Murray has always dismissed the stone-throwing claims, and Watson does, too – in no uncertain terms.
“Mario and Chapman were a double act par excellence, telling basically a load of lies,” he states. “The pair of them were desperate to get anything to force Brabham not to run in Sweden. They were reading from the same hymn sheet. Unbelievable.”
Chapman’s other quarrel perhaps held more water. “Fan cars were nothing new,” he said. “Jim Hall was running his Chaparral with a fan back in 1970, and they were outlawed then. The reason is very straightforward: with a relatively simple development, you can produce so much downforce that the car’s cornering limitations would really be a matter of what the driver could stand. A 100mph corner would become a flat-in-top corner. And then all the circuits would be obsolete.”
In qualifying, the Brabhams ran on full tanks to hide their potency, but they still lined up second and third on the grid, Watson ahead of Lauda and behind Andretti’s pole-winning Lotus. Come race day, Watson retired after a spin, but Lauda ran second to Andretti in a two-horse contest, Niki admitting he was “playing cat and mouse” with the American.
After Didier Pironi’s Tyrrell dropped oil, Andretti made a small error and Lauda “overtook him without the slightest difficulty and finished with embarrassing ease, being careful not to let my lead appear too great.” The fan car was a winner first time out – in what would be its one and only race.
As Murray insists, the BT46B was never banned. Ecclestone chose to withdraw the car from further action, much to his designer’s frustration, apparently for the greater good and to keep the peace among the increasingly influential Formula One Constructors Association made up mostly by the British garagiste teams. He already had one eye on the bigger picture.
“The fan car was always going to go because Ecclestone was out on a limb,” noted Andretti. “The other constructors were against him, and they are the people who support him in his cause. He wasn’t going to risk breaking up FOCA. No matter how much power he thinks he has, without the Tyrrells and the Chapmans, even Ecclestone is dead. He’s got his priorities.”
The epilogue is one that still gives Watson immense satisfaction. “It’s important to remember Bernie volunteered not to run it again,” he says. “He got his win and kept his word. When I got to the French GP I had a bog-standard BT46, yet I took pole. It gave me enormous pleasure in front of Chapman and that lot.”
So was the Brabham fan car a sliding doors moment for F1? Could it have changed the face of grand prix racing? No, because had Brabham stuck to its guns, the rule-makers would have closed the loophole. Instead, the BT46B represents a beacon for clever F1 thinking, a moment of pure inspiration. That it led to a dead end instead of a wide open, and potentially lethal, highway was probably for the best.
HOW TYRRELL ALMOST GOT THERE FIRST
There’s a good reason why Ken Tyrrell might have been particularly frothy about the Brabham fan car – that’s because his team beat Gordon Murray to the idea. The only problem was, they failed to make it work.
Maurice Philippe, the design great behind the Lotus 72, intended the Tyrrell 008 he created for 1978 to run as a fan car, as John Gentry recalls. The draughtsman arrived at Tyrrell in 1977 after spells at March, Shadow, Fittipaldi and direct from running Chris Amon and Gilles Villeneuve in a Formula 5000-based Can-Am car. He wasn’t exactly made to feel welcome at first as long-time Tyrrell designer Derek Gardner, creator of the outgoing P34 six-wheeler, hadn’t yet left.
“Maurice needed help on the detail stuff of 008,” says Gentry. “Derek Gardner was still there and he didn’t allow us into the drawing office! There was a double garage down the bottom of Ken’s woodyard, and Maurice and I had our drawing boards in there. When Derek left we joined the main office – there was only one other guy in there.”
The Tyrrell fan car worked on a similar premise to the Brabham BT46B, but with a significantly different layout.
“Maurice wanted to hide the radiators, so he put one lying flat underneath the car where the fuel tank would be, and there was a fan driven off the crankshaft to suck the air through,” explains Gentry. “We went through a lot of designs of the fan and we were restricted for size, plus we had to make the vanes ourselves. The guy in the workshop on a milling machine was incredible.”
The idea was dropped after temperatures proved too hard to control, and 008 ran as a conventional pre-ground effect F1 car, Patrick Depailler claiming a win at Monaco. “We went testing at Paul Ricard and it just got too hot,” recalls Gentry. “So in the end the radiators sat on top of the bodywork, as an afterthought. But Maurice was an amazing guy.”
Gentry has one other big memory from his short spell at Tyrrell, before he made an ill-judged move to ATS: “At Christmas time Tyrrell always had a big Christmas do. You’d bring your wife and it was like a family. They had a guy to come along as Father Christmas to give presents to the wives. Who do you think it was? Bernie Ecclestone!”