Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe
Special feature

How to be an ace engineer: Experienced designer Andrew Thorby

Pushing the envelope of designing racing cars isn’t a phenomenon limited to Formula 1. Andrew Thorby’s career only briefly crossed paths with motorsport’s best-known discipline as he instead chose to forge his path in junior formula and sportscars

Alvaro Parente, Carlin

Alvaro Parente, Carlin

Gareth Bumstead

Andrew Thorby didn’t heed the best advice he says he was ever given in a motorsport career that has spanned over four decades designing and engineering cars across the spectrum of single-seaters and sportscars.

In 1981, Thorby left Lola to join Nimrod Racing Automobiles and moved his family up to rural North Staffordshire only for the company to go bust soon after. But what he calls the “invigorating challenge” of designing the NRA/C2 using the day’s new technology, carbon fibre, and doing so “totally on my own” against looming opposition in the form of Porsche’s Group C era-defining 956 demonstrates a determination to push the envelope even in less-than-ideal circumstances that he would rely on again in future years.

PLUS: How Porsche's Le Mans legend changed the game

Having initially pursued a law career upon finishing education, since “at the time I didn’t realise that there was a living to be made from designing cars”, Thorby never looked back upon taking the plunge into the motorsport industry. After cutting his teeth working on glassfibre bodywork at Specialised Mouldings in Huntingdon, he made “a massive upgrade” to the design office at nearby Lola in 1977 and got stuck in with everything from Formula Ford to Indycar and Group C, “on all aspects of those cars”.

Key to the appeal, he explains, was gaining experience with a wide variety of machinery, and learning the discipline of designing within a budget. It helped that Lola’s Eric Broadley, who had taken him on – “it must have been a gamble for Eric, though a cheap one!” – was “the best concept designer” he worked with.

“I was extremely fortunate to work at Lola at that time,” he says. “The depth of motor racing experience among the design and workshop staff was huge, and learning from them was easy. The breadth of work meant that you learned about engineering for value as well as for performance.”

Top 10: Ranking the greatest Lola racing cars 

Having played a key role in shaping the T600 which immediately became a winner when it was fielded in IMSA in 1981, Thorby was no stranger to sportscars when he joined the Nimrod-Aston Martin project. Early promise as the car claimed seventh at Le Mans in 1982 – Thorby present as an observer – was not sustained and financial trouble caused the company to shut its doors in 1983. And although Nimrods raced on until 1984, Thorby had already moved on to Reynard in what turned out to be a short-lived stint designing the SF84 Formula Ford 2000.

Nimrod NRA/C2 finished seventh at Le Mans in 1982, but the project was scuppered by financial woes

Nimrod NRA/C2 finished seventh at Le Mans in 1982, but the project was scuppered by financial woes

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“It was Eric who advised me not to go [to Nimrod],” confirms Thorby. “If I'd stayed, I might have been part of Lola's CART programme. That would have been very interesting, with a lot of aero research.”

Meanwhile, Thorby was building his repertoire as a trackside race engineer, despite admitting to lacking patience for the car- and driver-management side of race engineering.

“I’m really a designer, but I believe strongly that you need to work with racing cars on track in order to find out what makes them go fast in the real world, not simply in simulation,” he says. “It’s fairly depressing to work in many modern series where you’re so restricted in what you can change. But when you connect with the car and find out its sensitivities, and build a rapport with the driver, it’s very satisfying.”

"The 88-C and the 89-CV were both a little behind the state of the art and couldn't match the aero performance of the Sauber and Jaguar or the fuel efficiency of the Porsche-engined cars. The technical side of the Toyota programme was fairly low-key" Andrew Thorby

Thorby enjoyed a race-winning British Formula 3 campaign in 1985 as Gerrit Van Kouwen finished fifth aboard a Pegasus Motorsport Ralt, then after a year of running Volker Weidler’s Bromley Ralt in the 1986 Formula 3000 championship that peaked when the German led on scrubbed wets at Silverstone, he was in charge of the set-up sheet when Martin Donnelly claimed the 1987 Macau Grand Prix in an Intersport Ralt-Toyota RT31.

“Martin’s victory was down to him – an amazing driver,” says Thorby of the future grand prix racer.

For 1988 he joined TOM’S on Toyota’s Group C programme that was initially focused on the Japanese series. He spent that first year race engineering before his remit grew for 1989 when Toyota expanded into the World Sportscar Championship, Thorby heading up Intersport boss Glen Walters’s Norfolk-based TOM’S GB sister outfit as chief engineer.

Far from the dominant force of today’s World Endurance Championship, Toyota was never in the fight as Sauber-Mercedes and Jaguar squabbled for supremacy, leaving the Japanese and British-run cars breathless in their wake struggling for both speed and fuel consumption.

Fourth at Dijon for Johnny Dumfries and Geoff Lees, using the old 4-cylinder 88C which had finished 12th on its only WSPC start of 1988 at Le Mans, was the high point of a 1989 season that saw the introduction of its new 3.2-litre V8 89CV. The car built in-house by TRD peaked with sixth on debut at Suzuka for Paolo Barilla and Hitoshi Ogawa after briefly leading early on, as several promising showings could not be sustained when the fuel burned off.

Spell as chief engineer on Toyota's Group C cars came with limited success - pictured here is the 89C-V

Spell as chief engineer on Toyota's Group C cars came with limited success - pictured here is the 89C-V

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“The 88-C and the 89-CV were both a little behind the state of the art and couldn't match the aero performance of the Sauber and Jaguar or the fuel efficiency of the Porsche-engined cars,” says Thorby. “In comparison, the technical side of the Toyota programme was fairly low-key, and outdated.”

The 1990 swansong for the turbo formula was little better despite the advent of a more powerful 3.6-litre engine in a new 90CV chassis, with Dijon the nadir as both cars suffered engine failures inside the first 10 laps. Thorby admits he “wasn't enjoying the WSPC side, as engineer on a car I had no design input to” and had left by the time Toyota’s 3.5-litre TS010 racer came on stream towards the end of 1991, before Lees and Ogawa won the opening round of 1992 at Monza.

But his time at TOM’S had a clear high point: the sleek full-carbon 031F was arguably the most innovative chassis of the 1991 British F3 season and won on debut at Silverstone in Rickard Rydell’s hands. It cruised to that year’s Japanese title with Paolo Carcasci, but in Britain, it was hampered by a lack of straightline speed in races and limited supply of Japanese-built engines as Rydell slid to sixth in the final standings.

PLUS: The Formula 3 oddity that became a fast failure 

“I wanted as few compromises as possible in any area, and I had Glen's backing for that,” he says. “I knew that 160bhp wasn't going to be able to tow around huge downforce, so that mechanical grip and purity of response to driver input were the key. I guess that purity of response is always my main focus.”

Intriguingly, however, Thorby says his legal training hasn’t been as significant as many might believe when it comes to interpreting regulations.

“I thought it was an asset until I realised that for a lot of regulating bodies the technical regulations as written are not a legal text but more or less a storyboard of how they want their show to go,” he says.

Before 1991 was out, Thorby had been recruited by Ralt’s new owner, March, and penned the carbon fibre RT36 F3 racer for 1992. Just as the 031F had done the year before, it won the opening round at Donington in Marcel Albers’ hands.

Thorby designed the Ralt RT36 which proved a winner with Marcel Albers in 1992 before his tragic death at Thruxton

Thorby designed the Ralt RT36 which proved a winner with Marcel Albers in 1992 before his tragic death at Thruxton

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The Alan Docking Racing driver appeared the best bet of halting PSR Reynard driver Gil de Ferran’s run to the title, until his fatal accident in round three at Thruxton.

PLUS: Remembering lost Dutch F1 hopeful Marcel Albers

That curtailed Ralt’s momentum although Albers’ replacement Philippe Adams, who would go on to enjoy a forgettable Lotus Formula 1 stint in 1994, proved the concept’s worth by taking second in the standings. But March was in a “difficult phase,” Thorby recalls, which motivated his next career move: “It was seemingly in managed decline and had no long-term future.”

After departing March, Thorby spent most of the year developing the P1 Motorsport-tended Van Diemen RF92s. On its first F3 effort since assisting with GRD’s efforts two decades prior, Jason Plato and later Julian Westwood struggled to overcome the car’s inherent shortcomings although Thorby cites Ralph Firman Sr as his favourite boss to work under. Among the RF92’s many limitations, he recalls, “probably the most significant were the front monoshock with no compliance, the lack of structural rigidity around the back end, and the shock loads on the coaxial rear rockers which disturbed the back of the car over bumps”.

Thorby wasn’t short on opportunities to work in F1 and “had a couple of chances”, but only at a point “when F1 was losing its attraction” as design teams swelled and a chief designer was no longer directly responsible for all aspects of the car. But he did get to sample the top division when he ran Bertrand Gachot at the short-lived Pacific F1 squad in 1994.

"I have done some contract design in F1, but never really felt motivated to work in F1. I missed the 1980's/90's bus, which I would have enjoyed, but basically I enjoy ploughing my own furrow" Andrew Thorby

Despite the Reynard-penned PR01’s visual similarities with that year’s title-winning Benetton B194 it was a year of toil for little reward as Gachot and team-mate Paul Belmondo regularly struggled to qualify. It would prove his only F1 involvement as Thorby decided he wasn’t missing much.

“I have done some contract design in F1, but never really felt motivated to work in F1,” says Thorby. “I missed the 1980's/90's bus, which I would have enjoyed, but basically I enjoy ploughing my own furrow.”

This he did working on a freelance basis for TOM’S and Van Diemen, designing a Le Mans prototype for the former in 1996 that never raced, before returning to Reynard to work on a new-for-1998 Barber Dodge, the 98E, and the pioneering Panoz Q9 electric hybrid known as ‘Sparky’.

This affiliation with Panoz, the American outfit responsible for bringing front-wheel drive racers back to Le Mans, continued in 1999 when he was tasked with developing the LMP-1 Roadster S out of the original Nigel Stroud-penned GT1 car of 1997. Thorby is proud that the car was 50% more aerodynamically effective.

Thorby's only dalliance with Formula 1 running Bertrand Gachot's Pacific PR01 was hardly memorable

Thorby's only dalliance with Formula 1 running Bertrand Gachot's Pacific PR01 was hardly memorable

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

He then came up with the ambitious but troubled LMP07 that after a disappointing debut in the final round of the 2000 American Le Mans Series in Adelaide was replaced before the end of 2001 by its predecessor after struggling for performance and reliability.

Disrupted wind tunnel testing – “the Glasgow University wind tunnel failed every time we travelled up there, the aero programme was a write-off” – meant a lack of cooling was not discovered until it was too late, while Thorby also believes the 4.0-litre Zytek powerplant that replaced Elan’s 6.0-litre V8 wasn’t properly reconfigured for a front-engine racer.

“The gearbox generated too much internal friction and overheated, but that was exacerbated by the fact that it sat within the chassis structure with no airflow over it,” Thorby explains. “The engine (not my choice) was a big problem because it was installed ahead of a chassis (and driver) rather than behind as its designer intended. It also vibrated with an energy and at a frequency that cracked steel tube and shook racing fasteners loose. It also broke its own internal structure, cracking main bearing webs.

Read Also:

“The main lesson was the one that all designers have to learn - don't let your ambition outstrip your resources. I felt that because there were some performance penalties for a front engined car built into the technical regulations, which had never envisaged such a thing, I had to push extra hard in every direction, all at the same time. A simpler car would probably have performed better, though engine vibration would still have been a problem.”

Thorby was also behind another forgotten prototype from the early 2000s, which despite its limited impact he classes as one of his favourite projects along with the 1991 031F. It’s no exaggeration to state that the Chevrolet V8-powered Lister Storm LMP didn’t make the impression its GT namesake had done in the FIA GT and British GT championships upon its arrival in 2003.

Insight: When Lister produced an FIA GT giantkilling 

One finish in three attempts at Le Mans and a third place in the opening round of the 2006 Le Mans Series in Istanbul, seven laps down on the winning Pescarolo, were the sum of its achievements on the biggest stage. But to Thorby, whose contract only covered its design and not running the car, its lack of results don’t correlate with satisfaction.

“I had time, total responsibility and just enough resources to do what I wanted,” says Thorby of the 031F and Lister. “On both, I was working with a small team of very skilled people – one or two more designers, model makers, composites guys, fabricators, machinists, mechanics - and it’s working with people like that during the build of a new car that gives me the biggest buzz.”

Problems with the ambitious but troubled Panoz LMP07 taught Thorby valuable lessons

Problems with the ambitious but troubled Panoz LMP07 taught Thorby valuable lessons

Photo by: James Bearne

The season he regards as “probably the highlight in terms of results” came back in F3 when he ran Carlin’s Alvaro Parente to the British championship title in 2005. Despite missing the first round, the Portuguese was comfortably the class of the field and won 11 of his 18 race starts - including a hattrick at Monza with his Dallara-Mugen.

Following an A1GP stint with Team Australia during the second season of the championship running Ryan Briscoe and Karl Reindler to podiums at Zandvoort and on the farcical Beijing street track, Thorby would be reunited with Parente in 2011 when the pensmith joined CRS as chief designer on the first McLaren GT3 racer, the MP4-12C.

Parente was integral to developing a car Thorby concedes was “too conservative”, since “when you come into a category as a new constructor, you're not always aware of the rate of change in technical sophistication of the established constructors, your benchmark is their existing product”, and gave the car a competition debut at the Spa 24 Hours having been signed as a factory driver.

"I had to push extra hard in every direction, all at the same time. A simpler car would probably have performed better, though engine vibration would still have been a problem" Andrew Thorby

“He was an amazing racer, and we had great mechanics,” recalls Thorby. “I was very impressed with both his car control and his racecraft. To me, he was the class of that field.”

Thorby remains a close observer of current trends in motorsport and the motor industry at large. In his view, electric and hybrid powertrains “add enormously to the cost of buying and running a race car, and contribute nothing to the enjoyment”. He instead sees great potential in green fuels as an avenue for making sustainable motorsport affordable.

“The analogy I make is the transition from horse racing in the 18th century, when the horse was the main means of transport, to horse racing in the 20th century, when the horse was obsolete as a means of transport but racing continued to thrive,” he says. “I think the internal combustion engine has a future in racing. Improvements in efficiency should still be actively encouraged, but without adding to cost, weight and complexity.”

Is it any wonder that Thorby shunned the hyper-specialised world of F1?

Advice for engineers from Andrew Thorby

  • Use the analysis tools you have, but understand their limitations. That’s particularly applicable to race engineers: looking up at the clouds or at the tyres are inputs as valid as sensor readings or lap simulations to any decision on car set-up.
  • If you're a designer, don't let your ambition outstrip your resources!
  • Value your colleagues. Simple as that.
Title success with Parente in the 2005 British Formula 3 season is one of Thorby's favourite memories

Title success with Parente in the 2005 British Formula 3 season is one of Thorby's favourite memories

Photo by: Sutton Images

Be part of Autosport community

Join the conversation
Previous article Magazine: Verstappen seals F1 world title in Qatar GP
Next article Top five roles on Motorsport Jobs this week

Top Comments

There are no comments at the moment. Would you like to write one?

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe