Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The legality of Brabham's 1983 World Championship

A couple of recent pieces in the motorsport press have raised separate issues over the legality of the Brabham-BMW which won the 1983 World Drivers' Championship in the hands of Nelson Piquet. Gary Watkins's Autosport article re-considered the exotic, ex-Luftwaffe fuel brew used by BMW in the latter stages of the season, while Mike Doodson's Motorsport article elicited the following admission from then-Chief Mechanic Charlie Whiting that, "All I will say is that we always, um, attempted to make the car as light as possible."

Indeed, and not just in qualifying it seems, for Gordon Murray rather gave the game away earlier this year with the following comment:

"Whenever we planned to stop - we could go without on street circuits - we tended to do 60-70 per cent of the race on the first set of tyres because that meant we could run very close to, or under, the minimum limit before adjusting the weight with the amount of fuel we put in," (Motorsport, May 2013, p86).

That's a pretty unambiguous admission that the Brabhams ran under the legal weight limit in many 1983 Grands Prix, and used fuel-weight as ballast. If you go through the races in 1983 you'll see that Piquet's Brabham was almost always the last of the leading runners to pit for fuel, and that he sometimes pitted 5-10 laps or so after the Ferraris and Renaults, his championship competitors. At Hockenheim, for example, Prost's Renault stopped on lap 20, while Piquet stopped on lap 30.

Why would Brabham want to stop after everyone else? Well, in the era of refuelling, a car on empty tanks and worn tyres was generally faster than a car which was fuelled-up on fresh tyres. Moreover, in 1983 the Ferraris were shod with bias-ply Goodyear tyres, and thereby tended to suffer greater tyre warm-up difficulties than the Michelin-tyred Brabham. Thus, it was in this 5-10 lap window that the Brabham would often make hay.

At Spa, Tambay's Ferrari was running ahead of Piquet until stopping on lap 21; Piquet stopped on lap 24, and jumped ahead of the Ferrari, forcing Tambay to re-pass some laps later. Similarly, at the Osterreichring, leader Arnoux's Ferrari stopped on lap 28, Piquet on lap 31, after which Piquet emerged ahead, forcing Arnoux to re-pass some laps later.

So why, then, wouldn't everyone schedule their pit-stops at 3/4 distance? Well, that extra fuel-weight costs lap-time, and it costs you lap-time on each and every lap that you carry the extra weight around on your back. If you started a race with about 20kg of extra fuel, that would cost you about 0.6seconds of lap-time, which over 30 laps would mount up to a very substantial 18 seconds or so.

However, if your car was 20kg beneath the legal weight limit when drained of fuel, you could start the race at the same weight as your competitors, but with the ability to run 5 laps or so further. You would suffer no disadvantage in the early stages of the race, and you would also be able to jump ahead of your competitors by running longer. Perfect.

In fact, just about the only time Piquet didn't run long was in the final race at Kyalami, when he shot off into the distance on a light fuel load, pitting on lap 28 of 77, able to resume without having lost the lead. It's possible that the Brabham started the race over the legal weight limit, but was running underweight for a significant portion of this stint. Moreover, in the late stages of the race Piquet slowed considerably, sacrificing what appeared to be an easy victory. Contrary to the explanation given on the day, that Piquet was merely trying to ensure the reliability of his car, he might also have been minimising fuel consumption to ensure the car was actually over the legal weight limit at the end of the race!


evilquinn said...

As ever, a beautiful piece. Very interesting. I've a side question about rules enforcement: Is it the case (now, and then) that a car is legal if (and only if) it passes all the FIA tests that determine legallity? Such that even if a car is suspected to be underweight during a race, is it guaranteed to be legal if it passes weight tests before race (in parc ferme) and after the race? Or might it be the case that a car could be considered illegal even if it passed all tests?
I hope the question is clear!

Gordon McCabe said...

Cheers Niall.

Taking a step back from motorsport, an illegal activity is illegal irrespective of whether the perpetrator is apprehended, prosecuted and convicted of illegality!

Within motorsport, it's a confused issue. If I recall, there's a clause within the regulations which states that it's the competitor's responsibility to demonstrate to the FIA that the car is legal at all times, over and above passing all the scrutineering tests. The enforcement of this regulation, however, is cloudy, to say the very least.

Unknown said...

Hello Professor McCabe,

I just want to ask why turbulence is bad for downforce on Formula 1 cars ?
I have not had a chance yet to find out why turbulence causes a losa downforce from front wing and underbody ? Does turbulence affect downforce from flat portion of floor or only the diffuser performance ?
Why is smooth laminar flow better ?

Kind regards,


Gordon McCabe said...

I think the random fluctuations in the velocity field have a tendency to cause boundary layers to detach from the surface of wings and diffusers. So the higher the intensity of the turbulence, the greater the propensity for a wing or diffuser to stall.

Unknown said...

As this piece is linked nicely with your paper on Aerodynamics I would like to thank you for allowing a glimpse into the subject of CFD. I hope to make some use of your work as I am about to design a Formula Ford car for my CAD design portfolio.

Physics and cars, these are a few of my favourite things.

Many thanks
Bonnie Scotland

Gordon McCabe said...

Cheers Paul. Happy extruding!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gordon McCabe said...