Road-Race Crossovers: Our Top Ten
Does racing really improve the breed? The phrase was applied to horses before it was used for cars, and it’s pretty hard now to see a link between the F1 thoroughbreds and the humble mules the rest of us get to drive. But it’s there. Racing didn’t just improve cars; it helped create them in the first place. What we learnt going racing has made cars faster and safer and better to drive. And it still does, even if the link is now less obvious.
It started in Edwardian times. Louis Renault founded his car company in 1898 after he was bet that the car he’d built in his garage couldn’t drive up a hill in Paris. It could; he won a dozen orders and within a year was racing properly. Back then, races were often held over such long distances that it was unlikely your car would make it to the end. What novice carmakers learnt getting from Paris to Lyon, say, in one of the mad cross-country Gordon Bennett Cup events organized by the eccentric American newspaper magnate meant the cars sold to paying punters were more reliable, and therefore more practical and popular. Racing accelerated the car’s influence on the twentieth century, but at a price. Early motorsport was staggeringly risky; despite the low speeds these rickety vehicles on spindly tyres frequently flipped or disintegrated. Louis lost his brother Marcel in the Paris to Madrid race of 1903: if the famously autocratic Louis had caught the current Renault F1 team faking a crash to win a race he’d have sacked the lot.
For a while after the Great War road cars and racing cars were still sufficiently alike for near-production cars to win famous races. Bentley won Le Mans five times between 1924 and 1930 with cars you could buy in its Mayfair showroom, and in that short period established a reputation it has traded off ever since. Then Alfa dominated Le Mans; its 8C won the race between ’31 and ’34. You could buy the same engine that won the world’s greatest race in a glorious road-going coupe, and in 1935 it also powered the world’s first proper single-seat race racing car, the Alfa Romeo Tipo B.
From here, road and race technology started to diverge. But each still informed the other. The first car to get disc brakes was the Le Mans-winning Jaguar D-Type racer; now we all have them. Ferrari and Lotus, two of the most famous names in Formula One built road cars alongside their racers; the same engineers often worked on both, and the links are obvious. Lamborghini was founded as a direct rival to Ferrari and its founder Ferruccio planned from the outset to ignore racing and focus on road cars. But while his early cars looked sensational, they were always a bit wooden to drive by comparison with their near neighbours.
The price and performance of F1 cars disappeared into the stratosphere long ago, but there has been the occasional direct link back to road cars. The most bizarre was BMW’s insane 1500bhp, 1.5-litre turbocharged F1 engine of the mid-eighties, the most powerful ever to feature in the sport. It was built using standard, second-hand two-litre road car engine blocks that had done at least 60,000 miles and so had had all the casting stresses worked out and could handle the huge boost pressure required. “They were like well-hung meat,” a BMW engineer said.
BMW also built the engine for the McLaren F1, arguably the greatest road car ever made and conceived by Ron Dennis and his chief designer Gordon Murray after their imperious 1988 season in which they won 15 of that year’s 16 Formula 1 races with Ayrton Senna. The F1 was designed purely as a road car but was so good they turned it into a racer and won Le Mans with it. The last road car to use a Formula 1 engine was less successful; the Ferrari F50 of 1995 used a bored-out version of the ’92 F1 engine. It wasn’t much good, and is still underrated. It also made the mistake of trying to ape the looks of an F1 car; that pointy proboscis doesn’t sit well on a regular road-car bonnet.
At less exalted levels the link between road and race is stronger; Louis Renault might have been ashamed of the modern F1 team but he’d have been pleased to visit RenaultSport on the outskirts of Paris, where the same engineers who build their touring and rally cars develop the RenaultSport-badged fast road cars. And even F1 will become more relevant again; its KERS systems and use of carbon fibre are pioneering technology we’ll use in the lightweight, hybrid cars of the future. It will take a long, long time to filter down to cars we can afford. But it will happen; it always has.
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