The archives: December 2017

It’s two decades since Brawn, Byrne and Todt fired up a Ferrari steamroller – and 103 years since ‘Australia’s Brooklands’ opened for business

As Ferrari’s Formula 1 world championship challenge was imploding during September and October just past, the surprising thought occurred that it has been 20 years since ‘the John Barnard era’ at Maranello finally ended, and the Fiat-Ferrari corporate decision had been taken to engage the British/South African duo of Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne from the Benetton team to replace the highly individualistic, often abrasive – and in results terms underperforming – Englishman.

Brawn and Byrne certainly had a totally different style, which would flourish under the political and financial umbrella raised above them by Ferrari racing director Jean Todt. Their entire effort became focused upon providing Michael Schumacher with the tools – and the organisation – necessary to offer a genuine world title challenge worthy of the great marque’s 50th anniversary year. Number two driver Eddie Irvine was willing to take the money, never mind the results, as second fiddle to leader of the orchestra Schumacher.

Although the then-new 1997 Ferrari F310B car was greeted as the first ‘dopo-Barnard’ creation, it remained essentially a Barnard concept, pretty much completed before his departure, as Ross mentioned later that year when describing his partnership with Rory Byrne: “Rory is chief designer, but I work quite closely with him and have a reasonable influence on what sort of car we want to end up with. I understand the process of optimisation, how what decisions we make on weight distribution and the general configuration of the car affect its performance, so I know how we arrive at those decisions.

“On the other hand, with John’s car, it is fairly different from what I’m used to; different weight distribution, different geometry and I don’t know how John has arrived at those things. So we had a lot of unknowns and uncertainties, a lot of question marks hanging over certain aspects of the car. Nonetheless, we set about using our own ideas and implementing as many as we could. In some ways they have been better, in some ways not so good. But we’ve learned a lot…

In the car developed that season Schumacher won in Monaco, Canada, France, Belgium and Japan, and took second places in Australia, San Marino and Germany. But despite even his firm right-lock assault upon Jacques Villeneuve’s overtaking Williams in the deciding European Grand Prix at Jerez, he could not – quite – prevent championship defeat by the French-Canadian…

The Ferrari F310B’s engine installation simply gave the car too high a centre of gravity, which was something the team had to live with all season. It was telling when Ross Brawn at season’s end remarked that “Eddie Irvine’s performances, I think, are a more accurate representation of the car’s true potential. Michael just has that ability to take it the final mile…”

Paolo Martinelli’s Ferrari engine department had produced a proven serial 046 version of the 75-degree V10-cylinder 40-valve engine for the car, and a revised EV2 variant was progressed as rapidly as possible, but it could not be raced until the French GP that June. And when fuel consumption indicated that the 1997 Ferrari had marginal capacity, the new design team developed a 10kg lighter variant with greater tankage. Did the team also run an electronic torque control system through that season, as their leading rivals loudly suspected? At the time Ross rejected the very idea, claiming that Ferrari would have preferred that such systems were not permitted, since their introduction “indirectly negated the benefit of our engines’ smooth power delivery…”

But then he always was a master of saying just enough to answer a journalist’s question very politely, and often engagingly, without offering wider unrequested enlightenment. Over 20 years little changes. And the Todt/Brawn/Byrne regime at Ferrari did – with Michael Schumacher’s mastery – win six consecutive Formula 1 championships for constructors (1999-2004) and five for drivers (2000-2004). It’s worth recalling the historic partnership’s 20th anniversary.

I AM UP TO speed creating and producing very large, very imposing books on various aspects of motor racing history, but right now I am hobbling around cursing with the top of my right foot hurting like hell. I was pulling a wonderful Australian-published book from its shelf when I misjudged its (considerable) weight, lost my grip on its slippery dust jacket and dropped it – corner first – on my bare foot…

Now while I might be tempted, therefore, to ignore this foot crusher, I’d like instead to recommend it to our committed enthusiast readership. It’s entitled Red Dust Racers and is the centenary history of one of the most obscure of all motor racing venues – Lake Perkolilli in Western Australia. Written by WA historian Graeme Cocks it’s a lavish production and an early quote from The Mail newspaper, published in Adelaide, South Australia on July 4, 1914, describes the central subject matter.

“Here we have all been calling out for a Brooklands track in Australia when there is already one a few miles out from Kalgoorlie (WA) but about which little has been heard. To be correct it is at Lake Perkolilli, which is about seven miles out from Kanowna, and those who have been out to it state that it is quite a picturesque sight, to see the lake with its vast flat and hard surface which is over a mile and a half in diameter, surrounded by a slight rise. It is fringed with scrub and small trees… It is a clay pan as flat as a billiard table, and one and a quarter miles long and one mile wide. A circular track three miles in circumference is provided, also a one and three-quarter- mile circular track, a one-mile straight track and a one and a half-mile straight track. When heavy rains of more than two inches fall a little water may be left on the track, but this quickly dries up. It is predicted that many records will be broken on this track in the summer time, and that there will be motorists from all the States visiting it…”.

In great detail, Cocks relates how motoring and motor sport developed in Western Australia, driven (literally) by the local goldfields economy. In 1914 cattle station owner Joseph Ruttle suggested to the newly formed Goldfields Motor Club that Lake Perkolilli would be a great venue for a gymkhana. Members immediately began enthusing about the dry lake’s potential to become Australia’s ‘Brooklands of the West’. An opening meeting “Programme of Thrilling Speed Events and Many Novelties” was promised, and the honour of being the venue’s first race winner went to one Ernest Shaw driving a Studebaker in a 10.5-mile event.

Graeme goes on to relate how Lake Perkolilli as a motor race venue was used in the early years of World War 1, and then revived in the early 1920s. His book features dozens of fascinating photographs of colonial motorcycle and motor racing on the red clay surface, and his story widens to embrace all kinds of other pioneering Australian motoring competition which paints in a fascinatingly fresh picture of the gradual growth of the sport down under. We learn how Stanley Waldo Catlett, ‘The Bunbury Boy’ became a Lake Perkolilli motorcycle racing star through the mid-1920s – travelling to England as a speedway rider before in 1933 crashing fatally in an aero club aircraft, aged only 26.

The Perkolilli Sports Club took over Lake race promotions, and into the 1930s one of the stars there was Eric Armstrong, founder of the WA Sporting Car Club, whose Auburn Speedster had beaten the previously unbeatable Chrysler Silverwings of ‘Perko’ stars Arthur Colliver and Billy Attwood. Air racing also enters the story but in 1932 a short-lived one-mile Brooklands track had been opened at Subiaco in Perth, drawing much attention away from the remote dry lake. Once that interloper venue had failed, racing returned to Perkolilli in the mid-1930s and in September 1938 the last major event was run there before World War 2. A decade earlier the Speed Carnival would have attracted 6000 spectators, but this last event attracted nearer 600.

Interest in ‘Perko’ was revived postwar in 1947-48, but several wet seasons had softened the surface and very few meetings were held beyond very minor speed trials. The Lake seems to have seen more light aircraft activity than racing motorcycles and cars, before its unregulated skies helped it become a popular sky-diving centre.

The motor sport world’s great breadth never ceases to amaze me, and I love books such as Red Dust Racers, which so unexpectedly draw back the curtains on little known – and often totally unsuspected – corners of vintage racing endeavour. I recommend Graeme Cocks’s book highly to connoisseurs of the motor sporting obscure. It is a ‘Motoring Past’ publication, Inglewood, WA 6052 and its ISBN serial number – for the would-be buyer – is 978-0-9872808-1-7.

But just don’t drop this weighty tome on your darned foot. My eyes are still watering…

Doug Nye is the UK’s most eminent motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s