Article by Brian Hannon. Images are linked to the source.
When Rush hits theaters nationwide on September 28, moviegoers will be seeing the dramatic tale of the 1976 Formula 1 season and the legendary battle between Nikki Lauda and James Hunt. Polar opposites both on an off the track, their differing approaches to racing and life cast a spectacular backdrop for a season that dealt with success, tragedy, and a literal return from the ashes.
Aside from Ron Howard’s upcoming film, we recognize that Formula One racing is still a foreign subject to many Americans. The cars look different, the drivers are foreign, and generally the races are televised really early in the morning (although that doesn’t stop us die-hards from tuning in).
To help educate racing enthusiasts who perhaps don’t know a lot about Formula 1, especially the cars from the 1970s, we would like to introduce you to the other stars of Rush: Ferrari’s 312 T2 and McLaren’s M23. Thanks to a more open set of regulations for racing back in 1976 (and designs truly conceived on paper), the cars really took on their own identity. Let’s take a look at what set these two legends of racing apart.
First, there is not one weave of carbon fiber on these cars. Yes, today’s modern racecars (even NASCAR) extensively use the superstrong composite, but in the mid-1970s, it was still an experimental product with exponential costs, even for Formula 1.
Both cars featured an aluminum monocoque chassis with a mid-engine rear-drive configuration. This type of chassis is essentially a tube frame with a covering of thin aluminum sheets riveted on, providing a good degree of lightness with the strength to back it up. The famed carbon fiber monocoque didn’t make its debut in Formula 1 until 1983, with the McLaren MP4/1C.
The minimum weight for the racecars was a scant 575 kg (1,265 lb), and there were mandated crash structures around the fuel tanks and minimum sizes for the driver’s cockpit. Aside from the usual length/width/height regulations, chassis design was fairly wide open, made evident by the six-wheel Tyrell P34 that raced in the ’76 season as well. It was nice seeing the visible fruits of innovation unlike today’s Formula 1 cars, where you need a background in fluid dynamics to understand some of the subtle differences between cars.
The popular suspension setup at the time was a double wishbone front and rear, with the front positioning the springs and dampers inboard in the chassis helping to centralize the mass of the car. Brakes consisted of Lockheed calipers clamping down on cast-iron Brembo discs front and rear. In an interesting configuration, the rear brakes were mounted inboard as well, just off the transaxles to also assist in centralizing mass and reducing unsprung weight.
In 1976, the large air boxes perched above the drivers’ heads were banned. Although both teams accommodated this change, the Ferrari 312T2 beautifully sculpted in NACA-style air inlets to the front of the car that each fed a bank of the car’s induction system.
The McLaren M23 was getting a bit long in the tooth by 1976. It had actually made its F1 debut in 1973 and claimed the drivers title and constructors title in 1974 with Emerson Fittipaldi at the wheel. Although using a three-year-old car in modern Formula 1 is absolutely unheard of, it wasn’t too out of the norm back then and actually resulted in a fully sorted package. In the case of the M23, it kept winning, so why change things?
Ferrari brought to the grid an evolution of the car that won the 1975 driver and constructors championship, the 312T2. The wheelbase was lengthened 42 mm for more stability, and a De Dion suspension setup was planned but subsequently scrapped for a conventional setup after poor performance in testing.
In 1976, teams had two engine selections—either 1.5 liters and forced induction or 3.0 liters and natural aspiration. Of note, the number of cylinders and their configuration was not regulated. Now we get into where Ferrari and McLaren took divergent paths—the engine and transmission.
The McLaren employed the wildly popular Ford-Cosworth DFV 3.0-liter, DOHC fuel-injected V8. Capable of producing 475 hp at 10,750 rpm, the DFV was found in Formula 1 racecars up and down the grid. It was popular because it was relatively inexpensive, compact, and easy to work on. Although it had been around since 1967, it was still competitive, thanks to constant development. A Hewland 6-speed transmission, very rare at the time, was responsible for transmitting the power to the Goodyear slicks.
Ferrari, needing to prove they were more than capable of producing in-house performance, built their own engine for Formula 1, with a 3.0-liter, DOHC flat-12. Basically, three FR-S/BRZ engines combined into one. Although more powerful than the DFV, with 500 hp at 12,200 rpm on tap, its key features were an incredibly low center of gravity allowed by the 180-degree crank and super reliability, partly attributed to the meticulous demands of driver Nikki Lauda.
Again, needing to be unique, Ferrari used a transverse-mounted 5-speed transmission that was entirely in front of the rear axle. This reduced rear overhang and moved the weight toward the center of the car, resulting in more neutral handling.
How do they compare with the modern F1?
The easiest benchmark for comparing the classics to the best of today is their power to weight ratio. Regulations currently call for a minimum weight of 642 kg (1,415 lb), but the 2.4-liter V8s are producing upward of 750 hp at a staggering 18,000 rpm. This results in an amazing power to weight ratio of 1.8:1, which dwarfs the ratio from the 1976 season of 2.5:1. The near -1:1 ratio is what makes the acceleration of a modern car so staggering.
Modern Formula 1 cars also make extensive use of carbon fiber and other composites, which results in a stiffer chassis without having to sacrifice weight or safety. Today’s brakes are also made of carbon, which provide anchor-like performance even at extreme temperatures that far surpass the old cast-iron brakes. As mentioned before, you won’t find a shred of carbon on the M23 or 312T2.
Aerodynamics is an area where current cars are miles apart from their forefathers. Computer technology not even imaginable in the 1970s has allowed for modeling of airflow and the ability to condition the movement of air around the car for optimum downforce with minimal drag. In the 1970s, it was more a game of "let’s put a wing here and see if it works.”
Driver safety is paramount today, but drivers in 1976 were just beginning to advocate for their personal safety. The most obvious difference is how the driver sits in the car. In modern cars, you can barely see the driver, as safety regulations have mandated pillars next to the drivers’ heads to protect them in the event of an impact. In 1976, the driver appeared to sit more on the car instead of in it.
We won’t even discuss electronics, like launch assist and the telemetry available to the crew to pick apart every movement of a current car. The only launch assist of the M23 and 312T2 was the driver’s left foot.
You can still experience the glory of days gone by
We highly encourage you to see these cars in person. The sounds and sights are out of this world. Such events as the annual Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Laguna Seca should be on your bucket list not only because you get to see them driven in anger but also because you can get up close and personal without needing some pit pass that costs hundreds of dollars.