It’s funny how the mists of time can cloud our vision and allow us to see a racing car that would have been described at best as a bit of a dog back in the day in a different light, a a newly acquired reverence that may or may not be deserved. Though it’s always a treat to see a car with great provenance, racing cars, and Formula 1 machines in particular, have an instant level of credibility to them, regardless of their finishing record in period.
The 1985 Toleman TG185 is a car like this, recognizable for its unique Benetton livery but not for its appearances on podiums. The Rory Byrne-designed Grand Prix machine didn’t drop many hints at the later success that the Benetton team (the sponsor bought the team from Toleman the following year) would achieve in the hands of a young Michael Schumacher. It matters not though, as the TG185 is from the unrestricted turbo era, when cars were capable of pushing out four figures of horsepower in qualifying. Tiny displacement paired with high-psi snails made for some of the most exciting Formula racing of all time.
This particular Toleman car (the last of its kind) is prepared and run by the team at Heritage F1 today, who look after a fair number of cars from the mid 1980s up to examples of machines that have competed in the last decade. I was lucky enough to catch up with them at Goodwood recently during a shakedown run of the TG185 ahead of their plans for the car’s 2019 calendar.
What is immediately and ominously apparent when first meeting this car is how vulnerable the driver is, particularly compared to the standards and halos of today’s iteration of the sport. The cockpit is extremely open, but despite this it is very narrow and difficult to get into, never mind out of in a hurry. Burrowing further into the fuselage, you’ll find that the steering arm runs directly above the pilot’s shins, and there is a certain knack required to slide one’s ankles in to meet the pedals. Bruised and battered shins are all but inevitable.
Test pilot for the day—as well as the car’s mechanic—James Densley chuckles about the front end “crash structure” and need for shin pads, but for those racers that drove these monstrously powerful cars in anger in period, the danger was simply part of their day job, injury and death being taxes imposed all too often back then.
I’m itching to see the car fired up and out on track in motion, although sadly with the noise restrictions that Goodwood is required to comply with on a test day, we are limited to just one flying lap, and even then, it’s at reduced revs to ensure we’re below the prescribed decibel limit.
Nevertheless, it is wonderful to be around a Grand Prix car coming to life, the 1.5L inline-four Hart power plant bursting into life, the pistons settling into a piranha-like idle, hinting at the noise that one of these with a properly engaged turbo might produce. As the carbon fiber engine cover is put into place and held there with the gentle twist of some DZUS clips, it is time to run the machine out onto the historic circuit.
Its departure down towards the first corner is much less violent than it might have been on the world’s GP circuits in 1985, and while the turbo never really spools up properly on this day, it still sounds impressive below its potential. Formula 1 cars just have a certain sort of magic to them, and this one is no different. Perhaps it’s the era that this one is from, perhaps it is how wild it seems compared to contemporary cars, whatever it is, there is just an extra bit of reverence commanded by cars like this one.
Sadly for Toleman, in 1985 this car did not have the X factor needed to succeed at that level of competition, and though it did muster a solitary pole position for the team at the then-new Nürburgring GP circuit, that was more a case of lucky weather than outright pace. Issues with tire suppliers that had them changing shoes multiple times throughout the season didn’t help the team develop the car properly, and a late start to their season saw them enter only 13 races with Italian driver Teo Fabi, and, thanks to poor reliability, finish just two. In any measurable way, this car was a failure.
It paled in comparison to their previous season, when rookie driver Ayrton Senna scored three podiums for the squad. 1985 would prove to be the last official season for Toleman—a bit more whimper than bang—after which the team was bought by its main title sponsor Benetton and renamed to Benetton Formula Ltd. The Toleman legacy continued in some regard though, with much of the same Toleman team retained under the new Benetton banner, and the successor to the TG185 earned a race win in 1986 at the hands of Gerhard Berger.
Results aside, it is still a delight to see a car from a definitive era of motorsports’ top Formula on a track like this.With historic F1 racing from the late ‘70s growing in popularity recently thanks to series like the FIA Masters, it can’t be long until there is a format for this era of car to go wheel to wheel with its old colleagues, and I can’t wait to watch.