Saturday, December 08, 2007

Gordon Murray and hot baths

The coolest man in the human noosphere is surely Gordon Murray. Murray designed a series of beautiful and innovative Formula 1 cars in the 1970s and 1980s, and then proceeded to design both the McLaren F1 road car, and the Mercedes SLR. Interviewed in this month's Motorsport magazine, Murray reveals that "I'm unusual for an engineer in that I went to art school when I was 13. I still do a bit of drawing and painting, and I love styling. I couldn't bring myself to make an ugly car."

Murray (seen here on the right of Niki Lauda) is the most relaxed of individuals, and during his years in Formula 1 could typically be seen sporting a T-shirt, jeans and rock-star sunglasses. He also put together a rock band in the 1980s: "I play guitar and drums, both very badly...we'd have a jam session that would last all weekend. Leo Sayer sang with us for a bit, and George Harrison played with us one night. We had a lot of fun"

Murray introduced the idea of strategic pit-stops into modern Formula 1, and the genesis of this idea confirms my own long-held bathing beliefs:

"It started as a hot bath idea. I used to have a lot of good ideas after a hot bath. Apparently there's a physical reason for this, there's a channel in your spine that opens up in the heat and increases the blood supply to the brain. I knew how much the tyres used to go off. And I'd learned from running the cars light in qualifying that the weight of one litre of fuel cost around one hundredth of a second in lap times. So I lay in the bath doing the maths.

"The clever thing wasn't having the idea, it was developing all the stuff that went into it. That's the bit I love. Throw me a series of connected problems and I've got to find a way to make everything work together. In this case it was, how do you change the tyres quickly, how do you put the fuel in quickly, and how do you avoid losing pace going back out on cold tyres? We videoed the mechanics changing tyres, analysed it frame by frame, and I redesigned the hubs, bearing carriers, threads, nuts and wheel guns, with a device to retain the nuts. And I put titanium on-board air jacks on the car...Tyre warmers didn't exist then, so I made an oven, a big thing like the Tardis, with temperature probes and hot air circulating through four tyres. Then we did the fuel kit. Nowadays it all has to be done at atmospheric pressure, so it's pretty slow. But there were no rules about it then, so I designed a twin-barrel fuel system running at 4 bar. The damper barrel fed the fuel barrel and the fuel barrel fed the car, and we could push in 35 gallons in 3.5 seconds. Which is like an explosion, believe me.

"With the refuelling we had one guy on one side of the car opening the breather, one on the other putting in the fuel. Big heavy hoses over their shoulders. If the breather's not on when the fuel guy opens the pressure, the car disintegrates. Four bar inside a carbon and aluminium monocoque, you wouldn't find the pieces. So I designed all sorts of mechanical interlocks inside the tank and it all got really complicated, castellations and cams and Geneva mechanisms. And I looked at it and thought, on a racing car it's going to vibrate; one day it's going to fail to work and the car's going to explode. No more Brabham [the team for which Murray worked], no more pitlane, maybe no more F1. I studied the videos again, and I realised that during a stop the breather guy and the fuel guy would be facing each other each side of the roll hoop with their noses about four inches apart. So I scrapped the interlocks and I got the two of them together and I said to the breather guy, 'When you approach the car with your hose, you're looking down to where you've got to lock the hose on, so don't look up until it's on.' And I said to the fuel guy, 'Don't turn on the fuel until he looks up at you and you see the whites of his eyes four inches away.' So that's what they did, and it worked."

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