Ply in the ointment

Fifteen minutes of fame
Protos: 1967 Deutschland Trophy

Frank Costin reckoned the F2 field couldn’t see the wood for the trees. His car was definitely not a chip off the old block, Brian Hart tells Paul Fearnley

Had ‘Joe 90’ focused his hi-tech specs on motorsport, chances are he would have driven the futuristic Protos F2 car of 1967. Designed by Frank Costin, a man with a sixth sense for aerodynamics, it looked like no other racer before or since — and was made of wood!

With Costin marooned in north Wales — deep in a world of his own — it was engineer/driver Brian Hart who did the networking and legwork that made this vision a reality. “I knew Frank via his brother Mike, whom I was working with at Cosworth,” he explains. “Frank was a fascinating chap and spoke with such enthusiasm: he was adamant that he could build an F2 car that was way ahead of its time.”

Hart was swept along by the project, clocking over 40,000 miles in three months as he commuted between London and Wales: ‘We were making everything apart from the engine [a Cosworth FVA] and gearbox; there was no template like there was on a privateer Brabham.”

There was another reason for the long slog: Costin’s refusal to compromise. He had chosen marineply because it gave him a free hand when it came to the car’s shape. The end result was the most slippery racer of its era: elliptical in cross-section (there wasn’t a flat panel to be seen), inboard suspension, swept-back front wishbones, faired-in engine and perspex cockpit canopy.

“It was incredibly fast in a straight line [a useful asset in those slipstreaming days], but it had shortcomings,” says Hart. The engine was carried in a metal subframe, and where this affixed to the wooden tub was a weak point. And because the car had a rounded shape, the side fuel tanks were carried quite high, giving a bad CoG. It was heavy, too — about 25kg more than the rest — and when this was coupled with an [initial] lack of anti-roll bars [Costin had yet to be convinced of their necessity], it was a bit of a handful in the corners. One of our biggest failings was our inability to engineer the car once the season had started: money was tight and we had no baseline from which to work.”

With the prototype finally finished, the other cars were built at Ron Harris’ Maidenhead workshop. Like Hart, this former works Lotus F2 boss had been swayed by Costin’s vision of the future. But the project was late and it wasn’t until the end of the May that both cars were ready for Hart and Eric Offenstadt.

Races at Hockenheim (two) and Reims followed: ideal Protos territory. Offenstadt qualified on pole in the Rhein-Pokalrennen, and Hart was in the lead group when he lost fuel pressure: “I thought I could win. The car was capable of 180mph and I was cruising. I could pick up five or six places in a lap.” He was also plotting a last-lap victory push at Reims, when the swirlpot cracked.

Now it was back to Hockenheim for the Deutschland Trophy. This was to be decided by two heats — one of 15 laps, the other 30— and Hart was joined by Pedro Rodriguez. The Mexican was racing the car rebuilt after Offenstadt’s crash at Reims, and Brian was a little miffed that it was fitted with some of the new bits that he had been recommending all along.

Pedro led the first heat until he spun in the Stadium Section — it was still a handful—and this let Frank Gardner through to win in a Brabham BT23. Hart was a distant fourth. In the main race, though, he was in the thick of things, and it boiled down to a last-lap scramble between him, Gardner and Jacky Ickx in Ken Tyrrell’s Matra. As they entered the Stadium Section, Brian appeared in ‘pole position’, but his more wieldy opposition shuffled him down to third by the finish line, just over 1sec behind the victorious Ickx. He had, however, finished second on aggregate to Gardner.

Races at Jarama, Zandvoort and the Nurburgring proved more problematic, but the team was hopeful of success at Enna in late August: the track was ultra-quick, and Hart had won there in 1964 in a Harris-run Lotus… But Rodriguez broke his foot in a huge shunt (the car stood up well) — and Harris dropped a bombshell.

“Ron called us into his hotel room,” says Hart, “and not only did he say that there wouldn’t be a next year, he also said that he wouldn’t be able to pay off Frank for the remainder of this year.” Hart’s eighth at Enna was the programme’s denouement. “I don’t think we would have won in our second year, but we would have been closer to the front; I think Frank could see that some compromises were needed. But we never got the chance.

“But what a project. I’ve got a soft spot for that car.”