Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Half a Century and Counting

While I've been busy chronicling the events of 1986, Auto Action, Australian Muscle Car and Shannons Club's Mark Oastler have been busy covering the events of 1966 – the Formula 1 World Championship victory of Sir Jack Brabham, in a car bearing his own name, and the sole Bathurst win of the Mini Cooper S.

On his way to victory at Reims.

With 20/20 hindsight, the Brabham team's two championships in 1966 and '67 are owed to a pair of gap years when customer F1 engines temporarily ceased to be. With Coventry-Climax out of action at the end of 1965, and the Cosworth DFV not available for anyone to buy until the start of 1968, privateers were pretty much left to fend for themselves. So the origins of Jack's third and final World Championship really trace back to November 1963.

This was the day the teams held a meeting with the FIA to request a bigger engine for Formula 1 than the then-current 1.5-litres. Brabham himself had been one of the biggest critics of the switch, saying, "There’s no way you could call those 1,500cc machines Formula 1." And he kind of had a point: by 1965, sports and GT cars were faster than Formula 1, and thanks to its big 289ci engine, Dan Gurney had been able to take the new Ford Mustang around Watkins Glen very nearly as quickly as a Formula 1 car – a standard production car, which you could buy off the showroom floor, without needing any kind of special licence. This wasn't Grand Prix racing. Something had to be done.

So, something was. The teams had their game plan worked out when they walked into the meeting: talking among themselves beforehand, they agreed they’d like a 2-litre limit.
We agreed that whatever we asked for, the FIA would reduce. Someone said, "Let's ask for three litres. They will cut that down as they always do. They cannot make it 2.5 – as we’d just had such a formula – so they will give us two litres."

We agreed the tactics and that Colin [Chapman, Lotus team boss] should do the talking. There was a long rambling introduction, then the FIA president asked: "What would you gentlemen like?" Colin said, "Three litres." The president looked round his colleagues, nodded and said, "Done. Thank you for your time, gentlemen." That was that. We filed out, absolutely thunderstruck. – Tony Rudd, Colin Chapman: Inside the Innovator
Problem was, Coventry-Climax boss Leonard Lee then announced his company wouldn't be building any 3-litre engines. Their designer Wally Hassan was nearly 60, and about to commence work on a new Jaguar V12: it was decided he couldn’t effectively supervise both projects at once, so Climax withdrew from motor racing instead. Both of the projects in the pipeline – the Climax FPE, a 3-litre V8, and a supercharged version of the 1.5-litre FWMW flat-12 – were cancelled.

What a shame.

This was a huge blow to the contingent of privateers then involved in Formula 1. We don't often hear about the, because they didn't usually win (or even finish) races, but back in the day a solid third of the grid was usually made up of nobodies and locals out for a laugh. In the 1960s even a top-spec F1 cars was a fairly simple and cheap thing to build, so Formula 1 was open to anyone with a car and the appropriate paperwork – and getting a car was just a matter of money. You bought a chassis from Lotus or Cooper, or indeed, Brabham; a gearbox from Mike Hewland in the U.K.; tyres from Dunlop or Goodyear (unless you were a top-tier talent, in which case they'd give them to you for free); and an engine from Coventry-Climax. Climax engines had powered four major teams in the 1.5-litre era – Lotus, Brabham, Cooper, and Rob Walker (scion of the Johnnie Walker whisky dynasty) – not to mention innumerable minor ones. For an entire era, the Climax was basically the "control engine" of Formula 1.

So when they took their bat and ball and went home, about half the grid was royally screwed.

Their customers went in a variety of directions in search of a solution. Bruce McLaren, who'd picked a particularly tough year to start up his own team, turned to the 4.2-litre quad-cam Ford V8 taking over in American IndyCar racing, lining it down to meet the 3-litre limit. Dan Gurney had commissioned the Britain's Weslake Engineering to build him a V12, and BRM was busy screwing together a sixteen-cylinder monstrosity, but neither was going to be ready until very late in the year, leaving them to join Lotus in scrounging for leftover Climaxes. Cooper even dragged out the 2.5-litre V12 from the Maserati 250F, modified it for fuel injection and hoped for the best.

Stewart took the season-opener in Monaco, thanks to a Tasman-spec Climax V8.

But Jack Brabham, he looked a bit further afield – about 17,000km further, in fact. Like most of the drivers, he spent his summers racing in the Tasman Series in his native Australia, and one of the best Tasman engine builders happened to be Repco – the Replacement Parts Company of Melbourne, Victoria, whose meticulous methods had made them his preferred supplier back in his RAAF days, when he'd repaired Beaufighters. They had their hands on the block of the stillborn Oldsmobile 215, whose "aluminum" construction made it the lightest stock V8 in existence (a mere 144kg). It had obvious potential for racing, and they already had plans to build it into a 2.5-litre V8 for Tasman customers. Jack quietly mentioned that if they wanted to stroke it out to 3-litres as well, that mightn't be such a terrible idea...

The end result was a brilliant demonstration of the kind of improvised hot-rodding Australia was good at in those days: the Oldsmobile block was fitted with alloy heads, fuel injection, Alfa Romeo single overhead camshafts to replace the shared pushrod arrangement and, with Daimler 2,548cc concords, they reduced the stroke to 61mm, meeting the 3-litre F1 restriction. The custom exhaust system was even provided by Lukey Performance Exhausts, the company of Brabham's old quarter-mile dirt-oval midget rival, Len Lukey (who later also owned the Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit; Lukey Heights is named after him, and has nothing to do with the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor). It was a peculiar arrangement: officially these engines were on loan to Brabham, and if they were sold the money went to Repco, but it was a small price to pay. The Repco V8 was only modestly powerful, barely making 225 kW, but it was reliable and the torque was there from 3,500rpm all the way up to the redline at 8,000, making it extremely drivable.

Adding to the improvised, spit-n-duct-tape feel of the whole project, the car Brabham drove hadn't even been intended for this engine. The Brabham BT19 had been designed around a Climax flat-16 that never eventuated, so it remained a one-off; the BT20 was built for Repco V8 power from the start, but Jack decided not to drive it, deciding to let his teammate Denny Hulme find out how reliable it was. Jack stuck with the BT19 – like Jenson Button's Brawn in 2009, a brilliant chassis compromised by an engine it had never been designed for.

The rest is well-documented history: after a slow start to the season, Jack won the French, British, Dutch and German Grand Prix on the trot. His car failed at Monza, but so did those of title rivals Graham Hill and John Surtees, and by then there weren't enough rounds left for anyone else to catch up. Jack Brabham had his third and final World Championship, and it had come in a car built in his own workshop with his own hands. It would never be done again.

Intriguingly, however, the last issue of Auto Action brought my attention to the fact that Jack won the title at least partly because Ferrari lost it him.

Enzo's Scuderia had started the season with the relative luxury of two engines – the light and proven 2.4-litre "Dino" V6, which had been kept in development thanks to the Tasman Series, and a new 3-litre V12, derived from the 3.3-litre unit taken from Ferrari's Le Mans-winning 250LM sports car. That should've been a huge advantage, leaving them an underpowered-but-lightweight engine for the twistier tracks (Monaco, Brands Hatch) and a beefy-but-strong unit for the long fast ones (Spa, Reims, Monza). They were also to be led by their 1964 World Champion, John Surtees, so they could be sure that if the results weren't coming the problem wasn't the driver.

Surtees, on his way to victory at Spa.

Unfortunately, being Ferrari, these advantages were countered by some equally severe disadvantages. For one, despite all its power (270 kW at 10,000rpm), the new V12 managed to have the excess weight of a Le Mans engine without any of the excess reliability; crude manufacturing meant it tended to break down. For another, Ferrari was neck-deep in a pissing contest with Ford over the Le Mans 24-hour race (this being the era that gave us the GT40), so the Grand Prix effort was neglected, as Surtees later explained:
At Ferrari in those days, you started with a handicap. Until Le Mans was over, you couldn’t really do the work you wanted to do – and needed to do – in Formula 1.
Le Mans was in late June, so by the time Ferrari turned his attention back to Grand Prix racing, Brabham had sorted out the kinks and was ready to begin his sequence of four wins in a row. Ferrari was forced to do his development against a rival who'd done his homework months before. Hence, by the time he got it all in one sock, the title was already gone.

But that wasn't the whole story either, because added to the mix were problems unique to Ferrari. Being a road car manufacturer as well, Ferrari was relatively large by motorsport standards, with a long employee payroll. With so many people around, the close-knit feel of the British teams just wasn't there, and in its place came lots of gossiping, lying and backstabbing – which was only exacerbated by the Old Man running his team as a dictator, one who didn't bother attending any of the races. He was totally reliant on what his team manager told him, and he made it very clear that he wasn't interested in hearing that the car was no good. His car was always the best, so it must be the driver who wasn't delivering.

Added to this was a faction who were always outraged that Ferrari wasn't being led by an Italian driver. Phil Hill and Niki Lauda faced the same thing; they tolerated you, barely, until you got the house in order and the car was winning again. Once that happened, they called for you to be fired so an Italian could slide into your seat and reap the glory – which would see the team start to decline, and the whole cycle would start again. In Lauda's day, the Italian was apparently named Maurizio Flammini, whose Italian F2 title in 1976 turned out to be the high point of his career. For Surtees, it was the double-whammy of Lorenzo Bandini and Ludovico Scarfiotti: Bandini was a capable, race-winning driver, but he didn't have the force of personality to rally the Scuderia behind him, while Scarfiotti was better known as a sports car driver, and so far had yet to win a Grand Prix at all. Together they'd actually won Le Mans in 1963, but at Le Mans in those days the key was to win as slowly as possible, so second-tier drivers had a shot in a strong car. With them standing behind him, Surtees had to work overtime merely to justify his position in the team. Wrangling decent engines, tyres, gearboxes, etc required further effort, and then there was the need to develop the car and find the time and money to go testing. It was all too much for one man, even a workoholic like John Surtees. At Le Mans, where Surtees wanted Mike Parkes as his co-driver, the Ferrari team manager forced Scarfiotti on him instead in a cynical effort to guarantee an Italian win. Surtees threw a tantrum and quit the team, never to return.

Ironically, the #20 ended up being shared by Scarfiotti and Parkes.

The intriguing part is what might've happened if he hadn't. Rewind to the season opener in Monaco: Surtees wanted to use the Dino V6 but was made to drive the unsuitable V12 instead. He led until he retired with a broken differential, and although the win went to Jackie Stewart (irrelevant to the title fight), 2nd place went to Bandini, driving the longed-for Dino V6. The V12 held together long enough for Surtees to win at Spa and take 2nd in Germany, and he also won the finale in Mexico driving for his new team, Cooper-Maserati. Then consider that the Ferrari V12 also won at Monza, with Scarfiotti driving (the last Italian to win the Italian Grand Prix). If Surtees had been driving that car instead, then the championship table starts to look rather interesting – 36 points to Brabham's net 42. From there it would only have taken one more sneeze – like Ferrari bothering to send a team to Brands Hatch – and history could've been completely rewritten.

Despite a big, underpowered Cooper-Maserati, Surtees ended 1966 with a win in Mexico City.

Maybe, maybe, maybe, but lucky victories count too. Ferrari might have dropped the ball that year, but it was Brabham and no-one else who picked it up. That year was the World Championship of Striking When The Iron Was Hot, and the best at that was not the bickering, divided Italians in rosso corsa, but the Australian Green & Gold.