Today, Formula 1 teams expect two years’ warning of technical rule changes. Thirty years ago, they got four months. Cue panic – then a prime example of pure inspiration
writer Paul Fearnley
The bombshell that sucked the air from beneath their skirts detonated on Thursday November 3: from two tonnes of ground-effect grip to ‘two tonnes of flat-bottomed fun’. Yet the governing body’s only concession to this immediate, swingeing change — originally mooted for 1985 — was a rescheduling of the impending ’83 season: February’s South African Grand Prix at Kyalami was tipped to the back of the calendar so that Jacarepagua in Rio might open proceedings on March 13.
Brabham designer Gordon Murray had been sitting pretty, so far advanced was his programme: his prototype ‘pit stop’ car had been testing since August/September and two further chassis were almost complete.
“Suddenly my philosophy of being well prepared meant that I was worse off than everybody else,” he says, his relationship with team boss Bernie Ecclestone having unusually got its wires crossed. “Bernie was, shall we say, guiding the rules, and I thought, ‘Fantastic, we’ve got the inside line.’ The rumours were strengthening, but he kept saying, ‘Forget them! We’re keeping skirts.’ I had no inkling of what was coming.” Ferrari, in contrast, had tested a skirt-less 126C2 at Fiorano in late October.
Murray was in deep. Having reintroduced strategic stops to Formula 1 the previous season, he was aiming to cash in fully with his neater, lower ‘half-tank’ BT51 for 1983. High-pressure refuelling rigs and tyre-warmers had been designed and made — “They took about as long to do as the car itself” — and pit stops had been practised, reviewed on video and practised again with ever-faster guns and captive wheel nuts. Another three weeks of honing at Paul Ricard beckoned, to be followed by — hey, you never know — a holiday. Bliss.
Now hear this!
Murray: “We were going to lose the whole concept of pit stops if we took the skirts off the BT51, because everything — the centre of gravity, the centre of pressure, everything — would then be in the wrong place. With the skirts removed, the sidepods would be doing virtually nothing — that’s 60-70 per cent of your downforce gone — and you’d be back to 1970s (rearward) weight and aero distributions.”
A local rival was of a different mindset and thus in a slightly different position. Murray had already spent two years coping with the compromises — inlets canted awkwardly into the airstream and an insufficiently stiff block cradled in a subframe — that were forced on him by BMW’s admittedly powerful production-based turbo ‘four’, whereas John Barnard had persuaded McLaren that it would be better to wait for the TAG-funded V6 Porsche was tailoring to his exacting requirements.
“I didn’t want any turbo engine, I wanted the perfect turbo engine,” Barnard says. “Ours had no pumps alongside it, which allowed me to run very wide, undisturbed underwings all the way through to the back of the car. The numbers we were getting with the model in the wind tunnel were phenomenal: a huge step forward. But now my advantage, so carefully considered and specced, had been thrown out of the window. I was pretty angry.”
He received relatively little notice — perhaps 10 days: “Technical people didn’t meet in those days; it was only team owners and principals who went to these impromptu meetings. Ron Dennis came in one day to tell me there was talk of taking away the underwings and skirts. He wasn’t joking. A few days later he was back: ‘It’s passed; FISA has sanctioned it.’ Dumbstruck, I slumped in my chair wondering what on earth we were going to do.”
Barnard had always planned to start the season with a tweaked version of his Cosworthpowered 1982 car — and that wouldn’t be changing, given that his turbo design was in abeyance even before the flat-bottom announcement. Murray’s pain was more immediate and his response necessarily more radical: the dart-shaped BT52.
“For the first time in my F1 life I was absolutely on the back foot,” he says. “I had no time for wind tunnel modelling — it was all done from theory, experience and gut feel. I did a sketch and used it to show the guys what we were going to do. We knew we would be generating huge amounts of torque by the season’s end and that therefore we would be traction-limited, so I dumped the sidepods and moved the centre of gravity rearward by seven per cent. That’s huge. A major change in the days of skirts would have been one per cent.
“I shifted everything I could to the back of the car and increased its wheelbase (to become the longest in the field at 112in). We did everything we could to get maximum traction and downforce over the rear. We set the rear wing — the biggest, curviest one we could come up with — to maximum, and the front wings were there just to balance it. I didn’t want a fragile, complicated car that the drivers were always fiddling with, so hardly anything was adjustable: it had a fixed rollbar at the front and no rear anti-roll bar. The engine had to be our focus: maps, boosts, driveability.”
Brabham was renowned for its superb fabrication skills, and its 40-odd staff set to.
Murray: “We had a great bunch and everybody just worked, whatever it took. All-nighters were common then, but this was something extra: 24/7. There was little carry-over from BT51 and David North and I drew every part between us. I was totally wired by the end. Yet the only mistake I made in my hurry was the nose. My original design was absolutely clean aero-wise and Bernie loved it — he likes things to be neat. But because processes were having to overlap so much, by the time I’d finished my magnesium front bulkhead, cast rather than fabricated, it was too bulky and I had to swage soft bumps over the suspension mounts, which Bernie hated.”
The end result, however, was deemed beautiful by most observers: “I have always styled my own cars. It’s a feel you get when you do that first sketch. Usually that gets modified in the wind tunnel; the BT52 looks the way it does because we didn’t have time to muck around with it.”
Barnard did visit a wind tunnel, the rollingroad affair he had set up at the National Maritime Institute in Teddington. There, he and Alan Jenkins assessed models of myriad shapes and sizes: “Delta-wing cars; long, thin cars; all sorts.” With time running out, areas from a couple of models were blended to arrive at the ‘Coke bottle’: a neat reworking of Barnard’s large-plan area motif.
“That wasn’t our name for it,” he says. “We waisted the car in from quite a long way forward on the sidepods; a very smooth, gentle waisting that tucked in ahead of the rear wheels. It was quite effective and set a trend.”
The British teams’ work ethic, lateral thinking and innovation at this hectic time were deeply impressive. Murray’s BT52 also introduced carbonfibre roll-hoops and the ‘race rear end’ — in-unit engine, gearbox and suspension prepped and set up at the factory and shipped out ready-to-go. The early pre-race nights the latter afforded the mechanics were some compensation for long winter nights.
Meanwhile, in a big house in Walsall — a step up from its scruffy Nissen hut and Portakabin design office — a much smaller team was also working miracles. Mo Nunn’s Ensign and Teddy Yip’s Theodore concerns had joined wobbly forces, and designer Nigel Bennett had been fighting fires since long before the bombshell. His response was phlegmatic.
“We just had to get on with it,” he says. “We were not in a position to object. There was no point ranting and raving. If you want to be in F1 you have to go by its rules. Plus there were only 13 of us. And that included the secretary.” Barnard estimates that McLaren had almost 80 staff by the end of 1984. And that included the tea lady.
Money was tight at Theodore, too: an initial $600,000 for F1. Only Nunn’s unswerving Brummie optimism — “Don’t worry, we’ll find something” — and Yip’s Indycar deal with George Bignotti saw it through. Just. Bennett and colleague Graham Humphrys would be busy boys.
Bennett: “We started work on the Indycars about Christmas-time. We converted two existing F1s — same tub, but different gearbox, fuel tank and underwing, plus pullrod front suspension instead of rockers — and built another from scratch. It was a struggle to get everything ready for the Month of May at Indianapolis. This, not F1, had to be our focus because it was our only way of survival.
“The F1 car was done very quickly as a result. We did some wind tunnel testing at Imperial College, but not a lot: two days, no more. We were not working on anything radical; we were scratching to survive. We ended up adopting the Coke bottle. It was pretty much guesswork because there was no circuit simulation then.”
Rio was rushing up. McLaren sampled its new pushrod front suspension, but not its latest body shape, at a pre-season test there, whereas Brabham managed only a chilly shakedown at Brands Hatch — hardly ideal preparation for a switch from Goodyear to Michelin in the heat of South America. A bigger shock, however, awaited Murray in Brazil.
“I thought everybody would have done the same as us,” he says. “I told Bernie not to be too upset if all the teams arrived with something similar. But it turned out that we were out on a limb. Other people were slow to realise the ramifications of losing so much downforce while (for some) gaining so much horsepower: a complete rethink was required. As long as I had matched the centre of pressure with the centre of gravity, I knew we’d be fine. As it turned out, we not only matched it but we could handle even more rear downforce. That’s why I did the 52B.”
B, C and D models peppered the grid in Rio, whereas Murray’s update, with its winglets and resited oil cooler (within a smoothed nose), would not appear until July’s British GP. That’s because Brabham’s late arrival was ahead of the game — and battling reliability issues as a result. Yet despite a cooked left-rear shocker and flexing gearbox side-plates that militated against full boost, a serene yet tenacious Nelson Piquet qualified fourth in Brazil.
John Watson, in Barnard’s stop-gap MP4/1C, was less happy with his lot. The Professional Racing Drivers’ Association, sick of the rigid and therefore pummelling ride demanded by fixed skirts, and rightly concerned by rising cornering speeds as the 1000bhp turbo era dawned, had made a vociferous call for radical change. That was at Paul Ricard in July 1982. Barrelling into the first corner at Rio, `Wattie’ was no longer quite so sure.
“It was horrendous,” he says. “You can never give a racing driver too much horsepower or too much grip. It’s when you take them away that we really moan. I turned in late and aggressively — with all that muscle memory of ground effect — and it felt as though I were on ice; no direct connection between the steering, tyres and track.
“But we’re paid to drive anything, and within a couple of hours I got used to it. The track became less green, the tyres started to do their business and I began to get a better balance, which is the most important issue no matter how much downforce you have. Things weren’t as dire as they first appeared. You move on.”
To the next problem, that is: Michelin qualifiers that even the turbo runners were struggling to heat up. Watson would line up 16th — and his race would be as meteoric as Piquet’s was metronomic.
The Brazilian grabbed a place at the start, and another on lap two, before moving smoothly into the lead on lap seven. He pulled away remorselessly thereafter and pitted on schedule, on lap 40 (of 63).
“It was a schoolboy sum,” says Murray. “We knew that if we could eke a 26-second lead before our stop that we would win every race. Whenever we planned to stop — we could go without on street circuits — we tended to do 60-70 per cent of the race on the first set of tyres because that meant we could run very close to, or under, the minimum limit before adjusting the weight with the amount of fuel we put in.”
Although it had not shipped its entire pit stop kit, and used manual jacks rather than its planned onboard air-jacks, Brabham spent just 16.4 seconds turning around its number one. Only Williams attempted something similar: it set fire to world champion Keke Rosberg’s pole-sitting FWO8C on lap 28 before pushstarting it to an eventual disqualification from second place. Piquet, in contrast, resumed in the lead, reduced his boost and stroked to victory. The writing was on the pit board: Alfa Romeo, ATS, Ferrari, Ligier, Lotus, McLaren, Renault and Toleman — but not impecunious Theodore — soon joined the strategy game. All were too late to overcome Brabham’s advantage.
Watson was Rio’s other star performer. The first of his many charges that season had lifted him to second place, 36 seconds behind Piquet, when his DFV seized on lap 35: “I had a shit-hot racing car that was balanced and allowed me to perform. The day was warm and tyre temperature on full tanks was less of an issue. I was flying…”
McLaren team-mate Niki Lauda eventually inherited his second place. Clearly there was more than one way of skinning the flatbottomed cat. Indeed six marques (in the first seven races at that) would win during the season. Brabham, however, had instantly proved conclusively that making do would not do. As a consequence, Renault accelerated its programme so that Alain Prost might race its new carbon-fibre RE40 ahead of schedule at Long Beach, a fortnight after Rio. It retired, as did Piquet (because of a broken throttle assembly), while Watson scored McLaren’s lone victory of the season — from a record 22nd on the grid — and Johnny Cecotto, in only his second F1 GP, registered Theodore’s only point of the year.
Other mechanical misfortunes — a late rear puncture while leading at Detroit and a collision with an impatient Prost at Zandvoort — would keep Piquet out of the winner’s circle until September. However, his Brabham was competitive everywhere bar Long Beach, and when boosted by a controversial — yet deemed legal — toluene-based fuel courtesy of Wintershall, via BASF, via BMW, he whistled past an increasingly uptight Prost to take the title. Meanwhile Ferrari, quick, reliable and guided by Dr Harvey Postlethwaite, won the constructors’ championship. Pioneering Renault was deep in its turbo cups.
Brabham’s campaign with Piquet had been brilliantly conceived, relentlessly pursued and superbly executed: inventive, dynamic, flexible. It was, however, a short-term gain.
Murray: “If I’d had more time I still would’ve shifted a lot of weight back but would not have been quite so radical; and I still would have had sidepods — short ones — because that way you can get some downforce and it’s easier to package the cooling.”
McLaren and Williams, although they suffered agonies during their turbo programmes with TAG-Porsche and Honda respectively in 1983, would ultimately win the turbo war. The latter’s V6 was initially underpowered yet peaky, while the former’s was hustled into action against Barnard’s wishes by Lauda’s Marlboro machinations: the unready hybrid MP4/1Es suffered seven consecutive retirements. Barnard concedes, however, that useful lessons were learned.
“Once I’d hit on the Coke bottle I continued down that route,” he says. “The shape had to be modified for the ’84 car to fit intercoolers as well as oil and water radiators, but we found that we could sharpen the angles and curves without losing — perhaps gaining, even — in terms of aero. Though I had defined the engine to suit ground effect, I still got some advantage from its packaging on a flat-bottomed car.
“Safety issues undoubtedly played a part, but the switch to flat bottoms was very political. What it did do, though, was blow a hole in Ferrari’s theory that if they took away our underwings we would all be brought down to earth. In fact, the aspects in which we were ahead of them now mattered even more.”
As you were, Number One.