At the end of the 1982 season, the world of Formula One said goodbye to one of the greatest era’s of technological innovation. The reign of ground effect had been brought to an end. Ever since its introduction by Team Lotus with their 78-model in 1977, the underbody wizardry had come to dominate the sport, but the extra speed came at a cost.
As the venturi tunnels, wing profiles and rubber skirts comprising the ground effect system got ever more efficient, the cars gripped harder and harder. The immense g-forces resulting from this were beginning to take a toll on even the most seasoned and skilled drivers.
For those below their ranks, it was nigh-on unbearable. The risk of blackouts became a genuine concern, and the rock hard suspension needed to sustain the critical low pressure area under the car wreaked havoc with their backs. Moreover, the performance was often very inconsistent, with the slightest road surface irregularity causing dramatic effects on the car’s handling.
Sometimes the low pressure area would inexplicably escape entirely, creating a sudden loss of downforce which would send the car into a violent death-spin from which there was no recovery. Out of the safety concerns rising from these issues, the FIA first cluelessly banned the rubber skirts which helped contain the low pressure area, before banning the ground effect underbody altogether for the 1983 season.
Though most drivers were relieved to go back to simpler times, the engineers and designers supporting them were now in a difficult position. With ground effect gone, they needed to completely change direction in terms of aerodynamic design. Somehow, they would have to find a way to claw back some of that precious lost downforce.
For the tiny Tyrrell Racing Organisation, this meant a complete overhaul of their new car on a very modest budget. Founded in 1958 by RAF-veteran, carpenter and Formula Three racer Ken Tyrrell, the outfit had moved into Formula One in 1968 under the wings of the French industrial firm Matra, before building its very own chassis in 1970. After being joined by his personal discovery, the Scotsman Jackie Stewart, Tyrrell racked up two world titles in 1971 and 1973.
From left to right: Jackie Stewart, Ken Tyrrell and François Cevert celebrating a 1-2 finish, Watkins Glen 1972.
Since then though, things had gone a bit South for the blue brigade. Jackie Stewart’s retirement and his protege François Cevert’s death at the end of 1973 were a major blow to the team, from which they would never really recover. A loss of sponsorship lead to a severely decreased budget, and the team was forced to settle for the mid-field for a number of years.
With the deck freshly shaken up for 1983 however, Tyrrell stood a chance of improving their position if they got it right. Much less of the budget now had to go to the intricate underbody, as it was now a simple FIA-mandated flat floor. In response to this, designer Maurice Phillippe focused on making the new car as light as possible. As a stopgap, he cut off most of the sidepods of the fully-ground effect 011, added a front wing, and sent it on its way.
Thanks to a healthy financial injection from new title sponsor Benetton, an Italian clothing company, he was able to go a step further for the 012 by reducing the sidepods to tiny housings around the radiators, which were placed just in front of the rear wheels.
This gave the car a low-drag, arrow-shaped silhouette, very much akin to the Brabham BT52 designed by Gordon Murray. With the help of specialists Courtaulds, most of the car was made up of carbon fiber, but it retained an aluminium-alloy monocoque. In all it perfectly adhered to the 540 kg (1191 lbs) weight limit after the use of ballast.
However, the radical chassis couldn’t possibly help the team in the fight against tremendously powerful opposition. Only a year prior tot the invention of the venturi-tunnel, French automaker Renault had introduced the turbocharged engine to Formula One. After a series of mishaps, the exceptional power gains convinced Ferrari to follow suit in 1981, with BMW joining the fray in 1982.
Worryingly, Tyrrell was still using an engine which dated back to 1967. Ever since 1970, the team had fitted several variants of the ubiquitous Ford-Cosworth DFV 3.0L V8. The new car would be no different, as it would receive the DFY, a short-stroke evolution which produced 530 horsepower at 11.600 rpm, and 396 Nm, (291 lbs ft) at 9600 rpm.
By comparison, the BMW M12/13 1.5L four cylinder turbo engine in the Brabham BT52 fired 640 horsepower at 9500 rpm and 450 Nm (332 lbs ft) at 8500 rpm at the rear wheels. As the BMW, Ferrari and Renault-powered cars all produced in excess of 600 horsepower in race trim, and had even more potential in qualifying, Tyrrell’s efforts looked rather hopeless. Something very special had to be done to get the team back to the front.
Luckily, Maurice Philippe had just that in mind. In order to give Tyrrell an aerodynamic advantage, he not only though out of the box, he stomped on it and threw it in the trash. Realizing a conventional wing could only do so much with the maximum width given by the FIA, he set out to maximize the surface area within the available space.
As he couldn’t simply make the wing wider, he bent it into a point resembling a boomerang. In theory this was supposed to create a larger wing with more surface area, which in turn would generate more downforce without exceeding the maximum width limit. Large gurney flaps on top of the wing were intended exploit this effect even further.
He fixed the peculiar looking device in place with large struts connecting to the sidepods, with a third example connecting to the rear differential and a smaller boomerang attaching to the rather crude rear diffuser. The end result was a fantastically angular machine looking like it came straight out of the Skunkworks at Lockheed Martin. The stealth fighter looks were all well and good though, but would it actually work?
After a short test back home, Tyrrell rushed the Boomerang to the glorious hills of Austria, where it could be tested in the public eye on the epic Österreichring. With the look, feel and intensity of a good Alpine road, the circuit was one of the most spectacular on the calendar, featuring intense high-speed corners and hair-raising rises and drops.
Tyrrell gave the largely experimental car to its top driver, Italian rising star Michele Alboreto. Now a two-time Grand Prix winner, Alboreto knew how to beat the turbo boys at their own game. A chaotic race on the parking lot of Ceasar’s Palace Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas saw him win his first ever race in 1982, only a year after his debut in the sport.
His second victory at the tight Detroit street circuit in 1983 was even more impressive, as he powered to the top step of the podium in the wake of Nelson Piquet’s flat tire, holding off several turbo cars. It would later become known as the last Grand Prix win for a naturally aspirated car before the banishment of turbo engines, and the last for a Cosworth DFV-derivative.
Leaving a more conventional spare car behind, Michele Alboreto set off in the Boomerang in the first practice session for the Grand Prix. He diligently completed a few laps with relative ease, showing the space-age wing worked at least as well as a normal example.
Unfortunately a water leak ruined the session, forcing the Italian to pull into the pits. His feedback lead Maurice Phillippe and Ken Tyrrell to conclude the Boomerang wing didn’t live up to its promise, leading to Tyrrell pulling the car from the race in favor of a normally-winged sister. By this time the use of winglets, smaller wings set beside the rear wing, was becoming commonplace, leaving the Boomerang largely useless.
The Tyrrell 012 Boomerang was the result of some very imaginative thinking by a designer desperately trying to defeat the establishment. Maurice Philippe’s clever interpretation of the rules was meant to elevate the struggling team to new heights, but ultimately swung right back and hit him square in the face.
After discovering the Boomerang wing had no merit in the turbo-ruled world, Tyrrell dropped the concept instantly. That short session at the Österreichring would remain the car’s one and only appearance. Like the stealth bomber it had come to resemble, it would never be seen again.