Formula 1 Insight

Formula One's South African Secret

I grew up in Southern Africa and so still take an interest in that area of the world. As an instance, I see that I am not the only one to have noticed the parallels between the Mosley sex scandal and Southern African politics; in an article on GrandPrix dot com today, a friend of Bernie Ecclestone's is quoted as saying, "President Mosley is in danger of becoming motor racing's President Mugabe."

It is a tenuous connection, I know, but there are other ways in which Southern Africa seems to be linked quite closely to motor sport. And one of these is a closely guarded secret of the F1 design world:

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 such a revered force at Ferrari.

Toleman TG183B
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
Brabham BT44, Carlos Reutemann aboard

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

Brabham BT49
Nelson Piquet in the BT49

Murray’s take on Colin Chapman’s ground effect innovation, 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..."

Brabham 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.

Brabham 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.

McLaren 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! Maybe some of the struggling teams of today should be combing the engineering schools of South Africa in search of the next bright talent.


Steven Roy
I think it is a bit unfair to say Byrne and Murray were innovative. It's a bit like saying Barrichello and Schumacher were successful racing drivers. In each case the statement is true but in each pair one is vastly more innovative/successful than the other.

Bear in mind what has been missed out of the Murray innovations catalogue here. The fan car, surface cooling, the Brabham BT55 skateboard with the canted engine and the crême de la crême the McLaren MP4/4 which won 15 out of 16 races in 1988. Of course it was little more than a development of the BT55 but with a far more suitable engine. If Mansell hadn't got injured Schlesser would not have had the opportunity to ram Senna at Monza and the car would have won every race it contested.

I think you should get some kind of tenuousness(?) prize for the intro. Mosley/Mugabe/Southern Africa all as an excuse to show us a few pictures and talk about two designers.
Date Added: 18/04/2008

Tenuousness award gratefully accepted!

I agree that Murray was far more innovative than Byrne, Steven, and the amount of text I devoted to each probably reflects this. In Byrne's defence, however, I do think his Toleman design shows determination to follow a different route from the other F1 designers - it is only a pity that the car was not an outstanding advance in performance! He does also have the fairly rare accolade of being one of those designers whose name is instantly recognised amongst F1 fans.

My omission of some of Murray's designs was the result of two factors:

1. I wrote about the fan car and surface cooling fairly recently.

2. Availability of photos - it is sometimes impossible to find suitable pictures to illustrate a point.
Date Added: 18/04/2008

Murray writes in this Month's F1 Racing about the still-birth of the BT51 due to the banning of many aerodynamic aids. The BT 51, pre-season, was developing up to two tons of downforce, but mere months before the season opener, the FIA ruled that cars had to have flat bottoms.

Murray and his team spent the next 3 months working around the clock (he says e used drugs to stay awake and barely slept during that time) to completely redesign a new car, the BT52. They couldn't just take the skirts off the old car. Since they couldn't fiddle at all with developing aerodynamics, he gave the car huge non-adjustable front and rear wings, and came up with an innovative rear end, the entirety of which could be unbolted and replaced by a pre-assembled unit. Couple that with BMW's killer turbo engine that probably hit 1500 hp during qualifying, and Murray's genius is evident. The car was unreliable, but won the championship anyway, the first turbo to do so. Not long after, they banned refueling and turbos so it was one of the greats of its era.

He also created a hydropneumatic strut that would slowly lower the suspension to its ideal ride height, and at the end of the race, return it to the legal height. Clever, that one.
Date Added: 19/04/2008

Really geeky point, but that's a Mclaren MP4/4
Date Added: 19/04/2008

Thanks for that info, Arnet. It's also an excellent illustration of how pressure can encourage inventiveness.
Date Added: 19/04/2008

No doubt you're right, Patrick - I was never greatly into McLarens then and they all looked identical to me. As a matter of interest, how can you tell? The pic was captioned as a 5B, by the way, although I know the net is laden with incorrectly labelled stuff.
Date Added: 19/04/2008

Clive - no airbox - so clearly the 1988 turbo car, rather than the later Atmo car. I couldn't tell the MP4/5 apart from it's successor though
Date Added: 19/04/2008

Alianora La Canta
Perhaps patrick knows the differences between the two models better than me, but I figured out it wasn't a 5B because McLaren weren't using number 12 when they used the 5 (they won the championship using the 5 the previous year, so used 1 and 2 instead). Also, Prost was driving a Ferrari by the time the 5B was ready to race.

A really good entry, though. Enjoyed looking at all the photos.
Date Added: 19/04/2008

Of course, really obvious now you point it out, Patrick. Just goes to show how much I disliked the dominance of the McLarens in those years (nothing against the team, I just don't like races that are foregone conclusions).
Date Added: 19/04/2008

Thanks, Ali - makes a difference, having all those photos! The point about Prost and Senna is one I should have picked up on - serves me right for taking photo captions at their face value, I guess.
Date Added: 19/04/2008

Prodvijenie Saitov
Give please. I am doomed to an eternity of compulsive work. No set goal achieved satisfies. Success only breeds a new goal. The golden apple devoured has seeds. It is endless.
I am from Maldives and also now teach English, tell me right I wrote the following sentence: "This article provides tips on how to seo your videos.I seo edge performance based seo company experts at organic seo services, natural seo."

Thanks 8). Britannia.
Date Added: 18/05/2009

RSS feed icon RSS comments feed

Back to the main blog

Have your say

You may use some HTML in comments. For bold text use <strong></strong> and for italic text use <em></em>. If you know what you're doing feel free to use more complex mark-up but please no deprecated tags, break tags or JavaScript.

Enter the code shown above:

Name *

Comment *

Email *


Copyright disclaimers XHTML 1.0 CCS2 RSS feed Icon