They stop to conquer
Brabham ushered in the era of mid-race stops for fuel and tyres, but did the widespread adoption of this tactical feature sound the death knell for F1?
Most enthusiasts seem either to love it or hate it. Mid-race tyre-change tactics for performance reasons, rather than to avert a tyre failure through wear, have either made modern Formula 1, or screwed it up completely.
Where for the 21 years between 1961 and 1982 one could expect any mid-race pit stop to have ruined a driver’s chances of winning a Grand Prix, in the mid-summer of ’82 much of that changed, perhaps for ever. And that change came about 25 years ago – so, as it were, a slightly belated happy birthday to it.
The villain in the piece, or the hero, dependent upon one’s point of view, was that ever-inventive lateral thinker, Gordon Murray and his confrères of the MRD Brabham team. The turbocharged BMW engines they were using were thirsty and facing a 200-mile Grand Prix meant their BT50 cars went to the startline very heavily laden. The alternative was to start the cars on half tanks and accept the time penalty of what was then an old-style mid-race refuelling stop.
For years such a prospect had been unacceptable, but with Goodyear, Michelin and Pirelli involved in a contemporary tyre war help was at hand to mitigate any such penalty. A lighter, half-tanked car could run a softer-compound tyre for at least half the race distance without burning it out. Such tyres could enhance lap times to a point at which the ability to lap more quickly more than offset the time that would be lost in a scheduled mid-race stop.
As the 1982 British GP meeting began at Brands Hatch, the Brabham boys caused a tremendous stir in the pit lane by unloading pressurised fuel canisters from their transporter, while their BT50s had been fitted with on-board jacks. It became apparent that they planned to start at least one car on a half-tank fuel load and then refuel mid-race. But MRD’s carefully rehearsed plan was foiled at Brands, when Riccardo Patrese’s car stalled on the startline and was clouted by René Arnoux’s Renault, while Nelson Piquet’s sister BT50 retired after only nine laps when a metering unit pulley came adrift.
So the great ploy was filed until the French GP at Ricard-Castellet, but there again both Brabham-BMWs dropped out before half distance – one on fire, the other with gudgeon pin failure – and the disappointed mechanics once again stripped off their flameproof overalls, helmets and masks and waited for another day to star mid-race in a Grand Prix.
The German round on BMW’s home ground at Hockenheim also ended in failure, Patrese’s engine breaking after 13 laps and Piquet – when leading by 24 seconds – being tripped up by Eliseo Salazar just before his scheduled stop, triggering Nelson’s celebrated assault on the hapless Chilean with flying fists and feet.
So that first stop of the new era finally devolved upon the Austrian GP, at the Österreichring on August 15 – 25 years ago. Piquet’s tyres blistered early, so he pulled in much sooner than expected, after 17 laps, catching Brabham’s finest on the hop. But they were then ready for the race leader, Patrese, who stopped at 24 laps, four fresh wheels with pre-heated tyres and 24 gallons of fuel being added in 15.6sec and Riccardo rocketing back into the race without losing his lead…
Could it last? No – the Italian’s engine detonated three laps later, and Piquet’s followed. But the mould had been cast, and into 1983 other teams would quickly follow where Brabham-BMW had led.
Arnoux’s Alfa backfire
Mention of René Arnoux seldom fails to raise a smile. The infectiously chirpy little French charger almost always radiated a Gallic insouciance and flair at Renault and later with Ferrari (from 1979-85).
But there were of course the bad days, when insouciance became ennui, like leaving Zolder after having failed to qualify for a Belgian GP only to be hindered at the car park gate by an over-zealous attendant who wanted René to wait his turn.
That ended with the attendant enjoying a high-speed ride on the bonnet of a hire car, clutching its windscreen wipers to avoid being dislodged. When the police arrived at the racers’ hotel to identify the guilty driver, the understandably rattled gateman apparently spotted the culprit – so the cops arrested an entirely innocent Jacques Laffite.
Ah well, this was a long time ago. But Arnoux is also one of the rare drivers to have been used as the reason for a major manufacturer to opt out of a Formula 1 programme. For 1987 Ligier built its JS29 F1 car to accept a new in-line four-cylinder twin-turbocharged 1.5-litre Alfa Romeo engine designed by Ing Gianni Tonti. The unit was compact and light but the irrepressible Arnoux shared his opinions on its hopeless power, worse throttle response and truly appalling reliability not only with his Alfa and Ligier colleagues but also with the press.
Thereupon Alfa’s new Fiat bosses used his outburst to justify their decision that two satellite marques in Formula 1 was one too many, and they understandably pulled the plug on all Alfa involvement to invest instead in Ferrari – leaving Ligier to run Megatron-badged BMW ‘fours’ that year. One suspects that René and Ligier really got the best of that deal, while any sighting of the stillborn Ligier-Alfa Romeo has become a real latter-day rarity.
Generation gap of Fiat’s ‘fours’
Four banger’ engines have been race winners for more than 110 years, but when Fiat’s directors hardly thought twice before binning their Alfa Romeo subsidiary’s four-cylinder F1 engine in 1987, it was the 80th anniversary of a four-cylinder Fiat scoring the Torinese giant’s maiden Grand Prix win, and this year marked the centenary of works tester Felice Nazzaro’s victory in that 1907 Grand Prix de l’ACF at Dieppe.
His mighty chain-drive Fiat was then – and remains – a literally blunt instrument of imposing presence. Given another five years, Fiat’s GP cars would become even more imposing. In 1987, where Tonti’s swansong four-cylinder F1 turbo unit had displaced a pipsqueak 1498cc, Nazzaro’s Dieppe-winning Fiat engine possessed internal dimensions of 180mm bore x 150mm stroke – just on 7x6in – and displaced 15.2 litres. In a 940kg chain-driven chassis it produced – arguably – a belly-rumbling 105bhp where 80 years later Tonti’s tiny turbocharged 1½-litre aimed at 850-900bhp in a car 300kg lighter.
This all reflects perfectly right and proper development, but when one compares these two racing cars and the technology gulf they represent one cannot help feeling perhaps greater respect for the blue-collared iron men of 1907 who crewed these things, than for the immensely well-rewarded, comfortably cocooned professional sports stars of the 1980s.
Sometimes when things go horribly wrong not that many people who matter – the paying public – really notice. The Roy Salvadori tribute at the Goodwood Revival should have included Yours Truly interviewing some of Roy’s old friends. It didn’t work that way – having no microphone makes it difficult – so I found myself simply apologising (profoundly).
Roy’s former Cooper team-mate Mike MacDowel would have told how “he wouldn’t fiddle with the car so much as simply drive it as it stood, lapping faster and faster and faster as the day progressed”.
John ‘Noddy’ Coombs first met Roy at Thruxton in 1952 and was a rival through the mid-1950s, before entering a Lotus 11 for him at Goodwood in 1957, followed by a string of Coopers and Jaguars. “I’ve never known another driver who could win with such apparent ease in a broken car,” John recalled. “At Silverstone he won in my Monaco and merely said ‘That was hard work’, when in fact the back of the chassis was broken clean away.”
Former Aston Martin chief engineer Ted Cutting recalled Le Mans one year when imperious team manager John Wyer had decreed an early start from the hotel but Roy failed to appear. “Where the devil is he?” snapped Wyer. The crew knew, because engine fitter Jack Sopp had screwed up the door to Roy’s room. Ted recalled: “We slipped outside to see Roy calling from his window, saying his door ‘seemed to be jammed’. He shinned down the drainpipe and was in his car when Wyer came out, seething, and Roy, all innocent, just said ‘Oh hello John, I’ve been here in the car… whatever kept you?’ ”
Sorry Roy and Sue for the screw-up.