Anderstorp his mind was busier than usual. On Monday morning a small tornado swept through the Research and Development department of Team Lotus and in no time at all a mock-up of a Lotus 79 was made with an extractor fan behind each venturi-shaped sidepod! (What an exciting development that would have been.) This was done before the Constructor’s meeting and the CSI meeting, just in case extractor fans on ground effects were going to be permitted. With all sincerity Chapman said he would have had a fan-assisted Lotus 79 at Brands Hatch for the British GP if the CSI had not banned them, adding “… and the Brabham wouldn’t have seen which way we’d gone… “. Never under-estimate Colin Chapman and Team Lotus.

What a pity Formula One racing has tube seen to be safe and is so hide-bound by rules. – D.S.J.

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