From the archives with... Doug Nye

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None but the brave
The Mille Miglia’s heroes are fondly remembered, but it’s worth adding a little context to their commitment

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson’s fabulous victory for Mercedes-Benz in the 1955 Mille Miglia. What was for decades the world’s greatest public road race – and certainly the one that all interested major manufacturers most wanted to win – also produced some fine performances by British marques, which the Moss Mercedes win very much outshone.

In the 1949 Mille Miglia, the Donald Healey Motor Company excelled, finishing first and third in the Touring Category. Sadly, Healeys twice played an unhappy role in Mille Miglia tragedies, and the Mille Miglia was always perilous. One minor reason that Moss took Jenks with him in 1955 was to provide some small measure of insurance against making a potentially fatal mistake.

The 1949 edition’s organisers had accepted entries from pretty much any wannabe. Some Mille Miglia old hands feared the worst as no fewer than 303 entries were listed. Co-drivers remained mandatory, meaning that 606 drivers of widely variable experience and competence would be let loose on the route, which itself was much revised that year. Both Modena and Bologna were for the first time omitted, as were the Futa and Raticosa Passes. An innovation was that start times were adopted as the cars’ competition numbers, giving spectators some idea of who was going well and who was not.

Making an optimistic entry in what would be their first motor race were two motor trade friends from Manchester in their Healey Duncan Drone – surely one of the ugliest British sports cars ever produced? In its defence, there was a reason – tax avoidance. Significantly, the prototype Drone had been nicknamed ‘The Spiv’…

Some 28 Healey chassis were fitted with sports saloon bodywork by Ian Duncan’s short-lived company – based at Park Hall in North Walsham, Norfolk. Perhaps 10 more open sports Drones also emerged to sidestep a new 66 per cent purchase tax suddenly levied on completed cars costing more than £1000 should they be UK registered.

At the time the Government was urging industry to “export or die”, and this punitive purchase tax levy was simply encouragement.

The Healey Duncan Drone carried the most rudimentary single-curvature aluminium-sheet bodywork and – to minimise its selling price – even the passenger seat, windscreen and spare wheel were offered only as ‘extras’. The idea was that a home-market customer could have his Healey Drone simply rebodied with something more civilised – at least three being reworked in this manner by Westland. Quite how the rebodying price compared with simply paying the initial tax I am unsure.

Regardless, the very basic Healey Drone was light and very quick for the time. The 1949 Mille Miglia car’s entry was made by James Cohen and Reg Hignett, who were flagged away down the Brescia starting line at 6.25am. Their adventure appears to have gone well – for the first 16 minutes and just over 20 miles. They tore out of Brescia on the southerly road towards Cremona. But as they rushed into the outskirts of Manerbio, they were confronted by a mass of uncontrolled spectators, swaying back only at the last moment as the cars approached. Cohen, driving, seems to have been unsighted by the moving crowd on the entry to a fast right-hander onto a bridge over the Mella river. Count Trossi had crashed here in the 1933 race, his co-driver Count Brivio being thrown out into the water. Neither of the young Brits would enjoy such luck. Their Healey Drone slammed into the left-side stone bridge parapet, then rebounded to hit the other. Passenger Hignett was killed instantly, while Cohen was thrown out backwards and sustained a paralysing spinal injury. He was flown home to Manchester three days later, but he too would succumb. Next day, British journalist Gordon Wilkins found the wrecked Drone in Manerbio, photographing it for the record.

The 1950 Mille Miglia produced another Healey incident when Philip Wood crashed his Silverstone into a bridge parapet between Vicenza and Padua – killing veteran co-driver Peter Monkhouse. So when this magazine’s Continental Correspondent was invited to navigate Moss in that 1955 classic, both went into the great race with their eyes wide open. Brave boys.

Pace notes in formula 1…
How engineers used to rely on their drivers’ every syllable, rather than just plugging in a laptop and downloading the relevant data

Maybe 20 years ago, Ron Dennis gave me copies of some McLaren F1 team record sheets, as kept by his engineers each race weekend. Recently browsing through one for the 1983 McLaren-TAG Turbo MP4/1 chassis ‘5’, I was struck by the apparent difference in driver feedback.

Niki Lauda seems to have been the soul of brevity, as in Q2 at Rio during the Brazilian GP weekend. Under ‘Comments’ the hand-written notes read: “Car soften – too much roll understeer in oversteer out – engine feels normal.” In first practice at Spa before the Belgian GP, Niki again: “Little bottoming, bottom of hill 196/174 – kick in steering RH2” – and in Q1 there, he ran on, “Used qualifiers – no grip at all – 400 revs more – car feels softer (more roll) harshness same – some u/s [understeer]”. And that is all.

In contrast, by October that year John Watson was driving chassis ‘5’ and at Kyalami before the South African GP he reported: “Slight u/s end of straight. Gearing better. Brakes OK. Less time lag but stronger. 110 oil/90 water/2.0 [boost?] – 11,000 not that quick on straight. Other cars – u/s end of straight – a little power o/s.” After removing a front spring packer: “Couldn’t tell a difference on steer – slower on straight – 10,700 – thinks it’s tyres. Improved u/s but still there – still slight u/s – mainly tyres – 10,950 st end – don’t think spirals made any diff.” I haven’t a clue what ‘spirals’ might mean, but ‘diff’ in this context is surely ‘difference’. Then: “U/s in m/s good in this. Very slightly quicker on st – 2.1 bar…”. New page: “LF blistered – 115 oil 100 water – oil 110 water 100 just under…”.

On page two Wattie subsequently reported: “Throttle feels heavy – 2.0 boost – front washes out suddenly in high speed – tyres? – 10,800 on str – oil 85 – water 90.” After a water leak at the front of the V6 engine had been noted, the report continues: “Change of surface Sunset [as in Sunset Corner]. U/s on entry surface – 90 oil 95 water – tyres finished after 2 laps – lose a lot of grip after two laps – more u/s in r/h.”

Yes, from the loquacious Ulsterman it was all pretty breathless stuff. Instead of having to hear it all from the man in the cockpit, one really can appreciate how today’s race engineers must just love telemetry…

Catch us if you can
Mercedes-Benz’s GP rivals will profit from a slackening of the rules, but so too will their quarry

I wonder how future racing historians will reflect – if any bother – upon 2014? I suspect they will really struggle to understand how the first year of a brand-new Formula 1 engine requirement could also have been encumbered with an in-season development ban. It seemed like a politician’s deniability figleaf – to claim ‘cost saving’. Looking back, a move that would freeze any one manufacturer’s early-season advantage into a year-long stranglehold seems simply numbskull.

For this year’s world championship, a convenient liberalisation ploy has now been developed. But even far through an established formula, any new year’s car designs will always be an assembly of numerous compromises. As time passes, and as long as the regulations permit it, evolutionary design achieves progress by ironing out each of those compromises, or by identifying and exploiting better (faster) ones.

During a racing season, engineers learn how to extract the best from the car they have managed to complete by the time the calendar is upon them. Each winter is therefore hectic, full of ambition, hope and expectation; much of it – inevitably – to be dashed either in light of early-run testing, or (worse) under the coldly merciless eye of global TV at the hands of rivals in the opening Grand Prix.

Private testing used to be the key. Public testing results cannot be quite so massaged or polished by team publicists – nor by sympathetic supporters among the press (and there are precious few of those around today). And as for wonderful horsepower figures and fabulous testing lap times… well, pre-season testing was seldom too entramelled with impartial (and implacable) scrutineers.

Hence many engineers, with ruthless team patrons on their backs, would be talking about fabulous power and staggering lap times to attract or retain the support of variably naïve commercial sponsors.

So I was fascinated to hear at Christmas that last year’s championship-winning Mercedes-Benz W05 hybrid – with its Mercedes-Benz/AMG PU106A Hybrid power unit (positively trips off the tongue, doesn’t it?) was in fact little greater than what one should expect for a new formula’s maiden season – a mass of known compromises, several of them quite severely performance limiting…

The most serious of these – forced upon the team by the remorseless march of time towards the Australian GP starting date last March – probably robbed the W05’s rear wheels of 15-20 horsepower, and maybe more. Come the end of the season, mission accomplished, world titles won, the development brakes could come off and fixes could be applied, the engineers having had months to consider and perfect them in principle.

So while much will be made of how the winter has given every other F1 team the chance to close the technology gap to Mercedes, none should overlook the fact that at Brackley and Brixworth the world champion team’s brightest have been working every bit as hard to correct their 2014 compromises, to optimise their proven concept… and simply to stay ahead. From what I’ve been told, expect pretty much more of the same through 2015. As a Brit I’m just happy that these cars aren’t entirely German Silver Arrows. From the south midlands, in homage to Brummagemware, perhaps it might be more apt to regard them as EPNS Arrows?