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F1 History 16

Roebuck’s legends: BRM V16

Taken from the August 1997 issue of Motor Sport

When I was a kid, someone gave me an EP – remember them? – of the BRM V16 on full noise. I once told Stirling Moss about it. “I’m surprised,” he said, “that it ran long enough to fill an EP.” It was a fair point.

history  Roebucks legends: BRM V16
Reg Parnell at Goodwood, 1950

To me, that is all the BRM V16 has ever been – a noise. And while, granted, its exhaust note is arresting, it doesn’t approach the cultured eight cylinder scream of an Alfa Romeo 158, the car at which it was vainly aimed. Shakespeare’s line from Macbeth, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” encapsulates British Racing Motors in the early ‘50s. To me, the BRM V16 has always seemed one of the silliest racing cars ever conceived. Power it had in plenty, perhaps as much as 600bhp at 12,000rpm, but it never gave it for very long, and, when it did, it gave it in such a way as to make the car virtually undriveable. Unlike the Roots-type blower used by Alfa Romeo, which peaked and then helpfully tailed off, the Rolls Royce centrifugal supercharging used by BRM kept on coming.

For the wartime aero engines for which it had been developed, that was fine, for they ran at virtually constant speeds. For a racing car it was a rather different matter. The power increased as the revs did. Add in the primitive tyres of the time, and wheelspin was a way of life in the V16. The more the wheelspin, the higher the revs, the more the power, the more the wheel spin, the higher… and so on.

“The V16 was a thoroughly nasty car,” said Moss. “The brakes were OK, the acceleration was incredible – until you broke traction – but everything else I hated, particularly the steering and the driving position. Handling? I don’t remember it having any…”

Some, though, were dewy-eyed about the car, and none more so than its father, Raymond Mays. Twenty years ago, not long before his death, we discussed the life and times of his company and it was clear that, above all the successes which later came BRM’s way, the V16 remained uppermost in his affections.

history  Roebucks legends: BRM V16
Raymond Mays (left) with chief mechanic Ken Richardson, 1949

It was launched shortly before Christmas in 1949. At the Folkingham Aerodrome, near Bourne, Mays briefly demonstrated the car, and its sound sent all present into rapture. Britain, Fleet Street asserted next day, had a world-beater on its hands.

In many ways, this was the high point of the V16′s career. Before it finally disappeared from competition in 1955, no racing car promised more, nor delivered less. Mays, though, remembered it only with reverence. “The V16 was an awe-inspiring car to drive, particularly in the early days, when the power came in rather late, at about 9900 revs – with a bang!

“Before we went to Albi in ’53, I drove Fangio’s car at Folkingham Aerodrome and I had it up to 190mph on the 2000-yard runway. It was quite frightening, because you could re-spin the wheels at 9800 in fourth gear. I reached 11,800, with a high gear in…”

You couldn’t but smile at Mays’s rose-tinted memories, but it seemed never to cross his mind that a racing driver wouldn’t actually want a car which could spin its wheels in fourth. When I mentioned Moss’s distaste for the V16, Ray was airily dismissive: “Well, Stirling was not yet at his peak when he drove it. Without any doubt, the most impressive driver we ever had was Fangio.” I asked why. “Oh, because he was the only man who didn’t complain about the car. He said it was a monster, but he would master it. Fangio never blamed his car, and that’s one of the reasons why he stands in a class by himself.”

history  Roebucks legends: BRM V16
Fangio at Albi, 1953

At the end of 1951, the Formula 1 for which the V16 had been built – 4.5-litres unsupercharged, 1.5-litres supercharged – was abandoned. By that time the BRMs had competed in precisely three Grands Prix, with a singular lack of success.

The V16 had made its debut at the Silverstone International Trophy the year before. Having missed practice – car unready – Raymond Sommer was nevertheless permitted to start. Down went the flag, whereupon the BRM lurched forward a few inches, then stopped, transmission broken.

Mays found the crowd’s response hurtful. “There was a BRM Supporters Club, and the members had put a lot of money in it. But when the car was pushed back into the paddock, some people very impolitely threw pennies in the seat. Really rather disgusting. If they’d only known what we’d gone through to get that car there…”

Well, yes, but then they had turned up in the hope of seeing the BRM at last show something. By 1952 it was eligible only for Formule Libre events and the very occasional race run for the old Formula 1. One such was at Albi, where Fangio and González dominated – until they retired. Victory went to journeyman racer Louis Rosier and his ancient Ferrari.

BRM returned there in 1953, with Ken Wharton backing up the two Argentines. The weekend was etched in Mays’s mind. “It was two days before the Coronation, and we were determined to show how those cars could go. It meant the world to us…

history  Roebucks legends: BRM V16
Rosier leads Fangio at Albi, 1953

“They virtually staged the race for us, you know, the Albi authorities. They were always friendly towards England, and they said they’d get Alfa Romeo to bring the 158s out of retirement, and persuade Ferrari to bring his 4.5-litre car. Here was our one chance of showing that we’d built a car capable of beating the cars in the formula for which it was intended.” I don’t believe Ray saw any irony in his own words.

“At the last moment Alfa decided not to come, which disappointed us, but we felt that if we could beat Ferrari, that would be good enough. Then the organising club said they had an awful blow for us: Ferrari would, after all, not be sending his car, for Alberto Ascari.

“I said, ‘Well, this is absolutely dreadful. If we win against what’s left, everyone will call it a hollow victory. For heaven’s sake, do something!’ They offered Ferrari more starting money – and he came like a flash…”

Towards the end of practice, Ascari beat Fangio’s time, whereupon Juan Manuel went out again. “He knocked Ascari’s time sideways, of course. Typically Fangio. And the whole grandstand got up and cheered. It was a very uplifting moment for me.”

By the end of that lap, though, Fangio detected a misfire, and, as Mays admitted, “When you got a misfire on the V16, it could have been 1001 things… We worked through the night, and at 3.30am it was decided that I would test the car. At that time of the day – early dawn – there were horses and carts about, farmers coming out of gates, but on this long straight road I had the thing up to 180, and I scared myself stiff.”

How wide was the road? I asked. “Narrow,” said Mays. “Narrow.”

history  Roebucks legends: BRM V16
Peter Walker leads Giuseppe Farina during the 1951 British Grand Prix

Whatever the problem, it was now cured, and in the heat Fangio was unopposed, once Ascari had retired. Albi, over five miles in length, was an open road circuit, its back leg a two mile, poplar-lined straight, both narrow and highly cambered. “Believe it or not, Fangio and Ascari overtook and re-overtook each other down there, at around 190mph!”

The final should have been a cake walk for the V16s, but Fangio, leading, had a tyre failure, his car suffering consequent and irreparable hub damage, and Wharton had an enormous accident. “That was dreadful,” Mays recalled. “He was lucky to get away with it, being thrown into a ditch, then seeing the car roll over three times, and land back on the circuit. Somehow he was almost unhurt.” As for González, he finished second, after losing the lead when a rear tyre failed. The winner? Monsieur Rosier and his Ferrari, proceeding at a leisurely pace, as ever.

Mays clearly remembered Albi ’53 as a day of redemption for the V16s, and they certainly gave a glimpse of what might have been. “It was the tyres, you see. In fairness to Dunlop, they’d never been able to test at the kind of speeds the cars were reaching.” It didn’t seem the moment to suggest that the V16′s ludicrous ‘power curve’ might have had something to do with it, too

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history  Roebucks legends: BRM V16

Add your comments

16 comments on Roebuck’s legends: BRM V16

  1. Pat O'Brien, 11 September 2013 11:26

    Great story, Nigel, keep them coming. Tony Rudd’s memoir “It Was Fun…” is a great read on the subject and he offers some good insights a to why BRM was such a cock up until he was put in charge. Dick Salmon’s book, “A Mechanics Tale…” has some unflattering anecdotes regarding Raymond Mays.

    Some of the best stories of the F1 of yore in the magazine come from the guys with the spanners. I urge you to get a mic in front of as many of these people as possible before they disappear.

  2. Daryl, 11 September 2013 11:53

    Bonkers car, the world’s a better place for cars such as this.

  3. Neil Dockray, 11 September 2013 13:46

    In the mid sixties I was at one of the major meetings at Silverstone, probably the BGP which had a parade of such machinery. I was stood in the paddock when a V16 had to stop right alongside me because of a blockage ahead & blipped its throttle several times very loudly – my hearing has never been the same since, the combination of cylinders the size of eggcups together with unsilenced stub exhaust pipes approx 3″ long has meant ‘pardon’ is my most frequently used word. Pat O’Brien mentions Tony Rudd’s book which I also enjoyed very much> However unless I misread it he also managed to conince the reader that he also made a great success of the H16 which is somewhat at varience with my own memory. However a good guy with a decent record.

  4. Bob Hinchliffe, 11 September 2013 15:52

    When I was young, here we go again, we lived in Chippenham and when the V16 BRM was practicing at Castle Combe we could clearly hear it from our back garden. I’ve just google mapped it and it is 5 miles away!
    Ken Wharton drove the car in one or two of the Formula Libre races that you mention and we always went along in the afternoon to watch it break down!

  5. charles carling, 11 September 2013 18:02

    It was a simply spectacular car the V16BRM. I was 9 years old when I first saw Gonzales drive it in the wet at Boreham, and since then I’ve been an avid motor racing fan. That was 1952 and they won a number of FLibre races thereafter in the hands of Wharton and Collins,even if Moss shied away from it.
    I would love to see it again, but not sitting in Beaulieu, but rather in the hands of Alonso. If he could drive the rival Ferrari 375, at speed around Silverstone, then why not the BRM?

  6. A.Eglington, 11 September 2013 18:17

    I am unable to remember the exact year that I
    was at the Goodwood Easter Monday meeting when the V-16 competed but I do remember that when the engines started on the grid it made conversation at Lavant corner quite difficult.It was said that other drivers on the grid thought that their own engines had stopped. Crazy but wonderful – true British madness. In later years I became a member of the O.R.M.A. and visited Bourne to see the Hill and Ginther cars being prepared for a race.

  7. R.E.B, 11 September 2013 19:35

    Saw them at the terrific BRM memorial day last year and they were fascinating machines. What was it with BRMs obsession with complexity? V16, H16, two cranks joined together and lord knows what else, and then Duckworth does a modest four valve V8 with a mega efficient combustion chamber that wipes the board!

  8. Andrew Scoley, 12 September 2013 08:10

    The old adage that the engine should provide more power than the chassis can handle was probably tested in the extreme by this car. I too was in Bourne last October and it was terrific to see the cars driven round the town. Space, and crowd proximity prevented full throttle being used of course so we didn’t experience the glorious wail these engines make. Like many I have the sound on CD, but the damn thing misfires so much it rather spoils the effect.

    Was the V16 pre-war Auto Union any less bonkers? Possibly, but the conventional chassis of the time struggled to handle the power available then too. At least they were a little more reliable however.

    BRM V16 still conjures up something though doesn’t it? Daryl is quite right.

  9. martin tomlinson, 12 September 2013 12:33

    I too had a copy of that EP – ‘Sound Stories’ with Neville Hays doing the narrative. I used to play it over and over … the noise!

    I was at Aintree in 1955 when I believe the V16 had it’s last race. Peter Collins was driving it and won the Libre race. The noise sounded great. The reason (i think) that the V16 was raced was due to the ‘new’ BRM 25 had been damaged on its way to the meeting when the transporter (or trailer?) crashed!

  10. Neil Dockray, 12 September 2013 15:33

    Just feel a bit sad for all you ‘EP’ listeners. I still have an ‘LP’ – ‘the exiting sounds of, GRAND PRIX, challenge of champions’ recorded in conjuction with Frankenheimer’s film in glorious ‘Stereo’. The V12 Honda does sound quite spectacularly spine chilling.

  11. Andrew Scoley, 13 September 2013 05:48

    I have two, neither of which is an EP or an LP!!

    Into the Red which is a sound recording of Nick Mason’s cars, and the other being The Sounds of Goodwood which came with Motorsport some time ago, both CDs.

  12. martin tomlinson, 13 September 2013 10:20

    Dear Neil

    Got that one too! Rindt not lifting through the Masta Kink with a tape recorder strapped to his Cooper Maser is an impressive track (no pun intended)!

    Trouble is, whilst I’ve still got these old records, I haven’t now got a bloody record player!!

  13. Neil Dockray, 13 September 2013 17:15

    Dear Martin,
    I was going to wind up Andrew by saying that ‘I hope to upgrade to a cd player soon’ but to be truthful, like you I am no longer able to play my old stuff. I know that I ought to invest in one of these things adverised in mailings which apparently do the conversion but they seem to take up so much room. In the meantime I am just looking at the LP cover & tying my best to imagine the sound.

  14. Nick H, 13 September 2013 20:05

    @ Neil and Martin
    I have the ‘Exiting Sounds of, GRAND PRIX’ on audio cassette, that somebody kindly recorded for me yonks ago – listened to it last week for the first time in ages. Those Spa segments are spine tingling stuff, and along with the Belgian GP sequence in the Frankenheimer film, were one of the reasons I’ve always been fascinated with the old Spa circuit. Different times…


  15. Graham Roberts, 15 September 2013 05:47

    Took ‘Into the Red’, to a car auction in Auckland, played it through their speaker system and the offices emptied, everyone looking for the car making the auction hall reverbrate with noise!

  16. chris b, 21 September 2013 13:30

    interesting article Nigel, i was always at a complete loss with BRM,they made two, possibly three excellent engines and two, um interesting ones, forgive my ageing memory but why did Ray chose a V16? i could see some sense in the H16, after all the 1.5ltr V8 was a great little engine, so two together would make some sort of sense, albeit an unusual sense.

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