The pragmatist

Ron Tauranac’s racing cars won championships at almost every level – including Formula 1. We tracked down a no-nonsense engineer whose designs blended speed and efficiency with common sense
Writer Michael Stahl

If it were possible to pinpoint where the old Formula 1 became the new, it might well have been on the deck of a yacht at Monaco in May 1971. Present were two men: one was Bernie Ecclestone, the yacht owner, and the other, rather less at home in this setting, Ron Tauranac.

On a handshake, the Anglo-Australian designer agreed to sell Brabham, the business he had jointly founded 11 years earlier with his great mate, Jack. Tauranac had engineered Brabham into a powerhouse racing car constructor, with F1 titles to its name.

Under Ecclestone, Brabham would cease building production cars. F1 management, it seemed, had become a matter of suits and sponsors, not gritty garagistes and customer cars. So Tauranac went off to found Ralt and do what he did best: design dominant racing cars.

It’s difficult to picture Tauranac in the context of modern F1. Now 88 and residing in Sydney, he has not mellowed in his zero-tolerance approach to pretension and nonsense. Tauranac was notoriously focused, a workaholic, surly to the point of being anti-social. He was dedicated to the pursuit of efficiency and the elimination of weakness in his cars. Born in Gillingham, Kent in 1925, Ronald Sidney Tauranac was three when his parents moved to Australia. He returned there in 2002 following the death of Norma, his wife (and book-keeper) of 48 years.

Tauranac was shaped by his childhood, Royal Australian Air Force recruitment and engineering studies in Australia. His father, a boilermaker, found employment on the docks in Newcastle, 100 miles north of Sydney. There a second son, Austin, was born in 1929.

School classes in drawing and handcrafts encouraged Ron to apply for an apprenticeship as a draughtsman at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation. He left school at 14 and, this being 1939, there would be plenty to do.

The family settled in Bondi Beach, Sydney in 1940. Tauranac’s training at the CAC, where he redrew American aircraft plans and designed tooling for production, led to a profitable sideline in building surfboards. With maple sides, cross-members and plywood decking, they weren’t unlike an aircraft wing.

At 18 he was accepted into the RAAF and began training in Tiger Moths, before switching to Harvard fighters in Canada. There, one of his close mates made a navigational error and crashed fatally. “That was about the last time I had an emotion,” Ron says. “It weighed heavily on me and I thought about it for a long while, but after that it didn’t worry me. I just never got emotional again.”

His first post-war jobs were with steel merchants and engineering shops, which honed his skills in metallurgy, machining and drawing. In 1947 he was assigned to the design and construction of a new chemical plant for Colonial Sugar Refining. He was soon able to buy his first car, an Austin Seven.

On a Sunday afternoon drive in the Austin, he happened upon a group of pre-war cars racing on an airstrip. He met brothers Bill and Jack Hooper, Sydney motorcycle engineers who had built a Triumph-powered single-seater inspired by the new 500cc F3. Tauranac had already seen a raceworthy MG for sale, for £500. “I didn’t have £500,” he says, “so thought I’d build a car instead.”

The Ralt (Ron and Austin Lewis Tauranac) Special was powered by a Norton 500cc engine the brothers would continually refine. The same went for the chassis, with Ron given a lesson on the car’s competition debut at Hawkesbury Hill Climb in 1950. “I’d read that inter-leaf friction was all you needed for a damper,” he says. “I didn’t have money to buy dampers, so believed what I read. Before the start of the hill, there was a ditch near the edge of the road. With no restriction on the droop, the wheel went into that, rolled underneath and tossed me over.”

He awoke in hospital with 14 facial stitches.

Through the Ralt Special, Ron met fellow RAAF ex-serviceman, racer and engineer Jack Brabham, in 1951. Brabham was already an established speedway star and a rising talent in circuit racing. He also had a knack for delighting sponsors, in an age before sponsorship was permitted. But the stardom wasn’t all one-way.

In the 1954 NSW hill climb championship, Brabham lined up his Cooper-Bristol against Tauranac’s spindly 500cc Ralt 1, by now running on nitro-methane. Brabham finished second, sandwiched between winner Ron and his brother Austin’s special, Ralt 2.

Brabham went to the UK in 1955, initially racing an ex-Peter Whitehead Cooper-Alta F2 but soon working, and driving, for Cooper.

The friendship with Tauranac continued in a technical collaboration conducted by airmail.

Early in 1960, Tauranac was preparing five Ralt single-seater chassis (eventually to surface as Lynx Formula Juniors). Brabham, who felt he was outgrowing the autocratic atmosphere under Charlie Cooper, had a better idea. In The Jack Brabham Story, he wrote: “Ron’s design and manufacturing capabilities were always central to my ideas of independence. As 1959 world champion, my new garage business in Chessington had got off to a good start and during that winter I was able to offer Ron a job in Britain. He was the only bloke with whom I’d have gone into partnership. He was conscientious to a fault and peerlessly straight.”

Ron put Norma and four-year-old daughter Jann on a boat to England. He was to fly via America, where he race-engineered Jack’s Cooper Monaco at Riverside on April 3. Tauranac had more than engineering on his mind. “I thought I was going to drive in England,” he says. “That was one of the reasons I went. But when I got over there, I realised that if I drove and anything happened to me – we had no money, so what would my wife and child do? I decided I couldn’t take the risk.” Was he a good driver? “I was quick,” he says, “but a bit too aggressive.”

Brabham’s Cooper contract meant Tauranac had to operate in secrecy. By day he tuned Triumph Heralds and Hillman Imps, for Jack Brabham Motors. At night in his Surbiton flat, he designed a Formula Junior for Motor Racing Developments, their 50/50 joint venture.

The MRD Formula Junior was ready in the summer of ’61, Australian Gavin Youl finishing second to Alan Rees’ Lotus on its debut, the attention forcing Brabham to downplay the MRD project as a kit-car being developed for the Australian market. Charlie Cooper wasn’t fooled. “Suddenly we had to build an F1 car,” Tauranac says. “We’d wanted to do that, but it happened a bit earlier than we expected.”

The Formula Junior was renamed the Brabham BT1 and Jack drove customer Lotuses until he could race the BT3 F1 car in the 1962 German GP. Tauranac, whose second daughter Julie arrived in 1962, just toiled. “I worked days and well into the night,” he says. “Sometimes I’d go home for breakfast and then back to work again...”

How did he rate Brabham, the driver? “He was always good,” he says. “He never won at a speed greater than necessary… He just tried to save the car. He knew what made things work and how to preserve them. He was the best technical driver.

“When [Jochen] Rindt was racing for us, he was a little bit quicker than Jack – not a lot – but we’d have to take his cylinder head off and reset all the valve gear after every race. Jack’s would just go on forever.”

Were they the perfect partnership? “I don’t know about perfect, but it worked. We weren’t talkers, either of us. We’d speak if we had something to say, but never had an argument.”

Tauranac viewed his job as developing a racing car business. This mindset would colour designs that often appeared conservative, particularly when framed against the avant-garde efforts of Colin Chapman at Lotus.

In 1964, Dan Gurney scored Brabham’s first championship grand prix victory in France, with Jack third. It satisfied Tauranac more that, in the same year, Brabham built and sold about 50 cars, spanning several categories. F2 was booming and, while running the Cosworth-Ford SCA in 1964, Brabham was cultivating a relationship with Honda.

“Jack met Honda when he was at Cooper,” Tauranac says. “They’d bought something [a Cooper-Climax] and wanted some help, I think. On his way to the Tasman Series, Jack called in there. So when they were going to bring their F2 engine along, they contacted us.

“I built a car [the BT16] around it and towards the end of 1965, we tested it. We told them what needed fixing and they agreed. In ’66 we won everything with that.”

Indeed, in F2 the ‘works’ Brabham BT18-Hondas of Jack and team-mate Denny Hulme won all but one of the championship rounds. Rising star Jochen Rindt pipped the boss by two-tenths of a second at the Brands Hatch final, in a privateer Brabham-Cosworth.

“Instead of leading like other drivers, Jack always dropped back and let them pass to make a proper race,” Ron says. “It wasn’t just for the show – it stopped us destroying F2, because we were the only ones with that car and engine.”

In 1966, of course, domination in F2 and F3 was merely the icing on the cake. Jack won his third world championship, becoming the first to take the title in a car bearing his own name. Tauranac had designed the BT19 F1 chassis to accept the stillborn Coventry-Climax flat-16. Meanwhile, Jack discovered the Oldsmobile F85 alloy-block V8 and had been pushing Repco to develop it as a 2.5-litre Tasman unit.

“I had to use that chassis and accommodate the Repco,” Ron says, “so that influenced the design of the cylinder head. They couldn’t do the engine the way it was intended.”

The steamroller success of 1966 coincided with Tauranac’s return to more direct involvement in F1. Behind the scenes, the business structure had changed. “When the formula altered for ’66, I told Jack I didn’t want to do F1. I couldn’t develop the cars and wasn’t going to meetings. We could sell the cars to Jack for £3000 less engine and he’d be able to do his own thing. I think Jack looked around for a drive – I don’t know that for sure – but he came back and suggested we did a joint company again, increasing my wage from the original £30 a week. I think I just doubled it.”

Still, Tauranac’s interest in F1 glitz was illustrated on their return flight in Jack’s Cessna after Monza, where the championship leader had been forced to retire with an oil leak. “Coming into Fairoaks we saw all these people and I wondered what they were doing there. Jack said, ‘They’re waiting to interview me because we won the world championship’. That was the first I’d heard about it. All I knew was that we hadn’t finished the race.”

Denny Hulme beat the boss to the title the following year and Tauranac has fond memories of the easy-going Kiwi. “He could work on the car, mechanically, but wasn’t that involved in set-up. He just said, ‘She’ll be right’. I got on well with all the drivers, really. Dan Gurney I knew better than many. When they made their own car, I can remember sorting it out for them at Indianapolis. I don’t think he knew much about engineering, but he was a nice guy.”

The team’s 1968 season was dogged by valvetrain problems with the quad-cam Repco 860, against the ascendant Lotus-Cosworth 49. Following Lotus’s Monaco lead, Tauranac’s semi-monocoque BT26 took wing at Spa.

“I’d put little bibs on the nose in practice. Jack did a lap and said it was great, but wanted balancing downforce at the rear. Chapman saw that and, I think it was at Rouen, Lotus had a huge wing on the back, mounted on the suspension rather than the chassis.”

Collapsing wings would lead to their banishment by the following year’s Monaco GP. Tauranac’s solution was an integrated ducktail at Zandvoort. “But I made a mistake and put it on for the first day. Chapman flew his team home and they came back with one for the race. The number of times that happened, and Chapman just copied us…”

In 1969 the now Cosworth-powered BT26A was the only spaceframe chassis on the F1 grid, yet Brabham finished second (to Matra) in the championship for constructors. “I only got into monocoques when you had to have bag tanks [1970],” Tauranac says. “There was an aerodynamic problem with them, because you couldn’t shape the thing as well as you could with bodywork.” It wasn’t widely known at the time, but Jack’s smooth-talking manner with manufacturers had given Tauranac access to the industry-only MIRA wind tunnel since 1963.

The decade would end with Tauranac as an F1 team owner. Jack sold his stake in the business to his partner at the close of the 1969 season, intending to retire. The new monocoque BT33-Cosworth enticed him to stay for one more season, 1970, in which Jack enjoyed an Indian summer as an F1 front-runner.

It was, of course, the best of times, the worst of times. No driver ever died in one of Tauranac’s Brabhams, though this was probably a matter of luck. In any case, it’s a record that means nothing to Tauranac. Asked how the deaths of such as Rindt and Piers Courage affected him, Tauranac barely raises an eyebrow. “It didn’t. If something had broken on the car and caused an accident, I’d have been concerned and I’d make that bit stiffer or something. That never really happened. You just live what you’re doing.”

Brabham’s departure at the end of 1970 had an unexpected effect. “Jack and I would stay with the mechanics until 10 o’clock at night,” Ron says, “and then we’d have dinner. But when Jack was no longer driving, there was no one with whom to eat dinner or, indeed, socialise at all. I didn’t like that very much.”

Which brings us to Ecclestone’s yacht. “Bernie wanted to form a partnership,” Ron says. “I said no. I’d been in a partnership with a friend for years, and it tended to restrict what you could do. I told him I wouldn’t do that, but would sell the team if he wanted.”

There was also the matter of sponsorship, at which Jack had been a master. “I was hopeless – I wasn’t going to dress up in a suit and go into London trying to get sponsorship. I just wanted to design cars.”

Ecclestone agreed to buy Brabham for “asset value”, which Tauranac had calculated at £130,000. Then, at the 11th hour, Ecclestone said he’d pay £100,000. “I wasn’t a smart businessman,” Ron says. “I should have said ‘Look Bernie, you can’t go back on your word, we agreed to this’. But I thought about it for three minutes and agreed.

“The other thing I’ve only just realised, after reading various accounts from England, is that we had £50,000 in the bank! That should have been added as an asset, or I should have drawn it out. But I didn’t do any of those things.”

The deal with Ecclestone included Tauranac staying on, but it was soon evident that his services were thought less than essential. He returned from a long weekend to find motorcycle designer Colin Seeley occupying his chair. Tauranac continued designing Brabhams at home, where it had begun. After a few months, the cheques stopped arriving.

“It’s just the way it was,” he says. “I don’t remember any ill feeling and I never had words with Bernie. But he lost money on the company, I gather. They didn’t know how to do the production racing cars that I did. I think everyone’s experienced the same thing. Now Bernie’s a multi-billionaire, I can’t see why he wants to carry on that way. But it’s all embedded into his way of doing things, isn’t it? He’s got to win at everything. I did things ethically correctly, but it seems he doesn’t.”

Tauranac was quickly in demand as a consultant, early customers including Guy Ligier and Frank Williams, whose Len Bailey-designed Politoys TX3 needed sorting. Then he took the family for an extended Christmas holiday in Australia.

While there, he received a letter from Peter Warr at Lotus. “It said Colin Chapman would like to see me. When I got back, he said he’d like to offer me a job. I was going to be chief engineer. He took me through the factory, and showed me the gatehouse, which was a mansion, virtually. It was arranged that my family would live in that. It was all agreed, but that was during the weekend.

“Then he rang early on Monday and asked me to put it on hold and not to tell anyone for a while. So I said, ‘Well, if you can put it on hold, so can I’. I heard no more about it!”

F1 was changing. McLaren’s customer car shutdown opened an opportunity for Tauranac at Trojan, designing the T103. There, Ron would employ a young Patrick Head. “We were good friends. We still communicate a bit on email. I think we trusted each other. He’s quite a good designer.”

The Ralt story began in 1974 with a visit from a bespectacled, wild-haired Australian named Larry Perkins. He’d had some F3 success in a Brabham BT41 the previous year, and now sought advice on his GRD chassis.

From gut instinct, experienced eye and neurons connecting like a network of chassis tubes, Tauranac knew Perkins would be better off starting from scratch. “Larry wanted to do it, so I knew I was going to build a car for him. Two [Brabham] agents, Chuck McCarty and Ulf Svensson, subsequently heard I was building cars and they each ordered a couple. And then Larry’s brother ordered one.

“I made the RT1 so there was room to add petrol tanks for the next formula up, because you needed different amounts of fuel for F3, F2 and Atlantic. As you went up you could put on bigger brakes. A customer could buy bits to upgrade it.”

The Ralt RT1, of which 165 were built from 1975-79, ran in all of those categories – and was very quickly a winner. In Tauranac style, it wasn’t about fashion (the Ralt logo was designed by daughter Julie, then 13). Where the rival March had featured a monocoque since 1972, the RT1 still had a spaceframe. There was a sound reason.

“We had these privateers racing all around Europe, and if they had an accident with a tube-framed car, they could weld it and fix it.

If you had a monocoque, the car had to come back to the UK for the right bits.”

In 1977-78, Tauranac penned two F1 designs for Teddy Yip’s Theodore team – and there was much contemporary F1 thinking in the Ralt RT2, an aluminium monocoque F2 car built for Toleman. The RT2 spawned the spectacularly successful RT3 (F3), RT4 (Atlantic/Pacific), RT5 (SuperVee) and the RH6 F2 that would reunite Tauranac with Honda.

The RT3 carried a generation of young stars, including Ayrton Senna, and there was also success in F2, where Geoff Lees, Jonathan Palmer and Mike Thackwell won three European titles in four seasons (1981-84). Tauranac was at his drawing board, at the races, at the top of his game… and selling up to 80 new cars per year.

“Ralt was so much more successful than Brabham as a company,” he says, “but we didn’t do F1 and so didn’t get the publicity.”

In the latter half of the ’80s, the rise of rivals (notably Reynard) made the going tough. It didn’t help that aerodynamics now ruled and Tauranac, the chassis-whisperer, wasn’t as interested. March came to him with an offer. He endured five frustrating years of umbilical attachment to Ralt, under the fickle financial management of March, and was then thrown a lifeline by old friend Nobuhiko Kawamoto, who commissioned him to design a single-seater for Honda’s racing school at Suzuka.

A cosy Honda consultancy withstood a brief interlude with Tom Walkinshaw and the Yamaha-engined Arrows, a job that came within a lap of making history. “Walkinshaw had a problem. I looked at it and told them it was all to do with oil circulation. I fixed those things – and Damon Hill should have won the next race [Hungary 1997].”

By then into his 70s, with daughters living in the US and Australia, Tauranac had a nice income from having invested the proceeds of Ralt and the Honda consultancy. Then, in October 2001, Norma collapsed at their Surrey home. Ron struggled to help her to her feet and called an ambulance, but with a ruptured aorta she was beyond saving. “Not long after that,” he says, “I decided I had nothing really to keep me in England.”

Ron’s sister-in-law found a modern apartment in Bondi, barely a mile from where he’d sold surfboards 60 years earlier. Greg ‘Pee Wee’ Siddle, the Australian who’d managed Nelson Piquet and Roberto Moreno in F3, dispatched Tauranac to cast an eye over the V8 Supercar team employing one of Siddle’s current charges. In fact, Siddle had already done a lot more. In 2002, Tauranac was awarded the Order of Australia. It was Siddle who’d nominated him and rounded up influential referees.

Does Tauranac watch grands prix today?

“I lost interest to some extent when I was no longer involved,” he says, “but mainly since all this tyre business started. I’m a bit interested in the aerodynamics, all these little winglets and things around the front end, but you can’t make a judgment without getting in the wind tunnel and seeing what goes on.”

Tauranac has no capacity for musing, for merely being a spectator. He can’t help but look at everything in calculated terms. Even, it was disconcerting to hear, about the mechanics of existence. “I’ve been looking for ways to commit suicide when I can’t achieve something every minute of the day. I just don’t want to be bored, but I can’t think of any way of taking my own life without it affecting other people.

“I knew someone in England who jumped off a railway bridge, but the train then stops and all the passengers are affected. At the least, it delays them. But I’ve got to be able to live a life and do something. I don’t want to have to have someone looking after me. That’s just bloody stupid, isn’t it?”