Brabham BT46B

Even in a year dominated by the Lotus 79, Gordon Murray’s fan car stood out as outrageously inventive solution to a specific Brabham problem. But it couldn’t last

What impressed me about Gordon Murray’s Brabham fan car was the sheer bravery of it. The year before, Lotus had the 78 which rather bowled everybody over and people were slow to copy it, though everybody made some sort of effort. I was at Lotus then, and we had developed the 79. But Brabham had this flat-12 Alfa Romeo engine which was very unsuitable for a ground-effect car as its cylinder heads were just where you wanted the venturi.

So Murray was searching for another way of generating the same sort of effect. The big thing was that it generated downforce at all speeds, being dependent on engine speed, not car velocity. Off the startline, through slow corners, everywhere. As soon as it was unveiled, everyone else was hard at work scrutinising the rules to see why it wasn’t legal. But it was, as far as anyone could see. They tried claiming that it would throw out oil and stones in the drivers’ faces, then that the fan counted as a moveable aerodynamic device, which was already banned, though Gordon claimed it was merely to cool the engine. I think the drivers were rather relaxed about it they knew it would be banned. And the fan car wasn’t on pole for that first race, anyway; Mario Andretti was on pole in the 79.

But then, looking at the map of Anderstorp, it was ideally suited to a ground-effect car, with plenty of medium to fast corners, and not many slow ones where the fan-car would shine. The snag is power absorption that fan must have soaked up 30-40hp, a disadvantage on a power circuit unless there’s enough slow comers for your extra grip to count. Chaparral used a snowmobile engine on the 2J fan car to avoid this, but that adds weight and bulk.

So it wasn’t an automatic race-winning idea, and we didn’t leap into trying to design our own version. I heard Mario Andretti saying to Chapman: “Colin, you’ve got to get rid of it. It throws rocks at you.” So the pressure was on. Anyway, Chapman already had the car which was winning all the races, and the 80 was being tunnel-tested and was obviously going to wipe the floor with everyone next year, so why scrap either to follow a new line? Mind you, it took a long time before even Lotus realised how much downforce you could generate. The 78 was quite crude really and, even with the 79, there was a lot of blockage around the rear suspension. We made huge gains cleaning up the venturi on the 80WI remember rightly, we had almost twice the downforce of the 79 but the problem was keeping a seal with a sliding skirt which went around an s-bend inside the rear wheel. A huge amount of effort went into solving that there were teams of people working on it. But in the end, if you hit a kerb the skirt would stick and you lost some of your downforce. And without wings it became very unbalanced. So we added wings, which made it more consistent but spoiled its very low drag figures.

Not a great design.

The irony was that the 79 really wasn’t very well developed, but Chapman said, “Don’t worry, my boy, we’ve got this great new idea coming along”. In fact we’d have done better developing the 79, as Williams showed with their very successful W07, which was an improved 79. Chapman was not very interested in development. He would find the current situation totally boring. It was new ideas which kept him going, trying to stay ahead. When the Brabham was finally banned, well, one always has mixed emotions in such a situation. It was a real threat to us; it would have taken away the big advantage we had with the Lotus 79, though Team Lotus would have fought very hard to become the pacesetter.

But standing back and looking at it now, it was a shame. The way the modem regulations have gone, it has taken away 90 per cent of the interest. The only way you can make a difference now is through adjusting minute details. The days of an exciting new concept, such as the Lotus 88, have gone. No opportunity for lateral thought; you can’t even have a 12-cylinder engine now. I suppose that’s to try to keep things level by reducing the number of alternatives you can try, but it makes things dull for a designer. Mind you, I never actually thought the 88 was as promising as all that, though I wasn’t involved with it.

After the 80,1 became involved with Lola, which led me into ChampCars and then on to Penske. Champ-Cars give the designer more flexibility than F1; there are more options open and the aerodynamic constraints are different. You have to cope with the speedways, one-mile ovals and the road circuits. And there are financial restrictions too, more so in IRL [Indy Racing League], where the rules are designed to keep costs down without spoiling the racing. There’s a huge difference between what an IRL team costs per season and a top ChampCar team. But in Fl, the teams simply spend whatever the sponsors bring. The technology absorbs whatever cash is available. I think it’s going the wrong way; there’s less and less relevance to the real world. I’d rather have an ‘open box’ formula where the car simply has to fit within certain dimensions.

F1 engines are now so sophisticated they need a team to start them up and require a rebuild every race, and ChampCars are going the same way, with rebuilds every few hundred miles. That’s where IRL is so sensible: it is limited on revs, and you can take an engine to 7-800 miles and it doesn’t make a scrap of difference to the spectator. You don’t need high technology to provide good racing.

I still do some consultancy work for G-Force who build IRL cars, but recently I’ve designed a motor boat which has just been unveiled at the Boat Show. There’s no scrutineering and no rule book. It’s a wonderful feeling of freedom. The Brabham was a fine bit of lateral thinking to get round a design problem. It was a very brave action on Gordon Murray’s part; I guess working with Bernie Ecclestone gave him the courage to do it.

Nigel Bennett was talking to Gordon Cruickshank