The Joy of Six: F1's strangest racing cars
1) 1968-69 Repco Brabham BT26
In May 1969 Jochen Rindt wrote a letter to his team owner, Colin Chapman, about the Lotus he was driving that season, with which he was some way from chuffed. “I can only drive a car in which I have some confidence,” he wrote, “and I feel the point of no confidence is quite near.”
These were the final days of Formula One’s experiment with elevated wings, of which Lotus had been at the forefront. It started the previous year at Rouen, when . The car’s wings had performed well in testing, but the effect of other cars’ slipstreams had not been taken into account. “While the wings provided extra downforce in clean air, the turbulence created by another car deprived part of the wing of downforce,” the Guardian reported, “and the subsequent imbalance sent Oliver’s car, among others, out of control.”
Engineers responded to the problem by mounting the wings on struts, which grew and grew in size to now-comic effect. Over the following year the Repco-Brabham “bi-plane” – with elevated wings at front and back – battled the Lotus-Ford 49b and the Ferrari Tipo 312, among others, for supremacy in both speed and height. But the struts could either be light or strong, not both at the same time, and engineers repeatedly picked weight over strength. It all came to a head at the 1969 Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona in which the , the Austrian’s car lasting a few laps longer but then hitting the wreckage of the Briton’s after flying across the course.
Somehow neither driver sustained any injury more serious than Rindt’s broken nose, though a course marshal lost an eye. “These wings are insanity and should not be allowed on racing cars,” Rindt raged, “but to get any wisdom in Colin Chapman’s head is impossible.” The wings were promptly banned, and fatefully Rindt kept faith with Chapman. At Monza the following year, driving a wingless version of the Lotus 72 in which he had already secured four of his five race wins that season, Rindt crashed as he approached the Parabolica. He had deliberately failed to fasten the crotch strap on his six-point harness, and was killed as a result of neck injuries inflicted by his seat belt, but posthumously won the driver’s title.
2) 1971 March 711
Frank Costin’s obituary in the Guardian noted that “there were occasions when his solutions to a given aerodynamic problem gave rise to technically effective, but visually awkward, designs”. The March 711 was a classic of its type, bearing an exaggerated front wing that made it capable of excelling at not one but two great British passions, namely high-speed driving and the delivery of tea and cake.
It was duly nicknamed the “flying tea tray”. Sadly the tray was shortlived, but the car proved successful: Ronnie Peterson came second in the drivers’ championship in 1971, albeit without ever winning a race (though he came close, missing out on victory in the Italian Grand Prix by just a hundredth of a second).
3) 1972 Eifelland Type 21
Luigi Colani wasn’t the conventional type. A glimpse of his moustache would be enough to tell you that. His route to was unusual, starting as it did with him studying sculpture, before adding a qualification in aerodynamics and moving into the design of cars, boats, motorbikes and aeroplanes. He later sprinkled his magic upon a bewildering array of products including sunglasses, headphones, a computer mouse, office furniture, cameras, water bottles and police uniforms.
At the core of his design philosophy was a basic distrust of corners. “The earth is round, all the heavenly bodies are round; they all move on round or elliptical orbits,” he said. “This same image of circular globe-shaped mini worlds orbiting around each other follows us right down to the microcosmos. We are even aroused by round forms in species propagation related eroticism. Why should I join the straying mass who want to make everything angular? I am going to pursue Galileo Galilei’s philosophy: my world is also round.”
The car he designed was not completely round, but it did have some pleasing curves, including a one-piece rear wing that curled upwards behind the driver’s head like a particularly high wave. But what most caught the eye was the rear view mirror, handily mounted atop a pillar less handily positioned directly in front of the driver’s eyes. Colani proudly demonstrated his design to members of the press, boasting that his “biodynamic” approach make his rivals appear antiquated as they disappeared into his creation’s eye-catching mirror.
But the experience peaked for Colani before the car he created did any actual racing. Amid disappointing test results his innovations were gradually ditched, and by the time the Eifelland lined up on the grid for the first race of the season the sweeping wave had crashed. The rather handsome one-piece front wing went too, to be briefly replaced with a March-style tea tray. The all-white livery became predominately blue. Through it all, though, the periscope-style mirror remained in place, carrying with it a smeared partial fingerprint of Colani’s original vision. In the end Eifelland had but a single season in Formula One, entered only eight of the 12 races, and finished only six of those. It did not become one of the great names of the sport, and Colani moved on to alternative challenges.
4) 1976 Ligier JS5
Most of the cars on this list, while veering dangerously between the ugly and the idiotic, could be vaguely explained by an enterprising engineer, but the only possible reason for the existence of the Ligier JS5, particularly given the car’s colour scheme, is as a knowing tribute to the Smurfs. It was Ligier’s first ever F1 car, but there’s beginner’s error and then there’s lumbering your car with a cross between a grain silo and a seagull’s anus.
It was, strictly speaking, an elevated air intake vent, but among other versions Matra had experimented with one of those six years earlier, and theirs had been both significantly sleeker (while still, just to be clear, being very ugly) and also not very successful, the team managing one podium finish with it in each of the 1971 and 1972 seasons before abandoning F1 altogether.
Ligier’s effort was thankfully shortlived – they went the full Noddy only for a few weeks, and by the fifth race of the season in Belgium the vent had been modified downward very significantly – but remains remembered with a combination of reverence and horror by the sport’s fans. The Smurfs’ headgear should properly be called a Phrygian cap, but as Ligier discovered the fact that its first syllable is “fridge” doesn’t make it good at cooling. Or moving quickly. The initials in the car’s name stood in homage to Jo Schlesser, the French driver and close friend of Guy Ligier who died in the French Grand Prix of 1968.
5) 1978 Brabham BT46B
The outsized fan at the back pulled air from under the car so that, as the Guardian described it at the time, “it literally sucks itself on to the road”, a novelty that allowed it to reach unrivalled speeds. Less helpfully, at least according to rivals, it also sucked up pebbles from the track and then fired them out again like a machine gun. “It’s a bloody great vacuum cleaner,” raged Mario Andretti. “It throws muck and rubbish at you at a hell of a rate.”
Before it had received its race debut the CSI debated it, decided not to ban it, debated again, then tried to ban it by nixing “anything that has an aerodynamic effect and is not fixed”, but Brabham were not minded to obey them. “There has been a ban on moving aerodynamic devices for the past two years, and we respect it,” insisted their owner, a certain Bernie Ecclestone. “If we decide to go ahead and run this car, it will comply with the Formula One rules and we will race it.”
And race it they did, at the Swedish Grand Prix in June. Mario Andretti led the race in his John Player Lotus for the first 38 laps, but then Niki Lauda’s fan-assisted Brabham took over. “Lauda built up a lead of more than a minute, an astonishing margin in modern grand prix racing,” the Guardian reported. Lauda and his fan blew his rivals away, winning in some comfort, which was when the excremental matter genuinely struck the suspicious rear-mounted cooling device.
Ecclestone was already an important character in the sport, as head of as the recently-renamed Formula One Constructors’ Association (the old name, Formula 1 Constructors’ Association, had been abandoned when it was realised that F1CA looked very much like a crude Italian slang word for a certain part of the female anatomy), and was not at all happy with the kerfuffle the fan caused, claiming that the sport always protested against great design novelties, such as the notorious that debuted a couple of years earlier. “It’s always the same when someone comes up with something new in motor racing,” he harrumphed. “They wanted to stop the six-wheeled cars too.”
Brabham and Ecclestone insisted the fan was there to cool the engine, and was thus perfectly legal. Rivals insisted it was an aerodynamic device, and thus wasn’t. “Bernie must think we are all children, asking us to believe that,” said Andretti, whose engineer at Lotus, Colin Chapman, calculated that the fan was 10 times bigger than would be necessary purely to cool the engine. Gordon Murray, the car’s designer, later admitted “55% of the fan’s energy was cooling the car, 45% was sucking it down to the ground”. “I had no idea it would be so fast. I mean, it was embarrassingly fast,” he said. “Bernie made the guys qualify on full tanks to try and slow them down. I think Niki still qualified on the front row.”
Lauda later described driving the thing: “Whenever the car failed to respond going into a corner, you had to put your foot down rather than ease off,” he said. “This way, the car would be sucked down tighter against the track and would corner at incredible speeds.” When the International Sporting Commission (a precursor to the current FIA) debated the issue after the Swedish Grand Prix they came to the puzzling if politically expedient conclusion that the fan was not illegal – indeed, its president, Pierre Ugeux, called it “an admirable device” – but that it was unsafe, so it couldn’t be used anyway. Lauda managed to win one more race that season, and Brabham came third in the constructors’ championship but the fan was never seen again.
6) 1979 Ensign N179
The giant fan might have looked odd, but it was at least a good idea. The triple-layer radiator panel on the front of the Ensign N179 , and its performance did nothing to convince anyone that it had in fact been a visionary innovation.
Soon enough it was ditched, and with a smooth nose the car proved itself, well, very slightly faster. “Morris Nunn produced his latest car, that takes the prize for the oddest-looking racing machine,” wrote MotorSport. “The whole front is one tall, vulnerable-looking block of radiators, water and oil, the object being to provide a clear passage along the sides of the monocoque for the all-important ‘ground effects’ air-flow.”
The season started (comparatively) well, with the team’s one car finishing 11th (out of 11 finishers) in Argentina and 13th (out of 14) in Brazil, and it was after this second race that the new, uglified car was introduced. Of the 13 remaining races they failed to qualify for nine, failed to finish three, and had another 13th place (out of 13), by then with a smooth nose, at the British Grand Prix.
… and a bonus ball: the 1976 Surtees TS19
The only car on this list whose appearance was so shocking British broadcasters refused to show it to the nation lest it offend their refined sensibilities. One of the Surtees team described the livery of the TS19 as being “beautiful – nice and white, with aconite letters and gold trimmings”. Beauty however is in the eye of the beholder, and as far as the BBC was concerned this was unsuitable for public viewing.
The problem was that it was sponsored by London Rubber, whose most well-known brand name, . They had been involved in motor racing for a while, despite an inauspicious debut in Denmark in 1969 when – particularly galling for a manufacturer of condoms – their car suffered two punctures. And they had already had a run-in with the BBC, who had refused to broadcast Formula 5000 races the previous year because of the Durex logo on Richard Scott’s car.
Durex had also tried to move into horse racing, only for the Jockey Club to refuse to register any horse with the word Durex in its name. An attempted move into show jumping failed to get off the ground. When they announced their link-up with Surtees the BBC immediately admitted their concern, saying their name “causes concern to some of our viewers” and that they “will again consider all the implications of this new sponsorship before it confirms its decision to cover” races. Bob Hall, marketing director of London Rubber, understood their reticence. “We are still the most widely used method of family planning,” he said. “Our trouble has been that, because we were the first method of contraception, we arouse some high degree of embarrassment, which can be traced back to Victorian attitudes.”
With the BBC’s decision unknown, Durex volunteered to practice the withdrawal method. “We got in touch with them to say, look, if you’ve got a hang-up, rather than not have it televised we’ll do something about covering up,” said a spokesman. “They came back and said, thank you very much but we are worried about one or two other things. Durex are in the position of the scapegoat but we don’t want to make a nuisance of ourselves – we understand their feelings.”
In the end the logo stayed, and the BBC departed. There were no live broadcasts that season, but with fans gagging for a glimpse of James Hunt and Niki Lauda as they battled for the drivers’ title both the BBC and ITV eventually agreed to broadcast highlights. Durex, having garnered as much publicity as a company could hope to get from sponsoring a car that hardly anyone was able to look at, pulled out at the end of the year.