Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

1983 Brabham BMW BT52 at Goodwood 2013. (BMW)
1983 Brabham BMW BT52 at Goodwood 2013. (BMW)

Classic Car: 1983 Brabham BT52

Celebrating 30 years since Nelson Piquet’s magical, mystical turbo-charged F1 victory Add to ...

Brazilian Nelson Piquet won Formula One’s first turbo-era World Driver’s Championship 30 years ago in a Brabham BMW powered by an engine that made his blue-and-white Parmalat racer go like stink – perhaps because it had been peed upon.

The tiny, but mighty, 1.5-litre, four-cylinder tucked behind the Brabham’s cockpit, boosted by a huge KKK turbocharger to produce a prodigious 750 horsepower, was based on a stock cast-iron engine block, just like those used in the popular BMW 2002 sedans. And turbo-mythology has it that, to help deal with the unimaginable stresses involved, engine builders rooted through wrecking yards to find “seasoned” blocks that had covered 100,000 kilometres or left off-the-shelf units out in the weather, where members of the engineering team urinated on them.

More Related to this Story

It was likely all a bit more scientific than that, although, there is a precedent. Ancient Germanic swordsmiths did dip newly forged red-hot blades in urine baths to temper them for cutting-edge performance.

And there was an undeniable element of something akin to ancient alchemy in turning BMW’s everyday-iron street engines into solid-gold Formula One championship winners. They would eventually boast an almost supernatural 1,300-hp output in qualifying spec, a Gotterdammerung-threatening force of unnatural aspiration that led to turbocharging being banned for 1989; apparently for safety reasons, high costs and environmental concerns. The latter was likely linked to their thirst rather than their use as outdoor cast-iron urinals.

Formula One’s first turbo era, which began with Renault’s potent but unreliable RS01 in 1977, and ended just over a decade later with McLaren-Honda dominant, was truly a time when racing’s gods climbed into almighty-powerful machines that haven’t been matched in engine output since. My ears are still ringing from their cannon-like back-blast in the narrow streets of Monaco back on a memorable mid-1980s Sunday.

And their power won’t be topped when Formula One reintroduces turbocharging for the 2014 season. The mandated, 1.6-litre, V-6 engines (fours were originally proposed) used next year will, at least initially, produce about the same 750 hp as the current 2.4-litre V-8s. Oddly, in as-the-world-turns-terms, environmental concerns are being touted as one of the reasons for turbocharging’s return.

To celebrate its past turbo-boosted glories or provide a historic perspective to turbocharging’s comeback, BMW recently completed a restoration of Nelson Piquet’s 1983 championship-winning Brabham BT52. And those lucky enough to attend the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England in July had the opportunity to see and hear it driven once again by the Brazilian ace.

According to his F1 biography, in 1977, Piquet dropped out of university to race Formula Vees, winning the Brazilian championship and promptly heading for Europe, with some of mom’s money in his pocket. There, he won a 1978 British Formula 3 championship, caught the eye of F1 teams, and was hired late that year by Brabham team boss Bernie Ecclestone as second to its lead duelist Niki Lauda.

When Lauda left, Piquet became the number one driver, and helped brilliant designer Gordon Murray develop cars that would win him a pair of world championships, the first in 1981 with Cosworth DFV power, and the second the turbo-championship in 1983. He’d win a third driving a Williams-Honda turbo in 1987.

Piquet left Formula One in 1990, suffered a severe crash while qualifying for the Indy 500 in 1992, raced occasionally after that, then devoted his energies to developing satellite navigation systems that made him a lot of money, some of which he’s been using to support his son Nelson Piquet Jr.’s career.

During his first years with Brabham, Piquet drove cars with many innovative suspension and aero features, powered by normally aspirated Alfa-Romeo and Cosworth DFV engines. The power-plant picture changed in 1982, with what would prove an initially difficult switch to BMW turbo-power. But it all came good in 1983 when a season-long battle with Alain Prost’s Renault saw Piquet emerge the points leader.

BMW began producing turbocharged four-cylinder engines in 1977 for competition versions of its sedans, and in 1980 decided it would become an F1 engine supplier, using the same production-based engine. According to Doug Nye, in his History of the Grand Prix Car, BMW liked the idea of promoting its “M-Power” image by using an engine “just like you can buy.”

Well, not exactly “just like.”

The BMW M12/13 engine did use the stock block, but it was fitted with the successful Formula 2 series twin-cam, four-valve cylinder head, and lots of additional trick bits made from things like titanium, magnesium, beryllium and carbon fibre.

It was also fuel-injected, and bolted to its stainless steel exhaust manifold was that KKK turbocharger, with a CPU chip keeping an electronic eye on how things interacted. Which they did to good effect, according to Nye, putting 650 hp at 9,500 rpm in 1983 race trim and 750 hp-plus in qualifying trim under Piquet’s talented right foot. A couple of years later, they were making that mind-bending 1,300 hp (some say 1,500 hp) and capable of hitting 350 km/h on the longer straightaways.

The years following the 1983 championship run proved tough ones for the team, however, and BMW-powered Brabhams would win no more championships, before BMW called it quits in 1988. Ecclestone sold the team, started by Aussie racer Jack Brabham in 1962, to Japanese interests, who shut it down in 1992.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Back in 1983

The out-of-gas Gimli glider lands safely in the middle of a Manitoba sports car race; folk singer Stan Rogers isn’t as lucky, dying after a fire and forced landing by another Air Canada jet.

Return of the Jedi and Flashdance are showing in movie theatres and after-show dining choices now include McDonald’s McNuggets.

Michael Jackson’s 13-minute Thriller music video is released.

Aussies make news over and under the waves, with the yacht Australia II winning the America’s Cup, and six blokes take an 83-kilometre, 48-hour hike across the bottom of Sydney Harbour.

Follow us on Twitter: @Globe_Drive

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories