Racing lines: December 2017

Motor sport’s knack for innovation is being throttled down to ‘one solution fits all’, and it’s not good for the sport’s DNA

“The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds,” said the great American writer Mark Twain. He is also credited with saying “There is no such thing as a new idea,” which suggests even the best are prone to self-confutation.

Nevertheless in his neatly observed contradictions Twain could have been describing motor racing, for each quote neatly bookends the narrative arc of our sport, from the pioneering days of uninhibited creativity, to recent times when money, marketing and increasingly restrictive regulations ensure flights of fantasy remain firmly grounded.

In days past, instead of sweating over marginal gains the brightest engineers and designers explored revolutionary ideas to push boundaries. We’re used to aerodynamicists creating grip, traction and balance through the power of over-wing and underfloor airflow, but the real mavericks – the Jim Halls, Colin Chapmans and Gordon Murrays of this world – looked at other ways of sticking their cars to the track.

Hall’s Chaparral 2J sucker car and Murray’s Brabham BT46 fan car were alternative attempts at augmenting mechanical grip. The thought process was similar, though Murray’s was the more refined. It was withdrawn, of course, but not before Lauda’s first-time-out Swedish win.

Murray also explored a low-drag concept with the so-called ‘lay-flat‘ Brabham BT55, which tilted the engine onto its side and required the driver to assume a position similar to reading a book in bed. The car was clocked at 216mph at Monza, but wasn’t a great success due to complications arising from the radical engine installation. Still, to see one of these cars today is to witness original thinking in the raw.

Some years earlier Derek Gardner’s six-wheel P34 Tyrrell looked at minimising frontal area, while subsequent six-wheelers from Williams, March and even Ferrari explored other ways to reduce drag and improve traction. Only the Tyrrell would race (and win) before the FIA intervened and ensured cars with more than four wheels were prohibited.

Who or what is to blame? Fundamentally it’s the tightness of the regulations, and a desire for parity and stability, that stymies the fantasy that once ignited our imaginations. Of course there’s always room for the intellect of a Newey or a Brawn to steal an advantage, but these days a Eureka moment is restricted to finding a loophole. Think double diffuser in Brawn GP’s title-winning season, not inventing ground-effect.

With such vast amounts of knowledge already banked and aero departments able to crunch through endless wind tunnel runs and CFD simulations, the teams are all aiming for the same numbers and arriving via much the same routes. Their breakthroughs are tortuous.

For years now if you sprayed the grid of F1 cars the same colour you’d be hard pushed to tell them apart. And this in a championship where individual teams focus many hundreds of brilliant minds and pour many hundreds of millions of pounds into creating unique, clean-sheet designs. Lower down, in FIA F2 and GP3, only one chassis constructor (Dallara) and one engine supplier is allowed. Next season all Indycars will run with identical bodywork clothing identical Dallara chassis. Diversity, it seems, is dead.

The modern era hasn’t been bereft of curiosities, thanks largely to Ben Bowlby, who in the last 10 years has challenged convention with cars such as the remarkable DeltaWing, which explored a low-power, low-drag concept as a possible IndyCar design. When it was rejected, Bowlby’s idea found new purpose as a Garage 56 entry at Le Mans in 2012.

It retired after an accident, but the thought-provoking concept showed genuine promise, evolving into the Nissan ZEOD RC (another Garage 56 entry in 2014) before tilting at the top-tier LMP1 class as 2015’s Nismo GT-R LM. This brute of a front-engined, front-wheel-drive car added a potent KERS system to drive the rears, and was slippery as an eel down the straights. A proper Le Mans design, in other words.

It proved a disaster, largely due to the sub-standard hybrid system that ultimately had to be removed. Grappling with an unbalanced, traction-limited front-wheel-drive prototype, Nissan’s hapless drivers never stood a chance. We’ll never know if the GT-R LM could have worked given time and budget, but it marked a sad end to a rare spell of bold and provocative racing car designs.

What was profoundly disappointing about Nissan’s and Bowlby’s misadventure was witnessing a sport that likes to crow about technology and innovation preferring to scoff rather than acknowledge an effort that dared to push the limits and embrace the unknown. Motor racing has become a business that deals only in certainties.

So what are we left with? Cars that look the same, sound the same and all too often are the same. It’s a sad state of affairs. Surely by starving engineers and designers of the creative oxygen they need for fresh ideas to breathe and flourish, the rule makers and overly controlling manufacturers do our sport a great disservice.

Cars that dominated their respective formulae and eras – the McLaren MP4/4, and Audi’s Le Mans cars, for example – are rightly revered, but its the oddballs, revolutionaries and gallant losers that add colour to our sport’s fabric and capture imaginations at today’s historic festivals and race meetings.

Symmetry dictates I should end with another Mark Twain quote. I fancy none feels more fitting than this: “Explore. Dream. Discover.” If only those who pull motor sport’s strings could summon the inner steel to do just that.

Dickie Meaden has been writing about cars for 25 years – and racing them for almost as long. He is a regular winner at historic meetings