In the hot seat -- Gordon Murray

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From the Brabham BT44 to McLaren’s F1, Gordon Murray has never forgotten about style in his car designs and the good news is that he may not be finished with F1

Have you managed to track down the Lotus 7-type special you built back home in South Africa? Is it true that you designed your own engine for it? — John Lovell, Sevenoaks

I tried for about 10 years with the help of friends in South Africa to find my old ‘IGM-Ford’ with no success. Popular theory is that the car was written off some years ago. I did design and make the entire car, including fuel tank, seats etc. I also made the engine, including pistons, manifolds etc. The block and head started life as a 105E Anglia engine. I was 19 at the time.

What was Bernie E like to work for? — Matthew Cooper, Bromley

Bernie and I had a great relationship: he found the money and I ran the technical side. Even though we had a small budget Bernie never stopped me taking chances with innovative designs.

How good was Carlos Pace? — Chris Turner, Chipping Camden

I remember watching him in an F3 race at Thruxton when I was on my honeymoon. I was impressed by him then — but it was really Bernie who got right behind Carlos. We both felt that he had championship-winning potential.

When designing the BT52, how did you know it would work without a rear anti-roll bar and with a fixed rear wing? Were its race set-ups compromised by non-adjustability? — Dave Thompson, Gerrards Cross

We (the designers) had lost skirts and some two-thirds of our downforce for 1983 and I took a chance with a radical design which moved seven per cent of the car’s weight onto the rear axle. I figured that the season would be all about power and traction and that races could be won (or lost!) on my ‘half tanks plus a pitstop’ theory; therefore, there would be no time for the usual setup ‘scratching’ that went on during practice. I decided to remove both the temptation and the option by designing a non-adjustable car that was easy to work on. The BT52 was also the first grand prix car to have a pre-prepared race rear-end, including intercooler and radiator.

In 1982 you used Ford engines during periods of BMW unreliability. How were you able to do this without upsetting either supplier? — Chris Hardy, Bucks

Er… I think we did upset the suppliers from time to time! I think we proved the decision was the right one at the season’s turning point — the Canadian GP — when we won with the BMW car and finished second with the Ford car!

How did you get roped into designing the Duckhams Special, and do you have any good memories of it? — Maindrian Pace, Portland, Oregon

Alain De Cadenet approached me out of the blue to do an all-British car for Le Mans; at the same time Bernie made me his chief designer. As I had already shaken hands with Alain I asked Bernie’s permission to moonlight on the Duckhams-Ford. We had three months to do the car and I worked 20 hours a day until I suffered a complete collapse! Both men were instrumental in giving me the start I needed.

Did you know you were building a Le Mans winner in McLaren F1? — Jonathan Harry, Chichester

On the contrary, I stated that we shouldn’t consider the F1 as a race car because it would compromise the road car. What I failed to realise was that coming from a racing background I applied all my usual design rules to its design, such as low weight, high stiffness, ground effect, suspension geometry etc. So in the end I was proved wrong, as the car won Le Mans — and two world championships!

Which of your F1 boffin rivals do you most admire? — Dave Kox, Chieveley

Colin Chapman was always my hero, but I have a lot of admiration for Patrick Head.

Have you ever been tempted to design a ChampCar? — Llewyn Harrison, Bristol

I’ve been asked to design one many times but the time was never right. The closest I got to do a layout for an Indycar was in 1971 while I was at Brabham; it was to have a laydown Offenhauser engine with an asymmetric Pete Weismann gearbox — a layout we revived in ’86 for the BT55.

While developing the F1 you said the easy route was to build a car with someone else’s V8 and sell it for £250k. Do you regret the SLR? — Nick Binns, Slough

The SLR was a completely different programme from the F1. We worked with our German partner but were not responsible for all the decisions. The V8 in the SLR is unique to the car.

Is it true you’re currently working on a radical commuter vehicle? — Ben Caddy, Surbiton

Yes. I began work on a radical personal transport vehicle in 1993. It comes with an equally radical usage and environmental package, and together they could make a real difference to our pollution, traffic and parking problems. The car would not have been acceptable (I think) back in ’93 but I feel the time is now right. I just hope that enough people feel the same way. As they always say, watch this space!

If you had carte blanche on the rules for F1 what would the specs be? Jaap Blijleven, Heemstede, Holland

A long time ago Gordon Coppuck and I rewrote the rules for F1 on a plane coming back from America. I found these the other day and most of them would be relevant today. The regulations need to give designers more freedom to get the cars looking different from one another — and they need to change to make the racing more interesting. A few simple changes to the aero and tyre rules would sort it.

Could anything tempt you back into Formula One? — Ford Meechan, Hermanos, S Africa

Yes. I would like to have the chance to help sort out F1’s problems.

With modern F1’s technology and huge design departments could you walk in now and make a difference? — Brian Konoske, Santa Ana, California

I hope so. Any competitive business — and F1 racing is about as competitive as it gets — is down to just three things: hire the right people, formulate the right process and apply discipline by the bucket-load. Once you have worked using these principles it never leaves you — changes in technology make no difference at all. One area I would find difficult would be your point about the size of the current design offices — the law of diminishing returns applies to most businesses, but none more so than F1 design.

All your cars are visually striking. Could you bear to sign-off an ugly race car design if it worked well? — Michael McCartan, Pretoria, S Africa

It is still possible to produce good looking racing cars — although more difficult these days because of the attention to detail demanded by the wind tunnel. But most car designers are not well versed in car styling. I have been very lucky in my career: of the 37 cars I have designed, the SLR is the only one I didn’t style.

How much aerodynamic and CFD work was done in the design of the louvred nose for the Brabham BT42 or was it designed on a napkin at the White Hart? — Steve Roby, via e-mail

It was a second-hand napkin!