Gordon Murray

“I think it’s important to remember that Bernie was spending a lot of his own money in those days … “

Gordon Murray has come a long way since his youthful days in South Africa when he built the power unit for his own sports racing car round a Ford Anglia 105E block, fitted with Peugeot pistons , Consul Classic con-rods and a Cosworth camshaft. In those days he drove his cars himself, contesting club events and hillclimbs with considerable energy; in fact, frequenly too much energy. “Did I have any shunts?”, he asks reflectively. The expression on his face tells he story. He had plenty, including one massive accident at the Pietermaritzburg track in which he destroyed the IGM (for Ian Gordon Murray) and bit through his tongue in the process.

Nowadays, Gordon Murray doesn’t have to improvise in quite the same way. The products of his design labours are powered by the very best Cosworth DFV engines that money can buy. Driven by Nelson Piguet and Hector Rebaque, they regularly perform near the front of every World Championship Grand Pnx.

It is now thirteen years since Gordon Murray left South Africa to seek his fortune in Britain, so to speak. He joined Brabham’s design department in 1970 and he’s been there ever since. When Ron Tauranac finally sold out to Bernie Ecclestone at the end of 1971, he moved up to the role of Ralph Bellamy’s assistant. And when Bellamy went to Lotus the following year, he assumed the role of chief designer which he has held ever since.

Yet things were almost very different. He recalls, “Shortly before Bernie took over, I was wondering whether I should leave. I had been approached to work full-time on Alain de Cadenet’s Le Mans project (in the event he designed the Duckhams-Cosworth on a freelance basis) and there was a very good financial offer from Martini and Rossi to go and design the chassis of the F1 Tecno. But when Bernie took over he asked me to stay and, since I could see things would change, I agreed”.

In 1972 the Brabham team had fielded three drivers, often in three different types of car. There was the original Brabham monocoque, the BT33, which dated from 1970 and was initially driven by Wilson Fittipaldi. Then there was the “lobster claw” BT34 originally driven by Graham Hill, then passed over to Carlos Reutemann and finally to Wilson Fittipaldi. And finally the BT37, a conventionally radiatored derivative of the BT34 which had been completed by Ralph Bellamy. None of the components between the three cars were interchangeable. As Murray recalled, “the whole thing was an absolute nightmare!”

Bernie Ecclestone was so annoyed about the way in which the 1972 season had gone that he gave Gordon Murray a free hand to design a totally new Formula One machine for 1973. The result of this decision was the distincuve, “triangular monocoque” Brabham BT42 which established the trademark for Murray’s F1 designs for the next three sesons. At the time most of the designers’ efforts in F1 were directed at channelling the maximum amount of airflow over the upper surface of the car in order to create downforce. But there was just the beginning of an awareness that under-car air flow might also be an important factor and Murray was quick to appreciate that.

The distinctive triangular shape of the BT42 monocoque separated the airflow above and beneath the car close to the bottom of the monocoque edge. With his next car and Its derivative, the 1975 BT44B, he began experimenting with skirting on the undrside of the monocoque in order to arrange the airflow to best advantage. “Even with flat bottoms to the monocoque, we were developing a degree of ground effect way back in 1975”, Murray smiles, “it’s easy with hindsight to wonder why nobody hit on Chapman’s theory much earlier, but most of us were aware that flow beneath the car was significant. We had done tests with a manometer underneath the car which registered suction. That BT44B ran very quickly on the faster circuits and we found we could run with quite low amounts of conventional wing angle. I’ll admit that it had a very narrow track, but that wasn’t the whole story.

The Brabham BT42 almost won the 1973 Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona, but poblems with a universal joint on a rear dnveshaft sidelined Carlos Reutemann almost within sight of victory. The following year’s BT44s were all brand new cars and Gordon recalls everybody at the factory working literally day and night to have three of them ready for the opening race of the year in Buenos Aires.

“And what happened?”, smiled Gordon, “Carlos Reutemann ran away with the race only to stop, out of petrol, with about a lap and a half to go. It was our fault completely. We’d had problems with a rear hub during the morning and lost count of how much we’d put in the fuel tank. The mechanics thought it was full, but there was probably an air lock in the system because we were six gallons short. We’d left a complete churn out!”

It is only seven years ago, but Gordon Murray talks about those early years of the Ecclestone Brabham team as if it was another age. They were very much “formative years” for the whole team. “We didn’t do much testing before we ran our new cars. Once we’d decided to do a new design, he’d want us to press ahead and build the cars as quickly as we could. If they were new, Bernie felt they had to be better.

That 1974 Argentine race was a classic example. We didn’t test them before we went down there, but they were quick alright!” Ecclestone’s driver choice in those early Brabham days centred round Carlos Reutemann, the dusky, deep Argentine driver who has remained in the forefront of Formula One competition for almost ten years now. And after experiments with the British F3 graduate Richard Robarts and the wealthy Rikky von Opel, Ecclestone settled on Brazil’s Carlos Pace to partner the other South American.

Gordon Murray recalls them both in a pleasant light. “They were completely diferent sorts of drivers, of course. Pace was rather like Alan Jones is today; a real charger who gets his head down. Reutemann was more of a thinker. He often liked to ease himself into a race before going really quickly. But they were good to work with. I got on well with them both … “

Throughout 1973 and 1974, the team operated without any major, overall sponsor. But they were never unduly restricted in the money they could spend. “I think it’s very important to remember that Bernie was spending a lot of his own money in those days. He never skimped on a thing we needed, either. Once we’d made a decision to get something, or to buy somthing, we went ahead and did it. From a team point of view I still had a great deal to learn. We weren’t terribly well organised at that point in our history. But for 1975 we tightened things up considerably and, with sposorship from Martini, really began to make an impact . 

In 1974 Gordon Murray’s Brabham BT44 won the South African, Austrian and United States GPs in the hands of Carlos Reutemann. In 1975 the BT44B won the Brazilian GP with Carlos Pace and the German with Reutemann again. Gordon Murray was particularly proud of the company BT44 concept and felt that only the fact that the team wasn’t working well enough to give It the back-up required prevented it from winning even more races than it did, However for anybody contesting Formula One in the mid-1970s the threat of Ferrari posed a worrying factor. “Maranello had got its 3-litre boxer flat-12 running with impressive power and reliability. As Gordon Murray recalls, “We were


shaft through the fuel tank to the rear wheels, allowing for a shaped underside beneath the fuel tanks, when Alfa said ‘we’ll do a V12 for you’. They did it in four months! 

“Whatever else you might say about Alfa, ‘that was impressive”, enthuses Murray, “I reckoned the answer was a big pod area and virtualiy no conventional wings. And that’s how the first BT48-V12 turned out. Of course, that wingless theory didn’t quite work and we eventually had to go back to ‘conventional’ aerodynamics …. ” 

By this time Niki Lauda was partnered by Nelson Piquet at Brabhams and the young Brazilian was obviously getting to grips with Formula One. At Kyalami, the two BT48-V12s finished sixth and seventh in the South African GP, impressing a lot of people. One of them was Lauda himself; “every time I looked into my mirror, there was Piquet. So I tried like hell for two laps, looked again … and he was still there!” That was the start of the good-natured rivalry between the two drivers which lasted right up until first practice at Montreal in September when Niki decided, abruptly, to retire. 

It was a long frustrating summer for Gordon Murray. “The Alfa Romeo V12s varied alarmingly – as much as 600 rpm at full song – from engine to engine. At one point I was really beginning to believe that the problem was with the BT48 chassis. But they were so heavy. Eventually we found out that the real problem was Alfa Romeo’s oil scavenging system. Some worked, others simply drowned the crankcase …. ” 

By this time, of course, there was an intense inter-change of ideas between Autodelta and Brabhams, much of the design detail transmitted between the two design offices by telecopier. In his heart of hearts Murrary will admit that he realised, towards the end of the partnership, that Alfa were pumping him hard for information to help them with their own Fl programme …. 

Then came “decision time” again. Murray asked his workshop staff for help in working overtime to complete the latest Brabham machine – and they responded “in magnificent fashion” as they always have done. The decision was taken to sever the links with Alfa Romeo and follow the Cosworth route. In six weeks a BT48 had been hacked about to accommodate a DFV V8. Two cars were ready for the Canadian GP at Montreal (where Lauda decided to retire) and these formed the basis for the cars which Nelson Piquet has proved so competitive for the past couple of seasons.

In 1980 the BT49 proved a highly competitive proposition in Piquet’s hands, only losing the World Championship to Alan Jones and the Williams team in the penultimate race of the season. Gordon then developed the BT49B, using the very narrow Weismann gearbox to improve the flow of air beneath the car, and the BT49C was an even more tidied up version of the original Cosworth-engined concept. That car has been driven by Nelson Piquet to victories (at the time of writing) in the Argentine, San Marino and German Grands Prix. 

For 1981, it was obvious that Brabham would not be doing themselves justice unless they at least explored the “turbocharged route” as far as F1 units for the future are concerned. The result of this is the BMW 1.4 turbo engined, but as yet un-raced, BT50 which Murray has completed with the assistance of his “number two” David North, a relative newcomer about whom Gordon speaks very highly. The Brabham team have an arrangement for exclusive use of the BMW turbo for a set number of races after they race it for the first time. It seems that this commitment will take them well into the 1982 season, for Gordon Murray is anxious that not too much diversification should be encouraged since he’s sure there’s more to be squeezed out of the Cosworth-powered BT49 strain before it becomes obsolete. 

Why does Gordon Murray stay with Brabham? That’s the question that everybody asks from time to time in F1 circles. The answer is straightforward. Few designers have such complete control over their racing projects as Murray is allowed. Bernie Ecclestone may well be a hard and successful businessman, but he knows sufficient about motor racing to people his company with the right staff – and then let them get on with the job. And one could hardly .say that Gordon Murray has let him down. “I like the freedom I’ve got here”, Gordon admits, “alright, we have policy meetings, but I’m allowed to get on with it once we’ve decided what we’re going to do”. For a designer, that is a freedom from constraint which is allowed all too infrequently. – AH.