Under Scrutiny - March Engineering

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Fast Company

March, and longtime rivals Lola, will join the World Sportscar Championship in 1992 and both, coincidentally, will offer their customers John Judd’s 3½-litre V10 engine as the first option. All the indicators suggest that 1992 will be a vintage season for sports car racing, perhaps with grids of 30 cars or more, but 1991 will do no more than provide the groundwork.

Two years ago, no more than that, March director Robin Herd declared that the company would make a new sports car only in collaboration with a major manufacturer. March’s deal with Nissan had terminated but in its place there were two more lucrative deals, one with Porsche and one with Alfa Romeo. Both were for Indycar chassis and the world waited, with bated breath, to see how March would handle the seemingly impossible task of giving both manufacturers what they wanted.

Subsequently Herd withdrew from his active role in March and his place was taken by Dave Reeves, who has been running the Comtech subsidiary. His master plan, as he puts it, was to win the Indy 500 and to go on, within three years, to win the CART championship, yet within the space of 20 months Reeves’ plans were in ruins. The Porsche contract foundered in Germany, and the contract with Alfa Romeo was terminated by March, part of a dispute which looks likely to be settled by a Swiss court.

“Backing from a major is very much a two-edged sword„” says Reeves reflectively. “On the face of it, the Alfa Romeo deal offered us the backing and support of a section of the Fiat motorsport family, which in recent years has been utterly dominant in rallying. They were the only people seriously able to challenge Honda and McLaren in Formula 1.

“Alfa Romeo appeared to be serious and they told us that they had the budget, but look at the outcome. . . . nothing that was promised to us was delivered. The lack of the new engine we expected was a particular disappointment; the entire programme was mismanaged and the project was dragged down to the point where we had to cancel the contract.

“March has worked with most of the major car companies in the world and we are familiar with the bureaucracy of big companies, but Alfa Romeo are in a class of their own!”

Reeves takes trouble to point out that the relationship with Porsche ended without hurt feelings. “We always felt that the Porsche contract might end when it did, so there was no surprise and they behaved very professionally throughout. In the longer term we felt that our CART championship would come with Alfa Romeo, but the new engine that was so badly needed never came.”

Clearly March’s reputation was taking a beating, first with the Porsche which was fairly competitive but not a winner, unless in fortunate circumstances. The Ferrari designed Alfa Romeo engine was below expectations as regards power, and development work which should have been carried out was neglected.

The loss of Nissan, Porsche and Alfa Romeo has been a blow to March Engineering, both in terms of prestige and turnover, but now the company is fighting back from new headquarters in Colbrook, directly below the final approach Heathrow airport.

Financier John Cowen is the chief executive, a man who felt no attraction to motor racing until he joined the March Group in 1988, in the wake of a £40 million loss. Each of his decisions have been based on business sense rather than emotive leanings, and although March isn’t yet on firm ground the losses have been turned around. The first and obvious lesson is that a racing car manufacturer is only as good as its last winner- …five Indy wins are no guarantee even for the next year, and recent history shows that March became seriously sidetracked by its return to Grand Prix racing.

Reeves, the managing director, has formulated the policy to return to roots, to make customer cars once again, and sure enough the lean figure of Ron Tauranac is seen in the workshop, talking quietly to David Brabham about the latest Ralt RT23 Formula 3000 car. March has been true to the name of Ralt, both with the RT23 and the new RT35 Formula 3 car, but one thing missing from the range is a car called a March!

“The viability of the company is at stake,” says Reeves. We can’t justify the overhead structure we have built around us, unless we can add another major category to F3 and F3000.” The overheads referred to include a staff of 70 at Colnbrook, occupying what used to be the FORCE F1 headquarters, and a further 30 at Comtech, in March’s former headquarters in Bicester.

Reeves doesn’t hide the fact that he made a serious bid for Spice Engineering, and was disappointed to be rejected by Ray BeIlm. “It would have been a good fit,” Reeves believes. Spice needed financial backing, while March would have liked a year of involvement in Group C prior to the debut of the 92S sports car.

Now, March Engineering has given a very firm commitment to the 1992 model sports car, despite the lack of involvement from any manufacturer and a lack of custom from the dwindling band of private entrants. An IMSA version is planned, though, immediately widening the potential market base, and the American market could even prove decisive to the 92S’s viability.

The 92S is being designed by John Baldwin and Andrew Thorby, and is advanced in concept. Baldwin has a long pedigree in Formula 1 design stretching back over two decades with Lotus, McLaren, Spirit, Force and Brabham, While Thorby has a background including time at Specialised Mouldings, Lola, Aston Martin Nimrod and Tom’s Toyota. At their side in the next few months will be Seamus Mularky, a brilliant graduate in aerodynamics from the Imperial College in London.

“We are working on a very small and neat package,” says Baldwin of the Group C car. “It will be capable of accepting a number of different engine options. Our carbon fibre and composites technology is second to none, and we believe that this will give us the edge over the constructors who don’t have our range of facilities.”

Having the right equipment is only half the story, of course. Finding the customer who can do it justice, who dares to take on Mercedes, Jaguar and Peugeot with a fraction of their budgets, is another matter.

“The men who look at the big picture envisage a grid full of sports cars wholly financed by the major car companies,” says Reeves in what can only be a repartee to former March director Max Mosley. “We’ve heard talk of sixteen major car companies battling it out for racing honours. Well, perhaps that will come, but in the meantime it’s more likely that three, four or five majors will have a serious go. I believe that the door is open for properly organised professional teams to win, using a chassis from a company like March.”

The breakthrough, Reeves believes, will be led by the tyre companies who haven’t yet taken Formula 1 technology to Group C. “There can be no doubt that if modern single-seater technology were applied to a sports car, the vehicle would be absolutely devastating,” Reeves believes.

“One of the biggest mistakes a race car designer can make, though, is to produce a car whose sophistication goes beyond what the formula can stand. The top designers know how to make the right compromise between ultimate performance and user friendliness. If this compromise was always in the same place it would be easy, but it isn’t.”

Some designers fall into the trap of producing a car that’s ahead of current tyre technology, and Reeves cites Robin Herd’s narrow track 761 Formula 1 car which was “blindingly fast in a straight line, but destroyed its tyres after a few laps.”

Even Eric Broadley made what seemed to be an error with his first Nissan Group C car, the R89C, which was so stiffly sprung that it was almost undriveable at places like Dijon, Brands Hatch and Mexico.

“I am sure that we’re going to see some very exciting, and very radical changes coming to the sportscar scene, and what is obvious to me is that March must make a car which is among the first of the new generation, not the last of the old generation,” says Reeves. Two feasibility studies have been carried out during 1990, and the result of one is a completely new gearbox design which is lighter, halves the rotating inertia, yet remains simple to work on in the paddock (it is for the sake of simplicity that the Ralt F3000 car retains a longitudinal gearbox, because it’s beyond the means of most teams to change ratios and work on a transverse gearbox between sessions).

March plans to form an association with a World Championship team at the start of the ’91 season, to build up a relationship which will be cemented when the 92S is ready for testing and development. “The team will understand us, and we will understand them. People sometimes forget that motor racing is a team sport, and that it takes time to build up the relationships you need for winning.

“We wouldn’t want to be diverted from our main purpose,” Reeves concludes, “but I’m sure that some modern technology applied to a 962 or to a Spice could move it up the grid a place or two,”

There’s no doubt about it, March Engineering is very serious about returning to sports car competitions at the top level, and committed to a high-tech customer car. It is quite a gamble for a privateer to take on the might of the major manufacturers, perhaps six or seven of them in 1992. . . . but that, after all, is what all of Porsche’s customers for the 962 did, and few of them complained about the odds. MLC

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