Great racing cars: 1986-87 March 86C

Indycar Racing News


A series taken from the 164-page Motor Sport special Great Racing Carswhich is available to buy here

From the editor Damien Smith

How would you define a ‘great’ racing car? Race wins and championship titles are an obvious place to start – and admittedly, when we began the process of rounding up the ‘voices’ to fill this special magazine, published by the team behind Motor Sport, we had in mind the likes of the Lotus 72, Ferrari F2004, Porsche 917, Audi R10 and so on.

But as the interviews of familiar racing figures began, we realised greatness is often a very personal thing. Naturally, most – but not all – would pick cars they had experienced first-hand, as a driver, designer, engineer or team boss. And on occasion the cars that stood out in their minds as ‘great’ weren’t necessarily so in the grand scheme of history. That’s why you’ll find a Minardi here among Formula 1 cars from Lotus, Williams and McLaren.

Unexpected? Certainly. Wrong? Not to the man who chose it.

As the interviews accumulated, our magazine took on a life of its own, full of personal anecdotes about the myriad cars that made careers. Some of those we spoke to, such as Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney, couldn’t be tied to a single choice from multi-faceted lives at the wheel. Such heroes have earned the right to choose an F1, sports and Indycar, so we allowed them more than one bite.

Others refused to be confined by category. Hence the short ‘Odd ’n Sods’ chapter on cars that, by and large, are mere footnotes in lower divisions of racing lore.

Thus there is nothing definitive about the selection listed herein. Then again, there’s no claim that this compilation offers the ‘Greatest Racing Cars’ of history. It’s much more personal than that, much more quirky – and all the better for it.

Michael Andretti
1991 Indycar champion, 42 wins

The 1986 March Indycar that Adrian [Newey] designed was a great car. He designed it and Adrian and Peter Gibbons engineered my car that year and we dominated almost every race. We just didn’t finish many of them.

But that car was ahead of its time and we had a really good team that got the best out of it. It was really good at any type of track – street circuits, road courses, big ovals, short ovals. You name it. That car was quick everywhere.

It made a lot of downforce, more than the Lola at that time, and you could just tell that it had Adrian’s fingerprints on it. He would come up with some wild ideas on set-up and normally they worked. That car really worked and we tried a lot of different things that made it even better.

It was just too bad that we didn’t finish many races. We led more laps than anybody that year but Bobby [Rahal] beat us to the championship by eight points.

Adrian Newey & Bobby Rahal
Gordon Kirby on the friendship that would influence the career of arguably F1’s greatest designer

In 1984 Nigel Bennett designed an all-new Lola Indycar, the T800, and Mario Andretti swept to that year’s CART championship driving one for Newman/Haas. “The ’84 March was quite a big car and the ’84 Lola was definitely the car to have that year,” Rahal recalls. “But over the course of the year Adrian [Newey] re-engineered the March and that’s where our relationship started. Adrian and I developed a very strong relationship on and off the track. On the track he practically knew what I was going to say before I said it, so we were able to work together to improve the car and make it better and better.”

“On the basis of that development Robin Herd put me in charge of designing the ’85 March,” says Newey. “That brought its own pressures because that meant I had to ferry backwards and forwards across the Atlantic, doing the dual tasks of running Bobby and developing the ’84 car, and starting to lay out the ’85 car.” Newey designed a new, smaller March for 1985. “The ’85 car was where you could really begin to see Adrian’s influence,” Rahal observes. “He just had that touch to try to make the car smaller and more efficient.”

Rahal finished third in the ’84 CART championship and was third again in ’85. “Adrian, myself and the team developed a lot over those years,” Rahal says. “I’d like to think that Truesports gave Adrian a lot of insight into running and racing the car. It’s easy to design a car, but it’s another thing to understand how it works in the real world and how easy it is or isn’t to maintain. Can the mechanics get at stuff? Is it workable rather than just a piece of engineering art? Is it user-friendly?”

Newey agrees with Rahal’s assessment. “Bobby was very good to work with and reasonably quickly we developed a very good working relationship,” he says.

“We got to the point where we could actually translate what each other was saying. It wasn’t actually the words you used, it was the intention of what you were trying to achieve that became the real way of operating.

“It’s great when you achieve that. I think in reality I achieved that with very few drivers, probably with Bobby more completely than any other driver. I could translate what Bobby wanted without him actually having to go into every detail in what he was trying to describe.”

Rahal believes one of Newey’s biggest strengths is having an open, enquiring mind that’s rooted in reality rather than theory. “I think what makes Adrian who he is, is not just his brilliance as a designer and his creativity and imagination, but he’s also looking at which way the wind’s blowing,” Rahal observes. “He’s not one of these engineers — and there are lots of them around — who just bury their heads in the computer. They don’t look up from the computer and see what’s going on out there.”

But despite the strong relationship with Rahal, Newey quit Truesports for the Kraco team in a move he admits today was largely motivated by money. Another factor was Ferrari’s politically inspired proposal for Truesports to run a Ferrari Indycar in 1986. To this end Rahal and the team tested an ’85 March at Fiorano and Ferrari offered Newey a job as their chief Indycar designer. “I turned it down because I was happy at March and I wasn’t convinced that Ferrari was the right long-term career move for me.” It wouldn’t be the last time he’d turn down Ferrari…

1986 Indianapolis 500. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Indiana, USA. 31st May 1986. Gary Bettenhausen (March 86C- Cosworth)

Newey warmly recalls his time in Indycars during CART’s heyday. “It was a very stimulating four years,” Adrian says. “I learned a lot through those years. Mario [Andretti] was another driver I had that special working relationship with, and Michael to a lesser extent. I would say the strongest relationship was with Bobby and then Mario, but Michael and I started to get a good understanding. It’s ironic that of the five drivers that I would say I achieved that with, three were drivers I engineered in Indycars.”

He won’t name the other two. “I should probably keep that to myself,” Adrian grins. Newey moved on in 1988 to design Leyton House’s F1 cars, and then make his big move to Williams, Rahal expanded his retinue in 1992 to become a team owner as well as driver. In that first year he won the Indycar crown again, the only owner/driver to achieve the feat since AJ Foyt in 1975 and 1979.

In 1993 Rahal struck a deal with Honda to lead the Japanese manufacturer’s entry into Indycar racing and Bobby talked to Newey about joining his CART team in Ohio. They met at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montréal, and Adrian and his wife flew to Ohio to visit Rahal’s shop.

“Bobby offered me a shareholding in the team, which was obviously very attractive, and I gave it a lot of thought,” Adrian relates. “But in the end I decided that F1 was technically where the biggest challenge was.”

Taken from the December 2012 issue of Motor Sport. To read this article click here.

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