Every so often, the FIA in its capacity as controlling body of Formula 1, changes the rules governing the powertrains and construction of F1 machinery, thus presenting a challenge to designers and (hopefully) adding a dash of spice in terms of the spectacle. It’s therefore not that easy to compare one era of the sport with another, other than by the results achieved in a chosen period. However, given the huge part played by aerodynamics in the last four decades in particular, we’ll begin our story in 1977 when a revolutionary concept saw the John Player Lotus squad decimate the opposition and trigger a whole new design direction.Up to the introduction of the Lotus 78, teams had played with ‘wings’ designed to produce the exact opposite of lift, but these ungainly appendages were more hit and hope than products of scientific application.
Then along came Colin Chapman whose earlier mid-engined designs all relied on light weight, honed handling and simplicity of execution to get the better of apparently faster and more complex machinery. The Lotus 78 (introduced in 1977), by contrast, was all about increasing downforce while avoiding a proportional increase in drag. In the most-simple of terms, the 78 saw inverted wings placed within the wide sidepods that effectively acted as venturi tunnels, changing the speed of airflow undereath the car to create a suction effect. Most significantly, sliding skirts were employed to seal off the gap between the road and the sides of the car, thus multiplying the low-pressure suction effect which led to massively increased cornering speeds and more effective braking. The ‘ground effect’ era had begun but skirts were to be banned in 1981 and venturi tunnels were replaced by flat floors in 1983, in reaction to the potential dangers should a sudden loss of grip occur mid corner.
The South African earns his place among the pantheon of great designers thanks to the immense success he shared with one Michael Schumacher. Byrne first caught the eye as the designer of successful Formula Ford racers in the mid-1970s and followed up with winning Toleman Formula 2 designs. Toleman then morphed into Benetton which became home to a young Michael Schumacher who took successive world championship titles in the Byrne-designed B194 and B195 models. The former was powered by Ford-Cosworth engines which were saddled with a clear power deficit, and that alone demonstrated the effectiveness of the Byrne-penned chassis wielded to such good effect by the young German. Byrne departed Benetton along with Schumacher late in 1995 but was lured away from his deep-sea diving school to join Michael at Scuderia Ferrari from 2000. So began a period of unprecedented success which saw Schumacher crowned world champion over five consecutive years, all achieved in Byrne-designed race vehicles that won the constructors’ title from 1999 to 2004. The fact that a Ferrari driver had not won the championship since South African Jody Schekter in 1979 is clear enough proof of the immense contribution made by Rory Byrne and his systematic and painstaking attention to detail which lifted the Scuderia to unprecedented levels of success.
We’re not being biased, it’s hard to keep South African’s out of the F1 limelight, especially as far as Durban-raised Murray is concerned. A product of Natal Technical College, Gordon made his mark in Britain as chief designer of the Brabham team under Ron Tauranac. Driven by a desire to think ‘out of the box,’ Murray could never be accused of following conventional F1 design wisdom as proven by his amazing Brabham ‘fan car’ of 1978. This featured a huge fan mounted to the rump of the BT46B. It was said to aid cooling as moving aero aids were verboten in this era. The reality was different as this Brabham, winner of the Swedish Grand Prix fresh out the box, in fact glued itself to the tarmac even more effectively than Colin Chapman’s aforementioned Lotus and was instantly banned. Roll along to the subsequent banning of side skirts in 1981, and Murray devised yet another clever counter in the shape of F1’s first active suspension. GP cars were mandated to have a 6 cm clearance when stationary, but Murray designed an ‘oleomatic’ suspension that lowered the car only when running, thereby overcoming the spirit of the new regulations and handing Nelson Piquet his first world drivers’ title.
The inclusion of Patrick Head in this expose may raise eyebrows, but the Englishman’s engineering prowess allowed Williams in particular to attain prolonged success at the very pinnacle of motorsport. Over a twenty-year period from 1977, a Williams was always in contention at the front of the field thanks to Head’s neat chassis designs which made good use of ground effect principles to give Alan Jones a drivers title in 1980 and successive manufacturers titles for his employer. Following the accident which befell Frank Williams, Head’s influence within the team became stronger still and was marked by the dominance in 1986 and 1987 of the Honda-powered car that was able to employ its immense turbo power particularly effectively thanks the Head’s innovative active suspension system. Indeed, this chassis mastery was to underpin the significant ongoing success achieved by Williams who garnered five manufacturer titles between 1992 and 1997, a period in which Patrick Head combined his engineering skills with the undoubted aerodynamic mastery of Adrian Newey.
No one should be surprised to learn that Adrian Newey is the only designer to have secured constructors’ titles across three teams, such is the depth of his prowess related to aerodynamics. That his career was kick-started in IndyCar with March and subsequently with Leyton House in F1 may be less well-known but his subsequent forays with championship-winning Williams and McLaren is the stuff of legend. As so often happens, much of the Newey-inspired tech that carried Williams to so many victories in the early ’90s was outlawed but that didn’t prevent outright successes in 1996/97 before Newey moved to McLaren Mercedes who promptly led the pack for the next two years before the Schumacher/Ferrari era took hold. While every team on the planet sought Newey’s services, he elected to take up a challenge with mid-field Red Bull team in 1996, and the rest, as they say, is history. Having persuaded the team to ditch Ferrari power in favour of Renault as the latter’s compact dimensions allowed for tighter packaging, a Newey forte. Newey’s deft touch brought Sebastian Vettel four drivers’ titles along with corresponding manufacturers’ crowns. The biggest single contributor to the success of Red Bull was the Newey-designed blown exhaust diffuser which produced significant extra rear-end traction, on and off the throttle. Inevitably, others played catch up but without great success until the concept was, like so many Newey innovations, banned in 2012.
Initially, Red Bull struggled but Newey’s genius soon saw his cars back in contention as his aero savvy innovations were put to work in other engineering areas. In more recent times, Newey has played a less active role at Red Bull but his contribution can never be missed as the less powerful Renault-engined Red Bulls have continued to excel on tracks where aero efficiency and grip is at a premium.