Ron Tauranac, who has died aged 95, was a founding partner of the original Brabham motor racing team and the key design engineer responsible for its cars. He latterly created the Ralt racing cars that carried the likes of Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, Keke Rosberg, David Coulthard, Derek Warwick, and others to Formula One stardom.
Without Tauranac’s cars, the leading lights of Formula One’s modern era may have had a different career path. The “greats” of F1, including Graham Hill, Dan Gurney, and Jacky Ickx, also drove Brabham cars.
A taciturn man who did not seek the limelight of celebrity amid Formula One’s “circus”, Tauranac was the modest genius behind Sir Jack Brabham’s cars. Brabham was the world’s largest manufacturer of racing cars in the 1960s.
Speaking in 2015 at the National Gallery of Victoria, Tauranac posed in front of the 1966 Brabham BT19 grand prix car and wryly commented: “Did I really design it? If you read all the books Jack designed and built them … I just worked in the workshop!” None the less, all the Brabham grand prix cars carried the nomenclature “BT” – the “T” standing for Tauranac.
He engineered the team’s greatest cars from the 1960s to the 1970s, and also created the separate “Ralt” cars used by many 1970s and 1980s teams in Formula Two, Formula Three and entry-level racing. These were the vehicles in which soon-to-be-famous names went on to win their junior titles and secure drives in leading Formula One teams.
As an engineer Tauranac did not follow fashion, nor was he motivated by any desire to justify his place with high-risk design ideas. His cars were orthodox yet forensically efficient, and above all, strong and reliable – like the man himself. From suspension to chassis, to engine and aerodynamics, Tauranac had ideas to cover every aspect of the racing car before the age of computer-aided design and single-subject “experts”.
He was constantly creating new designs; when asked which car was his best design he replied: “The next one”.
Though proud of his Australian citizenship, Tauranac was British-born and hailed from an ancestry that stemmed from the Huguenot migration to England’s southern counties.
Ronald Sidney Tauranac was born on January 13 1925 at Gillingham in Kent. By 1930 the family had migrated to Australia and settled near Newcastle in New South Wales. There, in a tough upbringing, Tauranac’s plain-speaking and typically Australian character of integrity and can-do attitude was formed.
He left school aged 14 and joined the Air Cadets, entering the Royal Australian Air Force towards the end of the Second World War and training as a fighter pilot. He lost more than one friend, and suggested that it was there that his determination was cast.
Fascinated by aircraft design and its competing needs for strength and structural efficiency, Tauranac left the RAAF in 1949 and joined the Commonwealth Aircraft Company as a junior draughtsman. He then moved to a company involved with metal castings and extrusions and began to develop his own engineering ideas.
He became involved in motor racing at a disused local airfield, and with his brother Austin designed and built a 500cc racing-type car fitted with a Norton motorcycle engine, aided by library books on motor engineering.
By 1952 the Ron and Austin Lewis Tauranac racer had been christened the “Ralt” after their initials, but it would be two decades before the different, Ralt-series of single-seat racing cars would dominate the secondary formulas.
Tauranac drove the original Ralt 500cc at Parramatta Park circuit in 1952, and competed against Jack Brabham at Mount Druitt, after which they began working together. The Ralt 500cc won the 1954 Australian hill climb championship, and a larger-engined version followed.
Tauranac began to specialise in suspension and chassis design improvements: he came up with a refinement to the traditional half-axle swing-type suspension mechanism which was common to cars of that era. Five years later Mercedes-Benz innovated a similar design improvement, but no suggestion of copying was ever made by him.
In the late 1950s Brabham moved to Britain to race and liaised with Tauranac in Australia via a series of expensive telephone calls to discuss improvements to his Cooper team car.
Brabham won his first world championship in 1959 in a Cooper and retained his title the following year in a Cooper modified by Tauranac, who he had finally persuaded to move to Europe. The pair founded Motor Racing Developments, Tauranac designing the first MRD racer in a flat above a garage in Surbiton.
The novice Australian racing driver Gavin Youl drove an MRD-Ford to a pole position and a surprise second place at Goodwood in the 1961 Formula Junior Championship. This was MRD’s first major success in Britain – but “MRD” sounded too much like “merde” when pronounced in French by commentators, and the team’s name was changed to Brabham.
The American Dan Gurney scored the team’s first Formula One victory, in 1964, and throughout the 1960s Tauranac’s cars were dominant; a third world championship came Jack Brabham’s way in 1966. His team-mate Denny Hulme, New Zealand’s only F1 star, won the 1967 title, and in 1969 Jacky Ickx won the German and the Canadian Grands Prix in his Brabham.
By 1972 with Jack Brabham retired, the Brabham team was sold to Bernie Ecclestone – thje beginning of his rise to control Formula One.
In 1974 Tauranac created the true Ralt grand prix car. He built hundreds of the cars for teams and client-drivers. Strong and reliable, the Ralt became the default choice for any aspiring driver or team wishing to win, or to aspire to Formula One’s hallowed territory. A Ralt RT1 won the 1975 and 1978 Formula Three Championships: the RT3 gave the nascent talent of Ayrton Senna his first steps to global success.
The 1981, 1984, and 1984 Formula Two titles were all won by Ralt cars, as was the 1985 F3 title. Ralt was sold in 1988 but Tauranac did not stop designing. He had also worked for several 1970s-1980s Formula One clients, including Theodore Racing, Frank Williams and the Arrows team: he was instrumental in Honda’s success via the Ralt-Honda cars and latterly in the Honda saloon car racing stable.
The book Brabham Ralt Honda: The Ron Tauranac Story by Mike Lawrence was published in 2011.
Tauranac retained his love of aircraft and held a pilot’s licence. In 2002 he was awarded the Order of Australia.
Ron Tauranac recently retired to the Queensland coast but never really stopped designing. His wife Norma died in 2002, and he is survived by two daughters.
Ron Tauranac, born January 13 1925, died July 17 2020