When we think of the legendary names of Formula One, it is nearly always the drivers we remember. It is unusual for a chief designer's name to stick in our consciousness. Especially once they've left the sport. That many of us know the name Gordon Murray just illustrates the impact of his work.
Born in 1946 to Scottish immigrants in Durban, South Africa, Murray studied mechanical engineering at Durban University of Technology - named Natal Technical College at the time. Like his father, he built and raced himself. He campaigned an IGM Ford in the South African National Class in 1967 and 68. He moved to England in 1969 in hopes of working for Lotus. Instead, he had a chance meeting with Ron Tauranac, the Brabham owner and designer at the time, who offered Murray a job.
In 1972, Tauranac sold the team to Bernie Ecclestone, who proceeded to promote Murray to chief designer of the team for the 1973 season. Murray immediately produced results with the BT42. The triangular car scored two podium finishes in the hands of Carlos Reutemann that year. In 1974, Reutemann took three victories in the BT44 - giving Brabham it's first wins since 1970. They finished the year so strongly, they were considered favorites for 1975. Issues with tire wear prevented overall victory that year, but Murray was consistently improving Brabham's position year after year.
Then Ecclestone signed a deal with Alfa Romeo. The idea was to gain advantage with their more powerful, but much larger engine as an alternative to the more popular Cosworth DFV. The excessive weight and poor reliability of the power plant made Murray's BT45 designs less effective than could have otherwise been realized.
In 1978, Murray debuted the BT46, which had several new technologies, like flat-plane heat exchangers in place of traditional radiators, to overcome the size and weight of the Alfa engine. He even attempted the BT46B fan car, which was previously covered here, looking for any way possible to overcome the deficit handed him with the Alfa motor.
By the 1979 season, the relationship with Alfa Romeo was deteriorating. Murray had designed the BT48 with full ground effects around a new Alfa V12 engine, but between poor engine reliability and unpredictable behavior in the car's aerodynamic center of pressure, the team only managed eighth in the Constructor's Championship.
The BT49 was introduced before the end of the 1979 season at the Canadian Grand Prix. It utilized the more traditional Cosworth engine. Nelson Piquet scored three victories, taking second in the driver's race, and third in the Constructor's Championship in 1980. Realizing they were getting close to the target, they continued to evolve the design for 1981 with the BT49C. That car utilized a hydropneumatic suspension to avoid ride height limitations that were put in place to reduce downforce. This dynamic feature raised accusations of cheating. Despite that, Piquet won the driver's championship with three wins, and put Brabham second in the Constructor's championship. Piquet went on to win the driver's championship again in 1983 behind the wheel of the BT49D
Murray's next big leap came in 1985 when he designed the BT55 for the 1986 season. The basis of the concept behind the BT55 was to improve airflow over the rear wing by reducing the height and cross-section of the car. The team was once again hampered by an engine that was not a form factor that supported their desired approach. The BMW turbo four cylinder was exceedingly tall. Murray ultimately convinced BMW to build a special version of the M10 engine so that it could be laid over at 18° from horizontal.
The aerodynamic theory proved successful by producing plenty of downforce, and the BMW engine was significantly stout, being among the fastest in a straight line. Unfortunately the canted engine and special gearbox created to accommodate it proved unreliable, with poor oiling and throttle response. These issues proved very problematic on the slower, tighter courses like Detroit and Monaco.
Murray's explanation of the BT55 in the book Competition Car Suspension also explained his eventual departure from the Brabham team. "...I was much too ambitious in how much we lowered it. The rather tall BMW [engine] had to lie down so far it produced a heavily offset crank needing a special gearbox and drivetrain, and what I did wrong was to try to do it in the time available.
Secondly, the engine never worked properly in the lay down position. The exhaust and turbo system was a nightmare and it had incurable oil surge and drain problems in corners. One way it was OK, but not the other.
The weight distribution gave dynamic center of gravity movements that messed up the traction.
And then Bernie, who is totally non-technical and had always left that side completely to me, started to get involved on the technical side. We had had 16 years with never a cross word until then, and things were changing with his deeper and deeper involvement in FOCA [the Formula One Constructors Association]. Then McLaren made approaches to me and I just felt it was the end of the road at Brabham."
Murray took over as Technical Director at McLaren in 1987, playing a contributing role with design lead Steve Nichols. They designed the McLaren MP4/4, which won 15 of 16 races, and gave Ayrton Senna his first championship. Murray aided in the 1989 MP4/5 and 1990 MP4/5B with Nichols and Neil Oatley. Those cars won both the driver's and constructor's championships in those years. In total, from 1988 through 1991, the McLaren team won four consecutive Constructors' and Drivers' Championships.
Following the 1991 season, Murray led the newly-formed McLaren Cars group. While there he designed a few well-known road-going supercars, including the McLaren SLR, and of course the timeless classic, the F1 - still the measuring stick by which other supercars are measured - 22 years later.
In 2007, Murray founded Gordon Murray Design. They are currently working on several projects, including a lightweight super car and city commuter cars, like the T25 and T27. Clearly, for all his contributions, we've not heard the last of Gordon Murray.