The above photograph that hangs on the wall of my writing studio is the next topic in my feature column “The Vault”.
It shows the start of the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix. Heading into the first corner is the JPS liveried Lotus of Mario Andretti, followed by Niki Lauda in the Brabham-Alfa Romeo. In the background can be seen the other Brabham of John Watson just going off picture, he is side by side with the #35 Arrows-Ford of Riccardo Patrese. Behind them the #11 Ferrari of Carlos Reutemann, battling for position into the first corner with the other JPS Lotus of Ronnie Peterson and just behind Reutemann is his Ferrari team mate, Gilles Villeneuve.
When I say in previous posts there is a story behind every picture, this one is no different. There are many who will not count this particular Grand Prix as memorable and in the case of some young generation fans, will not even recall a Swedish Grand Prix. The story behind this photograph doesn’t necessarily concentrate on the race, rather the back-story and the infamous ‘fan-car’ introduced by Brabham.
Gordon Murray, a designer at Brabham, wanted to out-think the genius of Colin Chapman at Lotus. The Lotus 79 had dominated since Zolder. It was the first car to take full advantage of ground effects aerodynamics. This design had been pioneered on the its predecessor, the Lotus 78, but further enhanced. Further design on the venturi tunnels under the car allowed the low pressure area to be evenly spaced along the whole underside. By extending the rear bodywork to a point inside the rear wheels, it allowed the underside to extend further back. The rears suspension, as a result of this, was redesigned to allow the air to exit at the back more cleanly.
Murray wanted to have the upper hand. Lotus had won four of the first seven Grand Prix’s, with Ferrari taking two victories and Tyrrell one. Brabham had finished on the podium four times. Lauda had put the car into second at Argentina and third in Brazil. His team mate John Watson managed a third in South Africa with Lauda adding to his tally by finishing second in Monaco. No podium finishes in the United States Grand Prix, Belgium or Spain saw them slipping behind. In the Constructors Championship they found themselves tied on 22 points with Ferrari (but put into 4th place due to race finishing positions), two points behind Tyrrell and twenty-three points behind the dominant Lotus. Murray knew that something needed to be done.
The Brabham BT46B was born.
At the time Brabham was owned by Bernie Ecclestone, he wanted a quick solution and turned to Murray. The car itself had several radical designs. One of the most obvious was the use of flat panel heat exchangers on the bodywork of the car to replace the conventional water and oil radiators.
The ‘B’ variant of the car raced at the Swedish Grand Prix in 1978. Murray had introduced a fan which generated an immense amount of downforce. The fan drew air through the water radiator, mounted horizontally over the engine, sucking air from under the car which created a partial vacuum. This in-turn created an enormous amount of downforce.
There were some complaints that the car contravened a rule which stated moving aerodynamic devices were not allowed. Brabham countered the argument by saying the fan cooled the engine and as such it’s primary function was not aerodynamics. There were protests, but in the end Lauda and Watson were allowed to race in their ‘fan-car’.
Andretti had put his Lotus on pole with Watson second, Lauda third followed by Peterson, Patrese and Scheckter. The two Brabham drivers did not wish to draw attention to the advantage they had now gained with the fan. They qualified on full tanks and as Lauda said afterwards “Doing our best to avoid pole.”
Andretti held first place, Lauda managed to jump ahead of his team mate, Watson, as can be seen in the photograph at the top of the page. Watson found himself being passed by Patrese and then Peterson who in turn managed to get by Patrese in a swap of positions.
Lauda and Andretti battled for first place. Andretti made an error which allowed the Brabham through. The American soon found himself with further problems when a valve broke on his engine causing him to retire. Watson, in the other Brabham ‘fan-car’, also had issues and he was forced to retire with a throttle issue.
A back-maker car spilled oil all over the track, this caused the field to slow dramatically, but not the Brabham of Lauda. The Austrian was to later state that whilst other cars had to reduce speed to drive carefully over the oil he could simply accelerate through the affected parts of the circuit. The fan in the Brabham was activated by the gearbox to get around the regulations. Lauda won by 34.6 seconds. Patrese and Peterson made up the remaining podium places, respectively, in a very close finish. Tambay, Regazzoni and Fittipaldi completed the points positions.
The stewards inspected the car after the race and deemed it to be ‘legal’. The FIA then investigated the car further after teams complained and agreed with Brabham’s initial claim that the fan was used to cool the car.
Even though the car was deemed a legal entry, be it that it was done within the rules but not necessarily in the spirit of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone decided not the race the car again. It is thought in popular racing culture that the ‘fan-car’ was banned but this is simply not true. The decision made by Ecclestone was quite possibly to avoid any kind of conflict with other teams who he relied upon for support. It was 1978 when Ecclestone became chief executive of FOCA and would then go on to lead this group through to negotiating the rights for television contracts for the Grand Prix’s. This then gave Ecclestone commercial control of Formula One, the rest is history.
So maybe the withdrawal of the Brabham ‘fan-car’ was more a political move by Ecclestone rather than a decision made in the spirit of the sport. Whatever the reasons behind the decision, the Brabham BT46B-Alfa Romeo never raced again.
Every picture tells a story.
See You At The Chequered Flag.
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