Doug Nye

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Ground control
Phased out after a single, controversial Grand Prix, the Brabham BT46B fan car still brings a smile to its creator…

Reminiscing recently with Gordon Murray reminded me of an interesting perspective on the performance of his now legendary Brabham BT46B fan cars. In early — and top secret — testing at Brands Hatch, Gordon urged his drivers, Niki Lauda and John Watson, to set aside their prior experience of winged Formula 1 machinery, in which the higher the road speed, the greater the downforce. This was the same effect much magnified by the rival Lotus 78/79 ‘wing car’ concept, whose very evident performance advantage had triggered the fan car as Brabham’s short-term response.

While the primary purpose of the BT46B’s fan was billed as drawing cooling air through the radiator -which was horizontally mounted above the engine bay — it also, ‘by happy coincidence’, depressurised the skirtenclosed bay itself, which sucked the car down against the track surface.

Now Gordon encouraged Lauda and Wattie to maintain speed into a corner in the normal manner, but then to slam down an extra gear “and absolutely rev the guts out of the engine” on the way through. This was because in the fan car download was not related merely to road speed, but much more so to engine (and thereby fan) speed. The higher the fan revs the greater the download effect, so cornering capability grew higher still.

When the two cars made their one-off appearance in the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstorp, they qualified second and third behind Mario Andretti’s Lotus 79 and literally blew away all other opposition. A few of the more astute trackside observers commented upon the wailing flat-12 Alfa Romeo engines’ extreme exhaust note through the corners. In the race, while Wattie had a spin and retired with jammed throttles, somehow Lauda’s Alfa unit hung together for the full race distance, enabling him to score that memorable win by some six seconds from Riccardo Patrese’s Arrows. In the BT46B’s lone F1 outing, it had been a case of rev for victory, and Niki Lauda (and Alfa Romeo’s engine builders) had made the Brabham team’s stop-gap technology succeed. The fan cars were also tremendous off the standing-start, as Gordon still chuckles at the memory: “Pile on the revs for the start, the car sucked down like you couldn’t believe, pop the clutch and hardly anything else could live with that 2G take-off!”

The unforeseen hazzards of racing’s postcard venues
Water-fringed circuits might be a boon for photographers, but there are times when picturesque translates as perilous

Never mind race circuits too narrow for choice, there were also some circuits flanked by a hazard that could quickly kill a completely uninjured driver, should he simply run out of luck. That hazard is water. Trap a driver below the surface for much more than 90 seconds and his chances of survival are slim. Oulton Park has an unhappy history in this respect, with Stu Howitt drowned at Knickerbrook there in his Hillman Imp in 1968. Three years earlier Paul Hawkins had dropped Dickie Stoop’s Lotus 33 into Monte Carlo Harbour during the Monaco GP, but the rugged Aussie fortunately kicked free and bobbed to the surface before the spray had settled. Much less well remembered is yet another submarining Lotus, in the Mediterranean Grand Prix at Enna, Sicily, barely 10 weeks later…

Mike Spence remains one of the most under-rated of 1960s racing drivers. Among the engineers and mechanics at Team Lotus, Parnell Racing and BRM, he earned both great affection and respect. He proved a superb development driver and in 1965 did a fine job in the thankless role of being Lotus’s number two to Jimmy Clark. He won that year’s Race of Champions for them, and come the Mediterranean GP at Enna he in his works Lotus 33 and Jo Siffert in the Rob Walker Brabham took turns to lead the slipstreaming pack.

The egg-shaped Enna course encircles Lake Pergusa, and in places there was hardly any verge at all between the unguarded trackside and the lake bank with its reed-bed fringe. Early in the 1964 Mediterranean GP, Parnell Lotus-BRM driver Mike Hai!wood had spun off into the infield — which meant the lake-edge reed banks — and had to wade ashore, soaked-through, leaving his Lotus sending up steam and bubbles.

In the 1965 race, ending lap 26, Siffert was leading as Clark eased past team-mate Spence. One of the cars then flicked up a stone that smashed into the bridge of Mike’s nose. His eyes instantly streamed and completely unsighted at 140 mph his car wandered left, clipped straw bales on the outside of the right-handed course, spun back towards the lake — and toppled over the bank to land, inverted, upon a dense reed bed, the top of Mike’s crash helmet in the water. Marshals gathered around but “just jabbered away without making any attempt to right the car”.

Back in the pits Team Lotus mechanics Leo Wybrott and Billy Cowe realised their man had gone missing, as Leo recalls: “We had a vague idea where he must be, so Billy and I set off, running back around the circuit on the infield. We ran a long way, but all that time he was trapped upside-down under the car in the rushes, slowly sinking down into the water.

“When we found him he was still in the car and the marshals were standing about; not much going on. We just jumped in and must have stirred up the marshals finally to help tip the car over to get him out. Once back on the bank and seeing all was OK with Mike, I went trackside and gave Jimmy the thumbs up that all was good. Mike had been right with Jimmy and Jo, so they must have realised he had gone missing. I don’t remember how and when we retrieved the car but I don’t think it was damaged at all — just wet..!’

Third mechanic Nick Garbett then put out a confirmatory ‘MIKE OK’ signal to Jimmy, and they raced home with Seppi winning narrowly in the ferociously quick Walker Brabham-BRM, by three-tenths of a second from Clark. It was still a relieved Team Lotus who set off on the long trip home. Water-fringed race circuits might be picturesque, but are not a good idea.

Keeping a sense of perspective
Is it strictly necessary to widen traditional racetracks? Some in authority seem to think so

Right, that’s it. I can’t stand no more. The other day a governing body luminary, who should know he was wasting his time, bent my ear about how too many of the racing world’s “older circuits” are just too narrow, and should be widened, while the few remaining changing-radius corners “need to be regularised”. This reminded me of my old friend Sheridan Thynne, who once told me of a visit by a Brussels-based group of EU regulation writers to Williams Grand Prix Engineering’s factory, then beside the familiar cooling towers at Didcot.

They evidently studied everything they were shown with apparent interest, before one of them asked Sheridan how many areas of the cars’ design were governed by specific regulation. That was a pretty tricky question for him — as non-technical commercial director to answer, although his gut reaction (back then in the late 1980s) was to say “Quite enough, thank you.”

But the official didn’t pause for any kind of response, evidently being accustomed to operating on transmit in preference to receive…

He rambled on about how in Brussels “It is necessary to compose a regulation to cover every area of human activity, process and production!’ Does this sound at all familiar?

Sheridan was a consummate diplomat, but even he confessed to bristling somewhat at this bureaucrat’s evident ambition to extend probably malignant influence ever deeper into the everyday lives of his milch-cow public. Now, the notion of wider circuits with ‘simpler’ corners just leaves me breathless.

The steam had barely stopped issuing when I chanced upon the lovely photo appended above. His racing friends and rivals might have nicknamed Richard Shuttleworth ‘Mad Jack; but he was quick and capable in his day and in this Alfa Romeo Monoposto he won the inaugural Donington Grand Prix race in 1935. Here we see him ‘shooting’ the contemporary Donington Park circuit’s ‘No Overtaking’ hazard at Coppice Farmhouse.

The buildings here were ‘adjusted’ subsequently to widen the roadway, but that — my friends — was what could be properly described as ‘narrow’ and not one international circuit active today comes anywhere near matching that.

What was the rule-maker talking about? Trouble is, of course, once every regulation has been written, the regulation writers will fall redundant. Once that happens, and once every rule has been regulated, what bothers me is how little of any conceivable interest might survive in their wake…