Brabham BT46B Fan Car | Formula 1 | 1978
The Brabham BT46B was conceived and built to strike back at the dominant Lotus cars in the 1978 Formula 1 season. The Lotus cars introduced the concept of ground effects, in which engineers realized the air passing under the cars was as important as the air running over the car. If the air under the car was able to pass more smoothly underneath, the air would go through more quickly. Thus, the air pressure beneath the car would be lower than the pressure above it, allowing atmospheric pressure to further help to push the car down onto the track. With the increased downforce, the cars were able to corner much harder and faster, giving the cars an advantage. Dissimilar to more conventional front and rear wings the ground effects solution did not create more drag, allowing cars to maintain their high speeds on straights without additional horsepower. Needless to say, this was a very major discovery in the sport.
As half of Formula 1 is always a behind the scenes battle between team engineers and the rulemakers, the engineers are always looking for ways to get a couple steps ahead of both the other teams and the FIA. Designer Gordon Murray wanted to do just that for the Brabham team, and the BT46B was born. Murray was one of the first designers after Lotus to realize how important ground effects were but couldn’t do it in the same manner as the Lotus engineers. Lotus, using a sleek V8, was able to vastly reshape the bottom of the car around the engine to create a low pressure area under the car. However, due to the size and shape of the Alfa Romeo flat-12 used in the Brabhams, Murray would not be able to achieve the desired results with the same technique.
Instead, Murray took a genius jump outside the box. Since natural airflow alone wouldn’t work to improve downforce in his cars, Murray installed a giant fan to the rear of the car. The fan was connected to the car’s engine by clutches, and the engine bay of the car was sealed to create a low pressure zone under the car. As the fan was connected to to the engine itself, it was said that when drivers got on the throttle the car would visibly squat down on itself as the downforce increased.
The two Brabhams debuted in the eighth race of the 1978 season at the Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstorp. The Brabhams qualified second and third, behind Lotus driver Mario Andretti. In the race the Brabhams proved to be a success, however, the car driven by John Watson spun off on the 19th lap, taking him out of contention for a top spot in the race. The Brabham driven by Niki Lauda, however, powered past Andretti in his Lotus and ended up winning the race by over 30 seconds. Rival teams immediately protested and the heads of the other teams went after Brabham owner Bernie Ecclestone, who wanted to become president of the Formula One Constructors Association. To become president of the FOCA, Ecclestone would need their support and he made a deal with the FOCA to race the car a few more times before withdrawing the car from competition. However, the car was deemed illegal before it saw any more track time and Ecclestone, of course, complied without further argument. Ecclestone did go on to become president of the FOCA in 1978, and remains very involved in Formula 1 to this day.
The Brabham team returned to their original chassis design and never raced the Fan Cars in Formula 1 again, losing the 1978 season championship to Lotus. One of the brilliant Fan Cars can still be seen in action at the Goodwood Festival of Speed every so often.
(Sources: “The Secret Life of Formula 1,” Wikipedia, Jalopnik)