The End of the Road

Last month, we looked ahead to the forthcoming Formula 3000. Now we take a step back with veteran designer Ron Tauranac, to see why F3000 became necessary in the first place…

When one team, or make, dominates any motor racing category for any period of time, there are always cries from the opposition about a perceived unfair advantage.

Sometimes that leads to a change in regulations. Occasionally, it leads to the scrapping of an entire formula . . .

In 1984, the FIA announced that the European Formula Two Championship, which since 1967 had been the launching pad to Grand Prix stardom for a multitude of drivers and teams, would be replaced at the end of the season by Formula 3000. In doing so, it ensured the end of an era of complete domination by one team: Ralt-Honda.

The Japanese motor giant had used Formula Two for its re-entry to motor racing, but it wasn’t the first time Ralt boss Ron Tauranac had been associated with the firm. Back in 1965 and ’66, Tauranac designed Brabham-Hondas had cleaned up on the F2 scene. The car which would carry the new V6 the RH6 came from the same family as the RT2 (with which Brian Henton had narrowly been pipped to the 1979 European F2 crown) and the RT3, which would go on to dominate Formula Three but at the time was still gaining respectability in the hands of Rob Wilson.

The man who gave the project its debut, at Silverstone in 1980. was a young, moustachioed Midlander by the name of Nigel Mansell . . .

Australian Tauranac, who still designs junior single-seater chassis today from his home near Woking, well remembers how the association was forged.

“Colin Chapman at Lotus got in touch. He was interested in Nigel and persuaded me to give him a go to see how he’d get on.”

The answer was: not too brilliantly. In fact, he was ‘rested’ in favour of American Formula Atlantic star Tom Gloy by Tauranac for two races after a ragged display at Zandvoort.

“Nigel was OK. We used to get along, but he was relatively inexperienced. At Zandvoort, he came fourth, but it had rained at the start of the race. Throughout the entire race he drove to his line I was standing at the left-handed hairpin behind the pits, and he was going to the right up the hill and spinning his wheels. All the others went up the inside, but he didn’t notice. I thought he couldn’t have any brains even if he didn’t know that you change line when it’s wet because there’s rubber and oil on the dry line, he should have seen the other blokes.”

Back in the squad for the end of the season, Mansell partnered fellow Midlander Geoff Lees. Both were unlucky not to take the Ralt-Honda’s debut win in the finale at Hockenheim, leaving the way clear for Teo Fabi’s March. “You couldn’t choose between them,” Tauranac reflects off the two young Brits. But Colin Chapman did: he picked Mansell for the 1981 Lotus squad, leaving Lees to lead the Raft outfit in F2.

Joining Lees was a spectacularly talented 19-year-old New Zealander, Mike Thackwell. He had already had a season in F2 with March, in which he had been forced to drive around a handling problem on the 802. Testing the Ralt at Thruxton, Thackwell followed custom, trying to use his natural talent rather than stop at the pits for a minor tweak. He was nearly killed in the resultant accident around the Hampshire circuit’s flat-out sweepers . . .

But Lees went on to take the first European title for Ralt and Honda. Sadly, the quiet Warwickshire man’s ability was never rewarded with a regular Grand Prix ride, although he did go on to success after success in Japan.

With Thackwell not fully fit in Tauranac’s eyes, even though he had returned with remarkable speed to complete the ’81 season, the 1982 squad comprised British F3 champion Jonathan Palmer and Ulsterman Kenny Acheson. But, like Thackwell, Acheson had experienced a major shunt in ’81 (at Pau). Tauranac firmly believes that drivers are often never the same after ‘the big one’ as a result, he doubts that Mika Hakkinen (winner of the 1990 British F3 title in a Ralt RT34) will ever regain his form of old.

Other factors counted against Ralt in 1982, including tyres. After a race of attrition at Thruxton, during which Ron discovered his rivals had been favoured by Pirelli over his team, a switch to Bridgestone was made. The final piece of the jigsaw for domination was in place, but it would take another year to reach fruition.

“We switched to Bridgestone, and Jonathan had a big accident at Enna due to a burst tyre. Afterwards, I was having a casual conversation with Hiroshi Yoshikawa, their Competitions Director. He asked me how much a car cost, and I said it was about £20,000 or whatever. Two weeks later a cheque arrived in my bank account . . .

“The tyre had burst, the car was destroyed and put Jonathan in the hospital, but they were very good about it.”

By 1983, Honda had entered Formula One with the Spirit team which had actually enjoyed more F2 success with the Japanese engine than had Ralt in ’82. But Tauranac’s F2 project stayed on course, Thackwell returning from a year in the privateer wilderness to partner Palmer.

After Beppe Gabbiani’s March had romped the early races, the Ralts moved into gear, completely dominating the championship. That was despite an eligibility scare at Jarama.

“Ralph Bellamy from March protested us, with BMW backing. At the previous race, the FIA had brought out a silly rule to say that if the car was seen to touch the ground it was not legal. How you can prevent a racing car from touching the ground I do not know, but this was the rule which they brought in. “We had wood which was light-coloured, so we just painted the bottom inch of the wood rubbing strips at the side of the cal black, so you couldn’t tell the difference between the tarmac and the rubbing strips. I just went into town and bought a tin of paint.

“We had a double spring device at all four corners of the car, with a helper spring on top of the main spring. In qualifying the cars were wrongly set up, but Jonathan was told that if he touched the ground he should come in and we’d jack the cars up so that there’d be no smoke. But instead of that he did a lap past the pits, and you could smell the wood smoke burning.

“We won the race and Ralph protested us. I was a bit naïve and went to the meeting and said my bit. Then we were found guilty so we lodged a protest and got a solicitor and whatnot.

“What happened was that instead of having two simple springs, one on top of the other, we had a little black canister around the top helper spring. So instead of having it coiled out, it just came down to the solid height which we could adjust on the canister. Ralph thought we had some clever device, and instead of coming and discussing it he went and protested it. Eventually, the investigating people found us not guilty.

“After that I took the car off the dual springs and went onto single springs, and that made us better. From then on we just didn’t lose a race, so they did us a big favour!”

But why, bearing in mind their relative reputations, did the supersonically talented Thackwell lose so convincingly to Palmer, a man who was quick but never thought of as World Champion material?

“Mainly because he had his accident. Also, each year when we were super competitive, I didn’t want the two cars racing one another for two reasons: one, they could destroy the cars; the other, we didn’t want to destroy the opposition.

“We wanted to stay back during the race and pass one another occasionally. Somebody would be decreed to win at the end of the race and usually it was the person who carried over in the team from the year before. Then it would be passed on the year after.”

So it was Thackwell’s turn to win in 1984 when he was joined by young Brazilian Roberto Moreno. Silverstone, the opening round, was a perfect exhibition of just how dominant the Ralt-Hondas were. Other teams pointed to the engine but, claims Tauranac, the superiority actually lay in the chassis.

“People thought it was the engine, but it certainly wasn’t at that race. You only had to go out onto the circuit, and the flat-out corner in those days was at Stowe. Our blokes could take that in fifth gear with one hand you could just go and listen. The Marches were doing it in fourth gear and having a real hard time of it. That’s not engine!

“That year March lost because they were obsessed that we had the best engine, and there was nothing they could do about it. But we just had a better chassis.”

It was a frustrating season for Moreno, largely spent in the shadow of Thackwell (though the Brazilian won at Hockenheim), but at Enna he was finally given his chance to race for victory.

“At Enna I said, ‘OK, we’ve won the championship now, so either of you can win. But rather than race the whole race we’ll wait until 10 laps to go and give you a signal’.

“My daughter was with us she used to do a lot of timekeeping, she was quite an enthusiast. She had a green shirt, so we arranged that with 10 laps to go she’d lean over and wave her green shirt, which she did. The two of them were together at the time, but Moreno couldn’t race because he had a technical problem with his car and he couldn’t give Mike a go. But he dearly wanted to beat him!”

By the end of the year F2 was dead. Does Tauranac believe his cars hastened its demise?

“Yeah no doubt about that, even though we didn’t spend as much money as other people. What had happened was that the BMW engine was becoming a bit of a time bomb – if you over-revved it you had trouble. They had some individual tuners in Europe who tried to do some special things, and they were fairly short-lived – there wasn’t much mileage. Formula Two just needed another reliable engine, but there was no doubt that our chassis was superior.”

When the regulations changed, Raft moved with the times, although the marque would not survive for F3000’s 11-race season duration.

Initially, the cars were right on the pace. In 1985, Thackwell almost followed up ifs F2 crown, but in the end lost it by driving too quickly!

“We’d been to Dijon tyre testing, and one of the tyres we tried gave the car a bit of a vibration. But if you backed off a bit it was OK. Mike just wouldn’t use that tyre, but Christian Danner (driving a March) used it because he probably didn’t push quite at hard and it didn’t vibrate! It was quicker and lasted longer than the tyre Mike chose to use, and Danner won.”

Then, in the championship showdown at Donington, Thackwell fell off: “He tossed the last race away. Instead of just winning the race, he wanted to win it at the first corner … “What Mike needed was a strong manager that he would actually respect and what he was told. He had particular thoughts in his mind about the way racing drivers were – his heroes were these old ancient drivers that did it by brute force and he never really conceded that the car was really an equal part of the equation. Which was a pity because he was a really nice guy.

Having used Cosworth power for F3000’s first season, Honda stepped back into Ralt’s life for 1986.

“John Judd at Engine Developments did an engine for Honda for Indycars, and I had an Indycar well underway. But American Honda said that, with things going so well in Formula One, they didn’t want to take the risk of going to Indy at that stage. The President rang me up and said, ‘What will we do?’ and I said, ‘If you don’t want to go, don’t go’. And he said, ‘We can’t just leave you in the lurch’. I said, ‘Just don’t worry, we decided to convert the engine for F3000,”

The most successful season in this guise was 1987. Moreno was back in the fold and partnered by fellow Brazilian Mauricio Gugelmin, both drivers were race winners. But they lost out in the title chase to Stefano Modena’s Onyx March. Then came a disastrous 1988, the final year in which a Tauranac-owned F2 or F3000 team took part in the championship.

“The problem really was that you needed sponsorship to run the thing, and that wasn’t really my scene. You really needed someone who was that way inclined as part of the company. I’d only ever got technical sponsorship from people that wanted to develop their product. “That year our 3000 wasn’t successful. We’d committed to the expenditure of the cars and so forth, but we had a couple of problems with them. Eventually, Russel Spence stopped his payments — he wanted to negotiate out and I just agreed to let go rather than have a court case.

“I was running these cars without any income, and that didn’t give me the where withal to fix the problems with the cars quickly. Also I was being dictated to a bit by Eric Bernard — he wanted to test everywhere and all I needed was a little bit of time at home to work in the drawing office and on the car, because it was a technical thing not a testing thing.” Eventually, Bernard left too, Ralt seeing the season out with Perry McCarthy and Carl Euser. By then, Tauranac was selling the company to March, as related in our sister publication, ‘Motoring News’ , recent special 2000th issue supplement. There were to be just two more Ralts. Jean-Marc Gounon scored the marque’s final F3000 victory at Pau in 1991, but its successor – the RT24- lacked customer confidence, and the marque disappeared after a wretched 1992, when only talented – but under financed – Italian Giambattista Busi had persevered with the thing. And that was only because his team couldn’t afford to change chassis.

It was an inconspicuous farewell, a long way from the early 1980s and those remarkable RH6s. In the hands of Geoff Lees, Jonathan Palmer and Mike Thackwell, they left an indelible mark on Formula One’s ante-chamber. M J S