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Swoosh and screech! The rise and fall of alternative power in motor racing
Introduction: Sixties lateral thinking



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The turbine swansong in Grand Prix racing sounded out with a bleak 8th. Groomed for its reliability, this was the only occasion a turbine-engined finished a World Championship Grand Prix. So the statistics are dismal but as usual they don't all. What happened to turbines? Why did they appear and why didn't they succeed? And how about the Variomatic single-seaters that ran in F3 between 1965 and 1968? What made DAF enter motor racing and how come they pulled out?

They might be automatic these days, but gear changes - whether they be up or down - are among the most dramatic sounds in motor racing. The constant pitch shift of increasing or decreasing engine revolutions are an impressive sonic complement to the visual stimulus of a racing car under acceleration or braking. Moreover, when at the track and cars are temporarily out of sight, you can follow them on audio. Selecting the right gear, either shortshifting or redlining it, nursing a car home by tuning into its vocal chords - they are part of a racing driver's trade. To sum up, gears are as an integral part of cars and car racing as tyres and steering wheels. Now imagine an engine sound that goes up in one go, as with an aircraft. Or an engine sound that is constantly revving at top power, on a straight as well as in a chicane. Wouldn't you feel awkward as a spectator? And wouldn't you feel lost as a driver? Ask Parnelli Jones or Joe Leonard, who both almost won the Indy 500 with a turbine-engined car. Ask Gijs van Lennep or Mike Beckwith, who each won F3 races in Brabham-Cosworth MAEs with a CVT transmission.

The sixties formed a pivotal decade in so many aspects of 20th century history. It was an age of racing - the space race rivalled with the arms race for most headlines, while the race to freedom, welfare and social equality had just started. Colonies were freeing themselves to form brand-new nations, while the Bay of Pigs affair almost ignited World War III. Mass production sparked the birth of the consumer society, while it was still the happy few that could afford a home television set. The class struggle to end all class struggles was rumbling underneath the traditional values that had kept western civilization going since the 19th century. In short, the sixties were an age of both optimism and unrest.

Look mum, no gearbox!

It was this age that tested, developed and ultimately ditched two promising alternative means of powering race cars. These two technologies differentiated themselves from other long-standing alternatives to the petrol combustion engine, such as those devised by Wankel and Diesel, as they in their typically sixties way of lateral thinking stepped away from the principle of geared transmission as a means to direct rotating power to the wheels.

The first one, the gas turbine, had first been developed for road use by Rover before the start of World War II, after Opel briefly dabbled with it in the twenties. With Chrysler picking up on the idea in 1945, the post-war arms race gathering pace and the turbine engine quickly moving to replace the piston engine in the aeronautical world, British and American turbine engineering prowess started to flourish. At the same time the Boeing 707 revolutionised passenger air travel, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and jet fighters completely took over nations' air forces, the world's first turbine-engined road cars saw the light of day. Only a handful of years later they competed for overall glory in the Indy 500, as its top-range power was ultimately suited to the four-turn blast at the Brickyard. The turbine was clearly part of the picture of rapid technological progress and futuristic vision so befitting the sixties, as portrayed by the Thunderbirds, before the forces of conservatism hit back.

The second one was the continuously variable belt transmission (CVT) pioneered and patented by Hub and Wim van Doorne's company Van Doorne's Transmissie (VDT). This innovation was borne by the other characteristic of the late fifties and early sixties: the breakthrough of mass production combined with levels of welfare that hadn't yet scaled the heights they would reach in the seventies. Thus, the Dutchmen's main ambition was creating a cheap and simple motor car that would democratize car ownership. For this, the Eindhoven residents’ Van Doorne's Automobiel Fabriek (DAF), a manufacturer of military trucks since 1949, was to build a new generation of small-sized family cars powered by their brilliant "Variomatic" invention. The cars made a spectacular debut at the Amsterdam auto show of 1958. In time, it was also decided to add a competitions department to prove the technology's mettle in a strenuous environment, but ultimately the factory's rally and endurance activities were far more successful than its halfhearted forays into circuit racing. Still, Variomatic single-seaters won races and the system made an unexpected comeback in 1993, when David Coulthard tested a Williams FW15C paired with a “Transmatic” CVT jointly developed by VDT (separated from truck manufacturer DAF, and currently a Bosch subsidiary) and Patrick Head. This was done to such great effect that the FIA promptly banned the technology from 1994 on, just as it had earlier banned four-wheel drive, six-wheeled cars and turbines.

Lateral thought nibbed in the bud

The fate that befell competition CVTs during 1993 – banned before they could become a serious threat to the traditional engine/gearbox combo – dealt with turbines in exactly the same way, but some two decades earlier. And it happened in reversed order: first came the unscrupulous ban from the arena in which had almost taken ultimate success – nearly winning the Indy 500 – then came the half-hearted attempt in another category, F1, where its application stumbled on internal competition from the ubiquitous Cosworth DFV and the huge amounts of engineering thought that had to be put in to make a turbine suitable for circuit racing, with its much greater penalty on turbine lag, fuel consumption and brake wear.

As with four-wheel drive a couple of years before, the effort put into the innovation was never enough to make it worthwhile, not even in a team whose figurehead was Mr. Innovation himself. Even Colin Chapman would say thank you and collect a World Championship trophy rather than trusting the off-chance of a technology completely alien to F1 actually succeeding with just the small bit of extra help. If an idea worked from the get-go – like monocoques or ground effects – he’d be happy to exploit it further. If it didn’t, there was no time to nurture it to success. Even in the seventies, the hurly-burly of an F1 World Championship put too much pressure on the workforce to concentrate on two things at a time.

And so the conclusion must be that turbines and CVTs didn’t fail because of their being flawed technologies. They worked, but were put aside by the powers that be. On grandprix.com, Williams' technical director Patrick Head lauds the engineering skill used to produce a potentially winning concept. “Normally you wouldn't readily use a gas turbine engine for circuit racing because the speeds vary so much; turbines don't like that. But at Indy that wasn't the case. If an engineer were to look at the STP Paxton turbocar now, he would say that some bright minds were used to design it.”

Ironically, a combination of the two banned technologies could have proven to be a viable alternative: as the turbine needed to operate in a high rev-range to fully use its low-speed torque, a CVT system could have maximized the turbine’s strength to turn it into the perfect engine…

However, traditionalism – and perhaps the more relevant ideas of cost-cutting, road-car linkage and technological stability that are often cited by sporting authorities – prevailed, both within USAC and the FIA. Or was it simply the unbearable thought that through turbines and CVTs the familiar sound of a pumped-up petrol piston engine in anger would be lost to circuits everywhere in the world? With so many fans explaining their love for motorsports by their reference to dramatic engine sounds and exhaust notes – with the smell of Castrol R coming a close second! – it might just as well be a simple matter of the senses. Speaking to David Tremayne of grandprix.com, Ferrari sporting director Jean Todt sums it all up: “It is a show, isn't it? So the rules are unlikely to be relaxed enough to allow in something that could force everybody to change. I think the only real threat to the internal combustion engine may be the pollution issue, but electrics are a long, long way off.”

So here’s the short resume of why. Turbines are aircraft engines. CVTs power silly little Dutch cars. And scooters (even worse). So stay out!

In the end, who would bet against that being the true reason that turbines and CVTs ultimately failed to make a breakthrough. But how did they work? Where did they come from? And what did they achieve?

Go to part 1: Aircraft on asphalt