Marching on

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Marching On

Times have changed in more than technology in those thirty years of Formula Two. The HWMs cost about £1,500 to make, and on more than one occasion Alf Francis and the team headed for Dover with not much more than £10 in their pockets. Customers for a March-BMW 802 need to find £24,950, which includes £10,000 for the engine. Robin Herd estimates that the 11-race European Championship tackled with works professionalism will leave little change out of £150,000 per car. ICI’s involvement with the March Formula Two team is estimated at about £500,000. The BMW Motorsport-built engines are lifed at only 800 miles between rebuilds—less if the tachometer has been beyond the 10,000 rpm limit too many times.

Teo Fabi and Mike Thackwell, in the ICI Marches, are the Abecassis and Moss of today. The Italian engineer (he is studying for a Doctorate in Engineering), is currently lying third in the European Championship, behind the Toleman-Harts of Henton and Warwick, while the young New Zealand-born Thackwell, last year’s Grovewood Award winner, is sixth. Both were on hand to watch the antics of JW and I at Silverstone, while Fabi alone was at Donington for a day’s testing.

The test car was the muletta, which technically started life as 802/1, but two bent monocoques later has been re-numbered 802/3. Virtually all development work is done on this car. March Chief Engineer Ian Reed termed its engine as “Special”, with about 310 bhp. The “Very Special” race engines are currently giving up to 320 bhp. These aluminium head, dohc sixteen-valve units are based on the production BMW cast iron block, with dimensions of 89.2 mm x 80 mm and 1,999 cc. The compression ratio is 11.2:1. Drive is via a Hewland FT200 five-speed gearbox and March are currently experimenting with a new limited slip differential of their own design.

Construction follows current stressed monocoque practice and suspension is via a top rocking arm and triangulated wishbone at the front and at the rear a multi-tube rocking arm link at the top and a triangulated lower wishbone. March have a wide choice of coil springs and anti-roll bars. Aluminium Koni shock-absorbers are fitted all round. AP four piston calipers operate on outboard, ventilated, 10.5 in diameter discs all round. Overall length is 170 in, wheelbase 100 in, track 56.5 in at the front and 56.25 in rear, and overall width 66.5 in front, 70.25 in rear.

Safety considerations arc pre-eminent in the design, with the deformable monocoque structure, front and rear cockpit roll-over bars, an electrically operated fire-extinguisher system, a life support system and a six-point safety harness. The HWM made no real concessions to safety at all.

The Silverstone day is best forgotten. The sun shone at Donington as March mechanics John Milligan and Alan Harris, with Ian Reed. squeezed me into the narrow cockpit after the Italian Fabi had shown me the lines, appropriately from behind the wheel of my Alfa Spider. You “wear” the March, burying oneself in its GRP cockpit and confronted by a tiny, thick-rimmed wheel, with a “kill” button on one spoke and a triangular facia dominated by a 12,000 rpm tachometer, incorporating, horror of horrors, a potentially reputation ruining tell-tale. The stubby gearlever, with first a deliberately awkward move against a detent spring down to the left, nestles a hand flick from the wheel on the right.

I can’t hope to discuss a racing car of such potential and sophistication in positive assessment terms (“The drivers are potential Formula One material and the racing mini Formula One now,” Herd had reflected at Silverstone, where the quickest Formula Two cars are now lapping in the 1 min 19 sec, 133 mph. bracket.) All I can do is revel in the memories of the most enjoyable driving experience in my career. It gave me a new dimension in wheeled travel. The performance was stupendous, yet I didn’t find it a daunting or, at quick, but nowhere racing speeds, a difficult car to drive. I thought it understeered too much in some bends, but put this down to not driving it hard enough until Fabi took it out later and came back complaining “too much understeer,” which was promptly rectified. 

The overall sensation was one of absolute security, locked into this ground-effect (without sliding skirts this year) missile which carries stability to the ultimate. There was no darting about either on or off power or under braking, the ride comfort, believe it or not, felt almost limousine like and for the first time in a single-seater I was not troubled by wind buffeting. In fact I was so cosily ensconced in this March and enjoying it so much that Ian Reed had to give me the “in” signal three times! The grip from the Goodyear slicks (20.0 x 9.0 -13 in front, 23.5 X 13.0 -13 in rear) was unbelievable, so that it gave me real satisfaction to be able to hang the tail out a little round the sharp, uphill right-hander at the back of the circuit.

The engine simply sailed up to 9,800 rpm and· pulled over 9,000 rpm in fifth down the straight, at the end of which the Hewland ‘box could be flicked down to second for the chicane and braked within what felt like about two yards. The astonishing flexibility of the BMW engine was another eye-opener; while following Fabi and our photographer round in my open Spider, I was able to trickle the March along at 3,000 rpm in fifth. In fact it felt a lot more flexible and suited to the road than the long-stroke Alta engine. 

Thirty years apart? The March and the HWM could be from different planets. I wonder what we can expect from a 2010 Formula Two car. -CR.