Legendary Brabham F1 designer Ron Tauranac: The quiet man

A meeting many years ago Down Under sparked something big for both Jack Brabham and Ron Tauranac but while one got the fame, the other shunned it

Jack Brabham, Ron Dennis, Ron Tauranac, Grand Prix of Canada, Circuit Mont-Tremblant, 22 September 1968. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

Tauranac on left with friend Jack Brabham – a young Ron Dennis is central

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

His classically simple, yet incredibly effective cars won championships in every category for which they were designed; Formulae 1, 2, 3 and Atlantic. They were so sought-after that buyers literally beat a path to his door.

He not only became the world’s biggest racing car constructor, with a total output of nearly 1,000 open-wheelers, but also one of the most influential, most respected people in the sport. He played a major part in persuading Honda to become involved in motor racing and, many years later, after its turbocharged 1.5-litre V6 and naturally-aspirated 3.5-litre V10 engines had been virtually invincible in F1 – in convincing it to quit.

His abilities as an innovative designer were complemented, early in his career, by his skill as a driver. So much so that he was more than a match in the demanding art of hillclimbing for a budding world champion called Jack Brabham, with whom he was destined to have a phenomenally successful alliance.

This materialised in the early 1960s after he had hung up his helmet in deference to concern for his family’s future wellbeing. But he also had a hand in Brabham’s rise to championship fame, when his fellow Australian friend was driving for Cooper. The late and great Denny Hulme also won a world championship in the cars he designed and built. They also brought F1 success for the likes of Jochen Rindt, Dan Gurney and later, in Formula 2, for a young Nigel Mansell.

Ron Tauranac

Tauranac at Silverstone in 1981

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Some of the people who would become leading F1 masterminds passed through his employ; Patrick Head, Gordon Murray, Tony Southgate and Ralph Bellamy, to name a few. They would not hesitate today to say that they learned a lot from this quiet, self-effacing and decidedly gracious man, who deserves a huge place in motor racing posterity when its 20th century history is written. It is certainly warranted. He has not always received the credit that was due to him, to some extent because of his extreme modesty, but largely because he was overshadowed by Brabham in the ’60s. From a personal point of view though, Ron Tauranac can at least look back with considerable satisfaction on a lifetime of enormous achievement. And its not over yet. At a fit 67, he’s still in harness, via a contract with March Engineering, which bought his former company, Ralt, in 1988, when he decided it was time to take a change of direction. And his latest cars are still winning, dominating the United States Formula Atlantic series.

Tauranac, for the first time in his life, is starting to take it a little easier. That’s how we managed to get this interview, following a tip from a long-term admirer, Greg Siddle (the former manager, among others, of Nelson Piquet, Roberto Moreno and Larry Perkins), that Tauranac, having a rare holiday, was passing through Sydney.

He had been skiing on the NSW Alps and was en route to New Zealand’s south island slopes for a week, after spending a few days with his brother Austin, who retired to the Queensland Gold Coast following a varied motor industry career that culminated in him occupying the managing director’s chair of Saab Australia for several years. They’ve always had a special bond. The name Ralt was derived from their initials, with the L being for Lewis, Austin’s second christian name.

The Tauranac brothers, incidentally, were born in England, in Kent, and were at the toddler stage when their parents migrated to Australia. They lived near Newcastle for a few years, before the family resettled in Sydney. The family name is of French origin, being carried on from two brothers who came to England during the Huguenot rebellion.

Ron Tauranac with Jack Brabaham at Watkins Glen in the 1960s

Ron Tauranac with Jack Brabham at Watkins Glen in the 1960s

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Ron Tauranac has never sought publicity, preferring to let his accomplishments do the talking. But he agreed to give us enough time for a decent chat and the scheduled two hours eventually became a three-hour session, ending only when his hosts called him for dinner. The content of the fascinating discussions would fill most of this issue. So it’s hard to know where to start and stop. The appropriate beginning has to be Tauranac’s emergence in local motor sport, through a self-built, low-budget 500 special, powered by a Norton ES2 engine.

Like many enthusiasts facing the deprivations of the early post-World War II era, Tauranac’s only means of keeping in touch with motor racing was through the pages of its ‘bible’ at that time, Australian Motor Sports (AMS), an informative Melbourne-based monthly magazine which was founded in 1946 by brothers Ken and Arthur Wylie and recorded the various goings-on, large and small, both in Australia and overseas.

From the archive

The Wylies were active participants, who built a number of ingenious specials and were happy to devote space to others who created their own cars. They were intrigued by the 500 movement, which originated in the UK and spread Down Under, as more and more people began to appreciate the affordability and competitiveness offered by the tiny lightweight, rear-engined cars. That movement incidentally, laid the foundations for what was to become a flourishing racing car industry in Britain and its eventual pre-eminence in grand prix racing. It sowed the seeds of creative design. The first 500 exponent in NSW was Jack Hooper, who built his car in collaboration with his brother, Bill. Tauranac soon became good friends with them.

It was not long before the Hoopers made their presence felt in the late 1940s, with stunning performances in hillclimbs which occasionally included fastest time of day honours that merited glowing mentions in AMS. During that time, Tauranac — an insatiable reader — was swotting up on racing car design in AMS, the esteemed Laurence Pomeroy’s Grand Prix Racing Car tomes and anything else he could lay his hands on in lunchtime forays to Sydney’s Mitchell Library.

He had learned enough by 1949 not only to start the construction of his first car, but also to write a comprehensive letter to AMS, explaining the causes of understeer, oversteer and rollsteer, relative to suspension design. His interpretations are as applicable today as they were 44 years ago! The car’s subsequent debut, incidentally, was promising rather than auspicious. It was at the Hawkesbury hillclimb, on November 20 1950, at which John Crouch took FTD in a Cooper 1100.

After a couple of years of steady improvement, Tauranac followed up an advertisement for a 500cc MSS Velocette engine. That led him to Hurstville and a haggle over the price with one John Arthur Brabham, who was selling it. Tauranac knew of Brabham through his speedway exploits. The two men — who were like types, practical and down-to-earth — achieved an instant rapport. They had both served in the Royal Australian Air Force towards the end of World War II, Brabham as a flight mechanic and Tauranac as a draughtsman and pilot. Brabham was also a disciple of AMS, which did not neglect to note his progress on the cinder tracks and an occasional fling in hillclimbing.

Jack Brabham Cooper 1960 Dutch GP Zandvoort

Brabham made modifications to his early Cooper F1 cars on advice from Tauranac

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“I was working for CSR Chemicals at the time and one of my responsibilities was sub-contracting machining work for a new plastics plant the company was building,” Tauranac recalled. “When I saw Jack’s small, but well-equipped workshop, I asked him if he took on work. I was looking for people who would listen to my requirements and be guided in what I wanted them to do.

“He thought I meant private work for my racing activities and he said no. But he became interested when I explained it was for a major company. Jack, a fitter and turner by trade, did a very good job and supplied CSR with bits and pieces almost until his first trip to England.

“Because of that association, he ended up machining things, such as flywheels, for my engines. He was expert at that, from doing his own engines for his speedway midgets. In turn, I provided help by way of drawings and advice for the cars he raced. Now and then, I’d use my lunch hour at his workshop to make bits for myself.

“I never got to use the Velocette engine. I prepared it to go into the car, but left it somewhere in Sydney when I eventually followed Jack to England. God knows where it is now!”

Tauranac still has the letters Brabharn used to write to him from his early days in England. “He was always looking for ideas. I sent him some sketches and my concepts were worked into the latest Coopers. There was another time when he wanted to lower the engine. He needed a transmission case with stepped gears, so I drew up a bellhousing and had the patterns made here. Jack took the patterns back after racing in the New Zealand Grand Prix and the new transmission was incorporated into next season’s Cooper-Climax.” Brabham, according to Tauranac, started to think about forming his own team in the late 1950s. But he waited until he won his first championship in 1959 before offering Tauranac a partnership to design and construct cars in England. That was down the track. The first venture was Jack Brabham Conversions, which involved putting Coventry Climax engines in Triumph Heralds, fitting twin Webers on to Sunbeam Rapiers and so on. Tauranac’s nights were occupied with designing the first BT racing car.

Jack brabham 1962 Mexican GP

First Brabham car – BT3 – at Mexico ’63

Bernard Cahier / Getty Images

The suggested pay was £30 a week — the same amount of money Tauranac was getting in Sydney. “I didn’t know what to do. I was married, with one young daughter. I had a good job in Sydney. And I was also a conservative chap. To get me over, Jack gave me the money for a return airfare, so I could try it for six months and if it didn’t work out, go back to Sydney.

“But I wasn’t going to leave my wife and child, so I spent half the money on a one-way airfare for me and the other half on a passage aboard the Fairsea for them.” Tauranac still had ideas of continuing to race in England, which he soon discarded. “I realised if anything happened to me my family would be stuck here.

“Racing had been a hobby since 1949 and I was actually building a batch of six new cars when I left Australia. Lynx Engineering paid me a nominal sum for all my drawings and patterns. Hillclimbing came first, then road racing, mainly at Mount Druitt. Austin also raced. I designed him a Ford-powered special which he helped to build.

“He also used it as a road car and once towed my racing car and me from Sydney to Bathurst and back, on a rope. We had both intended to race at Bathurst but it didn’t happen. Someone had convinced me to fit a Triumph Speed Twin engine in my car, but the engine threw a rod while we were doing a carburation test.”

From the archive

Ron won the last hillclimb he contested in his much-used original car (still using the highly-tweaked pushrod-operated overhead valve ES2 Norton engine, bored out to 600cc), setting FTD up a spectacular course overlooking the sea at Newcastle’s King Edward Park to beat Brabham’s best efforts in his much more powerful front-engined Cooper-Bristol, alias the Redex Special. Austin Tauranac was third in his 500, running a single-cam Norton engine.

“I demolished the record that day,” Tauranac recalled, grinning at the memory. “I was quite pleased with that, because I won a canteen of cutlery that Jack had really wanted to win.” He says his racing was “one big experiment,” whereas Austin competed for the excitement it gave him. Nevertheless, Ron Tauranac was a tenacious driver, who frequently humbled other drivers in far more exotic and expensive machinery.

In England, his association with Brabham grew into a company which they called Motor Racing Developments Ltd (MRD). But that name was forsaken, quickly, for the car itself when the prominent Paris-based Swiss motorsport journalist Jabby Crombac pointed out to Brabham that it was too close for comfort to the French word merde, the equivalent of an expressive English expletive.

“Jack called me from Switzerland to tell me this and I was put on the spot. I agreed we’d have to change the name. He suggested using his own name and calling it Brabham Racing Developments. I said okay, without thinking about the implications. From then on, everything led to Jack. All my friends in Australia assumed I merely worked for Jack. The truth is that I designed and built the cars and sold them to his company, Brabham Racing Organisation.”

The BT designation was the brainchild of British motor racing journalist Alan Brinton, who contended that the cars needed a numbering sequence.

1966 French GP Jack Brabham

Tauranac and Brabham hit gold again in 1966 when they took the drivers’ and constructors’ title – here Jack starts a run of four straight wins from Reims

“We’d produced about 13 when he came up with that idea and we applied the numbers retrospectively.”

The change in arrangement between Brabham and Tauranac — who had also struck up a promising European Formula 2 championship liaison with Honda — came towards the end of 1965. This was just before F1 ‘s changeover from 1.5 to three litres, while Repco was developing a V8 engine, designed by Phil Irving, in Melbourne, when Tauranac intimated he wanted out.

“I felt I was a loser and I didn’t want to continue my involvement. Jack mulled it over for a while, before offering me a 50/50 partnership that covered both the construction and racing aspects. It became a single business, although the actual team was run from Guildford.” What happened from there on is well documented history, with Brabham taking his rivals by surprise to win his third world championship in 1966 and Hulme capturing the 1967 title. They also swept all before them in the European F2 championship, in their 1,000cc Honda-powered cars. The 1968-69 seasons were much less successful and by the end of 1969, Brabham had not only made the difficult decision to retire, but also sold his shares in the company to Tauranac.

Those retirement plans were put on hold though, in 1970, when Lotus’ chief Colin Chapman out-bid Tauranac for Jochen Rindt’s services after the brilliant Austrian was considering a return after a one-year spell with Lotus. Rindt’s chief mechanic in that era was none other than Ron Dennis, who ultimately acquired the McLaren team. Jack Brabham soldiered on in 1970, but Tauranac was on his own in 1971. He sold the team the following year to Bernie Ecclestone.

“I gave it away, really,” Ron remarked. “After that, I was at home for a year. It was a big contrast from never being at home to being there full-time and my wife, who had always wanted me to be there, soon realised it was not such a good idea. She suggested I should go out and buy a workshop. I did and Ralt was born again.”

Graham Hill in MRD Brabham at the 171 US Grand Prix

1971 US GP: Graham Hill driving in what was Tauranac’s last year in F1

Tauranac’s first customer after the Ralt revival in 1974 was Larry Perkins. “He had no money and asked me to help him redesign a Formula 3 car he had bought. After looking at it, I said: ‘We can do better than this.’ So I built him a car and with Greg Siddle doing the management bit, Larry began to progress.”

Ralt prospered and the company was kept exceedingly busy fulfilling orders from all over the world, as its cars amassed a growing tally of F2 and F3 titles in the late 1970s and early ’80s. There was a long pause when I asked Tauranac if he had a favourite racing car.

“I guess the 1966 Repco-Brabham was a bit of a classic in its time. It was designed originally for the 16-cylinder Coventry Climax engine. But this never happened, so we converted it to take the Repco V8. Its 1967 successor was probably a better car, because it was smaller and borrowed a few features from our F2 chassis.”

Was there a worst car? “I suppose the least competitive one we did was the 1988 Formula 3000 car.” Of all the drivers he’s been associated with, apart from Brabham, which one made the biggest impression on you?

From the archive

“Oh, Rindt. He had great car control. Technically, he wasn’t that good, but he was a hell of a driver.”

Tauranac, a self-confessed workaholic who says he has always loved a challenge, asserts that simplicity has always been a design priority with him. “It’s always been important to know the regulations and how to exploit them. Aerodynamics have been the most important facet in recent years.” Next question: if he had his time all over again, would he do things differently?

“I think I’ve had a fairly good innings. I should have done more for myself on personality development, especially in the area of employing people and making more use of them. Our activities have been a good training ground. We never had the money other top teams had but, over the years, we did reasonably well with our budgets.”

Would he be tempted, if someone threw a lot of money at him, to do another F1 car? “Given the right team . . hmm. I don’t think one could do it alone, any more. You’d need a proper wind tunnel. Williams is hard to beat because it has a half-scale wind tunnel. Most of them are quarter-scale and the wind speed is too low. They operate as if the car is only doing about 15mph. Patrick Head has told me Williams can pick up one factor in 3,000lbs of drag.

“That’s the order of accuracy today. Before, if you were lucky, you could pick up only one in 20. As for a team environment, I’m not that good with people. If you can do something yourself, it’s very difficult to let other people have their head. You can see them going wrong, but then of course they’ve got to go wrong from time to time in order to learn to do things right.”

Tauranac has progressed this year from a drawing board to computer-aided design, after choosing Anvil software as his CADCAM programme. It’s a radical change — and he has taken a while to adapt to the technology. But he is delighted by the computer’s versatility. He is not the last of the master designers to make the transition. Gordon Murray for example, stuck to a drawing board when he laid down the McLaren F1 supercar’s design. But McLaren International, of course, uses CADCAM technology. He has some well-chosen words of advice for aspiring racing car designers. “A complete designer needs to be an all-rounder with both academic and practical skills, combined with the discipline of organisation of both himself and a workforce. Race car driving experience at any level and race car engineering — that is, the ability to maximise the potential of a given car design on the track — are desirable.”

Ron Tauranac Tim Schenken Brabham 1971

Tauranac – seen here with Tim Schenken in 1971 – had huge influence on F1 design

Practical trade experience is also necessary. It should cover machine shop work — milling and turning, both manual and computer-controlled — fabrication including sheet metal development, casting, composites from GRP to carbon structures and drawing board and CAD drafting.

As for the academic aspect, Tauranac contends that an engineering diploma or degree course in some discipline is almost essential to obtain knowledge of strength of materials, heat treatment, stressing and fluid dynamics. He says general engineering is more important than specific automotive experience.

“To get started in racing, one should befriend a team and provide help in one’s spare time as a gopher, car and parts cleaner, etc. The next step is attending race meetings in a general capacity to find out what it is all about.” One of his disciples who did precisely that, Penske’s Nick Goozée, is interviewed elsewhere in this issue. Tauranac does not contemplate returning to live in Sydney, but not because he dislikes Australia. “I don’t think I could change tack. I don’t know what I would do there. I’m going to carry on working for as long as I can.” That’s good news; Ron Tauranac, the epitome of clever, self-taught designers, still has a lot more to offer to world motor racing. M K


Tauranac is only partially in agreement with the FIA’s proposed regulation changes in F1

The FIA, with its post-1993 anti-technology regulations changes, is running the risk of extinguishing interest in F1 racing by the world’s major car makers, according to Ron Tauranac.

He contends that most manufacturers are interested in becoming involved in F1 because of the technical aspect — and says they are likely to become disenchanted if they perceive that the FIA is obsessed with turning F1 into a show, along the lines of the IndyCar series.

Tauranac believes that the existing balance between the two types of racing, with F1 offering a technology challenge and the IndyCar category providing entertainment value, is still the best solution for the long-term good of world motorsport.

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He has mixed feelings about the new F1 regulations. “The top teams will not lose their edge because of the changes. Those with the resources, money and technology advantages can still change tack faster than the teams playing catch-up. The longer a set of regulations stays the same, the more the competitive gap between teams will close.

“This is something I don’t think the FIA power-brokers understand. They are not, in the main, competent enough to make decisions of this magnitude. The competent ones are the doers in the racing car industry who understand technology and its ramifications.”

Tauranac supports some of the changes, primarily the introduction of stepped undertrays from 1995, and the immediate banning of anti-lock brakes and traction control devices. But he is opposed to the abolition of automatic ride height control, alias active suspension systems.

“The substitution of flat bottoms by a stepped floor will get rid of a substantial amount of downforce. It lessens the importance, in aerodynamic terms, of constant ride height control. But its deletion will require a lot of camber changes. There will be a renewed focus on suspension, which will go back to the importance it had prior to 1980, when ground effects was introduced.

“Anti-lock braking needed to go, because it masks the ability of drivers, who can just push the pedal as hard as they like to stop the car in the shortest possible time. It takes away skill and judgement, particularly in wet-weather conditions. But the more sophisticated systems which were developed for F1 cars, with sensors on each wheel, would be a big advance for road cars if they were simplified and made affordable. Traction control also had to go, for much the same reasons as anti-lock braking.”

Tauranac is pleased that automatic transmissions have not been disallowed. “It would have been a pity had that development, which isn’t all that expensive, been stifled. I hope that car manufacturers will pick up on the latest transmissions being used in F1. It would be a step forward in fuel efficiency.”

He questions the FIA’s wisdom in extending the present 3.5-litre engine capacity to the year 2000. “Straightline speeds are going to rise under the new regulations, which means that accident impacts are going to be higher. Ideally, power outputs should be reduced by about one-third.

“I am all for a reduction in engine capacity and a limit on the number of cylinders. There are alternatives, such as a rev limit or air intake restriction, but the problem with the latter is that you get an artificial rev band and the risk of detonation, which burns holes in pistons.

“Formula 3000 has the best set of regulations at present. They’re a good leveller. On average, there’s only about two seconds between the fastest and slowest cars on a European Championship starting grid. But the category is being deliberately kept at a low profile so that it doesn’t offer any competition to F1.”