As aero developments go, this has got to be one of the finest. In 1978, the Brabham Formula One team needed an edge. Main competitors Lotus, led by the Dick Dastardly character Colin Chapman, were poised to have a dominant year. Their discovering and developing of ground effect had given them a sizable advantage. The little Brabham team with designer Gordon Murray (owner of an exceptional brain and equally exceptional moustache) needed something to get an edge. And they found it.
His spectacular creation looks as though a small jet engine was crashed into the back of an F1 car. It took three months of redevelopment, several fans exploding during testing, but finally the team entered it into the eight race of the 1978 season; the Swedish Gran Prix.
To say eyebrows raised is an understatement. In a world where the smallest innovation caused a whirl of scrutiny, the fan car sent jaws dropping down the grid. A dustbin lid was used to cover the back of the car, fitting snugly into the fan outlet. So, what had Murray done?
Let’s break this down simply. Downforce, is effectively caused by having less air under the car than on top of it. Reducing the pressure under the floor of the car, means that a force acts to pull the car down into the space where the air used to be. If you can pull the car to the ground, the tyres get squashed into the track and the car goes around corners as if on rails.
So where does a fan get involved? Well, whilst Murray looked for his secret ingredient to beat Lotus, he came across a small sentence in the F1 rulebook; “A moveable device, primary used to gain an aerodynamic advantage, is not allowed”. Hmm. But what if it was “primarily” for cooling the engine? Say, with a large fan, that had enough power to create 2g of downforce standing still? In Murray’s own words “I did the sums and I had to do them several times, because I couldn’t believe the astronomical figure”. And that is exactly what Murray did. His “bloody big fan driven off the gearbox” allowed the Brabham T46B to have the same downforce standing still as other cars had at 180mph.
On the track, it was a weapon. The team filled the fuel tanks to the maximum, to slow the car down for qualifying; It was too damn quick. Other teams were complaining that the device was illegal, but the cries turned into shouts as the race begun. The Brabham car set a blistering pace, leading the pack and firing stones and dust into the cars behind. Mario Andretti following in his lotus was having to duck and weave, but eventually the fan cars were but specks in the distance. Nicki Lauda won the race in his Brabham by a whopping 34 seconds.
But it couldn’t last. The other teams, outraged by Murray’s interpretation of the rules, called for its withdrawal. It was just too fast. When Brabham team boss Bernie Ecclestone told Murray, he had no choice but to pull the car from the grid, Murray wasn’t happy. “I was very, very pissed off... but I did withdraw the car”.
The Brabham BT46 Formula One car from 1978 is one of the aero greats. A legendary designer, a beautifully engineered, tongue-in-cheek design and a dominant performance. Modern Formula One could learn a lot from its past.