Once upon a time, anything went in the realms of top-flight motor racing. This month, Michael looks back at some of the crazier creations
t can’t happen any more — 50 years ago, as Formula 1 (F1) was readying itself for the ‘return to power’ when the maximum capacity would increase from 1500cc to three litres, the engine could be any configuration the engineers came up with. Ferrari, not surprisingly, had a V12 good to go, as did Maserati, and then Honda. There was also the promise of a V12 Weslake for Dan Gurney’s Eagle — until then, the American was going to get by with a 2.8-litre straight-four. Ferrari also had its 2.4-litre V6, while Repco was ahead with following the V8 route, and Climax bored out its V8 1.5-litre engine, as did BRM. However, the last-named had something even more technically interesting than the simplicity of a mere V8.
And here’s the key — the true motoring maverick who went down the technically interesting path presumably knew that history had shown it was almost certainly heading for disaster, but went there anyway. BRM had done it all before — in fact ‘technically interesting’ was at the very root of its existence when, in 1947, it gave the world a 1.5-litre supercharged V16 — an engine that it promised would produce prodigious power. Mind you, BRM never stopped to consider where the tyres were going to come from to transmit that power to the track, assuming the engine ever ran long enough to be a concern — which it rarely did. So, in an example of motor-sport amnesia, BRM forgot that two lots of eight had once been a recipe for failure and ridicule, and connected a pair of its beautiful 1.5-litre V8s to come up with the H16.
It can’t happen any more
When F1 ditched turbos at the end of 1988, the leading contenders for the 1989 world championship comprised Ferrari’s inevitable V12, Mclaren and Williams with V10s
( Honda and Renault, respectively), and the V8 Fordpowered Benetton. They all seemed to have their own song — at the season finale at Adelaide, I watched Friday practice from the second- gear Stag Hotel corner as they blasted up through the gears. I could close my eyes and not only differentiate an eight from a 10 and a 12, but a Judd V8 from a Ford V8 — and, while the Ferrari was predictably sensational, nothing made your earwax dance like the Lola’s Lamborghini V12.
Today, a Formula engine is a 1600cc V6 — that’s it, no other variations such as straight-fours or flat- eights. The oddball factor can’t exist.
As an aside, in the ’50s, Ferrari produced a 2.5-litre V-twin — it never raced, but it did such a job on the test rig that the designer was looking for a new gig that afternoon. Still, the point is that it was possible.
Then there’s another thing — an F1 car must now have four wheels — so no more craziness of having half a dozen of them as tried by Tyrrell, March, and Williams.
Can-am was a wonderful bastion of ‘maverickness’ — if you wanted oddball, there was the tiny-wheeled AVS Shadow, the high-winged Chaparrals, and, later, the infamous ‘sucker car’. However, all these looked positively sane compared with the Macs IT Special with its four two-stroke engines. Technically interesting? Check. Successful? Hardly.
Before the editorial desk asks ‘Yes this is all technically interesting, but where’s the Kiwi connection?’, we cannot leave the arena of oddities without mention of my favourite, the twin-engine Alfa Romeo. It was already my fave (well, it is an Alfa …) long before my close encounter with it at the Donington museum in September 2003.
Two Bimotores were built — one with a pair of 2.9-litre units, and the other with a couple of 3.15-litre engines. The idea was hatched early in 1935, and by April 1 was being tested by Tazio Nuvolari. As Stein would learn 30 years later, the weight of two engines was a killer combined with what the Bimotore was doing to its narrow tyres.
Intriguingly, the Bimotore’s best result came not with Nuvolari at the wheel but Monégasque Louis Chiron, who ran second to the Mercedes of Luigi Fagioli on the daft ‘twin-dragstrip’ AVUS circuit. That was in late May, and, shortly afterwards, the folly of the Alfa oddball was clearly obvious; the Bimotore was abandoned, and, on July 28, Nuvolari was back in a venerable Tipo B for the German Grand Prix (GP) at the Nürburgring, a race that expected to highlight the might of German machinery and drivers. The two previous rounds of the European Championship had gone to Mercedes pilots, and now in western Germany, it was simply a matter of which of the nine German cars would emerge victorious, and, of course, a short man with a funny moustache was taking a keen interest in the result of this race and expecting the German drivers to uphold Nazi honour.
So, bringing us back to oddities and New Zealand — a Bimotore was brought here by John Mcmillian, who had won the first New Zealand GP at Ohakea in 1950. He’d been running a sister P3 to the German GP/ Nuvolari car and, in an arrangement that seems somewhat elegant all these years later, ended up with another Alfa engine for his P3. He then passed the rest onto arguably our first motor-racing legend, George Smith of Geeceeess Special fame.
Smith installed his Chrysler V8 into the front engine bay of the Bimotore’s chassis, but eventually gave up on the cumbersome beast. As happens, the car — now an A truly wacky racer — Smokey Yunick looks on as Bobby Johns tries out the Hurst Floor Shifter Special in 1964
An alleged 300,000 spectators watched as Mercedes’ main man, Rudolf Caracciola, led initially, but soon the rain came, and it became evident that Nuvolari hadn’t read the script — he was up to second going into the final lap. The driver of the leading Mercedes ignored team orders to stop for a tyre change, and one burst as Nuvolari flashed past for an improbable victory — certainly his most famous and probably most satisfying. uncompetitive old tank — drifted around the country until resting for a while in the South Island.
I didn’t actually see this car in the Donington museum — I happened to walking past a doorway on a Wednesday just before lunch when I spied a couple of lads struggling to push it onto a trailer bound for the Goodwood Revival the following weekend. Time had not lightened the car and, with the help of a Kiwi who had locked the odd scrum in his time, we got her loaded. From the time George Cornwall Smith had dispensed with it, until that day at Donington, it is fair to say the car’s value had grown a bit.