We asked Nigel Bennett a few questions about his career in motor racing ...
For me, the whole business was a huge learning curve during this period, even though I had been involved in top level motor racing since 1967 as a Firestone racing tyre designer and engineer to many of the top teams in F1 and sports cars. However, from 1974 I was working as an engineer within racing teams – Hesketh and Team Lotus until 1978 – so I was in at the deep end, learning about car construction, working with the mechanics and home based fabricators, machinists and designers. And, of course, motor racing as an industry was learning fast too, particularly about aerodynamics.
Initially in the 60s, it became apparent that downforce, through the use of wings, meant that cornering grip was increasing rapidly, but so was drag: so subtle compromises were required to find the best combinations for each circuit. Then of course the huge ‘find’ was when, partly by accident, it was discovered that air flow beneath the car could be channelled to produce unheard of levels of downforce, with remarkably small increases in drag. All this was discovered at Team Lotus during my four years with the team.
And working for Colin Chapman, probably the greatest innovator the sport has seen, was a huge advantage to me when I left Team Lotus, and started to design F1 and Indycars myself.
You say in your book that you believe the 80s and 90s were the most wonderful period of motor racing. Why?
What was so challenging in Indycar racing in that period was, like F1, we raced on street circuits and road circuits, but Indycars also raced on Short Ovals and Superspeedways. At the one mile Short Ovals, for instance at Phoenix and Milwaukee, there was racing 3 and 4 abreast at times, and no lack of overtaking. And the G-forces were enormous: at Phoenix the drivers would be pulling some 5G lateral for over 7 seconds through turns 3 and 4. And the speeds at Michigan, or Indianapolis, were tremendous with lap average speeds of around 230mph and top speeds of over 240 mph. The aero rules, and even suspension parts, differed for these different types of circuits and with over 800bhp the cars were fast and spectacular.
Indycars raced not only in the USA, but in Canada, Brazil, Australia and,on occasion, Germany and Great Britain. Then, on both sides of the Atlantic, motor racing was still a sport with much less evidence of big business than is the case today. Teams were so much smaller, budgets were a fraction of today levels, and racing was all the more enjoyable for that.
Hesketh was an extraordinary private team, famous for partying as hard as it raced: your time with Bubbles, Lord Alexander, the Doc and James Hunt must have been extraordinary?
Even in the days when F1 was serious, but fun, Hesketh Racing was an anomaly. It had a reputation of enjoying the parties with the racing as a side show. False! There was a serious side to the team.
I only worked for the Hesketh Racing for a few months, and fresh from a Firestone tyre background, my learning curve was steep. Many of the wild parties happened in the earlier days before I joined as, by then, money was getting tight and the F1 team folded at the end of the year. Despite the Lord’s antics, the team had excellent hard working mechanics. Harvey Postlethwaite was a talented designer and ‘Bubbles’ Horsley a fine Team manager. James Hunt? Well there’s plenty about him on film and in print. And he still owes me £5!
Have you seen the film Rush? How accurately, in your view, does it portray James Hunt and his rivalry with Niki Lauda?
From what I saw Hunt and Lauda were good friends., despite the obvious rivalry on the track. I thought the Rush Lauda character was brilliant, Hunt less so. The real Hunt was more extreme and outrageous than the film dared to show!
What was it really like working with the genius Colin Chapman? Have you got any anecdotes you can share?
Without doubt a brilliant man, very brave, charming, but a bit of a rogue none the less. A fantastic leader with a mercurial brain, he could persuade ordinary mortals to do things, complete tasks, they would never dream possible on their own.
Colin loved to be the centre of attention, with a loud laugh, but could fix you with a steely eye if he thought you weren’t giving your all.
100 hour weeks were not uncommon working for Colin Chapman!
A true innovator, an original thinker, but many of his schemes were failures, it’s just that he came up with so many ideas, that the innovator image stuck. For instance, he claimed he thought through the possibilities of ground effect while on holiday, but, in fact, that was far from the truth as I explain at great length in my book.
His main failure as a designer (thought he seldom, if ever produced final drawings, rather than sketches), was he always wanted to be one step ahead, and developing a design to it maximum, bored him. He always wanted to innovate, at many times to his cost.
He was a good pilot, but wasn’t above flying to his own rules when it suited him. He once flew himself and a couple of crew members to Holland, his secretary had filed the flight plan and informed the local airfield at which he had declared he would land. En route he changed his mind and landed at another airfield (without informing anyone) and departed for the race meeting in a rental car. On arriving back on the Sunday night he found padlocked chains wrapped around the plane’s props. It seems the first airfield, on his non arrival, had assumed he was missing over the North Sea, and alerted the authorities who started a costly search. The police were not amused and took steps to teach him a lesson.
What was it like seeing ‘your’ cars on the front row at Indianapolis?
Great pride that I ,and my design team, had come up with a car that was ahead of the competition, and thankful that I was working for a great team such as Penske racing, which could deliver the true potential of my cars.
What role has tyre technology played in top level motorsport through your working life?
Of course tyres have always been super important in motor racing. Nowadays, there is seldom any tyre competition in that most series, including F1 and Indycars, have one supplier, so it is down to the teams to get the very best from the tyres they are supplied with. Back when I was involved, there were often two or three tyre suppliers, so a tyre war could make it unfortunate if one was contracted to an inferior product. This was very much the case in the mid- to late-nineties, when Penske suffered considerably being contracted to a supplier which was a step behind in development.
When I worked for Firestone, in the late 60s and 70s, there was intense competition with Goodyear and Dunlop, and we often came out on top with superior Firestone products in F1 and Sports cars. Again, many great tyre innovations were stumbled upon by accident, including how slick, plain treaded tyres came about, a story recounted in my book.
What is unique about your book amongst other books that cover a similar era of motorsport?
I believe the book is unusual. Firstly, because it covers a long period in motor racing history from the point of view of one person, but also there are chapters by my main rival designer and the Penske team manager. Secondly it is not only about F1, or even F1 and Sports cars, but also about tyre design and development back in the 60s and 70s.
You met and worked with many great motor-racing characters, which of them really stand out and why?
Mauro Forgheiri ,who took the time to talk to me about his cars, and explain how he went about tuning his cars, his subtle use of shock absorber settings to change a car’s balance. A great character who would organise great meals for his team when time allowed.
Colin Chapman, as described above.
Mo Nunn, a team owner and engineer who struggled with indomitable spirit for years but with inadequate budgets.
Carl Haas, a laugh a minute as a team owner.
Roger Penske, the perfectionist team owner, who allowed me so much freedom to design the cars as I wanted.
What do you regard as the pinnacle of your design work?
Probably the first Lola Indycar that I designed. Although I had designed an Indycar while at Theodore racing, it was a converted F1 car. The Lola T800 was innovative in that it used a lot of carbon fibre in the chassis moulding, a first in Indycars. I had a relatively small amount of design help from other draughtsmen at Lola, and wind tunnel time was severely limited. Of course, the T800 won the Championship with Mario Andretti driving for Newman Haas Racing. Later designs at Penske Cars were even more successful, but I had much better facilities and more people to work with.
What inspired you to bite the bullet and get down to writing the book?
I thought it was worth doing as so many people had asked me about my career. My memory is awful, so it did me good to research the history in which I played a part.
Can you describe how you think F1 racing will have changed by 2020?
No, not really. I think the 2017 F1 rules are a mistake and won’t encourage closer racing and, if nothing is done to bring down costs, F1 will strangle itself.
On the other side of the Atlantic if Indycar is to survive they must get away from these oh so ugly spec cars. The fans do have an interest in seeing different cars, after all the drivers are hardly visible anyway.
In this unique autobiography, Nigel Bennett describes his life and career, from growing-up influenced by car design, to his education, and the building of his ‘750 specials.’ He describes his work as Firestone Development Manager, recounting many tales of the outstanding designers and drivers of the period. Detailing his work in Formula 1, as a Team Lotus engineer, and then as Team Ensign designer, he also covers his Indycar designs at Theodore, Lola Cars, and Penske Cars. Life after his retirement, his involvement in boat design and with modern F1 teams, is also recounted. More info.