Heroic GP failures

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They probably seemed a good idea at the time but there have been some diabolically dreadful GP cars, recalls Shaun Campbell

To motor racing historians the 1951 British Grand Prix was a watershed event. It was the first World Championship Grand Prix win for Ferrari which is an important enough reason in itself but it also marked the end of Alfa Romeo’s postwar dominance of this class of racing, and the small-displacement supercharged engine as the means of doing it. Significant stuff, if you’re into this kind of thing.

Look beyond the headline-grabbing story, though, and you will find another great tale, tucked away in the small print of the results box. For it was in this race that you will find the best, indeed the only, World Championship result achieved by that most infamous of Grand Prix’s heroic failures – the British Racing Motors Type 15.

The story of the V16 BRM is a tangled web of trusts and transmissions, ambition and embarrassment, oil on the floor and money down the pan. It’s been told many times before. Suffice to say here that it defied the best efforts of Moss and Fangio to make it a winner, and that the kindest thing anyone could ever say about it was that it made a fabulous noise. When you think of the V16 BRM that quaint old Yorkshire expression, “All trousers an’ no dancing” hits the mind.

What makes the V16 BRM a heroic failure, but a car such as, say, 1992’s Andrea Moda merely a dismal flop, is difficult to categorise. It’s the difference between tragedy and farce, the difference between the punchline that makes you weep while you laugh, and the joke that just prompts a chuckle. To qualify as an heroic failure it isn’t compulsory to squander a large budget, though that helps. It’s more a matter of being too clever by three-quarters; of coming up with just the right idea at exactly the wrong time; of losing spectacularly, rather than narrowly. Today the heroic failure in the grand old tradition is a rare thing. The Footwork-Porsche of 1991 is perhaps the best recent example, but the modern Formula One car is designed within technical parameters that leave little room for quantum leaps or, sadly, for monumental cock-ups.

The first Golden Age of getting it all wrong was the 1920s, the balmy, barmy days of Bentleys, Brooklands and Bugattis, when the roads were rough, the racers were ready, and the rules were arbitrary. Those few short years Europe enjoyed between the end of the Great War and the onset of the Depression produced several leaps into the long-jump sandpit of Grand Prix racing’s future.

Plus a few that veered off the runway and careered into the man holding the tape.

The 1923 Voisin, for example, was the creation of one of the most respected names in the French air industry, an arena in which France was a leading world power. With its sharp-lined, all-enclosing bodywork and monocoque chassis built from timber reinforced with steel tubes and plated with aluminium, it didn’t look like the other cars of the period. Unfortunately it didn’t go like them, either. Not all the aerodynamic and chassis tweaks in the world could make up for the fact that its 2-litre six-cylinder engine was giving only 90bhp when the contemporary Fiat was pumping out 130bhp.

In the same year (35 years before Cooper’s breakthrough, 11 before Auto Union’s) Benz produced a rear-engined racer the Tropfenwagen. It also had four-wheel independent suspension a first for a Grand Prix car. But even with its novel rear-mounted radiator it was no match for the Fiats or the suspiciously similar Sunbeams that were the winning cars of the time, and its best result was fourth in the Italian Grand Prix.

The other great might-have-been of 1923 was the Alfa Romeo P1. One of the three built was destroyed in a practice run for the Italian Grand Prix, killing driver Ugo Sivocci. The other two were withdrawn. Though never raced, the six-cylinder P1 inspired the fabulously successful eight-cylinder P2, designed by the young Vittorio Jano, that was to come the following year.

It was in an Alfa P2 that Antonio Ascari, father of double World Champion Alberto, won the 1924 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, crushing the much vaunted opposition of Mercedes and the Ferdinand Porsche-designed M218. The German car’s supercharged, straight eight, 2-litre engine was delivering the undreamed of level of 170bhp at 7000rpm, but it was very peaky and the handling was a nightmare. One of the team’s large Squad of drivers, Count Zborowski, was killed in the race, and the rest, including the great Rudi Caracciola, were nowhere.

Delage was one of the biggest names of this period, and much was expected of its 1926 challenger, the Type 15-S-8. Unlike its V12 predecessors, this car was powered by a new, in-line, eight-cylinder engine, designed for the 1.5-litre formula that was being introduced that year. The man in charge of the project was Albert Lory, the hotshot designer of the day. In time, the 15-S-8 was developed into a race-winning car, but the drivers found it literally unbearable to start with. Their feet and legs were burnt by the exhaust and a quirk of the design caused a vacuum that resulted in the exhaust fumes being sucked into the cockpit. After 15 laps of the Italian Grand Prix, all three entries were parked in the pits. their drivers incapacitated.

Changes in Grand Prix formula invariably provoke barking up wrong trees, and in the late 1920s and early 1930s regulations were altered on almost a yearly basis. Bugatti’s solution was to keep building the same car and just change the engine. In 1930, when bigger, heavier cars were allowed, the Molsheim firm produced the Type 45, outwardly similar to the breed epitomised by the Type 35B, but powered by two parallel eight-cylinder engines geared together, intended originally as an aero power-plant. It didn’t work. In the following year Bugatti brought out the Type 53, which used a 5-litre, 300bhp, eight-cylinder engine in a four-wheel-drive chassis with independent front suspension. As a Grand Prix car it made a good hillclimber.

Bugatti’s experience failed to kill off the twin-engine monster concept. For the Italian manufacturers it was the only means possible of keeping up with the prodigious power outputs of the Mercedes and Auto Union cars that were storming Grand Prix racing in the mid-1930s. But even given Italy’s desperation to compete with Germany, the Alfa Romeo Bimotore was a pretty frightening concept. It was designed by Luigi Bazzi and built in the Scuderia Ferrari workshops at Modena with the factory’s blessing. It had one supercharged eight-cylinder engine in the front, another behind the driver, with the clutch adjacent to the front engine, and the gearbox and differential located between them. It had a total capacity of 6.3 litres and produced 540bhp. It was also terrifying to drive, with an appetite for tyres and petrol that defied all comprehension.

If the V16 BRM was the undoubted leader of the postwar white elephants, it was by no means the only one. The glory of France was supposed to be represented in 1947 by the CTA-Arsenal, a state-backed project with the design headed by Albert Lory of Delage fame. It was powered by a 1.5-litre, supercharged V8 developing 260bhp, which looked competitive enough on paper, but the chassis was archaic cross-braced box section side members and it had a peculiar transverse link and torsion bar suspension. It was 30 seconds off the pace in practice for the French Grand Prix and broke down on the starting grid. Two were entered for the 1948 French Grand Prix, but they were withdrawn before practice, and the CTA-Arsenal was never to be seen again.

The other big disaster of this era and the most interesting technically was the Cisitalia-Porsche. Cisitalia was a little Italian firm that built successful Junior league sports cars and single-seaters, but for its Grand Prix venture it bought the rights to a futuristic Porsche design. Ferdinand Porsche drew on the lessons learned from the pre-war Auto Unions, and the Type 306 had its supercharged flat 12 engine mounted amidships and driving all four wheels, although the power to the front wheels could be switched off. It had a five-speed gearbox and torsion bar/trailing arm suspension front and rear. Tazio Nuvolari was persuaded to try it out for size, but the ambitious project was too rich for Cisitalia’s blood and the company ran out of money. It never raced in Europe, although it did compete in an obscure event in Argentina several years later.

It was the French who produced the most heroic failures of the mid-1950s. The saddest sight of the 1956 French Grand Prix was the dismal performance of the Bugatti Type 251. Its 2.5-litre straight eight was mounted transversely behind the cockpit, and it had an unusual De Dion suspension front and rear, but the engine never gave the power that was claimed for it, and the handling was positively spiteful. The project had been funded from profits in military contracts, but with the end of the Indo-China conflict that money dried up and Bugatti was finished as a Grand Prix manufacturer.

The DB – named after company founders Charles Deutsch and Rene Bonnet – was surely the most outlandish venture of the era. It was one of only two cars to take up the option of a 750cc supercharged engine rather than the 2.5 litres unblown that was then the norm, but it was also the only post-war Grand Prix car to have front-wheel drive. It had magnesium alloy wheels, disc brakes at the front and drums at the rear. It weighed a little more than half what its rivals did but the venerable 746cc Panhard motor developed only 85bhp less than one third of the contemporary Mercedes W196. Two cars were entered for the non-championship 1955 Pau Grand Prix: one finished – 18 laps behind.

In 1958, Grands Prix were shortened and the fuel regulations changed, swinging the balance in the favour of the lightweight mid-engined car. Those who were slow to read Cooper’s graffiti and continued with the development of front-enginecl cars were badly burned. The American Scarab and English Aston Martin F1 projects were the most poignant victims of bad timing, but Vanwall’s decline was a bitter affair, too. A skeleton of the team that had won six of 1958’s nine World Championship races finally got round to building a mid-engined car in 1961. But the formula had changed once again, and the engine was obsolete. Exit Vanwall.

Uniformity ruled in the early 1960s, and the failures lacked heroic qualities. Chief banana of the early 1960s bunch, though, was ATS, an Italian team formed by a Ferrari breakaway group, led by engineer Carlo Chiti and team manager Romolo Tavoni. The ATS 100 had the right people behind it and the right driver in the cockpit 1961 World Champion Phil Hill but it was an unmitigated disaster. Best result: 11th, 1963 Italian Grand Prix.

The heroic failure made a grand comeback in 1966, when the formula changed to a maximum of three litres. BRM did it best. Blissfully ignoring its own history of 16-cylinder engines, and others’ experiences of the “one engine good, two engines better” school, BRM put one flat-eight on top of another to produce a 3-litre H16, good for at least 400bhp (they said). It was catastrophically heavy and woefully unreliable, although it did achieve one rather lucky race win in the back of a Lotus.

Honda had established itself in F1 by this time with a reputation for enormously powerful V12 engines and ill-handling chassis. The RA302 of 1968 dispensed with the former using an aircooled V8 in its place but retained the latter. John Surtees tested it at Silverstone, but after two laps it had blown out all of its oil and Surtees refused to have anything more to do with it. Nevertheless, the RA302 was entered for the French Grand Prix under the Honda France banner, with F1 debutant Jo Schlesser at the wheel. It was wet, the engine suddenly cut out and Schlesser lost control. The car crashed and burst into flames, the magnesium skinned monocoque burning with blinding ferocity. Schlesser was killed.

The problem of keeping these 400bhp cars stuck to the road was the one aspect exercising most designers’ thoughts at this time. Four-wheel drive looked a promising avenue and several of the top teams Lotus, McLaren and Matra built and raced four-wheel-drive F1 cars during 1969. But wider, slicker, stickier tyres and aerofoils were providing much more benefit in this area, without the weight and complication penalties. Four-wheel drive was a blind alley as far as F1 was concerned, although it made a last brief appearance in 1971 in the gas turbine-powered Lotus 56B. Developed from Lotus’s 1968 Indy 500 challenger, the 56B suffered a variety of niggling faults and terminal throttle lag.

Playing around with the weight distribution was the next fad. Lotus started it and successfully, with its wedge-shaped, side-radiatored 72 of 1970-75, but others got it wrong. The March 721X, the product of a relatively new and incorrigibly ambitious F1 team was a squat little beast of a car, inspired by the concept of creating a low polar moment of inertia by distributing the weight closer to the centre of the car. It was pronounced as undriveable by a young Austrian driver who had bought his place in F1 with the team, but nobody listened to Niki Lauda then. He was right, though. The Alfa Romeo transmission was primitive and the layout destroyed front tyres. BRM tried putting the weight over the back with its P180 of 1972, but that didn’t work any better, either.

The late 1970s was the last great era of the heroic failure fuelled largely by the search of the Cosworth DFV-powered teams to match the greater power outputs of Ferrari’s first flat-12, and then the new generation of turbo engines. The Tyrrell P34 of 1976 broke new ground by having six wheels, four little ones at the front, two conventional ones at the rear. It was hoped to improve penetration while keeping up tyre contact with the ground, but it never provided the benefits Tyrrell hoped for, although Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler drove six-wheelers to a convincing one-two victory in the 1976 Swedish Grand Prix. March went one further with the 2-4-0, which had four driven wheels at the rear. It was never finished properly and the forces generated by the close-coupled, four-wheel drive system caused havoc in the transmission. Like the Bugatti Type 53 it made a good hillclimb car, but even then only in the wet.

Brabham had been one of the first teams to dump the DFV and look for more power opting for Alfa Romeo’s bulky and thirsty flat-12. It looked like a sensible answer, until the Lotus 78 appeared in 1977, with its “ground effects” sidepods channelling the air that passed beneath the car to suck it down to the ground. A compact, narrow engine was what was needed for a ground effects car, leaving Brabham designer Gordon Murray with a king-sized headache.

For all that, his 1978 BT46 design looked a million dollars — sleek, dart-nosed and triangular in cross section. It had digital instrumentation, onboard jacking and no radiators, instead using heat exchanger panels on the flanks to cool the air and water. Unfortunately, these didn’t work and the car had to be redesigned with radiators ahead of the front wheels.

For Murray, though, this was the short-term solution. At the Swedish Grand Prix midway through the year, the Brabham-Alfa BT46 reappeared with its original needle nose and a large fan at the rear. The fan sucked air from the sealed engine bay through a horizontal radiator, cooling the engine and sucking the car to the ground at the same time. In the race, Niki Lauda made Mario Andretti’s all-conquering Lotus 79 look pedestrian and won by a comfortable margin. But the Brabham was too good and the fan-car was promptly banned, although the rules were, at best, ambigious on this point.

At least the Brabham BT46 was allowed to race before it was banned. The “twin chassis” Lotus 88 of 1981 never got that far. The days of groundbreaking leaps and leg-breaking plunges were effectively over. The paths to glory and the cul-de-sacs to ignominy were being closed and barricaded. Today, you can look at the Marlboro-backed McLaren-Mercedes — a winning combination on paper if ever there was one — scratching around for fifth and sixth places and you can recognise the failure. But the heroic quality is missing. It’s just another fag packet on wheels.

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