It stands to reason that not every design concept can be a game-changer, let alone a world beater, and this applies even if you happen to be one of the most skilled automotive engineers of the 20th century. This brings us neatly to another of Gordon Murray’s most innovative designs, one which would go onto have a transformative influence on the manner in which subsequent F1 cars were designed but resolutely failed to make an impact at the sharp end of the grid – the Brabham BT55.
The Brabham/Nelson Piquet/Gordon Murray/Bernie Ecclestone steamroller which had done so much to dominate F1 in the early ’80s was beginning to run out of momentum by 1986. Piquet had decamped to Williams in the wake of a pay dispute, Murray, only too aware that his services were in demand up and down the grid, would head to McLaren at the end of the year, while Ecclestone was increasingly preoccupied with the prospect of a role as F1’s Chief Executive.
This was still an immensely skilled, well funded team with BMW power though, and with Murray at the pencils there was no reason to think that a return to form wasn’t on the cards. Murray’s efforts certainly appeared set to catapult Brabham back to the head of the grid, the South African having commenced a drive to clear the path of airflow over the car and to the rear wing. Various regulation changes over the pervious seasons had once again placed the aero emphasis firmly on the rear wing, and aiding the flow of air to and over it swiftly became Murray’s chief focus.
The main hurdle here was once one of Brabham’s biggest trump cards, the BMW M12/13 turbo in the back. Potent it though it undoubtedly was, the M12 was also rather tall (taller than the ‘V’ arrangements favoured by Brabham’s rivals), and this presented Murray with something of a problem when the time came to actually package it within the aero-sculpted confines of the BT55. The solution, indeed one of the only ones available to Murray, was to tilt the engine over by a impressive 72 degrees. The engine, now canted over to an almost comical degree, could now be mounted sufficiently low so as to avoid disturbing the flow of air over its cover, and in turn, the rear wing.
Doing this meant that it was only logical to also re-position the driver, which is why the likes of Ricccardo Patrese and Elio de Angelis found themselves effectively lying down for the 1986 season. The visual effect of all this re-engineering was certainly dramatic, and the ‘low line’ Brabham really did look like little else on the grid – it was certainly the lowest car out there, barely coming up to your mid-shin!
Of course all that re-packaging had a knock-on effect on other aspects of the BT55’s design, most notably its engine. BMW had attempted to re-engineer the M12 in order to make it better suited for a life spent ‘on the tilt,’ paying careful attention to its oil system, though it soon became clear that oil starvation and surge issues would have to be contended with. They couldn’t do much about the location of the single turbo, however, and its location meant that heat soak, overheating and power loss were all BT55 traits. Relocating the M12 had also caused its output shaft to exit in an area wholly unsuited to the team’s old gearbox, and as such an all new, clean-sheet design had to be developed for the 1986 season.
There was still much promise as Brabham entered the 1986 season, and this despite the BMW no longer being the class of the field. That honour went to Honda’s twin turbo V6, now powering Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell in the Williams, and the pairing set about relieving Brabham of any hope of challenging for victory they might’ve harboured. Both BT55s qualified well down the order in the opening race of the year at Brazil, with Patrese retiring on race day and De Angelis coming home in 14th.
This rather set the tone for the remainder of the year, with the BT55s failing to make the finish line more often than not, normally thanks to gearbox failure, overheating, oil system gremlins…or a combination of all three! The Brabhams would ultimately coast to an ignoble stop 19 times out of 32 that season, a shocking display for a team that had had the world at its feet a few years previously.
Worse was to come, and in one of the most unexpected of locations – mid season testing at Paul Ricard. At the time the French circuit was widely held to be among the safest around, complete as it was with the kind of wide open run-offs and gravel traps that have since become standard faire for any track angling to host an F1 race. These measures weren’t enough to prevent the death of De Angelis however, the Italian crashing at high speed and spearing into the tyre wall. Remarkably given the G-forces involved and the standards of crash safety built into F1 cars of the day, the Italian was relatively unscathed, though he was trapped in the car.
Things ought to have been fine, or at least as fine as things could be given the circumstances, but the lack of trackside infrastructure meant that it took an interminably long time to extract De Angelis from the now burning BT55. He was trapped in the car for several minutes, long enough to ingest lungfuls of toxic smoke, and as a result he slipped into a coma from which he was never to recover. This was exacerbated by the lack of on site helicopter (it was only a test, remember) further contributing to the bleakness of the situation.
The tragic events cast a pall over the rest of Brabham’s season, a cloud that stubbornly refused to lift even when the vacant seat was filled by Derek Warwick. Patrese and Warwick struggled on with the recalcitrant BT55 for the remainder of the season, recording best finishes of 6th and 7th respectively, though both were sprinkled with liberal retirements due to mechanical failure.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that the BT55 was a brilliant concept, just one insurmountably compromised by the engine Brabham (and Murray) had to work with. There’s ample evidence that the raw ingredients for success were in place, including the pure pace of both cars on the high speed straights of Monza, and much more importantly, the performance of Murray’s subsequent design built along the same lines, the McLaren MP4/4. That’s a story for another day…