Gordon Murray: A legend gets recognition

The CBE awarded to Professor Gordon Murray in the 2019 Queen's New Year Honours is for 'Services to Motoring'. That may be a broad accolade but it's perfectly suited to the hugely talented South African and his contribution to many spheres of motoring, including racing.

The Gordon Murray Group has broken substantial new ground in urban mobility with low cost/emission vehicles, the design division introducing iStream, a process that represents a fundamental rethink about the way cars are designed, developed and manufactured. Much of this is driven (no pun intended) by the Formula One technology Murray embraced during his association with 56 victories in Grand Prix racing.

When he took over Brabham at the end of 1971, Bernie Ecclestone spotted the lanky Murray squeezed into a corner of the drawing office, doing detail work on the F1 car and customer F2 and F3 cars. The story goes that, having been advised to get rid of Murray and keep everyone else, Ecclestone not only did the reverse but eventually tasked the virtually unknown 26-year-old with designing a completely new F1 car for 1973.

The result was the Brabham BT42, sporting a triangular section monocoque that contributed to a sharp and striking appearance. It was quick, too, leading its first race until a driveshaft boot failed, the same applying to the debut of the BT44 when Carlos Reutemann ran out of fuel two laps from the end of the 1974 Argentine Grand Prix. There would be three wins that year, and two more in 1975 with the Brabham BT44B, a car that vies for a place among the most beautiful F1 designs of all time.

Murray's sense of innovation was demonstrated in all its shrewdness in 1978 when he produced the so-called 'Fan Car'. The Brabham BT46B featured a conventional radiator mounted horizontally over the engine and cooled by a gearbox-driven fan. But the trick was to use skirts to seal the rear so that the fan also helped suck the car to the ground and create hitherto unimagined levels of downforce.

There was uproar when Niki Lauda and John Watson finished one-two with the Alfa Romeo powered cars in the Swedish Grand Prix. The BT46B was never declared illegal but Ecclestone agreed to withdraw the car (much to Murray's displeasure), such was Bernie's anxiety to unite rather than upset the British teams in their increasingly tense fight for power with the governing body.

Murray's theme of lightness and simplicity brought his first World Championship with the BT49C in 1981, Nelson Piquet giving the partnership a second title with the ferociously powerful BMW turbo BT52 two years later, helped by Gordon being the first to reintroduce mid-race refuelling.

A move to McLaren in 1987 saw Murray play a leading role in the design team bringing home championships with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. However, Murray's time at Woking is perhaps best remembered for the stunning McLaren F1, which not only won Le Mans but also became the world's fastest production car, reaching 240.1 mph in 1998.

Apart from a deep passion for music (particularly the work of Bob Dylan), Murray also possesses a sharp sense of fun and he will not have missed the irony in switching to the other end of the speed spectrum as he set up his own company in December 2004. The environmental City car was to be the beginning of a completely new way of thinking that nevertheless required that exciting out of the box ethos we first saw in F1 and has now received justified official recognition.