Out of Balance
by James Edmonds
In the middle of the 2016 season, the Alex Job number 22 Porsche 911 GT3 R – wearing the name of IMSA’s banner-series title sponsor in the WeatherTech SportsCar Series – withdrew from competition for the remaining eight races of the year due to BoP issues. Now the season is over and we needed something to fill our time until Daytona, we decided to take a look back into the past on this topic but with a small twist: Cars that were too good to race.
Over the years, there have been a few teams who packed up their trailers mid-season and said, “Thanks, but no thanks”, but what makes the Alex Job situation more curious is that the other Alex Job number 23 Porsche, is staying in! At least for now anyway.
Balance of Performance has been a topic, the vagaries of which, have seen teams shout with both delight and disdain in equal measure over the past several seasons not only here in the States, but all over the world. We are in an era when it is not seen as good form for a manufacturer to produce a car which handily runs away with the title while other teams are left to play catch-up.
The arguments for cost savings and more excitement for the fans through closer racing are well taken, but prior to BoP (or it’s forebear, “win weight”), I seem to remember cars of very distinct and individual design, with engines of varying layout and displacement all racing pretty closely with many teams doing well at some circuits while not so well at others. It seemed to shake out at the end of the season with all parties coming away with a pat on the back and a lot of handshakes for the winners and losers alike. Maybe I am hearing Edith Pilaf in my head while I look back, but that’s how I remember it.
BoP is of course a very necessary evil as without it, only the manufacturers would be able to keep up with the spiraling costs of the incredible new technology, leaving the privateer teams floundering. And they of course are and always will be the backbone of the sport.
In times gone past and long before the governing bodies came up with BoP, you could attempt something radical, find a loophole in the rule book or just plain build a fast-as-hell car and in most cases you did get away with it…unless you were too clever! Instead of shrinking your restrictor, slowing your refuel rate, giving you less tank capacity, altering your aero package or adding ballast you might have just been banned altogether.
This is the topic of our look back at a few cars that were so good, they were indeed banned from competition. Some never even turned a wheel in anger, others got by until the other players cried, “Foul!”. There are many that are not mentioned here, but we look at a few of the most well known as well as one that is close to the author’s heart and maybe new to some. Hell, the idea of being banned for being too good may well be a shocking idea to some younger readers, but that’s how it was.
Here goes. Let’s start with Texan Jim Hall and his Chaparral 2J. Hall was an engineer way ahead of his time. Had he had access to the technology of today, who knows what he could have done with it. All of his previous designs were outrageous, successful and scored huge in the looks department. Until the 2J came along.
Looking more like a kitchen appliance on wheels, it was a mid engined Can-Am car powered by an all alloy big-block Chevy mated to a Chaparral modified three speed automatic gearbox. The rear end of the car is where the magic was visible and also audible. Aft of the front wheels and and at the rear there were Lexan skirts running the width of the car and others running the length of the car, the rear wheels being housed within this boxed section. These skirts were integrated into the suspension system allowing for a constant distance fractionally above the road surface. Tied to this was the car’s most innovative feature and the one which ultimately led to its demise: At the rear of the car two large fans sourced from a tank which were powered by a Rockwell two cylinder two stroke engine mounted atop the gearbox. These fans literally sucked the air from under the car creating a vacuum, allowing hitherto unheard of levels of downforce. It is obvious as to how the car became known as the “Sucker Car”.
This method of down-force had a huge advantage over the rudimentary wings of the time, in that the downforce remained constant rather than going away as speed decreased. It thus afforded the ability to not only corner at huge speed, but to accelerate out of slow corners much harder and with much more speed than the rest of the competition.
The problem was, that the small engine powering the fans – which could be heard buzzing away over the sound of the V8 – was not reliable and became the Achilles heel of the design. Spectators watching the car would know something was awry when the car went past without the distinct two-stroke noise in much the same way that Londoners during WWII would know to dash for cover when a “Doodlebug” flying bomb would run out of fuel overhead.
Vic Elford became a passenger when this motor packed up mid corner at Road Atlanta but he was able to keep it off the wall and made it to the pits for repair and an eventual sixth place finish. This would be the car’s only finish and 1970 its only season of competition. Other teams had by this time of course, realized the potential of the car and lobbied for its removal from the series. McLaren was the chief opponent, ironically arguing that should the car be allowed to compete that it would become dominant and hence be the downfall of the series! Citing the fans as movable aerodynamic devices was the main objection from team bosses, but the drivers who were following the car – as was usually the case – complained of being pelted by stones being fired from the back of the car through the fans! Although the car saw two pole positions, it was a failure in terms of outright results . The 2J was summarily banned from competition and its obvious potential was never allowed to be realized.
To say it was one of the ugliest cars ever to race would be met with general agreement. To say it was one of the most influencial and controversial designs of the period is beyond doubt. At the end of the season, Jim Hall – tired of all the to-ing and fro-ing – packed up his shop for most of the 70’s but returned with an Indy car for Johnny Rutherford in 1980 and went on to win the 500.
On the other side of the pond, Colin Chapman had been building revolutionary race cars since the 1950s and he needs no introduction. The Lotus 78 (and subsequent 79) was the first car that really got the ‘ground effect’ thing right and the cars, piloted by Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson in 1978 utterly dominated the drivers’ and constructors’ championships with poles, fast laps and race wins at a majority of the events.
‘Ground effect’ cars continued on for a couple of seasons becoming faster and faster as the black art of aerodynamics became science (not quite a fully understood science yet though) and gained a foothold. Of course, FISA did their best to outlaw them in the name of safety, but that didn’t deter Chapman. As has always been the case in all forms of motor sport, if the rules get changed, you do your best to bend them up to – or in many cases – beyond their point of breaking. Enter the Lotus 88.
For 1981 the FIA banned skirts completely, requiring a minimum distance twixt the bottom of the car and the track surface. To get around this, Chapman and his design team came up with what would become known as the ‘twin chassis’ car. Effectively, the inner chassis held the entire guts of the car while the independent outer chassis – suspended by a series of titanium cross members – was the body panel and essentially the aerodynamic wing. As speed increased and aero forces acted upon the outer chassis/body, it would lower itself down so that the lower portions of the side pods would now touch the ground thus restoring the lost ‘ground effect’. When the car was stationary in the pits (or more importantly during scrutineering) it would resume its legal ride height.
Needless to say, all the other teams summarily protested the car on the grounds of illegal moveable aero devices and the car was almost immediately banned. The incensed Chapman, never one to back down or shy away from publicity wound up hiring one of Nixon’s defense lawyers and battled the FIA at every turn.
At the season opener in Long Beach the car turned its only laps in practice with Elio de Angelis before being declared illegal. Although allowed to race pending the outcome of Chapman’s appeal, the car was black flagged during Saturday practice and never turned a wheel in anger.
At Silverstone for the British Grand Prix, the car was deemed legal by the Royal Automobile Club but when FIA president Jean Marie Balestre (another one with an agenda and frequently in the middle of controversy) threatened to strip the event of its World Championship status, the RAC backed down and disqualified the car!
Although meeting with favourable feedback from ‘Nige’ and de Angelis, the car was never allowed to be developed and was resigned to the museum as a curiosity. It was really only the fears of the other teams facing yet another season of playing ‘catch Chapman again’ that sounded the death knell for the 88 thus depriving us the possibility of another technical tour de force.
While Chapman was making the world take notice, another whizz kid and (almost) a former Lotus employee was also working away across town on his own radical car. While the revolutionary car from Norfolk looked outwardly like most other front runners of the period, the Gordon Murray designed Brabham BT46B looked anything but.
The previous BT46 had radical design elements of its own, but the flush mounted heat exchangers were never as efficient as Murray had hoped. Although offering great advantages to aerodynamics due to the lack of drag inducing radiators, they were just not able to keep the big Alfa flat-12 engine cool so were replaced by more conventional air to water radiators very quickly. This not only upset the aero characteristics, but the front location also did nothing for weight distribution.
The aforementioned Alfa flat-12 being low and wide did not lend itself to the integration of the new under-body venturis being used by Lotus and aped by Williams and McLaren. Murray though was as brilliant and astute as Chapman – perhaps more so – and quickly sussed out what made the Lotus corner as if “on rails” (a hackneyed line now, but a much loved phrase back in the late ’70s!) While other designers were still scratching their heads with furrowed brows and Adrian Newey was at still at university licking his chops, Murray had figured out Chapman’s simple yet ingenious innovation. He knew though that he couldn’t use the tunnels to the Lotus’ effect with the flat engine so he took inspiration from Jim Hall’s Chaparral 2J and developed the BT46B.
Arriving at Anderstorp for the Swedish Grand Prix in 1978, the car drew more quizzical looks than any car since Ken Tyrrell’s six wheeled P34 of two years earlier. The Tyrrell, although one of the most radical car ever to grace the Formula One stage, was not banned despite some moderate success. March and Williams also played with the idea although their cars used the four smaller wheels on the back. But I digress and that’s another story.
Bernie Ecclestone – then owner of Brabham – and Gordon Murray had to field a thousand questions regarding the radical and bizarre design but Murray was a shrewd thinker though and was armed with all the answers. He told the scrutineers and anyone who would listen, that the huge fan at the back of the car was to aid engine cooling – the now conventional horizonatal radiator being mounted above the gearbox. Being familiar with the recent cooling problems suffered by the BT46, the argument seemed legitimate and they managed to get the FIA to drink the Kool Aid – something Bernie has always been able to do!
In an effort to hide the key design feature, a plastic dustbin lid was placed over the fan while the car was stationary! The dichotomy of the cutting edge race car and this most mundane appendage has always struck me as amusing and gives great insight into the dry humour of Mr. Murray! The ruse would not last for long though: Unlike the Lotus which got its downforce from airflow in the traditional sense, the Brabham needed the aid of the mechanical device that worked even when the car was sationary. As soon as the engine was fired up and revved, the fan would immediately suck the car down towards the ground and it became startlingly obvious exactly what that fan was for. To say that there was more than a mite of consternation would be to mildly understate the situation!
The car went on to win at it’s first attempt with Niki Lauda winning the Swedish GP by over 30 seconds. The other teams demanded that the FIA check the car for legality and it was found that the fan did indeed use 60% of the drawn air for the radiator making the cooling it’s primary function and therefore legal. The FIA advised Ecclestone that the loophole would be closed for the following season essentially banning the design. Although free to use the car for the remainder of the season – albeit under protest from the other teams – Bernie decided to withdraw the BT46B. As the new president of FOCA, teams threatened to pull their support for Bernie if he continued to run the fan car. Despite Murray’s pleadings, Bernie pulled the plug so political pressure was certainly a factor. No one had seen the last of Gordon Murray though. Nor most certainly, Bernie Ecclestone for that matter.
It wasn’t all about F1 though. There were many other production car based series and one of my favourite cars was the TVR 420 SEAC. The other cars discussed here were all banned because of innovations which gave an unfair – or potentially unfair – advantage. Not so the TVR. The SEAC was just too damn fast yet anything but hi-tech.
The yellow beast was built following the same basic principals as the first TVR built by founder TreVoR Wilkinson back in 1947: a steel tube backbone type spaceframe chassis with independent suspension and a front/mid engine layout covered by a GRP body. Nothing too cutting edge there. After all, the tiny company staffed mostly by blokes born and raised in Blackpool and working in a factory on a housing estate didn’t exactly have the R&D budget of an F1 team. They did have passion though – a trait shared by anyone who has owned a TVR. Whether your passion was love or hate was purely reliant on your take on one of the Golden Rules of ownership: Thou shalt enjoy working on thy TVR for 90% of the time so as to then fully rejoice in the 10% spent driving it!
The 420 SEAC was the brainchild of company chairman Peter Wheeler, a chemical engineer who subscribed to the Victor Kiam school of business: He liked the cars so much that he bought the company! Peter had an innate sense of what would sell and what was right with a car. His guardianship was the most successful in the history of the marque who were tenuously brought back from the brink several times before he took over.
TVR always had the reputation of being a renegade company with quirky styling, questionable build quality and raw designs. The fact that the road cars never employed air bags, ABS or traction control spoke more to budgetary restrictions than they did the desire to build ‘hairy chested motor cars’ as one journalist put it. But it played into their niche with their fiercely loyal owners. If you visited the works and saw all the workers in the body shop, smelled the resin yet saw nary a respirator in sight, you would understand where the ‘crazy’ reputation came from. Even some of the cars’ styling details were credited to Wheeler’s faithful dog Ned, who enjoyed biting chunks of clay from the design models!
The SEAC did away with the GRP body in favour of Kevlar. The Special Equipment Aramid Composite was extremely strong and light and the ambitious project was a first – way before the Ferrari F40 which used some of the material as opposed to the TVR which used it for the entire body. The engine was a bored and stroked version of the venerable Rover V8 now stretched from 3500cc to 4200cc and producing close to 400hp. The fact that it almost caused a blip on the Richter scale and sounded like thunder did nothing to deter the supporters.
The racer’s most obvious visual cue was the huge rear spoiler giving the car a caricature appearance. It was designed and fitted at the behest of Peter Wheeler, yet it never even saw a wind tunnel, let alone be tested in one! Peter liked the way it looked though and as it turned out, it worked quite well and even made it to the road car almost unmodified! It goes to show that Wheeler was a believer in the adage, “If it looks right, it probably is”.
The SEAC was raced in the BARC Prodsports series – a collection of mostly wealthy gentlemen racers with very expensive exotic road-turned-racing cars. When TVR turned up with a shiny new rig and a team of works mechanics for their new toy, it wasn’t well received. Especially when the car won just about everything in sight.
Like every other series, homologation or production minimums have to be met even if it means having secretaries screw your 917s together. Prodsports was no different. TVR called the SEAC a derivative of the 350i line (which it essentially was) and used the same chassis numbering sequence so as to throw the rule checkers off the scent, but they were not successful. The series banned the SEAC after one season. TVR went on to design the Tuscan and ran its own hugely popular TVR Tuscan Challenge one-make-series featuring some of the biggest driver names of the era including Nigel Mansell and the massively well loved Gerry Marshall.
I’m sure that readers will have their own favorite “too good to race” cars, but these were a few that have always struck a chord with this writer.