The names alone associated with these cars fill motorsport fans with awe: Niki Lauda, Jody Scheckter, Jochen Mass or Nelson Piquet used to sit in the cockpits. Teams such as Lotus, Williams, Brabham and McLaren competed for victories with them. Only the engine was always the same: the Cosworth DFV that dominated Formula One between 1967 and 1983 and forms the foundation for the FIA Masters Historic Formula One Championship. Nearly the entire field uses the legendary power-plant, making a famed era in which racing’s top category made one of its most distinctive development steps tangible and visible -- an evolution that can be observed here particularly well: the switch to ground-effect racing cars that began to emerge in 1979 / 80.
Obviously, it is these more modern vehicles that set the pace at the front of the field. The Briton Nick Padmore in a Williams FW07/C (the first ground-effect Williams) set the best time in Friday’s qualifying and converted his pole position into a clear race victory on Saturday. Lying behind him was Martin Stretton in a Tyrrell 012 – a car with which the British racing team in 1983 changed from aluminium to carbon as the monocoque material, following the example of its competitors from Lotus and McLaren.
Alexander Furiani: “You practically sit outdoors”
A number of German drivers submitted entries for the battle of the Formula One cars as well. Alexander Furiani from Cologne in his Surtees TS20 is fielding a representative of the older Cosworth generation. “It is one of the last examples of the cars with aluminium monocoques,” says Furiani. “They were succeeded by the ground-effect cars that used carbon for the first time.” The Surtees is not a car that puts the driver in contention for victories, but one that is great fun to drive. “Here at the ‘Ring’ a position in the rear mid-field is realistic for me and that’s really okay, too,” says the driver who is actually at home in touring car racing as he and his team specialise in Alfa Romeo racing cars. He drives the Formula One racer ‘strictly for fun’. “Driving a car like this is naturally a childhood dream – even though I actually lack experience in single-seater racing.” The ride takes some getting used to for the touring car driver. “You sit low and practically outdoors. That’s definitely a different world. The steering is very direct and in on-track duels you nearly touch the gearbox of the car in front, you slide less than in a touring car – there are many notable differences.” Compared with today’s Formula One cars, their predecessors from the 1970s and 1980s can be easily managed. They do not require a computer to start them – and theoretically not even an external battery. “But the alternator is not particularly powerful,” Furiani explains, “so the starting procedure is typically assisted by an external power source.” Versus the ground-effect cars, the slightly older vehicles are in a different league. Even though all these cars are grouped together as part of the Cosworth era, the vehicles became considerably faster year after year. Furiani: “The utilisation of the ground effect marked a quantum leap. Due to better aerodynamics and higher cornering speeds, these cars easily gain three to four seconds per lap. That’s why Lotus as the inventor of the ground effect won the World Championship in 1978 with such dominance.”
Engine issues: Alfa Romeo 182B unfortunately not on the grid
In the field of the Cosworth-powered single seaters, ex-DTM driver Frank Stippler had been planning to feature a special car, having submitted an entry for the Alfa Romeo 182B that used to be driven by Andrea de Cesaris. However, at the beginning of the race weekend, his team had to accept that this entailed too much of a risk. “The car was finished at such a late stage that we were only able to do an initial rollout on Thursday,” Stippler explained. “That’s when the team noticed a small leak on the head gasket. To avoid any risk we unfortunately had to cancel our entry. That’s a shame because I was really looking forward to competing here and trumpeting the great sound of the twelve-cylinder across the Nürburgring. But it’s only a pleasure deferred: we will compete in another round of the historic Formula One and hopefully be on the grid here at the AvD Oldtimer Grand Prix next year.”
Formula One expert Danner: “Actually, nothing has changed”
Memories of the days of Niki Lauda and company give impetus to a discussion about the development lines in racing’s top category (and in motorsport in general). Many people feel that the technology at the pinnacle of racing is too complicated and today’s drivers downright streamlined compared to their predecessors, an opinion a notable expert does not share: Christian Danner, who used to race in Formula One himself from 1985 to 1989, is involved in the current Formula One practically every week as an expert for the TV channel RTL. He says: “Actually, nothing has changed at all. A Formula One car today still consists of a chassis, an engine and a gearbox. It has wings at the front and rear – that’s it. Naturally, all this is on a different level of technology now. But these cars today still obey the same laws of physics as those in the 1970s and 1980s.” Obviously, the native of Munich sees the differences as well: “The cars have more favourable aerodynamics, they’re stiffer and safer. But the principle has remained the same: there are four wheels with someone sitting between them and driving.” Danner also defends today’s drivers: “They’re cut from the same cloth as the drivers in my generation. Obviously, the times and the environment have changed, but then as now there are real characters sitting in the cockpit. It’s just that today they’re modern. I suppose that Juan-Manuel Fangio in his day may have already called Jacky Stewart a dud – and the old drivers may be saying similar things about the current driver generation. But the truth is that the basic traits of a good racing driver have never changed.”