After designing and building a 3-litre V8 racing engine in less than a year, Oreste Berta dreamed of his self-built F1 car starting a grand prix. Dauntless isn’t the word for him…
By Tony Watson
At Buenos Aires in 1975, the Copersucar of Wilson Fittipaldi became the first Formula One car designed and built in South America to start a grand prix. Indeed, his marque remains that continent’s only GP representative. But it had a direct rival on the entry list for that race: Oreste Berta’s LR1.
Working out of his La Fortaleza premises near Córdoba in central Argentina, Berta had surprised visiting teams with the performance of his Cosworth-engined Group 5 Sports-Prototype in the 1970 Temporada rounds at Buenos Aires and at the Nürburgring 1000Km, but a lack of sponsorship ended the car’s brief competition life. Undaunted, Berta started work on his own 3-litre V8 and was dyno-testing the prototype less than a year later.
It was at this point that the Peralta Ramos family, owner of the local La Razón newspaper, ended its financial support, leaving Berta short of funds, raw materials and components but not of spirit – or hope, in the shape of eight orders for his V8. But this is when his troubles started.
“The prototype was perfect,” says Berta. “Between dynamometer and on-track testing we did 60 hours of testing with no trouble. But when we started to run in the [other] engines they would break after a short time on the dyno.
“The cylinder heads were correct in terms of hardness, but not thermically. The people who did the casting made a change [they eliminated one of the water-cooling channels to the valve seats] without telling us. We lost about half a year before we discovered the cause.”
The difficulties were not only technical, reveals Berta: “There was a promise from the country’s authorities to finance those first eight engines: $300,000. I only collected $5000. My business was at stake, and had not some friends helped me out I would have lost everything.”
Still undaunted, Berta continued developing several engines and in June 1972 Emilio Bertolini planted an evolution of the LR sports car – powered by the constructor’s V8 – on pole for the first round of the Sudam sports-prototype series at Buenos Aires, despite the European machinery entered by visiting Brazilian drivers. However, a lengthy delay caused the engine to boil on the grid. Three months later, car and engine again showed promise when Ángel Monguzzi lined up on the second row for the Interlagos 500Km, but a fuel-line vapour lock caused its retirement.
At this point, thoughts turned to a Berta single-seater. “[Argentinian businessman] Francisco Mir phoned me from Seattle early one morning [in 1973],” says Berta. “He asked if we could design and build a Formula 5000 car; he’d pay for the materials and then we’d ship it to the States.” Berta quickly built a monocoque, attached the engine as a stressed member and used a computer to aid suspension design. “He [Mir] sent us a Chevrolet engine and we mated this to the Hewland DG300 gearbox from the LR sports car, and freighted the nearly complete car. At that time in Argentina there were none of the lightweight, aeronautical-type fittings and materials we needed, so we had to complete that part at Mir’s workshop. We tested the car at Willow Springs, with [Argentinian] Néstor García Veiga at the wheel. His best lap was the second-fastest set by that type of car during that season.”
Unfortunately, Berta and Mir did not see eye to eye and Oreste returned home to La Fortaleza to take stock. “One day [in late 1974], after we had brought the chassis back from the States, I said to myself, ‘Right, now I’m going to install my own V8, adapt the chassis and suspension and build a Formula 1 car.’
“The big problem was that we were so short of money. Several companies had said they were going to give us a hand, and the government also seemed interested, but we never received much support.” Even so, he went ahead, convinced that the much-needed finance would materialise when people saw the finished car.
A month later, with the V8 fitted as a stressed member of the chassis and changes to the suspension incorporated, the car was ready to be tested – only a fortnight before the weekend of the 1975 Argentinian Grand Prix (January 11/12). “We started the car to check the systems and towed it [440 miles] to Buenos Aires. We were using tyres left over from the previous year’s GP, and after eight or 10 laps we were about 2sec off the fastest qualifying times of 1973. First I did some laps, then García Veiga got down to between 1min 12 and 1min 14sec. The chassis was sensitive to set-up changes and we managed to sort it out quite well, but then Néstor came in and said, ‘The oil temperature’s high, the engine seems to be tightening.’ We needed new con-rod bearings, but our funds had really dried up by then.” The Fittipaldi brothers offered the loan of a Cosworth DFV but, wary of potentially large repair bills, Berta, perhaps finally daunted, refused their kindness.
On the Monday prior to the GP there came a surprise, in the shape of local racing fan Arturo Scalise. “Mr Scalise invited me to a meeting at his house in Buenos Aires,” says Berta. “He told me he had decided to offer the money to purchase a Cosworth engine for my car.” One of the visiting team owners had told Scalise that an engine could be flown out four days before the race. It was tempting – but the timing was too tight. “I realised this new opportunity would only lead to disappointment,” admits Berta.
That, however, was not the end of the LR1. “Bill Simpson saw it and asked if it could be reassembled for F5000 in the States,” says Berta. It could. Simpson practised the car at Long Beach, where a broken halfshaft made it a non-starter. Being used to ovals, he wanted someone with experience of road courses for the next round, which is why Berta’s countryman Rubén Luis Di Palma was called up at the last moment for the Monterey GP at Laguna Seca on October 12. He qualified 28th, 5.5sec slower than Mario Andretti’s Lola T332 on pole, but again the car failed to make the start.
“I returned to Argentina – someone had to look after the workshop,” continues Berta. “But before that we heard through Bill of a young driver, Rick Mears; Bill felt he was going to be very good.” In February 1976 Mears drove the Berta in a non-title event at Riverside, claiming pole position – and led until a spin took him out. And that was the end of this versatile chassis’ competition life.
Three decades after coming so close to getting his self-built car on to a GP grid, Berta says: “It was a moment when technologically our country was not that far behind the rest of the world in designing and constructing racing cars. But then the technological gap grew and grew. What I learnt in those years, however, proved valuable for the rest of my working life.”
And with multiple national championships in single-seaters, tin-tops and rallying, Berta has been Argentina’s most successful constructor/tuner/preparer ever since