• Maurice Hamilton's F1 blog

Flying on the ground

Maurice Hamilton February 22, 2013
How many planes does it take to make a wing? © Sutton Images

Is there a measurement for the passage of air across a racing car? I'm looking for a simple term along the lines of miles-per-hour or revs-per-minute; something we non-techie folk can understand. If you're going to come back at me with equations and theories, I will be forced to quote the Limerick:

There was a young mathematician named Paul
Who had a hexagonal ball
He said the cube of its weight
Plus two-thirds minus eight
Was equal to three-quarters of five-eighths of sod all.

This piece of profound thinking came to mind as I studied pictures of the Williams FW35. I'm not picking on Sir Frank's car; indeed, I'm not giving away any secrets when I say that, like me, Frank only really cares about how fast the thing will go. Followed, in short order in Frank's case, by how much it cost to put this wonderful creation on earth.

The thought process was triggered when I caught sight of the incredibly complex front wing and then read about the fuss over the Williams exhausts. We're talking about a gnat's cock of aerodynamic influence, chased by designers and forced upon them by prescriptive technical regulations. This is what comes when years of analysis and experimentation sharpen an area of performance with such intensity that it needs pages of rules to keep it in check.

If you want to know by how much, then take a look at what was allowed in the dawn of aerodynamics 45 years ago. Compare this with today's cfd-inspired developments measuring half the size and weight of a credit card. In 1968, you could have attached the front door of a bank and no one would have batted an eyelid. Okay, I'm exaggerating but F1 cars then were laboratories on wheels travelling at 170 mph. It was the last time F1 drivers came close to truly deserving the title 'test pilots'.

The logic was so simple, even I could understand it. Wings generate this newly discovered thing called downforce. So stick them all over your car; big as you like. The cars looked like they had been designed by the Wright brothers on a bad day; lofty wings front and rear wobbling on what appeared to be flattened bars nicked from railings outside the factory. Not only was this means of support extremely tenuous, the effect on the rest of the car was pure guesswork. The wing supports were, in many cases, attached directly on top of suspension uprights because…well, that's where the downwards load was needed in order to force the wheels onto the track. Straightforward logic again.

It took some time for the inevitable to happen during the 1969 Spanish Grand Prix at Monjuich Park. Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt were extremely fortunate not to suffer grievous injury when supports to rear aerofoils which were the widest and tallest yet seen, collapsed just at the point where the Lotus 49B induced negative loading by becoming airborne over a very fast crest. High-mounted wings were banned forthwith - but not before there had been other potentially lethal moments.

During practice for the 1968 French Grand Prix on the awesome road circuit at Rouen, Jackie Oliver had a truly enormous shunt. The entire front and back ends were torn off his Lotus 49B and no one, least of all Oliver, knows how he managed to climb from the wreckage without a scratch. He did look extremely pale, though. As you would.

A surprisingly relaxed Jackie Oliver stands next to his wrecked Lotus at Rouen in 1968 © Getty Images

Colin Chapman did not have the faintest clue about what had happened to his car. Oliver had been flat out when the Lotus simply left the road and smashed into a brick gatepost at 140 mph. The rear end, complete with wheels, transmission and high wing, had ended up some distance from the battered tub and dust-covered engine.

Chapman spotted that the gearbox bell-housing had broken and a BBC video recorded what he did next. Basically, if you're in the shit and don't know why, try and spread the misery.

Chapman went over to Bruce McLaren, minding his own business in the cockpit of his orange M7A.

"Hey, Bruce," said Chapman, "I think I'd better tell you, the gearbox bell-housing broke and the whole of our rear suspension's hung on the gearbox, same as yours. It's just broken in half in the middle. You'd better have a look, and see if there are any cracks in your bell-housing. I'm bringing Graham [Hill] in."

In fact, the failure proved to have nothing to do with the gearbox. Oliver had momentarily lost downforce when closely following another car; a common phenomenon now but, in 1968, you never knew what to expect.

Crouching alongside Bruce's car had been his crew chief, Tyler Alexander. I asked Tyler recently if he remembers the moment and what action, if any, they took.

"Sure do," grunted Alexander. "It was a typical psychological game by Chapman. I can't remember exactly what I said but it was something along the lines of: 'Well, our car is okay, but yours is in the hedge back up the road.' Chapman kinda made a huffing sound and off he went."

That's what I like. Concise, no-jargon technical talk.