Q: Your cars were often described as being solid and dependable. I guess this would have been highlighted by the fact that some of the other things that were around, like Lotuses, were renowned for being neither of those things.
RT: Well I think the other difference is that Lotus and all those people employed designers. And the designer had to come up with something new each year, or they won’t keep him. And I, if there was a new formula that came out, I sort of thought, ‘Well, if it lasts four or five years, where’s it going to go?’
So for a production car, one tried to build the car that was going to be right in five years time, you backed off from that and built something that was just good enough to win. And then you keep doing updates. And that meant that cars, particularly like my Formula Atlantics, you could get one three or four years later, and you could still win.
The people that had the money would buy the new car to save doing the service. And the people that bought old cars, they were designed as such so that all you had to do was, I’d recommend, put all new rod ends on every year. Again, my rod ends were bigger than everyone else’s, because I wasn’t saving weight. On all the other cars, like Lotus, they would wear out, and when it got to the slop in it, you’d put another one in. But if it could get some slop in it, you couldn’t control your wheel contact patch accurately.
So I’d put bigger ones in, they didn’t wear, and at the end of the season the fatigue life would set in, maybe, and you’d throw the lot away and get a new lot. So there’s a different sort of philosophy.
Q: While reading Mike Lawrence’s book [Brabham, Ralt, Honda: The Ron Tauranac Story], I was struck by a remark from someone who once worked with you, who said, ‘If Ron could reincarnate, he’d come back as Chapman.’ How does that sit with you?
RT: (laughs) No way. See, Chapman had to sing his own praises, and have it done for him by journalists, whom he employed, because he had to get the publicity for his road cars and all the other things. I didn’t want any publicity. I just wanted to build the car, and I didn’t want anyone copying any ideas. So I never said, ‘Oh, that’s new.’
I think Chapman came up with a couple of big innovations — they weren’t new. Like, the monocoque had been around 20 years before. He brought that into racing. So there were a few bigger things like that which he made public, like making the engine part of the structure. And BRM had done that anyway, but Chapman got the publicity. But when it comes down to detail, and design innovations and things like that, I think we had, probably, as many as him. We just didn’t say anything about them.
But there’s a whole lot of things – adjustable anti-rollbars and all sorts of little things. You didn’t say anything. You tried to hide them.
Q: How do you see the way the whole designing game has evolved over the past few decades? It has become a lot more specialized since you started out.
RT: Yes, it has. It has become very specialized. People from university … like, the aerodynamics is the main thing, that’s really jumped ahead. Electronics … there are specialists in each field. There are very few all-round people who can really marry the whole lot up. I suppose you’ve got Patrick Head and John Barnard, and Adrian Newey – although his specialty is aerodynamics. I don’t know he how much he has developed in other fields.
You’ve got those sorts of people, and there are some others that are reasonably all-round. Most of the older ones. But the younger ones are specialists. OK, it’s gone on a long way, but I think there is still room for people that can look at something and make a judgment.
Q: So is this ability to see the car as whole becoming a lost art?
RT: A little bit because of that, and another bit because of the FIA regulations. With all these one-make formulae, there is just nowhere to go for all these young designers. If they got in and they were able to develop the car, it’s like the problem with Formula 3 – you homologate it, and you’re stuffed. So out here, they have year-old models or older for their series, but you can’t do enough to train people.
Q: Do you find it less interesting?
RT: Oh, it’s still a challenge, whatever you do. And I think it becomes more of a challenge, to be able to assess what’s going on with all these things. You can listen to what the driver’s saying, and say, ‘Oh well, you need to do this or that.’ And other people have got to look at the data, and download it, and it takes half an hour … so there’s still room for people.
Q: Do you have a particular affection for any of the cars that you have designed?
RT: Not really. I suppose the best of the Formula 3 cars was the RT35. It went on and on being best even after it was outdated by composites. It was a honeycomb car, and it worked. And I suppose the… I forget all the numbers, but in the Brabham days, the BT30 was pretty good. That was the first aluminum monocoque that we’d done in F1. We’d done an aluminum monocoque at Indy before that, but you didn’t need it for Formula 1. You didn’t need a particularly stiff car then, because you didn’t have stiff springs, and you were able to use the body shape to get the air out.
It was only when they brought in that you had to have bag tanks (fuel bladders) that it became desirable to do a monocoque and put the bag in the monocoque. Well, it was compulsory. That turned everything around.