28 April 2020

Richard Divila 1945 - 2020

If you Google “Brazilian F1 designer” you get only one response: Richard Ramsey Divila, known as Ricardo, or perhaps Ricardo, known as Richard. He was always known by both names.

Divila, who died last week, at the age of 74, after a stroke, came from a very international background but grew up in Brazil. His father was a Czech emigré, who settled in the country and Richard grew up speaking a raft of different languages: English, Portuguese, French, Czech with basic understanding of Russian and Polish. He would later add Spanish and Italian and could communicate as well in German and Japanese.

Richard was passionate about racing from an early age. He spent his childhood in Sao Paulo and was drawn to engineering although he was also interested in the arts. He studied mechanical engineering and also worked part-time in the aerospace industry, but his passion for the sport led him to get involved with the Fittipaldi brothers in their early years. He began his career designing a Formula Vee for them and then followed Emerson to Britain, where he helped out by running the Team Bardahl Fittipaldi Formula 2 team, modifying the Lotus and Brabham chassis that were used. Back in Brazil they also came up with a quite extraordinary design for a sports car. Unable to afford to buy the exotic European machinery, they decided to use a Volkswagen Beetle and build a low-cost alternative, powered by two engines, something that was all the rage in US drag racing at the time. The resulting machine was qualified at Interlagos by Wilson Fittipaldi, ahead of a Lola T70 and a Ford GT40. It was so impressive a car that Volkswagen sent engineers from Germany to take a look at what had been done.

This was an indication of Divila’s ability to look at the bigger picture and to dare to be different. To say that he was eccentric is like saying that the Amazon is quite a big river. He was a much-lauded motorsport boffin but was also one of the most erudite and knowledgeable individuals that one could meet, with an amazing range of interests, which extended far beyond the world of motorsport. He had a brain that wandered off to philosophy, poetry, politics, music and literature. And yet he was intensely practical and down-to-earth, a terrific race engineer. According to fellow engineer Duffy Sheardown, Divila was “the good side of bonkers”, which sums it up well.

When Fittipaldi Automotive was set up, with money from the government-owned Copersucar sugar company, the 28-year-old Divila designed the first car, a sleek and graceful silver machine, with rainbow-liveried sidepods. This was designated the FD01, the D being for Divila. This was built in Brazil, opposite the gates of Interlagos, and was a Cosworth kit car, although Brazil’s Embraer aircraft company did a lot of work on the componentry. The car was in need of development and over the next three seasons it was transformed into the FD02, FD03 and FD04 models, which were lighter and more competitive. At the end of 1975 World Champion Emerson shocked the F1 world by switching from McLaren to the Brazilian team but the best he could do was three sixth places in 1976 with two fourths and a fifth early in 1977. By then, however, the Fittipaldis had decided that they needed more experienced international designers and took on Dave Baldwin, who Emerson had worked with at Team Lotus. The F5 (the D having been dropped) proved to be a step backwards and although the car was later reworked by Giancomo Caliri’s FLY Studio for 1978 it was not until the end of that year that the team regained the form shown early in 1977. Divila remained with the team throughout, helping the designers and would ultimately design the F9, which followed Ralph Bellamy’s F6 and Harvey Postlethwaite’s F7 and F8 models. 

After Fittipaldi closed down in 1982 Divila established RRD Racing Research and Development in Henley-on-Thames and for five years worked as a consultant designer with companies such as March, Ralt, Ford, Fiat, VW and GM, while also engineering cars in SudAm F2, touring and sports cars and in IndyCar with Patrick Racing, Hemelgarn and the Provimi Veal team. He designed a Group C2 sports car for ADA and engineered in Formula 2 with BS Fabrications, Intersports and March.

His next step was to join Peter Mackintosh Consultants (PMC) which led him into Formula 3000 and engineering first with Eddie Jordan Racing and then Lamberto Leoni’s First Racing. Leoni had F1 ambitions at the time and Divila did the first layout and the pre-design work for the First F1 car, but then departed to develop the March Formula 3000 car. He was horrified when he saw the prototype First Racing F1 monocoque, which he believed to be unsafe as the chassis had not been properly cured during the production process. He demanded that his name be removed from all literature related to the car and later remarked that the chassis was good for nothing except perhaps for use as “an interesting flowerpot”. While this was going on he was offered a job with Ligier and finished off the design of the Cosworth-engined JS33 for the 1989 season and then reworked it as the JS33B in 1990. He then worked on the Lamborghini-engined JS35 for 1991 but Guy Ligier was disappointed and Divila departed, although the team’s performance dropped away after that, despite the efforts of Thierry Boutsen and Erik Comas.

Richard then set up another design bureau at his home in the French countryside, not far from Magny Cours, where lived (when he was not travelling) for the rest of his life. Set in a quiet valley by itself, the house allowed him to indulge his passion for music at volume levels that would have frightened the neighbours – had there been any.

He was employed for the next few years as a race engineer with Fondmetal and then with Minardi but was then asked to become technical director of the Apomatox Formula 3000 team and in 1994 the team finished runner-up in the championship with Franck Lagorce. After that he was recruited by Nissan Motorsport Europe on its various programmes, while he also designed and engineered for Courage Competition at Le Mans. He returned to DAMS in Formula 3000 and then began working with Pescarolo Sport in endurance racing.

Nissan then proposed that he move to Japan where he oversaw as string of championship successes with Nismo in Formula Nippon and Super GT before he returned for a third spell in Formula 1 with Prost GP before going back to Japan with Team Impul for more success in the local championships. Along the way he was chief technical officer for Nissan’s Deltawing project, and from 2011 to 2016 was a race engineer for Greaves Motorsport in various different series. 

At various times in his career he also worked with the Trophee Andros ice racing series and on the Dakar Rally. In the course of a career that lasted for more than 50 years, he ran cars in around 2,500 races, including 80 different 24 hour races, and won hundreds of times, with cars of different shapes and sizes in numerous disciplines. Perhaps there have been others with such varied careers but I cannot think of anyone. In recent times he has acted as the technical director of a couple of junior series in Brazil.

More recently, in between his work and travels, he took to writing with inevitable ability and humour, penning a popular column for Race Car Engineering and posting on Twitter on a regular basis. His @rdv69 account flitted from motor sport, including the nude of the day (a stripped down racing car picture), to the local wildlife, mathematics, history, art, cooking, music, flying, philosophy and Brexit (Don’t forget to set your clocks back 46 years tonight), with a sprinkling of quotes from Orwell, Voltaire, Brecht, Shakespeare, Dante, Tennessee Williams and others.

He first met his wife Krysia when they were three and last year they celebrated 50 years of marriage, although she says that “I don't expect we actually spent even half that time together”.

There will be no funeral because of the current lockdowns in place in Europe, but his ashes will be scattered in the valley he loved, in the quiet corner of France that he made his home.

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