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Memories of an Early Innovation in F1

Over at F1-Fanatic, Keith Collantine asked the question, “Which Manufacturers Will Quit (F1)?” and received a long reply from Number 38 of Halifax VA. Now, I like Number 38; for one thing I learned from a previous comment of his that he’s even older than I am. And Keith’s answer, including the fact that he’s not old enough to remember the introduction of the Tyrrell six-wheeler, set me to thinking of the first innovation in F1 that I was witness to.

Maser 2

Birdcage Maserati

I started watching Grands Prix in 1962 – which means that I just missed Cooper’s revolutionary idea of putting the engine in between the driver and the rear axle. But I can remember when Colin Chapman introduced the monocoque to F1, thereby consigning the spaceframe to the scrapheap. Although monocoque chassis had been around for a while in production cars, racing cars still relied on the tried and tested formula of welding tubes together to make a frame (known as a spaceframe) and then bolting body panels to it. The monocoque made the body into the frame upon which everything else was hung.

In Chapman’s hands, the monocoque became a large tube that housed the front suspension and driver; he then bolted the engine to the rear of the tube and hung the rear suspension on the engine. The resultant saving in weight enabled him to build a car that was much more nimble and just as strong as the other cars – the mighty Lotus 25 that Jim Clark used to such good effect.

And so the spaceframe welder’s art disappeared into history. I say art because the development of the spaceframe had led to some incredibly intricate and complex constructions from steel tubing; and the high point was probably not a F1 car but a sportscar known as the Birdcage Maserati (for obvious reasons).

The Birdcage was introduced in the dying days of Maserati’s involvement in racing – after their withdrawal it was the French Maserati dealers who tried every year to win at Le Mans with the original design supplied with various bodies. The car was very quick and invariably established a lead over the pack of Ferraris and Aston Martins in the early stages of the 24-hour race. But it was fragile as well and, sooner or later, something would break and it would be retired. It became almost a tradition that the Birdcage would be the hare in the first couple of hours at Le Mans but, in the end, reality had to be faced and the Maserati disappeared from the entry lists.

Maser 1

Take a look at the photograph above that shows the Maserati’s spaceframe. It is a model of the real thing but gives some idea of how complex a structure it was. Before the Lotus 25, all F1 cars were constructed in this way; after it, they went monocoque, chassis-less in effect, unless you regard the body as the chassis.

Chapman’s revolutionary idea also illustrates perfectly one of the most important rules of design: simplicity is always better than complexity. Colin had the vision to see that the spaceframe had become too complicated to develop further and something much simpler was needed. It was a logical step to use the existing technology already present in production cars – but it took genius to see that.

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