The 1970s and early ’80s were a time of great technological advancement in F1. Five of the great designers from that period recall how they raised the bar
Formula 1’s ‘Computer Age’ was booted up on December 17 1982, when Dave Scott, a promising Formula 3 driver, circulated Snetterton in the original actives-spension F1 car: a modified Lotus 92. His mind, however, was elsewhere. He’d just learned of Colin Chapman’s unexpected death at 54; the team’s driving force had suffered a heart attack the previous night. The test went ahead as planned — it’s what ACBC would have wanted — but all present knew that the sport had changed forever, for the wrong reason.
Chapman, brilliant and belligerent, confident and controlling, intuitive and inspiring, had no time for the past. And that’s precisely why he bestrode the preceding ‘Analogue Age’. The monocoque Lotus 25 and integrated, holistic 49/DFV — with the emphasis on Keith Duckworth’s V8 masterwork — were the benchmarks of 1960s performance. And the 72, with its wedge-shaped body, side rads, torsion bars, multi-plane rear wing and overtly commercial colours, reset the bar for a lurid new decade. Modern Formula 1 had arrived.
The five performance parameters — power, weight, tyre grip, drag and downforce — were by now set in stone. Today’s monolithic teams chip away at them. In the early 1970s, a handful of individualistic designers armed only with slide rule, drawing slant and French curve hacked at them as they redefined the limits. Next Big Things, so beloved by Chapman, came thicker, faster and in more bewildering shapes, sizes and materials as the decade progressed. Some stemmed from within: wing cars and ground effect; others from without: heady increases of grip, power and torsional rigidity courtesy of rapid tyre improvements (compound and construction), turbochargers (money and know-how from major car manufacturers), aerospace carbon fibre (still the sport’s defining material) and the growth of computing power.
As downforce and power doubled, tyres went from cross-ply to radial, while acceleration and braking went gee whiz. The designers and their underpopulated drawing offices, with only gabbled driver feedback, grabbed and oft-misleading figures from basic wind tunnels and the first fuzzy flickerings of data-acquisition to refer to, clung on. Incredibly, a few of them were able to balance the desire/need for the next Next Big Thing with the devil that is detail. In doing so, they ‘steered’ the sport as it paradigm-shifted from Chapman’s first John Player Specials, corduroy caps and polo necks — the black art — to science.
This was arguably the most exciting, most important — and unequivocally the most engaging — period of technological advancement the sport has known: from six wheels — four at the front, or the back if you prefer — a ‘fan car’, skirts (sliding and fixed), a gas turbine, fourwheel drive, a twin chassis and a transverse gearbox to the Eifelland’s ‘periscope’ mirror and Ligier’s ‘teapot’ airbox. Not everything worked. Not everything was new. But absolutely it was a bone-jarring, rocket-fuelled roller coaster ride.
’70 – Lotus unveils its 72 and occasionally runs the four-wheel-drive, gas turbine 56B. March enters F1, its 701 featuring aerofoil-shaped side fuel tanks.
Tony Southgate “The 72 — I wouldn’t have been that brave. It was so trick that they couldn’t make it work. Typically, Lotus redesigned it overnight; they would do a new suspension every week if necessary. They kept redeveloping it for years. They had to — their other cars didn’t work.”
ROBIN HERD “The 72 wasn’t as good as it’s made out to be. Over-complicated suspension. Chapman was a great innovator but a disaster on design detail. That said, this was undeniably the Chapman Era.”
’71 – Goodyear and Firestone introduce tread-less slicks. March’s 711 has a raised tea-tray front wing.
Herd “We had a bit of a go with the 711. Its front wing was heading towards today’s high noses. Aerodynamicist Frank Costin did the low drag; I did the downforce. His wing was beautiful, like a Spitfire’s, but it was too pitchsensitive: its top surface was flat, the curvature was underneath. I had in mind to put a Gurney flap on it — and on the rear wing — to increase the downforce hugely without materially increasing drag. But I didn’t. An opportunity missed.”
’72 – Designers are divided over polar moment of inertia: low or high?
Southgate “My BRM P180 had 70 per cent of its weight at the back. I was chasing traction — but this was too much. I had a scheme for putting the radiators ahead of the wheels, but it was going to cost too much money. Chapman would’ve done it without hesitation.”
Herd “I messed up with the 721X. I was on the right path — reducing the polar moment — but I put too much weight forward. The front tyres were saturated with downforce, the rears underloaded. When you needed grip from the front, it went straight on. When you came out of a corner and unloaded the front, it suddenly gripped and the car went into snap oversteer. A disaster. So we had to build a simple F1 car [721G] in just nine days. It went quite well, which says something.”
Southgate “You could say that we designers didn’t know what we were doing because we were all going off in different directions. But back then you could do what you wanted. Most of us had a Cosworth DFV and so all the effort went into the chassis.”
73 – Brabham’s BT42 has ‘pyramid’ sidepods. McLaren unveils its ‘conservative’ M23. Shadow DN1’s rear is tightly wrapped by bodywork.
Southgate “DN1 was just me in my lockup; we didn’t have an office. Brabham’s Gordon Murray and I used to draw cars longhand. It’s still the quickest way. Of course, once you’ve produced a car on CAD, mods can be made much quicker: seconds, not days.”
Gordon Murray “You knew you were chief designer because there was nobody else in the drawing office. It was a case of light-bulb idea, get it made, get it tested and get it on the car for the next race.”
Southgate “Keeping up with the technical developments was a one-man show: load the stuff into your car and drive to Silverstone, or the wind tunnel at Imperial College London, to test it. DN1 was wind tunnel-tested. Not all the cars were then; McLarens weren’t.”
John Barnard “My first job at McLaren was to finish the M23’s chassis; Gordon Coppuck was the designer. We didn’t think of the car in conservative terms. For example, I did the first singlepost-mounted rear wing for it. It was well built and solid. Not a groundbreaker, but successful. Detail is as important as the fundamental concept.”
Southgate “In the late 1960s we had bolted bits of metal — flaps, splitters, etc — to the cars. These worked, but we didn’t know why. So we started going to wind tunnels with models to find out.”
Herd “The tunnels were pretty crude, but the information was good once you’d learned what you could and couldn’t believe. A front wing’s performance had to be assessed at the track.”
Murray “The main idea behind BT42 was to move the separation point nearer the ground to force more air over the top of the car. We got so much effect from it that it made me wonder what would happen if we did even more.”
’74 – Ferrari’s 312B3 shifts the driver forward within the wheelbase; Brabham’s BT44 features an underbody skirt and pullrod suspension.
Murray “I designed myself a 750 Formula car. To improve its aerodynamics I put the springs inboard. Everybody was using rockers, but they’re dreadful — undamped leaf springs, basically. So I came up with pullrods, which I simply upscaled for F1. I also got rid of the usual ‘Forth Bridge’ architecture surrounding the gearbox and put the suspension loads directly into the block. Innovation is as much about simplification as complexity. I wasn’t using computers, it was all from experience.”
Southgate “Goodyear had a big black box that bolted to the gearbox. Transponders measured wheel movement and g-forces and the info was recorded on a cassette tape. But this tape was affected by the forces and bumps, too, so when we printed its data there was a lot of interference within its squiggly lines.”
Murray “We had very crude ground effect. In truth, we didn’t quite know what we had. We made a manometer, a water tube with a brass tap, and strapped it to the side of the car. We discovered that if we ran a transverse, vee-shaped, sacrificial skirt, it generated downforce. Originally designed to exclude air from going under the car and producing lift, the skirt created a low pressure behind it. We got 100-1501b of downforce, which meant we could run less rear wing.”
’75 – Ferrari’s 312T has a transverse gearbox to help centralise mass within its wheelbase.
Southgate “We had a computer programme that could do geometries. Punch in two or three fixed points, and one or two you could move, and keep playing until you get the geometry curve and roll centre you want. It wasn’t 3D. It just replaced the drawing board.”
Herd “I had done CFD on Concorde. You could do it with supersonic air because you only needed to solve linear equations. Subsonic air’s behaviour is far more complicated.”
’76 – Tyrrell unveils its six-wheeled P34. March builds a six-wheeler, too. Brabham introduces carbon brakes on its BT45.
Southgate “We’d been looking at the sixwheeler concept, and four at the back was the obvious route: reduced frontal area, better traction, and you could have had different tyre compounds. But the need was cancelled out by tyre developments. I was surprised anybody bothered to build a six-wheeler.”
Herd “Tyrrell’s four wheels at the front seemed a nonsense. Our six-wheeler had them at the back. It had phenomenal traction and went like a shell in a straight line. We needed to reduce its weight, not by a ridiculous amount, but by too much for our budget.”
’77 – Renault introduces turbochargers; partner Michelin introduces radial tyres. Lotus’s 78 ‘wing car’ channels underbody air to generate downforce.
Southgate “Tyres started to get technical. Unlike Goodyear, Michelin wanted details of your car to supposedly engineer tyres to suit. They brought fewer types of tyre to a test, too, because they’d already established the route they thought you should follow. Goodyear used to throw loads of tyres at you and you’d go round and round. Don’t forget, we didn’t have data-logging then.”
Peter Wright “It was bloomin’ hard to get good data. The original analogue systems of the late 1960s were OK but limited. I’d read that David Williams at Cranfield had designed a small data system for an aerobatics plane; I asked him to design one for an F1 car. We were getting data in the tunnel but had no idea what was happening on the track. With ground effect coming, we needed to find out what might be wrong, measure, model and come up with a digital solution. By the end of the year we had a data system on the Lotus 78. It took several years before we had one we could rely on.”
’78 – Wolf’s WR5 introduces sliding skirts; it and the Lotus 79 are the first true ground-effect cars. Brabham responds with the BT46B ‘fan car’. Tyrrell’s 008 features onboard data-logging.
Murray “You’d have this great idea that was a huge amount of work to get on the prototype. That would usually be just a few weeks before the first race, so if it didn’t work, you dumped it. With surface radiators, we had a boundary-layer build-up at the front and couldn’t get the water temperature down. We tried all sorts of aerofoils to reintroduce the air but ran out of time.”
Wright “The ooh-my-goodness moment was discovering when skirts worked how big the effect was. We couldn’t believe it. The next was discovering what Wolf’s Harvey Postlethwaite had done to skirts: a board in a box.”
Southgate “The biggest leap was sliding skirts. We had brushes, then polypropylene hinged skirts. Next came sliding skirts. I thought they were illegal. Of course, Chapman bluffed them through. A strong personality, he could do that. We initially had nylon blocks on the skirt bottoms and these wore fairly quickly; they could just about get through a race.”
Wright “My brother-in-law is a potter and he suggested ceramics as the hardest materials; we couldn’t afford diamonds. A professor at Imperial told us to go to such and such a company. We did, and they made us cylindrical rods about 8mm in diameter.”
Southgate “Now, the skirts did not even show any marks.”
Murray “Switching to the Alfa flat-12 in 1976 turned out to be a big mistake. [Team boss] Bernie Ecclestone and I thought that if we didn’t have a 12-cylinder we’d be dead in the water. When venturi ground effect came along, our engine’s layout meant we couldn’t adopt it. This forced us to come up with the ‘fan car’.”
Southgate “Lotus had schemed a car with a fan at each corner. Driven hydraulically and using about 150bhp, they would have come on automatically as you approached a corner. That sort of thing was right up Lotus’s street. We were like a mad British Aerospace.”
Wright “The 79, in truth, was not a good car. Crude, it had all sorts of faults. But it had so much downforce compared to the others that it overcome all that.”
Southgate “Each time the cars got quicker, the innovations were banned, so they never reached their ultimate. For instance, we had rock-solid suspension and the cars porpoised horribly. You couldn’t control them.”
Murray “What caught people out was the stiffness required by the side-wing’s profiles. These were being sucked to the floor because of 2.5 tonnes of downforce. If the sidepods deflected by 5mm from their static position, the air at the throat of the venturis stalled and you lost all the downforce. I had a designer called David North and we read about carbon fibre in aerospace mags. We started using it in bits and pieces to replace aluminium and got up to about 50 per cent. We were the first team, by years, to have an autoclave in the factory.”
’79 – Lotus and Arrows attempt to run wing-less cars.
Southgate “Lotus did the 80; I designed the A2 for Arrows. The idea was that the downforce was to be created by the body alone. I used a double-skirt system and got much bigger numbers in the tunnel — double the usual. But I went overboard and put the engine and transmission at an angle to form a big venturi. I knew this would raise the centre of gravity, but I’d got sucked in. I should have placed the engine flat and low. Although that would have put a bulge in the underside and cost downforce, the car would have changed direction better. Both teams ended up fitting a rear wing. That was more a psychological thing. It didn’t produce extra downforce, but it improved stability and the drivers felt more confident. Producing innovative cars is one thing, winning is another. Chapman wanted both. I was a bit in the middle. Sometimes you suffer at the sharp end of innovation.”
Herd “Patrick Head’s FW07 was so good because of the quality of its detail and mechanical design. You can out-innovate yourself.”
Wright “Lotus cracked and broke suspensions because things were moving so fast that we couldn’t keep up on basic structural design. But Chapman was only interested in new things. I fed him those, and that probably hurt Lotus at the end of the day. The 80 was a step too far.”
BARNARD “My Chaparral 2K of 1979, which introduced proper ground effect to Indycars, put me on a pedestal: I was known as a revolutionary designer. When I joined Ron Dennis at Project 4, I felt I had to make a big step. We weren’t going racing in 1980, so I had nearly a year to do it. My first thought was to maximise ground effect. I wanted a chassis narrow at the bottom, but when I started making those geometric changes, I lost torsional and all other sorts of stiffness. So I started looking for another material.”
’80 – Tyrrell 010’s design process uses computer input.
Southgate “We were starting to get proper data. But there were piles of it and I didn’t have time to analyse it. I used to assess it there and then in the wind tunnel. I was looking for a beacon, a flashing light. I might ponder a bit more that night or the next morning, but that was it. It didn’t occur to us to employ somebody solely to do that.”
Wright “Effectively, I was the head of R&D — because there wasn’t anyone else. We were breaking new ground in this respect, too.”
Barnard “Other designers had used flat carbon panels in place of flat aluminium panels. That’s as far removed from what I did as you could get. I’m talking about a honeycomb monocoque made of carbon fibre, and of fixing to that structure. Hercules in Salt Lake City did the laying-up and curing of the chassis as an unpaid R&D project. Their attitude was 180 degrees different to the British companies. I wavered when I saw the first finished monocoque. It was a bit rough and wrinkly. Used to crisp, shiny new metal chassis, I thought, ‘Oh shit!’ But I was convinced of the properties of carbon fibre. It had allowed me to double the torsional stiffness while slightly reducing weight and substantially increasing the ground-effect area.”
’81 – Sliding skirts are banned. The Brabham BT49C’s hydropneumatic suspension circumvents new ride height regulation. Lotus designs twinchassis 88. McLaren’s MP4/1 scores maiden win for a carbon-monocoque car. Bosch’s Motronic for Brabham-BMW introduces computercontrolled engine management and telemetry.
Murray “We let the downforce lower the car without the driver doing anything. As the speed built, fluid was pushed to the wrong side of the cylinder, and we used an accumulator to keep the air compressed. The downforce kept the car down because the system had a tiny valve with a microscopic filter that let the fluid back through very slowly. After qualifying or a race, a slow lap allowed the fluid and air to reverse, which pushed the car back up.”
Wright “The 88 was Plan A for the 80. We ran into unpredicted trouble with the rulemakers. Only Colin would have got it into that sort of trouble; others would have run a mile. He told me that the only reason he was in motor sport was to make nine mistakes and get it right at the 10th attempt. He was fighting for a principle, for innovation. He lost. Plan B was active suspension.”
Murray “Dealing with the increase in downforce was seat-of-the-pants stuff. We didn’t use wind tunnels for a long time, not until the late 1970s. But on the other hand, we were the first team to have its own tunnel, which I designed in 1981.”
Wright “Computers were starting to be used to control the turbo engines. At Lotus, we’d soon be using them in the drawing office, R&D shop and on the car, to control its suspension.”
Murray “The increase in power with the turbos was much more difficult to manage than ground effect. It wasn’t just another 50bhp for qualifying, it went from 700 to 1300bhp. All your previous methods went out the window.”
Barnard “We started looking at a turbo in 1981. The DFV had all these nasty pumps down the side; with the turbo V6, I was able to get the profile I wanted: clean sides. This meant I could make the tunnels even bigger. The liftto-drag figure improved by 50 per cent. Of course, that was banned and flat bottoms came in for 1983.”
’82 – The Brabham team reintroduces planned pitstops.
Murray “Skirts were banned in October ’81. That left me just three months to do a new pitstop car. There wasn’t time to go in the wind tunnel, so I dumped the sidepods and designed the front and rear wings from what I had learned. That was the BT52.”
Wright “They don’t want to — or need to — take such design risks these days. That’s because reliability is more important to winning a World Championship than ever before.”
Despite today’s mostly faceless F1 technical armies’ impressively co-ordinated and relentless but shuffling advance against a forbidding bulwark of rules, 2010 proved that, when given an opportunity by the regulations, a designer with a vision, a ‘feel for it’ — plus an Oxford A4 pad filled with sketches and notes — can still provide the edge in the digitally optimised post-Senna world.
It should by now come as no surprise to learn that Adrian Newey, at Fittipaldi and with March, just caught the fade out of the Analogue Age.