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Theissen on Customer Cars

BMW’s Mario Theissen has come out strongly against customer cars being allowed in F1. The rules are due to change in 2008 to allow this and Theissen is looking beyond the current storm brewing over Toro Rosso’s and Super Aguri’s plans to run something very like customers cars in 2007.


Customer McLaren M23

His point is that the rule change could result in a reduction of the number of constructors, with only about six manufacturers producing chassis and supplying them to ‘B’ teams. This would allow manipulation of the championship by concentration of effort on one driver’s car and other drivers within the constructor’s orbit being ordered to support him.

It is certainly one way things could turn out but history would not suggest its likelihood. In the seventies there were innumerable customer car teams, some of which, like Williams, were to go on to become important constructors in their own right, while others fell by the wayside. There was no apparent collusion between constructors and customers; you could buy a McLaren M23, for instance, and be reasonably competitive but there was no support from the supplier – you were on your own as regards development and maintenance.

Of course, the situation is different now that big manufacturers are involved and it may well be that each constructor will effectively run four cars. But, if they are all using the tactics suggested by Theissen to push one driver forward, it evens out and not much has changed. With the extinction of small constructors (which is inevitable in the future mapped out by the FIA), the fight will be between only half a dozen manufacturers anyway.

So, if our hypothetical six manufacturers are all putting their support into one driver, that leaves us with six guys fighting for the championship. Hey, that’s an improvement over the present – there were only two drivers in with a chance this year.

The real problem is not the customer car rule; this is just a bone thrown to the little guys to suggest that the FIA really means its stated intention to keep small teams in F1. Now that the FIA and manufacturers are in bed together, the rules change to suit the big guys and it will become impossible for genuine independents to compete. If customer cars were to remain illegal, the only result would be that you have the same six manufacturers racing but no small teams. Which would mean 12-car grids…

Whether the FIA and the manufacturers like it or not, small teams have always been the lifeblood of F1. All innovation comes from them and they represent the true drama of the sport – the David against Goliath scenario. In the past such teams have dominated in spite of the rules being weighted against them but I fear that the latest proposed changes will exterminate the little guy altogether. F1 is to become a testing bed for road cars and anyone who wants to compete for the sheer joy of racing had better look for another formula.

Customer cars offer the last lifeline to smaller teams. They will be getting a secondhand product without all the latest tweaks available to the works team but it’s better than nothing. And there will always remain the faint possibility that some bright spark will find a way to make the chassis perform better than the supplier’s cars. Let the rule stay, say I.

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The Honda Philosophy

Shuhei Nakamoto, the Honda senior technical director, has been speaking of the way forward for the F1 team. Obviously, he read my recent post on Toyota for he identifies the same weakness that was infecting Honda and details the remedy applied.


Jenson Button in the Honda

Innovation is the most important factor in F1 design; without it one can only hope to run just behind the teams that are breaking new ground. Nakamoto has instilled this concept into his design team and his methods of doing so form the perfect blueprint for racing success. I particularly like this statement:

“We flattened the organisation so that everyone working in (each) department can talk freely about their ideas and opinions.”

That is a philosophy that uses all the talents and ideas of any team and we saw the result in Honda’s improvement mid-season in 2006. It seems to me that Honda have found the right man to take Honda to the championship in the coming year. Button for 2007!

I have to admit, however, that I am reminded of an old joke that should perhaps be allowed to rest in its forty-year old grave. But I cannot resist; please excuse this rare lapse into levity:

It seems that in the early days of testing the new Concorde airliner, the engineers ran into a problem. Every time the plane was put into a dive, the wings would break off. This was disconcerting for the test pilots, who were becoming fed up with the repeated need to bail out, and the engineers were frantic in their efforts to find a solution.

Money was running short and still the wings refused to remain attached to the plane. In desperation, the engineers put a suggestion box on the shop floor and tried all the responses they received but none worked. Finally, at the eleventh hour, they were down to the last suggestion, one so ludicrous it had been dismissed without a thought.

It made no sense at all. The idea was to drill two-inch diameter holes along the complete length of the wing roots. Surely this must weaken the structure, thought the engineers; but desperation makes fools of us all and they decided to give it a try. The holes were drilled and the plane tested.

To everyone’s amazement, it worked. The plane was soon swooping around the skies, doing barrel rolls, vertical dives, anything that was asked of it. So impressed were the engineers by this that they started a search for the genius who had suggested the cure. It turned out to have come from Albert, the plant’s lavatory cleaner. He was called up to the design office and congratulated.

During the course of the celebrations, the chief engineer asked Albert how he’d come up with the idea. The old cleaner answered in his rough cleaner’s dialect:

“Well, sor, I been lavatory cleaner at this ‘ere plant for nigh on thorty-foive year now. And I tell ee, in orl that toime, I done noticed that toilet paper never do tear along the dotted line…”

I’m sorry. I’ll shut up now.

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The Secret Weapon of F1 Design

If you want a winning car, hire a South African to lead your design department. Ferrari did so when they took on Rory Byrne and many years ago Brabham and then McLaren opted for Gordon Murray, also a South African.

Both designers have not been content to follow the herd in creating reiterations of established practice; they were innovative right from the start and always on the look-out for something different that might give their cars an edge. Byrne showed this very early on with his Toleman TG183 – putting the radiators in the front wings and attaching the rear wing to the sidepods. No wonder he was to become the revered force at Ferrari that he is now.


Ayrton Senna in the Toleman TG183

Murray too began with new ideas and created several championship-winning cars in his career. Consider this long line of excellent designs:


Brabham BT44, Carlos Reutemann aboard

Not quite a championship winner, the BT44 still won many races over a long career. Note the radiators in the nose and the triangular body section.


Nelson Piquet in the BT49

Murray’s take on the ground effect design of Colin Chapman’s, the BT49 was the most successful of all Brabhams, winning the driver’s championship with Nelson Piquet aboard in 1981. After driving the BT49 for the first time in 1982, Piquet’s new teammate, Riccardo Patrese, remarked that “anyone could win races in that car!” Piquet responded with, “Yes, and it took us two years to make it that good…”


Piquet again, this time in the BT50

Incredibly fast but unreliable, the BT50 was Murray’s first turbo-engined car. Piquet took on the task of getting the BMW turbo to last a race distance (while Patrese enjoyed the BT49) and also re-introduced refuelling to F1. He would hurtle off from the start, build a massive lead and then come in for fuel, usually rejoining the race still in the lead. The fragility of the engine meant that the strategy worked only once, however – the Canadian GP of 1982.


Patrese in the BT52

A new design for the first year without skirts, the BT52 benefited from the work done on the BMW turbo by allowing Piquet to win his second driver’s championship in 1983. The long sidepods of the ground effect era have given way to triangular stubs at the rear but the family resemblance to the BT50 remains.

MP4 5B

Senna in the McLaren MP4 5B

Well, okay, a McLaren looks like a McLaren – all the flair and brilliance of the MP4 5B is hidden by what now seems a standard body. But this was the car that dominated the early years of the 1990s.

It’s a list that any designer would be proud of. Murray called it a day in F1 after that and went off to design road cars. But he and Byrne have written in bold letters across the sport: South African designers have something special!

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Keke Rosberg

Now that his son, Nico, is in F1 and showing well, it seems appropriate to remember the great days of Keke Rosberg. For sheer entertainment and guts, Keke was one to watch.


He was the master in adversity, known for his skills in the wet and a fighter in uncompetitive cars. Right from the beginning, the BRDC International Trophy race in 1978, which he won by speed in a downpour that was catching out all the great names of the time, his car control was amazing. Give him a street circuit and he would muscle his way to the front, regardless of whether his car was any good or not.

For many years it looked as if Keke would never get a competitive drive; he went from Theodore to ATS, Wolf and Fittipaldi, always getting more out of his car than it wanted to give but somehow beneath the notice of the top teams. Even when he secured a drive with Williams in 1982, it was in their last year of Cosworth engines while everyone else had turbos.

But Keke did wonders with the under-powered car, exploiting its reliability and handling to amass a points total that gained him the championship. 1982 is renowned as the year that no-one wanted to be champion, no driver winning more than two races and Keke only one, but this ignores the fact that the Finn was always up with the leaders, ready to take advantage of any problems they might have. He deserved his championship more than many who have cruised to it in superior machinery.

Keke’s awful luck continued after that, however, and he spent three more years with Williams, suffering as they struggled to get some reliability from their new Honda engine. With classic Rosberg timing, he left them just at the moment when they were about to become the cars to beat and joined the McLaren team as they slid from the heights.

One year with them was enough for him and he retired at the end of 1986. He had not fared well against his teammate, Alain Prost, and decided to call it a day. We should not forget that the McLaren was particularly suited to Prost’s smooth driving style, however, and that Keke was best in a car that didn’t mind being sideways occasionally.

Perhaps that is why Keke was never given a drive by the top team of the moment; the call was for smoothness and Keke’s ragged but quick style was as out of place as the man himself. For he was as unique off the track as on it. Unfashionably, he was a smoker and would disappear from the pits for a cigarette at quiet moments. And his priorities were different from those of the hard professionals who were dominating the sport.

There was one race where Keke came into the pits for refueling and a flash fire erupted around him. He leapt from the car but already the fire was out and the mechanics were urging him to get back in. Race forgotten, Keke was protesting, “My mustache! It burned my mustache!”

That was Keke, old school and flamboyant, but as quick as they come. I found a couple of clips on YouTube that illustrate his dashing style and grit:

Rosberg and Gilles, Long Beach 1982

Rosberg and de Angelis, Austria 1982

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