The BT52 might as well stand in as shorthand for F1’s most extreme era, its immense power, clever engineering and beautifully packaged chassis all combining to create one of the most evocative of all competition machines. It’s also a car defined by its engine as much as its chassis, though neither area exactly wanted for innovation or technical polish, all of which make it a prime candidate for the second instalment in our ‘Murray’s Greatest Concepts’ series.

Brabham BT52

It’s important to understand the landscape of F1 at the time of the BT52’s conception, the winter of 1982-1983. Renault had exploited a loophole in the regulations to utilise forced induction some 5 seasons previously, and while ‘Le Regie’s’ cars were initially unreliable to the point of farce (they were swiftly nicknamed the ‘Yellow Teapots’ by paddock wags), it was abundantly clear that turbocharging offered a route to power figures hitherto thought impossible.

Brabham had realised the potential of forced induction some years beforehand and had opted to join forces with with BMW, the German firm keen to showcase its four cylinder turbo technology with its M12/13, or as it would subsequently become known, the Megatron. The M12 never lacked for power and in time would generate easy four figure BHP figures, though precisely how much is hard to say, mainly as BMW’s own dyno struggled to record figures much above 1200bhp!

BMW’s M12/13 was ferociously powerful, and as the team soon discovered, red hot!

Ridding the M12 of its reliability niggles was challenge enough (something which had blighted Brabham throughout the previous year), but what really gave Murray sleepless nights was the timescale he’d been given to design the rest of the car. The BT52 had initially been penned with ground effect technology at its very heart; it had a flat floor and made use of Venturi tunnels and skirts to suck itself to the track, much like the ‘Fan Car’ of 1978. However, the FIA, alarmed at a spate of high speed accidents involving the sudden change of pressure associated with a skirt failure, opted to outlaw ground effect cars at the end of year. This effectively forced Murray back to the drawing board with a little over 6 weeks in which to completely re-design the team’s 1983 challenger. Pressure? What pressure.

What followed was nothing short of a Murray masterclass. The engineering genius dosed himself up to burn the midnight oil for a month and a half, then set about re-engineering the car he thought he’d all but finalised a few weeks previously. You only need compare the BT52 with its BT50 predecessor to see the dramatic impact the change in regulation brought about, with Murray opting to all but delete the sidepods and to move as much of the weight, a full 70% of it, to the rear of the car.

Gordon Murray worked hard to package the BT52 as tightly as possible

This wasn’t merely an attempt to better package the car and promote greater traction, it permitted Murray to instigate a fundamental change in the way F1 cars were bolted together, at a stroke increasing accessibility and dramatically reducing the amount of time required to swap key chassis and suspension components. The one-piece front end was constructed from lightweight magnesium and housed all key suspension mounts and take-offs, which meant that damper settings could be altered with assembly off the car. It was a similar story with the rear, now home to all fluids, plus the engine, transmission and rear suspension mounted in a modular fashion.

Mid-race refuelling was still very much a novelty in 1983 and was therefore ripe for exploitation, with the rules allowing for the cars to run underweight for part of the race, providing it was duly ‘made up’ with fuel by the end, naturally. Complex fuel strategies would therefore become another Murray hallmark, enabling the Brabhams to run optimum fuel loads at all times, and just as importantly for the era, as much boost as possible.

Gordon Murray was just as instrumental in Brabham’s ’83 success as Piquet

Not that Murray’s innovative approach to early ’80s F1 stopped when the BT52 pulled to a halt, if anything it became even more impressive. He designed a tyre warming system with carefully circulated, heated air flowing through it, a system which kept the team’s Michelins in a ‘ready to race’ state at all times. Murray even devised a high pressure jig for physically refuelling the cars, one which saw a pair of pumps employed to ‘force feed’ the cars at between 4 and 5 bar, enough to fill the 33 gallon tank in approximately 3.5 seconds.

Munich’s input was always a key facet of Brabham’s success in this period, and by 1983 the M12/13 (now a far more reliable beast than it had been 12 months previously) could put out between 650bhp and 1250bhp – probably more. Indeed, the team would routinely ‘grenade’ engines during qualifying by screwing up the boost as high as possible and effectively sacrificing them for a lap or two out outright ‘shove.’

Few F1 cars have managed to pack quite as many technical innovations into one design

All that power came at a price though – heat, and its dissipation through the bearing pack, the engine and other areas of the car proved potentially ruinous, particularly when the car was both scorching hot and stationary – the pit stop. Murray’s fiendishly simple solution was to make full use of the air lines already employed, though they’d now be repurposed to feed a take-off running directly onto the turbo.

These innovations were at the core of the BT52 and helped turn an already capable car into a world beater. Nelson Piquet used it to overhaul long time championship leader Alain Prost, ultimately snatching the drivers’ title from underneath the Frenchman’s nose at the final race of the year, South Africa.

It says a great deal that it’s actually quite hard to find a picture of a BT52 NOT spitting flame!








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