Hart of the machine

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Brian Hart was reluctant to square up to the F1 paddock, but when he did, he punched above his weight. By Gordon Cruickshank

Back in 1962 Motoring News ran a story about a young up-and-corning driver. The item concluded that we could expect to hear a good deal more of “this promising North Londoner”. Well, it was right — and it was wrong. Brian Hart made it all the way to Formula One, but not as a driver. He became one of that elite band who have been hyphenated to a GP team by providing its power.

“I never wanted to go into F1,” he says today from his home in France. Most people in racing see grand prix as the big time and will do anything to get there; Brian had to be talked into it, and then went ahead even though he could see it was probably financial suicide. “I knew we’d go broke — but you just have to do these things, don’t you?”

It was turbos that did it. At that time Hart would never have considered designing an F1 powerplant from scratch; he was content with the F2 success of his 420R engine, especially in Ted Toleman’s cars. But when Toleman got designer Rory Byrne to build an F1 chassis, team manager Alex Hawkridge told Hart that either he turbocharged his four-cylinder or they’d buy-in Lancia’s turbo 1.4.

“I had never even seen a turbocharger,” Hart claims, “and I didn’t understand intercooling.” To be fair, at that point few did — Hart’s was the first British turbo Fl engine. But it was a rough baptism. The TG181 was a bit of a barge — “we called it the General Belgrano,” recalls Hart — and the 415T engine was down on power and prone to headgasket failure.

Throughout 1981, drivers Brian Henton and Derek Warwick repeatedly failed to qualify. Hart was under fearful pressure, and there was a heavy tension between him and Byrne.

As an F1 rookie, Warwick was at the sharp end: “My memories of Brian differ enormously. I first met him in 1980 when we were doing Formula Two. Back then we were walking on water. Then in the turbo days in F1 we had lots of problems. I did a fair bit of shouting at him, but I realised it was not down to Brian. He is a great engineer and a great person, he was just always underfinanced.”

“It was so awful I nearly killed myself,” recalls Hart. “Then I decided to cast the head and block as one and in about a fortnight we gained 130bhp. And the new car was 90 per cent better. After that it was uphill for Toleman — and downhill for Brian.”

With the awkward-looking but much improved TG183B, the team scored 10 championship points in ’83, and the following year the young Ayrton Senna almost won at Monaco in the cleaner and slicker TG184. Hart was very impressed with the young Brazilian: “He was astonishing. No man until Schumacher could motivate a team like Ayrton. I asked him to remember the boost reading on one corner per lap, and he came back after a single lap with all the readings for every corner in his head. It was a new level of participation.”

But in 1985 the rising Toleman team was bought by Benetton, who had BMW lined up for motive power. It was a relief for Hart, struggling with a tiny budget and too many customers — at different times Spirit, RAM and Beatrice-Lola also packed his little turbo four. “I had my arm twisted to do other teams,” says Hart ruefully. “Toleman simply couldn’t fund the development I once told Paul Rosche [BMW’s engine guru] what we had to spend, and he said they spent that on blocks alone.”

So why did he put himself under this pressure? Perhaps it was the intellectual challenge, the ‘impossible’ technical exercise which excited him. The same thing which led him to take one of Cosworth’s best engines and do something with it which the Northampton firm said wasn’t on. Not that the engine specialist would be surprised: Hart worked there through the 1960s before starting up his own company and stayed on good terms with it even when he was improving its engines.

Considering that he specialised in airframes during his early training at de Havilland, you might have expected Hart to become a chassis expert, but it was engines that fascinated him. “I had always fiddled with them,” he says. “I built my own 1172 engine as homework”. That went into the Lotus Seven he raced in 1958, before he and Len Terry built the first Terrier, with which Hart collected 18 wins in ’59.

Trips to the new firm of Cosworth to buy parts for his racer soon led to evening jobs there, and before long he became part of the team. Brian was responsible for engine testing as the young firm began to make an impact, and not only on the dyno. Cosworth entered its own development cars and experimental engines in various formulae, with both Costin and Hart driving. “We didn’t really need our own car,” says Costin. “It was a perk. But it allowed us to engineer the installations ourselves. And it was always well prepared, so it was pretty quick”. So were both drivers, but while Costin had no ambitions for F1 stardom, Hart still had not committed himself between grid and workshop. In 1962, he tasted F1 in a non-championship race at Crystal Palace, coming fifth, as well as scoring a stack of Libre victories. He also drove for Ron Harris in F2, winning at Enna in ’64 after a hard dice with Frank Gardner and Paul Hawkins, and for Peter Sellers.

By 1966, as well as his Cosworth tasks, he had set up a small firm doing contract design work and was also racing most weekends. He built and drove Frank Costin’s futuristic Protos in ’67, but was now facing a decision.

“I had already realised I wasn’t going to be a star. At Mallory, in Cosworth’s Lotus 22, I was on the front row with Jimmy Clark, and I was leading into Gerards, absolutely flat out, when Jimmy came round the outside. And he looked across and gave me a little wave!” The memory of that friendly sign clinched it: Hart stopped racing, and in 1969 Brian Hart Ltd was born.

There was plenty of tuning work, including building and modifying Cosworth’s new twin-cam BDA engine for the works Ford Escorts. “Cosworth didn’t have the capacity to build enough engines, and I knew Peter Ashcroft (Ford’s engine man) from working with him at Peter Sellers Racing, so we got the job. It opened doors for us; if we wanted anything, we got Ford to ring up and it would be done.” But after a bad 1971 season, Ashcroft was anxious to stretch the BDA from 1.6 to a full two litres so the Escort could go for outright wins in race and rally form.

While Cosworth felt limited by the production iron Ford block to about 1800cc, Hart took the radical step of casting an alloy version. “Cosworth thought the bores were too close to fit liners, but I knew from my time at de Havillands that you could chrome the bores and do without liners.” Though built on spec as an F2 engine, this was Hart’s breakthrough. Visiting Hart’s works early in 1972, Ashcroft literally tripped over the new unit where it lay covered with a sheet. When he discovered what it was, he insisted it was tried in an Escort. It was the start of the family Ford’s domination of the rally field; 2-litre BDA Escorts won the 72 Manx and RAC, and were still winning a decade on.

“We thought we might build 100 or 200,” says Hart, “but Stuart Turner [Ford’s competition director] asked for 1000!” Design copyright, of course, lay with Ford, so there was no clash with Cosworth, which was by now busy with its phenomenal DFV.

But while on holiday, Brian had come to a big decision: “I’d realised we were going nowhere just modifying other people’s engines; we needed a product of our own.”

Encouraged by John Surtees, he began to draw up a new 2-litre F2 unit. “I started with a clean sheet,” he says, “with the single proviso that Stuart Turner insisted it could fit into an Escort, in case of a road version!” Revealed in 1975, and a frequent winner from 77 onwards, the new 420R became, in the small world of racing, a major success, and BHL built hundreds of them.

In 1980 came Toleman’s European F2 Championship crown, and that deep breath and step up to F1. Facing BMW, Renault, TAG-Porsche and Ferrari, it remains astonishing that Hart’s tiny group of around 30 people achieved what they did, extracting 800bhp from 1.5 litres. But the rivals, with huge budgets, were packing 50 per cent more horses. It was cruel that Senna’s charge to the front through Monaco’s soaking streets in 1984 was cut short moments too soon — but to be second was glorious enough. And there were five other points finishes that season.

“It’s a miracle what Brian achieved with such a small team,” says Costin. “But he had good people and they worked incredibly hard.”

Warwick concurs: “Brian would’ve been considered a truly great engineer had a manufacturer come along.”

So why didn’t Hart move to one of the big players? “I just didn’t have the head for talking to the big names,” he says. “And actually, I quite liked the David-versus-Goliath thing…”

As Benetton made off with his customer and the turbo era ended, the Hart name slid back down the grid, with Beatrice. More crucially, Brian Hart Ltd had been contracted to build BDT-E turbo engines for the RS200, Ford’s GpB rally car. When GpB was canned, a significant cash stream dried up too. It made Brian receptive to an offer from Cosworth, who in 1987 bought 75 per cent of BHL, mainly to obtain an advanced road-car engine Hart had designed for a client. It was a deal which brought no benefits to either, and after an uncomfortable year without getting the promised design work, Brian bought back his shares.

BHL then continued to modify Cosworth Fl engines for the 3.5-litre formula, doing so much to them that they were labelled Hart-DFR.

What did Cosworth think of that? Costin laughs when asked: “Our employees didn’t like us talking to Brian in case we spilled secrets, but Keith, Brian and I always got on well.”

By now Hart had formulated a new plan: “I knew that the Cosworth FIB F1 engine was on the way, so we needed a new product of our own. We couldn’t afford a V12, but Renault had built a V10, so I decided to build one too.” It was not only technically bold, it was commercially unsound. “We had no-one to sell it to! But I went to Imola for the GP and told Gary Anderson [Jordan’s designer] about it over a glass of wine. He told Eddie, and then came to see it. We ran it up in the test cell and he said, ‘How many do you have? “Three.’ ‘When can you build 15?’ So we costed that out, and Eddie said — yes if we could do it for a million less!”

They arrived at a compromise and Hart went ahead — against all logic. “I knew we’d go broke, so I sold off a lot of equipment and condensed the operation.” With so much dyno testing behind it, because there hadn’t been a car to try it in, the 1993 V10 Hart proved pretty reliable, scoring a few points. “But Gary wanted it lower and lighter, so for ’94 we gave it a lower sump, and with about the same power we gained 0.75sec.”

Anderson: “Brian was good to work with — quick to understand and respond. There was no committee, just Brian, and if you rang up to discuss something new, it was under way before you knew it.” But this new era brought a result all too familiar to Hart Jordan ended up fifth in the championship, which elevated it into the big time, and Hart was dropped for Peugeot. It was an unhappy switch, as Anderson remembers: ‘The whole Peugeot thing was very difficult. We’d have done better to stick with Brian.”

Hart soldiered on in F1 with a new 3-litre V8 which Footwork used through 1995-6, but there was very little development cash. Always the small player, BHL was now suffering from new rules that guaranteed long-term stability in F1 and the entry of more big manufacturers such as Mercedes and BMW.

“We were just eclipsed,” says Brian. “The little V8 ended up in a Minardi in 1997 because it had nowhere else to go, but there was no money in it.”

His ever-active pencil next draughted a new F1 V10, but with no takers he sold the design to Tom Walkinshaw and in 1998 closed BHL. “I’d rather be right out of it than on the fringes,” he says, “and I don’t miss it at all.”

It was a low-key ending to a career which had touched the big time. Hart and his tiny team, under-resourced but passionate about the game, had mixed with the big players, fuelled by commitment and enthusiasm. And if you want to leave a mark on racing’s history, getting your name on a grand prix car is about as good as it gets.