I Wish I'd Designed...

Ferrari 312

It had a bumpy career with some serious low-points, but the flat-12 Ferrari eventually brought Maranello its first championship in 11 years. Derek Gardner, Tyrell’s designer 1970 – 78, admired both concept and creator

I was impressed by Mauro Forghieri when I first met him in 1969, and liked him immediately. He was the sort of person you could joke with, and when I saw the flat-12 at the Canadian Grand Prix in 19701 said “what a wonderful engine- thank goodness you’ve only got an old nail of a chassis to put it in!”. We were standing by my car at the time, the Tyrrell 001, which had yet to do very much at all, but it was on pole position at that Grand Prix.

Luckily he laughed, but what I didn’t know was that he had a better car on the drawing board, so he could afford to laugh.

Forghieri was very open; if you asked him a question he would always answer. It might not be the complete truth, of course, but you would get an answer. It was reputed that he and a small team locked themselves away for three weeks, and when they emerged they had produced the boxer engine. He is a remarkable man – apparently he designed his own house, too. But the impressive thing about Ferrari is that they have always produced a complete motor car which wasn’t just a copy of someone else’s design. The 312 really broke new ground engine, transmission, chassis, everything

I think there were problems with just about every aspect at first, but they kept modifying it and it got better and better, until they won driver and constructors championships in 1975. It took that length of time not just to get the car working, but to get the organisation running properly. Before they brought in Montezemolo as manager, Forghieri was everything, designer, chief engineer, producing the car, the engine, the gearbox, as well as looking after the wants and needs of the mechanics… Forghieri was Ferrari, which was far too much for one man.

Everyone thinks of Ferrari engines being the be-all and end-all of the car, but to Forghieri it was just another item; as long as it produced the power it didn’t matter too much about following the bible of engine design. For example, it wasn’t a seven-bearing crank but a four, so the life of the engine was very short, but it cut down on the mechanical drag. It was running up to 12,000rpm, much higher than anyone else, except maybe the Matras.

Being a 12 the Ferrari was incredibly smooth; they fitted wonderful light titanium exhausts, and I was most impressed. I thought “I’ve got to have some of those,” so I designed titanium exhausts for the Cosworth but they didn’t even last practice, let alone the race. They were fine with a smooth 12, but with the vibration of a rorty V8 with a flat-plane crank, well, very little lived on that. You had to use a lot of metal or cushion-mount everything.

The Ferrari was most impressive, particularly the 312T with its transverse gearbox. I could see the packaging advantages of the transverse idea immediately, but nobody copied it because to develop your own gearbox adds enormously to your workload, as I knew from experience. Before Tyrrell I was a transmission specialist with Ferguson, developing 4WD for the Jensen FF among others. We also produced the complete transmission for the Matra MS84 which was arguably the best 4WD, but everyone began to build them without knowing what they were doing, with predictable results. In fact for racing a well-sorted RWD will always be quicker, because with 4WD there is inevitably a weight and drag penalty. Then I was seconded to Lotus to work on the 56, the turbine car, and went across to Indianapolis and became hooked on racing. I met Ken Tyrrell, and he asked me if I could design him a car; I didn’t really know about doing a complete car, so I said yes, to learn.

One of the things which impressed me about Forghieri was that when talking to someone British, he adopted a completely British way of speaking and looking at things. But when he tumed round to the Ferrari garage, he was an outright Italian. He didn’t get the accolades, at that time anyway; in 72 and 73 the car was disappointing, and it was Tyrrell and Lotus who were sharing the successes, taking it in turns, almost; but I could see the potential, that the 312 was going to be a real threat.

Design had tended to stagnate around 1972-73; you could build yourself a nominal car, bolt a Cosworth and a Hewland on the back and you stood a good chance of success. There was no need for ingenuity, though both Lotus and ourselves were struggling with inboard brakes; the work that they entailed was enormous… Then as the amount of downforce increased, and with it the grip, it got to the point that you didn’t need the inboard brakes anymore, and we all breathed a sigh of relief and threw them out.

Then when Niki Lauda came on the came on scene, the Ferrari got better and better. The flat-12 had broken fresh ground, giving it a lower centre of gravity. We weren’t yet into the ground-effect period; we were playing with the idea – I was using a bluff-nose which had a ground-effect component – but while the flat-12 fitted the theories of the time, the width became a hindrance when we began to understand ground-effects. And at that time Ferrari was going into one of its slides; their progress has always been a sinusoidal curve. When success starts to come, more and more people get involved until it reaches a peak; by then they’re so overburdened with all the clever people, there’s only one way they can go. And I think they’re heading for a peak now.

Derek Gardner was talking to Gordon Cruickshank