The Moments That Changed The Sport

At the time, they seemed trifling events:
A freak win for a new F1 constructor in a faraway place;
A one race substitute for an imprisoned driver;
The entry of a mass-market car manufacturer into F1;
A club race between a fledgling car maker and a young amateur;
The latest gimmick from a once great marque that hadn’t won a championship for five years;
A lawyer and a driver with just two points from nearly 30 F1 starts joining Ferrari.
Yet each one influenced not only its time but the entire direction of the sport.

Mark Hughes Reflects

The Birth of the Lotus 78

The idea of getting negative lift by running air through a venturi in the sidepods was something that Tony Rudd and I worked on at BRM in the late ’60s,” says aerodynamicist Peter Wright. “We actually started to build a car but the project was knocked on the head by the management. Actually, the car as we’d envisaged it didn’t have skirts or anything and so probably wouldn’t have worked very well. I then did quite a lot of research in the wind tunnel of Specialised Mouldings when I went to work there and so I had quite a lot of data already when I joined Lotus in 1975.”

At Lotus the confluence of the energies of Wright, his former BRM colleague Rudd and Colin Chapman created a spark which would engulf F1 in the wildfire of ground effect. It was a neat little trick of physics just waiting to be harnessed that would transform the scale of grip available.

“Colin had given Tony a brief to go back to fundamental principles, questioning everything, to come up with a basic philosophy of the next car before any design work began,” continues Wright. It was the brief that would finally give oxygen to the fire that had been smouldering ever since that secret BRM project. Wright: “When I hooked up again with Tony I suggested we explore the route we’d looked at briefly those years before, and it went from there.”

Chapman had already considered, in an abstract way, the possibilities of the venturi but had put it to the back of his mind, something to be explored at a later date. But when Rudd and Wright told him of their work, a light bulb shone bright in his head. They could be onto something big here. Such stuff was the elixir of life for Chapman. Enthused like this, he was unstoppable, a high voltage flow of energy driving the thing forward. Suddenly, the backroom project of Wright and Rudd was supercharged, and aided by designer Ralph Bellamy, a car was built to incorporate the idea; it was called the Lotus 78.

“We ran a Renault 4 van around Hethel and hung stuff off the back to test it out,” says Wright. “When we looked into it further, we found if you put skirts on the sidepods to seal the venturi off, then it really worked spectacularly. I knew it was going to be good when in the wind tunnel it sucked the revolving floor up! We were a bit unsure about whether we would be allowed to run proper skirts and when the car first came out we had brushes on it.”

That’s how the car made its debut in the 1977 Argentine Grand Prix. Its form wasn’t world-shaking, but Mario Andretti looked set for a second place before a wheel bearing gave out in the closing laps. He won at Long Beach, but it was an inherited win, not a performance one. In Spain he led unopposed from start to finish and at Zolder — with ceramic skirts — he qualified a stunning 1.6sec clear of the entire field. The orgy of grip had begun and would not end until the governing body poured cold water over it all some years later, concerned that cornering speeds were going to increase exponentially.

* * *

The 1958 Argentine Grand Prix

It was just common sense, really,” says John Cooper of the idea of siting a racing car’s engine behind the driver rather than in front. Not that it was Cooper’s idea. There had been a mid-engined Grand Prix Benz in 1923 and the related Auto Unions of the 1930s has been highly successful with such a format But it was Cooper who demonstrated the superiority of the layout so convincingly that six decades of convention was finally banished to history.

It all arose from the early post-war Formula 500 category in which Cooper made its name. 500cc motorcycle engines were the regulation power, engines designed for chain drive. This meant the obvious place to put them in a car was behind the driver but ahead of the axle — so a short chain could take drive to the rear wheels. Cooper wasn’t even the first of the F500s to produce such a car; they were simply the first to build production batches of them.

Using the commercial success of the 500 racers as a springboard, Cooper produced a customer F2 car — and made it front-engined… “Well, the best engine option we had was the six-cylinder Bristol,” says Cooper, “and we just felt that it was too heavy a motor to hang out the back.”

But they went back to their roots in 1955 with the ‘Bobtail’ sports racer. “That was a fantastic little car,” relates Cooper. ‘That’s when we realised we could be onto something. We’d built it that way after our experience of the Formula 500 cars — it was nice and simple to keep all the engine and transmission bits out the way at the back, it made it light and it made it cheap. But then we began getting results with it that even we couldn’t believe.” With just 1.1-litres of Coventry Climax, Ivor Bueb went giantkilling in the car. Making his debut in the Daily Express Silverstone International he not only devastated his class, but led home all the 2-litre cars. A 2-litre Bristol version gave Jack Brabham his Grand Prix debut at Aintree later that year, but it wasn’t a serious effort.

“It was only when Climax came up with a twin-cam version of their engine that we thought we might have something to go on for Grands Prix,” says Cooper. “We built what was basically a single-seater version of the Bobtail fitted with that engine.” With just 1.9-litres in a 2.5-litre formula, and leaf suspension, it struggled in the hands of Brabham and Roy Salvadori in ’57.

For the following year Rob Walker got his hands on one of the first 2.2-litre Climaxes and had it installed in his T45, the new model now complete with proper wishbone suspension. “I had an F1 and an F2 version,” recalls Walker today, “and I had them both at Goodwood on a general test day. Stirling stopped by and asked if he could try the F2 car. As a trick, we put him out in the F1 without telling him. He went out and broke the outright lap record whilst dodging between MGs and what have you. He remembered that test when he was told Vanwall couldn’t make the first race, in Argentina.

Back home, John Cooper sat and listened to the results coming in on the radio. He simply couldn’t believe his ears. It is no less than the truth that Moss’ victory in the Walker Cooper changed the face of F1 forever.

* * *

The Debut of the Renault RS01

By the time Renault entered F1 in 1977, the sport, save Ferrari, had been in the grip of small specialist British constructors for nearly two decades — virtually since the day of Moss’ Cooper victory in the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix, in fact.

The French company was swimming against the tide on two counts. Not only was it the only mass-market road car manufacturer brave enough to pit itself against the street-fighting specialists, but it chose to do so via a technical route all but unenvisaged by the rule makers.

When the 3-litre formula came into force in 1966, the facility for forced induction engines of half that capacity was not one that anyone was expected to avail themselves of. But by the mid-70s turbochargers were increasingly seen to have a big future in the passenger car market, delivering as they could big-engine performance with small engine packaging. Renault was just one manufacturer on the verge of embracing the turbo, but it was the only one with the courage and foresight to align this intention with a full blown F1 programme.

With hindsight, Renault couldn’t lose. If it failed on the track, it could easily be put down to the penalty of a new technology that had been framed out of the Grand Prix regulations. If it won, it not only gave Renault a sporting and innovative cachet, but also validated the technology of its forthcoming turbocharged road cars. A Le Mans turbo programme was also initiated.

François Castaing designed a neat little V6 upon which the whole Renault competition programme was based. To anneal this unit to the demands of racing, it had first been used in non-turbo sportscar trim in 1973 with the closely-aligned Alpine team, and then as the basis for an F2 programme. This culminated in victory in the 1976 championship for Jean-Pierre Jabouille.

Trials of the F1 car had already begun by then. Jabouille himself shared the design of the original chassis with André de Cortanze while the Castaing motor — reduced to the regulation 1.5 litres — was now enjoying the benefits of forced induction to produce a genuine 500bhp. This was at a time when the best Cosworth DFVs were around 20bhp short of that figure. But DFVs tended to keep going rather longer and delivered what they had in a far more manageable fashion.

The car was race-ready by mid ’77 and could probably have raced in that year’s French Grand Prix. But to have made what was sure to be a non-finishing debut on home soil was deemed politically inadvisable and an entry was made for the following British Grand Prix instead. In between those events, Jabouille tested the car at Dijon. The time he recorded there would have qualified him third for the previous week’s GP. The once cynical F1 fraternity became nervous. It wasn’t so fast on at Silverstone, though it qualified comfortably. But within two years Renault would add F1 victories to its win in the 1978 Le Mans 24 Hours. All with turbo power.

More significantly, car manufacturers were back in F1, and there they would remain even when the by now all-conquering turbo was finally explicitly banished.

* * *

Clark Meets Chapman, Boxing Day, 1958

In 1958 the young Scot Jim Clark was just another promising amateur sportscar racer, competing mainly in his native Scotland, often for his farming friend, Ian Scott-Watson, something of an early mentor.

With a view to deciding what his team’s plans should be for the following season, Scott-Watson took Clark along to a Lotus open day at Brands Hatch late in the season. The new Lotus 12 F2 car was proffered by Colin Chapman for Clark to sample. The Scot was soon approaching the times set in the car by the team’s F1 driver Graham Hill. When Scott-Watson then informed Chapman that this was Clark’s first ever time in a single-seater and his first experience of driving at Brands, the mercurial Lotus boss immediately ordered that Clark be called in at once: clearly he was driving beyond himself!

Next, Clark tried out the new Elite sportscar, and on the basis of this, Scott-Watson ordered one. It was to be made ready in time for the Brands Hatch Boxing Day meeting. Also on the bill in racing Elites at that meeting were none other than Chapman himself and Lotus director Mike Costin, both acknowledged aces.

Clark recalled to a friend how before the race he had overheard Chapman discussing with Costin how they would carve up the race between them. Their assumption that Clark wouldn’t be in among them incensed him more than a little and from that point on, he was on a mission to show he was no also-ran.

Costin recalls the start: “I could see as we approached Paddock that Jim was determined not to lift first and Colin was equally adamant I didn’t want to get mixed up in all that so I was the prat who backed off and that dropped me down to third. I then had a grandstand view of a real ding-dong between them for the rest of the race.”

It was the determined young Clark who emerged on top of a titanic struggle and began slowly to put daylight between himself and his future friend and partner. “Colin was an exceptionally quick driver,” recalls Costin today, “and here was Jim seeing him off. Anyone who could do that was pretty sensational and it really opened Colin’s eyes.”

In the end, Clark’s assured victory was spoiled not by an error of judgement but by a backmarker in a Healey-Sprite who spun directly into Jim’s path as they approached Druids. Clark’s resultant loss of momentum allowed Chapman to sneak past and win the race. But Clark’s point had been made regardless.

“From that point on, Colin was a convert,” says Costin. “He knew he’d found something very special.”

* * *

The 1991 Belgian Grand Prix

Bertrand Gachot was one of the few drivers who transcended motor racing fame and moved into wider general notoriety – albeit briefly. It all occurred as a result of the Belgian’s famously short fuse blowing in a traffic altercation with a London cabby in 1991. When Bertrand used CS gas to subdue the man, he committed an offence for which he was jailed. Which left Jordan minus a driver.

Cue Eddie Jordan, talent scout. “I’d been aware of Michael Schumacher – I was quite active in the driver market at that time and I’d followed pretty carefully what he was doing from around 1990,” he says.

“Then in 1991 I could see how he compared to HeinzHarald Frentzen in the Mercedes sports cars and I knew how good Heinz was because we’d run him in F3000 the year before. I also knew Michael’s manager, Willi Weber, from when we were both ran F3 teams. So, yes, I was very aware of Michael; I’d been watching and no-one else had.

“Initially though, I had Stefan Johansson on stand-by for the drive, a big buddy of mine. But then I thought that someone young and thrusting might give us a better chance, and Stefan understood.

“Bertrand’s lawyers had appealed the decision and it was set to be heard in the week leading up to the Belgian Grand Prix. I was pretty sure the appeal would be upheld but in the meantime we had to try Michael in the car just in case. We tested him at Silverstone on the Wednesday and he was pretty startling. I mean, he was under the lap record. Trevor Foster ran the test and came back saying, ‘Jesus, I don’t know what the other guys have been doing, but this guy’s sensational.’ I was running backward and forward between the test and the factory and talking to Bertrand’s lawyers on the phone.”

The appeal failed, so setting the scene for a bit of motor racing history. On his F1 debut, Schumacher qualified the Jordan 191 seventh, some four places higher than his vastly experienced team-mate Andrea de Cesaris.

“Even after what he’d done in the test at Silverstone, I was still stunned by what he did at Spa,” relates Jordan. “When I was talking with Weber about the deal, I’d said, ‘Michael knows Spa, doesn’t he?’ and Weber just said ‘oh yeah.’ I should have asked: ‘When has he raced there? In what?’ Because it turned out he’d never seen the place before that weekend! Jesus Christ, he was out of this world!”

Michael’s clutch failed a few yards into the race, bringing an agonising ‘what if’. Many faster cars encountered problems and de Cesaris was closing on the leader before suffering problems of his own. It wasn’t inconceivable that Schumacher could have won on his debut – in a Jordan.

Michael never sat in a Jordan again. By the very next race he had been poached by Benetton, despite a contract Jordan believed was water-tight “He single-handedly won them two world titles,” rues Jordan. “I still wonder what he could have done with us.”

* * *

Luca di Montezemolo and Niki Lauda Join Ferrari

Ferrari in 1973 looked a spent force. Niki Lauda in ’73 looked promising but hardly remarkable. Yet when they joined forces for ’74, it initiated a new Fl superpower. In the next four years they would win six drivers and constructors titles between them and the structures laid down then would carry the Italian team to success for the rest of the decade.

Lauda had bought his way into F1 with March in 1972, but struggled with its over-complicated 721X model. Ever resourceful, he managed to talk his way into the BRM team for 1973 on the understanding that he would bring sponsorship. Only he knew that such backing didn’t exist; his solution was to drive well enough that the team would want to retain him anyway when the shortfall became clear. Which, of course, is exactly what happened.The BRM P160 was an outdated car by 1973 but Lauda put it sixth on the grid at Monaco, he led the British Grand Prix for a few hundred yards after the start, and at Watkins Glen ran at the front for a few wet laps before making a pit stop.Modest though such accomplishments were by the standards of Stewart or Fittipaldi, they were more than the Ferrari managed that year. Enzo Ferrari was ill for much of the season, design genius Mauro Forghieri had been banished to ‘special projects’ after falling foul of the team’s internal politics and the team lacked direction. Lead driver Jacky Ickx left before the season was over, despairing of the team ever again giving him a competitive car.

Parent company Fiat was unimpressed and persuaded The Old Man that he should seek the help of a brilliant young lawyer — and close family relation of Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli — one Luca di Montezemelo, as team manager. The team boss was now back to full strength and relished the challenge of rebuilding. One of his first moves was to bring Forghieri back from exile and ask him to revamp the 312B3 that had proved so disappointing in ’73.

Ferrari then re-engaged Clay Regazzoni, a veteran of the team from 1970-72 but who had spent ’73 at BRM as Lauda’s team-mate. He also offered a seat to Peter Revson, but the American deemed it unsuited to his needs. This left Ferrari considering Lauda. He’d been impressed with his pace relative to Regazzoni and had been taken with his Monaco performance. Also, he liked the idea of a relative unknown: if he went well it added to the illusion of the brilliance of his cars. Montezemelo liked the idea of a young driver with whom he could build a relationship. Forghieri liked what he heard about Lauda’s technical prowess.

But Lauda was ignorant of all this. He was fretting about what rabbit he could pull out the hat to stay in F1 this time. The phone at the flat he shared with a friend rang. Lauda was out. The friend answered – and took a message. When the Austrian returned home he took several minutes of convincing that the message was not a hoax…