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Brian Hart: Recollections of a racer

ESPN Staff
January 7, 2014
Brian Hart shows Maurice Hamilton his Hart 415T Turbo in his workshop in March 1982 © Maurice Hamilton
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A phone call with Brian Hart was never brief. There would only be one subject - motor racing - a topic about which he would talk at length and with huge enthusiasm. He was admirably qualified to do so.

An engineer from his balding pate to the soles of his favourite loafers, Hart was also a true racer in the sense that he was bloody quick. He proved it by dominating the 1172cc Clubmans formula and later, on a wider stage, in Formula Junior, its successor Formula 3, and European Formula 2. Driving the Mike Costin-designed Protos with a Hart prepared Cosworth FVA, Brian loved the aerodynamic trickery of the little F2 car and complimented it with a skill good enough to set fastest lap and finish second in the flat-out blast at Hockenheim in 1967.

But it was engines - their urgent beat and the cause of that sound - that really held his attention. He established Brian Hart Engines in Harlow in Essex in 1969, making his name by tuning the Ford BDA for rallying and the FVA for racing. It was not uncommon to see Hart arrive in his 3-litre Ford Capri at a European F2 venue with a freshly prepared four-cylinder unit in the back, race readied for one of the top teams of the day.

Race and F2 championship wins with the likes of March [Ronnie Peterson] and Surtees [Mike Hailwood] were all well and good but he really sealed the F2 deal by dominating the championship with the Toleman-Harts driven by Brian Henton and Derek Warwick in 1979.

When Toleman made the move to F1 in 1981, the Rory Byrne-designed chassis was based on a 1.5-turbocharged four-cylinder Hart. The step was too much, too soon for both the team and such a small engine company but, given time, Toleman-Hart showed what they were all about with more than a little help from Ayrton Senna during the Brazilian's F1 debut season in 1984. Second place in the teeming rain at Monaco that year was to bring adequate recognition of progress for both driver and team.

Hart's biggest and most exciting venture by far was designing and building the normally aspirated V10 used by Jordan in 1993 and 1994. The description used by some observers 'A boy doing a man's job' may have been technically correct when comparing Hart's facilities and miniscule budget to those of Renault and Ford-Cosworth but such a simplistic put-down completely missed the point of what this man was all about.

Hart, Eddie Jordan and his technical director Gary Anderson were under no illusions about the yawning gap in resources, but that in itself was part of a challenge on which they thrived. Rather than bitch about his role as David to, say, BMW's Goliath, Hart would openly admire the work of his corporate competitors and they, in turn, would appreciate the job Brian was doing in his little workshop.

Hart would spend many an hour in enthusiastic discussion with the likes of BMW's Paul Rosche, a giant of the specialist industry that generated their mutual respect. When Rubens Barrichello finished third for Jordan-Hart in the 1994 Pacific Grand Prix at Aida, the engine boffins fully understood the significance of this result as Hart's grin split the pit lane.

Jordan moved on to Peugeot for 1995 and Anderson found he was dealing with a committee rather than the sole decision-maker. Gary sorely missed the ability to speak directly to a counterpart who understood exactly what was being asked almost before Anderson had finished the question.

Hart's business was eventually bought by Tom Walkinshaw in 1999, Brian having been unable to resist an involvement in F1 until that point despite the increasing struggle against major manufacturers.

His birthday fell around Monza, the perfect time and location for his many friends to gather every September in the paddock restaurant, open several bottles of wine (he had a penchant for a sweet white which most of us never understood and made up for with plenty of red) and start talking in his inimitable style. Pasta would be served along the way, but that tended to interrupt the gossip and Hart's precise and fascinating analysis of feedback from the drivers, a subject he was intimate with due to his experience behind the wheel.

I could not have had a better tutor in a mechanical world I knew nothing about. Known fondly as 'Jam Tart', his patience was legendary when explaining in simple terms the complexities of his trade. Hart's passing this week at the age of 77 effectively signs off the small engine builder era he mastered so well. And with such wonderful, contagious enthusiasm.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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