The Insanely Powerful Brabham BT52 Was The Spearhead Of Formula One’s First Turbo Era
Photography by Will Broadhead
If you asked a child to sketch a Grand Prix car, they would likely draw you something sleek and streamlined, an arrow-shaped missile capable of piercing its way through the air in front of it at unimaginable speed—you know, something out of Speed Racer. That’s what they would draw, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if the unspoiled imagination of a child actually translated into what we saw on track, instead of those ungainly winglet-laden beasts that prowl the circuits in modern F1? Well, once upon a time a Grand Prix car fit that brief nearly to a T. It’s form was disarmingly simple, its power prodigious, and its story one of triumph.
On the 15th of October, 1983, Nelson Piquet finished the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami in third, and in doing so secured the world championship for drivers. It was Piquet’s second time earning the drivers’ title (out of an eventual three championship-winning seasons), as well as the second drivers’ championship won by a Gordon Murray-designed car, and the first won by a driver in a turbocharged car, the Brabham BT52.
The four-cylinder turbo BMW motor nestled behind the driver’s head was famously tuned to produce well over one thousand horsepower in all-out qualifying spec, years before the shifting was done by pulling on paddles. The first turbo era of Formula 1 produced the most powerful cars the sport has ever seen, and the BT52 is the rightful poster child of the forced induction paradigm shift. During the recent Goodwood SpeedWeek, I got a reminder of just what a tremendously cool piece of Grand Prix history this car is.
Its distinctive delta wing shape is almost whimsical, with that narrow proboscis of a front end stretching away from the wide flanks that seem to barely clear the rear axles as the shape fans out dramatically into the squat rear end. It looks comically like a race car, our mind instantly equating its purposeful shape with the streamlined speed of space-capable rockets rather than bound-to-earth automobiles. But the aesthetics were actually in response to an extremely late regulation change that called time out on the ground effect cars that had pushed corner speeds to what the FIA had deemed were unsafe levels. This had left Brabham, among other constructors, with nearly finished designs for the 1983 season that had to be shelved with just a matter of weeks until the opening race in Brazil.
The new regulations were aimed at reducing the downforce levels that had been enjoyed by cars during the so-called ground effect era, with one of the more salient results being reduced traction in general. Putting the power down in a way that doesn’t immediately lead to smoke and wheel spin was paramount for the on-or-off nature of these early turbocharged engines, especially in the BT52’s case in which the BMW M12/13 1.5L inline-four could easily dole out more than 1000hp—regulations didn’t require that teams use the same power units for a certain amount of races like today, so the moneyed teams weren’t so concerned if their qualifying trims resulted in motors that lasted for a handful of laps.
With the need for side pods negated by the shifted regulations, and with their potential to now generate lift instead of downforce, Murray removed them, and, in a somewhat drastic and gutsy move, pushed the radiators and engine as close to the rear axle as possible to put as much traction-aiding mass over the driven wheels as possible. The wheelbase was also lengthened, allowing a more optimized airstream over the car’s thin nose to the massive rear wing. Coupled with the fact that Murray’s design incorporated mid-race refueling—a strategy carried over from Brabham’s 1982 car—the BT52 was packaged up in the most optimum way, particularly in comparison to the more bulbous efforts from the other constructors that season. In particular, the proportions of the Brabham compared to the Renault RE-40 which put Alain Prost in championship contention, are much more svelte, purposeful, and at least in my eyes, far more exciting and attractive.
Long before the Audi R8 LMP car became famous (and penalized) for its modular construction that allowed fast engine and gearbox changes, Murray’s BT52 was constructed in sections that enabled the team to perform exceptionally fast and efficient engine swaps, as well as significant changes to suspension with much more efficiency than other teams in the pits. In the age of the “grenades”—the extremely powerful but ultimately disposable power plants tuned to their limits and beyond—it was common practice to use multiple motors during a race weekend. For a relatively small team like Brabham, any increase in efficiency would be a welcome boon in the fight against the bigger budgets of their competitors.
The design was, of course, a gamble. Concentrating about 70% of the overall weight to the rear end was a tremendous shift, particularly for an F1 team where changes are often much more marginal season to season. The car wasn’t without its teething issues, but with a win at the first race in Brazil and then consistent points finishes throughout the rest of the season (especially with the updated BT52B), Piquet was in the hunt for the championship all season, although it would be the Renault of Prost that would lead the way for most of it. And both Ferraris, driven by René Arnoux and Patrick Tambay, would also be well in the mix, sharing four wins between them that propelled Ferrari to the 1983 constructors’ title.
The updated Brabham BT52B would win the last three rounds of the season, the top step of the podium occupied by Piquet at Monza and Brands, with teammate Riccardo Patrese winning the final race at Kyalami. Ultimately, Piquet won the World Championship by just two points over Prost in a fabulous success for an all-time great driver, and for a car that was all but designed and built in six weeks.
That would be the last world championship won by Brabham to date, a precursor to the dominance of McLaren and Williams for the remainder of the 1980s. While other pretty cars have won titles since, maybe none had the striking looks of the BT52. The significance of its presence at Goodwood during SpeedWeek is in part because of its place in Goodwood folklore, as during an unofficial test with the BMW turbo motor ramped all the way up, it is rumored to have completed a sub-one-minute lap in the hands of Piquet, although no official record exists.
While the car wasn’t competing in the SpeedWeek Shootout which we’ll cover next week, the name “P. Piquet” was imprinted onto the cockpit of the car, a certain Pedro Estacio Piquet, son of the great Nelson Piquet, who would be charged with piloting the car as it paid tribute to the unofficial lap record set by his father. Another poignant visitor to the car sat in the holding paddock was David Brabham, giving the car that bears his family name a lengthy inspection and perhaps tipping a nod to his own father’s exploits and memories of the last car of his to deliver a world championship.