“The fan car was maybe the real turning point for Bernie: he was more interested in the future of F1 than he was in the future of Brabham”
Ex-Brabham men Herbie Blash and Charlie Whiting are F1’s ultimate poachers turned gamekeepers and in both roles they’ve been working for Bernie Ecclestone. Adam Cooper listens to their story
It wasn’t always like this. The FIAs Charlie Whiting and Herbie Blash today ensure that a grand prix weekend runs like clockwork and that any indiscretions by teams or drivers are properly punished. But a few years ago they were on the other side of the fence, trying to seek out any advantage as key employees of Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team.
Blash was mechanic to Jochen Rindt at Lotus when Ecclestone managed the Austrian. When Bernie bought Brabham in 1972, Herbie joined him. Six years later, as team manager, Blash hired former Hesketh mechanic Whiting for the test team. The youngster quickly moved through the ranks, eventually becoming chief engineer.
Under the technical leadership of Gordon Murray, Brabham was an innovative organisation with a unique spirit. The team won World Championships with Nelson Piquet in 1981 and ’83, but an era ended when Ecclestone sold up in ’87. Whiting was seconded to the FIA, while a frustrated Blash later oversaw the eventual demise of the team he loved. He is still based at the Chessington factory— working from Bernie’s old office.
Everyone says that Brabham had a special atmosphere. What made it such a fun team to work for?
Charlie Whiting: “From my point of view it was the fact that Gordon was such a laid-back sort of person, and that rubbed off on everybody else. That’s where it came from I suppose, the silly little things we did, the Jokes we had and stuff like that because we could, as Gordon encouraged it.”
Herbie Blash: Bernie was also free and easy. But he always wanted the team to be number one in new ideas. And with Gordon and the majority of the team the thinking was always to be ahead. A lot of It was down to Bernie himself. For example, in the very early days we were the first team to have an articulated truck to carry the cars around in and to have a kitchen in our truck Gordon’s wife Stella used to come along and make the sandwiches! Later we were the first to have complete rear ends ready to fit for the race. Those sorts of things kept Brabham apart from other teams.”
Gordon Murray must have been very different from some of the old-school designers In the ’70s…
CW: “He wasn’t a typical designer, was he? He was very clever, and still is I imagine. He used to think outside the box better than anybody. I must say. He was never afraid to try something new, and most of the time it worked.”
HB: “I think you’d have to class him as a genius, really. And all geniuses have a strange trait about them.”
There were a few cock-ups, like surface cooling on the BT46, and the horrible BT48 of 1979…
CW: “That was a revolting car, as was the BT55. But his good ideas far outweighed the bad ones.”
What are your memories of the fancar episode in ’78?
HB: “Great, because it was so secret, and in those days it was so advanced. The part I loved was camouflaging it for testing. It was quite simple, the reason why it was done. We had a flat engine, and everyone with a little V8 could use the underside of the car, the venturis, which you couldn’t do with a flat 12. You had to take the air out somehow, and the fan was the way to dolt”
CW: “And it cooled the engine!”
HB: “Exactly. Which made it legal.”
It was never actually banned, but Bernie agreed to can it after one race. How tough was that?
HB: “Everyone had put in a helluva lot of effort. It wasn’t just, ‘Let’s stick a fan on the back’. It was a lot more involved and complicated than that. And yes, it was tough. But, looking back, that was maybe the real start of Bernie looking after F1 rather than his own team. When Bernie agreed that we wouldn’t use it any more, it was in the interests of F1. That was maybe the real turning point for Bernie, as he was more interested in the future of F1 than he was in the future of Brabham”
The busiest period for clever rule interpretation was the early ’80s, things like putting on heavy wings for scrutineering and so on…
CW: “They’re rumours, they are! I don’t know anything about that But some wings were inevitably heavier than others, and somehow seemed to find their way on to a car at the end of a practice session.”
HB: “I think that might have been one of the problems at Brabham. We were very inconsistent with the weight of the bodywork and the seat and so on…”
And even the driver’s helmet?
CW: “Actually, that was diabolical. Nelson had this crash helmet that was just like plastic. It was only for his neck, because he was a feeble chap when it came to fitness. I remember he said, ‘Shall we test it and make sure it’s all right?’ We got it out in the yard at Brabham, got a big bit of pipe, and we were bashing this helmet to see if it would crack. It didn’t, so it was all right”
HB: “I’m not mentioning any names, but at some of the very high-speed circuits the seat belts would be quite loose around the driver, so he could actually slide lower in the cockpit on the straights. You always took things to the limit.”
What else did you get up to?
CW: “We had the water-cooled brakes. We had a win taken away from us in Rio in ’82. But the brakes just wouldn’t run without that cooling. You’d go off at the end of the straight without that water pouring on to them!”
HB: “Sometimes it all pumped out before the start of the race. I don’t know how the brakes survived.”
CW: “It must have been the drivers’ skill…”
And you topped up fluids at the end, of course…
HB: “You had to. That was the regulations! I think the mentality of Gordon was the number one thing with things like that. But it was also the people around Gordon who were coming up with ideas as well.”
CW: “Dave North was very good. In ’81. when the 6cm ground-clearance rule was introduced, we came up with this system which was really clever. It didn’t use any levers or anything, it was purely aerodynamic. The car went down and it stayed down. basically. As you came back into the pits it came back slowly. It was perfectly legal. but everyone thought there must be some sort of driver-operated device. But it was a pain to work on, it really was horrible. with lots of seals and pistons.”
How did refuelling come about in ’82?
CW: “That was Dave North. He was the one who did a few sums and reckoned that it would be quicker to run light and stop for fuel. We started doing it with old beer barrels, which we pressurised. It was pretty crude, but it worked very well. And we had the first tyre-heating device. It was like a great big wooden oven that you put two sets of tyres in. with a space heater up the back,”
HB: “It was like a pillar box! I think at first most people were convinced that the engine just wouldn’t last, and that was the only reason we were doing it. because after each pitstop the engine would always blow up. and they thought we were only out for glory in the first half of the race. It’s amazing that nobody really jumped on it and thought. do it too’. There were obviously lots of problems because it was such a new idea. It wasn’t just a matter of putting fuel in with gravity. This was under pressure. and the whole point of having the pitstops was that you had to do it as quickly as possible. I don’t know what the flow rate would have been…”
CW: “In the end we had those things pumped up to 80psi which is horrendous.”
HB: “It was a bomb, literally a bomb waiting to go off.”
CW: “We had two connections, so the guy with the air vent had to go on first, or otherwise the tank would just blow asunder. It was very tricky.”
HB: “Actually, we broke a chassis in half testing our refuelling rig, as did one of our competitors.”
Did things ever go wrong?
HB: “One of the worst experiences we had was at Paul Ricard on the Sunday morning. Basically the breather pipe inside the tank was fitted incorrectly. The fuel went in, and it went straight into the catch tank outside the car. The fuel just shot up in the air to the top of the pit building. Without exaggeration, for five minutes droplets of fuel were still floating down. That was as close as you’d get to an atom bomb going off in an F1 pitlane! If one person had been smoking the entire Brabham team would have been wiped out.”
CW: “If that had been in the race, with the engine belching flame…”
HB: “For the pitstops we also had to introduce airguns, which nobody had, and then we had our own diving bottles and our own compressor to pump them up. We also used airjacks.”
The turbo era must have been fantastic, especially as the BMW was the most powerful engine.
HB: “It wasn’t to start with. It was a total disaster!”
CW: “Engines literally blew up in the pitlane. You’d fit a new one the night before and it would take hours you had to make intercoolers and things like that, because no two engines came the same.”
HB: “This was also the first time that people had ECUs and telemetry. We had this huge thing sitting on the back of the car. Eventually, after months testing, we actually found a chip where everything worked. They took it back to BMW and it caught fire, so six months’ work had gone out of the window and they had to start again! Bernie was getting very frustrated in those days.”
A lot has been said about the ‘rocket fuel’ BMW used In 1983. What can you tell us about that?
CW: “It was completely legal… but the regulations weren’t nearly as tight as they are now. It was deadly stuff. We didn’t worry about health and safety at work in those days. It was so dense I’d hate to think what it would be like if we analysed that fuel now.”
HB: “You’d have to say it was evil. Typically in all racing teams, if anyone back at base had the possibility of topping up their road car they would. We told everybody, ‘Whatever you do, don’t use this stuff.’ Needless to say a couple of people did, and they didn’t get any further than 100 yards down the road before the carburettor float and fuel pipes had melted! One of our chaps had a plastic Casio watch. He was pumping out the fuel and a drop landed on his watch, and it just fell off his wrist.”
CW: “That’s true!”
HB: “We were the first people to freeze fuel. We used to have a great big truck which was just a freezer unit, and we had the fuel in 50-gallon drums. We’d top the cars up just as the pitlane was opening before the race. In Austria the fuel was so cold minus 50°C it froze the rubber of the pump and it cracked like glass. I got in there and I was siphoning this fuel. I swallowed some and I don’t know how I’m alive today. I’ve never been the same!”
What went wrong with the BT55 In 1986?
CW: The chassis wasn’t stiff enough. And the engine was lying down we always felt that there was a scavenge problem. That was the beginning of the end with BMW. They blamed the chassis, we blamed the engine. It was a classic situation, but I think there was fault on both sides. And Gordon, to be quite honest, wasn’t himself at that point. He wouldn’t accept that there was anything wrong with the car. But we got it working reasonably well in the end.”
Presumably Elio de Angelis’s accident that year was the low point of the whole Brabham time.
CW: “Definitely. That was tragic in that he wasn’t injured. There were only about four gallons of petrol in the car, but unfortunately he tipped over, the petrol came out, it caught fire and there was no-one there to put it out.”
Things began to wind down the following year. What happened?
CW: “I think Bernie realised that he couldn’t do both things any more. And it was costing him a lot of money.”
HB: “F1 was starting to cost a lot. Bernie was not the type of person who would ever have a sponsor who would tell him what to do. The world of F1 was changing into a corporate world.”
CW: “We used to joke that he had Coca-Cola lined up as a sponsor, but he wanted them to change their colours to blue and white! I think that’s probably right.”
HB: “There was the Elio business and the parting of the ways with BMW. Bernie was becoming more and more involved with FOCA and the FIA as well. We were both there until the end of ’87 and then Bernie sold the company to Alfa Romeo.”
How do you view that period, now you are on the other side of the fence?
CW: “Things have become far more complex things that were going on then were very crude by comparison. Everyone was naive. The measures to stop us putting a heavier rear wing on weren’t exactly sophisticated! Certainly it put me in good stead for the first few years of my current job.”
HB: “They were great days. If you were to look for a racing team today that shares our philosophy, I would say it would be at Renault. Loud music in the garage, lots of fun, but they get the job done. It’s great to see what people are trying to do 20 years on. Although technical times have changed, people are still taking things to the limit. Both Charlie and myself still get a huge buzz at the start of the race, because you never know what is going to happen. That’s the adrenalin rush. But I still feel the guys that win races achieve a little more. You could sum us up as poachers turned gamekeepers!”