Continental Notes, September 1968

I suppose it was inevitable that Matra should be the first people to have a movable “aerofoil” on their Grand Prix car, in view of their close associations with flight and flight-control mechanisms. There is a popular misconception that Jim Hall’s Chaparral was the first car to make use of a movable “aerofoil”, whereas a similar device appeared in 1956. It was mounted on a Porsche Spyder RS and designed and built by two young Swiss engineers, the cousins May from Zurich, and Michael May was to drive it at Monza in the Supercortemaggiore sports car race on June 241h, 1956. In the August, 1956, issue of Motor Sport, on page 489, there is a photograph of the car, and I cannot help quoting the caption I wrote at the time:—

“An experiment that could have a future is this upside-downmounted aerofoil controlled by the driver of the Porsche Spyder to apply increased loading on the tyres when cornering. It has a range of -3° to +17° and acts through the centre of gravity of the car.”

In the text I wrote the following: “Unlike the Nurburgring authorities, who at least let them (the two Swiss drivers) practise with it, the Monza people turned it down flat, though one wonders whether they would have done so had it been on a factory Porsche, and not a private one.”

The trouble was that there was no one among the race scrutineers or race officials who really appreciated the theory behind this first “aerofoil”, some being convinced it was an air brake, and others not grasping why it was pivoted and operated by a lever from the cockpit. One official confided to me that he was against it because he did not know the design capabilities of the May cousins and said that had it been produced by Daimler-Benz he would have accepted it, even though he did not understand it. This “aerofoil” was very large and practically covered the entire cockpit area, and Michael May was more than satisfied with its effect during his practice at Nurburgring, being able to quote r.p.m. readings round various fast corners, with the “aerofoil” at full load and feathered to the neutral position. The set-backs with officialdom at the two major sports-car races they entered made the Mays lose heart, and while Michael continued in motor racing, with sports cars, Formula Junior, and later as an engineer with Porsche, Daimler-Benz and Ferrari, Pierre dropped out of motor racing. A friend met Michael May in Italy, after the Chaparral visit to the Targa Florio last year, and they talked about “aerofoils”, May being most Interested in the developments ten years after his experiment. Viewing the Grand Prix scene today, the May cousins could be justified in feeling very bitter towards the race organisers at Nurburgring and Monza. I recall being very incensed about the official attitude at those two meetings, having enjoyed discussing the technical aspects of the project with Michael May, and having been convinced of its soundness.

To return to modern times, the movable “aerofoil” on the Matra was controlled by a lever system from an electric motor which was energised by a contact on the brake pedal. When the brakes were applied the “aerofoil” was turned into a steeper angle, presenting a greater frontal area, which must have supplied some free braking effort, and at the same time the downward thrust was increased, helping to keep the rear wheels on the ground and counteract the forward weight transfer. Matra had been experimenting with another set-up in which the “aerofoil” control mechanism was energised by contacts operated by the gearlever, so that as the driver changed down the angle was altered, and then returned to the original position as he changed up. These two experiments were obviously initial sorties by Matra, and there must be more to follow from this active and go-ahead firm.

When I first saw the adjustable nose fins on the Lotus 49B I asked Chapman if they were driver-controlled, thinking in Chaparral terms, where the “aerofoil” was feathered by means of a foot pedal, but Chapman’s reply was to the effect that he had to find a way of getting rid of the clutch-pedal first, before he could make the nose fins driver-controlled. I presume he hadn’t thought of aircraft control servo-mechanisms and pre-race programming. As I wrote in 1956, these are experiments that could have a future, providing un-enlightened officialdom does not poke its finger in the mechanisms.

While mentioning Matra, I must refer to the brilliant victory at the Nurburgring, following the victory at Zandvoort and the near-miss at Francorchamps. Matra must be very satisfied with their first season of Grand Prix racing, and I recall the words of the director of Matra when we visited the factory in January of this year to see the first V12 engine. The team had just returned from South Africa, where Stewart had led the race briefly in the MS9, the prototype Matra-Cosworth V8, and the Director General said they were more than satisfied to have seen a Matra in the lead in its first Grand Prix race, no matter how briefly, for it was a definite step forward. Since then Matra have made many steps, and all forward.

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On September 8th the last of the European races in the Grand Prix World Championship events takes place at Monza, for the Italian Grand Prix. Monza is one of the best “flat-out blinds” of the year, and everyone will be trying to use the wind to the best advantage, either by aerodynamic gimmicks, sound air-flow design, or merely slip-streaming the faster and more powerful cars. This is the race where over 400 b.h.p. is essential, together with engine reliability, and we can expect to see the current Grand Prix cars at their best, always providing it does not rain. I have known practice to be washed out by bad weather but cannot recall a wet race day, so here is hoping for a really great Italian Grand Prix. From the 5th to the 15th of September there is the annual Festival of the Autodromo of Monza, which includes the Italian version of our winter Racing Car Show. This is housed in a great hall behind the paddock and includes every aspect of motor sport in Italy as well as many International exhibits. The period of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza is a very busy one, with a great many things taking place before and after the Grand Prix, finishing up with the Italian motorcycle Grand Prix races on September 15th. Monza is definitely a good place to be in September.

At the end of September Le Mans will not be such a good place to be, as the entry is nothing to get very excited about, but this is mostly relative to what we have seen in the last two or three years. At the moment there are 55 entries with 11 reserves and they range from four 7-litre Chevrolet-Corvettes, all factory prepared, to two Alpine-Renaults of 1 litre, so that Le Mans will not be lacking in variety. If previous races this year are any guide, then the outcome will lie between the Gulf Petrol sponsored Ford GT40 team and the works Porsche team. When Ford started pouring money into their Le Mans effort they hired as many Grand Prix drivers as possible and raised the standard of the 24-hour race, but now it is reverting to its normal level and quite likely it will be won by a pair of comparatively unknown drivers.

By chance I was digging about in the archives recently and turned up the results of the 1938 Le Mans race; the winners were Chaboud/Tremoulet in a Delahaye, followed by a similar car driven by Serraud/Giraud-Cabantous, while a Talbot driven by Prenant/Morel was third. It was almost a national club race, especially as Grand Prix racing contained such names as Caracciola, von Brauchitsch, Lang, Seaman, Nuvolari, Wimille, Etancelin, Stuck, Varzi and Trossi. It will be interesting to look back on the 1968 race in 30 years’ time, in 1998, and review the first three places relative to the very active Grand Prix scene that we have at the moment.—D. S. J.