Features - Interview

AUGUST 1, 1990

The dog has his day: Chris Murphy


"It's not a well-known fact that I designed this car," said Chris Murphy, looking at the Larrousse Formula 1 team's Lola-Lamborghini. "It's a difficult situation. The team is very French, all the sponsors are French. Officially Gerard Ducarouge designed the car.

"It's not a well-known fact that I designed this car," said Chris Murphy, looking at the Larrousse Formula 1 team's Lola-Lamborghini. "It's a difficult situation. The team is very French, all the sponsors are French. Officially Gerard Ducarouge designed the car.

"But," he added, "I'm a tolerant sort of chap. Every dog has his day..."

Chris Murphy had just fallen off a motorcycle -- landed on his head. But was he out of his mind?

"No," he smiled. "It didn't make much difference landing on my head. You haven't lived until you've fallen off a motorcycle. It's very character-building."

But was this Barry Sheene-in-the-making really a Formula 1 designer? Was this the man whose car had ridden the bumps in Mexico so well that several F1 observers went to the Lola pit to remark on the fact?

"Yup," replied Chris is his distinctive Bolton brogue. "I must say, it's a all very flattering for a country boy with little education. I'm just lucky I guess."

It's an unusual view to be heard from an F1 boffin. Generally-speaking these men believe they have no peer. They are, to use an old expression, self-made men who worship their creators.

Normally you would expect a high-powered aeronautical degree, with stints in the aerospace industry or a doctorate at Imperial College, but not so with Mr Murphy.

"Nay lad," he said, mimicking himself, "I come from t' working class in t'Bolton.

"Actually, my father was a truck driver, my mother a housewife," he explained, serious now. "I am (itals) from Bolton. I left school at 16, with a few O levels -- a pretty basic education really -- and I went into a drawing office, working on industrial shutter doors.

"I had been fiddling about with cars since I was at school. I built my own motorcycle when I was 15 and I always had lots and lots of sporty cars -- a different one every six months. I was interested in cars, so eventually I packed up my drafting job to become a mechanic.

"I worked in a local garage for a couple of years: repairing, spraying, doing bodywork and all that stuff. I was self-employed and I didn't make any money.

"I don't think I really knew racing cars existed. It just crept up on me that the ultimate of what I was doing was racing cars.

"I went to see Chevron about a job as a mechanic, but that was when they went to the wall, so I didn't get work.

"So I started selling insurance door-to-door to the British forces in Germany and finally finished up back in the drawing office, getting really bored.

"By that time, I was dead interested in racing cars. I was spending all my time sketching up chassis for racing cars, wondering how you did it. I started going to a few races at Oulton and Aintree.

"Then I enrolled myself for one of those driver training courses with Team Touraco at Cadwell Park. I went along thinking, 'I'll become racing driver'. I did quite well actually, but was not a superstar by any means. Then I had an enormous shunt at Cadwell; a huge end-over-end, cartwheeling thing at Gooseneck. I just went too fast. I was seeing stars for quite a while.

"I used to be known as Dangerous Murphy after that.

"I did some work for Graeme Glew, looking after some Formula Ford cars as a race mechanic, and I was messing around with Formula Fords for about a year. I had a house which I sold, so I had lots of money which I managed to spend. Then I had to get a proper job again.

"This was as a race mechanic for Maurer Racing Cars in Bolton. I was cheap, so I landed the job.

"It all seemed to happen very fast after that. The following morning I was leaving for a Formula 2 race at Vallelunga. I was going to be third mechanic on Beppe Gabbiani's car.

"I started to learn about racing cars very quickly. Maurer was a very small team, but we made all our own components and had a lot of experienced people. Paul Owens ran the team and Paul Brown was the designer.

"We were just experimenting with carbon fibre composite, at a time when very few people were using it. We were making the bits ourselves, getting some help from guys we knew in British Aerospace. It was a lovely little car."

Gabbiani's third mechanic, however, was about to make a huge leap forward.

"At the end of that year -- 1982 -- I dropped some subtle hints that I could draw a bit," he explained. "Paul Brown was working on his own and it was the sort of place where there were so few people that everyone had four or five jobs. So I became draftsman, van driver, storeman, and eventually composite laminator. Sometimes I was a race mechanic as well.

"I had to bring my own drawing board from home and the drawing office wasn't big enough for two boards, so I drew in the workshop.

"Paul conceptually designed the 1983 car and I detailed quite a lot of it. I think Paul was a bit surprised about that. Actually, I surprised myself as well, because I got into it quickly and easily -- and it worked! He really encouraged me and I owe a lot to him.

"That year we had Stefan Bellof, Alain Ferte and Kenny Acheson in Formula 2. We ran Kenny from England and the other two from Germany. The team was a bit split up and there was an us-and-them situation.

"We muddled on but the whole Maurer thing went to pieces at the end of the year."

The Maurer personnel went on, however and before long were working on a project for Armstrong motorcycles.

"We made the motor cycle frames and swinging arms for the 250cc GP bike and a guy called Neil McKenzie rated the bike quite highly. He's quite big these days.

"Then Paul Brown was seconded away to RK Technologies, a carbon fibre manufacturer in Inverness. I followed and we set up a research department to look at the possibilities. They were into commercial grade carbon and I learned a lot from the very basic first principles of carbon technology.

"We had lots of interesting projects: squash and tennis rackets, and some really sophistocated electric guitars.

"We even became involved with big music industry people. They were really wild! It was a bit of an eye-opener. A lot of famous people played our guitars: people like Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics and Eric Clapton.

"We also got involved in making mortar launchers and machine pistols! Oddly enough, the guy who was trying to commission these was quite clearly involved with dodgy people, so we declined to carry on with that after an initial feasibility study."

While Murphy was working at RK, he was approached by Bob Fearnley to design a CanAm car -- the RK-March 847.

"That was the first time I'd actually designed a car myself. It was based around an March 82C Indycar which we chopped the back off. The deal was for Jim Crawford to drive the car, but Michael Roe was in a VDS car and he dominated the championship. Jim won a few races and came second in the championship.

"After that Paul Brown went to Zakspeed and started to design the first F1 car. He did all that himself, but at the end he was completely shagged out and I came along to finish it.

"It was such a tiny little team that it was amazing how it all came together. Before that the best Zakspeed was doing was making bits of bodywork for the C100.

"Jonathan Palmer drove the car and thought it was all right. He was very enthusiastic about the whole thing, being a great optimist. He carried the thing along and extracted the best from the car. It wasn't that good, but it launched Zakspeed into F1."

As the F1 project was getting going Michael Kranefuss approached Zakspeed to embark of the Ford IMSA GTP project. Brown and Murphy were given the job of designing the chassis. It was going to be a revolutionary all-carbon modular concept chassis.

"It was beautiful," remembers Chris, "and a really nice sports car. That was 1985 and I went out to the States to run it. Klaus Ludwig was the driver. He's bloody good, put him in a bath-tub and he'd go quick. He could put it on pole without difficulty and we won some races. It was a good car, but it wasn't brilliant, even so we had less success than we should have done."

The project ran on into 1986 with Murphy watching over the car.

"At about that time Paul found himself talking to his drawing board one day and packed up the F1 project," explained Chris. "I was asked by Erich to take his place and design the next car.

"So I went along and fought the Germans for the winter and produced a new chassis, which was pretty much an uprated 1986 car. Christian Danner and Martin Brundle came in to drive.

"That was the first time I met Christian and we got on well from the start. We have a great affinity. He gives tremendous feedback which I was able to act on. In fairness to Martin, he wasn't getting the same technical back-up that year so he used to join in with Christian and I.

"I don't think it was a particularly brilliant car. We were hamstrung by money in the initial design and committee decisions. We did our best with it and, I think, we always got the best out of it. Fortunately we managed to get some points in one of the early races.

"It was an enjoyable season because Christian and I developed such a good friendship. During that year I started to talking to Ralph Bellamy -- a good friend of Christian's from Formula 2 days -- who had designed the 1987 Larrousse Lola.

"We decided to put together a mega-deal: Ralph and I were going to design the car and run Christian in it. I saw out my contract with Erich and joined Lola on January 1 1988.

"We had only a short space of time and it was a big struggle to get the car designed and build before Rio. It had hardly any wind-tunnel testing. Within the confines of the situation, we did the best we could, but it wasn't really a great car.

"Then the Christian deal fell through and Ralph fell out with Larrousse and subsequently left the organisation. The team was unsure what to do to replace Ralph and the whole thing lost its way.

"The low-point was at Silverstone. I was then asked to start engineering Philippe's car and things took a bit of an upswing -- but only a bit. Basically, we saw the season out.

"I have to say I felt a little bit pleased with myself after Philippe's shunt in Mexico. The car saved his life. There is luck involved, but we proved the structural integrity of the car.

"We started thinking about the 1989 car in July or August last year and did a conceptual design. A third scale mock-up was tried in a wind-tunnel at Cranfield. Then we all sat down and discussed it in October. The decision was taken to abandon the mock-up and start again.

"At that point the job was handed to me in total. I started with a clean sheet of paper. The car is totally new, the only carry-over from the old car is the bracket that holds the pedals.

"I did a lot of wind tunnel work and developed the shape. It hasn't changed much. Gerard Ducarouge came along in December and was a great help. The body and chassis were done and I was scheming out the suspension. He massaged the details. Gerard's a great motivator and it certainly made a big difference having him there.

"We really flogged ourselves to death on the car, worked 12-14 hours day, seven days a week."

This year has not been easy for the team, but the car has proved very quick when the engines have run without problem. Murphy remains untroubled. His feet are planted firmly on the ground.

"That is very important in this business," he said. "It's so superficial but it has a veneer of sophistocation, but it is (itals) only a veneer. Having your feet on the ground helps you to be relaxed about it all."

Alongside the highly-qualified engineers, does Chris ever feel out of his depth?

"Out of my depth? All the bloody time! Everyone is (itals) in this business. It all happens so fast. You learn so quickly. My learning curve has been incredibly steep because I've always been thrown in at the deep end. It's either sink or swim. Invariably one swims.

"I am surprised how easy it has been and I hope that it will go further and further. But I'm cautiously ambitious, I know there are limitations that have nothing to do with one's ability.

"All the time I am reaching a peak. You cannot have enough knowledge. I wouldn't say I know it all, and that I know how to design the next GP winner. It's a constant development, getting dialled into the situation."

Murphy is still very much on the way up, like many engineers he has, in the past, worked alongside others, getting very little of the credit. But the important people in F1 will have spotted that the Lola is his work.

The other day in Hungary Ron Dennis was having a close look at the Lola. Clearly he doesn't like another team having a car which handles better than one of his McLarens on any corner, anywhere in the world...