F1B Review: ‘Art of the Formula 1 Race Car’ offers stunning visual history

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Toward the end of “Art of the Formula 1 Race Car,” Gordon Murray is quoted as saying about the Ferrari F1-2000: “It was after this car that, for me, F1 cars started getting ugly. Even the bargeboards on this are relatively pretty. Relatively – I don’t like bargeboards, although I can see why they’re absolutely necessary.”

Murray provides the commentary in this new book by Autosport and F1 Racing writer Stuart Codling, who provides succinct, well-crafted histories of 18 Formula 1 cars, from the Alfa Romeo 158/159 that raced in 1950 to that McLaren MP4-23 that Lewis Hamilton piloted to a world drivers’ championship in 2008.

Codling’s pairing with Murray, a former chief designer at Brabham under one Bernie Ecclestone, is pretty ingenious, as it adds a technical but also lyrical perspective to the historical focus of Codling’s writings.

But it probably is not going to be either of their work that immediately grabs – and holds – readers’ attention. It will be the stunning and artful, often intimate, photograph by James Mann, whose work has appeared in too many magazines and books to name. His photograph captures a key aspect to the history of Formula 1, the changing and evolving designs of the machines in which drivers both fearless and slightly mad have done battle for 60 years.

For a brief moment, just consider the last decade of the evolution and Murray’s quote about the F1-2000.

I’m not sure if it was purposeful or not, but taken together the final two cars in Codling’s book strike me as a strong indictment of Formula 1 in 2010. Following the opening grand prix in Bahrain, the “show” – or lack of it – was the central topic of conversation and consternation. Where was the excitement? Where was the overtaking and wheel-to-wheel action? Even the drivers seemed surprised by just how much the aerodynamics of the 2010 cars limited their ability to tuck up close and look for the opportunity to pass the car in front of them.

The dramatic improvements in aero, and subsequent emphasis on its use in F1, could hardly be more on display than in the photos of the F1-2000 and MP4-23. To Murray’s eye, we can assume, the McLaren is far less beautiful. (He does say that “[t]echnically and aerodynamically, this is unbelievably sophisticated,” but it seems clear from his comments throughout the book that his ideal is hardly engineering sophistication.) Nearly every body part is designed to increase the aero, and there are so many “bits and pieces” that the McLaren is the one car – to my eye, anyway – that doesn’t quite fit the lineage Codling presents. Somewhere in between these two cars, Formula 1 took a dramatic turn that we are seeing on the track and, by most estimates, not for the better.

Codling and Murray find this moment of change a few decades earlier in the Leyton House CG901, the third car designed by Adrian Newey. Almost understatedly, Codling describes Newey as “the Briton who would go on to become the technical superstar of the modern age.”

Indeed.

Murray adds this: “This is the turning point in Formula 1, where aerodynamics became so much more important than anything else – particularly now when there are large-scale wind tunnels that permit detailed work. From this era onwards, aerodynamics took over.
“Adrian Newey is an aerodynamicist. When I was designing F1 cars, I’d say, ‘Okay, what’s the fundamental holistic thing I’m trying to achieve? What am I looking for an improvement in?’ And with Adrian, it’s aerodynamic purity.”

Of course, other the car’s near victory in the 1990 French Grand Prix, which Codling describes in the clean, un incumbered prose that characterizes the book, the car never did much. Newey would take what he was creating to Williams and find the beginning of his success.

Having asked Codling what he hoped F1 fans, and others, would take away from the book, I get the sense he would approve of my reaction, especially since it gave me a new perspective on this season’s racing.

Here’s more of Codling’s e-mailed answer to my questions: “What I was trying to do with this book was to encapsulate the broad sweep of F1 history, with its many triumphs, tragedies, eccentricities and dead ends. Some of the stories in it will be familiar, others hopefully less so. I went back through the archives and read through the reports and technical stories of the time, the aim being to add some perspective. I wanted it to be nothing like anything you can read on the internet; too many historical articles nowadays are churned out by rewriting the top 10 search results on Google. It happens because it’s so easy to do – but you just end up with the same guff in a different order. I hope that anyone, whether they’ve been following the sport for 50 years or if they’ve only just started, will enjoy reading the book and take away some fresh perspectives.”

I think there is little doubt that any F1 fan – or any motorsport fan, for that matter, and perhaps a wider swath than that – will enjoy this book. The photographs that drive the book are magnificent. For all my implied complaints about the MP4-23, the photos of it are remarkable. When I asked Codling what his favorite photo was, he told me: “’I’m tempted to name one of the McLaren MP4-23 images because photographing it was a remarkable technical achievement. It’s such a curvy car and James had to set up a temporary studio in the McLaren factory, because it wasn’t allowed out.” [His actual favorite is the photo that accompanies this article of the Mercedes-Benz W196, which raced during the manufacturer’s brief return to F1 in 1954.]

I can understand the difficulty he has in choosing. But I also get the impression that Codling didn’t have any trouble answering my other question: “What’s your favorite car?” I feel like I could sense the quick and unhesitant banging of his fingers on his keyboard when he wrote: “My favourite car has to be the Alfa 158. James photographed it in a tiny studio about 20 minutes drive from my home, so I had to go up and see. It’s one of only two left in the world, and it’s the one that Farina drove in the very first world championship grand prix. It’s tiny, beautiful and terrifying. To think that Farina just jumped in, grasped that wood-rimmed wheel and wrestled it around the scrappy asphalt of Europe’s circuits. And the owner let me sit in it for my photo on the jacket sleeve. How cool is that?”

It’s pretty cool, for sure. And the front and rear shots of the car are nothing but beautiful.

I’ll have to admit to being torn between two cars. The first is the Maserati 250F, which the company produced as a low-cost option for privateers. [Where was I in 1954?] There is something about those old bass-mouthed cars, even if it wasn’t terribly racey. The second is the Brabham BT20, which ran from 1966 to 1969. Both look nearly impossible to drive. There is a photo of the Brabham’s cockpit and steering wheel that shows a battery disturbingly between where a driver’s legs would go.

Maybe I’ll pass, after all.

In addition to the cars mentioned, the book features the Lancia D50, BRM P57, Lotus 49B and 72, Tyrrell 003 and P34, Ferrari 312T3, Williams FW07 and FW14, McLaren MP4/4 and Jordan 191. The trio of Codling, Murray and Mann give full and broad insights to all.

Codling’s added a terrific piece to the canon of F1 literature (a canon I find surprisingly weak given F1’s gentleman racer past, by the way). His “Art of the Formula 1 race car” is available now at online booksellers including Amazon and Motorbooks.com. It will be available in “brick-and-mortar” stores beginning April 12.

It’s more than worth checking out.

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