The Constructors (4) - Spirit

When I kept my appointment at the headquarters of Spirit Racing in late March, the place was nearly deserted. The team has so recently moved in that there is not even a sign outside the smart new industrial unit. Inside the only things which told that here was the headquarters of a Grand Prix team were a few photographs, a couple of F2 trophies in the gents' loo, a couple of crumpled nose sections of monocoques which had been used for impact testing and, deep in the workshop, a spare tub and the wooden mock-up of the car currently on Dave Amey's drawing board.

Most of the 20 strong workforce, including the chief engineer, Gordon Coppuck, were home in bed having worked until dawn to complete the revised car which will be used for the opening rounds of the 1985 season and that car was already a few miles down the road at Heathrow airport, on its way to Rio. Testing of the car would have to be done during practice for the race.

At the time of my visit, there was no certainly as to who would be driving it in Brazil. Tucked away in plastic folders on John Wickham's desk were two unsigned contracts. Spirit is not one of those teams whose negations with a driver revolve around the size of the retainer, the length of contract and how many appearances the driver will make for a sponsor, it is one of those which selects the driver on his ability both to drive and to bring hard cash. Teams like Spirit, newly arrived at the back end of the grid, face a poverty trap. Shortage of cash = little testing = underdeveloped cars = no results = nothing to attract a sponsor = shortage of cash = no choice of driver = no results = last in line for tyres or engines = no results = no young hotshoe on a long term contract = no results = tunnel work = no clout with suppliers = no FOCA travel = no starting money = less money = less testing etc, etc.

When we talk of poverty in F1 terms, we are not talking of the standards which you or I know on an everyday basis. We mean that for Spirit to do a decent job in 1985, attending all the races with one car and fitting in 10 or 12 days of testing (an allocation which all the big teams had used before the end of February) would cost a minimum of 1.6 million dollars. In your terms, and my terms, this means spending a football pools jackpot win in just eight weekends of racing with no guarantee of even making the grid. It means expenditure of around £500 per minute while the car is on the move. A team like Spirit has little hope of breaking out of the poverty trap by attracting a sponsor who will guarantee its future on a long-term basis and so allow it the testing programme which it needs and the ability to select a rising young driver, chosen entirely on merit, who can be persuaded to sign a three-year contract. If such a thing happened, then the spiral might go into reverse. The team might start to qualify in the top 20, and earn starting money. It might start to finish in the points which might qualify it for cut-price transportation.

With results to show, it might attract more sponsorship and run a second car which would, theoretically, double its chances of qualifying in the money and finishing in the points and so would attract more money which would lead to more testing, greater clout with suppliers, more and better results, and so on. A second car, at present, would cost perhaps an additional 750,000 dollars to run.

Spirit has to break out of the spiral by itself. This year it will receive the latest Hart engines which reportedly give 100 bhp more than last year's units. The fact that it has a Pirelli contract and Brabham is now working with the tyre company could be a help, but only if Pirelli find a clear advantage over Goodyear for, of course, all the Pirelli users will benefit equally and a benefit to Spirit will only come if it is a benefit against the Goodyear users. The third way out of the trap rests with the new car currently under construction. The Spirit which started the season is an update of the 1984 car but with pushrod suspension, revised aerodynamics and the latest Hart engine. It's the sort of progress which any team might make during the winter months, something to keep the team on station. The new car, which should appear in June, is hoped to be a positive step forward. Designed by Dave Amey who worked with Arrows and, latterly, with Tony Southgate's freelance design studio, it has a composite monocoque (which will be subcontracted out) a very slim frontal aspect, with the spring / damper units mounted longitudinally on the front of the tub, while the back of the tub is both low and wide to keep the weight of the fuel positioned as low as possible.

For a train like Spirit, the opposition is not Ferrari, Williams or Renault, who exist in another world, at the business end of the grid, but RAM, Ligier and Osella. For these teams it is an achievement to make the grid at all and starting in one of the top 20 money-earning places is a small victory. A pole position or an emphatic win are the stuff of dreams, but F1 is founded on dreams or the grids would be half the size and, besides, there is always the example of Frank Williams. . . .

Spirit may, in fact, be directly compared with RAM, for both outfits in 1984 used customer Pirelli tyres and customer Hart engines. RAM's best result, with two cars, was a single eighth place, while Spirit, with one car, scored four eighth places. Moreover, Spirit's reliability record was fourth best on the grid, behind McLaren, Ferrari and Lotus. Against the dominance of McLaren, Lauda and Prost, these are very small achievements indeed, for F1 is not about finishing eighth, but it's a start. Spirit Racing is a joint project of two men, Gordon Coppuck and John Wickham who met while working for March in 1981. Coppuck will be chiefly remembered for his work with McLaren over 15 years, in particular his helping both Fittipaldi and Hunt to World Championships with the M23, a car so good they named a road after it! Born in 1936, he became a draughtsman apprentice at the Ministry of Aviation on leaving school and, on completing his time, was among the last intake of National Servicemen in 1960. He had a wonderful tune in the army, both as an instructor in cross-country motorcycle riding and as a representative in the army motorcycle trials team, winning gold and silver awards in the International Six Days' Trial. After being demobbed, he returned to the Ministry of Aviation and then went on to the British National Gas Turbine Establishment as a draughtsman / designer. While there he met one of the Senior Scientific Officers, by name of Robin Herd, and the two men struck up a friendship especially after Coppuck had helped Herd in some rallies. Herd left to join McLaren as chief designer in 1965 and found a place for Coppuck shortly afterwards. Gordon worked on almost all the McLarens produced during the next 15 years and the most successful cars, the M16 Indy car and the M23 and M26 F1 cars, were largely his work. When the ground effects era dawned, however, many designers were all at sea — including Colin Chapman after his initial successes (remember the Lotus 80 which was going to make the 79 look like a double decker bus?)

McLaren floundered, and despite the fact that the decision to go for a big car (McLaren M28) was one jointly made between Coppuck, Alistair Caldwell, Tyler Alexander and Teddy Mayer, when it, and hastily-built successors, failed to deliver the goods, the team went into some disarray. An effective change of management with the arrival of Ron Dennis, and a new designer in John Barnard, left no place for Gordon and he was sacked.

Again he joined up with Herd on a freelance contract with March which involved him spending his time divided among the many (too many) projects the company had on. Chiefly, though, he looked after the F2 car of Corrado Fabi who won at Mugello and finished fifth in the series. During his time with March, Coppuck got to know John Wickham. While F1 team management is packed with racing drivers who never made it, John Wickham has the distinction of being perhaps the only former marshal to manage a GP team. Since his father raced motor cycles, and Brands Hatch was within cycling distance, involvement in the sport came naturally and, at the age of 13, John had become a junior marshal. On leaving school, aged 18, he went to work in a bank but when Barry Bland resigned as BARC's competitions secretary, John successfully applied for the post. He was just 22 years old.

After a year in the job, he received a call from John Surtees and was invited to coordinate the 1973 Surtees F2 effort which was running Mass, Hailwood and Pace. It was not truly a team manager's job, more that of a closely-involved administrator, but it was a successful season with Mass finishing runner-up to Jarier (March) in the Championship. John Surtees is a man of many talents, and many virtues, but there are few who would include management among them and, at the end of the year, Wickham accepted an invitation to take back his old job at the BARC which was about to move to Thruxton. There he remained until 1978 until Roger Silman left March to join Toleman and Wickham found himself managing the March F2 team.

Wickham saw the team through the awful year of 1979 when March struggled to come to grips with ground effects yet still won the championship but, by 1980, had gained sufficient practical experience to act as Mike Thackwell's race engineer. The following year he did the same job for Thierry Boutsen and was joined in the team by Gordon Coppuck who engineered Corrado Fabi's car.

While on his frequent trips to Japan, to look after the Japanese March customers, Wickham found himself talking to Honda, which was not entirely satisfied with the way the company's involvement with Ralt was proceeding (though Geoff Lees won the 1981 F2 Championship with a Ralt-Honda), and he was able to tie up a deal whereby Honda would supply engines, technical back-up, and some cash, for a new F2 effort. He obtained a similar deal from Bridgestone tyres and then persuaded Marlboro to weigh in with the remaining money. Coppuck's reputation as an F1 designer naturally played a big part in the negotiations. At the time, some wiseacres declared that it was a way for canny old Robin Herd to obtain Honda engines without upsetting his BMW link, for Wickham and Coppuck were both employed by March. Subsequent events proved the wiseacres wrong.

Honda had a spare factory unit at Slough, into which the team moved. Adequate sponsorship meant that Spirit was able to chose its drivers and in Thierry Boutsen (who had been guided by Wickham to second in the 1981 European F2 Championship) and Stefan Johansson, it had an ideal pairing. Boutsen is quiet, thoughtful, a good tester, while Johansson is an extrovert, gifted, driver in the Peterson mould. Both men's performances in F1 have shown what a good choice they were.

Coppuck designed a fairly conventional chassis, made of aluminium honeycomb and with rocker arm suspension all round. What was striking about it was the neatness and attention to detail. At the time, people said it looked as though the car had been designed with F1 in mind, no doubt inspired partly by increasingly strong rumours that Honda wanted to go into F1, and later events proved them close to the mark.

In 1982, with the best chassis, most powerful engine and strongest driver combination, Spirit should have completely dominated F2, but were let down by the Bridgestone tyres. Bridgestone had produced a bewildering variety of constructions and compounds and it was sometimes difficult to find the optimum combination. Ralt, for example, used no fewer than 120 tyres at the 1982 International Trophy meeting. The reliability of the tyres was also not as good as it should have been; at Thruxton Johansson lost the lead when a tyre blew. Between them, Spirit and Ralt had 13 blow-outs during the season. Ralt, also with Bridgestone tyres, suffered the same frustrations, with neither Acheson nor Palmer winning a single race. When Palmer brought his Ralt home third at Donington, I could put my fist into some of the holes on his rear Bridgestones. The 1982 F2 Championship was not so much won by March (Corrado Fabi) or BMW but, rather, by Michelin. The Spirit team started from the front row of the grid 13 times (there were 13 races) and took pole ten times. Boutsen came home a winner at Spa, the Nurburgring and Enna and came close to winning the series.

At Misano, the last race, Spirit had a particularly good crossply Bridgestone wet tyre but no equivalent cross ply slick, only a radial. There was heavy rain before the start and Boutsen's car was set up for the wet, but the organisers delayed the start and so Boutsen had to start on radial slick tyres with the chassis set up for crossplies. He finished sixth in the race, third overall. Third in the Championship was a good effort but not a dream debut. Still, the team had impressed everyone, both in Europe and in a couple of Japanese races. The '82 cars were sold and refettled for different tyres and BMW engines, and Jo Gartner won the '83 Pau race with one as well as performing well in Japan late in the season. Spirit meanwhile had its eyes on the Honda Fl engine and agreed a test, development, and evaluation programme with the Japanese firm.

Spirit started 1983 knowing that Williams had an understanding with Honda. The team was prepared to take its chance and therefore switched from being a successful F2 outfit into an R&D company. The first question was the choice of driver, and it was a difficult decision to make, but Johansson fitted Honda's perception of what a racing driver should be so was given the contract. Independently of each other, both John Wickham and Gordon Coppuck expressed the hope that one day in the future they would again work with both drivers. There is an obvious affection for both men, rare in F1. An F2 chassis fitted with the turbocharged Honda engine first ran at Silverstone in November 1982 and the winter was spent testing in various places, among them California. Came the new season and Wickham persuaded Honda to allow the car to be entered in the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. It proved troublesome in qualifying and expired after four laps with engine problems but showed its promise by being second quickest in the race day warm-up session.

It next appeared at the British GP and the engine gave all kinds of problems practice, spluttering and popping around but Johansson managed one trouble-free 1.1 and claimed 14th place on the grid, only to retire after five laps with a broken fuel pump belt.

In Germany the car moved up a place up the grid, but retired with engine problem on lap 11. Austria saw it 16th on the grid finishing a distant 12th, five laps behind the winner. At Zandvoort it again started 16th but this time finished seventh; at Monza it was 17th in qualifying but retired on lap four with a broken distributor; and a Brands Hatch it practised 19th and soldiered on to finish 14th. The car had found its place just below the middle of the grid and if it slipped back a little in the latter part of the year, that was because more turbo-engined cars had entered the fray.

Spirit did not go to South Africa, but Williams did and used the Honda engine for the first time. When Rosberg put the car into the sixth slot on the grid and brought in home in fifth, it gave the Honda personnel pause for thought. As we know now Rosberg's performance appeared more promising than subsequent events proved Kyalami, with its long straight, was tailor made for the Honda engine and although fifth place looked excellent, it was achieved by the reigning World Champion in a brand new car. While the Williams performance looked greatly superior, Johansson, an F1 newcomer, had achieved seventh at Zandvoort.

Wickham had lined up a sponsor prepared to put two million dollars into the team, but Honda decided not to continue it relationship and so that deal fell through. Then came Fulvio Ballabio onto the scene The rich Italian amateur had enormous sponsorship at his disposal, through the family firm which holds the Disney concesssion in Italy. Despite lack-lustre performances in F2 ("We put up with him because he has Mickey Mouse on his car and it keeps the kids in the grandstand happy,' commented on F2 team manager when he heard Ballabio was trying to get into F1)he had ambitions to be a Grand Prix driver and persuaded Emerson Fittipaldi to try the car, the idea being that Emerson would be number one in the team and Ballabio would tag along as number two probably with a Cosworth engine for Brian Hart would not stretch his resource further. John Wickham recalls, "At Rio Emerson gave us a hard time. To us he'd say the engine was bad, to Brian Hart he'd blame the car, and so on. We weren't McLaren or Lotus, we weren't that good and Emerson was entitled to his opinion but it damaged us". Ballabio was finally denied the appropriate licence. His father died on hearing the news, the deal fell apart, and Ballabio now runs the family business. Still, the team finally started the season with Mauro Baldi, who is few people's idea of a natural winner. He put the car on the grid though, usually above the RAM team, and he generally brought it home.

Given all the circumstances, he did a workmanlike job, as did Huub Rothengatter who drove the car when Baldi's money ran out. Rothengatter had had a two-year lay-off following a road accident, but he plugged away. Neither driver was sensational, but both did honest work. Recently there has been speculation that Spirit might run a driver in F3000 and this remains an option open to the team. Gordon Coppuck has assumed the role of chief engineer, rather than chief designer, and he admits that his heart is not in F1 within such tight financial restrictions which presently apply to Spirit. Having watched him conduct many test sessions, I feel that he is one of those designers whose chief pleasure comes from working with a driver to extract the last ounce from a car, just as he did with the M23. It's the difference, I suppose, between being an architect, designing streets and buildings on a drawing board and a sculptor, up to his elbows in clay, adding a little here, taking a little off there. An American sponsor has been talking to the team about running a car in F3000. If the deal goes through, and if the sponsor is prepared to wait, then Gordon will design a Spirit F3000 car. If the sponsor wants to go racing almost immediately, then a chassis will be bought from March and Gordon will engineer it. For the time being, his last effort in F1 is the car which began the season. If a Spirit F3000 car is given the go-ahead then it will be made in conjunction with an established production racing car constructor, for Spirit is not geared to production. A foot in both camps could be an ideal way forward. Success in F3000 could help to attract more money into the side and help break the poverty spiral, Success in F1, even though we're not talking of pole positions or wins, could help the F3000 side. Perhaps a driver could found who might do a good job in F3000 and translate into F1 and be the factor which helps the team find the extra money to extra testing, to develop the car, to find time, to break into the points. .. etc, etc. When you look at the struggle which teams at the back end of the grid face, you automatically think there has to be an easier way of earning a crust. There is, there but what other way would present such challenges? The poor end of the pit lane is a good place to visit. It is there you discover the the raw motivation for racing. It's there at the front of course, but it's more apparent at the back. The glory doesn't get in the way. — M.L.