Gordon Murray — the making of another Brabham Champion

“After the debacle at Zandvoort when Prost took Nelson off, we all came back to the factory and joked ‘well, all we’ve got to do now is to win the next three races’ … and that’s what we went and did!” Brabham designer Gordon Murray relaxed contentedly as he reflected on Nelson Piquet’s late-season surge to snatch the World Championship title for the second time. On paper it might have looked to some people like a re-run of 1981, when Piquet grasped his first Championship title in the final race of the season at Las Vegas. But Gordon Murray is quick to point out that the pattern of the 1983 season wasn’t the same at all.

“The main difference between ’81 and ’83 is that this year there were several other races that we should really have won in addition to the four we did. We should have won Detroit easily after Amount Ferrari retired; Nelson was well ahead until he picked up a puncture in the closing stages. There’s nothing you can do about things like that. Then there was Imola. We were going for a fourth win in four F1 outings there when Patrese made a mistake and crashed just after taking the lead. And Hockenheim, Nelson had that fire caused by a cracked fuel filter. But he was on course to catch Arnoux at the time, although whether he’d have actually managed to pass the Ferrari once he’d caught it is another matter, of course.

“In Austria, the one place where pit stops matter more than almost anywhere else, we got Nelson out into the lead again before Arnoux caught him. He should have won there easily, but the engine mysteriously lost power. OK, the BMW part of our equation suffered a lot of failures this season, but they were different sorts of failures compared with those we’d been suffering in 1982. Last year we suffered a lot of major internal breakages stemming from the fact that we were developing a whole area of technology which was new to us. This year many of the problems have been failures that stem from quality control; cracked exhausts and fuel filters. But at the end of the day I guess you could say that Renault’s lucky streak, their impressive finishing record, ran out just at the time we were due to have our helping of good fortune. And that’s the way it worked out. It’s ironic, but at the time people regarded the Frost / Piquet tangle at Zandvoort as working in Alum’s favour as far as the Championship was concerned, but in the end it was to Nelson’s advantage…

Murray has now worked for the Brabham F1 team for 14 years, 12 of them since Bernie Ecclestone acquired control of the team from Black Jack’s original partner Ron Tauranac. It has been a partnership which is easily understood by many, but baffling to some. The autocratic Ecclestone, a self-made millionaire to whom the Brabham team is but one of a number of business interests, has a reputation as a demanding and uncompromising employer who exacts tremendous commitment and loyalty from those who choose to work for him. Put simply, Bernie drives a hard bargain, both from a financial and work-load point of view. Many say he’s difficult, but few dispute once he’s made up his mind that a man is right for a particular job, he lets him get on with it. Gordon Murray’s relationship with the compact, dapper little entrepreneur is the epitome of that philosophy. The South African-born designer has been responsible for some of the most technically interesting and imaginative F1 cars to be seen over the last decade. Not all of them have been successful: Murray’s ideas for surface cooling on the original BT46-Alfa didn’t work, and while his “fan car” variation was certainly a highly effective and novel method of obtaining the downforce that he was prevented (by the flat-12 engine’s configuration) from generating by “conventional” ground effect means, it was eventually outlawed.

More recently, however, Murray’s design talents have been concentrated round the BMW four-cylinder turbocharged engine, and while his original BT50 design could be regarded as an evolutionary development of the successful BT49-Cosworth theme, changes in technical regulations for 1983 prompted Gordon to start with a completely clean sheet of paper for this season’s F1 programme.

In November 1983 the sport’s governing body, FISA, decreed that the business of under-car aerodynamics would be severely restricted by a new rule which demanded flat bottoms for Grand Prix cars from the start of 1983. There was no longer any point in having large side pods, so Murray pencilled an impressively slim, distinctive new design which came into being as the BT52 in time to win its first Grand Prix in Brazil at the start of the Championship contest.

“I think that Nelson’s victory with the BT52 at Rio was the single most memorable moment of the year for me,” admits Murray happily, “perhaps giving me even more of a kick than winning the Championship itself. You see, that win came at the end of what had been, without any doubt, the hardest winter ever for the Brabham team. We worked non-stop, seven days a week for three-and-a-half months. We were under such pressure that our fibreglass guy actually brought a sleeping bag into the factory at one point and snatched only a couple of hours’ sleep each night. That is the sort of pressure you’re under when you’re designing and building a new car.

“And by that I mean a new car. I’m not talking about the sort of work we did in 1979, when we cut the back off the BT48’s fuel tank and revamped it into the first BT49. Nor am I talking about developments like the Lotus 94T in the middle of this season; I looked at the Lotus at Silverstone and I reckon that perhaps 50 per cent of the components, perhaps a little more, were really new. What I’m talking about is a project like the BT52 where the only thing interchangeable between it and the BT50 is the brake pedal, clutch pedal and steering wheel! Even the rivets we used were different!”

Gordon freely admits that he never wants to go through that much sustained pressure ever again. The stress became really quite worrying and there was the continual concern that, if the BT52 wasn’t actually ready “we just couldn’t go to Rio, plain and sirnple…”

In that connection Murray has a great deal of praise for the way in which BMW have supported the Brabham cause — both from the point of view of materials and attitude. “What I think helps the relationship is that BMW’s Competition department is a relatively tight unit, rather like our company. By Renault and Ferrari standards I think they’ve got a pretty small outfit. They were fantastic about the new rear end arrangement that I had drawn up for the BT52: it meant that they had to re-vamp various components on the engine, re-positioning turbochargers and so on. Initially they said ‘you’re joking?’, but they pulled the stops out and had those engines ready in time for us to race the new car in the first Grand Prix. I feel that our relationship with BMW has now developed into something much more than that between a constructor and an engine supplier. You need a really deep relationship with the personnel to get this sort of job done and I’m happy to say we’ve got it. There’s absolutely no bull of any sort between us!”

Murray was concerned at the start of the season that the new regulations might make the cars less safe than they had been in the ground effect era, from the constructional point of view, but he admits that “on reflection I’ve been pleasantly surprised.” However, the man who pioneered the current vogue for fuel stops with the BT50 says he’s a little concerned about the change in that particular rule for ’84. “I’m a bit worried about the effect of 220-litres of concentrated fuel, with no breathing space, tight in behind the driver, as compared with this season when we didn’t have full fuel loads at any time”. In fact, following on from this, Murray is against fuel capacity limitations of any sort in the current climate for two very specific reasons.

“Firstly, a fuel capacity limit is almost impossible to police effectively,” he explains, “and it virtually encourages the expensive development of two different engines. I mean, the requirements of an engine during qualifying and the race are going to be widely divergent. In qualifying fuel economy doesn’t matter: all you need is a very powerful engine to set a very quick time. In the race you need a more moderate unit that will race for 200 miles on the 220-litres allowed. That’s going to make the whole business even more expensive.” A final bête noire of Murray’s is the F1 minimum weight limit — in fact any minimum weight limit. “What the hell do you need it for in this day and age?”, he enquires forcefully, “people who’ve built bad cars will always build had cars and the imposition of a weight limit is never going to change that fact…”

Turning the conversation to his drivers, Murray obviously has a tremendously high regard for Nelson Piquet and is firm in his views about the benefits to be gained from bringing a new lad up from the bottom in an F1 environment. “When we first had Nelson in the team in 1979, he had no pre-conceptions, nothing. We could train him to work in our way and that’s been a great benefit over the years. He’s a tremendously intelligent and perceptive test driver, perhaps even better than Niki Lauda was, and he’s also very easy on the cars — perhaps, again, even easier than Niki…” In this connection it’s interesting that Murray confirms Riccardo Patrese “much harder on the car than Nelson . . . in fact it’s always something I’ve never been quite able to work out; why one driver should be that much easier on brake pads, for example, when he’s going just as quick if not quicker, than the man who’s very hard on them. I would have thought there was just as much kinetic energy to dissipate…”

Interestingly, Gordon feels that the new flat-bottomed cars are significantly easier for the drivers to handle. “I think that the driver is far less important than he was in the era of ground effect. That final half-second with a skirted car really was tremendously difficult to get. You had to be so precise on speed and steering that only a small handful could really get the best out of a skirted car. Now there’s more a driver can put a car through and still regain control. However, other peripheral aspects of a driver’s capability are more important now: I think it’s more difficult to drive a race distance effectively, looking after tyres and keeping fuel consumption in mind, than it was a couple of years ago. This is where Nelson scores in my view. He is a complete driver, quick enough to do the job and sufficiently sensitive to appreciate that racing isn’t only about going quickly.”

Of drivers in rival teams, Murray admits that he hasn’t had a great deal of time to study form at any great length, “but Boutsen’s race finishes and qualifying positions with that Arrows have been impressive. Keke Rosberg has come on well; by that I mean that the peak of his ability is yet to come. And, of course Pros: has done a good job. Hitherto I hadn’t rated Tambay, but this year… well, he’s been very good. But I’m also impressed with Warwick and I think he’ll be quicker when it comes to racing those Renaults together. Of the youngsters I’m really not equipped to say, but Senna and Brundle, I would have thought, quite obviously have a bright future”.

Our visit to talk to Gordon Murray came a few days after FISA had finally announced that water injection was permitted for use on Grand Prix engines, a matter which had been under dispute ever since the Ferrari and Renault water injection systems had been formally protested at the British Grand Prix meeting. Murray feels very strongly that, not only was the decision wrong, but that FISA missed an opportunity to curb a significant area of cost-inflation in F1 without being forced into any controversial rule changes. Such decisions, Murray feels, have become sadly typical of the people who administer the F1 world, a world in which the sport’s increasing professionalism is not always matched by those in Government.

In connection with the water injection matter, Murray is firm and certain in his viewpoint. “There have been physical experiments conducted which prove, beyond doubt, that water has a power-boosting effect. I would like to hear from somebody Like Mauro Forghieri why, if water is not a power-boosting additive, Ferrari employs it. I mean, if ultimately, its use enables Ferrari to cool its cylinder head and as a result, run more power, then in my book it’s a power-boosting additive, beyond question.”

Murray links this affair with FISA’s attitude to the Renault exhaust systems which caused so much debate at Spa and Detroit, and were the subject of a Brabham team protest in the latter event. “In my view they were using the engine’s movable parts to create an aerodynamic effect. This, along with the question of water injection, could have been neatly dealt with if FISA had chosen to be firm. They had a golden opportunity to legislate against them — and they didn’t have to change the regulations at all. They merely had to enforce them as written, but they decided not to do that. “The whole way in which appeals are heard in this sport, and the people who hear them, needs a major overhaul in my opinion.”

Meanwhile time passes and, although Gordon Murray certainly doesn’t anticipate such a hectic time as he went through last winter, there is still a full schedule of off-season testing to be done and a re-worked version of the BT52 to be completed for 1984. “We’ll be lengthening the fuel tank, of course, because we don’t have 200 litres capacity in the current one,” Gordon explains, “but we won’t be building a new car like we did last year. It will be a BT52C, visually similar but obviously revised.”

As far as 1984 is concerned, Murray hopes that his BT52C-BMW will be in a strong position from the outset, tried and proven, and in good shape to get in some early success before some of the newer turbo teams get themselves properly organised. Looking at the opposition, he rates Ferrari, of course, as a major threat, “but I think Williams is going to be just as formidable a rival as Ferrari. I think that the Honda engine is a long way up the development road if Kyalami is any indication. I think they’ll be ahead of Renault and Porsche, both of whom will be on something of a par.”

As Gordon Murray prepares for 1984, he freely admits that the world-wide programme of travel sometimes gets him down, pointing out that he still goes to all the races and all the test sessions. His right hand man David North he describes as “indispensable” back at base, but he obviously sometimes wishes that he could stay at his drawing board a little more often and delegate the technical operation of the cars in the field to others, as some fellow designers in other successful teams indeed already do. But, as long as the diminutive Ecclestone fields his Brabhams in the World Championship arena, most people expect that the tall figure of Gordon Murray will be standing alongside him at the pit wall, overseeing all the action on the spot. And the Brabham team performance will probably be the better for his presence. A. H.