PEOPLE: NICK WIRTH

Name: Nick Wirth
Nationality: Great Britain

Nick Wirth cannot remember when he was not fascinated by engineering. He quickly developed from Lego to creating rockets powered by highly-explosive mixtures of weedkiller and sugar. Although he attended a British public school, Wirth was a wild child, driving cars illegally at 14 and narrowly avoiding being expelled for missing classes. Eventually, however, he settled down and won a place at University College London to study mechanical engineering and naval architecture. He soon made friends with Mark Herd, son of March Engineering founder Robin Herd and the relationship led Wirth to work for March one summer. In his final year he wrote a thesis on the airflow within engines, following a period spent with Brian Hart. This won the Institute of Mechanical Engineers Prize. He graduated with a First class honors degree and two days later began working at March as an aerodynamicist under chief designer Gordon Coppuck. In 1987 he and Adrian Newey worked together on the March 881 Grand Prix car and the following year was asked to design a March-Nissan Le Mans car for Tom Kanawa. He worked as the trackside engineer on the program and then began to develop an active suspension system.

In October 1988 he was approached by Ligier and offered the job of chief designer. He decided to stay at March but the following year March was sold to Japanese businessman Akira Akagi of Leyton House and Herd recommended Wirth to his former March partner Max Mosley, who was looking to invest in a high technology racing company. Simtek Research Ltd. was formed in August that year by Mosley and Wirth. Simtek (which stands for Simulation Technology) began with just Wirth and one other engineer, Darren Davis, working in Nick's home but it grew quickly and with Mosley's backing built its own windtunnel at its base in Banbury, Oxfordshire. Mosley's connections in the automotive world allowed the pair to build an impressive client list including the FIA, BMW, the French government and Ligier (for which Simtek designed and installed a windtunnel at Magny-Cours). In 1990 Wirth secretly designed a F1 car for BMW but the project was shelved.

Two years later when Mosley was elected President of the FIA he sold his share in Simtek to Wirth. That same year Wirth built the F1 chassis for the ill-fated Andrea Moda Formula (based on the BMW design). The team was hopeless and the car was never able to show its potential. A revised version of the car was to have been used for the planned Bravo F1 team in 1993, but the sudden death of project founder Jean Mosnier forced the project to be canceled. Frustrated by these setbacks Wirth decided that he was going to start his own F1 team and founded Simtek Grand Prix in August 1993. The team was launched three months later and in December the Simtek-Ford S941 ran for the first time. The team signed a deal with MTV and hired drivers David Brabham and Roland Ratzenberger but at the team's third event - the San Marino GP - Ratzenberger died after a high-speed accident. The team regrouped but struggled financially throughout 1994 and in June 1995 had to drop out of F1 with $9 million of debts. The assets of Simtek Grand Prix and Simtek Research were sold at auction in July 1995.

Wirth found himself with job offers from Ferrari, Sauber and Benetton, joining the last-named because he wanted to work in England. He became chief designer at the start of 1997. At the end of 1999 Benetton had not been successful and, unable to agree on a policy with the management of the team, Wirth resigned. In recent years he has worked in robotics.

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