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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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Ferrari’s Wheel Inserts

After the mass dampers, along come the wheel inserts. Ferrari have been running inserts to the rear wheels that fill the deep central well of the wheel. This is a bit dubious in terms of a couple of the technical regulations; is their purpose aerodynamic, in which case they would be contravening the rules in that area, or are they intended to aid brake cooling, as claimed by Ferrari?

Brake cooling

Yes, they need cooling…

For some reason, this reminds me of Brabham’s approach to the fuss over their fan car in 1978. Everyone could see that the fan had been built into a boxlike structure covering the engine and rear suspension and so was designed to create huge suction at the rear of the car. But Gordon Murray, Brabham’s designer, disagreed and insisted that its purpose was engine cooling (admittedly, he said this with a big grin on his face). And it was certainly true that the fan did draw air through the radiators.

In the end, the FIA acted quite sensibly and allowed the car’s one victory to stand (Swedish GP) but banned it from then on. Brabham’s real purpose had always been to focus attention on the questionable legality of the skirts that gave the Lotus 79 complete dominance in that season, so they happily accepted the decision, point made.

This is where the wheel insert controversy differs; Ferrari are not trying to make a point but are seeking performance increases to maintain a lead over the competition (this is the business of F1 after all). There is no doubt that the inserts help aerodynamic performance – they fill in the gap that creates vortices, and drag therefore, in the air flow around the rear wheels. There is nothing new in this and wheel inserts have been used for decades at Le Mans to lower drag and so maximize speed potential along the Mulsanne straight.

The onus would appear to be on Ferrari to prove that the primary intent of the inserts is brake cooling. But there is one tiny problem even if they succeed in this. As Ron Dennis has pointed out, if they are brake cooling measures, then every time Ferrari change the wheels and tires, they are changing the brake cooling apparatus too. And that, of course, is illegal…

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Pascal Vasselon on Mass Dampers

F1 Racing-live dot com has a very interesting interview with Pascal Vasselon, Toyota’s senior chassis manager, today. Perhaps the most revealing part of the whole interview was what he had to say about the mass damper controversy (which the International Court of Appeal is due to give a ruling on this Wednesday):

“Mass damping is one of the critical things that engineers have to sort out. We are forced to use stiff suspensions to maintain a stable aerodynamic platform. And, on the tyre side, we use low pressure for grip. So it means we put stiff suspension on top of very soft tyres and that causes a lot of problems. The combination means that at some frequencies the suspension is locked and the car is effectively bouncing on the tyres, which are not damped. The mass damper is one of the possibilities to control the frequency.

“From our side, we disregarded this because we considered it to be moving ballast, which is not allowed. Our development focused on suspension and another route that, for us, was more in line with the regulations. The mass damper is not an innovation, it is well known in engineering. It was actually used on the Citroen 2CV to counteract wheel hop! The question was: do we apply it to F1 or not? I would say it is obviously borderline. But then we also believe the issue of – it should be banned for the future, but it has been accepted, so why ban it in the middle of the season? Let’s wait the end of the season – will be answered by the International Court of Appeal very soon. That’s probably the true question that has to be answered.”

This is the clearest explanation of mass dampers I have yet come across and gives us a much better idea of why it is such a contentious issue. Had the FIA described it as “moving ballast” in the first place, instead of their vague reference to moving bodywork, I think everyone would have understood the problem sooner.


Toyota TF106

Pascal also puts his finger exactly upon the most important point in the whole matter: the FIA’s choice to outlaw the mass damper right in the middle of the season. One could see the necessity for so hasty a decision if it were a safety matter or some tweak that gave an unfair advantage, such as Brabham’s fan car of 1978. But the mass dampers have been used since last year and to ban them suddenly in the middle of this season seems either stupid or deliberately antagonistic.

Do the FIA actually enjoy these trips to court where the whole business of F1 is made to seem contentious, chaotic and obsessed with trivialities? Is it impossible to reach some sort of agreement between the governing body and the teams that the rules will not be tinkered with during the season? So one team or another might make some huge technical breakthrough midseason that gives them a big advantage (unlikely but possible) – is that really the end of the world? Ban it at the end of the year if it’s so important.

With a little common sense and a spirit of compromise, so many of these storms could be avoided. I suppose we have to be grateful that there are still men like M. Vasselon involved in F1 who have plenty of both.

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Piquet and Salazar

One of the American commenters to my personal blog, Gone Away, had this to say after reading of my new blog on F1:

Just know that I will certainly stop by to enjoy hurling a few fresh peanut shells occasionally, and that altho high-end tech-talk only confuses this bent caveman, I find myself inexplicably attracted to the chaos of almost any sort of automobile race track, along with the dust, the lights and the noise, whereby I become so absorbed in all the goings-on that any chatter from nearby bothers me not.

But if you have any dirt on any of these drivers…

I replied to his last sentence as follows:

Dirt on the drivers? The trouble with these modern guys is that they have to be so darn fit that they don’t get time to do anything naughty. Although they do say that Kimi Raikkonen spends many nights in raucous night clubs. And back in the fifties and sixties there were some pretty wild guys involved and parties could get really hectic, I believe.

Come to think of it, even today’s drivers lose their tempers on occasion. For instance, there was the time Nelson Piquet tried to remove another driver’s helmet without undoing the straps first. Hmmm, there may be a rich vein of posts in this one…

Having promised (well, sort of) to do so, we could start the ball rolling with a look at that particular incident. It is so famous in F1 that all you have to do is say “Nelson Piquet and Eliseo Salazar” and all fans will know what you’re talking about. But it bears repeating as a good example of Brazilian hot blood.

It was 1982 at the German Grand Prix. Nelson was driving for Brabham and it was the first year that they had obtained a turbo engine – a BMW that produced huge amounts of power but broke more often than not. To contain it, Brabham’s designer, Gordon Murray, produced one of the most beautiful cars ever – the Brabham BT50.

The team devised a cunning plan to ensure that, when the engine lasted the race, they won. It was the first time refueling had been seen in F1 for decades and it caught everyone by surprise. Nelson would hurtle off from the start in a seriously-light BT50, establish a huge lead and then come in for refueling. If everything went according to plan, he would still be in the lead when he emerged from the pits and the race would be in his pocket. The theory worked once – in Canada – but otherwise Piquet’s year was a long list of retirements.

We were used to these tactics by the time the circus came to Hockenheim and were not surprised when Nelson leapt into the lead and began to build a huge cushion. Until Eliseo Salazar entered the picture, that is.

It was still in the early laps when Nelson came up to lap one of the back markers, the said Eliseo. On the approach to a chicane at the end of a long straight, Nelson came screaming past Salazar, braked, and began to turn into the corner.

At this point, I have to say that I disagree with other commentators on what happened next. They all say that Salazar was not aware of Piquet’s presence but it is quite clear from the videos that the Brabham was ahead of the ATS when Nelson began to brake for the corner. Watch the video here and you will see that Salazar must have been asleep not to have noticed Piquet passing him. It is quite simple: Salazar did not even begin to hit the brakes and cannoned into the side of the Brabham at full speed. Both cars were out of the race immediately.

Understandably, Nelson was a little upset at the summary way in which he’d been bumped off the track. Remember, too, that he must have been in “absolute limit” mode – it was imperative that he build as big a lead as possible in a short time. He leapt out of the car and ran over to Salazar (who was calmly walking away) to explain his displeasure. And it must be that Eliseo’s answer to Piquet’s protest was insufficient, for it incensed the Brazilian even more. There followed the famous scene of Piquet attempting to hit a man in the head through a racing helmet. When that failed (for obvious reasons), he aimed a kick at the guy but, by that time, Eliseo was exiting stage right and was out of range.

Piquet and Salazar

The Big Fight

That is all we saw on the television during the race but, apparently, there is a sequel. Standing nearby was a van ready to take the drivers back to the pits. Piquet strolled over and found that Eliseo was already sitting smugly in the back. And the fight began all over again, forcing the driver to get out and separate the combatants. Piquet promptly jumped into the van and drove off, leaving the van driver and Salazar to reflect upon the events of the previous few minutes.

Much later the Brabham engineers informed Piquet that the engine had been about to blow up anyway – Salazar had actually saved the BMW chiefs the embarrassment of yet another engine failure and in their home race. Nelson immediately phoned Salazar to apologize.

So ends the tale of F1′s biggest punch up. And I still say Nelson had every right to demonstrate his feelings on the matter. If only he’d persuaded Salazar to remove his helmet first…

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