As unsung heroes go, Gordon Murray ranks among the best of them. For a young Formula One Fan back in the late 1970’s the sight of the South African’s Brabham’s was a joy; these were beautiful machines, designed to be fast and fearsome, yet somehow they always managed to be gorgeous to look at. Not all F1 cars can claim that.
Murray was – and remains – an innovator of the highest order; Bernie Ecclestone, who employed him at Brabham, clearly saw this in him. The quite delectable BT44 – with its distinctive angles and Martini livery – remains a favourite of mine, but it took a switch from Alfa Romeo power to the venerable Ford Cosworth to produce the most beautiful F1 car of the late 70’s.
The Brabham BT49 took Nelson Piquet to the world championship title in 1979; here was a truly gorgeous car in an era of very beautiful machines, one that seemed to have been designed purely to look great, and turned out also to be fast.
A very successful car in the ground effect era – that of ‘skirts’ that channeled air underneath the cars in a venture fashion to suck the cars down to the ground – it soon became clear that the Cosworth V8 was on its last legs; a turbocharged engine was the way forward, and a deal was struck to use the astonishing 1.5liter straight four from BMW.
Initially the engine proved desperately unreliable, but Piquet persevered with it throughout the 1981 season, running the development BT50 wherever he could to the detriment of results.
It would be a wise decision. The BT50 became a potent weapon in 1982, especially when Murray introduced a policy of starting on half tanks of petrol and stopping mid-race for refueling. However, storm clouds were gathering as the governing body sought to eliminate the ground effect cars for reasons that became more convoluted over time.
Well ahead with development of the definitive BMW powered car for the next season – the BT51 – Murray and the F1 world were dealt a blow when, shortly after the close of the 1982 season ground effect cars were banned, and all new designs were mandated to have a flat bottom. In the space of a few weeks Murray came up with what remains – for me and I suspect many others – one of the most beautiful cars ever to grace a race track.
The BT52 was devoid of the commonplace sidepods that F1 cars carried; instead, it was akin to a dart, a missile, with just housing for the radiators at the back.
Murray’s thinking was that moving the weight to the back would be beneficial, and he also designed the car with a small fuel tank, meaning it would be necessary to stop and refuel every race. With a massively powerful BMW engine now helped by ‘special’ fuel that added extra power, Piquet took his second title after a season-long fight in 1983.
Murray moved to McLaren a couple of years later and had a hand in the MP4/4 – a logical development of the ‘lowline’ Brabham BT55 and a car that would set the template for F1 cars for the next decade – and remained with the company for many years. He was instrumental, in fact, in the concept of the McLaren F1 road car.
Gordon Murray Design is his current domain, and he has recently caused waves in the road car market with his amazing concept T.25 and T.27 city cars. Designed with quick and efficient build processes in mind, these have been the subject of much interest among the motoring world. Once an innovator, always an innovator.