Faster Now Than Then?
Not Faster Than an Arrows
Peter Collins’ excellent piece in the April issue about the relative speed differential of some cars now and in period, reminded me of the well documented case of the Arrows A4 F1 car.
In 1982 this basically sound but heavier Grand Prix design would get smoked every time by the likes of Williams, McLaren and Brabham. Despite having the same DFV engine and some highly competent drivers, it was, for example, over three seconds a lap slower than the leading FW08 at Brand Hatch that year, a huge gap by F1 standards. Fast forward to Historic F1 in 2014-2017 and talented amateur driver Steve Hartley was using an A4 to beat many of the pros in their period-superior machines. How was this possible? Much credit must go to Nigel Rees at GSD race dynamics. A very clever man who recently revealed he was once part of the support crew of the ‘good old boys’ Terry Sanger Camaro team at the Spa 24 Hours way back in 1973. His company has since developed increasingly sophisticated engineering and computer analysis capabilities for all manner of race cars. By recording detailed measurements and data, plus the use of potentiometers and software programming largely unavailable back then, they are able to make up for many of the advantages in dynamic road-holding, handling and aero efficiency that the bigger budget teams had at the time - and for much lower cost. The need for the ‘black art engineering’ role of a test driver is also thereby reduced to a minimum by science.
But this is not the whole story. Changes in FIA regulations for Historic F1 regarding minimum weight, ride height and rear wings have also levelled the playing field. Historic F1 cars now run on Avon control tyres, unlike the Pirellis the Arrows suffered compared to their rivals on Goodyears. Crucially there is a restriction on side skirts, and the original ceramic materials of the top teams of the past are now banned. When GSD discovered the effectiveness of using modern Polypropolene for this instead, it appeared to help the Arrows finally become a winner.
If we look at touring cars there are some more surprises too. As Peter highlighted Goodwood is one of the few circuits on which to compare lap times. Of course changes in tyre compounds and track surface can’t make this too exact, but nevertheless, at the final Goodwood St Marys Trophy in 1966 the results show that, just as he described, Brian Muir in a Galaxie won the race and set the fastest ever saloon car lap in period at 1min 32secs. Interestingly 52 years later and the same Ford model also achieved a best time of 1min 32secs. But the real change is further down the field. Mini guru Nick Swift’s fastest lap in a Cooper S in 2018 was 1min 33s, nearly 7 seconds faster than the best works Minis in 1966. And back then they were the less restricted Group 5 cars. Decades of evolution by thousands of competitors have made the Mini a far more potent tool than it was at the time.
While we can only admire the smart engineering and constant development that makes this possible, it does make for some odd- looking grids seen from a historical perspective. John Hopwood’s article in the same copy of the magazine makes the case for strict implementation of Appendix K across the board to reduce costs and limit performance. The problem is the FIA appears to be increasingly set on a course that emphasises the appearance of originality over performance or even safety. As he points out for example, “only parts used in period on that make and model may be used now’. Well intentioned, but surely inconsistent. So for example if class period Appendix J says, ‘the type and choice of the radiator is free’, actually, it is not. Only the original shape and material may be used, unless of course the competitor can produce period evidence of something different. But extend this logic to the whole vehicle and what else must comply. Should the brake pads still contain Asbestos? What about the type of steel used in half-shafts?
Old Volvos were a popular choice in the US for vintage racing until someone died as the result of regular catastrophic half-shaft failures due to an inherent, but obviously ironic, design fault from the safety conscious Swedes, which was only exposed by racing. The obvious answer was for the VSCCA to allow a hub modification that didn’t exist in period, to make them safe to race again. The FIA refused this at the time. What about all those poly bushes that have replaced rubber, they didn’t exist in the old days. And is it ok to use Nyloc type nuts on cars raced before they were invented in 1964? Or is it better to have the suspension fall apart authentically. I recently had the experience of a newly made, high quality but genuine original specification suspension front ball joint on a Ford snap in half at 180kph at the Nürburgring. The result was sufficiently dramatic for it to be featured on local TV. But you will be pleased to know the part in question was wholly FIA compliant. Exhausts look nothing like they did in period, not least because we all have to be very quiet now. I got mildly excited the other day when watching an old film on YouTube of a pit stop at an international race in 1969. If I paused the footage at one point I could just make out some strut top mount reinforcements under the bonnet of a works BMW. Yippee, I can now fit the same thing if I send the proof to Motorsport UK and spend some more money having the HTP papers adjusted. But wait, what if that car is later excluded for a technical irregularity? Does it make the part invalid again, and for that matter who would judge the answer 50 years later?
I guess the problem is no one is really sure where to draw the line with all this detail. As John Hopwood says, “Historic motorsport is now huge, varied and expensive”. So is the use of modern computer software not available in period to set up suspension dynamics any more or less of a crime than, say, using electronic ignition instead of points, or having a radiator made out of aluminium instead of brass and steel? It comes back to the debate about exactly just how historic do we want the cars to be? Seeing Arrows beating Williams or Minis trouncing Jaguars doesn’t seem quite right from a heritage perspective, but paradoxically over-concern with visual originality could lead to dull homogenous grids of re-manufactured but still FIA approved and visually compliant cars. Meantime the ingenuity and adaptability of the engineers will always abound in a competitive environment. A bit like COVID, I guess for now the best we can hope for is to just muddle through and get racing again.
With regards, Joel Wykeham
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