Top ten greatest Formula 1 designers (Part one)

Top ten

Guest writer Tim Ferrone chooses ten of the greatest Formula 1 designers of all time. Here’s the first five.

The role of the designer in Formula 1 has changed over the years, but it has always been vitally important.

In the early days of the world championship designers thought up entire cars from scratch – sometimes including the engine.

Today the top designers are one element in vast teams with considerable resources. But while the individual components of a car are subject to rigorous development by specialists of great expertise, there remains the need for a single designer who has the vision to decide on a development direction.

They are the king-makers. While the drivers command the most attention, it’s the designers give them their tools to get the job done in the first place. Here are ten of the greatest of them all.

10. Gerard Ducarouge

Ducarouge?s top flight career reached dizzying heights very quickly with the title winning Matra MS80 of 1969. Driven by Jackie Stewart, the car was one of the first to feature downforce-inducing wings with the purpose of increasing cornering speeds by using the passage of airflow to force the car down onto the circuit

He oversaw a hat trick of Le Mans wins prior to Matra?s withdrawal from motorsport. The company was bought out by Guy Ligier at the end of 1974, taking its designer with it. The new team hit the ground running, delivering its first win at Sweden in 1977.

The following year?s car, the JS9, was effectively designed as one giant wing. Its 1979 successor, the JS11, was a serious title contnder. Taking several early-season victories, it was only when Ferrari introduced the 312T4 chassis that Ligier fell behind in the development race and out of title contention.

After a brief spell at Alfa Romeo followed Ducarouge joined Lotus, and quickly turned around the fortunes of a team that was is disarray following the death of foudner Colin Chapman. Ducarouge’s much improved design began to restore the team to something approaching its former glory in the second half of 1983. His new 94T was, incredibly, turned around in just five weeks, and proved competitive from the outset.

The following season?s car was good enough for Elio de Angelis to end the year third behind the all-conquering McLaren drivers.

In 1985 the 97T was a regular contender for victory, particularly in the hands of Ayrton Senna. It featured another Ducarouge innovation, barge boards, designed to direct airflow more effectively around the car?s rear. It took eight pole positions but ultimately fell out of title contention through poor reliability.

Ayrton Senna, Lotus-Honda 99T, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, 1987Much the same was true in the following two seasons. The 99T raced in 1987 was featured an early computer-controlled active suspension system.

It was relatively successful at smoothing out pitch and roll and maintaining the car?s consistent ride height, but suffered from extra weight which hampered performance. But Senna won around the slow Monaco and Detroit courses, giving the technology its first victories.

A disappointing campaign in 1988 saw Ducarouge return to his native France with the newly-formed Larrousse team, and eventually back to Ligier, but he was unable to make a significant difference to the respective team?s fortunes.

He eventually retired from the world of Formula 1 midway through the 1994 season, bringing to an end a successful career at the very pinnacle of Grand Prix racing.

9. Owen Maddock

Owen Maddock

Rear-engined racing cars had been seen long before Maddock’s Coopers of the late fifties – notably the pre-war Auto Unions.

But Maddock’s refinement of the concept marked a watershed moment in the sport. Very soon the rear-engined refuseniks – chief among them Enzo Ferrari – were forced to bow to the inevitable relocation of the motor behind the drivers. And it’s been that way ever since.

Maddock joined the newly-formed Cooper Car Company in 1948, starting out as a fitter. It became clear very quickly that his was a mind with much more to offer, and his role increasingly began to use his training as a draughtsman. It wasn?t long before his skills in this area were formally recognised with a permanent role as Cooper?s chief designer, encompassing the design of a vast array of sports cars and single seaters.

His first significant breakthrough came in 1954 when, with the encouragement of Charlie Cooper, he introduced bent chassis tubes throughout the car?s frame. This went against the thinking of the time – using curved tubes allowed the chassis to better match the shape of the car?s body, removing the need for additional supports and resulting in a much smaller and lighter end product.

But Maddock’s rear-engined cars were the game-changers. Stirling Moss took the first F1 victory for a rear-engined car at Argentina in 1958. His Cooper T43, which featured another Maddock hallmark, leaf-spring suspension.

Jack Brabham used the T51 and T53 to win the drivers’ championship in 1959 and 1960 while Cooper cleaned up in the constructors’ championship. The second season was a year of dominance for Cooper, the T53 enhanced by Maddock?s super-reliable C5S racing gearbox which addressed the previous car?s one major shortcoming.

However a change of engine regulations the following season, followed by the departure of Brabham, with whom Maddock had formed a brilliant developmental partnership, pitched the Cooper team into a slow decline from which it would never recover. Feeling trapped within the confines of the drawing office, and excited by the development of hovercraft technology, Maddock left top flight motorsport, albeit he continued to freelance for Bruce McLaren?s fledgling new team in the sixties.

Included here not just for his far-sighted capacity for design, but also for being the driving force behind the rear-engined revolution, there can be no doubting Maddock?s importance to the development of Formula 1, or his contribution to the success of a once great British motor racing institution.

8. Harvey Postlethwaite


Harvey Postlethwaite’s emergence as a top F1 designer began with the Hesketh team. Sporting unusual but efficient rubber spring suspension, his 308 beat the might of Ferrari and Niki Lauda to victory in the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix

A move to the Wolf team in 1977 saw his brand-new WR01 secure victory first time out, and eventually allowed Jody Scheckter to finish as runner up in the drivers’ championship (the single-car team was a distant fourth in the constructors’).

Following hot on the heels of Colin Chapman’s Lotus team, Postlethwaite was among the first to harness the potential of sliding skirts/ground effect with the 1978 Wolf. His next car, the WR7, featured a sleek monocoque construction that eliminated the weak joints of previous fabricated designs.

His progress brought him to the attention of Ferrari, whose aerodynamic shortcomings were increasingly holding the team back.

Postlethwaite’s first car for them, the 126C2, transformed the team’s fortunes. From finishing a lowly fifth in the constructors’ championship in 1981, the team won the title the title the following year.

Tragically, Gilles Villeneuve was killed driving the car at Zolder and team mate Didier Pironi suffered career-ending injuries at the Hockenheimring.

Although the team were constructors’ champions again in 1983, the new driver line-up of Rene Arnoux and Patrick Tambay fell short in the drivers’ title race.

More victories followed in the mid-eighties but Ferrari fell short of the standard set by McLaren and Williams. Postlethwaite returned to designing cars for smaller teams, joining Tyrrell.

Many of his design principles remain fundamental to modern F1 racing. His high-nosed Tyrell 019 literally changed the face of F1 cars, demonstrating the value of maximising airflow under the car.

Some of his most creative developments came when budgets were at their tightest, including hydrolink hydraulic passive suspension, the pneumatic semi-automatic gearbox and the infamous X wings – the latter originally crafted from surplus carbon fibre as a quick means of adding downforce in an area not proscribed by the rules.

Postelthwaite earns his place on this list bot just for his championship-winning years with Ferrari, but also his capacity to maximise often minimal resources.

7. Vittorio Jano

Vittorio Jano, the tragic of a master

Vittorio Jano was born before the turn of the 20th century and, like many drivers born around the same time, missed several years of competition due to the war years.

After the First World War he began working for Fiat. Alfa Romeo, seeking to use motor sport as a promotional platform for their production cars, were quick to sign him up. Tasked with creating a winning race car from scratch, Jano did just that. His P2 took victory in its first race, as well as winning at the Grand Prix of Europe in 1923.

He went on to design the first true single seater racing car, the P3 Monoposto, which also took victory first time out at the Italian Grand Prix of 1932. It was a pioneering design, light in weight, and allowed the driver to sit much lower in the cockpit due to the use of twin driveshafts to drive the rear wheels.

This was followed by a move to Lancia shortly after the death of Vicenzo Lancia in 1937. After the Second World War, Jano created the Lancia D50 which first raced in 1954

Lancia D50, 1955The D50 was another pioneering design. The light chassis featured an engine mounted at twelve degrees in order to reduce the frontal area of the car. This allowed the driver to be seated even lower.

It was the first car to use the engine as a partially-stressed member. Weight distribution was optimised by situating the fuel tanks were situated either side of the cockpit, in between the front and rear wheels. The car qualified a full second quicker than Juan Manuel Fangio’s hitherto all-conquering Mercedes on its debut in the 1954 season finale, but failed to finish the race.

The death of Alberto Ascari in the middle of 1955, and Lancia’s financial trouble, threatened to rob the car of its promised Grand Prix successes. But Ferrari purchased the cars for 1956 and it was raced to the title by Fangio, the team winning five of that year?s eight races.

Working alongside Carlo Chiti, Jano?s final championship came via the 1958 Ferrari 246, which proved to be the last front-engined car to win a Grand Prix, but more significantly was the first to feature a V6 engine. In fact, with much encouragement from Dino Ferrari, Jano was the key player in the development of Ferrari’s V6 and V8 engines.

Tragically, Jano took his own life in 1965 after falling seriously ill, and following the death of his son earlier that year. It was a sad end to the life of a man whose racing creations often enjoyed instant success.

6. Gordon Murray

Gordon MurrayAs is the case for several of the names on this list, Gordon Murray?s lifelong interest in vehicles and motorsport can be traced back to a little racing in the blood.

His father raced motorbikes and latterly had involvement in the preparation of racing cars in their native Durban, so it was a logical step when Gordon went on to study mechanical engineering at Natal Technical College. Initially a driver in the South African National Class, he actually built and raced his own IGM Ford car during 1967 and 1968, before moving to Britain in the hope that he could find employment with Lotus.

A chance meeting with Ron Tauranac led instead to an offer to join Brabham as a draughtsman. Within two years, the arrival of Bernie Ecclestone as team boss saw Murray promoted to the role of chief designer.

It was clear from the outset that Murray sought to gain advantage through innovation. The BT42 he designed for the 1973 season featured an extraordinary triangular cross section, and proved relatively successful. It also boosted Murray?s confidence in his own methodology.

This reluctance to follow the crowd was an approach that was to point the way for the rest of his career. Seeking a competitive edge, the thought process behind Murray?s free-thinking was simple; rather than approaching car design as having done it hundreds of times previously, it would be beneficial to approach from afresh, as if doing so for the first time. With that mindset, Murray was able to conceive new ideas, rather than follow perceived conventional wisdom.

The results of this approach were numerous, and often controversial. The BT46B of 1978 won the Swedish Grand Prix largely thanks to the enormous fan mounted at the car’s rear. Though it did have some cooling purposes its primary function was to suck the car to the ground, creating an even more powerful version of the ground effect pioneered by rivals Lotus. Devastatingly effective, as a ‘moveable aerodynamic part’ it was quickly deemed illegal and never raced again in the same form.

Concerned about increased cornering speeds, the 1981 regulations sought to outlaw ground effect by mandating a minimum 6cm gap between floor and car, and forbidding any driver operated aids to reduce the gap when the car was in motion.

It was Murray who spotted that the authorities could only measure the car when stationary, and that they would have to allow some degree of flexibility on this rule when the car was in motion due to the natural pitch and role experienced during cornering and breaking. He therefore devised an ingenious use of hydro-pneumatic suspension struts for each wheel. As the BT49C accelerated, hydraulic fluid was gradually pushed out of the struts, lowering the car ride height, recreating the ground effect the rule-makers had strived to ban. As the car decelerated at the end of a session or race, the fluid slowly returned into the struts, thus returning the car?s height to the regulated 6mm height.

It was a brilliant example of exploiting the wording of the regulations, rather than their actual intention, and helped deliver Nelson Piquet’s first world championship.

Murray also had a hand in improving electronically delivered information to drivers, carbon fibre brake discs, and even an air-jacking system that was built into the car, designed to accelerate tyre changes. In 1983 his devastatingly effective BT52 was produced in a hurry following the final banning of ground-effect, and took advantage of the rise of in-race refuelling to produce a compact and powerful car which made Piquet a champion again.

At times Murray’s radical thinking led him down the wrong path. The BT55 of 1986 was conceived with the aim of reducing frontal cross-section and getting as much clean airflow to the rear wing as possible. However its BMW engine could not be made to work in this ‘lowline’ configuration, and the car never reached its potential. Worse, Elio de Angelis lost his life in a crash while testing it at Paul Ricard in 1986.

McLaren-Honda MP4/4, 1988As Ecclestone’s interest in his Brabham team waned Murray moved to McLaren. Here he revived the lowline concept to devastating effect with the MP4-4. Perhaps the most dominant F1 car ever built, it won 15 wins from 16 races in 1988.

Drivers’ and constructors’ titles again followed in ?89, but Murray had grown bored and frustrated with the increasingly restrictive design regulations. Rather than risk losing him to another team, Ron Dennis instead sanctioned Murray?s pet project of designing the world?s quickest road-going super car, heading-up McLaren Cars.

The result was the ground-breaking and hugely admired McLaren F1, proving that Murray?s eye for design was as finely-tuned in the field of road going cars as much as in the competitive sporting environment. The car won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1995.

Murray continues to work in the field of road car development. His consultancy company Gordon Murray Design has created the light and compact T.25 city car.

The second part of this feature will be published on Monday. You can also follow Tim Ferrone on Twitter.

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79 comments on Top ten greatest Formula 1 designers (Part one)

  1. Chalky (@chalky) said on 15th June 2012, 15:07

    @tim-ferrone Great article.

    were quick to sing him up

    needs to be “sign him up”. Unless they went round and serenaded him? :D

  2. Sasquatsch (@sasquatsch) said on 15th June 2012, 15:58

    I am under the impression that Steve Nichols was the designer of the McLaren MP 4-4. Although Gordon Murray worked at Mclaren at that time, as far as I know he designed only road cars for McLaren. Off course I could be wrong. :)

    Other designers that deserve (imho) a spot in the top 10 are:
    Gordon Coppuck (’70s McLaren cars), Derek Gardner (Tyrrell 6-wheeler), Gioacchino Colombo (Maserati 250F) and off course John Barnard, Patrick Head, Colin Chapman and Rory Byrne.

    And probably some others that I don’t remember at this time.

  3. Max Jacobson (@vettel1) said on 15th June 2012, 16:32

    Number one for sure has to be Colin Chapman for all the major innovations he has brought to F1. I imagine Adrian Newey will also be rated highly, along with Patrick Head for the Williams’ of the early-mid ’90’s, which were some of the most dominant cars in the history of F1.

  4. xjr15jaaag (@xjr15jaaag) said on 15th June 2012, 16:41

    I know he diddn’t design cars, but keith Duckworth designed the Ford DFV, and I think that engine won something like 170 GPs,a nd was in service from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s
    (please correct me if I’m wrong)

    • dkpioe said on 17th June 2012, 17:00

      nice point. in previous years in f1, the engine could make a race winning car, while better designed cars with worse engine often did not win.

  5. Mariano (@mariano) said on 15th June 2012, 20:15

    I was aware of Vittorio Jano’s designing skills but didn’t know about his tragic end. Very sad indeed.

    In my opinion Owen Maddock was a superb designer pioneering in an era which F1 was heading towards a major transformation that still lasts until the present days.

    Thanks for the good work Tim.

  6. jihelle (@jihelle) said on 15th June 2012, 22:35

    Why post a picture of Dudot and Larousse during their Renault years to illustrate the piece about Ducarouge ? Weird.
    And Gordon Murray not making the top five ? You must be joking. This guy is a true genius. Will Southgate make it ?

  7. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 16th June 2012, 18:51

    Good idea for an article, really enjoyed reading that, thanks! It’s a shame that most of this information won’t stick in my head (due to the vast quantity of information) but I’m gonna be getting more and more into the technical side of F1 through various books and things so I’m sure many of these names will pop up :)

  8. Paul Kirk said on 18th June 2012, 1:41

    I notice that most people posting here seem to assume that it is the designer’s fault if the car fails/breaks something/is unreliable, etc., but as I see it there are many other people involved in the production/assembly of a car who could be responsible for unreliability. EG Neway probobly didn’t personally lay up the McLaren chassis that kept cracking, so can he really be blamed for it’s unreliability?

  9. Tomakko (@tomakko) said on 18th June 2012, 8:11

    Great article! Can not wait for the second part.
    Does anyone of you guys knows a good book about the history of Cooper and/or Jack Brabham?
    I would really like to know more about the team and Maddock in particular.

  10. Fanny McGuigen said on 7th July 2012, 16:14

    Colin Chapman….the greatest car designer? The guy should have been persecuted on, knowingly how unsafe his cars were. He cared more about speed than the life’s of his drivers RIP Jim Clark

  11. Nick Skeens said on 10th July 2013, 14:04

    How this top ten list could have left out John Barnard is a total mystery to me.

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