When Gordon Murray failed

The man who designed some of the wildest and most successful Formula One cars of all time, as well as the McLaren F1, is indeed something of a prophet of clever aerodynamics. But when this picture was taken, at the 1986 Spanish Grand Prix, Murray’s latest radical design sucked big time. It was also the way to the future.

The BT55 was Gordon Murray’s last car for Brabham, following in the footsteps of the crazy, fan-powered BT46B, and Nelson Piquet’s title-winning BT49 and BT52.

The problem was the BMW engine powering the Brabhams. It was a tall engine, and it interfered with airflow to the rear wing. To design his way around the problem, Murray reached back to the 1950s, to cars like the Mercedes–Benz W196 and Colin Chapman’s Lotus 16.

What these cars had in common was that their engines were tilted around their longitudinal axes to reduce frontal area, which in turn reduced aerodynamic drag. BMW supplied Brabham with a special version of their M12 turbocharged Formula One engine, tilted an incredible 18° to the side. This allowed Murray to design a car that reached no higher than the middle of one’s shin, the engine cover behind the cockpit one low, flat surface.

When Gordon Murray failedS

The layout did deliver clean airflow to the rear wing, increasing downforce. What it also did was increase drag in a major way and unbalance the car. That, combined with the Byzantine reliability issues introduced by the engine’s weird tilt, meant that the BT55 was no less than a complete failure. In 16 races, it finished in the points two times, for an end-season total of two points.

Murray left Brabham at the end of 1986 and was hired by Ron Dennis to be McLaren’s technical director. His first car for his new team—the 1988 McLaren MP4/4, designed with the American engineer Steve Nichols—was an evolution of the BT55, but it was a rather different story in terms of success. Driven by Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, the car won 15 out of 16 races, the most dominant display of performance in the history of the sport.

So perhaps Gordon Murray really is god. It’s just that gods need their sweet time. Take the Book of Genesis: fruit-bearing trees weren’t dotting the landscape until day three.

Photography by Mike King/Getty Images (Brabham BT55) and TVE Spanish Television Service (screenshot of Murray).