September 6, 2010

The unbearable price of lightness

Amazing document linked by a reader in the Jochen Rindt post: A letter from the Austrian driver to Colin Chapman in 1969, sometime after his accident at Montjuic where the high rear wing collapsed on his Lotus 49.


Not that much has changed at Lotus to this day, typical British way: brilliant engineering, crap build quality.
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  1. I'm going to take offence to your crap build quality remark, i dont think thats fair at all. British engineering has a fine history apart from the Rover k series IMO!

  2. British Leyland amongst others...

    Even in the WW2 Supermarine had to take control of the Spitfire factory because management and unions were running amok modifying parts and building shockingly shoody parts.

    Same goes for tank building, rifle manufacture, ammo and trucks. I mean, it's not like they were a mere Channel away from invasion.

    Anytime a company does something well, and starts earning serious money Investors, financiers, bankers and the goverment seem to conspire to rape the company, take the spoils, cut it's corpse to bits and ship it off to some other country...

  3. Fascinating letter that. Imagine what must have been going on in his (bruised) head.

    By the way, not sure the guys at Rolls Royce would agree with your remarks about British build quality.

  4. Rolls Royce had a hard hard time imposing quality and logic (more is not always better etc)... Just read the story of the Merlin and the crazy stuff the ministers and paper pushers forced upon them... and in the end they did a good ol' V12 (still got shafted with the Allison deal).

  5. I am also taking offence about alleged "British Poor Quality"! Just take a look at my 1968 Singer Gazelle if that is not quality, tell me what is!... ;)

  6. I really can't agree with the assessments. After all, the facts don't support it.

    The 1969 Lotus F1 team had far better build quality then the Ferrari team. To this day if an F1 team wants to be successful they use British engineers (Ross Brawn), mechanics and are typically located in England regardless of the team's nationality. I'm not British, but if anyone thinks F1 they aren't the primary driving force and brains behind F1 than they've been asleep for the past 50 years. Just look at the main engineers, etc., at all the major teams since the 1960's right up to today. All this other noise is just that - noise.

    Rindt was a driver, not a mechanic or an engineer.

    These things can't be taken out of perspective. This was a time when it was typical for ~50% of the field to retire during the race due to equipment failures.

    Rindt only finished 40% of the races he started that year. His team-mate Graham Hill (with the same equipment) finished 70% of his races that year. Rindt's retirement rate was actually far worse with his previous teams than with Lotus. The previous year with Brabham he finished 2 races and retired from 10. The year before that, with Cooper he finished 2 and retired from 8.

    At that race, Lotus was using the new high-wing which did fail (for both Rindt and Hill) but there wasn't any other way of testing back then. These failures were also more common for other teams than they were for Lotus, but as I said above, all had poor reliability then.

    The two seasons Rindt spent with Lotus were by far his most successful back-to-back years. After a career where he finished between 11th and 13th except for his 3rd place in 1966, he finished 4th in 1969 and 1st in 1970. His tragic death was caused by "poorly installed crash barriers" from a crash caused by an equipment failure.

    But as I said these things must be put into perspective. Lotus was the dominant F1 team in both the 60's and the 70's. They won more and had fewer failures than the other teams at a time when failures were all too common and driver safety was all too scarce.

    We're all better off for the progress that has been made on both fronts.

  7. @Alan, good point about the reliability of cars of the period but if you look most of those were Engine and transmission failures. Remember that a key difference in Chapman's designs compared to say, Coopers, was precisely the heft of components.

    Now about "the guard rail killing Rindt" I'm sorry but that just like saying physics killed him. The guard rail did not make his car front halfshaft (the 72 had inboard brakes) fail. For that matter Rindt would not, probably like many of the era, wear crotch straps and he submarined on impact.

    But you are right, it too 30+ years but now a crash like Ridnt's would simply mean some extra work for the mechanics overnight.

    As for the racing industry being all brits... really? you can't think of any succesfull designers and suppliers from the USA, Italy, France Japan, Germany, South Africa?

    And guys...c'mon none of you guys owned an Elise or an Exige? I rest my case....those things are great but they make Ferrari's look like Porsches in reliability! :)

  8. What I said before applies to "big" companies. Smaller companies that can stay out of the terrible circle of death of shareholder who don't give a shit about anything but the botomline (read as city people who could not build a Duplo 0/3 set)...
    Smaller companies, notably F1 teams and their suppliers, high end audio products, supercar in shed builders etc... Tend to prove the goverment and the banking sector that world class products can be built in England at a competitive price.
    I just took appart a Sturmey Archer hub from 1976, and the build quality on that - never oiled since production - piece of metal is outstanding. But it was sunk by "investors" who took over world class company, sold the assets, unloaded the workers to please the shareholders and sold the corpse to Sunn of South Korea - typical.

  9. Eery Letter to read given the circumstances.

    As for Chapman's cars - reliability and "light" materials made his cars particularly delicate. Hell, Frank Williams was nearly prosecuted for the death of Senna in Italy.

    Watch the clip below - Sterling Moss and a smattering of others who would know - about Chapman's concerns over safety vs. design - start watching about 5 to 6 minutes into this clip.

  10. The link actually discusses Rindt's death and how Chapman's build quality and lightness of the car killed Rindt.


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