Not so much a formula – more a way of life
SuperVee has more to intrigue the casual reader of single-seater regulations in technical and driving terms. From the lightweight, thoroughly tuned engines that can muster 160 b.h.p. from 1-6-litres, to the agile chassis, which offers aerodynamic aids and racing tyres of reasonable width, there’s enough to teach any budding World Champion the elements of his craft. Then there are the inducements of good monetary rewards (there are three Championships in Europe that a British-based competitor could fit into his calendar) and some first-class venues all across Europe. So the top contenders can live the Gipsy life that’s recounted with such nostalgia by many former Formula Junior and Formula Three drivers. So, good cars, good company, good racing, why hasn’t it appealed to the British? In an attempt to answer that question, and many more about the future, when water-cooling supersedes the ubiquitous aircooled flat-fours, I spent a couple of days in the company of John Morrison and his current Lola T326 SuperVee.
Morrison has twice been British Champion, finished fourth in 1974’s European Championship, and has even written a book about the subject. In the past he has worked for VW in this country. Now he spends his time working in a Croydon motor accessory shop or driving, including some preliminary work for Lola on their new T490 Sports 2000.
Next year John and Lola will set out to take on the quick Scandinavian and European teams. They run car combinations like the Swedish Veemax chassis with £1,800 Jacktuna modified engines (Finnish driver Miki Airpainen dominated the European Volkswagen Gold Cup series with such a combination in 1976) or the German Toj with Swedish Heidegger engine. Now something of a memory in success terms are the Viennese Kaimann concern who had both Jochen Mass (1971 Gold Cup Champion) and Niki Lauda on their driving strength.
Morrison simply exudes enthusiasm for the memory of driving across Europe over all kinds of challenging circuits with two primary points to discipline his pace: (1) I have no money to repair this car, (2) I have no money to go to the next race, unless I finish well up. There is no doubt in my mind that this has led to his present neat style where a minimum of fuss produces a great deal of consistent speed, an asset that looks as though it could stand him in really good stead as a test driver, whatever the racing future holds.
Discussing the atmosphere generated on these continental forays John says enthusiastically, “it really is just, just, fantastic as a way of life. There are teams, men, women and even children, living with each other from track to track : you race hard, but you do not bump viciously, because— one way or another—you will not be racing the following weekend if you do. The Swedes and the Finns have these fabulous barbecues, where people just wander in and out, probably bringing their own food, music and drink contributions. The next day you may be driving round the outside of those companions, and ripe for any assault, but you really know the people, and like the GP drivers, you get to know how people will react. In fact you get to know other drivers and their personalities under stress better than your mother and father!”
John agrees that he is really talking of his best seasons in Europe, and that 1976’s European season was not quite as good as this in terms of knowing and trusting your opponents (in Britain our test was split into two sessions after a race incident cost John a bent corner!) but that does not stop that infectious Morrison anticipation for the battles ahead next year.
Born in 1964, Formula Vee racing grew in America before emigrating back to Europe: it is still claimed to be the largest single-seater racing formula in the World. SuperVee, which amounted to building a much more recognisable racing car, without the inclusion of so many standard VW parts, had its first Championship year in 1971, both America and Europe organising lucrative series with VW backing.
Today’s SuperVee regulations reflect such background diplomacy and compromise that you would think they had been written by a British politician. Fortunately, they are a lot easier to understand than the souls who sit within Westminster. Basic cnassis can be of monocoque or space-trame construction and the complete car must weigh a minimum of 880 lbs. The Lola is of monocoque alloy manufacture, the basic tub shared with the design used by Lola for Formula Atlantic and the Renault-engineci Formulae. Morrison recollects that the chassis cost about £3,750 at the begining of the year and is worth about £3,000 today. You can pay almost anything from £800 to £1,800 for a racing version of the VW engine.
Suspension follows modern British practice around the use of wishbones of unequal length at the front; top link, twin radius rods and lower, triangulated wishbone at the rear. The Lola was supplied with Bilstein damping that mounted in unit with Lola coil springs: an anti-roll bar of 1 inch front and J inch rear is original equipment too. The regulations insist on the use of VW Type 3 (VW411) uprights, wheel hubs and brake components. This means that the fronts have to be Type 3, but at the rear, either these or Porsche 914/4 discs are interchangeable, and acceptable. VW offer a light alloy caliper concession that is incorporated as a matter of course in the Lola’s specification. This light car does not require a great deal in hard anti-fade pads, and the initial “bite” can be disconcerting under wet conditions.
Wheel manufacture is ungoverned, but dimensions must conform to maximum rim width of 6 in. front and 8 in. at the rear: diameter has to be within the spread 13 to 15 in. Morrison uses Minilite magnesium wheels of 13 in. diam., wearing Dunlop wet tyres for our test of 205/540 configuration at the rear, and 180/500 13 forward.
It is on the engine front that the biggest differences exist between Britain and the top Europeans, John estimating the Europeans have found an additional 15 to 20 b.h.p. over the best British units, which means that the unit we tried gave little over 140 b.h.p., with maximum r.p.m. set at 7,000. Breathing arrangements for SuperVee are far more liberal than for Formula Ford 2000. Which is attractive from the driving technique viewpoint, but can naturally lead to more maintenance expense than less liberated formulae.
Fuel injection is not allowed, but carburation can consist of any layout that features throttle butterfly choke sizes below 40 mm. John’s Lola featured sidedraught, twin-choke carburetters when I drove it at Silverstone and twin 40 mm. Solex downdraught instruments for the later test at Oulton Park. Quite honestly the engine was transformed (the majority of the change apparently due to carburation) for the downdraught installation offered an engine as docile as a production unit with usable torque from 4,000 r.p.m. Previously the power band appeared to be exclusively concentrated around the 6,100 to 7,000 r.p.m. area.
Mac Daghorn, who you would probably best remember for his brave performances in racing Cobras, modifies and maintains the power units at the village of Forrest Green in West Sussex. There is complete freedom in the profiling of camshafts and valve sizes, but the cam is unlike the rest of the engine in that you can, together with the followers and pushrods, select a manufacturer, whereas the rest of the engine has to be based around VW parts. So the finished result is an engine that is machined into a high compression, free-revving (compared to production) unit, rather than a catalogue of substitute bits and pieces. Incidentally the sidedraughts are meant to give the ultimate in power because of the direct passage their manifolding can offer from carburetter to intake port.
The clutch is a modified VW unit, lining and activation to be determined in any way the constructor requires. The gearbox is a Mk 8 Hewland, which means four forward gears, reverse, no synchromesh, a normal H change pattern and VW casing. Walking around the car you have to. mentally note that the front-mounted radiator carries oil, not water. However it will not be long before water ‘radiators do sprout on these VW offspring, for it is expected that the potent, and smooth, 110 b.h.p. watercooled four-cylinder will be introduced as the basic engine in 1978. For that year the waterand air-cooled power plants will compete alongside each other, then the water-cooled unit could become the sole engine in SuperVee for the following years. That is how it looks at present. Whatever happens, Lola tell us that the present car can be adapted to the new engine fairly easily, and VW care seems to be evident to ensure that competitors are not penalised much by the swop.
Despite John’s lanky proportions, the cockpit’s neat appearance was accompanied by true comfort for the writer, once a wedge of foam had been installed. Instrumentation is confined to oil pressure (60-80 lb.), temperature of oil, rather cold at 50°C for our winter testing on wet tyres, and the current Smith’s electronic tachometer. The latter isn’t a patch on the old mechanically driven tachometer from Smiths, but the tooling was worn out, and the company decided that it was not economic to carry on manufacturing such units, even with their moving telltale red pointers which convicted many a driver. The new dial is much smaller, less legible and carries no pointer of any kind, even to just pre-set the r.p.m. limit.
Starting was simple on the downdraught carburetters, and the extra torque was appreciated for the period that you are faced with letting the clutch in on a neccessarily tall first gear. Initially, gear-changing was accompanied by a few crunches. However I did heed John’s advice to treat the car as gently as a beautiful woman! The pause between tests allowed me enough time to return td the car, and find it miraculously made into an old friend that responded so obediently on the damp and unfamiliar track that I could consistently lower my lap times without spinning.
Oulton Park proved a tremendous place to test. The rates are reasonable (I think it was £8 per 2 hour session) and you only run your car on the track for that 2 hours. This means you can concentrate on driving and analysing what the car is doing—if you are John Morrison—or on working out the new sensation of the shortened track, from Cascades to Knickerbrook and a car that feels different, even amongst single-seaters.
The car’s balance, as you would expect from a man with so many seasons experience in SuperVee, is superb. On a wet track I found that only a few laps were needed before the light steering and torquey power output could be mated together in mild power slides around the second gear tight right that now follows Cascades: previously it was a testing lefthand, off-camber corner of great character.
John proved a liberal and generous provider of laps—the first Silverstone session had to be abandoned after three or four damp laps owing to the lunch break—and he was a seasoned lap timer in the absence of usual mechanic, Christopher Smith. In the first nine laps I concentrated on drying out the path amongst the leaves and puddles, which took us from 1m. 39.68s. to 1m. 28.21s. A pause for a breather, when in racing conditions we would probably have changed over to dry tyres, and another six laps brought the times down from 1m. 27.60s, to 1m. 24.54s.
The gradual progression into the art of thinking a single-seater (especially this flyweight) around a corner formed a stark contrast to the normal modified sports and saloon cars so freely offered to the press these days. In fact I have spent quite a bit of this year at the first stumbling steps in what looked to be a very interesting special stage rally car, before it was left to literally root itself upon an upturned tree stump.
While a modified production car might be tolerant of a sideways approach and exit technique, a SuperVee goes faster in proportion to the effort expended keeping it smooth and straight. The object is to transmit its power more efficiently than the similarly powered buzzing bunch trying to get the better of you and your mount.
Gentle movement, like that required on a high-geared power-steering system (Citroen SM, Rover 3500) has to be matched with careful use of the brakes, especially on the leafy avenue of Oulton Park. John warned me that the front would lock quite readily obviously well aware that this was the most likely way of damaging the car heavily, and that warning was merited.
Arriving at the downhill swerve from left to right that follows Cascades, I simultaneously became aware that I could define the tread pattern of the N/S Dunlop and that the centre pedal was relaying that I had locked up a wheel. As the track dried and my confidence grew I found that so long as the initial application avoided the “slam-’em-on-as late as possible and try scrabbling-through” philosophy, the brakes were good. The chassis and well-matched engine make them work really hard for a living, and I could well imagine competitors with equally matched engines trying to find some improvement on this side.
In this country Dunlop provide all the tyres for SuperVee and John confirmed that it was sometimes hard to get them warm enough to perform safely during Britain’s long winter to winter seasons.
Initially I found good use for third gear and 4,000 r.p.m. as I learned the circuit and the car, but by the end of the session I had grown to appreciate John’s statement that one would only use between 6,000 and 7,000 in racing conditions. In fact I used 5,500 to 6,500 to allow 500 for a missed gearchange, but the gearbox was a delight throughout, allowing absolutely flat-out changes to be made while accelerating, and sufficiently quick to go with hard braking down-changes on the pattern 4-3-2, or straightforward 4-2, the latter reserved for the two slowest corners on the track.
Relaying the thrill of just pounding round quicker and quicker is a personal thing. The total involvement and concentration broken only as you switch the engine off, the ensuing euphoric daze broken only by John’s cheerful “well, what did you think?”
“Eh?” Pause to compose mind, “TERRIFIC,” comes the unexpected shout of pleasure from my dried throat. Morrison steps smartly back as he persists, “but what was it like?”
Mumble incoherently as I emerge from car’s clasping crutch straps: struggle to subdue ego that says that I felt I was the fastest thing around a corner since Ronnie Peterson, simply replying, “on this track, it really is flying on the ground. You soar up, down, round and almost take off up Clay Hill, and under the bridge. The car only needs thinking and commiting for a corner, the chassis does the rest.
“Those two apexes at Druids are tricky, but it pulls 6,500 before you get to Lodge. It doesn’t seem quick in a straight line, there’s still that sort of flat beat from the VW side of things, but when you put the brakes on and then try to turn into Lodge as a second gear effort, you realise how quick you were travelling. Often I felt I would just go straight on, though I only locked the wheels up once more after that first scare, but then you learn to trust how quickly the Lola really will scuttle round.
“For me corners are blind that I would normally see in a saloon, but that is well compensated for by the car’s response: no slop, no delay, it reacts to what you want to do. I would guess your particular car was the one to try in this respect, for it’s obviously thoroughly sorted.” I gabbled to a halt.
Driving a road car away those impressions are redoubled by the sloppiness of road machinery and the remembered antics of production cars. Real, one man, one car, singleseater formula car selfishness bears the same relationship to Group 1 saloons as flying laden Lancaster must have felt to a Spitfire pilot.
So far as Formula Vee and SuperVee are concerned in this country, further details can be obtained from Jan Bannochie, F/Vee Association, VW House, Brighton Road, Purley Surrey. They are currently working on schemes to help SuperVee Britons race their way across Europe. It struck me that those with more resources than average (financial and mechanical) might well find more pleasure/career potential in such events, rather than scratching round 10 lap FF clubbies trying to beat 500 ,others of similar inclination.