Cooper-Maserati T86

Track test
Circuit: Donington Park Date: 14.09.06

History has been unkind to this Anglo-Italian hybrid. So claims Andrew Frankel after savouring all 12 cylinders

It may not be immediately obvious what this Cooper-Maserati T86 is doing on these pages, other than going rather fast and looking gorgeous. Look at its race record and while you'll find a few interesting footnotes — Jacky Ickx drove it in only his second grand prix, it had but one significant result. Monza in 1967 will forever be remembered as the race in which John Surtees' Honda RA300 gained itself the unique distinction of winning a Formula 1 race not only on its debut but on the only lap of the only race it ever led.

By comparison, few were bothered by the green and white Cooper that Jochen Rindt brought home in fourth place that day. Cooper may by then have already been a shadow of its former self but it had still won a race that season, thanks to the superlative efforts of Pedro Rodriguez nursing a T81 with a sick gearbox to the flag in Kyalami, and Rindt wasn't even on the podium. And that's not why it's here.

It's here because of an even less successful outing a couple of years later. At Monaco in 1969, Vic Elford climbed aboard and tooled it round the streets of Monte Carlo, keeping out of the way of the quicker opposition in a car which had been borderline obsolete two years before. No wonder the team entrant was called Antique Automobiles.

"I'm sorry to say I don't remember much about it," says Elford today. "I'd only ever done 10 laps of Monaco before in my life, in a Triumph Vitesse in 1963. But I loved the precision Monaco called for. The car didn't break and in the end we came home seventh." Let's not dwell on the fact that he was also last and six laps down on the leader; compared to the bewinged, DFV-powered opposition he faced, it's a miracle he wasn't blown into the harbour. And that was that. Vic found himself a McLaren M7A in which to go racing, the Cooper was sold and ended up spending more than 30 years rotting in a museum. Big deal.

Except history now shows us that the 1969 Monaco Grand Prix was indeed a big deal, not just for the constructor of the T86 but also the engine in the back. It was, in fact, the last grand prix contested not only by a Cooper, but also any Maserati-powered F1 car. And, as such, it is an incredibly significant car.

The T86, of which there is and only ever was one, was the result of things being very far from right in Surbiton in the mid-1960s. A little more than half a decade earlier, Cooper had turned not just F1 but the whole racing world on its head with its mid-engined designs that captured the world title in both 1959 and '60; by the time the 3-litre formula was adopted in '66, it was the world that had overtaken it.

"Things weren't too bad at the start," remembers Roy Salvadori, who not only had a good history racing Coopers at the highest level but also managed the team in 1966-67. "But we were always struggling with those engines. They never gave the power they were meant to: we were told that they were good for around 370bhp, but they weren't. 330bhp was about the most they ever gave. But we had to have them because of Mario's relationship with Maserati."

Mario Tozzi-Condivi was the proprietor of Chipstead Motors which had taken over Cooper and also imported Maseratis. The uncomfortable truth was that the V12 motor, very far from being a bespoke powerplant developed to meet the challenges of the brave new world that was 3-litre F1, was, in fact, a result of an attempt to install more power into the 250F back in the 1950s. "And they weren't great then," adds Salvadori ruefully. In fact the single most appealing aspect of these already elderly engines was the not insignificant fact that they were free.

Not only was the motor underpowered, it was heavy, overly complex and unreliable. And this, mind, before the Cosworth-Ford DFV came along in 1967 and did for F1 engines what Cooper had done for F1 chassis eight years earlier. Cooper raced the T81 through '66 and into '67 while the T86 was readied. "It was the last gasp," recalls Ben Liebert, the car's current owner and the man who commissioned MacDonald Race Engineering to conduct an impeccable four-year restoration to return it to original condition and make it race-worthy once more. "They chucked everything at it to get rid of the weight and make it competitive. Everything that could be made in magnesium was, from the tub to the engine block. It must have been hideously expensive."

It also features the last Type 10 engine, with three-valve heads and two plugs per cylinder. Looking at the two vast distributors mounted high up either side of the motor and their 24 leads, Ben sighs: "I think Keith Duckworth once said there was something wrong with your combustion chamber if you needed more than one spark per cylinder and, you know, I think he was right". His engine, rebuilt with an aluminium block after the mag unit sadly but inevitably perished, gives 330bhp at 9000rpm, exactly the number recalled by Salvadori, and at least 40bhp shy of the output of even the earliest DFVs.

But I doubt he'd swap it. Today it's sitting in a decidedly damp Donington pitlane on a noisy test day and when it fires up, all other activity stops. Drivers of racing Porsche 911s and even DFV-powered F1 cars are drawn to this unfamiliar old racer like moths to a blazing light. Even at idle the noise occupies the space between your ears so entirely, it seems there's barely room left for thought. It's rich, meaty and angry, less sabre-sharp than a rival Ferrari V12 perhaps, but not one whit less interesting for that. I make the mistake of standing behind the spaghetti stack when the engine is blipped for the first time and feel the inside of both ears itch.

Moments later I'm being strapped in, preparing to give the T86 some much needed exercise around the now mercifully drying track. This is only the fourth time it's run since it's been rebuilt, having been tested twice and raced once at Magny-Cours by Ben, in which it became embroiled in a long battle with exactly the same Brabham BT24 which just beat it at Monza 39 years earlier. "It had a reputation for being heavy," says Elford, "but I reckoned it was a lovely car to drive — light, driveable and nicer by far than the lead weight in the back they replaced it with." He's referring to the unloved BRM-powered T86B with which Cooper finished its official participation in Formula 1 in 1968.

There's nothing remotely complicated nor, indeed, inherently difficult about driving the Cooper-Maserati. The engine makes a terrifying noise but is in fact so docile that it's like a sleepy Labrador compared to the slavering Rottweiler that is a DFV — or at least the DFVs they make today. If you can't find first gear, it'll creep away in second without a moment's complaint.

Any 3-litre F1 car is a highly specialised device and it takes time for the immediacy of its response to every input not to feel like inherent nervousness. Ben's advice was to use such revs as it felt like pulling, but ventured that it does its best work between five and eight thousand. So once car and driver were both thoroughly warmed, I found out.

I cracked the throttles wide open for the first time in third gear at the start of the main straight and was interested to note that the brand-new racing 911 half way along its length appeared to have selected reverse. Given that it probably had only 100bhp more than the Cooper and substantially more than double the weight to carry, perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. Changing at 8000rpm, the slick, sweet Hewland 'box flew through its small supply of ratios until I was out of revs and gears, the needle hanging at 8200rpm in top. I don't doubt it would have pulled past 9000rpm with space to spare but I was already seriously scared of the prospect of Ben's V12 unstitching itself on my watch.

Braking hard for the chicane I noted how little the nose dipped and how eagerly it sniffed out the apex. Beautifully set up, it made me feel at home and at ease, confident that if I was not stupid with it, it would not be savage with me. I did make one mistake, being lazy with the throttle as I grabbed third for the Old Hairpin, momentarily locking its rear wheels and sending the back briefly squirreling. But even that was hardly dramatic and, I suspect, undetectable from the outside. A few more laps, a bit more effort, a touch more respect and it was all but over. I didn't want to outstay my welcome, or expose the Cooper or Ben's trust to further risk.

One last time down the Craner Curves in top gear, then using every inch of track to make it flow through the Old Hairpin, flat out up to Macleans and on to Coppice. Turn in blind, back on the gas before the first apex, ignore the second and concentrate on pouring the V12's power into the rear tyres until they're balanced right on the edge of oversteer, before cannoning down the straight, hearing the V12 shrieking its approval for the last time.

I can see Ben grinning as I arrive back in the pits, so I cut the V12 a few yards short of the box and coast home in silent contemplation. He's raced it but never actually seen it run. He leans in and sees the rev-counter tell-tale sitting at 8200rpm. "Did it reach that on the straight?" he asks. "You do realise, don't you, that it's geared to add 20mph for every 1000rpm in top." Which means less than ten minutes after climbing into this unique F1 car, I was driving it around a slightly damp track at speeds of up to 165mph. Had I known it at the time, I'd have backed off somewhat sooner.

Days later I'm on the telephone, reminiscing with Salvadori. "You know, the car itself wasn't at all bad. But we were never going to get anywhere with that engine." But surely, I ventured, everyone could see the writing on the wall said D, F and V in letters 10 feet tall. "Of course, and it's something I wanted very much. But the Minis were a huge part of John Cooper's life by then, and he didn't want to jeopardise that by doing a deal with Ford. Look at what's happened to the Cooper name since then, and the way it's used today, and you have to say he made the right decision."

So the Cooper-Maserati T86 was replaced instead by the Cooper-BRM T86B, and was put away until one day in 1969 when Colin Crabbe of Antique Automobiles turned up. "He went to buy an engine," recalls Vic Elford, "and came back with an F1 team. He rang me up and asked if I wanted to drive the car at Monaco. I wasn't going to say no..."

Which is how the once stellar grand prix careers of both Cooper and Maserati came to a close on the same day and in the same car. This car. It wasn't an auspicious exit, but at least after 37 years out of the public eye it is back and as good as new. That is something for which all fans of Cooper and Maserati should be eternally grateful.