Gordon Kirby

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Less rubber, more spectacle

Nigel Bennett enjoyed a long career designing Formula 1 and Indycars. Starting in the 1970s as an F1 Firestone tyre engineer, he worked at Lotus, Ensign (1981 Dutch GP, above) and Theodore before turning his hand to Indycars with Lola. After producing a few successful Lolas, Bennett was hired by Roger Penske and through the late ’80s and ’90s he designed a series of beautiful and very successful Penskes.

A long-time yachting enthusiast, Bennett does some boat design work to keep him occupied in his retirement. He’s also kept his hand in the racing business, with some technical consulting work for the FIA, and recently published his autobiography Inspired to Design. He believes the FIA should make big cuts in downforce and tyre grip in F1 to produce a better show.

“In my opinion they need to reduce downforce by 50 per cent, reduce the front tyre width by 20 per cent and increase the rear tyre width by 10 per cent,” Bennett says. “They also need to free up the weight distribution rules and change the tyre construction so that tyres produce their maximum cornering force at much higher slip angles than the current radials.

“I suspect this would mean going back to bias or cross-ply tyres as they were in the 1970s and ’80s. The driver’s skill would be on view as the cars would drift, braking distances would be much longer and cornering speeds much lower so that overtaking would be more frequent.

“Right now, the braking distances are so short and the cornering speeds so high that there’s just no time to outbrake the other guy. So a huge reduction in downforce and a similar huge reduction in tyre performance is required. If you had half the size of front tyre you wouldn’t be able to brake so hard in such a short distance.

“I think the reason the cars used to be so much more spectacular was largely due to the type of tyres. Cross-ply tyres made for bigger slip angles and more sliding than we have today with radials.

“People say we can’t go back to cross-ply tyres, but why not? F1 persuaded Pirelli to build tyres that wear out after 10 laps, which is not good for their image. So surely you can ask a tyre company to build smaller cross-plies. The cars would be more spectacular to watch and I would also suggest they would be a greater test of the drivers’ skills.”

Bennett emphasises that extreme cost is F1’s biggest problem. “It’s just too expensive for all but about four teams,” he says. “What goes on in some of these big teams is absolutely ludicrous. There are drawing offices going off into the distance as far as you can see, with 80 or 90 people working away at computer screens.

“The cars are beautifully made but unbelievably complicated, with stuff that’s largely unnecessary and unappreciated by fans and media. It creates paying jobs for young engineers, but as far as the general public is concerned I don’t think there’s much interest in that. It’s just jobs for the boys to spend the money they’ve been given.”

Bennett doesn’t expect anyone in F1 or the FIA to act on his suggestions. “I don’t suppose what we say will have much effect,” he says. “One thing I found with the FIA is they say we can’t change F1 too much because GP2 or Formula Renault 3.5 will then be too quick. It seems to me that the FIA doesn’t have the guts to make big decisions – or maybe it’s because the teams have too much say. They have to get unanimous agreement among the teams to make any big changes and they can’t get it.”

Sad that rational thinking from experienced, sober-minded people like Nigel Bennett has so little currency in modern motor racing.

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