Vacuum clean-up

No car caused more furore than the 1978 Brabham. Adam Cooper remembers when the fan hit the…

Twenty years ago this summer the Brabham-Alfa BT46B appeared at the Swedish Grand Prix, won in brilliant style, and was never seen again. Few remember the car by its official type number, but in case you haven’t guessed, the BT46B was better known as ‘the fan car’. The controversy which surrounded it has never quite been forgotten, and it had a lasting effect on Formula One.

Acknowledged as a great piece of lateral thinking by designer Gordon Murray, the car actually grew out of a less successful piece of innovation.

For 1978, Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone scored a coup by luring World Champion Niki Lauda away from Ferrari to partner John Watson. Saddled with the unwieldy Alfa flat12 engine for a third year, Murray was under pressure to come up with something good. His answer was ‘surface cooling’, a system which did away with conventional radiators. The BT46 prototype looked sensational at its launch, but it didn’t work…

Gordon eventually cut his losses and a revised car with traditional rads was introduced. Murray then suffered another blow when Cohn Chapman’s Lotus 79 appeared; it took the fledgling concept of ground effect a stage further. Constrained by the shape of the Alfa, Gordon realised that there was no way Brabham could follow the same route. That’s where the fan car came in.

Twenty years on, Gordon cannot recall exactly from where the idea originated, but one comes from Jordan technical director Gary Anderson: “I went to Brabham to run a test car with the surface cooling. I started work on it on the Monday morning, and in the afternoon we had a chat about what we could do long term. I suggested that we should put a fan on it to cool the radiator, and we could duct out the air from underneath the car to create some downforce.”

Further light was shed on the matter in February 1979, when Autosport published an article by engineer David Cox, who claimed some of the responsibility for the fan project. Cox had apparently been interviewed for a job at Tyrrell, and had caught sight of a primitive fan layout on designer Maurice Phillippe’s drawing board. He promised not to tell anyone about it. He’d then done some consultancy work for Brabham on the surface cooling system, and enjoyed some general discussions with Murray. Cox claimed that his careful prompting led Gordon to mention the fan idea first, thus allowing him to keep his promise to Philippe.

Of course, the inspiration for all was the Chaparral 2J ‘sucker’ CanAm car of 1970. It had utilised a pair of fans driven by an auxiliary motor, and had shown great promise before being kicked out of the series, much to chagrin of creator Jim Hall.

“The basic concept, sure, that’s where it came from,” says Murray. “It was, ‘How can we make more downforce? The only way with a flat engine is through suction. That’s not legal, let’s look at the rules.’ That’s when the Chaparral business stopped, because you weren’t allowed to have a secondary motor.”

Murray’s genius was both to make the idea work, and do it in a way that it followed the letter of the regulations. “I used to read the rules all the time,” says Gordon, “to try to get the best out of them; they were far looser then. The breakthrough was the phrase ‘primary function’ if something was movable and had an aerodynamic effect on the car, its primary function had to be something else. That was the basis of the whole car being legal. We looked in the dictionary and asked the legal people, who said the primary function of a mechanical mechanism means more than 50 per cent.”

Having done so much work on cooling, Gordon devised a system in which the primary function of the fan could be proved to be keeping the temperatures under control. “By luck it did other things that we just didn’t even think about at the time,” claims a straight-faced Ecclestone today.

The Brabham design team did a wonderful job of putting the idea into practice. A radiator was laid atop the engine, while the fan was driven from the gearbox. A large box-shaped area was completely sealed off by four ingeniously connected skirts.

Utmost secrecy was required, and drawings for bits commissioned from suppliers were given confusing part names. Initial testing was conducted behind closed doors at Balocco, Alfa’s test track, before the team felt confident enough to run at the end of May supposedly in total privacy at Brands Hatch. Whenever the BT46B stopped a car carefully shadowed it down the pitlane, and a dustbin lid quickly covered the most sensitive part.

Murray was pleased with the results. Crucially the downforce came from the speed of the engine, and not of the car itself: “Because it was not speed dependent, at a hairpin you could have miles more cornering force. At Monaco it would have been 10 seconds a lap quicker than a conventional car. It could hold itself on the ceiling it made just a bit more than its own weight standing still.

The thing I remember most is standing behind the car at Balocco. Niki dropped the clutch at 12,000rpm, and the rear wheels didn’t chirp. The car seemed to do 0-30mph in nothing… it just leapt from where it was.”

For weeks Brabham had done a good job of keeping the project under wraps. However, in early June, Autosport carried murky pictures which clearly showed the fan. A freelance photographer had infiltrated the Brands test, smuggled in under a tarpaulin in the back of a Ford Transit. Scoop!

Autosport immediately made the Chaparral connection, and the fan was the hot topic of discussion at that weekend’s Spanish GP. Brabham duly explained the system to the CSI, then the sport’s governing body. The car was given the all-clear; delighted by the news, the team went to the Swedish GP at Anderstorp a fortnight later fully equipped with BT46Bs. By then, stormclouds had gathered…

“We were so busy, we were in such a rush, and we’d had no sleep for weeks,” says Murray. “All I did was try to keep it secret as long as possible. So I honestly didn’t know what was going on around us until we got to Sweden, and then in the cold light of day I had all these irate team bosses and designers around.”

Led by a furious Colin Chapman, rival constructors kicked up a massive stink. Among other things, it was claimed that the car was shooting debris at following drivers. Before the race the Lotus boss, Ken Tyrrelljohn Surtees and McLaren’s Teddy Mayer had all lodged official protests. In 20 years, Chapman had never taken such drastic action. Bernie’s longtime dual role as boss both of FOCA and Brabham was suddenly called into question; how could he stitch up his old mates like this?

“Chapman did the most politicking with the stone throwing; says Murray, “all of which was utter nonsense. There was never enough suction to suck a stone off the road, but if something did get to the fan the direction it went was out into the rim, and certainly not backwards. A rotating rear sticky tyre is a much better projectile launcher.

“He got Andretti to go and talk to other drivers. Lotus had invented ground effect and it looked like he was going to walk the season, and this car comes along that can drive round the outside of him. I probably wouldn’t have gone to quite the dirty lengths Chapman went to, but I certainly would have tried hard.”

The opposition became seriously wound up when they saw the drivers rev the engine in the pits, as Bernie recalls: “Chapman stood there and the car was just going up and down in front or his eyes!”

To calm the waters, Ecclestone and Murray told the drivers to take it easy, and try to qualify only fifth or sixth.

“The problem was trying to get Niki to go slow,” says Bernie, “while the car was full of fuel and on the hardest tyres we had. Andretti sent a friend to listen to what we were doing. I shouted, ‘Get that idiot in, he’ll be out of fuel in a minute.’ So we kept putting out these ‘IN FUEL’ signs. Of course we couldn’t get any more in if we tried. It was quite funny actually.”

Sandbagging or not, Lauda and Watson lined up second and third, despite the team realising that the springs were far too soft for the job.

Come the race itself, Wattie blotted his copybook by spinning off “I was trying find a way past Patrese, which was proving exceedingly tiresome and difficult.” Meanwhile Lauda sat patiently behind Andretti, and drove around him with consummate ease when he slid on oil. While Niki cruised to victory, Mario’s engine blew. ‘The cars had about 10 seconds a lap in hand,” recalls Bernie. “I could have driven it and won.”

The obvious ease of Lauda’s victory .raised the stakes still further, and more protests flew. After the race a CSI delegation examined the car, and to Murray’s delight, they gave it a clean bill of health.

But things were moving quickly. On the Thursday Ecclestone chaired a stormy FOCA meeting, and after six and half hours he finally gave in to his angry colleagues. A compromise was reached; the Swedish protests would be withdrawn, and the fan car could race at Paul Ricard, Brands Hatch and Hockenheim. Bernie would then quietly withdraw it from competition after August 1. Lauda was 11 points behind Andretti in the championship, and the stay of execution gave him half a chance of taking the title.

The following day Ecclestone and Chapman flew to a special CSI F1 meeting in Paris to gain approval for the unusual agreement. After another long discussion, Bernie emerged in a shell-shocked state; the CS1 had banned the car with immediate effect, on ‘safety grounds’, a phrase which would be heard often in future years. It wasn’t declared illegal, and there was no mention of primary functions. It was not a unanimous decision, and the loudest opponent of the car was a French official so new to the lime-light that even Autosport didn’t spell his name right that week – one Jean-Marie Balestre… At the time Murray was devastated, but he’s calmed down over the past two decades.

“People would have gone off and tried to make fan cars very quickly, which would have been incredibly dangerous, so getting rid of it was the right thing to do, definitely. The BT47 Iliad on the drawing board would have pulled the driver’s head off what was wrong in my opinion was for all the constructors to put pressure on Bernie.”

By the next race in France, the regular BT46s had been wheeled back out, and Watson cheered up his beleaguered team. “It gave me unlimited pleasure to put my car on pole position without a fan, and stick it up those little shits.”

Wattle best sums up the legacy of the fan car; what ultimately counted most was not the technology but Ecclestone’s agreement to placate the other teams by withdrawing it.

“The car’s influence is more what it might have done to the fundamental structure of the teams, and what it did to the emergence of FOCA as a power base in F1,” says John. “Imagine if that had been shattered, would we have F1 as it is today? That to me is the more important consideration. It was part of Bernie’s vision. He got his win, and gave up self gain for the bigger picture. A very, very important decision, one of the most important in the last 20 years of F1.”

FOCA did indeed gather strength over the next couple of seasons. It needed to, for the hitherto little known Balestre quickly developed into a powerful enemy of the British teams. But a few years down the line Bernie would gain his revenge, and take control of the whole show.

Bernie still owns the Lauda chassis it sits in his collection of Brabhams at the Biggin Hill base of his television production company while the Watson car went to Parmalat in Italy. Both surely represent something of a Holy Grail for historic F1 car collectors, so the following revelation may break a few hearts.

“I didn’t have time to assemble the third car in time for Sweden,” recalls Murray, “so I put it in the truck as spares. After the ban we had a whole, unbuilt fan car, brand new, sitting around. There was so little storage room at Chessington, and one day the mechanics came in and said, ‘What shall we do with this?’ I was a bit pissed off at the time, and said ‘Take it outside and chop it up.’ So they did. I suspect one of those in working order would be worth a million quid today…”

Gordon Murray on the birth of the fan car

“In 1997, nobody quite understood what Lotus had found in the early days of ground effect. I don’t think that they even understood themselves, judging by the amount of things that collapsed and bent. I think that the ground effect forces generated caught everybody by surprise.

“I had a bit of a head start over the others when I first saw the Lotus, because we’d done a lot of similar aerodynamic work in 1974 on the BT44; we had an inch-deep underbody vee, something like a front air dam, but halfway down the car.

“Along with everybody else we kept looking at the Lotus trying to work out where they got all these big forces from. And when we did start to realise we were already into 1978. I did a couple of sketches of how you could do a ground effect car with the whole sidepod as a wing profile, but we had a flat-12 engine — and a really big, wide flat-12 at that — and whatever I drew, just where it swept up underneath the car, would go straight through the engine.

‘There was no way we could ask Alfa to do a V12 in the middle of the season — although we did eventually get one for 1979— so I went to Bernie Ecclestone and I explained the situation in quite simple but profound terms — that we were stuffed, basically. It was really disappointing, because we’d struggled for two years with the Alfa. By 1978 it was becoming a very quick motor car, the engine was getting better, and even without ground effect we had almost managed to stay in touch with the Lotus.

“In desperation I drew a car which had two monocoques. I put the flat-12 behind the driver, bolted directly to the back of the seat. Then I drew another monocoque as the fuel tank — basically a 45-gallon drum, squared off—with a hole through the middle, and a long input shaft from the bock of the clutch into the gearbox. I then bolted the gearbox onto the back of that monocoque. So the engine was in the middle of the car and you had two extra bulkheads, a very heavy input shaft, and much longer exhausts. I did a quick weight calculation, and it added about 30kgs. What’s more the fuel tank’s centre of gravity was going to change quite a lot from full to empty, so eventually I scrapped it.

“As a result, the fan car was borne out of desperation, not out of ‘How can we make GP cars go quicker?’ At that stage we were going to lose the season, which was such a shame. The car itself was really quite good, all we needed to produce was that little bit of extra downforce. So we started to think about how else we could generate it…”