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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.

TG183

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:

BT44

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.

BT49

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…”

BT50

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.

BT52

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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A Rose by Any Other Name…

It is rare these days for a brand new team to enter F1; far more common is it for a fading team to sell out to some hopeful and monied owner, thereby bringing a new name into the sport. If we look at the teams on the grid this year, Sauber are metamorphosing into BMW while four other teams were once known by other names:

Midland F1 were Jordan
Toro Rosso were Minardi
Super Aguri were Arrows

But, hold on, that’s only three – which is the fourth team? Now that’s a long story…

Way back in 1981, a successful Formula 2 team, Toleman, decided to make the step up to F1. They arrived with the TG181 which, frankly, proved to be a dog. But they had a gifted designer working for them, one Rory Byrne, and later he produced the TG183 which was both innovative and competitive. In the hands of Derek Warwick, it scored ten points in 1983.

Toleman TG183

Toleman TG183

The team developed the car for the following year and gave a young Ayrton Senna his first chance in F1. He rewarded them by nearly winning in Monaco (that was the year it rained and the race was stopped with Prost in the lead but Senna closing swiftly) and a third in the British GP.

Thereafter, the team ran into problems and, at the end of 1985, they sold out to Benetton. Rory Byrne stayed with the new outfit and the cars became better and better, eventually winning the driver’s championship with Michael Schumacher in 1994 and both titles the following year. Then Michael left to join Ferrari and, at his insistence, Rory Byrne too was persuaded to head for Maranello a year later.

The Benetton team’s fortunes declined after that and, in 2001, they were bought by Renault. Which brings us up to the present – a long story with a surprising ending. How strange is it to reflect that the car to beat this year could actually be called a Toleman?

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