How Brabham BT46B became the victim of interests
Lotus dominated Formula 1 in 1978, but Brabham wanted to fight back with Brabham BT46B cars. Unfortunately, that ambition worked pretty well but didn’t last too long.
Famous Brabham fan car
Designed by Gordon Murray, Brabham BT46 had many revolutionary elements on the bodywork but everything was fine only in theory. That concept never worked really well on the track and the team owned by Bernie Ecclestone turned to some unconventional solutions in the middle of 1978 campaign, in which Brabham finished 3rd in the Teams’ Championship, thanks to Lauda’s wins in the Swedish and Italian Grand Prix.
The 1970s were the years when many were searching for the new solutions and usually their ideas were a bit extreme. Probably the best-known car designed in that period was Brabham BT46B, the extraordinary ’fan car’. The main idea was to copy the concept of ground effect, introduced by Lotus in 1977. More grip and improved aerodynamics proved to be a decisive factor in Lotus’ success and all teams wanted to emulate that.
Loophole in the rules
Gordon Murray, Brabham’s chief designer, found a hole in the rules and immediately started to work on the development of Brabham BT46. He designed a large fan which purpose was to cool the engine. This had the side effect of exposing the driver to very high lateral acceleration, which would become a major problem in the ground effect era. His solution was not entirely original as this principle was based on the 1970 Chaparral 2J car that competed in the Can-Am series.
Because of the fan, practically the whole car had to be redesigned in just three months which wasn’t an easy task, especially considering that Brabham had a flat-12 Alfa Romeo engine which was very unsuitable for a ground-effect car. However, Murray and his team did a good job and prepared the new car, named Brabham BT46B, for the Swedish Grand Prix, the 8th race of the 1978 Formula 1 campaign. When the new car appeared at the track for the first time, everybody was looking in disbelief.
Chapman led the harangue against the new concept
The car probably looked a bit silly and Lotus’ boss Colin Chapman complained that the car is illegal. He was complaining about the huge advantage that Brabham Bt46B had. The new car was extremely fast in the corners thanks to the grip made by a fan on the back of the car. Simply, the faster the engine ran, the stronger is the suction effect. The car was very hard and the driver was exposed to the very high g-loading.
The new car, driven by Niki Lauda, won the Swedish Grand Prix with a margin of 34 seconds, but many drivers complained that they couldn’t see anything if they were driving behind a new Brabham, stating that ’bloody vacuum cleaner throws muck and rubbish’. Gordon Murray replied that it was an untrue saying: ’The fan couldn’t spit anything out the back because the fan exit speed was only 55 mph. Besides the radial fan would have sent any stones flying sideways’.
Bernie was pragmatic, as always
After the race, the protests and anger of other teams became even stronger. They put the pressure on Ecclestone and Bernie. ’We can run this car until the end of the season and we’ll surely win the championship, but I think the Constructors’ Association is more important,’ said Ecclestone when he was talking to Murray. Interestingly, Ecclestone was the teams’ representative in the Formula 1 Constructors’ Association.
The Brabham’s chief designer was pissed-off because people wanted to destroy his masterpiece after only one race. However, Chapman’s arguments against this car were partly true. Discussing Brabham BT46B, he said ’If we allow this car to race, we’ll soon be in a situation that the teams can do anything, without limitations’.
Demise of Brabham BT46B was political decision
The decision of the BT46B demise was purely political. Colin Chapman stated that the teams can always find another representative in the Association. Murray was rightfully angry at the moment, but later in his career, he achieved more success with Brabham and McLaren.
This extraordinary formula car will be remembered as one of the most interesting cars in the history of Formula 1 but also as probably the first major case in which compromises and interests vanquished over the technical innovations and the competition.