British influence at Ferrari is not new, dating back to the 1950s, when Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins made a big impression, the former winning the World Championship for the Italian team in 1958.
A string of other British drivers raced for Ferrari, notably Tony Brooks, Cliff Allison, John Surtees, Mike Parkes, Jonathan Williams and Derek Bell. Then there was then a very long gap before Johnny Dumfries was signed up as a test driver in 1985 and four years later Nigel Mansell joined the team. And then, of course, there was Eddie Irvine.
There have been plenty of British engineers as well, from Parkes in the early 1960s to Harvey Postlethwaite, John Barnard, Ross Brawn, Pat Fry and James Allison.
What is often forgotten is that the team’s first full monocoque chassis (as opposed to a semi-monocoque) was also built by John Thompson, who ran a company called TC Prototypes, in Weedon, a small village on the A5, in Northamptonshire…
At the time, it was 1972, Ferrari had not won an F1 World Championship title since 1964. The Italian fans were impatient.
The change to “the 3-litre formula” in 1966 saw the team introduce the Ferrari 312, designed by Mauro Forghieri, which was used until 1969. This was followed by the 312B in 1970 with which Jacky Ickx won three Grands Prix. This in turn was followed by the 312B2 in 1971 and the same car was revised for 1972. Ickx won the German GP that season, but Ferrari dropped to fourth in the Constructors’ Championship and pressure for change grew.
Forghieri intended to take the world by storm with a new car with a full-width nose and square bodywork, unveiled in August 1972. The 312 B3, as it was known, soon earned the nickname “spazzaneve”, meaning snowplow. It was tested by Jacky Ickx and Arturo Merzario and neither was impressed and Enzo Ferrari blew his top and banished Forghieri to the Special Projects department. Soon afterwards, team manager Peter Schetty decided to go back to his family’s business in Switzerland.
In Forghieri’s place, Ferrari appointed Sandro Colombo, a graduate of the Politecnico di Milano, who had worked mainly in motorcycle design, with Gilera, Bianchi, Ossa and then Innocenti, which he had joined in 1960. He got to know Ferrari in 1963 when Innocenti tried to make a sporting coupé, which was to be powered by a Ferrari engine. Later, when Innocenti was taken over by British Leyland, Colombo left and went to work at the Centro Ricerche Fiat in Orbassano, near Turin. He was then seconded by Fiat to Ferrari, joining the company in April 1972. He was 48 and a man who understood the practicalities of engineering. His conclusion was that Ferrari was being regularly beaten by British engineers and so the best thing to do was to go to the British to broaden the Italian team’s knowledge. The spazzaneve project was discarded and a new full monocoque car was designed, although (oddly) it retained the same 312 B3 nomenclature, presumably to avoid embarrassment.
Colombo did some research and heard about the 32-year-old metal-working wizard who had been working in motorsport for a decade, initially with Bruce McLaren, where he first gained the reputation of being a magician. McLaren designer Robin Herd then took him to Cosworth to work on the engine firm’s F1 car in 1969 before they both moved on to March Engineering, where Thompson worked on the early March designs.
At the end of 1970, however, Thompson decided to set up his own business, TC Prototypes, and work for whoever was willing to pay him.
A fortnight after the 1972 season ended, Colombo went to England for the London Motor Show at Earls Court. He arranged a meeting with Thompson at Weedon, and arrived with a briefcase full of drawings, asking Thompson how much it would cost to build three bare monocoque chassis. Thompson was impressed by the quality of the draftsmanship and jumped at the chance. This kept TC Prototypes busy that winter.
The F1 season in 1973 started in Argentina at the end of January and Ferrari had no choice but to use the old 312 B2s. Ickx was fourth in Buenos Aires and Merzario was fourth in both Brazil and South Africa, which followed. There was then an eight-week gap before the European season began in Spain. The three Thompson chassis had been sent out to Italy by then, but only one car was ready for Ickx and he finished a miserable 12th. There was still only one car for Belgium and Ickx retired with an oil pump failure. Ferrari returned to running two cars in Monaco, but both had mechanical failures and Ferrari began to lose heart. There was only one car sent to Sweden, although Ickx finished sixth and in France he was fifth with Merzario seventh, but then it was back down to one car again for the British GP. Ferrari then missed both the Dutch and German GPs as upheaval followed in Maranello. Colombo went back to Fiat and Forghieri returned from his exile. The car was revised in Austria, but Ickx had lost interest, although Merzario finished seventh. Ickx rejoined the team in Monza before leaving completely, so Ferrari sent only one car to the final two races. The Italians like to blame the poor season on the decision to buy a British product, but Forghieri retained the monocoque, even if he changed most of the rest of the car. Luca Montezemolo was called in to become the new sporting director and Ferrari abandoned its sports car racing projects, in order to concentrate solely on F1. New drivers, Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni, were hired from BRM.
It was easy to blame the “Thompson B3s” and Forghieri had no desire to give the English any credit, but the 1973 car provided him was a good starting point for the 1974 B3s, which were much more competitive and set the team on an upward path again.
Colombo became the product manager for the Fiat 131 and then moved on to become head of development at Magneti Marelli.