Amazon’s delivery of Pete Lyons’ excellent book on the shadow racing dynasty arrived the same weekend that I became aware of the ingenuity of the small McMurtry Automotive team and their incredible Speirling car which burst onto the hill climb course at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and set a new outright record in the process.
These two seemingly unrelated automotive strands are in fact intrinsically linked by the wonders of invention and the refusal to conform.
The tiny Speirling reminds me of Trevor Harris’ first design for Advanced Vehicle Systems (which later became Shadow) with its small wheels and powerful Chevrolet V8 engine somehow integrated into Harris’ wacky Can-Am design. Both were designed with a simple philosophy: small is better.
Images of Goodwood with people standing next to the Speirling illustrate the amazing proportions of this car and consider driver Max Chilton to be one of the greatest modern racing drivers I guess the car could be made even more small for a Lando Norris pilot.
Likewise, the man who funded Trevor Harris to produce the first Shadow Can-Am race car, Don Nicholls, towers over the DN1 in footage taken in 1970 of the AVS Mark 1’s first race. at Mosport Park.
And the similarities don’t end there. The McMurtry and Shadow projects were overseen and funded by eccentric, wealthy businessmen passionate about doing things differently and nonconformists.
David McMurtry is the Dublin-born executive chairman of Renishaw, the science engineering and technology company he co-founded in 1973, and he has chosen to dedicate some of his considerable wealth to the McMurtry Spéirling project.
The recently deceased Don Nicholls was probably a much more mysterious character than McMurtry, but again, before the internet, it was much easier to be. Don was rumored to have been a CIA agent at some point in his life and even an American spy, but one thing was certain: he had a great passion for cars and racing and, boy, did it show. .
Shadow went on to win Formula 1 and Can-Am, no small feat, and although McMurtry Automotive’s ultimate ambitions are a little less clear, what is certain is that the two brands share an innovative, limitless and daring approach to automotive design that, across more than five decades, continues to capture the public imagination.
The bizarre maverick design has this element of danger: will it fail miserably or has someone just found the key to unlocking potential never before imagined? And that’s precisely why we love them.
And that made me think. I have written before about the FIA financial regulations for Formula 1 and Formula E and if these prove effective – and please God hopefully they will for the economic sustainability of our sport – then surely we could welcome a golden era of innovation, advanced design concepts that will capture the imagination and excite racing fans everywhere?
You see, if financial regulations work as intended, much of the prescriptive rulemaking that results in nearly identical cars being produced by top motorsports manufacturers across multiple racing series could be abandoned with only safety / impact to be respected.
Imagine what Adrian Newey could produce without the chains? The design he produced digitally in 2010, the X1 Prototype, which was designed by Newey in conjunction with Gran Turismo creator Polyphony Digital for PlayStation, was widely acclaimed and gave us all a taste of freedom of design without constraint.
With a maximum amount of money to spend in a season and compliance with safety and impact regulations, race designers could produce whatever they want. Move aerodynamic devices? Bold ground effects with sliding skirts? Fan car technology – McMurtry proved at Goodwood how effective this can be – and fully active cars would all be allowed.
Who knows, Patrick Head, Gordon Murray and other design gurus might be tempted to play by these rules!
What David McMurtry and his team of talented engineers (and some of them are now released ex-F1 guys) have done is show the art of the possible.
Yes, the 1978 Brabham BT46B fan car was probably rightfully banned for safety reasons, but with today’s knowledge and understanding, the fan car concept should be embraced. Ditto mobile aerodynamic devices, active suspension etc.
Just because they were banned decades ago, why can’t we revisit these concepts with the wisdom of over decades of knowledge, wisdom, and material knowledge at our disposal?
Yes, I’ll admit my glasses are definitely tinted rose, but if we can successfully control overall expenses, we’ll have economically sustainable races and there’s no reason for the design engineers – for decades, the pariahs of the sport in the eyes of decision-makers – cannot be redeemed, encouraged to innovate and wow.
Amen to that, Don Nicholls and David McMurtry.