Champion, the Sparking Leaders
Laurie Hands, the Champion Sparking Plug Company’s UK Chief Engineer and Competitions Manager, can recall only one failure of his plugs in international motor racing this season, one plug in the Gulf-Mirage in the Monza 1,000 kms. It is a history of reliability which reflects the quietness with which Champion’s Racing Division goes about its business; tyre failures tend to be shouted about by the press, teams and spectators (and after all, there have been sufficient failures to warrant a few sharp remarks) and the manufacturers do their own shouting when they win. Champion, on the other hand, are accustomed to winning (Indianapolis and all except two Grand Prix are amongst their 1974 score) and so long as those tiny yet critical components remain reliable, which they do, then they remain unobtrusive and the general public would forget about them without the occasional nudge from Champion’s UK promotions manager Ray Shears. Just how successful Champion sparking plugs are in the world of Formula I can be judged by the list of Grand Prix teams who do not use their plugs : Tyrrell, Surtees, Hesketh and Embassy Lola. Scheckter has provided Motorcraft with the occasional uplift this season, but this Ford-owned company is gradually winding down its competition activities, leaving the field open to Champion.
And that field is astoundingly vast, encompassing motorised sports which motor-car and-cycle racing enthusiasts tend to forget about: powerboat racing, Formula I aeroplane racing and the rapidly growing one in the appropriate climates of Snowmobile racing. Each sport presents its own particular sparking plug problem, each sport holds dozens of international events each season and each international event requires Champion representation. A big logistics problem for Hands, one might expect, but in practice his team is so small that usually only one or two Champion representatives are available to provide that unobtrusive behind-the-scenes service. The problems lie with his staff, who have to persuade their wives that weekends at home no longer exist!
Not all motorised sport is serviced from Champion’s UK base at Feltham, Middlesex, however, for this American owned company, founded in Toledo, Ohio, where the headquarters remains, has sixteen or seventeen manufacturing plants throughout the world, several of which have competitions departments. The Belgian factory, for example, employs four competitions engineers, of Belgian, French, German and Italian nationalities, to look after events in the appropriate countries. Racing Division headquarters are in Toledo, at which factory all the 116 current types of racing sparking plugs are manufactured, and whose staff service Cam-Am, USAC, World Championship Formula I (Hands joins them at Watkins Glen) and lesser forms of US internationals. But the hot-bed of Champion motor racing activity is in Europe, with the World Championship, the World Championship for Makes (including the Le Mans 24-hour race), all European Championships such as Formula 2 and the European Touring Car Championship, plus international motor-cycle road-racing and motocross. The world-wide list of events to be covered, including boats and aircraft, stretches into the hundreds, all of which are detailed in a professionally printed folder calendar/schedule prepared annually by Hands and his staff at Feltham (“Feltham is Champion’s only office in the world which can prepare a calendar”, says Hands). Alongside each event is listed which of Champion’s many organisations will represent the firm, how many staff will go and which types of plugs will be required, etcetera, etcetera. Every Champion office in the world is circulated with this Feltham-prepared schedule, to keep them in touch with what is going on whether they are involved with Competitions or not.
Apart from the tall Laurie Hands, who served his apprenticeship with British Thomson Houston in Rugby, served in the RAF as a war-time navigator/bomb-aimer and worked for Lodge Plugs before joining Champion in 1949, the most familiar Champion man-about-motor-racing (indeed one of the most familiar faces in the pits) is the debonair John Glover, Competitions Representative. Usually he can be seen peering through an illuminated magnifying glass (the most important tool of his trade—he rarely touches a plug spanner) at plug electrodes, the condition and colour of which to his experienced eye can indicate exactly the condition of the ignition system, the accuracy of timing and mixture control and piston condition, enabling him to give essential feedback to the mechanics. Tony Mayhew looks after motor-cycles, production as well as competition (and industrial sparking plugs), Derek Dyson, the assistant Technical Services Manager, is co-opted into the competitions team for powerboat races and Stan Cardy, the aviation and marine technical engineer, looks after Formula 1 aircraft racing. Occasionally pressure of work means that there is some cross-over and Derek Dyson, for example, though a specialist on marine racing, is competent with cars and motor-cycles too, while John Glover doubles up on boats. Paul Samways, the northern technical services regional engineer, is brought in to the fold to help out with the RAC Rally and the Isle of Man TT, to which events he takes a Transit van laden with diagnostic equipment and, in the case of motor-cycles, with a portable rolling-road. Also under Laurie Hands on the engineering side come Michael Shepherd, the Engineering Co-ordinator, Gordon Harris, who looks after specifications and technical records and the invaluable Fred Hageman, Development Engineer and Tester and the man in charge of Champion’s famously accurate Heenan and Froude engine dynamometer at Feltham. Within the company Feltham is unique in having its Racing Division run inside the folds of the Engineering Division—elsewhere competition activities are regarded as part of the Promotions Department, here run separately, though very closely allied, under Ray Shears. Naturally, all the Racing Divisions feed back engineering information, ultimately to Toledo.
Surprisingly, Formula 1 is probably easier for Hands and Glover to service than any other form of racing, one plug, the G56R being the common “hardware” in all DFVs and the BRM engines and virtually entirely free from problems. The exception to the rule is the flat-12 Ferrari engine, which uses a surface discharge plug, the GV503, developed by Champion specifically for this application, suited to the combustion chamber characteristics and usable only with a capacitor discharge ignition system as fitted to the Ferraris. A similar plug is used in the March-BMW F2 engines, which use also the capacitor discharge system, essential to provide the extra “punch” to give the powerful spark. These plugs really are for specialist application only, and to prove the point to themselves Champion tried them in a Cosworth DFV: firstly the ignition system couldn’t provide sufficient voltage and secondly the combustion chambers were unsuitable. The plug annulus needs to be in the right position in the head to suit the plug which means designing the engine to take these plugs in the first place. The basic principle of the surface discharge is that the spark goes round and round in circles, jumping across from the single central semi-conductor onto the annulus ring via the shortest route moving round to the next shortest point as the last one erodes. One of the plug’s features is that it doesn’t work properly until it is dirty. Its life is limited by the chunking of the semi-conductor material only, and because of its design it is of practically infinite heat range, so does not carry a heat range rating. Interestingly, the first commercial application of such plugs, was in Saab 2-strokes, developed in conjunction with Saab Competitions Department. Should capacitor discharge ignition systems come into common usage on production cars and with suitable cylinder head designs, eventually surface discharge plugs might be commonplace in production cars, particularly as improved combustion gives better emission control. Another example of racing improving the breed! Indeed its biggest application is in the Snowmobile racing market, in which a wide variation of heat range is necessary, and already production versions of the plug are available for some outboard motors.
Sorting out the plug side of F1 engines may not be the frustrating business it used to be when failures and sooting or wetting were hazards of the racing game, but John Glover is finding that nevertheless he has to try to educate the teams to use the plugs properly. He suggests they should run new plugs in the first practice and until part way through the second practice, put them to one side as spares for the race and run new plugs for the second half of final practice and keep them in for the race, so that no more plug changes should be necessary. Warm-up grade plugs are mostly a thing of the past in F1 though in the coolness of spring and autumn G6I plugs may be used. One of John Glover’s tasks this season has been to cover every round of the British Touring Car Championship, for Champion find Group 1 racing interesting because of the competing cars’ likeness to showroom models, providing them with easier links for publicity and more tangible engineering feedback to the car manufacturers. Plugs for this are usually about one or two heat ranges colder than fitted as original equipment and John views suspiciously (but confidentially) a number of engines which are requiring plugs very much colder.
Fred Hageman’s engine dynamometer at Feltham is used almost as much for testing engines for racing teams or racing engine builders as it is for Champion development work on manufacturers’ production engines. Indeed Brabham’s DFV which was in situ at the time of my visit was the 583rd outside engine tested by Fred since he took over the now four-year-old dynamometer three years ago from its original operative, the Brian Muir, for this had been the Australian’s full-time job while racing the Camaro. In fact the engine was Carlos Reutemann’s South African GP winning DFV, which produced 448 b.h.p. on this occasion, compared with the highest ever DFV reading on this accurate dynamometer of 458.5 b.h.p. Interestingly this is regarded as one of Brabham’s best engines, yet Reutemann doesn’t like it, professing that it never feels good. The work being carried out on this engine was typical of that on the DFVs which come into Fred’s charge: an hour’s running in to bed in new rings, commenced on constant revs and at constant fuel pressure, increasing the load as the engine revs increase as friction is reduced; followed by carrying out a powercurve, setting the fuel flow and ignition for maximum power.
Next door to the engine dynamometer is a rolling road dynamometer, normally used only for production car development. Again typical of the work carried out here was a Jaguar development XJ12, visiting for a routine re-evaluation of the entire ignition system as part of the continuous development programme manufacturers such as British Leyland and Vauxhall maintain with Champion. Evaluation begins with a temperature survey of the plugs, using very fragile, extremely complicated to hand-make, thermocouple plugs.
Contrary to popular belief, the sparking plugs used in racing are made from exactly the same materials as production plugs, so that a Formula 1 plug is made from the same ceramics and with the same nickel alloy electrode as a production N9Y. In the last couple of years a new material has been produced for the centre electrode of some plugs, gold palladium, which has a fine wire of approximately 50% gold cement mounted on a nickel alloy stub and enables the heat range to be extended, resisting fouling, particularly in racing two-strokes. The real differences are engineering ones based on the length of the ceramic core nose. At which point I should explain the difference between “hot” plugs and “cold” plugs: A cold running plug transfers heat rapidly from its firing end and is used to avoid overheating where combustion chamber or cylinder head temperatures are relatively high, as in a racing engine; a hot running plug has a much slower rate of heat transfer and is used to avoid fouling where combustion chamber or cylinder head temperatures are relatively low. Hot plugs have relatively long insulator noses with long heat transfer paths. Cold plugs have much shorter insulator nose lengths and thus transfer heat more rapidly. The way to remember this is: a “cold” plug for a “hot” engine, a hot” plug for a “cold” engine. Then of course, there are the various types of gap like retracted gap, normally used in racing engines, the extended nose, the conventional gap familiar in N5’s, the surface discharge gap and the gold palladium gap. A full explanation of these and all the suffix and prefix letters used internationally by Champion along with a heat range chart and tuning guide is available to competitors from Champion. It might not quite replace the expertise of Laurie Hands and his Racing Division, but goes a long way to educating the competition user about the essentials of those indispensable Champion products.—C.R.