Racing lines: May 2018

Progress has pushed us onto a treadmill of aerodynamics and fractional gains. Should we take a step back to a simpler time?

Has downforce ruined motor racing? It’s an age-old question and one that’s as contentious to ask as it is complex to answer. Why? Because finding ways of going faster is the lifeblood of racing. In fact it’s the whole bloody point.

It’s this relentless pursuit of pace that has provided the creative impetus for great engineering minds to focus and flourish. Whether you’re an engine builder striving for more power, a tyre company tasked with finding more grip or a brake manufacturer trying to get the darned thing slowed down as quickly as possible, the challenge has remained the same for more than 100 years.

It may not seem like it, but aero has always been a factor, too. Whether by softening the edges of an upright radiator shell, wrapping the tops of exposed wheels with a set of curvaceous cycle wings or tucking the driver behind a cut-down aero screen, engineers quickly cottoned on to ‘free’ gains that could be had from cleaving the air more cleanly. Until aero-augmented cornering became the all-consuming obsession, reducing drag was the goal.

Nowadays we have convinced ourselves that there is beauty in functionality but, with very few exceptions, downforce has destroyed the look of racing cars and has led to a very different kind of racing. Yes, there’s a certain outlandish drama to a road-derived GT car festooned with aggressive aerodynamic addenda, just as there’s something that boggles your brain when you see the cascade of winglets and other complex aero devices attached to the car’s nose and flanks. There’s beauty in the form of individual details, but little to love when the collective aero array is viewed as a whole.

Contrast this with cars of the ’50s and ’60s: gloriously sculptural forms, pebble-smooth surfaces pierced only by wind-cheating NACA ducts or soft-edged radiator intakes. These are the enduring beauties of automotive design: Jaguar’s sylph-like C-, D- and ‘low-drag’ E-types; Aston’s DB4 GT Zagato; Alfa’s delectable TZ1 and TZ2; Ferrari’s iconic 250 GTO and the Shelby Daytona Coupé that was conceived to beat it.

And then there are more extreme examples. The Lotus 11 and Lotus 15 sports cars looked sensational – the very personification of an aerodynamic form. In fact think back through the ages and it’s those cars dedicated to cheating the wind that lodge in the memory for their remarkable beauty and commitment to efficient speed. The Porsche 917LH and Mercedes 196R streamliner spring to mind.

Of course there were also the freaks, such as the Cadillac Series 61 Aerodynamic Roadster, nicknamed Le Monstre for reasons that will be abundantly clear if you search Google images. Likewise Le Mans stalwarts Dome, Rondeau and WR pushed the boundaries with super-smooth shapes honed for the Hunaudières.   

I’ve raced two very slippery cars – a long-nose Jaguar D-type and a delectable Alpine M65. Both at Le Mans, on the full circuit, their natural habitat. Home of the classic low-drag, long-tail LM body style, the Circuit de la Sarthe’s endless straights and a long-distance race format meant cars needed a high top speed combined with lower fuel consumption.

Le Mans also championed small engine capacity classes and created the Index of Performance as a means of comparing the relative speed and efficiency of otherwise disparate cars. It’s this IoP that the diminutive Alpine was designed to win. Powered by a modest Gordini-tuned 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine, the Dieppe-built racer was clothed in a remarkable finned, long-tail glassfibre body for straight-line speed and stability.

I can still feel the sensation of spearing down the Mulsanne, initially being out-dragged by Lotus Elans and Porsche 904s, but then reeling them in and eventually passing them as aerodynamic efficiency took over and they ran into invisible brick walls. The Alpine was like a paper dart, apparently racing through a vacuum. I learned to hate the Mulsanne chicanes, for they squandered our precious pace. The M65 was a magical car.

The D-type was a similar, if rather spookier experience. I recall the charge from Mulsanne Corner to Indianapolis being a real test of nerve, the D’s beautiful nose getting lighter and lighter as it snorted its way towards 170mph. Smooth and wingless, it gained speed with impunity, steering inputs fading to nudges of persuasion. It was as far from the sensation of today’s ‘drive on the ceiling‘ as it’s possible to get.

Thinking back to these cars isn’t just an exercise in rose-tinted nostalgia, for like most areas of life you can learn a lot from the past. As we enter an era in which the focus is shifting from raw just-for-the-hell-of-it speed and power to the pursuit of ultra-efficiency and alternative energy sources, it strikes me a return to the days of low-drag aerodynamics is more relevant than ever. Given gratuitous speed is also increasingly becoming a societal red flag, I wonder about the current obsession with endowing road cars with race-car levels of downforce – surely manufacturers should cede to the ethos of the Index of Performance and attempt to master the art of extracting more from less. 

Look back at the work of designers such as Malcolm Sayer, Frank Costin, Dr Samir Klat and Ercole Spada and you could be name-checking a cadre of great 20th century artists, their works fit for exhibition in the Tate Modern. What’s more, you need only watch historic racing to appreciate that these glorious downforce-free machines they penned require an equally fluid, graceful and visually stimulating driving style to make them go quickly.

Of course my glorious low-drag ‘retrolution’ will never happen. And even if it did, CFD software would ensure everyone arrived at the same optimised shape, thereby robbing the challenge of variety and originality. It’s easy to have a downer on downforce, but perhaps it’s computing power that’s really ruined racing?

Dickie Meaden has been writing about cars for 25 years – and racing them for almost as long. He is a regular winner at historic meetings