GP Cisitalia

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It never raced, yet there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this advanced mix of German design and engineering and Italian craftsmanship was on the verge of a racing revolution

It was Tazio Nuvolari who inspired this project, the Porsche Type 360; looking for a competitive Italian GP car to drive after the war he approached the Cisitalia company. They had several projects under way with Porsche — a sportscar, a tractor and a water turbine — but they contracted him to design a GP car as well. This diversity was one of the reasons it never came to fruition. In the end there was not enough finance, and they went for the roadgoing car for which customers paid in advance. But it shows the breadth of the Porsche design office; and if it had been successful, it would have predated the mid-engined move by 10 years.

Porsche did the drawings in 1947 when he had just come out of jail and his company was effectively occupied by the Allies, so there were all sorts of problems in doing any business at all. He says in his book it took nine months to arrange a visit to Italy; everything he did had to be cleared by the British authorities. To build a GP car under those conditions is remarkable. I’m a research and development engineer involved in concept technologies, so the cars that interest me are those which embody significant new technology and move the state of the art forward. Unfortunately, the cars that really attract me have already been covered in your series, particularly the Chaparral, because between Chaparral and the Chevrolet research department they really did move the whole technology forward in the ’60s, well ahead of grand prix cars.

Composite monocoque, two-pedal control, wing and ground-effect aerodynamics, automatic gearbox, fan. And they did it all thoroughly, because they measured and modelled things, which immediately starts to reveal what you need to do next.

Chevrolet were their technical resource, Jim Hall and his lot were the racers with the test track, and they were away from Detroit and could get on with it without too much meddling. It was exactly the right combination to move things on, and they did.

The Cisitalia never ran in a competitive race, so it’s difficult to tell whether it would have worked, but it embodies a lot of interesting features which look right. It was designed to the same s/c 1.5-litre formula as the V16 BRM, though I have read that Porsche also designed a 4.5 normally-aspirated version of it. I don’t know if that was ever built. It was designed to produce 350bhp initially, but Laurence Pomeroy analysed it and said he could see no reason why it shouldn’t produce 550bhp.

In his comparison at the time the only car which would have got near it in terms of bhp per ton was the V16 BRM. So it would have been head-to-head with that — although they both would’ve been stumbling over themselves. What interests me is that Ferry Porsche is a very fundamental-thinking engineer. He also had with him Eberan von Eberhorst, who worked on the second-generation Auto Union, and Nuvolari had raced the Auto Union, so the group of them had a lot of experience of one of the most successful pre-war grand prix cars. Porsche had obviously thought a great deal about it, probably while he was interned, and decided that the rear engine was right, but he had to change the configuration of the car.

So it’s a second-generation mid-engined car with the driver moved back to overcome some of the Auto Union problems. The engine is obviously going to be powerful enough; the new suspension is pretty advanced, with twin parallel trailing arms, very sophisticated, and it had selectable four-wheeldrive, controlled by a lever under the steering wheel. He could see that the pre-war cars were unable to utilise the power they were producing, 600-odd bhp, through the narrow tyres they had; so he decided the only way was through 4WD. Presumably the driver would have engaged drive to the front wheels coming out of a corner to get the acceleration all the way down the straight.

Another innovative feature was its synchromesh gearbox, a very early application of what became the Porsche system. Engine and transmission were very compact, being a flat-12. The shaft passed under the driver on the centre-line and stepped up again to the front duff, so it was not significantly higher than other cars of the era, and it was quite streamlined, quite Porsche-like. There’d be drag in 4WD, but it was not an underpowered car; Porsche clearly felt the traction advantage outweighed the drag.

The engine was quite advanced: roller-bearing crankshaft, wet liners and twin vane-type superchargers which had not been run much in grands prix — they were nearly always Roots-type, though it was designed to take either, according to Porsche. A pretty good design overall — low, short, compact, robust and a lot simpler than a V16. A good sound modern engine.

Some of the heavy bits are quite high — the superchargers and an oil tank above the front wheel centre-line — but the corners weren’t terribly important in those days; it was nearly all about straights and acceleration. Power, weight, frontal area, traction were what determined performance. What allowed the lightweight, relatively underpowered British midengined cars to excel after the war was the type of track which came then, much more corner and less straight. The whole car was very compact with a well-designed spaceframe, and very clean aerodynamically, in the way Porsches are; the driver sits about the middle, much better than an Auto Union. It was a fundamental step forward in design, most of which has turned out to be right. Obviously 4WD is questionable, but then later 4WD systems had very different tyres with much more rubber per horsepower; I think 4WD might have worked in these circumstances.

If Nuvolari had been able to properly develop the car and drive it, it might have changed the course of GP history, which to me makes it a very significant car, even though it never proved itself.

I don’t think we’ll see any more big jumps — the regulations are against it. It’s so expensive and risky now, there’s so much at stake in building a newconcept car that the people who spend the money — team principals, trade sponsors—have guided F1 towards regulations which will prevent it.

Peter Wright was talking to Gordon Cruickshank

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