Gordon Murray’s father raced motorbikes and latterly had involvement in the preparation of racing cars in their native Durban, so it was a logical step when Gordon went on to study mechanical engineering at Natal Technical College.
Initially a driver in the South African National Class, he actually built and raced his own IGM Ford car during 1967 and 1968, before decamping to Britain in the hope that he could find employment with Lotus. A chance meeting with Ron Taranac led instead to an offer to join Brabham as a draughtsman, and within two years, the arrival of Bernie Ecclestone as team boss saw Murray promoted to the role of chief designer.
It was clear from the outset that Murray sought to gain advantage through innovation. The BT42 he designed for the 1973 season featured an extraordinary triangular cross section, and proved relatively successful. It also boosted Murray’s confidence in his own methodology.
The results of this approach were numerous, and often controversial. The BT46B of 1978 won the Swedish Grand Prix largely thanks to the enormous fan mounted at the car’s rear. Though it did have some cooling properties (which initially made the fan appear legal), its primary purpose was actually to suck the car to the ground, thereby recreating the ground effect pioneered by rivals Lotus, only to an even greater extent. Devastatingly effective, as a ‘moveable aerodynamic part’ it was quickly deemed illegal and never raced again in the same form.
Amid concern about increased cornering speeds, the 1981 regulations sought to outlaw ground effect by introducing a minimum 6cm gap between floor and car at all times, and forbidding any driver operated aids to reduce the gap when the car was in motion.
It was Murray who spotted that the authorities could only measure the car when stationary, and that they would have to allow some degree of flexibility on this rule when the car was in motion due to the natural pitch and role experienced during cornering and breaking. He therefore instigated the ingenious use of hydro-pneumatic suspension struts for each wheel.
As the BT49C accelerated, hydraulic fluid was gradually pushed out of the struts, lowering the car ride height, hugely benefiting downforce. As the car decelerated at the end of a session or race, the fluid slowly returned into the struts, thus returning the car’s height to the regulated 6mm height. It was a brilliant example of exploiting the wording of the regulations, rather than their actual intention, and helped deliver Nelson Piquet’s first drivers’ title.
Murray also had a hand in improving electronically delivered information to drivers, carbon fibre brake discs, and even an air-jacking system that was built into the car, designed to accelerate tyre changes.
In 1983 his BT52 was a perfectly-judged response to new rules finally outlawing ground effect, and taking advantage of in-race refuelling to make the most of its powerful BMW turbo. It allowed Piquet to take a second championship title.
Not all of Murray’s innovations proved successful ‘out of the box’ though. The BT55 of 1986 was conceived with the aim of reducing frontal cross-section and getting as much clean airflow to the rear wing as possible. But the team had to tilt its engine to make the configuration work, and suffered repeated reliability problems.
It was a concept Murray was to revisit with devastating effect when he switched to McLaren, forming a key feature of the title-winning MP4-4, which swept to a hugely dominant 15 wins from 16 races two years later.
Driver and constructor’s titles followed in ’89, but Murray had grown bored and frustrated with the increasingly restrictive design regulations. Rather than risk losing him to another team, Ron Dennis instead sanctioned Murray’s pet project of designing the world’s quickest road-going super car, heading-up McLaren Cars.
The result was the ground-breaking and hugely admired McLaren F1 road car, proving that Murray’s eye for design was as finely-tuned in the field of road going cars as much as in the competitive sporting environment. It won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1995, driven by Yannick Dalmas, Masanori Sekiya and JJ Lehto.