From the archives with... Doug Nye

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Crash tests for dummies
Before it was in the rules, Gordon Murray persuaded Bernie to sacrifice a whole car…

One might argue that ‘crash testing’ has always been a lesson from which racing car designers have learned. Through many decades they would gloomily study the mangled mess just craned out of the woods, usually focused more upon what might have broken to cause it all, than upon what measures might minimise the heroic pilot’s injuries in such an event.

Today motor industry/legislative-style crash testing is written into major-league motor racing regulations. Of course, this wasn’t always the case.

Contemporary Brabham designer Gordon Murray recalled how, at the turn of the 1970s/1980s: “Carbon materials promised to be something special – a material half the weight of aluminium but four times stiffer. I thought if we could make a monocoque that light and even stiffer we’d be in pretty good shape – so I approached Advanced Composites to make us an experimental carbon panel for a racing car.”

He chose the important section through the scuttle area of a BT48 – extending from the forward cockpit lip to the nose. “When the experimental carbon piece arrived we found it really was exactly as advertised – unbelievably stiff and light. Subsequently we began making more of the monocoque in carbon until only the external side skins remained in aluminium. And that was because very early on we had seen an extremely poor reaction by that top-front carbon panel in a relatively low-speed accident at Monaco; it simply shattered.

“I subsequently talked Bernie…” [team owner Ecclestone] “…into sacrificing a car to study just what would happen to its carbon panels in a more severe impact. We block-tested one BT48 (or 49) – a real, raceworthy car – at the BMW test centre, with its tanks full of water and a dummy driver in place – and its carbon structure behaved very badly indeed, although in general the aluminium panels absorbed so much impact energy the damage wasn’t too bad. It surprised the BMW people, who had really feared for their dummy…”

Late in trusting the new material, Gordon went on to develop a structural carbon roll-over bar for his 1984-85 Brabham BT53/54s, and eventually the 1986 BT55 dispensed with aluminium side skins and became his first all-carbon car. When I was a consultant to McLaren Cars from 1987 and they were developing the three-seat F1 road car under Gordon, I remember the day of the project’s mandatory crash test. Gordon was so confident that their F1 carbon tub would emerge intact that he wanted to be strapped into it in place of the MIRA test dummy. He might have been relieved when the testing authority predictably said “No”, but equally he was able to say “I told you so” when the car survived the test square, straight and true, and it would have remained driveable. I doubt that even Bernie could regret the sacrifice of that F1 tub.

Enzo Ferrari – alpha male
The Commendatore could be ruthless – in love as well as business

After Ascari’s death in a Monza testing accident, only four days after he had plunged into Monte Carlo harbour in his Formula 1 Lancia (see April’s issue) two young Italians were left to emerge as Italy’s numero uno drivers. They were Eugenio Castellotti and Luigi Musso. They became both rivals and Ferrari team-mates, until poor Castellotti died in a testing crash on the Modena Aerautodromo, in March 1957, and Musso in a race crash during the 1958 French Grand Prix, at Reims-Gueux.

Musso was a well-heeled and rather haughty Roman, the son of an Italian diplomat – serious minded and the butt of endless mickey-taking from his English team-mates, Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins. He began a relationship with a ravishing Italian girl named Fiamma Breschi, who later claimed in an Italian TV documentary, The Secret Life of Enzo Ferrari, that while Hawthorn and Collins shared their winnings equally, whichever might do better, Musso was excluded, which drove them all to race ferociously against one another. Musso was also deep in debt – being pursued by his estranged wife was just one of his problems – and Fiamma understandably sided with her man against the English boys. When he was killed at Reims and she returned to the team hotel from hospital she found them “in the square outside, laughing and playing a game of football with an empty beer-can”. She developed a deep detestation for them both, and within seven months they had also died behind the wheel. To her that was kismet indeed…

Mr Ferrari had been deeply smitten by Fiamma Breschi’s beauty and personality, and became particularly attentive to her after Musso’s death. Ultimately he would pursue and care for her, eventually buying her an apartment in Florence, with another adjacent for her mum.

After the celebrated 1961 ‘palace revolution’ at Maranello, in which a group of Ferrari’s leading team executives attempted to present Mr Ferrari with an ultimatum – “Get your wife off our backs at races or we’ll all resign” – the coup had become, for them, calamity, as ‘The Old Man’ promptly fired them all. Despite describing his out-of-control, often interfering wife Laura as “a spinning top”, he preferred a way forward that would generate less earache…

So chief engineer Carlo Chiti, development engineer Giotto Bizzarini, team manager Romolo Tavoni, sales manager Girolamo Gardini and others left Ferrari – and fell in with the young Count Giovanni Volpi, industrialist Giorgio Billi and financial donor Jaime Ortiz-Patino to set-up Automobili Turismo e Sport – ATS, for 1963.

ATS was to produce both Formula 1 and GT cars, and Chiti began the colossal job of designing both cars and an elaborate brand-new factory complex to produce them. Ex-Ferrari drivers Phil Hill and Giancarlo Baghetti were signed as the new F1 team’s drivers, but Phil recalled the experience as “so traumatically disappointing my mind blanks out many memories of my time there”.

He did, however, recall that while the factory was being built, he would go with Chiti and other team members for breakfast in a local farmhouse, with chickens and pigs free in the yard outside. There was also a small restaurant a little farther down the road where “…on some Thursdays, Mr Ferrari would come in with Fiamma” – with whom he had become absolutely obsessed “for lunch. She would nod ‘Hello’, while he’d just absolutely ignore our existence…”`

But Phil, Chiti and the other ex-Ferrari guys knew what The Old Man intended. His message was double-barrelled. More or less, “I’ve got my eye on you” coupled with “And look what I can still pull…” Enzo Ferrari, Alpha Male.

Alberto – please don’t give up!
The fates seemed to be utterly against Ascari in the greatest road race – but they relented…

Studying a simply fantastic private memorabilia collection, I was intrigued to see Alberto Ascari’s black leather jacket as worn during his winning Lancia drive in the 1954 Mille Miglia.

In February that year, Lancia Corse’s management had decided to build four completely new D24 V6 cars for the Mille Miglia. These were configured with an oil cooler in one wing, an oil tank in the tail and would be set up with extra ground clearance for the rough Appenine roads. The team’s four pre-existing D24s were used in Mille Miglia practice, before works drivers Piero Taruffi, Alberto Ascari, Eugenio Castellotti and Gino Valenzano were issued with the four new team D24s for final preparations at Brescia.

The superstitious Alberto Ascari was not a Mille Miglia fan, having had little but bad luck in it. The works Lancia Corse team was based at Iseo, just outside Brescia, and on their first morning’s drive into the city Ascari’s brand- new car instantly failed. An over-excited filling station attendant had inadvertently topped its oil tank with petrol. The system had to be thoroughly flushed and the new engine anxiously inspected. After trying the refilled D24, Ascari remained unhappy and insisted that team manager Attilio Pasquarelli should allow him to drive the team spare instead. This was Fangio’s 1953 Carrera PanAmericana-winning car that had begun life as chassis serial ‘0004’ but had then been restamped ‘0002’. (Still with me?)

However, the team engineers felt confident that the specially tuned new V6 engine of Ascari’s rejected car ‘0006’ remained perfectly healthy and race-ready. It was in high-torque tune, painstakingly tailored to the 1000-mile race’s unique demands. Some years ago, Lancia authority and great D24/D50 replicator Guido Rosani found that in secrecy the team engineers overnight transferred the engine, gearbox and other components from rejected chassis ‘0006’ to ‘0002/0004’ for Ascari’s use. The engine and gearbox numbers were restamped to match the frame and the scrutineers’ lead seals tenderly swapped from one car to the other.

Still Ascari’s tough luck intruded. On a test run in ‘0002/0004’ he was hit by a truck. The replacement car’s dented tail and oil tank were quickly repaired and it was rushed to the Mille Miglia startline just in time. Ascari must have been wound up tighter than a nine-day watch. As far as he was concerned, he was driving a hurriedly patched up car with an elderly unknown-quantity engine and driveline. The engineers’ secret had not been shared with him, for he considered the mislubricated engine suspect and would not have accepted it.

The race was rain-swept. Farina crashed his big Ferrari 375-Plus soon after the start while Taruffi for Lancia and Maglioli for Ferrari disputed the lead. Ascari in Lancia number ‘602’ lay third on the road and at Pescara Taruffi led from Castellotti and Ferrari’s double world champion. Castellotti’s D24 transmission then failed and Taruffi had to retire at Florence. Ascari was left leading but his car’s throttle was sticking after a return spring broke and he replaced it with a rubber band. Oil pressure was also fluctuating, the tank having split, and he convinced himself he’d never finish.

In Florence Ascari told the control officials he would retire, but the Ferrari 375-Plus challenge had now fizzled out, so they urged him to see if could reach the Lancia service depot in Bologna. He made it, and there the throttle was repaired and the split tank resealed. Ascari then simply sailed past Mantua to win in Brescia, fully 34 minutes ahead of second-placed Vittorio Marzotto’s Ferrari 500 Mondial. Lewis Hamilton’s mantra “Never give up” didn’t come easily to Alberto Ascari – but when all was going well, he could be uncatchable.