This light green wonder is in my humble opinion one of the most beautiful Formula One cars of the late Nineties. It is also one of the first designs by the later very successful Adrian Newey. But this one cost him his job!
ABBA was often right when they sang “The winner takes it all” – but this car disproves it to me and many others: There are probably many Formula One fans out there who remember the light green racers from the late eighties and the early nineties. But let’s get straight to the matter: What is Leyton House?
It is a Japanese conglomerate of companies originally based on real estate with houses from Jose property management, but later venturing into a variety of other fields as well. The businessman Akira Akagi had taken over after his father and the younger Akagi was well acquainted with motorsports as a way of drawing attention to his progressively growing company. That is how it all started. First Group A, then Group C and finally Formula One. The green colours of Leyton House were eye-catching. The first Fomula One car wearing the green colours took to the grid in 1987 and was a modified Formula 3000-March equipped with a Ford Cosworth DFZ engine. The model name was 871 and that was no beauty revelation.
It was then that Adrian Newey came aboard, and proved that he was a new kind of race car designer: The 27-year old Newey came from the Newman/Haas team in Indycar, but had initially started working in aerospace. Newey used all his knowledge and experience in March’s new racers, which had to be ready for the season of 1988. It was the last season featuring the powerful turbo engines and March didn’t have one of those. Instead they had to make do with a Judd V8 engine with much less horsepower, which meant Newey had to compensate. The means were aerodynamics.
Hence, some say that the March 881 from the season of 1988 is the most revolutionary March ever. That is a topic for discussion, because the fundamental technology and mechanics were really not that much different to that of the other teams. But Newey had put everything at his disposal into optimising the aerodynamics. One of his principles was minimizing the frontal area, so the 881 was both pretty small and extremely slender – one of the things that contributed to it’s beauty.
On the other hand, he had worked on the level of downforce to a previously unseen degree. To enable the extreme aerodynamics to actually work, the car had to be stiffer than ever. The suspension had to hold the chassis as stable as possible in relation to the surface of the track. In 1988 it worked, and the small team managed to finish an impressive sixth in the constructors championship.
It bred desire for more and Newey decided to go even further with the aerodynamics. The team had Judd build a new V8 with a smaller angle between the cylinder rows – to the degree that the width of the new engine matched the shoulder width of the driver! The new Judd 891 was thus even more slender and as a consequence also more aerodynamic.
But this time the trick did not work, mainly because the car suffered non-finishes with a frightening regularity. Capelli’s best result was 12th in Spa while his teammate Gugelmin scored all of three seventh places. But it was all-in-all a miserable season with the sequel to the brilliant 881. It would get even worse when March at the end of the season ran into financil turmoil. Basically the company wanted out of the expensive F1 circus, but Akagi had along the way managed to become both sponsor and shareholder and he chose another direction: He bought all of the March team from the factory to the windtunnel and established Leyton House Racing.
Hereafter Newey went to work again and created yet another new car for the season of 1990. The CG901 was, aerodynamically speaking, once again the most extreme car in the field and the drivers had even less space than before to work in. This was before the size and shape of the cockpit was regulated by the governing body of motorsport authorities, and the cockpit was very tight: When the drivers eventually managed to get in, it wasn’t exactly easy to get up and out again. The scarcity of room was so extreme that the underside of the chassis even featured two small bulges which were intended for the driver’s heels! On more than one occasion the exhausted drivers had to be helped out of the car after a race. So it is probably fair to say that on this occasion Newey went a bit too far.
But Newey was obsessed with optimising, and everything was about the aerodynamics and the other aspects of the car had to respect that – including the drivers. As a consequence the CG901 was very difficult to service as there was literally no space to work on anything anywhere. The transmission mechanism, for example, was routed right through the fuel tank by a cast carbon fiber tunnel. Ultimately the wind tunnel tests proved the new car to be particularly effective and Newey expected great things to come.
He had to wait a long time though, because the first race of 1990 was in Phoenix – and the two March racers qualified last! Only to not finish the race at all. Things got even worse in Brasil, where they couldn’t even qualify. The problem was that the aerodynamics demanded a rock hard suspension to work precisely as intended – but the chassis itself needed more maneuverability in the suspension travel to generate mechanical grip. Their problems were serious, but with a month to go before Imola, Newey and his team created new wheel geometry and new aerodynamics in the form of sidepods, wings and a diffuser. Things got better, but the car still suffered from the lack of harmony between the demands of suspension and aerodynamics respectively. and the car was difficult to set up for a complete lap of the track. Several failures followed in Monaco, Mexico, Montreal and Newey received a lot of criticism and was eventually fired.
It was summer and the French Grand Prix when Newey’s latest package would debut: Again a new wing, new sidepods, new bottom, new exhaust and more. Paul Ricard had a new tarmac laid down for the year, and it was perfectly smooth. This turned out to be a deciding factor. Firstly, the aerodynamics worked perfectly as the car didn’t bounce around as it did on an uneven track. Secondly, the Saturday practice showed that the car was very light on the tires. This enabled Leyton House to start the race on soft tires with the strategy not to stop for a tire change – which all other teams had planned, even when running harder tires.
It was very nearly a huge sensation. Starting positions as eight and twelve on the grid were satisfactory for the team as such, but when the other teams dived for the pit to change tires, Gugelmin and Capelli advanced further up the ranks, until they were placed first and second! This had been seen before, of course, that during tire changes in the pits a lesser car could be sat out front. But slowly the other teams realised that Leyton House meant to drive through, and suddenly the Ferrari of Alain Prost became very busy. He overtook Gugelmin, who had engine trouble – but then he spent quite some time behind Capelli, whom he couldn’t seem to pass. I remember the race myself to this day, because it was utterly unbelievable that the two green racers were able to run at this pace – but they did and Prost had to keep on pushing and pushing. Eventually he succeeded, three laps before the finish, but Capelli maintained second which was sensational enough for Leyton House to celebrate it as a proper victory.
And sensational enough for me to never forget the light green 901 B. The French Grand Prix 1990 was the only race ever where it truly demonstrated it’s talent. The rest of the season the team avoided any further DNQ’s but conversely there were no more top results either. And it continued that way the followeing season. Neweys design was refined and the team changed engine supplier to Ilmor, as their V10 was supposed to be more powerful. It proved to be a rather unstable package: In seven out of the season’s ten first races Capelli retired. And in September of 1991 Akagi was arrested for some rather embarassing tax-related issue, which didn’t help matters – motivationally nor financially. The season was to be the last for Leyton House.
I saw the CG901 at Race Retro in England this winter. And recognized it from far away as one of my old favourites: The colour is not to be mistaken. I immediately remembered it’s stellar moment in France and I enjoyed the beautiful lines that I had only ever seen on television. It simply is beautiful. The expression “Form follows function” has never been more appropriate. Except that it didn’t work quite as well as it looked on anything else than a pool-table-smooth surface. Bizarrely, you almost sense that just by looking at it. Equally, you see that Newey had packaged the car as compact as possible. It is a small car that makes modern F1 cars look overly complicated. Especially its aerodynamics were state of the art back then. Impressively all was based on a good basic design and big wings front and rear, but without the super complex add-ons like today.
In that sense, it makes the CG901 seem like a modern interpretation of a Lotus 79. Only without the success. On the contrary it makes me remember its only success that much better. How about you?