Brabham, the forgotten years
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Brabham, the forgotten years

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1978 – A season of innovations

For the 1978 Formula 1 season, Brabham is changing of title sponsor. Martini & Rossi takes the second role, in its place comes Parmalat: Italy’s best dairy products group, at the time. At the head of the team’s board of directors are Gordon Murray, as technical director, and Bernie Ecclestone, acting as team owner in addition to his duties at FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association).

Gordon Murray; Technical Director
Gordon Murray; Technical Director
Bernie Ecclestone; Team Owner

Alongside this tremendous pairing at the deciding table, a fantastic duo of drivers is here to make the car shine on the track. Sports legend Niki Lauda, newly crowned 2-time World Champion with Ferrari, is assisted by young Irish driver John Watson.

BT45C, bearning N°1 for reigning champion Niki Lauda
Bernie Ecclestone examining the MASSIVE engine; 1976

The car: BT45C, is the third evolution of the BT45, the first F1 car built around the Alfa Romeo 155-12 flat-12 engine. Already in service since 1973 in endurance racing, this engine is unreliable, thirsty and cumbersome: weighing almost 230 kg. This last characteristic doesn’t really appeal to Murray, firm believer in the “Light is right” mantra,

Still, there are two advantages to this power plant. First, it’s a free engine deal that gives Murray maximum financial freedom in his work. Secondly, it has a certain amount of power: 520 horsepower! That’s fifty more than the Ford-Cosworth equivalent fitted to most of the cars on the grid.

With this fresh money from Parmalat, priority is given to aerodynamic innovation. Murray is determined to revolutionize Formula 1 with the next BT46A, which will replace the BT45C only after two Grand Prix in 1978.

Niki Lauda in his BT46A ; 1978
Niki Lauda at Zolder in the BT46A; 1978

Sadly, the BT46A revolution lasted only until the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. Here, Team Lotus presented its Lotus 79 with full ground effect. The second iteration of the wing-acar car concept, this car looks virtually unbeatable!

The two Lotus 79’s ahead of the competition at Hockenheim
(First car behind is a BT46A)
PC: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch
Lotus 79 Technical Drawing ; 1978

Immediately and acting in secrecy, Murray tries to accommodate ground effect to his car but finds himself with the same problem as Ferrari. The imposing twelve-cylinder flat engine interferes with the Venturi tunnels, there’s no way a natural airflow can suck this car to the ground…

After some research – and probably inspired by plans for the Chaparral 2J – he redesigned the entire rear section to incorporate a huge fan. Since mobile aerodynamics was only allowed if its primary purpose were not aerodynamics, the trick was to prove that the fan’s main work was for cooling, which it succeeded in doing!

Following complaints from Williams, McLaren, Lotus, Surtees and Tyrrell when the BT46B was unveiled at the Swedish GP, a test was carried out proving that over 55% of the airflow generated was directed towards the top-mounted radiators, deeming the system legal and ready to race.

Chaparral 2J
PC: Hemming’s Motor News

The fan itself, originally made from tank materials, is a very fragile part. Linked to the rear of the gearbox, it requires thirty horsepower just to spin it, but the compromise in cornering speed is staggering!

BT46B ; 1978

This set-up is so competitive that drivers Niki Lauda and John Watson are asked to keep certain reservations. First, no revving the engine too hard in the pits, as the car is visibly sucked on to the ground at each blip of the throttle. They then qualified 2nd and 3rd on full tank of fuel, while “doing their best to avoid pole position”. In the end, Niki overtook Mario Andretti with “embarrassing ease” to lead the race for victory in Sweden. The Italian-American hangs on, but even the Lotus 79 couldn’t keep up and its engine exploded!

Lauda with Andretti in sight; Swedish GP 1978
Lauda and his fan-car; Swedish GP 1978

Such a performance obviously draws all eyes to the newly named “Parmalat F1 Racing Team”. This reveals Gordon Murray as the top designer he is, but also creates envy and jealousy towards Ecclestone. Nevertheless, delighted to see his team perform at this level, he feels – in his position as FOCA president – that it’s best not to create waves with this kind of design trickery; especially at a time of conflict between FOCA and FISA.

With the fan-car concept banned from next season onwards, Ecclestone decided to retire the car after the race. No doubt to the despair of the entire Brabham team… Their return to competition at the next event will be with BT46A. The BT47 fan-car project is ditched.

1979 – Moves from Alfa Romeo

The new BT48 is commissioned for 1979, powered by an all-new Alfa Romeo V12 and based on old research for the BT44B. Even if the new engine leaves room for ground effect, the car simply doesn’t perform well enough. Lauda had enough of Ecclestone’s attitude, which was ruining the team and F1, and decided to quit the sport at the end of the season.

The team also changes its second driver, a Brazilian rookie who is learning fast. His name: Nelson Piquet.

Niki Lauda; 1979
Nelson Piquet; 1979

After a catastrophic end to all Murray’s efforts, it’s Alfa Romeo’s turn to stir the pot. Proudly sponsored by Marlboro, the Milan-based brand enters Formula 1 with a car of its own design.

Alfa Romeo 177 and BT48
(notice the difference in philosophies)
PC : Centro Documentazione Alfa Romeo, Arese

So the Brabham-Alfa Romeo partnership is no longer economically viable anymore. Ecclestone decides to go straight to the point and adopts the classic Ford-Cosworth DFV for the second half of 1979. Within 6 weeks, two BT48s were converted to run the new, less problematic V8 engine, while a third chassis, named BT49, is built in preparation for next year’s championship.

1980 – The renaissance

For 1980, Brabham looks like a new team, and gets a new name: “Motor Racing Developments”; a new navy blue and new on the list of materials is: carbon fiber ! With the end of the big Alfa V12, Gordon Murray regains his freedom and let his talent for aerodynamics do the talking. If the car isn’t the fastest in a straight line, it’s certainly the most efficient in terms of ground effect: it even runs several races without any front wing!

Brabham BT49

For only his second year in F1, Nelson Piquet shows his potential and challenges Alan Jones’ Williams for the championship. Constant and with 3 wins, he finishes the championship 2nd in the standings, behind the Australian. All in all, a very good season from the whole Brabham team and high hopes for the future!

1981 – Finding the loophole

1981, the ground effect is getting out of hand. Cars are becoming too fast for safety. How do you react to the unexpected when entering a bend 80 kph faster than 4 years ago? Accidents happen, and they are increasingly violent. At fault: skirts. Their role is to seal the underbody of the cars to create a depression zone underneath, sucking them towards the ground; resulting in incredible grip. Everyone in the paddock is critical of this technical choice and the drivers want the authorities to act quickly!

The governing bodies’ answer lies in the 1981 regulations: every car on the grid must now have a minimum ground clearance of sixty millimetres. To get around this new rule, the cleverest engineers have found that ground clearance can only be measured when the vehicle is stationary. So, if you want to lower your car, you must do it with speed.

Nelson Piquet in the BT59

Only two teams/engineers tried their luck by innovating to get around the rule:

Hector Rebaque and Nelson Piquet lining their BT49s in the pits

While Brabham seems to have found the most dangerous solution, it’s the Lotus 88 that doesn’t pass homologation. Although Elio de Angelis and Nigel Mansell praise the smoothness of their car, nothing can be done to homologate Chapman’s design.

Good news for Brabham, which finds itself with the BT49, the best-designed car on the grid! But everything remains to be done for the drivers…

Nelson Piquet proves the superiority of his car on fast circuits such as Hockenheim and Argentina, where he win his first Grand Chelem (pole position + fastest lap + victory + lead on every lap).

Fighting it out on track against Carlos Reutemann’s excellent Williams and reigning world champion Alan Jones. Combat the mighty power of Alain Prost’s Renault turbo. Playing against the consistency of Jacques Laffite in his Ligier-Matra and also taming the infamous daredevil named Gilles Villeneuve at Ferrari. Piquet is just one point behind championship leader Reutemann ahead of the final race of the season.

The Caesars Palace Grand Prix of 1981

Held on a sandy Las Vegas parking lot, this race seems nothing short of ridiculous.
No elevation changes, the same series of bends 3 times, and weather conditions in tune with the environment: the desert heat! The circuit even turns counter-clockwise, which means it puts a much greater strain on the driver’s neck than usual.

Nelson Piquet, visibly ill since the start of the weekend, doesn’t seem to be in good shape. Qualifying 4th on the grid, he requested a 90-minute neck massage from a boxer’s physio, who was on hand for the event, which seems to have done more harm than good…

Carlos Reutemann, on the other hand, took pole with his Williams. The Argentinian will set the pace on Sunday!

Missed opportunity for him as he makes a poor start and finishes the first lap in 5th position.

Cautious, the championship leader keeps his calm and focusses his attention on his main contender. And rightfully so, Piquet is just behind him! Relegated to 6th place by the end of lap 1, the Brazilian is boiling inside of his helmet.

As laps go by, Reutemann’s driving seems more and more chaotic. His gearbox is getting out of hand.

Behind him, Piquet, groggy, tries his best to stay in contention. The wounded Williams is in difficult position and coming up on the last left hander before the pits, Piquet is inches away from the back of his rival. Incapable of selecting 4th on his gear patern, Reutemann looses the rear of his car and brakes early, in the hope of slowing down the Brazilian.

Feeling it coming, Nelson waits for the good moment to make the pass!

All eyes are now on Piquet. With Reutemann clearly out of the running, the Brazilian needs to finish 6th or better to win the title.


Boosted by this possible championship winning overtake, Piquet split the field and finds himself in 4th position at the halfway point. Making the most of his wounded body and mind, Piquet pushes Laffite into an error, the only other driver on the track still in contention for the championship.

Now in 3rd position, driving in the cockpit, not very fast, taking risky lines… it’s clear: Nelson’s battle is no longer against his rivals, it’s a race to exhaustion.

As his rivals overtake him and spiral out of control immediately afterwards, battling heat, dehydration, neck and back pain in a rocket on wheels full of gasoline, Nelson’s vision of the race must resemble a scene out of Mad Max.

Nelson Piquet on the 4th position – Las Vegas 1981

On the verge of passing out, Piquet resisted as best he could and crossed the finish line in fifth. As the numerous South American fans go berserk around the circuit, Piquet, barely conscious, reached out from the cockpit to greet the Brabham team. Incapable of finding the energy to get up of his seat, the public waits for fifteen whole minutes before getting to see the newly crowned champion.

Laaadiiies and Gentlemen, the 1981 Formula 1 World Champion: Nelson Piquet from Brazil!

Piquet tries not to fall over, supported by FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre, with newly-laurelled race-winner Alan Jones
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