Thursday 20 August 2015

The Arrows A2, and why it's in my F1 Dream Team

For how long did we all bemoan that F1 - as in the sport centrally - simply didn't get the new media? Or 'didn't get' it as in it almost totally ignored it? But in recent months it seems that F1, even F1, has learned, with it partaking in much greater activity on Twitter and the like.

And that isn't a dream. Although, in a certain particular recent sense, it is. With considerable novelty the F1 official Twitter account asked a few of the sport's luminaries, along with the rest of us, to name their own 'F1 Dream Team'. That is their dream car, team principal and driver pairing combination from the sport's history. And no, I couldn't resist it either. Dutifully I rattled the team of my dreams off. And whatever else you might think of it surely it gets something for originality.

The striking Arrows A2
"Arrows A2 1" by MPW57 - Own work. Licensed under CC
BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.
For me the starting point, the car for my dream team, was the Arrows A2. Now if you have a blank expression at this I can offer you the reassurance that you probably wouldn't be the only one. It's not a car that can be described as a classic by any of the standard measures. Not on the grounds of results - it only scored two points ever from two rather distant sixth place finishes. Nor on the grounds of longevity - it only was around for half a season, and in almost all of that period was merely serving time in a sort of F1 purgatory as the team, who'd long since lost faith, worked on its replacement. But is a car that has always fascinated me.

Mainly on the grounds of its striking looks. I think it first got my attention when watching the footage of that famous last-race scrap between Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux in the 1979 French GP at Dijon. Of course it takes rather a lot to crowbar your attention away from that frenzied battle but on the final lap two cars can be seen up the track from them. As all head downhill to Dijon's first turn our viewpoint is of them at their full width, looking scarcely like any F1 machine as we know it. Indeed they may bring to mind instead some kind of unknown sea creature descending upon us. Really, even in an era known for its distinctive designs the Arrows A2 cannot be mistaken for anything else seen at the time, prior or since.

The A2 if low and squat from the front from the side was rather like a bullet, albeit with sidepods. And at the point of the French race it was, as nature intended, completely without front or rear wings, emphasising not only its status as something apparently from another world but also ensuring it had beautiful clean lines. Even nearing four decades on it to the modern eye still has the look of a racing car of the future. Even its livery leant to it - resplendent in gold Warsteiner colours.

Yet what I think attracts me most to the A2 is its sheer ambition. It was Arrows' attempt to conquer F1 in a single strike; to clean leap ahead of all others with bold aerodynamic discovery. The sort that as we know seems near impossible today. While you can certainly fault the machine in terms of bottom line of results you absolutely cannot fault it for the initiative, aspiration and spirit it represented.

The famous Villeneuve-Arnoux battle, with a couple of A2s ahead

The ground effect, or the 'wing car', arrived with a vengeance with the Lotuses 78 and 79 competing in the 1977 and 1978 seasons respectively, which featured shaped undersides of tunnels in the sidepods to act in effect like wings, giving massive increases in downforce with little drag penalty. The latter Lotus featured also sliding skirts to seal the low pressure 'suck' in and it creamed that year, meaning that for 1979 ground effect was de rigueur. But even then it was clear too that the ground effect was not merely a mod con to be bolted onto a car but a whole new science to be explored as well as one in which much was unknown, even it seemed among a few of those that appeared to be doing well out of it at that given moment.

The Arrows team had a designer by the name of Tony Southgate, and as a boon he had been integral to the development of the ground effect when at Lotus in 1976 and 1977. And for the Arrows A2 to be introduced midway through the 1979 season he had an idea. The theory was to take the ground effect to the next level by exploiting much more of the car's underside to that end. The underwings were extended through the rear suspension so that they stretched the entire length of the car. The additional downforce would have a compound benefit he theorised of allowing the car to the lose front and rear wings, thus trimming the car out.

And it started with great promise. "Tony made a quarter-scale model early in 1979 and tested it in the windtunnel" said the Arrows' team principal at the time Jackie Oliver. "The results were spectacular. The car produced three to four times more downforce than we had ever been able to achieve before."

But even so Southgate wasn't done. Seeking to shape the full width of the underfloor aerodynamically he took the radical step of setting the engine and gearbox at an angle so to fit the shape better, meaning the gearbox end plate was three inches higher than normal. "He inclined the engine and gearbox so they sat lower", said Oliver. "This improved the airflow under the car and created even more downforce."

Arrows' debut year was encouraging, but with difficulties
"Riccardo Patrese 1979 Imola" by Gilberto Benni from Bologna,
Italia - Riccardo Patrese - Arrows Imola 1979. Licensed under CC
 BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia
The potential seemed boundless and word emerged from Arrows of a 'revolutionary design' and a 'massive leap forward' to be set upon its rivals. But Southgate's apparently insatiable chasing of downforce instead backfired. The tilted engine and gearbox also raised the car's centre of gravity with negative consequences for its handling, especially at low speed. Compounding this problem is that the chassis had to be heavily reinforced to cope with all the downforce it created, which added to the weight and therefore to the centre of gravity problems. And in the proof of the pudding when the A2 ran in a Grand Prix weekend, in that one in Dijon mentioned, it was nowhere on pace. Southgate had made the mistake of overreaching.

Perhaps a generation earlier when most F1 tracks were flowing something like that might still have worked (maybe it wasn't a coincidence that the car's best qualifying result was at the sweeping Osterreichring, when it started 13th) but even by the late 1970s most circuits had at least one chicane added.

There were further problems too. The A2 and other cars that aimed to exploit a similar concept of using the entire length of the car for ground effect all had a similar problem, with the term 'porpoising' entering the F1 lexicon. The term was taken from the motion of a porpoise diving into and out of the sea at speed, and gave an indication of what its manifestation was. It reflected that these cars' downforce while considerable also was hard to control and would move around under the car; alternately sucking the car to the ground and then releasing causing it to have something of a kangaroo motion on the straights as well as to be utterly unbalanced in the corners.

As Brabham's Gordon Murray, who tried something like it for the 1979 season with the BT48, explained: "We didn't understand centre of pressure...Any dynamic input - acceleration, braking or cornering - simply upset the whole thing and the centre of pressure went rocketing up and down the car two or three feet one way or the other!" Murray indeed identified the problem as early as in practice for the BT48's first race and ripped off the offending aerodynamic parts pronto (though not before Niki Lauda had nearly somersaulted his machine when its two front wheels left the ground at speed...). The similarly-aimed Lotus 80 also was abandoned before long too. In 1982 Ligier also produced something like it, but it was no more successful.

The much more standard Arrows A3
"Arrows A3 at Silverstone Classic 2012" by David Merrett
from Daventry, England - FlickrUploaded by Sporti.
Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
It all showed the difference between theory and practice. Or rather between simulation and reality. Essentially Southgate with the A2 had chased aerodynamic downforce to such an extreme that it was to the expense of various other things, and paid the price. The way to go, as demonstrated by Patrick Head at Williams and Gordon Murray at Brabham, was to leave the basic sidepod tunnels concept in place and make incremental changes in areas such as chassis stiffness.

Which brings us neatly onto the additional poignancy of the Arrows A2. The 'ground effect' era in F1 in the late 1970s and early 1980s was associated with a grand shuffle of F1's established order. As intimated it became a vital and largely unknown science that some got right and others spectacularly wrong - with as mentioned designers not often understanding why - and the reverberations to the competitive order were such that almost overnight famous teams became also-rans and vice versa. Even after the ground effect's banning the shake up was still felt; Lotus (ironically) indeed was never again to be a true pace-setter while McLaren, even Ferrari, had time in the doldrums during this period. While some teams, quintessentially Williams, rocketed from almost nowhere to be set up as a front runner for years.

And the abortive take off of the Arrows A2 feels a lot like a sliding doors moment, as had the A2 worked it could have been Arrows that was the one dominating instead. The parallels indeed between Williams and Arrows at the end of the 1978 campaign were plenty; underlining as much in that season the two teams finished level on points in the constructors' table with 11 each. Both debuted that year (albeit in Frank Williams' case it was far from his first effort in F1, though neither was it for Arrows in effect given it was formed from a mass walkout of senior figures from the Shadow team). Both were impressive too and could have won a race or two with luck. Indeed Riccardo Patrese led Arrows' second Grand Prix easily only for the engine to fail late on (Southgate reckons Riccardo was a bit spendthrift with the revs). He also was the first home in Sweden after the notorious but victorious Brabham 'fan car'.

Yet even in 1978 there were a few portents of the rather ill-starred nature that Arrows was never to shake. The team endured and then lost an unseemly chassis plagiarism legal case with Shadow, Patrese was forced to sit out a race at the behest of a group of senior drivers unhappy with his driving tactics and tragically the team's signed number one pilot Gunnar Nilsson never drove for it due to cancer that turned out to be terminal. And at almost the exact moment that the A2 floundered Williams with its classic FW07 was suddenly thrust into being a routine winner.

For 1980 Arrows - having lost its appetite for radicalism it seemed - produced the A3 which a few admitted was essentially an aping of the FW07. It was more competitive than the A2 of course but such was its concept it never was going to lead the way.

The legendary Colin Chapman
By Joost Evers / Anefo; (Nationaal Archief)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (
licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
But Arrows pilot Jochen Mass for one reckoned there was potential in the A2, or at least the team was too quick to abandon it. "Arrows didn't allow enough time to develop the A2" said Mass. "You know what it's like in Formula 1 - if it doesn't work immediately, throw it away and start again." It was said elsewhere that Oliver ordered a halt to production of the A2 after a mere two days of testing.

"What I never got used to was the appalling handling" Mass went on. "The car had lots of downforce, but it wasn't sprung at all hard enough". Some reckon the Lotus 80 was sprung several times more stiffly.

Did it have potential? Certainly it would have benefited from more stiff springs. No doubt it would have benefited from the greater knowledge of centres of pressure and ground effect more generally that was to come in future years. But the high centre of gravity would have been hard to overcome. Perhaps though an Arrows A2 B spec could have fixed that?

Which is where my dream team's team principal comes in, the one that by extension would be best placed to fix the A2's problems and mould it into a race winner. Of course when thinking of a team principal from the sport's history who also is a technical brain, and more to the point loves sorting cars as well as has an appetite for the unconventional, really one is narrowed down to a single candidate. Colin Chapman.

Indeed the words of Southgate himself said on a recent Motorsport magazine podcast of his experience alongside Chapman rather captured this. "For me he was the greatest British designer by far, even now" said Southgate. "I'm not talking about winning races like [Adrian] Newey wins all the went to Lotus and there cars would change dramatically...that's how Chapman liked it, he didn't like an ordinary car, he hated a car that looked very ordinary. I remember when the McLaren M23 came out which was sort of a working man's version of the Lotus 72...and he said 'If I have to design a car like that in the future I'll retire'....That's how he worked on everything. The result was he had this incredible mind, vastly superior to mine, on originality...he oozed it.

"You knew he was going to come up with something interesting or used to look forward to seeing the new Lotus...and you knew they were going to be interesting, whereas the other teams you weren't."

Jean-Pierre Jabouille
"JeanPierreJabouille1975" by RX-Guru
 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-
SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
I'd bet rather a lot of the contents of my back account that Chapman would have adored the A2. And that he'd have consumed rather a lot of the midnight oil in getting it to work.

Some of you might point out inconveniently that Chapman never began to sort his own similar-concept of the Lotus 80, and that even after that never produced a great ground effect car having been the one to pioneer it. That more generally after his 1978 sweeping of the board Chapman many thought became more taken by the jet-set lifestyle than by succeeding in F1. That's all true. Perhaps I had an earlier more focussed and energetic Chapman in mind. Perhaps I assume that under my tutelage he'd keep his eye more on the ball. And away from that nasty John DoLorean. Perhaps.

As for the drivers, with the same priority of sorting a difficult car in mind I was taken immediately to Jean-Pierre Jabouille. The Frenchman was for much of his F1 career synonymous with the fledging Renault turbo effort, again in the late 1970s. He also was often derided as being only as good as his turbo, but that sold him short. He missed out on many good results in that time due to unreliability (as if to underline as much his only points in 1979 and in 1980 were thanks to a solitary win in either season) and even when he took his freshman win in that very same Dijon race in 1979 hardly anyone remembered due to Villeneuve, Arnoux and all that. Jabouille also gave at least as good as he got on pace and in his willingness to tough it out on track compared with his rapid team mate Arnoux.

Yet here he is chosen for a combination of his speed and his undoubted technical ability. He was integral in the development of the Renault from a joke of the 'yellow teapot' in 1977 to its first win in 1979 then its status often as pace-setter in 1980. And demonstrating his technical nous when Jabouille retired from driving in F1 - not fully recovered from a leg breaking accident - he almost immediately got the role as Ligier's technical head.

Patrick Depailler
By Harald Bischoff (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons
via Wikimedia Commons
And of course the best driving partnerships are like the best marriages, in that one provides what the other doesn't. So in the other car we want someone quick, brave, spirited (in and out the car) and has the ability to throw an ill-handling set of wheels around ahead of itself. Plus in this peculiar situation this would have the benefit of maximising the results in the period while Chapman and Jabouille get the A2 working.

And this sent my mind instantly to the sheer courage and lurid angles of Patrick Depailler.

Yet for all of his Ronnie Peterson-esque free-spirited approach, which Patrick extended to a rather ramshackle existence away from the track too, Depailler in fact was a skilled and sensitive test and development driver also. Much stronger than Ronnie at any rate. What he did for the fledgling Alfa Romeo team in a sadly-truncated 1980, and in developing the Tyrrell P34 six-wheeler, count as highly-relevant experience of feverish commitment to getting teams to grow and getting perhaps unconventional cars to work. And that will come in handy.

So with all of this in place in an alternate reality would the A2 have worked? Would it have changed history by catapulting middling Arrows into the sport's select few? Probably not, on either count. But hey, I can dream can't I?


  1. Love your approach on this, I too was a big fan of the A2, not sure about Chapman to develop it, 76 and 80 were both concepts he rather washed his hands of, but definitely agre with your development drivers. Nice article!

  2. thanks for the nice memories of when I got really into F1. Indeed, I loved the A2 and also the Renault and Depailler/Laffite Ligier team. It would be nice to see that alternate reality!