Saturday, January 17, 2009

On Beauty

There have been some hideous looking racing cars over the years, but I have to say that the 2009-spec F1 cars have frankly raised the bar to a whole new level. Anyone who might have been hoping that the return to slick tyres and the banning of the aerodynamic ‘flip ups’ and sundry add-ons might result in purer, more elegant looking F1 cars will be sorely disappointed. The new rules have produced the most absurd looking F1 cars I can recall, at least since the late 60s when F1 cars briefly sprouted very tall rear wings, before the governing body clamped down on them as highly dangerous. With their huge front wings and narrow, tall rear wings, they look like nothing so much as poor quality cheap toy models of F1 cars, rather than the real thing – or like photos which have been wrongly resized in Photoshop by someone who has forgot to retain the original picture’s aspect ratio.

It sparked a train of thought though – if 2009’s F1 cars are quite the ugliest there have ever been, what were the prettiest? In recent years, the rules have become ever more constrained and one would be hard-pushed to tell one F1 car apart from another once stripped of their liveries (I know this is true in my case because I failed miserably with Autosport’s Christmas challenge of identifying last year’s cars, sans-paintwork) but that wasn’t true, even as recently as the late 1980s and early 1990s. I always thought that, aesthetically, the trend for raised noses was a negative development, but I do have a soft spot for the first car to adopt this design, the Tyrrell 019. Ken’s anhedral winged machine had an elegance that the solution which the F1 designers all eventually arrived at does not. A year later, Gary Anderson’s Jordan 191 stands out as perhaps the last real F1 design classic. A car born not out of wind tunnel data and scientific research, for the fledgling Jordan team had no access to such things, but out from the inspiration and intuition of designer Gary Anderson. In the years since then, it has been hard to pick

The Jordan 191 was as quick as it was good looking, but sadly, the old adage that if it looks right, it will go right has been disproved on many an occasion. I still rate Michael Tetu’s 1988 Ligier JS31 as one of the most outright stunning racing cars ever to turn a wheel, at least in its early season guise, before it sprouted a rather unsightly airbox. Sadly it was an absolute dog on the track. It’s unusual lines were the result of the designer having opted to run two side-mounted fuel tanks, which perhaps contributed to its wayward handling.

Nor was it the only car I can think of which looked fast but turned out to be worse than useless once it turned a wheel. A couple of years before, Gordon Murray stunned the world when he unveiled Brabham’s low-line BT55. It looked quite unlike anything which had preceded it, low-slung, sleek, in short, it looked fast. Unfortunately, it had no traction out of slow corners, and the low-line shape was achieved by mounting the BMW turbo engine on its side, which caused all manner of problems in itself. The following year, Bernie Ecclestone’s men returned with a much more conventional looking car.

Gordon Murray’s basic concept, though, would later be much better executed by the men at Woking. The 1988 Mclaren MP4/4 wasn’t so extreme as the Brabham but it followed the low-line philosophy Murray had pioneered in the BT55, and , unlike the Brabham, proved to be very effective indeed. Whether the MP4/4 deserves to be considered the best F1 car of all time is an open question – it won 15 of the 16 Grands Prix that year, but with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost on the books, and with Honda’s matchless Honda V6 turbo providing the power – it was always going to be quick, wasn’t it? Maybe, although Lotus, who also had use of Honda’s V6 that year, and who had triple world champion Nelson Piquet on the books, might beg to differ…What it does have is a memorable, simple, elegance.

It might have been the most successful car of the period, but to my mind, it wasn’t the best looking of the lot. That honour, to my eye, goes to the following year’s Ferrari 640. The first car that John Barnard designed for Ferrari, it was also the first Formula 1 car to feature a steering-wheel mounted semi-automatic gearbox. For me, it could have been the most mechanically conventional racing car and it would still stand out. It is in all honesty one of only a very few F1 cars, certainly of the last 30 years, which would not look out of place in an art museum.

Sometimes, it is not the shape of a car which makes it memorable, or beautiful, but the livery that does the job. Euroracing’s rather ineffectual Alfa Romeo 184T stood out not so much for its shape as for its green and red Benetton livery and it’s gold wheels. Ferraris, even the most visually unappealing ones, have always had the team’s scarlet colours working in their favour. On the flip side, Alan Jenkins’ pretty little Onyx ORE1 was ruined by the hideous blue and pink ‘Moneytron’ livery it ran in…

To my my mind, the most beautiful racing cars, though, have come not from F1, but from sportscar racing. Not the open-top Spyders which currently bedevil the category (and which were similarly ubiquitous, and just as unattractive, in the late 1970s) but the closed-top sportscar racers of the late 1960s and the Group C era some twenty years later. The Porsche 917 might have been the most memorable of them, but to my mind, the Ferrari 330 P4 was the prettiest. The Alfa Romeo T33 was a strong contender too.

Later on, the Sauber C9, in its Mercedes silver-arrows livery is perhaps as perfect a racing car design as there has ever been. It was devastatingly quick too, dominating sportscar racing in 1989 and 1990. The last, 3.5 atmo engined Group C cars were a little too clearly the product of the wind tunnel rather than the designer’s imagination, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Lola’s T92/10. It was intended as a customer sports prototype, filling the niche left vacant by the Porsche 962, but only two ever ran in the final year of the WSC, and they never stood a chance against the works entries of Toyota and Peugeot.

Rally cars have always been more about brutality than about beauty. The most striking examples, perhaps, come from the Group B era, with the Metro 6R4 and the Peugeot 205T16 standing out as the epitome of this. There have been occasional stunning looking rally cars though. I always had a soft spot for the curves of that orphan child of the Group B era, the Ford RS200. The Lancia 037 was a classic of its time, somehow contriving to take the Lancia Beta as a starting point and yet end up with something truly purposeful.

Asked what he thought of the this year’s Ferrari F60 F1 car, Luca Di Montezemelo joked “The new car looks fairly ugly, rather small, a bit disgusting...” He might have had his tongue in his cheek, but at the same time, I’d be surprised if any of this year’s F1 cars were to make it into a future list of the most beautiful F1 cars.

(I have incorporated links to pictures of the cars mentioned above. I don’t have photographs of most of them myself, and don’t wish to ‘steal’ others’ photos, so I thought this would be the best compromise).

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"old adage that if it looks right, it will go right has been disproved on many an occasion"

I wonder if the converse is true. Has an ugly car ever won the F1 Championship.....Sure the prettiest car has often not won, but the the ugliest car on the grid has never won the championship either....

7:31 PM  
Anonymous donwatters said...

The most beautiful F1 car of all time was the Dan Gurney Eagle. It was simple, straight forward, and even won a race.

12:23 PM  
Anonymous Alianora La Canta said...

Maybe the adage should be adjusted to "If it looks fast and the designers haven't done anything wierd to make it look fast, it will be fast?"

3:08 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Anonymous: Let's see whether the Renault R29 turns out to be any good...

Certainly bloody hideous, even by 2009 standards

1:17 PM  

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