Whilst the idea of a journalist carrying out a serious evaluation of a present-day Grand Prix car is as unlikely as it is presumptuous, it’s not every day that the offer of a few slow laps in a competitive Formula One car comes the way of a layman. Accordingly, we at Motor Sport took it as something of a compliment when Don Nichols, American chief of the British-based UOP Shadow Grand Prix team, offered the writer an opportunity to try one of his DN5 Formula One cars on Silverstone’s 2.93-mile Grand Prix circuit. Originally scheduled for a date soon after the United States Grand Prix, we had to wait an extra ten days for our intrepid exercise after Tom Pryce knocked a corner off the car against the barriers at Abbey Curve. We were fortunate enough to be blessed with a very warm and sunny day when it finally came to sampling just what it feels like to have a Cosworth DFV pounding away behind your right ear.
The 1975 season was the Shadow team’s third in Formula One; and it proved a year which promised rather more than was actually realised in terms of results. The Tony Southgate-designed DN5 chassis proved extremely fast on several occasions and Tom Pryce scored a fine win in the non-Championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, but otherwise the cars did not score points in many Grand Prix races. Their drivers, Pryce and Frenchman Jean-Pierre Jarier, contributed towards this apparent lack of reliability by being involved in several accidents, but the team seems to be developing along the right lines and manager Alan Rees is confident that 1976 should see the cars finishing races with more regularity. One way or another, and notwithstanding their record elsewhere, Silverstone seemed rather an appropriate circuit on which to drive the Shadow. Both Jarier and Pryce led this year’s British Grand Prix before crashing out of the race and Pryce qualified for pole position with an impressive lap of 1 min. 19.36 sec.
The entire team proved extremely helpful and accommodating about the whole test which took place after Pryce had completed some high-speed testing with a variety of modified side panels fixed to the car. Alan Rees hid his obvious concern extremely well, even inviting me up to the team’s Northampton factory the previous Friday in order to check that I’d be able to slip into the tight confines of DN5/3A’s cockpit. I must admit that a certain degree of doubt existed among my colleagues at Standard House as to whether my substantial girth could be accommodated within the walls of a monocoque chassis tailored for the slim frame of a Grand Prix driver, a doubt which also lurked in Rees’ mind as well. With a mere 14½ in. width available at hip level, and Pryce’s specially moulded seat installed within that width, there seemed every possibility that I would return to London in disgrace, but to Rees’ ill-concealed amazement (not to mention my own!) I slipped in with far less difficulty than I ever anticipated. The firmly anchored six-point Willans seat harness proved to have just enough adjustment to strap me into the cockpit, so I could at least set out for Silverstone confident in the knowledge that I would be able to get into the car, even if I didn’t get very far once I was in it!
Once the decision had been taken to allow me to drive the car, there followed a wealth of advice and guidance from all quarters Tom Pryce continually assured me that the one thing to remember was that a smooth and relaxed approach would he the most intelligent way to go about the whole affair; Tony Southgate assured me that it was very nice “when it’s driven slowly” and Alan Rees, taking a rightly cautious attitude, simply said “do anything you like with it . . . just don’t press the throttle pedal hard!” armed with such sage guidance, how could a novice fail, I asked myself?
First, it seems appropriate to dispel any illusions that may surround our readers concerning a 3-litre Formula One car. Successive designers over the past eighty years have devoted much of their lives to the endless quest for speed and track performance which is the essence of a racing car’s existence. Progressively, Formula One cars have become more specialised and further removed from their road counterparts than one could ever have imagined, so if there is anyone who thinks that a 450 b.h.p. single-seater projectile, weighing just over 1,300 lb. and transmitting its power through to the road via enormous 20 in. wide rear tyres, has anything to do with high speed road motoring then they would be well advised not to try driving one. Formula One is very much an area for specialists and my stint round Silverstone served merely to convince me just how excellent a standard of driving is maintained by the people habitually at the back of a Grand Prix grid, let alone at the front.
The first minor problem with the Shadow arose when I slid into its cockpit wearing a pair of soft driving shoes. The Shadow monocoque tapers forwards fairly drastically, being little more than five inches wide at the front of the footwell which accommodates not only throttle, brake and clutch pedal, but also a foot rest to keep the driver’s left foot from inadvertently riding the clutch pedal. Once the front body and cockpit section was secured, I found it impossible to move my feet at all as they seemed firmly wedged between monocoque floor and glassfibre body section. Off came the body section, off came my shoes and I was left, in comfort, to start driving in my socks.
Pedals, gearchange controlling the precise five-speed Hewland gearbox, and steering wheel position, all proved ideal once I’d been strapped into the Shadow cockpit. Ear plugs are an absolute necessity for Formula One motoring, but one receives the biggest surprise when one comes to fire up the engine. A quick flick of the switch on the instrument panel to activate the electric fuel pump, on with the ignition switch on the centre of the steering wheel and press the starter button. The Cosworth DFV bursts into life with as much fuss as a 1,600-c.c. Formula Ford and burbles happily over at around 2-3,000 r.p.m. without a hint of temperament. The clutch is pleasantly soft in action and, although my elbows flexed the fibreglass cockpit side slightly, the gearchange movement is splendidly simple once you’ve got used to moving little more than your wrist. Strapped securely into the cockpit with the top section screwed down, the Shadow seems absolutely tiny.
On the move, the Cosworth V8 is surprisingly docile and can easily he driven “off the cam” with no juddering, spluttering or misfiring. For the first few laps it became clear that it doesn’t really matter whether you’re in first or fourth gear for between 4,000 and 7,000 r.p.m. the DFV offered ample torque for my requirements. In fact it didn’t take long to realise that one could travel round the circuit, apparently quite quickly, without ever getting the engine revving much over 7,000 r.p.m. It is only when the rev counter needle approaches the 8,000 r.p.m. mark that the whole complexion of the scenery changes.
It took me about five laps, getting used to the incredibly precise gearchange and equally astounding braking performance, before I was ready to acquaint myself with the world of a Cosworth DFV on full song. When Rees described it as “lighting a firework” he wasn’t exaggerating in the slightest. Once I’d scrabbled my way round Becketts at a modest 6,500 r.p.m. in third gear (calculated to be something over 85 m.p.h.) it was time to press the throttle to the floor, swing through Chapel Curve and open it up down the Hangar Straight. By the time the rev counter needle climbs round to 7,500 r.p.m. the DFV has lost its flat bark and begins to sing sweetly all the way up to about 8,200 r.p.m. when the note turns to a shrill rasp and you experience an incredible, rocket-like punch in the hack, the needle is up to 10,000 r.p.m. and it’s time to grab fourth. There’s barely time to pause before the thing’s back up to 10,000 r.p.m. in fourth (142 m.p.h.) and you’re mentally debating whether you’ll stay in fourth and negotiate Stowe Corner, or change into fifth and end up in Oxfordshire. There’s barely time to notice that the Shadow’s rather harsh and bumpy ride over Silverstone’s minor undulations has smoothed out as the air pressure over its body and wings builds up and the car progressively depresses onto its suspension.
A brief return to the pits seemed appropriate at this stage, both to calm frayed nerves and reassure Alan Rees that his car was still in one piece, and it was then that Tom Pryce pitched in with another piece of constructive advice. “Just keep your foot hard on the throttle in fifth, all the way down to the flecked line across the track on the entrance to Stowe Corner. The car won’t get away from you on the straight because it’s a nice warm day. The tyres are warming up nicely. No problem.” No problem? I’d been braking hard in fourth gear about twenty yards before that point, a fact which highlights the difficulty of acclimatising oneself to the enormous braking and cornering reserves offered by a Grand Prix car being driven “off the pace”. It took several more laps before I was even getting the Shadow into fifth gear at all on the Hangar Straight and I chose to err on the side of caution coming up through the left-hand flick at Abbey Curve, preferring to run the DN5 up to just over 10,000 r.p.m. (142 m.p.h.) in fourth gear rather than changing into fifth under the Daily Express bridge and then quickly having to worry about another quick change into second for the tight chicane. Going into both these corners after a fast straight, I went progressively later and later before moving my foot onto the brake pedal but never remotely approached the limit of the car’s braking capacity dissipated through the huge tyre area available.
In the corners themselves an almost total lack of roll is the feature that strikes one hardest; think of the ease and lack of spectacle with which the aces lap three or four seconds off their fastest time and you’ll begin to appreciate how much the tyres, aerofoils and stiff suspension permit you to drive “on tramlines” unless you’re really scratching hard for a quick time. Juggling 450 b.h.p. on the limit round Becketts, Stowe and Club is a serious matter best left to the experts, so I confined myself to driving the Shadow as smoothly and tidily as I could, a tentative punch of the throttle in third gear two-thirds of the way round Club and the resultant twitch from the rear end serving merely to remind me why I sit behind a typewriter to earn my bread and butter and not in the cockpit of a Grand Prix car. Interestingly, I was not conscious of much buffeting from the wind, probably because the car’s cockpit (and presumably cockpit surround) was tailored for a driver of similar height. Eventually, after three stops at the pits for discussion, I at last got to grips with the straight line performance of the Shadow and banged it into fifth gear on the Hangar Straight, building it up to 9,800 r.p.m. (155 m.p.h.) before shutting off for Stowe (after the flecked line!) slipping the Hewland gearbox straight into third gear and sweeping through the long right-hander in what seemed, to me at least, tolerably impressive style!
Keeping myself out of the way of faster Formula One and F5000 competitors prevented me from getting carried away on the crest of a wave of over-confidence and doing something silly with the car. That was just as well. When one hears a Grand Prix driver come into the pits and recount to his designer that his car is “oversteering progressively”, one has to remember that he’s not talking about the 40 m.p.h. slides that you, me and the man across the road might manage driving 3-litre Capris on a wet road. He’s talking about a progressive loss of adhesion probably lasting less than a second. In the upper echelons of Grand Prix racing, a driver will probably react instinctively to such a situation, correcting the car’s oversteer almost before it’s happened. Although to some extent experience will teach you a lot about driving a Grand Prix car and will certainly improve your lap times, this inherent delicacy of touch at high speed is the preserve of an exclusive few. Anyway, I didn’t want to walk back to the pits and explain to Alan Rees or Tony Southgate just how their Formula One car came to be enmeshed in the catch fencing at the end of the Hangar Straight; even assuming I knew.
By dint of persuasion, pleas and a little bit of begging allied to a great deal of self-control on the part of all the Shadow team, I was lucky enough to stay in the car for a total of 24 laps round the Grand Prix circuit. The more I drove the DN5, the more I liked it and came to respect it as a precision piece of specialised equipment, tailor-made to do one specific job and nothing else. Interestingly, the mechanics kept a stop watch on my progress and I eventually warmed up to a modest 1 min. 40.8 sec. best, an average speed of 104.71 m.p.h. Trying desperately to keep a sense of proportion, I smiled to myself when somebody mentioned the fact that I’d lapped faster than the winner of the British Grand Prix twenty-one years ago. On the other hand another voice reminded me that Stuart Graham’s Group One Chevrolet Camaro holds a saloon record of 1 min. 44.4 sec. (101.10 m.p.h.), Alex Ribeiro’s Formula Three March holds its class record in 1 min. 31.36 sec. (115.53 m.p.h.) and Bob Muir’s Birrana holds the Formula Atlantic record in 1 min. 28.6 sec. (119.13 m.p.h.). Such is progress!
The Formula One record? That stands officially to Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari 312B3 (T) in 1 min. 20.9 sec, (130.47 m.p.h.). Having driven a 3-litre Formula One car round Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit I now have a whole new respect and admiration for the current crop of drivers who race such cars in anger. The sensational experience will help me to keep a firm grip on reality the next time I watch 24 of them racing for the first corner at the start of a World Championship Grand Prix.—A.H.