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Fiasco Italo-Brittanico
Part 2: Indy teams keep on March-ing



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Gordon Johncock


March-Cosworth 87C




1988 Indianapolis 500, third day of qualifying (May 21, 1988)


Before the first CART Alfa Romeo appeared on track a large number of events had taken place before which eventually led to the project becoming a reality. Many of these factors happened at the same time but independently from another. in this section, split into several parts, we will look at all these factors.

The pieces of the jigsaw (part 2)

It is 1980: with the introduction of ground effects in CART and at Indianapolis several American constructors build their own cars, some of these inspired by F1 designs, the Williams FW07-inspired Longhorns being the most obvious example.

Long-time entrant Sherman Armstrong orders a car with the British March company, known for its participation in many racing formulae (F1, F2, F3, and sports car projects). They build something derived from the F2-type 792 and call it the 'Orbiter'. Armstrong also enters three 1979 Lola-Cosworths and a 1976 Wildcat-DGS (the DGS was a late variant of the Offy). The results for the Armstrong team show a trend. The Orbiter, which is the newest car, fails to qualify whereas the Lolas finish 17th, 10th and 8th while the Wildcat finishes 3rd! A bad start for March though the Orbiter did show some promise.

Photographed on Winchester Speedway, Indiana, in 1980: Howdy Holmes in the Sherman Armstrong owned Orbitor, the first `toe in the water` for March within the CART series. Winchester was a half-mile track used primarily for midgets and sprint cars. Indy cars never raced there since it was too small. However, the Armstrong Mould team was based in Winchester, only about two miles from the Speedway, so occasionally they would take their cars over there to perform initial checks and take photographs. (photo: Ayers collection, used with permission)

For 1981 March starts to take the US scene more seriously and decides to built a CART contender, the 81C, derived from the 811 F1. The car is generally available to whoever wants it. Although it doesn’t win the 1981 race at Indianapolis, Tom Sneva qualifies one in the second weekend of qualifying and is the fastest qualifier in the field. In addition, he leaves a good impression during the race. This stimulates more teams needing to replace their elderly non-ground effects cars to purchase the off-the-shelf March 82C and succeeding types from the Bicester company.

Meanwhile, one of the 81Cs was the unhappy participant in what was likely the most violent single-car crash ever witnessed at Indianapolis. On his first qualifying attempt on Pole Day of 1982, Gordon Smiley collided with the wall of Turn 3 head-on, the 81C around him disintegrating and exploding. Though the tub survived to some extend Gordon was beyond help and the pictures of Smiley's accident are among the most gruesome pictures ever taken at Indianapolis.

In 1983, however, March wins its first 500 miles at Indianapolis with Tom Sneva driving.

The first victory for March came with this type 83C, driven by Tom Sneva. His chief mechanic George Bignotti scored his 7th victory as a chief mechanic. The early Marches looked big and voluminous, as was usual for the early-eighties ground effects Indycars. (photo HG)

The company enjoys such success at Indianapolis that in 1984 29 out of 33 starters use the new 84C. The 30th car is an 82C updated with 83C components. Even Roger Penske is forced to accept the fact that his design team can’t built a car that is equal to or preferably better than a March and fields March 84Cs too. He wins courtesy of Rick Mears. Ironically, over the full CART 1984 season the two Lola entries are devastatingly superior after Indianapolis, which means that the CART championship eludes March yet again. But the March 84C holds the record for the most common chassis found in a single starting field ever at Indianapolis (29/33).

Seen at the IMS Museum in Jun 2013, a March-Cosworth 84C. Among the mass production customer March Indycars the 84C wasn't one that yielded lots of fond memories, not even with March people. Indy '84 was, however, most definitely a highlight for the Bicester company with no less than 29 84Cs in the starting field, 27 of them Cosworth powered. (Two used Buick V6s.) Not until the IRL era, starting in 1996, would there be over 27 identical cars in an Indy 500 starting field. This was the car driven by Tom Sneva who won the pole that year and retired prematurely after a strong race. Have a look at the tiny rear wing with minimal wing end plates, needed only for trimming of the car, not to produce downforce. (Photo HG)

March also wins the 1985 and 1986 races at Indianapolis. But competition from Lola increases significantly and they also claim their share of the market.

The 86C turns out to be a good car and is still very useful in later years. AJ Foyt in particular owned two long-living 86Cs, one of them fitted with his own turbocharged 3.4-litre Chevrolet V6 stock-block engine that managed to qualify regularly between 1986 and 1989 but rarely survived over 10 laps in the race. Another Foyt-owned 86C fitted with a regular Cosworth DFX was qualified in every “500” from 1986 until 1989.

The three Roger Penske-entered March cars that won Indianapolis. Penske kept every winning car since 1981 in his own collection so the display of no less than three winning Penske entries at the IMS museum during May 1988 (four if we include the museum-owned 1972 winner) was a rare moment. The red car is a 85C that won in 1985. Behind it on the left is the 86C that won in 1987, on the right the 84C that won in 1984. (photo HG)

The genuine winner or not? A March 85C in the trim as Danny Sullivan drove it in 1985, exposed on Carb day 1991 at the Speedway. (photo HG)

An 85C seen from behind. Such sidepods must have generated a tremendous downforce at high speeds. How could Danny Sullivan still have gotten loose enough to spin? (photo HG)

The winning car in 1986, a 86C. The winglets in front of the rear wheels were originally intended for use on road tracks only. More or less by accident the teams found out that they were also an improvement at Indianapolis. No 86C ever raced at the Speedway without them or something like it. This picture was taken in May 1988. It's a strange idea that two particular 86C chassis were parked in the IMS museum while their sister cars were still setting competitive speeds at the actual race track. (photo HG)

Not a great picture but the car is worth showing. This is Stan Fox in 1988, driving March 86C-34, an AJ Foyt-owned 86C. This is the 86C powered by AJ's Chevy turbo V6 stock-block. Mike McNish failed to qualify it in 1986, George Snider qualified it in 1987 but was unable to start after the car caught fire in the warm-up laps. Fox made the cut in 1988, managed to do at least two race laps and was entered but failed to qualify in 1989 and 1990. When George Snider's original 86C-Cosworth was damaged in a four-car crash on Carb Day in 1986, Snider raced this car. Mercifully the Chevy was replaced for a Cosworth and lasted 110 laps. Otherwise the car would have raced for just two laps in its five years of duty... (photo HG)

At Indy 1987, Mario Andretti’s Lola-Ilmor/Chevy is by far the fastest car at the track and only a mechanical failure in the closing stages of the race allows the race to become yet another March conquest. A terrible amount of bad luck for Roberto Guerrero in the leading March 87C sets him so far back that Al Unser Sr. wins the race using a year-old March 86C. A car that literally days previously had been on display in a hotel but was hurriedly brought back to the Speedway to replace the failing Penske PC16 cars. So Roger Penske wins yet another 500 miles with a March, as he had in 1984 and 1985.

But during 1987 the March organisation begins to lose control of their progress. This is partly an effect of the moving around of engineers between several teams, effectively resulting in different `factory teams` over the years and thus a lack of stability on the development front. The 87C was the first March that fell victim of all this instability: it is no big improvement over the 86C and definitely not superior over the ’87 Lola.

The type 87C was not much of an improvement, if any, over the 86C. This one was driven in 1988 by Gordon Johncock who was the last driver to be bumped that year, thus being the first alternate. The car shown here was pretty much the basic version of how the majority of 87Cs looked in 1987. Several 87Cs used one year later looked different in their sidepod design. (photo HG)

Lolas becomes even more popular customer cars from 1988 on except for Team Penske. They hire former Lola designers to design the new generation of Penske cars that make their debut in 1988 and start off a new highlight period for Penske Cars. March loses more of its grip on the CART scene during 1988. One of the reasons is that their best designer/engineer Adrian Newey makes the switch to the March F1 department while the new March 88C shows a few design flaws in the early season that need correction before Indy. Not every March customer is supplied with these parts in time…

Johnny Capels, chief mechanic for Alex Morales Racing that has entered two 88Cs, has his feelings about the March company printed as follows: “March is a rare breed of company to do business with. After you spend $600,000.00 with them, their engineers come over and get aligned with certain teams and do not carry on much with any of the other customers. Not very impressive to me.” (source: Carl Hungness 1988 Indianapolis 500 yearbook).

Raul Boesel, driving for Team Shierson, starts the month with an 88C but during practice the team buys a Lola from AJ Foyt. A sign of things to come. Pat Patrick Racing, fielding Emerson Fittipaldi, enters an 88C but gladly takes over a T87/00 from Newman-Haas during the month of May. Though Emmo wants to drive the Lola he qualifies the 88C. But a few races later the 88C is ditched in favour of the T87/00.

Some drivers of secondary teams with an 87C and 86C available prefer the older car. Two 87Cs manage to sneak into the 1988 Indianapolis starting field.

Three 86Cs also make the cut don’t look outdated at all compared with the later types. Some 86Cs however fail to qualify. Among them the car driven by Dale Coyne, the only normally aspirated car, a 86C fitted with a 6.5-litre Chevrolet pushrod V8. But the 86C, or any other current Indycar, isn’t suited to the requirements for such a big block.

Though most 86Cs were used in a single “500” (1986), several 86Cs kept on racing. This one became a crowd favourite in 1988. Phil Krueger, a highly skilled driver/engineer (who had even raced the Porsche 2708 on request of Porsche in 1987!) was his own chief mechanic, had a shoestring budget to work with but achieved speeds that embarrassed many drivers in newer cars, including the Porsche-powered 88C of Teo Fabi. In the race he finished a very respectable 8th. (photo HG)

A well prepared 86C was still good enough to qualify for the 1989 race! Rocky Moran qualified this AJ Foyt entry for its fourth race in succession, making 86C-23 the most used Indycar ever at the Speedway since 1980. Maybe not the biggest of the moneymakers among the 86Cs but the money spent by Foyt to buy this car was well spent. (photo HG)

Because of the last-minute sponsorship deal Foyt made for Moran’s 86C, the number was changed over to 33, the number preferred by Skoal on its race cars. This shot was made short before the start. (photo HG)

Two 88Cs finish in the top 10 at Indianapolis, Fittipaldi and Michael Andretti finishing 2nd and 4th, still ahead of all the Lolas. The third and final March in the top 10 was Phil Krueger’s 86C finishing 8th.

The four CART victories that year for a March 88C are scored by the Galles team, Al Unser Jr driving. But those cars have been so extensively modified by the team that they can almost be called ‘Galles’ instead. During the summer a number of teams, Patrick Racing among them, replace their 88Cs with Lolas, ‘88 models if possible but ‘87s will do as well.

One of the March customers in 1988 is Porsche. Their own 2708 chassis is no success, so the Germans consider both March and Lola as chassis partners. Eventually March wins the day, partly because of the contacts which have led to the construction of several IMSA March-Porsche “G” cars. (The “G” type Marches are long-distance sportscars generally built to meet the IMSA formulae.) In addition to the problems related to its new engine Porsche endures the same misery that all March 88C customers have to endure that year.

Not as extreme as the earlier G types and not one of the Porsche-powered March Gs. But this is what was likely the prettiest of the March 85G IMSA prototypes: the Chevrolet-powered Red Lobster-sponsored car, seen here on the Daytona Banking during a Veteran Car meeting in the weekend of the 1999 24 hours race. (Photo HG)

The March 88C was used with Ilmor-Chevy engines, Cosworth DFX engines and the Porsche V8 engine. The car as it appears here was very much the standard version of the 88C as most teams ran it. (photo HG)

The 88C driven by Billy Vukovich III had a different engine cover to most 88Cs used. Given the visible heat damage it appears not to have been a trouble-free alternative solution…

For 1989 March decides to quit the production of customer CART cars and instead team up with Porsche to build them an exclusive CART chassis.

In the meantime, however…

More about March

For extensive details about March in general, visit this website.