One giant leap

The space race wasn’t limited to matters extra-terrestrial. Some of the technology was having a significant impact on race tracks around the world
Writer Paul Fearnley

Jackie Stewart, his luxuriant hair and sideburns bang on-trend, won a thrilling 1969 British Grand Prix in a car devised by rocket scientists. 

The next day, buzz-cut Neil Armstrong – keeper of a Chevy Corvette leased from 1960 Indy 500-winner Jim Rathmann – settled Eagle onto the Sea of Tranquillity. The Space Race had been won with six seconds of propellant to spare.

The following weekend, three days after Apollo 11’s Pacific splashdown, motor racing’s answer to NASA launched a startling (some thought loony) vehicle. With secretive support from Chevrolet R&D, frustrated since March 1963 by GM’s withdrawal from motor sport, Jim Hall’s Chaparral had regularly readdressed the performance envelope: GRP semi-monocoque, hip radiators, torque converter and left-foot braking, plus – his Giant Leap and the final parameter – downforce.

An excellent driver/engineer with a restless, enquiring mind, the Texan possessed The Right Stuff, and Can-Am’s can-do attitude – no maximum capacity, no minimum weight, yeeha! – suited his laconic test pilot air: “When nothing breaks I have nothing more to learn.” 

His latest, 2H, crouched in a forest of high wings – rivals had finally got a grip on aero – and bristled with new technology and ideology. Narrow and with a short wheelbase, it was intended, by taking up less of it, to make greater use of the road while its new twist on de Dion rear suspension made better use of ever-fatter tyres (20-inch rims). 

Its low-drag, lozenge body – a true monocoque of composites cured in an oven – would have appeared even more alien had Hall had his way. The driver was meant to recline within and peer through a steeply angled windscreen that formed part of the nose. Hall, practising what he preached, had set a new lap record at his private Rattlesnake Raceway in this form; John Surtees, however, was not convinced.

The 1964 world champion, drafted because Hall’s racing career had been ended by leg injuries sustained at the end of 1968, insisted that a hole be cut in the roof. Though his jutting head would be detrimental to the carefully wrought aerodynamics, tough-minded Surtees was adamant. 

Nor was he enamoured with the car’s sluggish, unpredictable handling and low top speed. Even when its large rear flipper and nose duct received Chaparral’s by-now customary automatic adjustment – shallow or raked, closed or open – ‘White Whale’ was no match for a simpler McLaren fitted with a fixed wing assessed on a Minivan, its downforce measured by means of a bathroom scale. 

The same was true even when 2H ‘benefited’ from hydraulic self-levelling suspension (against the downforce) and a huge parasol wing mounted firmly amidships.

Bruce McLaren’s enquiring mind was tempered by his nascent team’s reliance on Can-Am’s big-bucks prize fund – Chaparral won lots of admiration and just one victory in five seasons – but it didn’t prevent him taking a punt on an Oxbridge whizz-kid who had worked on Concorde. 

“I had no intention of getting involved in motor racing,” says Robin Herd. “Only two weeks before my finals, with the dole looming, did I think about a job. I told the Appointments Bureau that I loved aircraft and sports and it recommended that I go to Farnborough.”

Armed with a double first in physics and engineering from St Peter’s College, Oxford, he rose swiftly through the ranks at the National Gas Turbine Establishment. At which point he took a punt, too.

“Bruce realised that he needed a designer with a modern take,” continues Herd. “He paid £30 a week, which was fine, and asked me to build the first McLaren F1 car [initially a 4.5-litre Olds-engined test mule for Firestone] while he was away contesting the Tasman Series. You either grab it or chicken out. If he was prepared to take the risk, so was I.”

Unafraid of methods and materials unfamiliar to motor racing, Herd constructed M2A from bonded Mallite, an aluminium-balsawood sandwich of exceptional torsional rigidity developed for aircraft panelling and floors. Finished by September 1965, the car was soon lapping the Zandvoort circuit impressively – thanks to its rear wing.

There the story goes, with apologies to Isaac Newton, pear-shaped. The wing was removed – after supplying a repeatable three-second improvement – and put aside for more than two years. Herd lays some of the blame for this oversight on the despondency caused by the noisy but gutless Quad Cam Ford V8 in M2B (the first F1 car) and some on the team’s diverse and hectic schedule, but the rest, in earthy invective, he places at his own feet: 

“I concentrated on chassis rigidity. So stupid!

“And then, when finally we got a decent F1 engine [Cosworth’s DFV in 1968] and won our first two races, we didn’t make that car from Mallite. Argh! Bruce wanted a monocoque with complex curves and Mallite couldn’t cope. I should have had more confidence.”

By the time Denny Hulme arrived at the Mexico finale still with a mathematical tilt at the world title aboard M7A, Herd was established at Cosworth, busy filling gaps in his racing education, while fellow Farnborough convert Gordon Coppuck was quietly, capably, filling the gap at McLaren. 

The latter’s M8-series Can-Am cars, co-designed by Jo Marquart, built on the foundation Herd laid in 1967. Robin had proved he had The Right Stuff by sitting – or kneeling facing backwards! – in the so-called passenger seat during Bruce’s tests of M6A, with or without bodywork and, ahem, a wing, at Goodwood.

Herd: “We contoured the shape beneath its nose – a convex surface, a wing upside down – and measured the pressure with a manometer on my lap. When it went negative at the first corner, Bruce shook my arm and shouted ‘Yes!’ He was so excited. 

“But the forces were relatively low. We had got lucky with Concorde; it’s simple to work out supersonic flow by solving simultaneous linear equations, plus we had a computer at Farnborough, for which we wrote our own programmes. Subsonic flow around a racing car requires solving simultaneous differential equations, a nightmare of massive work, for which the necessary computational power didn’t then exist. Certainly there were no computers at McLaren – but I’m guessing there were at Matra.”

* * *

Mécanique-Aviation-Traction was founded in 1941. An aeronautical contracting firm, it expanded rapidly after World War II as a supplier of conventional weapons and an early developer of guided missiles. The nature of its work, however, meant that its name was not well known. 

To branch out, it bought René Bonnet’s floundering sports car concern in 1964. Under the direction of ambitious and savvy newcomer Jean-Luc Lagadère, Matra presented a two-seat, mid-engined, Renault-powered Djet to visiting cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1965 – and also went motor racing. Its single-seaters were immediately successful in the lower formulae, their structural fuel tanks – a complex construction beyond its rivals – reducing weight while adding stiffness. 

“Matra flew a Formula 2 car over in one of its own planes and landed it at Goodwood,” says Stewart of his late-1965 test. “This was going to be different. I had got confused over Ken [team boss Tyrrell’s] ‘travelling to France to find a racing car’ and wasn’t in the most receptive mood. That changed when I drove it: the most beautiful car. Every part exuded quality. A real eye-opener.”

JYS might have been less surprised had he known that Matra would a few weeks later help France to become the third space power. Not only did it build the Astérix satellite but also it provided the control systems for its Diamant launch vehicle. Little wonder that it was by 1968 ready to tackle F1, with help from Tyrrell, Stewart, Cosworth and Dunlop, and that theirs was the combination to beat by 1969.

Stewart’s win at Silverstone was his fifth from six GPs. At Monza in September, he made it six from eight to secure the first of his three world titles. Whereupon another Oxbridge whizz-kid – Peter Wright of Trinity College, Cambridge – wondered what might have been.

“I went to BRM as an engine designer,” says Wright. “[Chief engineer] Tony Rudd knew that he needed graduates, and I was his first. But I realised the job wasn’t for me when I discovered it was all about stresses and tolerances. It was only after I made comments about aerodynamics – my MA was in mechanical sciences, of which aerodynamics was a part – that Tony pushed it into my lap.”

The brief was to generate competitive levels of downforce minus the skyscraper, driver-adjustable, hub-mounted – Hall’s method of bypassing the sprung chassis to avoid the need for very stiff springs – rear wings that tended to collapse with dangerous effect. 

“Those failures were a classic example of F1 rushing ahead,” says Wright. “Nobody stopped to think it through, test it, analyse the benefits and downsides. Chaparral and Chevrolet were much more thorough. A new technology like that takes time to mature. You can do that when you are the first, but in F1 there were five or six teams battling each other.”

Wings were banned in the midst of the 1969 Monaco GP weekend, and reintroduced at Zandvoort four weeks later, their size reduced and position lowered and fixed and attached to the bodywork. Wright’s intriguing scheme – a slender fuselage with inverted wings filling the area between the wheels and trimmed by nose tabs and a flap at its trailing edge (but no sealing skirts) – was looking increasingly hopeful. But P142 was canned when Rudd left the beleaguered team after that Dutch GP.

“John Surtees considered it a distraction,” says Wright. “There’d been three of us in a secret base at Bourne. We started in February 1969 and the car was supposed to run at Monza. Imagine that! We used the quarter-scale wind tunnel [with moving ground plane] at Imperial College and it was all done with slide rules and logarithm tables. Suspension geometry back then was plotted on a board using fishing line. 

“One of our F1 cars ran with stubby, aerofoil-section panniers at a Snetterton test and appeared to work compared with what we knew, but there was a lack of accurate measurement. We were all desperate for data to find out what was really going on.” 

Chaparral and GM were ahead in this game, too, being able to measure, record and simulate performance on reel-to-reel tape as early as 1966. BRM’s own system featured pen recorders, the accuracy of which was compromised by mechanical vibration. Firestone’s, an adapted flight recorder, was more robust and used an infrared pen on light-sensitive paper.

Reliable data was fast becoming the Holy Grail. After 50 years of evolution, motor sport went exponential when the unseen hand of downforce and a three-ply tyre war boosted F1’s ‘Return to Power’ of 1966.

* * *

Having had its own way since 1959, Dunlop was now faced by category newcomers Goodyear and Firestone. Though Dunlop hadn’t stood still – a lighter, cooler-running casing made from nylon; a softer compound that was synthetic; and reduced aspect ratios – the days of winning consecutive GPs (for the sublimely smooth Jim Clark at least) on the same set of boots were gone. 

Covers grew wider and softer and tread patterns faded without disappearing completely; braking distances were slashed and cornering speeds spiked. Tyre engineers were suddenly at the hub, as this black art morphed into a science.

“It was a fantastic time,” says Nigel Bennett, future designer of successful (and lovely) Lola and Penske Indycars, who joined Firestone’s fledgling European Racing Division directly from Chelsea College of Auto and Aero Engineering in 1966. “We had more effect on lap times than could the teams: 1.5 seconds per year. We were providing tailor-made tyres for each of our teams’ cars. Nowadays, car designers work around stipulated rubber.

“I had a close relationship with Mauro Forghieri [Ferrari’s chief engineer since 1962 and another whizz-kid whose first love was aircraft]. I’d ask why he’d made a change and he’d explain. He taught me a lot. He could see that the more I understood about the car, the better it would be for his team.” Bennett’s flat-mate and Firestone colleague David Trevett, meanwhile, spent 1969 with the Scuderia, his converted Transit crammed with the acquisition and analytical equipment of his second telemetrics system. The first had been too bulky and insufficiently user-friendly.

“That was the trick of it: the paper tape could be read at the circuit,” says this electrical engineering graduate. “Eight inches by four by four, we’d bolt it to the gearbox [at tests and during practice sessions]. It was French, with six channels that allowed me to map throttle position, steering angle and wheel movement – roll, pitch and yaw – via transducers, plus fore, aft and lateral loads via accelerometers, and speed, very accurately, using a Barlow’s wheel.” 

Photoelectric cells would be placed alongside a circuit to generate pulse blips on the tape for the purpose of orientation.

Trevett: “We could also mount three infrared detectors in a pod, usually aimed at the left-front wheel, to read temperatures across a tyre. Though that used up some of the channels, you could still combine it with other parameters and, that way, you could work out how a car was handling.

“Yes, it was analogue – one didn’t have integrated circuits [NASA had cornered that market for its Apollo Guidance Computer: a 32kg ‘pocket calculator’] – and it sounds simplistic, but it made tyre testing more efficient.

“I had no background in racing, but my boss [American] Bob Martin, who had a traditional background from Indy, was a bit of a dreamer like me and wanted to learn new things. Lotus and Lola showed a lot of interest, too, but some teams thought I was an idiot; BRM was a bit of a closed shop.”

The doubters could have pointed to Ferrari’s poor 1969 season – Trevett points out that he had to drive the team’s transporter during a strike that silenced the factory – and certainly it was a technology in its infancy. But Firestone ended the decade with 17 GP wins compared to, over the same period from 1966, Goodyear’s 15 and Dunlop’s 11.

Trevett’s approach also advanced the rise of the road-racing slick: “Tread was king; we all thought traction stemmed from its exposed edges. Moulding was expensive, so tyres arrived as slicks and we hand-cut them. But during a 1968 Brands Hatch test with John Surtees in a Lola T100 F2 car, the control tyre – a slick – proved fastest. When I told Bob, he fired me on the spot for being an idiot. I asked him to call Surtees, who told him to rehire me and double my salary!”

Tread, however, would not play dead. 

Alfa’s GTAs used slicks in the ETCC – out of unplanned necessity, according to Bennett; by partial design, says Trevett with a chuckle – but these were slower, heavier cars on narrower, harder tyres. The slick’s application in F1 was not straightforward – Dunlop had tried in 1966, but available compounds were too hard and the tyre lacked progression – and Firestone would not complete the transition until April 1971.

Instead, it spent much of this period of F1 attempting to cure a severe vibration, verging on a rumble, caused by increased torque and slip angles that wound up and then released the treads of its lower-profile tyres under acceleration. The cure remained elusive despite using a 400 frames-per-second camera.

“Data technology didn’t work back then,” says Wright. Rather its ‘noisy’ data was not entirely trusted. “So it remained an era when instinct counted for a lot. That, plus his ability to be fascinated by new technology while remaining intensely competitive and successful, was Colin Chapman’s genius. He could envisage the whole car and – another real skill, this – inspire good people to make it happen.” 

Shrewd and practical Cooper began the revolution by rummaging through a local scrapyard for high-grade WWII-surplus aluminium and aero fittings. Its alumnus

Jack Brabham created a new template by utilising his reputation, contacts and suppliers, plus Britain’s expanding band of niche subcontractors – Coventry Climax then Cosworth, Hewland, AP Racing and Specialised Mouldings – to create a team immediately competitive at the top level. 

And Lotus applied the science.

With help from a talented and influential group of de Havilland-trained racing enthusiasts – including the Costin brothers, aerodynamicist Frank and engineer Mike, plus, later, designer Maurice Philippe – the mercurial Chapman put a rocket under Grand Prix racing and, thanks to the Jet Age’s transatlantic hops, Indy. Some projects flamed out. Others – the first modern (bathtub) monocoque (1962) and first fully integrated design (1967) – were elegant solutions, simple, light and stiff, that set Formula 1 and the sport in general on a bolder, steeper flight path.

“Motor sport doesn’t invent very much,” says Wright. “What it is very good at is taking something from aerospace developed using government money and adapting it, if necessary, and implementing and exploiting it quickly as a key technology. You can’t be as experimental in aerospace as you can in racing.”

* * *

As Britain’s aerospace industry awoke to the dawning reality of working for a fading world power – the cancellations of Blue Streak, TSR-2 and a proposed supersonic version of the Harrier – many of the country’s brightest young minds were attracted to the freer, faster-paced environment of more entrepreneurial motor sport. For not only had Chapman altered its mindset and skill sets, but also he had increased its reach and scope by dipping, as from 1968, into the pockets of commercial promotion.

In the US, meanwhile, Hall put Chaparral on hold after 1970. All the fan (sic) had been sucked from his sport when 2J, a competition reworking of a Chevy R&D experimental vehicle, was banned. Albeit too late. The ground-effect genie was out of its bottle and sealed, by sliding Lexan skirts, beneath a car that shattered all remaining preconceptions by being stupendously fast and shaped like a brick.

Wright took note and ran the model of his cancelled project in the wind tunnel (without moving ground plane) that he built at Specialised Mouldings in 1971. With impetus provided by the irrepressible Chapman and Rudd, now at Lotus, the idea eventually took root – Wright initially had joined Lotus’s boat division in 1974! – and flowered as the skirted Type 78 ‘wing car’ of 1977-78. 

Mario Andretti gleefully informed the press that the car was “painted to the road”. No doubt Lotus’s race and development engineer, one Nigel Bennett, pressed America’s greatest driver for more detailed information. 

And now Hall took note. His innovatory streak piqued once more, he commissioned John Barnard, one of Britain’s brightest, to adapt the concept to oval racing. From a front room in Wembley to Indy’s Victory Lane in 1980, 2K represented the last successful Giant Leap of faith in racing’s Analogue Age.

Greatest cars
Website poll results

1 Lotus 49
Brilliant union of blue-sky Cosworth engine thinking and Chapman at his best. With all-conquering DFV aboard, Jim Clark won on its debut at Zandvoort in ’67 and Graham Hill claimed a world title a year later

2 Ford GT40/MkIV
The sledge-hammer Ford brought to defeat Ferrari at Le Mans – four times in a row. Big, brawny and simple, with brutal V8 out back. Advanced MkIV still only all-US Le Mans victor.

3 Lotus 25
A crucial leap in racing design, Chapman’s slim monocoque made rivals old hat overnight. With Climax V8 power, Clark claimed 14 Grands Prix in 25s over four seasons.

Greatest drivers
Website poll results

1 Jim Clark
Who else? Modest, shy, almost unaware of his innate talent, Clark eased his silken way to win after win, bolstered by close bond with design genius Chapman.

2 Mario Andretti
The original Mr Tough but Fair – and versatile. Conquered Indy, Daytona 500 and Sebring; took pole for Lotus on ’68 F1 debut. Stuck to US through ’60s before stellar F1 years and ’78 title.

3 Graham Hill
Suave, witty and urbane, Hill’s grit brought two world titles, and pulled Lotus through post-Clark despair. Won Indy and Monaco – a record five times; later added Le Mans.

From Motor Sport July 1966

Among the many interesting happenings of last month was the first appearance in Europe of the Chaparral car from Texas. To those who follow American sports car racing the name will not be new. The performance of the cars driven by Jim Hall and Hap Sharp, against the many V8-engined, two-seater racing cars, thinly disguised as sports cars, will be known. In 1963 Hall spent the summer in Europe, as second driver in Ken Gregory’s Grand Prix team, racing under the BRP banner. Although he did not make much of a mark as a Grand Prix driver, he obviously learnt an awful lot and gathered together knowledge about European racing and European standards. His sports cars, using Chevrolet V8 engines, were proving very successful in American racing, run to rather less strict constructional rules than European racing, but even so, those who saw the Chaparrals in action were very impressed. Built in a small factory near the town of Midland, Texas, with most of the design work done by Hall and Sharp, the car was named after a Texan desert bird, a scraggy creature that can run very fast but is unable to fly, due to a mistake somewhere in its wing design; this running bird is used as their emblem.

As would seem to be the case with most people in Texas, Hall is not short of dollars, but unlike some Americans he is shrewd as to how he uses his money. Certainly he didn’t skimp anything in the design and construction of the cars, and he was prepared to spend a lot of money on experimenting for the Chaparrals were in the nature of his hobby (though a full-time hobby). Their greatest moment came in 1964 when the organisers of the Sebring 12 Hours permitted the entry of sports cars among the Prototypes, in defiance of FIA rules, and the Chaparral not only entered but ran away with the race, despite prognostications that a ‘one-off special’ could not possibly last 12 hours. The Chaparral had certainly started life as a one-off special in 1961, when the Trautmann and Barnes speed shop in California built a front-engined car for Hall, but he doesn’t consider the true Chaparral was born until he built the Mark 2 himself, in 1962/3. Or rather Sharp and two mechanics built it, while Hall was driving Formula 1 in Europe. 

The Chaparral wheels are an interesting new development of an old idea, for they are on the split-rim principle, the wheel being in two parts, held together by a ring of eight bolts. The inner part of the rim is integral with the hub and joined by complex webbing, the whole thing being a magnesium-alloy casting. The tyre and tube are then slid over the wheel and the outer part is then pushed into place and the eight bolts fitted. The inner portion of the wheel is the same for front and rear but, depending on the tyre section used, alternative outer portions can be fitted giving varying rim widths. There is no ‘well’ in the rim, merely a slight taper inwards to let the tyre slide on easily.

The entourage that arrived at the Nürburgring was unlike anything previously seen from America, completely lacking in publicity and bally-hoo or any fanfare of trumpets. Any American will tell you a Texan joke in which Texas and Texans appear bigger and better than anything else and bragging is second nature, albeit backed up by action. The Chaparral people seem to be going out of their way to avoid this public image of Texas, and the 2D arrived in Germany in a closed trailer towed by an unostentatious pick-up truck, Chevrolet of course, and the only clue to the contents was the licence plate, which was issued in Midland, Texas. Hap Sharp was in charge of the team, with his wife looking after the stopwatches and lap-scoring, and they had three mechanics. They did not appear to have left much time for adjusting the car to the special circumstances of the Nürburgring, and their drivers Phil Hill and Jo Bonnier were a bit sceptical, feeling they should have spent a week testing prior to the race. Sharp merely told them that they had “figured things out, back home”. Considering that Phil Hill did a practice lap only a few seconds slower than the works Ferrari, that there were no problems with tyres cutting into wheel-arches, suspension bottoming or sump grounding, problems that most people experience on their first visit to the Nürburgring, it would seem that the Chaparral chaps had “figured things out” pretty well. More importantly, nothing broke during the race like it did on the works Ferrari. DSJ