In Formula One, the low budget teams have a way of disappearing rather quickly unless they happen to touch on a moment of greatness that takes them from the ranks of the less-than to those with more than enough. Very rarely are there what could be considered 'survivors'; those that just seem to manage to hang on year after year. Morris Nunn, however, would prove to be one of those that would become the very definition of the 'shoe-string' budget.
Mo Nunn would first become a very successful car designer and builder within the Formula 3 ranks. This success within his Ensign Formula 3 team would lead to him being approached by Rikki von Opel to build a Formula One car to be run during the 1973 season.
Nunn would accept the opportunity and would set to work. Soon, he would unveil his first prototype, the Ensign N173. The car would debut at the French Grand Prix and would carry on through to the end of the season. Although Ensign had the support of the wealthy von Opel behind it, the team remained one of the lowest-budgeted teams of 1973, and yet, would manage to be around the next year, and then the year after that.
Production of racing cars is by no means a cheap endeavor, and yet, production is exactly one of the ways in which some producers help themselves to stay in business. Nunn's Ensign operation would be no exception. By the mid-1970s, Ensign was producing straight-forward competitive chassis available for customer purchase. Based around the sought after customer Cosworth engine and the popular Hewland gearbox, Nunn would provide customers with a no-nonsense Formula One car.
Year after year, Nunn would manage just enough sponsorship money to keep Ensign developing cars and racing. Nunn would move forward with yet another design, the N176. Unfortunately, the 1976 season would seemingly be a never ending series of accidents. The worse of these accidents would come in the very last race of the season.
At Watkins Glen, Jacky Ickx would be at the wheel of one of the Ensigns, desperately pushing to get the absolute best possible out of the car. Unfortunately, Ickx would lose control of the car and the result would be the Ensign being torn into two big pieces. Thankfully, Ickx would be whole in one of the pieces. This brought to an end what had been a season better forgotten. Still, the Ensign team remained and remained focused on doing what it could with what it had.
Ensign's base in Walsall, England would not be like the big commercial teams of Ferrari, Lotus, etc. However, the team would consist of a group of individuals working more like a family than those involved in a business and motor racing project. Because of this family atmosphere and hard work ethic from the professional crew Ensign would manage to secure sponsorship money from Tissot watches and Castrol Oil. With the money, Nunn would set about redesigning the N176.
Nunn would stick with the basic design of the N176 as the basis for the updated chassis. The nose of the new N177 would remain the same sporting a narrow wedged-shape nose with large front wings attached to either side. The shape of the nose would change in design to a dramatic 'Y' shape as the leading edge of the bodywork would serve as the hinge mounting point for the double wishbone front suspension. Interestingly, the coil springs would be mounted differently than most every other car of the period. While most worked hard at either mounting the coil springs inside the chassis or at an outward angle, the N177's coil springs would be mounted with the top attached at a point further out than the bottom. Therefore, the springs would be mounted in a 'V' shape. This would make for some very interesting suspension components being added to the car in order to take advantage of the coil sprung suspension in its pulled-in mounted position.
The leading edge of the bodywork would continue straight back alongside the tall cockpit position. The leading edges on either side would then dramatically turn outwards again to fashion a pair of radiator sidepods for the car. Additionally, on the trailing edge of the sidepods, the N177 would sport a pair of bodywork flip-ups that would help to direct some of the air flowing over the top of the bodywork up and over the large rear tires.
The rear end of the car sported the large rear wing and a single piece of bodywork covering all but the top of the 3.0-liter Cosworth DFV engine. The Cosworth engines, at that time, were becoming a little bit more of a rare breed with the costs for each going up and the miles in between rebuilds seemingly growing less and less. Hindered by the aft-mounted oil coolers, the Ensign N177's Cosworth would struggle to give the car a very competitive top speed. Its handling, however, would be something that would be striking to its drivers.
Clay Regazzoni would come to Ensign for 1977 taking the seat in the team away from Ickx. Initial impressions of the Ensign, considering Regazzoni had just left Ferrari, were that the car was very good. In fact, Regazzoni would comment as to how impressed he was with the N177 and noted that it 'felt similar to the Ferrari 312'. Clay would note 'the handling and braking of the Ensign were its most impressive points.' This would be made possible as a result of the twin caliper front disc brakes. All in all, the car was a very good and stable machine just in need of more straight-line speed. Obviously the 480bhp being pumped out by the Cosworth just weren't enough to overcome some of the car's design flaws.
Over the course of the 1977 season, however, it wouldn't be the design issues with the car that would cause the problems suffered by Regazzoni. In fact, the strung out Cosworth engine would play a major part in the team's woes as budget concerns would leave Clay driving weakened engines just a little too long. Still, Regazzoni would manage a couple of 5th place results at the Italian and United States Grand Prix. All told, Ensign would earn a total of 10 points over the course of the season and would finish 10th in the constructors' championship standings.
The 1978 season would see Ensign stick with the N177. However, there would be some important changes made to the car in order to help with the straight-line speed issues. One of the main changes that would be made would be to position the oil coolers up in the nose of the car. This took the blunt objects out of the airstream in its aft-mounted position and allowed them to be housed in the nose in a much more aerodynamically-sympathetic position.
More updates and evolutions to the chassis would help the car to remain in service up to 1979. However, a solitary point earned in the Canadian Grand Prix in 1978 would prove to be the final championship point the N177 would ever earn in Formula One. The 1977 season, therefore, would prove to not only be the most successful season for the N177, but it would also prove to be the most successful season for Ensign in its entire Formula One history.
Although Ensign would manage to scrape together enough money, year after year, to remain in Formula One when it seemed utterly impossible, the sheer lack of any podium finishes or victories meant the team was destined to find the money would run out at some point. Amazingly, that time wouldn't come until the end of the 1982 season with its last Formula One chassis, the N181.
Nunn certainly had a gift for survival. He would later take this gift and would become a designing champion within the Champ Car series with drivers like Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya. However, the Formula One era of Nunn's career had come to an end.
Although Ensign disappeared from Formula One, their cars remain a regular sight in the historic grand prix scene. For nearly a decade, Ensign battled with the best commercial teams Formula One had to offer with a very limited budget. It is only fitting then the N177 carries on Ensign's proud tradition of battling with the bigger, more acclaimed cars, fighting to make its own place in Formula One history.Sources:
'The Ex-Valentino Musetti Aurora AFX Championship,1977-78 Ensign-Cosworth N177 Formula 1 Racing Single-Seater Chassis', (http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/19465/lot/123/). Bonhams. http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/19465/lot/123/. Retrieved 29 December 2012.
'70's F1 Cars: Ensign N177', (http://www.sportscars.tv/Newfiles/ensign.html). Sportscars.TV. http://www.sportscars.tv/Newfiles/ensign.html. Retrieved 29 December 2012.
Wikipedia contributors, 'Ensign Racing', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 November 2012, 22:08 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ensign_Racing&oldid=522243033 accessed 29 December 2012 By Jeremy McMullen