By 1986, the turbo era of Formula 1 had reached its insane peak. Cars were casually belting out well over 1200 horsepower in qualifying trim. This created a lethal frenzy during the sessions, as the engines and gearbox would only last for about three laps at full chat.
Further complicating things, super sticky tires were developed in a desperate attempt to get the immense mechanical savagery down onto the tarmac. The end result was drivers having to put their life on the line for just a few tenths. For most drivers this required an incredible amount of mental focus and physical strength, which more often than not left them completely drained back at the paddock.
Blowups like this were commonplace in the insane 80's.
Ever since their introduction by Renault in 1977, the turbocharged machines had been steadily taking over the pinnacle of motorsport. As a result, naturally aspirated cars were actually banned completely for 1986. And out of all these all these miniature monsters, BMW’s 1.5L M12/13 4-cylinder was the most powerful.
Compared to the other front runners, the TAG-Porsche's TTE PO-1 V6 (1000 horsepower), Honda RA166-E V6 (1200 horsepower) and Renault EF15B (1200 horsepower), the tiny unit taken from the humble 1502 churned out anything between 1300 to 1400 horsepower. BMW’s chief of engine development Paul Rosche did not actually have the exact figure at hand, as the dyno used by BMW only went up to 1200 horsepower.
The blocks were actually all high mileage examples taken from road cars, and were even rumored to be set outside the workshop in wind and rain, while BMW staff urinated on them. This was supposed to make them stronger..
In possession of such a miniature volcano since 1982 was the UK-based Brabham team. The outfit was headed by the dark lord of Formula 1 himself, Bernie Ecclestone. In 1983 they had scored the very first World Championship for a turbocharged car with Nelson Piquet, but lately results were disappointing. Ecclestone instructed his head designer, South African Gordon Murray, to come up with a new and competitive car for 1986.
Murray responded by taking a radically different look at the traditional aerodynamic layout. In a flat-floor Formula 1-car, most of the downforce is generated by the bigger rear wing. The bodywork in front of the wing disturbs the airflow and therefore reduces its effectiveness. To solve this problem, Murray completely re-engineered the car. Because the tall four-cylinder design of the engine forced the bodywork to rise up with it, the wing was obstructed even further than with a more common V-engine..
The tall, relatively heavy four-cylinder made packaging difficult.
The only option Murray had was to do something about that pesky engine. He responded by turning it on its side by 72 degrees, allowing for much lower bodywork. In accordance with his philosophy of maximizing airflow to the rear, the driving position was also changed significantly.
Because it aided weight distribution, the driving position had moved ever further forward during the 1980's. This position had become so extreme it had caused the drivers to sit relatively upright with their feet in front of the front axle line, totally exposed in the event of a crash.
Totally deviating from this concept, the new BT55 laid the driver almost flat on his back. The result was a car 28 centimeters (almost a foot) lower than 1985’s BT54. Wind tunnel testing showed that the changes would work, as the air flowing over the car now reached the rear wing almost unimpeded. On request from Brabham, BMW built a special version of its engine to make the innovative concept possible.
The awkward angle had caused quite a few problems which had to be addressed, particularity due to the risk of oil moving up and down in the staggered engine. Also an issue was the fact the engine’s output shaft was now offset to one side, necessitating the need for a custom-built gearbox. American specialist Weismann produced a 7-speed, 3-shaft manual unit to deal with the problem.
Because the 4-cylinder could not be used as a stressed member of the chassis, it sat in a specially designed cradle, which was also modified to accommodate the new layout. The position f the engine placed 70% of the weight over the rear wheels. This was a conscious decision by Gordon Murray, as it would help put the immense power down.
Left to right: Riccardo Patrese, BMW engine guru Paul Rosche, Brabham designer Gordon Murray, and Elio de Angelis.
Brabham’s drivers for 1986 were Italian veterans Elio de Angelis and Riccardo Patrese. During testing, Patrese complained that the awkward driving position made it difficult for him to breathe. as he was forced to sit with his chins resting on their chest.
Steering also proved problematic, as the drivers could only really move their arms from the wrist down. Because the BT55 lacked power steering this required monumental feats of strength. The fact their shoulders extended above the bodywork, and minimal protection from the very flimsy looking rollbar also worried Patrese.
Elio de Angelis driving out of the pits at Jacarepaguá, Brazil.
Aside from the alien and very demanding driving position, the car also suffered from numerous technical problems. Turning the engine over did wonders to the levels of downforce. Without increasing drag, the car now produced a damn side more, which allowed the team to run less wing and attain higher top speeds.
The downside was it actually made the car a lot less powerful. The low, sleek body did very little to adequately cool the M12/13, which lead to frequent overheating. Because the giant single turbocharger was now mounted underneath the canted engine it also got overheated. This lost the car about 300 of its 1000 race-spec horsepowers, particularly on hot Grands Prix.
Elio de Angelis, Jacarepágua, 1986 Brazilian Grand Prix
At the opening round in Jacarepagua, Brazil, Brabham’s engineers had to cut one hole after another in the car's floor to try and keep the engine cool. Predictably, the BT55 also suffered from persistent oil surge and drain problems. Because the car's dry-sump system couldn't cope with the extreme forces caused by the near-horizontal engine, the oil would slosh from side to side. Because the engine was at such an odd angle it tried to burn its oil for fuel in right turns, while starving the bottom end in fast turns to the left.
Coupled to the engine difficulties, Weismann’s experimental 7-speed gearbox also regularly broke down. When it did in fact run, the car suffered a tremendous lack of throttle response. This had always been the Achilles heel of the BMW-engine, as it used only one turbocharger compared to the twin turbo V6’s and V8’s of the competition. On slower tracks the BT55 was generally out of ideas, with its drivers jamming the throttle open in the middle of the turn, a few seconds before they actually needed the power.
Elio de Angelis, 1986 San Marino Grand Prix.
Riccardo Patrese eventually qualified 10th in Brazil, but was out after with a water leak after just 21 laps. Elio de Angelis started 14th, and crossed the line a distant eight, three laps down on hometown hero Nelson Piquet and his Honda-powered Williams FW11.
At Jerez de la Frontera in Spain, the pair qualified 14th (Patrese) and 15th (De Angelis). Both cars suffered gearbox failure on race day, with Patrese out after just eight laps and De Angelis slowing on lap 29.
Riccardo Patrese on his way to the hairpin, Monaco 1986.
The next round at San Marino showed the team was slipping, as both Brabhams failed to even make the top 15. Once again Riccardo Patrese was the faster of the two, but he could only manage a time of 1:28.828, 3.7 seconds down on pole-sitter Ayrton Senna and good enough for 16th place. His teammate was a further nine tenths down in 19th.
De Angelis suffered an engine failure on lap 19, but Patrese just kept on going. Two laps before the end he ran out of fuel, but was still classified sixth. For his troubles he received the teams first point of the season.
The Monaco Grand Prix would prove to be Elio de Angelis' last race.
After dropping out of the disastrous Monaco Grand Prix, de Angelis was called in for a testing session at Paul Ricard to try out a new rear wing. Four laps after making further adjustments in the pits, de Angelis’ Brabham was travelling at about 290 kph (180 mph) when the new rear wing snapped off.
Almost immediately the car was airborne. It flipped several times, careened over the top of the guard rails and landed upside down. Elio suffered only minor injuries, but was trapped underneath the car. A ruptured fuel line spilled its load on the red-hot turbocharger, and the car quickly turned into an inferno. Alan Jones, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell, also on the track for the session, stopped instantly and ran to the burning wreck.
After a seemingly endless eight minutes Elio was finally out of the car. By that time was already in a deep coma. It took another 30 minutes before a trauma helicopter landed to take him to a nearby hospital. There he succumbed to a heart attack caused by smoke inhalation the next day. He was just 28 years old.
Despite having lost his teammate, Riccardo Patrese soldiered on to the next Grand Prix at Spa Franchorchamps, where he started 15th and eventually finished in eighth. De Angelis was later replaced by British driver Derek Warwick.
Riccardo Patrese at La Source hairpin, Spa Francorchamps 1986.
Warwick was the only driver looking for a seat who hadn't called Bernie Ecclestone after the accident to ask about the position. This seemingly earned Bernie’s respect, as he called Warwick personally and asked him to take over the second car.
The Brit was equally unable to get anything out of the unruly BT55 as De Angelis had been, and tagged along for the rest of a dismal season. He would reach the finish line four times at Detroit (10th), Paul Ricard (9th), Brands Hatch (8th) and Hockenheim where he recorded his best finish of seventh.
Riccardo Patrese on the other hand finished three times at Detriot (6th), Paul Ricard (7th) and Autódromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico (13th). Every other race ended in bitter engine or gearbox-related retirement, for a total of 19 retirements out of 32 entries that season.
Derek Warwick squirming out of the BT55, Brands Hatch 1986.
Elio de Angelis’ shocking death caused the FIA to re-evaluate the dangers of the unlimited turbo formula. The extreme speeds coupled to flimsy paper-thin chassis was now suddenly cause for much concern. In light of the recent tragedy, the governing body abandoned a proposed restriction to 1.2L displacement, and instigated a two-year phase-out of the turbo machinery.
For 1987, naturally aspirated cars were let back in, and the turbo’s were toned down with the installation of a mandatory blow off valve that reduced boost pressure to a maximum of 4.0 bar (58 psi). For 1988 the limit would be 2.5 bar (36 psi) before turbocharged engines were banned outright in 1989. Sadly the changes came too little too late for Elio de Angelis, but the measures ensured no other Formula One driver would die on track for another eight years.
The Brabham BT55 was a ingenious concept let down by one single deciding factor. Gordon Murray's low-line machine proved to work wonders on the aerodynamic front, but the ungainly BMW turbo engine ruined the party. It was impossible to package, slow to respond, and a result of Murray's desperate changes neither reliable nor especially powerful.
Combined with any other engine, the design would have eaten the opposition with ease. Gordon Murray realized this, and when he moved to McLaren in 1988, he gave it another go. The final product absolutely annihilated its competition that season, winning 15 out of 16 races. This car was of course the legendary MP4/4.