Reinventing the wing: how a reject almost changed motorsport

The mid-1950s were simpler times. Full employment was widespread in the Western world. Stalin had just died, and the Khrushchev thaw was in full swing. The internal combustion engine reigned supreme. As atomic research made huge leaps year after year, the status quo was satisfactory for the majority of the population, and the world of sport was no exception.

The Maserati 250F, the 1950s F1 car par excellence

The Maserati 250F, the 1950s F1 car par excellence

In motorsport, the 1950s, as it had been for decades, was the continuation of an era where engineering progress was driven by a thirst for drag reduction and power gains. The more accomplished automotive minds thought about chassis stiffness, suspension geometry and implementing disc brakes.

Formula One’s shift toward aerodynamics-driven development wouldn’t occur until the late 1960s, years after the final Formula One appearance of a Swiss driver named Michael May. May was a young man with a rather insignificant racing career, culminating in two anonymous outings in the sport’s pinnacle series in 1961.

He was a competent racing driver, and certainly wasn’t out of place in Formula One, but his short and unremarkable stint in Formula One left him with the likes of other F1 rejects such as Gerry Ashmore, Renato Pirocchi, Günther Seiffert or Bernard Collomb. Few remembered Michael May’s racing days by the end of the decade. Yet, five years before his fleeting F1 foray, May almost changed the face of motorsport in a very different way.

Though superficially unremarkable, Michael May's impact was significant.

Though superficially unremarkable, Michael May’s impact was significant.

Born on August 18th 1934 in Stuttgart, Michael May soon emigrated to Switzerland, where he studied engineering at Zürich Technical University. A motorsport enthusiast, he took advantage of his cousin Pierre’s well-paid job as a banker to get his hands on a Porsche 550 in early 1956. May was keen to enter it in select events, but as an engineer, he wanted to improve the car first.

In 1928, a man by the name of Fritz von Opel (later the father of Rikky von Opel) was experimenting with rocket-powered land vehicles, using the financial resources available to him as the heir to the Opel automotive fortune. Eventually reaching speeds above 200km/h, vehicle instability quickly became an issue, so in order to achieve better stability, he attached two aerofoils to the side of his vehicle, angled downwards to reduce the lift provided. Having heard of Fritz’s efforts, Michael May had an idea.

Fritz von Opel's RAK-2 rocket car, pictured in Speyer, Germany, 2011.

Fritz von Opel’s RAK-2 rocket car, pictured in Speyer, Germany, 2011.

Because positive lift negatively affects a car’s capacity to transmit power to the track surface, May understood that a racing car should not only create as little lift as possible, but in fact produce negative lift. If an aeroplane wing can push a plane into the air, turning the wing upside down would then push a car into the track surface, and a higher angle of attack would increase this downward force and improve grip.

May's original sketch describing his concept for a centrally-mounted wing.

May’s original sketch describing his concept for a centrally-mounted wing.

Eager to implement this concept, May designed a system to mount such a wing on top of his Porsche 550, above the cockpit. The design notably featured a simple mechanical system to change the wing’s tilt from 3° upward to 17° downward to reduce drag or increase downforce, as well as large plates at the wing edges to prevent the high-pressure air flow at the top of the wing from escaping to the low-pressure area underneath. This avoided downforce losses and unwanted turbulence behind the wing.

Michael May, in one fell swoop, had invented the inverted wing, the endplate and the drag reduction system.

The number 34 Porsche 550 takes to the track at the Nürburgring the first winged car to do so.

The number 34 Porsche 550 takes to the track at the Nürburgring the first winged car to do so.

With the system designed, built and mounted to the 550, May entered the 1000km of the Nürburgring on May 27th 1956, with his cousin Pierre. The peculiar contraption attracted a great deal of attention, and an equal amount of ridicule, as befits a new concept, and no one was particularly bothered when the car passed scrutineering and was allowed on track. The first practice session was held in the rain, a tough ask for a driver discovering the Nürburgring, especially using unproven technology.

May set the fourth-best time. The paddock exploded.

Threatened by the young upstart’s pace, Porsche team director Huschke von Hanstein led the group of protestors. Arguments were used against the wing, claiming that it obscured the vision of the following drivers, and that the flimsy struts supporting it could easily fail, sending the wing into the trackside crowd. The aerofoil was, admittedly, very large (1.6m by 80cm), and with the Le Mans disaster still fresh in the memory of the organisers, the wing was promptly disallowed.

Now with number 37, the 550 made an impression in Monza. Scrutineering didn't see it that way.

Now with number 37, the 550 made an impression in Monza. Scrutineering didn’t see it that way.

The May cousins dismounted the wing and competed in the event nonetheless, making little impact and retiring from the race. One month later, the pair was present at the Supercortemaggiore, a 1000km race held in Monza, once again mounting the wing to the car. Motorsport Magazine called the contraption “an experiment that could have a future”, recognising the sound principles behind it. The Italian organisers didn’t see it that way, and the car failed scrutineering immediately. Removing the wing, the pair finished the race in an anonymous 18th position. Michael soon abandoned the idea, unwilling to face continued rejection.

Michael May finished his studies and started working for Daimler-Benz, specialising in engine design and direct injection. He eventually began to race again, with some success. In 1959, driving a private Stanguellini, May won the inaugural International Formula Junior championship, scoring victories in Monaco and Solitude.

As the 1961 Formula One season began, May struck a deal with established privateer Wolfgang Seidel to drive in a handful of events for his Scuderia Colonia outfit in a Lotus-Climax. Michael entered four championship races and a handful of minor events that year, starting the Monaco and French Grands Prix. A lowly 11th place finish in Reims would remain May’s best result as an F1 driver, and a major accident during practice for the German Grand Prix persuaded him to end his racing days, aged 26.

Michael, wearing his distinctive red-and-white helmet, on his way to retirement at the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix.

Michael, wearing his distinctive red-and-white helmet, on his way to retirement at the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix.

Michael’s day job was going rather better. Taking advantage of the new 1.5-litre engine regulations, Porsche had entered a works team, but their engine power wasn’t living up to expectations. They approached May, whose work on direct injection at Daimler-Benz had not gone unnoticed. Over the winter of 1961 and 1962, May developed Porsche’s flat-4 engine, finding an additional 15bhp, and the Porsche higher-ups rewarded him with a chance to drive at the 1962 Pau Grand Prix.

However, by this point, another team of engineers had developed a new flat-8 engine, and as the internal politics began to move, May’s improved design was left by the wayside. Relations between Porsche and May deteriorated, causing him to leave the team. The Pau entry was cancelled, and Michael never drove competitively again.

Porsche ended their F1 involvement at the end of 1962, and May subsequently became a consultant for Ferrari, where he supervised the Scuderia’s transition from carburettors to Bosch direct injection. The partnership led to the development of 1964’s 205B V8, with which Ferrari won the constructors’ title and John Surtees won the drivers’ crown.

The Chaparral 2E, driven by Jim Hall himself at Riverside in 1966.

The Chaparral 2E, driven by Jim Hall himself at Riverside in 1966.

During his time at Ferrari, however, May had a casual conversation with then technical department chief Mauro Forghieri in which he mentioned his brief experiments with mounting an aerofoil on a Porsche in 1956. Forghieri did not think much of this. However, in America, another engineer-cum-driver by the name of Jim Hall was making his first forays into aerodynamic development with his Chaparral sportscars. In 1966, the Chaparral 2E, complete with large rear wing, was successfully introduced. Early in 1968, the great Jim Clark had the idea of mounting a helicopter propeller blade to the rear of his Lotus in a Tasman Series race, inspired by Hall’s work.

Chris Amon leads the way at the start of the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix, with a rear wing on his Ferrari. The beginning of an era.

Chris Amon leads the way at the start of the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix, with a rear wing on his Ferrari. The beginning of an era.

Mauro Forghieri then remembered Michael May’s stories and began developing wings for Ferrari’s Formula One car. At the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix, Ferrari and Brabham first introduced high-mounted rear wings to the sport. By the end of 1968, virtually the entire grid sported massive wings. Rule changes in 1969 limited their size, but the inverted aerofoil has been a staple of motorsport ever since. Had it not been for a young Swiss engineer named Michael May, it may only have remained a brief 1960s fad.

May’s involvement with Ferrari ended in 1964, and he returned to Daimler-Benz, working on fuel injection systems, before retiring and acting as a consultant on exhaust regulations, which he does to this day.

On one day in 1956, Porsche decided to protest an innovation it perceived to be a threat. The world of motorsport may well have been a very different place if the paddock had embraced the ideas of Grand Prix Reject Michael May.