Outer limits

Picture Brooklands as a modern circuit. Would it rival Indy for sheer speed? Damien Smith suspends disbelief photography by Peter Sonney/LAT

The banshee wail of the Toyota turbo pings across the flat Surrey landscape as Cristiano da Matta guns the jet-black Lola along the Railway Straight. I crane my neck from a vantage point at the top of the Finishing Straight grandstand to witness exactly what 200mph-plus looks like. That engine note does not rise, does not fall. Flat line means flat chat. The passengers on the Woking-bound train that has just been left for dead by the bewinged missile must be groping around the carriages in search of their jaws.

The Lola hits the giant sweep of the Byfleet Banking and still that wail refuses to lower its tempo. It disappears briefly behind the airfield buildings, then bursts back into view as da Matta winds off lock for the run into The Fork. With the car’s built-in stagger for left-handers this right should be tricky. But from where I’m sitting driver input appears minimal. That’s probably not the case from where da Matta is sitting.

I gasp as the Lola cuts the timing beam. A shade over 45sec for a lap of what is perhaps the world’s most daunting oval, a time good enough for pole position for tomorrow’s BRDC 500.

“They’re not as quick as they were a few years ago when these things had the right amount of downforce,” sniffs the bloke next to me. Still looks plenty quick enough, though.

I know, I know — pure fantasy. It’ll never happen. A physical impossibility. Brooklands closed for ever in 1939. Vickers’ wartime demolition of part of the banking, and the building of industrial estates and a supermarket since have ensured that a full restoration of the world’s first purpose-built racing circuit is definite no-go. But still…

Maybe you think that we have too much time on our hands in the Motor Sport office, but it’s a tantalising ‘what if?’ Had Brooklands survived WWII and remained open today, been updated with a modern surface and had that nasty bump over the Hennebique Bridge ironed out, what speeds would a modern Indycar hit around the vast expanses of its Outer Circuit? Clearly, John Cobb’s 1935 lap record in his monstrous Napier-Railton of 1min 09.44sec, a speed of 143.44mph, would be obliterated. But by exactly how much? And what would today’s stars make of a right-hander on an otherwise conventional oval?

Lola shared our curiosity and aerodynamicist Mark Handford was put on the case. Given that he has had perhaps more influence on modern Indycar aerodynamics than any other individual, we could not have asked for a better man. His eponymously named rear wing dramatically cut downforce on Champ Cars in the late 1990s, and thus created the machines that put on some of the best oval races ever seen.

Handford took to his quirky task with gusto. Supplied with the dimensions that Brooklands was built to in 1907, he set up a circuit simulation programme, then fed in the details of various Champ Cars and their set-ups for circuits similar to Brooklands: 1995 Indy spec, ’97 Fontana spec and a 2004 car dialled in for the Las Vegas oval.

For perspective, he included a Monza-spec Formula One car (which he reckons might have been fastest of all shorn completely of its wings), a current Formula Three, a brace of NASCARs (in Daytona and Atlanta specs) and Bentley’s Le Mans Prototype of 2003.

The Indycars were our main focus, given that the parallel universe we had created included a 500-mile race rivalling Indianapolis in prestige.

In the real world, speed comparisons between Brooklands and Indy, which opened a year after the British track, show that the former had the edge on outright speed. In 1935, when Cobb set his 143 mph record, pole position at the Brickyard was 120.73mph. Cobb’s mark was not beaten at Indy until 1956 (see panel).

Likewise, ‘virtual’ Brooklands would still have held the edge during the 1990s. The 1997-spec Champ Car was credited with the fastest lap stemming from Handford’s simulations: 40.7sec, an incredible 237.7mph. The Indy pole of ’96 — the last year before a generation of emasculated Indy Racing League open-wheelers was introduced — was 233.1mph.

The cold, hard figures for a Champ Car at Brooklands are impressive, as you can see from the diagram above. But as Handford admits, his simulation doesn’t take the human factor into account. The cars would have the ability to hit these speeds — but would the drivers? Handford is confident they would.

“What makes Brooklands a bit scary is the reverse corner at The Fork,” he says. “You would set the car up like you would for Indy or Motegi in Japan, which is like Brooklands in that it is an oval with unequally banked corners. In other words, the car would look like it had been in an accident before it had even started, with the wheels leaning in to the left, asymmetric camber and stagger. That means the car would be pretty alarming to drive through The Fork.” But he maintains it would not be impossible: “The Fork wouldn’t be enough of a problem to be an issue. You’d probably find that the drivers would get a little wide-eyed about it, but they wouldn’t have to lift for it.” Easy for him to say!

Once the driver had hung on through The Fork, he would then face the prospect of setting up for the Members Banking.

“Placing the car coming off this right-hander to get into the ideal position for the banking would be difficult,” Handford concedes. “There is about 100 metres of straight after the turn, then you roll into the continuous left. If you positioned yourself in the wrong place it could be hair-raising. The beginning of the Members Banking would be the most dangerous spot on the circuit.” As it was in its day.

Handford claims that the rest of the lap would be a fairly straightforward flat-out blast — he even describes the Byfleet Banking as “a bit of a nonevent”. But what would complicate matters is the choice of line through the corners: should the driver go high on the banking or hug the inside?

Handford’s results show there is no clear answer. The fastest lap from the 1997 Champ Car was set by going high, but that’s not the case with the 2004 version, or the F1 car, and there is just a tenth between the two lines for the ’95 Champ Car. During Brooklands’ active life the tyre technology and downforce expertise needed to produce enough grip for the most powerful cars to stay low did not exist. But now it does. If a driver can live with the higher levels of lateral g-force, the inside line should logically be the quicker because the car would cover less distance over a lap. It is a reality that Handford has experienced first-hand.

“I remember Michael Andretti’s first test at Fontana [a two-mile superspeedway in California],” says Handford. “He began with a low-downforce package, but then we went to high-downforce settings. When he drove round after that he was out of sight of us. Normally you saw cars way up the banking, but he drove round at the bottom, below the wall. He came back in and said, ‘I don’t need the banking, it’s quicker at the bottom.’

“Then there was the time at Newman-Haas when Michael and his father Mario were teammates. There was an occasion when Mario was unhappy because his car was slower. But they worked out it was simply because Michael was running lower down and so his lap distance was shorter. There was no difference in set-up or the power of the engines.”

Of the cars Mark ran simulations for, four were quicker when they headed up the banking and four were faster when they kept low. It seems which line to choose would come down to a car’s set-up and power, and its driver’s ability to cope with g and the state of his confidence.

From the crowd’s point of view, a choice of line would be good news for the spectacle. Handford reckons that Brooklands would produce ‘drafting’ races between large packs of cars running just centimetres apart, like those at Michigan and Fontana in the late 1990s — especially if the cars were running Handford wings. These produce little downforce but loads of drag and holes in the air that create the effect of hitting a boost button for following cars.

“The trick would be to follow your rival down the Railway Straight and slingshot past them into Byfleet,” says Handford. “The problem then is that as soon as you roll into the turn, the guy on the inside has the shorter path, plus the guy on the outside has now lost his drag advantage. So you’d find yourself up on the banking slowing down, with further to travel, leading to some interesting side-by-side action. The real trick would be to get a big enough draft to slingshot past and pull back down quickly to the inside.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Brooklands has become an eccentric chapter of British motorsport: extravagant, larger than life, mythical. It’s hard for the younger generation to imagine it: did it really happen?

Yes, it did — in the heart of stockbroker belt Surrey, too! Pay what’s left of the track a visit and you will realise that we are missing out on something special.

And something shatteringly fast.