When Britain swept the ‘Yard
…and we don’t mean 1965. By the 1980s every car on the Indianapolis grid was built in the UK – and that goes for the engines too
By Ian Wagstaff
The majority of Americans watching the 1982 Indy 500 probably didn’t realise its significance. It was to be the last time, with the exception of the 2004 race, that a car built in their country would win the event. For the next 15 years every victorious chassis would be built in Britain. Indeed, during that time most of the 33-car field would originate from Bicester, Huntingdon or Poole. And the engines? They came from Northamptonshire, whatever they were branded.
The second British invasion of Indianapolis following Lotus’s historic 1965 win started in ’78, coincidentally the only season that true Indycars raced in the UK. Most of the first wave — Cooper, Lotus, Ferguson, Brabham and BRP — had gone. However, McLaren was still competing, Lola had returned after a brief hiatus and Penske had built its first cars in Dorset. One third of the cars on the grid were British — a record that grew until, eight years later, every qualifier had a UK-built car. This was the era that ushered in the mass-produced Indycar; it was a time of British engineers, expertise and design.
Archetypal production race car manufacturer Lola had returned with just one car, driven by Al Unser Sr, which won. It would be a few years before the company began to build Indycars in any great numbers, but founder Eric Broadley recalls how important such racing became to Lola in the 1980s and ’90s. He reckons to have crossed the Atlantic 200-300 times on behalf of the business, describing the experience as “murder”. As demand grew, so Lola would produce more than 30 Indycars a year, peaking at 38. “The heyday of supplying Indycars was good while it lasted, but these things never last forever,” he says.
It was March that first `productionised’ the Indycar, however, supplying much of the field between 1982 and ’88, including a record 29 cars in 1984. It started in haphazard fashion. Robin Herd admits that the company discovered its American market by accident. Legendary Indy engineer George Bignotti became involved when March built a Formula 2-derived car, the Orbiter, for entrant Sherman Armstrong. He discussed the idea of a March Indycar with the company’s future managing director, Dave Reeves, but no money was initially available. Then along came former Le Mans winner Don Whittington. Nobody at Bicester had heard of him, but he had the money to buy four cars. A few weeks later Bignotti had also found the wherewithal.
The new car used a beefed-up version of March’s 1981 Formula 1 tub. While the 811 F1 car was basically a failure, however, the 81C was anything but and, with Tom Sneva driving, it was the quickest car in qualifying at that year’s 500. It was Gordon Coppuck, carrying out the groundwork on the car, who made the difference. Coppuck already had an Indianapolis winner, the McLaren M16, on his CV. “Gordon showed us what the difference was between an F1 car and an Indycar,” remembers Alan Mertens, who became March’s chief Indycar designer. Before the season was out, A J Foyt had abandoned his Coyotes to buy an 81C, scoring March’s maiden Indycar win in the Pocono 500. Sneva also won a couple of lateseason races, and America became March’s premier market, with 20 cars being sold the following year.
Victory at Indianapolis did not come until 1983, though, with Sneva driving. For five years March was to top the podium. In ’84 every finisher used a March. Even Roger Penske had bought a pair of 84Cs for evaluation, one of which Rick Mears used to win the race. (By now, such was the emphasis on customer cars that Lotus was shunned when it built what would have been, in effect, a works entry — the Type 96 for Roy Winkelmann.) Mertens recalls that in its early days at Indy it was “pretty easy” for March to be successful “as there wasn’t much competition”. However, there was pressure to make each car more successful than the last. Just as it seemed to be getting difficult, along came designer Adrian Newey. March Indycars tended to be designed by committee including — at different stages — Mertens, Newey, Reeves, Tim Holloway and Ralph Bellamy. However, Mertens acknowledges Newey’s “genius”. There were times when the pair lived in each other’s pockets while designing the 85C, Newey working on the aerodynamics, giving Mertens the envelope in which to design the mechanical car.
By this time former F1 designer Nigel Bennett had joined Lola and the Huntingdon firm was back in the frame as a potential winner. March’s order books were still full, and in 1985 when it produced one of its best Indycars, it sold 44 examples. But Bennett’s Lola was working well straight out of the box, while the teams were taking time to settle with their Marches.
The end came quickly for March with just four cars entered for the 1989 and ’90 500s. Mertens and Newey had become frustrated by the politics at Bicester, and were plotting to form their own company to build Indycars. Herd discovered this and summoned the pair to his office. Mertens still expresses surprise that it was Newey whom Herd let go, while he stayed on. The future Red Bull designer left to engineer a Newman-Haas Lola, leading The Indianapolis Star to state: “Mario Andretti had a secret weapon in winning pole at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was an Englishman named Adrian Newey.”
British engines still dominated the Speedway, the Cosworth DFX which had won every year since 1978 giving way to the Chevrolet-badged Ilmor in ’88, so perhaps it is fitting that the end for March came after it was announced as the chosen chassis for Porsche and Alfa Romeo power units. Al Unser Sr took out an Alfaengined 89C for one lap, returning to observe, “the engine’s shit”.
There had been a significant move during March’s final winning year — Bennett had left Lola for Penske. The next few years were to see a battle between two Englishmen — Bennett and his former Lola colleague Bruce Ashmore — to design the Indy 500 winner. However American the name may appear, all of Roger Penske’s Indycars have been built in Poole. The reason dates back to then-sponsor First National City Bank’s desire for European exposure and F1. Acquisition of Graham McRae’s Formula 5000 manufacturing operation enabled Penske to move “quietly”, as Penske Cars general manager Nick Goozee puts it, into F1 away from the limelight. Fittingly it was a Brit, former Brabham and Lotus man Geoff Ferris, who designed the company’s first two Indianapolis winners.
The 1979 season was the first when true ground effects were used at the Speedway. The car was the Chaparral, another apparently American car but built by former Lotus mechanic Bob Sparshott’s B&S Fabrications and designed by Englishman John Barnard. The latter had insisted that the work be done in the UK. Ferris’ PC7 was more semi-ground effects, sporting sidepods that contained the underwing. In the event both Chaparral and PC7 led but ultimately failed, leaving Rick Mears’ older PC6 to score the first victory by a Poole-built car. The Chaparral, in the hands of Johnny Rutherford, won the following year, although Barnard and Chaparral boss Jim Hall had now parted company. Penske won again in 1981 before the March era took over.
In ’84 Ferris stood down; the Penske team continued to win Indianapolis 500s but using March chassis. Bennett joined during this period, ushering in what Goozee describes as “the most successful period for Team Penske an Indycar had Mario Andretti, by far”. His first attempt at been a once-used Theodore. Mario Andretti, with whom he had worked at Lotus, noted the stiff characteristic of the Theodore and persuaded Lola to take on Bennett to deal with the problems of its all-aluminium car. Bennett had his first taste of the 500 in 1983. “I used to loathe it,” he says, reflecting the view that a number of his compatriots had regarding the length of ‘the month of May’.
Lola had returned to Indianapolis that year with a car so bad that Andretti observed, “this car’s got leprosy and you’re trying to cure it with a Band-Aid”. Bennett’s arrival changed much. “We had another set of eyes that had recently been in F1,” says Ashmore, who had first worked on a Lola Indycar in the drawing office in 1978. Bennett and assistant Ashmore found themselves in a tussle with Newey and Mertens. Andretti scored a second place for Lola in the 1985 500, but for ’86 Ashmore says rule changes left the manufacturer, “with a black eye. Our heavy car did not have enough downforce”. The following year’s model was “a complete makeover”. Andretti took pole for the 500 itself while Bobby Rahal won the championship, but again it was a March driver’s name on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
It was at this point that Bennett, described by Goozee as “the last of the gentlemen designers”, left Lola to set up his own Indycar design operation only for this to fall through and for him to be headhunted by Penske. It was now game on, Bennett versus Ashmore. “After three years working with him, I reckoned I knew the way he thought,” says Ashmore. However, he made an initial mistake of carrying on with a car that Bennett had started designing. He put everything into lowering the centre of gravity and making the T88/00 stiffer, but to no avail — Bennett’s more complex PC17, a logical development of his work at Lola, and PC18 won in 1988 and 1989. Ashmore was now concentrating on aerodynamics, but “I was still playing catch up”.
For 1990 Ashmore and Broadley had a “real brainstorm”, the result being that the T90/00 was a major departure, “a 100 per cent aerodynamic project”. Arie Luyendyk used one to take pole and win the fastest-ever Indy 500. After two frustrating years, Ashmore had beaten Bennett. The latter bounced back during the early ’90s as a few Penskes held off the Lola hordes. Ashmore’s 1991 design took seven of the top places that year, but Mears’ Penske was ahead of them all. In 1992 an outsider won, Al Unser Jr’s Galmer, but even that was built in Bicester and designed by ex-March man Mertens.
The PC23 of 1994 is one of Bennett’s favourites. “It had extraordinarily good traction, so much so that the opposition accused us of having traction control.” It swept the board in the championship and with a Mercedes-Benz engine won the 500. If that seems to inject a Teutonic note into this British tale, forget it. Ilmor, which had now won five consecutive 500s with its Chevrolet-backed engine, took advantage of a rules loophole to build a beautiful sounding pushrod unit. Design was carried out in secret and it was not until the month before the 500 that Mercedes learnt about the project and came on board. It won, the rules were soon changed but only regarding the boost, and the orders flowed in. “Then we were banned,” recalls Ilmor founder Mario Illien.
The following year was a nadir. The Penske team went testing at Indianapolis and says, Bennett, “Our drivers were totally spooked by the wind.” Emerson Fittipaldi wanted more and more front wing, but the car went loose on entry and still understeered on the exit. Matters did not improve and by the end of the second week of practice for the 500 Penske, according to Bennett, “had lost faith in our ability to solve the problem”. Roger purchased a Reynard and that didn’t work well, so he borrowed a pair of Lolas but they couldn’t be qualified either. Later in the year Paul Tracy, who had been absent from the team at Indianapolis, tested one of the Penskes and remarked that he could not see what the problem was.
Bennett was to leave Penske and spend a short while as consultant to G-Force. Ashmore joined Reynard after the 1993 500, and while running Reynard North America also worked on the suspension geometry for its first foray at Indianapolis. The car kept up Reynard’s record of winning first time out in every new formula when it was victorious at Surfers Paradise in ’94. However, ahead of it at the 500 was the pushrod Penske. According to Adrian Reynard, the company had prepared well for Indy and it almost came as a shock to him not to win. Determined to succeed the following year, he moved his family to just north of the city and watched as Jacques Villeneuve took the first of two wins for the marque. It was also the first Indy 500 victory for Cosworth’s XB engine.
The ill-conceived birth of the Indy Racing League now heralded the end of the British manufacturers’ domination. A ragbag collection of Champ Car-spec Reynards and Lolas contested the first IRL 500, with designs that ranged back to 1992. Again, a Reynard-Cosworth won, but it was hardly the same. For 1997 the IRL had authorised three manufacturers, only one of which was British, a ‘new boy’, known as G-Force. There would be two more victories for British cars before that manufacturer, having been acquired by Panoz, transferred build to Georgia.
Today, the balance has shifted. The Dallara chassis are made in Italy, although the Ilmor-built Honda engines and the Xtrac gearboxes come from the UK. British drivers dominated last year’s Indianapolis 500 and British engineers abound throughout the teams, but English race car manufacturers have quit the field. The 2012 regulations seem to indicate that the 1980s and early 1990s were a heyday never to be repeated.