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Pininfarina Sigma Grand Prix: the Safe and Stylish Formula 1

With single-seaters, the style of the car is designed entirely to suit its function. So can we talk of design for Formula 1 cars? Paolo Martin remembers when, during his time at the Centro Stile Pininfarina, he worked on the study of a car – still considered today a superlative example – that was designed not so much for its beauty but for driving safety on the track

Photos and Drawings courtesy of Paolo Martin Archive

According to Stephen Bayley, The Aesthete of Octane magazine, a car design expert and founding director of the Design Museum in London, “Artistically speaking, a F1 car is poor stuff. The cars are not even distinguished by ugliness; they simply lack that impossible-to-define element – an unstable mixture of surprise, desire, delight and memory that makes something beautiful. When technology alone dominates any product, there is small room for art”. This is the fault of the regulations which, today, in contrast to those in force in the 1960s, leave small room for the imagination. At that time, in fact, Bayley states, the less-strict regulations allowed beautiful single-seaters, such as the 1961 Ferrari 156 “Squalo” and the 1964 Lotus 33 to come to light. These cars however were born beautiful, without any contribution from stylists or designers whose creativity added a touch of imagination and diversity to an object that, ultimately, only had to be fast. And the 1969 Sigma Grand Prix was perhaps the only exception.

In my day, the need for beauty in a single-seater came second. Its primary function was not to please but to go fast, faster than the others.

Single-seaters were built by putting them together one piece at a time. And then, beauty is a subjective concept that depends on the culture of people and peoples, their history and traditions, how they have lived and live certain historical moments. Indeed, for me there is no such thing as beauty. Something is beautiful when it is well-proportioned; proportions alone dictate the style of an object, in any field: if something is in proportion then it is beautiful, because its lines do not disturb.

As for the Sigma Grand Prix, the main aim was to develop a research prototype in order to offer new concepts of active and passive safety for single-seaters, as towards the late 1960s these cars were often involved in dramatic accidents. Fires were one of the most frequent causes of death (first and foremost that of Lorenzo Bandini in the Montecarlo GP in 1967), but their overall fragility was behind many sporting tragedies.

The Swiss magazine Automobile Revue raised the issue, pushing the engineering world to look for a solution. Pininfarina accepted this challenge when the load-bearing structure of a Ferrari 312 F1 was brought in: a dismantled tubular chassis, a pedal box, four wheels, a 60° V12 2,990cc engine (with 400 HP at 9,200 rpm) and the RM 5-speed gearbox.

“Try to invent something that won’t hurt people during the race” were the instructions I received from Franco Martinengo, then head of the Pininfarina Style Centre, when he tasked me with the job.

I don’t think that one person has ever had to tackle an issue not intended for the public but for a specialised, technical sector like the Formula 1 world. Astonished, initially I treated the instruction as a joke, but then I threw myself head-first into the project. I thought and thought again and, among my youthful fancies, I who had never seen an F1 close up, the idea grew and grew to build a deformable sub-chassis with a rigid cell fitted on the top.

But I soon realised that it would be too complicated to make, because of the related weight problems. And so I built a mock-up chassis in polystyrene, just to see what impression it gave.

I had four 10 cm wooden shims placed under the engine and under the pedal box and empirically decided on the length of the wheelbase.

I sat down in the centre on a wooden block, with the steering wheel in my hand, and began to dream of being on the track, even making engine noises (you might laugh, but that’s exactly what I did). And as I did this, some workers pushed the engine against my back. When it felt right, I said: “stop there”. And that’s how I set the wheelbase of 2,400 mm!

Slowly but surely, with tons of sketches, discussions and doubts shared with the workshop manager Morra, I personally created a very no-frills and quite pitiful chassis in polystyrene. But the funny thing was, when I asked the various managers how the job was going, I realised that everyone knew even less than I did. I received some “valid” help from Martinengo, the director, who in Piedmont dialect, said: “caro Martin cà fasa l'on c'à vol!” – "do what you like - in any case nobody understands a thing”. A few words, but it was better than nothing.

And so came the Sigma Grand Prix: it was 4,200 mm long; 1.940 mm wide; 930 mm high, with front and rear axle track measuring 1,550/1,580 mm; the 2,400 mm wheelbase and 590 kg weight were decided after some obscure safety studies and guesswork. I must say that, still today, I, and later Mr. Theo Page, specialist in details and transparency, are the only ones who knew how this car is assembled internally. Everything is sealed with rivets, and the assumptions triggered afterwards are merely the fruit of imagination. In the pictures accompanying this article, one shows what lies underneath, but I drew it myself from memory. To know how it is made inside, you would have to unrivet the whole thing.

My Sigma is also the fruit of pure imagination, because basically I am a creative guy who acts on a problem trying to solve it.

The Sigma was pure imagination, but its concept was revolutionary, as it was the first car built in aluminium alloy, applying an aeronautical criterion, and no longer using a tubular chassis. On top of this, other solutions were adopted as recommendations for construction. In fact, the Sigma is built entirely in Avional, with all the sections riveted, while the single-seaters of the time were made with welded 15 mm pipes, which were awful in safety terms. And then, as far as the style is concerned, I don’t know what to say: I had never seen a Formula 1 close up, and I invented everything. The line was functional to safety, so that the front parts could be repaired easily, making it safe in the rain, also using rubber, and inventing the hook to block the helmet.

But how much this imagination was really functional at speed I never had a change to find out: the car never actually ran; it was purely for theoretical purposes.

I agree that it was different, but I never thought about beauty when I was designing it. When I work, I toss ideas around, make a sketch, and if I believe in it then I continue. I never do two versions. Sometimes I don't even make a sketch.

I built the Sigma in two months, thinking only about its functions, so the deformation, how the spars were positioned, the external tanks and so on, and more than anything it all seemed logic to me. Like the four 50 litre tanks made by Pirelli in open-cell foam rubber, or the fire-fighting system, the four-point belts, the deformable dashboard that would open on impact and various purely instinctive solutions deriving from creativity and the desire to succeed. The front is “full width”, with the front wheels partially faired, a solution that was used the following year by Tecno in the Formula 2 and in 1971 by Tyrrell-Ford. The sides are very wide, so that they cannot catch on other cars, and the tanks separated in the sides, protected from each other by a buffer zone. The rear spoiler was placed forward and anchored directly to the chassis to prevent it from coming away, while the pilot’s helmet was fixed to the roll-bar with a belt. And this is how the Sigma was born, spur-of-the-moment.

The car was put on display at the Geneva Motor Show on Thursday 13 March 1969. Unpainted at the time, it was only painted white afterwards.


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