Maserati V8 RI: Interesting but Unsuccessful
/N 1934 a new Formula for Grand Prix racing began, with the barest minimum of rules, so that designers had a fairly free hand. The car had to be weighed without fuel, oil, water and tyres and the weight could not be more than 750 kilogrammes (1650 lbs). The thinking behind this limit was that it would control engine size to somewhere around 234 to 3 litres, and keep speeds to around 145 mph, which seemed reasonable for 1933, when the rule was formulated. There was one other restriction and that was a cockpit width of not less than 85 cms (3314 ins) which would naturally impose a reasonable frontal area, to combine with the horsepower from a 3 litre engine, to keep speeds within reasonable bounds. At the time of the introduction of this Formula Grand Prix racing was ruled by Alfa Romeo and Maserati, with Bugatti in the background. The Tipo B Alfa Romeo it
monoposto” had a 2.9 litre engine, as did the 8CM Maserati, while the Type 59 Bugatti had started out at 2.8 litres, and was later enlarged to 3.3 litres. Thus these three designs set the scene for the new Formula.
It is interesting that today’s Grand Prix Formula scene has followed a very similar pattern, both in its aims and its errors! The rule-makers became very worried about the 1000 bhp potential of turbocharged 134 litre engines and banned them from the end of 1988, substituting normally aspirated 31/2 litre engines for 1989. During 1988 cars to the new Formula could run with the turbocharged cars, and those that appeared gave a totally false impression of what to expect. The rulemakers felt they had been very wise as performance and speeds appeared to be curbed pretty drastically. Then along came the new Honda, Ferrari and Renault powered cars and the standards of 1988 disappeared and as far as lap speeds were concerned, we might as well have stuck with turbocharged 172 litre engines with fuel restrictions.
By the middle of 1934 the same thing happened. The new Formula started off with the three established designs from Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Bugatti setting the scene. Well before the end of the season, these standards had become obsolete, for the German firms of DaimlerBenz and Auto-Union had produced new designs that made a complete mockery of the rules, in so far as the aims had been. Engine sizes were nearer 5-litres than 3-litres, and speeds were nearer 180 mph than 150 mph, yet the weight limit was not exceeded. In fact, some of the obsolete cars were having difficulty in keeping under 750 kilogrammes. By design and construction, the German teams had produced cars of regulation weight with much larger engines than had been anticipated. Both Alfa Romeo and Maserati had to do some pretty serious thinking during the 1934 season if they were going to stay in Grand Prix racing in view of the designs from Germany, and it was not just a question of weight and engine power.
Chassis, suspension and braking designs were also advancing at a great pace. Bugatti more or less gave up, seemingly unable to produce any advanced technical thinking.
In Bologna (not Modena in those days) the Maserati brothers, whose life revolved around Grand Prix racing, set to work on a totally new car, so new in design that if it had not had the Bologna Trident on the badge, it would have been difficult to believe it was a Maserati. It was not a success, as we shall see, but it certainly was interesting and incorporated some very advanced thinking for the time. Work was begun before the end of the 1934 season, and all the time the new standards that were being set by Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union were borne in mind, both as regards power and advanced thinking on chassis and suspension and weight distribution. By May 1935 the first engine was on the test-bed and was seen to be a pure racing V8, not only the first such layout from Maserati, but as far as one can trace, the first ever Grand Prix V8 engine. It had a 90-degree angle between the cylinder blocks and surprisingly, only a single camshaft to each bank, with the valves mounted in a single row, operated directly from above. This valve layout was difficult to comprehend, as the state of the art in engine design at the time was for hemispherical combustion chambers, with inclined valves operated by two overhead camshafts, one for inlet and one for exhaust. Even more desirable was a pent-roof combustion chamber containing four valves, two inlet and two exhaust, but operated by separate camshafts. Dr Porsche’s Auto-Union engine made do with one camshaft to operate all the valves for his V-16 by using cross-push rods and rockers, but that was independent thinking. The Maserati design was certainly independent in thinking, but did not follow accepted combustion chamber thinking. However, it did save the weight of two camshafts, the extra timing gears and extra metal for the larger cylinder
heads that would have been needed for a conventional layout.
A single Roots-type supercharger at the front of the engine fed the cylinders through manifolding in the wide vee, and the exhaust ports fed into separate pipes blending into long tail pipes, one along each side of the car. What must have been one of the earliest double-choke Weber carburettor designs, if not the earliest, fed the supercharger. The chassis and suspension and gearbox were as new and unorthodox for the factory in Bologna as the engine was. The main frame was of boxed channel-section steel of the latest Hi-Tech specification, with similar cross-members. Front suspension was by double wishbone members, with the top one attached to a torsion-bar spring running rearwards parallel with the chassis frame and anchored at a point level with the back of the engine. Mounted centrally behind the engine was a very ingenious steering box of the worm-andpeg pattern containing a double worm gear and twin peg drives, that took the motion via cross shafts to the outside of each side of the chassis frame. There, drops arms operated long drag links to steering arms on each stub axle assembly, there being no track rod, each front wheel
being steered by its own mechanism. This seemingly most unlikely arrangement was used on future Maserati racing cars, right through to the 4CLT of 1948.
The rear suspension was fully independent, following the German lead, but mistakenly it followed the early German thinking of using swing-axles. The differential housing was mounted on a crossmember, which was tubular. The halfshafts were enclosed in tubes which could articulate on bearings on the side of the differential housing and at their ends carried the hubs and brakes. Just inboard of the brakes, the swinging half axles were attached to conventional leaf springs running fore and aft. These were pivotted at each end on ingenious dual directional shackles that allowed the springs to deflect up and down, with wheel movement, and to rock sideways to allow for the arc of the swinging half axle on each side. Fore and aft location of the axle tube was by a Watt-linkage layout of tubes above and below the point where the axle was fixed to the leaf spring. Taking advantage of the fixed differential housing and fixed propellor shaft line, the engine sat low in the chassis, so low in fact, that the exhaust manifolds needed an upwards sweep to clear the chassis side
members. The large alloy brake drums virtually filled the inside of the wheels and hydraulic actuation was used, as had been introduced in 1933 on the 8CM Maserati. The alloy body followed the trend set by Mercedes-Benz in 1934, with a bulbous, but shapely, radiator cowl, with fairings over the front suspension, and a pointed tail with a fairing behind the driver’s head that blended neatly down to the point of the tail. It was certainly a good looking machine for the time and the Trident supporters held out great hopes for its success. By June 1935, the first car (4501) was out on test on the open road, such was the freedom and practicality of those days, and it was taken to the new Autostrada that ran from Firenze to the Mediterranean coast and put through its paces by Philippe Etancelin. The French driver had long been a keen supporter of Maserati, racing an 8CM model during 1934 and early 1935, and was promised the first opportunity to race this exciting new Grand Prix Maserati. Naturally the Italian press were also very excited about the new car and in typical journalistic enthusiasm, they made wild statements about its potential. 400 bhp was claimed for the engine, and 180 mph was claimed for the
Farina driving the 118 Maserati (4502) during the 1935 Donington Park Grand Prix when certain victory was lost when a half-shaft in the rear axle broke.
runs on the Autostrada. These figures were what was going to be needed to match the Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union cars. In truth the Maserati engine was giving about 320 bhp and was unlikely to have seen 150 mph maximum speed. This was a typical case of the press spoiling a courageous effort, just as in later years the English press nearly destroyed the V-16 BRM project by over-enthusiasm which was beyond all the realms of reason.
It was July before the V8 Maserati was ready to race, and it was entered for the Grand Prix de la Marne, on the triangular Reims circuit, for Etancelin. The car was officially designated as V8 RI (vee-eightare-eye, not vee-eight-are-one as it was so often misprinted), the RI standing for “ruote indipendenti” or “wheels independent”.
The Marne Grand Prix was run in two separate heats with the successful finishers from each, running together in the final. Etancelin finished second in his heat, behind a monoposto Alfa Romeo, which was an encouraging start, but retired from the final when the engine gave trouble, reported at the time as being piston failure. An entry for the Coppa Acerbo on the long Pescara circuit followed but the car was posted a non-starter due to supercharger trouble. It then appeared for the Swiss Grand Prix on the challenging Bremgarten circuit on the edge of Berne, but Etancelin crashed it on the opening lap. Then came the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the all-important home event for Italian enthusiasts. Etancelin was again entered in 4501, but in practice a second
car (4502) appeared in the hands of Giuseppe Farina, a young and upcoming Italian driver. This car was entered by the Scuderia Subalpina (“below the alps”) which was owned by Count Della Chiesa and “Gino” Rovere, who in fact held a financial interest in the Maserati concern. Farina had been driving earlier Maseratis for them, and his appearance with the V8 was long overdue. In truth the whole V8 project was already 12 months behind the pace set by the German teams, who, after initial teething troubles in 1934, were now forging ahead at a formidable technical pace. Special record versions of the German Grand Prix cars were capable of nearly 200 mph and power outputs were well over 400 bhp. There really was not much hope for the V8 Maserati, which was sad after such a courageous effort on design.
The Italian Grand Prix was a total disaster. 4502 had engine trouble while being warmed up before the start, and that was that, while 4501 had its throttle linkage jam open and Etancelin had a major accident, his injuries putting paid to his racing for the rest of the season and the car being very badly bent.
Immediately after the Italian Grand Prix there was a small event round the streets of Modena, without German participation, and Farina was entered on the repaired 4502. There was not much joy for the followers of the Trident, for though he led briefly from the start he soon had to retire with a leaking fuel tank. In October “Gino” Rovere took 4502 to Donington Park for the inaugural Grand
Prix organised by Fred Craner and The Derby & District Motor Club. Farina drove it amid a motley collection of obsolete Grand Prix cars and led handsomely. For a while the performance of the V8 Maserati was most impressive, providing you did not look too closely at the opposition. Even then fate was against it for a half-shaft broke when Farina had the race in his pocket.
That was the end of the first season for the Maserati V8, a brave effort, but too late and lacking the technical resources of the German teams. The Maserati brothers realized they could not keep pace with the opposition.
Alfa Romeo had at last produced their new Grand Prix car, and even that was not a serious challenger to the Germans. During the winter of 1935/36, the crashed car from Monza was completely rebuilt and the whole rear end was redesigned, while a third car to the original specification was built (4503) and a fourth was begun (4504). The first car had the rear suspension changed drastically, from swing-axle independence to independence with vertical wheel movement. The differential unit and gearbox were still mounted on the chassis as before, but the wheel hubs were mounted on the ends of trailing arms, pivotting on a cross tube. Within this cross tube were two torsion bars, one end of each being attached to the trailing link and the other end to the chassis structure on the opposite side. This gave full independence to each wheel, and the drive from the differential unit was by shafts with universal joints at each end. An entirely new body
was made for the car, no longer carrying the high head fairing of the original design, and the radiator cowl was somewhat bizarre with a grille that can be described as “cascading steel strips”. The exhaust pipes no longer ran along the sides of the cockpit, but once away from the engine they curved sharply downwards to run under the rear axle assembly. At the time the Press said the car had a rigid rear axle, which was totally incorrect!
The Scuderia Subalpina had been reconstituted and was now called Scuderia Torino (Turin) and they took over the running of 4501 as well as keeping 4502, from the previous season. Count Trossi had moved from the Scuderia Ferrari, intending to build his own Grand Prix car, but as it was floundering he joined Scuderia Torino.
During the winter 4503 was built, effectively identical to 4502, and was delivered in February 1936 to Philippe Etancelin who intended to race as an “independent” with some works backing, the Maserati factory themselves not entering for Grand Prix events, being busily engaged on a programme for “Voiturette” racing, which in today’s parlance would have been Formula 2. Etancelin’s car was delivered with a specification sheet which gave the bore and stroke as 84 x 108 mm, giving a quoted capacity of 4788 cc. Throughout the previous season the engine capacity had been quoted in the motoring journals as 4 litre, 4.4 litre and 4.7 litre. Other interesting details were that the inlet manifolding was made in elektron and comprised five pieces, the connecting rods were tubular with four-bolt big end fixings, the carburettor was a Weber twin-choke, the magneto a
Bosch, the rear axle ratio was 10 x 44, the front brake drums were 400mm diameter, the rear ones 360mm, the fuel tank held 180 litres of alcohol fuel, the oil tank was under the seat, the front tyres were Pirelli Stella Bianca 5.50 x 19 inch and the rear were 7.50 x 16 inch Pirelli Aerflex. The car was painted blue in accordance with International Grand Prix regulations, which stated that the car had to be painted in the racing colours of the licence holder.
A bare two weeks after taking delivery Etancelin was racing his new car in southwest France in the Pau Grand Prix. It was a splendid debut race ending with a victory for the popular Frenchman, albeit against pretty mediocre opposition, but an encouraging start for the very full season that he had planned. This victory by the V8 Maserati was recorded for posterity on a French newsreel film and was recently incorporated in a BBC Television film about The Supercharged Grand Prix Car, but in their inimitable way the “Beeb” and their professional advisors made a nonsense by ascribing to this very rare piece of film the wrong date and the wrong car. They got the venue right.
After this encouraging start to the season Etancelin had a miserable time, with a long series of retirements, failing in the Monaco GP, the Tripoli GP, the Tunis GP, the Swiss GP and the Italian GP. What was even worse, was that at no time was the car competitive, once the proper Grand Prix season got under way. Although “Phi-Phi” did his best he was never more than a back-of-the-field “also ran”, for the technical progress of Grand Prix racing was such that an “independent” driver had no more hope than one would today in Formula One.
The V8 engine of the second V8 Maserati (4502) showing the single camshaft housing of the rtght-hand bank of cylinders and the upswept exhaust manifold to clear the chassis frame and suspension torsion bar.
At the end of the European season the Americans organised an event at the Roosevelt Raceway near New York, with a view to getting the United States involved in Grand Prix racing. Etancelin took 4503 to America in October 1936, and finished an unimpressive 8th. There was a lot of interest on the east coast for Europeanstyle road racing and he had little trouble in selling the car after the Vanderbilt Cup race. The new owner was Henry J Topping Jnr who was sponsoring the well-known American driver “Babe” Stapp.
While Etancelin was trying to have a very full season of Grand Prix racing the Scuderia Torino were nothing like as active. In the Monaco GP Count Trossi drove 4502 but retired with engine trouble, and in the German GP on the Niirburgring he shared the car with Richard Seaman, who was just feeling his way into Grand Prix racing. They retired with brake problems, but were never anywhere near the race leaders, and Seaman was not very impressed with the car, and afterwards felt it had been a mistake accepting the offer of the drive. It did little for his growing reputation and produced nothing in the way of useful experience.
Early the following year “Gino” Rovere sold the car to the American George Rand. The rebuilt 4501 only raced once in 1936, at the Modena GP in September, where it was driven by Goffredo Zehender, who had been racing 8CM Maseratis for the Subalpina team. He was unplaced and
virtually unmentioned in Modena. This car was also sold to the United States, to the brothers Alistair and Esmond Bradley-Martin, who ran a horse-racing team under the name Balmacaan.
The last car to be built (4504) was not completed until June 1936, when it was delivered to the private owner Raphael Bethenod de Las Casas, who lived in Paris and raced under the pseudonym of “Raph”. From all research no trace can be found of his racing the car in Europe, but in October he joined Etancelin on the trip to the Vanderbilt Cup. he qualified for the race, but did not figure at all strongly and after having a spin he was disqualified for a rule infringement. This virtually new, but unsuccessful car, was then sold to an American owner and “Raph” joined Etancelin on the return journey to France with a wallet full of dollars and no car.
In a bare season and a half the Maserati brothers great Grand Prix hope achieved one victory and one second place, and all four cars ended up in the United States of America. It is unlikely that there were any tears shed in the Bologna factory, for they were now fully committed to 1%2 litre “Voiturette” racing and their new 6CM had already chalked up its first victory. Remarkably all four V8 Maserati have more or less lasted to the present day, having led long and active lives in America, and in Part 2 we will follow their careers in American racing. DSJ