Patriot Games

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BRM started life as Britain’s great hope for post-war glory. It soon became a joke, only to rise again a decade later to the top of the sport. Robert Edwards recalls the rise, fall, rebirth and death of our most extraordinary marque.

It is probably no surprise for readers of this journal to learn that, as the first elements of the US 9th Annoured division were clattering across the Ludendorff bridge at Remagen to grab their first toehold in Nazi Germany, there were folks in England who were giving serious thought to the future of that vital thing, the Racing Car. One of these was Raymond Mays. In March 1945 he announced, in a ‘white paper’:

“I feel very strongly that the ultimate in any activity is of direct value to the country achieving it. There is no doubt that the motor and associated industries have achieved it in the mechanisation of our forces. It is only fitting that this superiority should be perpetuated as a gesture to the technicians and servicemen who have made our victory possible, no less than to the masses who have patiently endured so much. It becomes incumbent upon those of us who have the ability to try to produce a car which will securely uphold our place in international competition.”

He neglected to define ‘the place’. The last time a British car and driver combination had won a proper Grand Prix was in Spain, in 1927; the car was a Sunbeam and the driver Sir Henry Segrave. Mays himself had, of course, developed the ERA, the English Racing Automobile – and his new venture was the British Racing Motor, or BRM. Whereas the ERA was a voiturette, the BRM was to be a proper Grand Prix car. That was the plan, anyway…

To accomplish this, Mays required much financial assistance and material support supplies of raw materials, components, test facilities, money, money and more money. He was unlikely to get it from Humphrey Cook, the main supporter of the ERA project, who’d learned the hard way that racing was expensive.

Happily the British Motor Industry, now that peace was about to break out, took the view that this BRM was a sound idea and responded, not with the Bronx cheer that such a suggestion would probably receive now, but with wholehearted support. The great and the good, viewing the prospect of those government contracts disappearing like the morning mist with some trepidation, saw the exercise as an excellent opportunity for some PR with which to kick-start their post war businesses.

The organisation which was to sponsor Mays’ efforts was to be called the British Motor Racing Research Trust. In effect, it would act as a co-ordinating body for the activities of a huge diversity of participants, which at one stage numbered no less than 124.

The initial idea was to acquire a pre-war Mercedes racer and draw upon it for inspiration, so to speak, but the deteriorating diplomatic situation with the USSR rather put paid to that given the car was in Czechoslovakia. As the Berlin airlift began, the car suddenly became unavailable and Mays and his design associate, Peter Berthon, were rather left in the lurch.

The first BRM, when it did appear in 1949, was, on paper, extraordinary. A V16 engine of 1500cc, breathing through twin two-stage centrifugal superchargers. An elegant body, certain elements of which recalled the elusive Mercedes, wrapped the complexities neatly, but, most important, it was green.

It was the blowers which were at the root of the problem, though. The power came in so suddenly that the driver could easily be caught unawares, or, more terminally, bits of drivetrain could give out under the strain. It was finicky, complex and, in its early iterations, eerily unreliable. There was an unseemly contest to see who could jeer loudest; no-account stand-up comedians scored points by ridiculing the car; the Daily Express cartoonist Giles, himself something of a motor nut, also had a go. Tabloid opinion was firmly set against Mays, the Trust, the mechanics, the foreign drivers, the expense. Everything. Mays remained as aloof as he could, but the pressure was vast, and, with the interval of half a century, rather shameful…

The saddest thing about the BRM V16 was that it really missed out on Formula One; the retirement of Alfa Romeo narrowed the prospective field down to one – Ferrari, and the Formula Two interregnum (dominated by Ferrari anyway) was the FIA’s response to try and generate a more competitive field. As a result, the BRM was reduced to the Formule libre events, when it often came up against the 4-litre Thinwall Special fielded by Guy Vandervell, Mays’ nemesis from the days of the Trust. It must be said, the BRM acquitted itself well; the two marques slugged it out with often very little between them. So the V16 was in the end nothing to be ashamed about.

The problems encountered with the V16 and its non-eligibility for F1, coupled with the unheard-of negative publicity generated by the hundredweight in Grub Street, effectively caused the break-up of the Trust, accelerated by Guy Vandervell’s departure; in 1952 the whole operation was taken under the wing of the Rubery Owen group. The faith of Sir Alfred Owen in the concept had been shaken, but not stirred. The assets were acquired at a price which reflected the cars’ merely curiosity value. That first BRM was, however, built to standards which were quite astonishing and at least it made a wonderful noise. It still does; I was standing rather too close to a V16 when it was lit up at Lionel Webber’s extravaganza in Basildon not long ago; a seamless banshee wail was the result I wanted to run and hide…

The introduction of the next proper Formula One, of 2.5-litres to run from 1954, ensured a more level playing field. Now that BRM was safe within the Owen empire, there was less pressure, but events started to take a familiar turn with the next offering.

The second iteration BRM, the Type 25, was, in the verdict of almost all who drove it, a dog. Mike Hawthorn claimed it ‘tripled his laundry bills’ and Salvadori, Brooks and many others simply walked, or limped, away from it. But the improvements wrought upon it by the combined efforts of Colin Chapman and Tony Rudd made it competitive in all departments except the brakes, which were eccentric, to say the least. Berthon’s insistence at persisting with the single rear disc on the gearbox output shaft was stubborn, to say the least. The vibration from the lusty four-cylinder motor was fed straight down the prop shaft to the gearbox and thence to the brake disc. Minor oscillation of the disc might not knock out the pads, but the rigid pipes which contained the fluid were to absorb terrible punishment, which was one of the main reasons why the BRM acquired such an awful reputation for braking more or less when it felt like it.

The progress made by 1959, though, was huge, even though the architecture of the car was by now almost obsolete. The Vanwall effort, which had entered, triumphed and departed (more or less) within the design life of the P25, was now gone; Vandervell had made his point and his brooding presence in the paddock was to fret on Mays’ nerves for no longer.

Vandervell’s absence may well have been a bigger tonic than even Mays might have thought. At the Dutch Grand Prix in May 1959, Jo Bonnier, starting from pole, led the race to win a World Championship Grand Prix for the first time in a BRM. Nearly ten years had elapsed since the marque’s debut; to put it into perspective, Jordan has taken a mere seven. But this was BRM; the path to serenity was never going to be either straight or short.

The 1959 P25 was, of course, the car which featured in the most famous motor racing picture of all; Hans Herrmann cartwheeling at the AVUSring during the German Grand Prix of that year. It was a recurrence of the dreaded BRM brake syndrome and brought a temporary pause to the ambitions of the British Racing Partnership, whose entry it was.

BRM, on the other hand, was starting to hit its stride; 1959 brought a third in the constructors’ championship and well-earned respectability. But the way forward was clearly not with heavy front-engined cars. The challenge facing BRM (and everyone else) came from Cooper. The rear-engined layout pioneered by the small Surbiton firm had thrown down a gauntlet to the Grand Constructors which they would spend some time picking up.

The path to recognition started in the 1960 season with the recruitment of Graham Hill to lead the team. The car which was campaigned, the P48, was BRM’s first attempt at a rear engined car and, given it was put together in mere weeks, was a startling success; the repositioning of the venerable four-cylinder engine behind the driver had the beneficial effect of reducing vibration through the transmission, so punishing the single rear disc less.

Having said that, the 1960 season was not a great success, as BRM had to join the queue behind Cooper, Lotus and Ferrari for honours in the constructors’ championship. The next hurdle for the British manufacturers was the revised F1 regulations for the 1961 season. For Cooper and Lotus the answer was simple: Coventry Climax. For BRM, committed as a Grand Constructor, there was to be a year of managing with the four cylinder Climax engine too, while their own V8 engine was prepared.

A new V8 Climax engine made its debut in Jack Brabham’s Cooper at the Nurburgring in 1961, qualifying just behind von Trips’ Ferrari. The fact that Brabham also claimed pole and fastest lap at Watkins Glen at the end of the season was lost on no one, particularly Alfred Owen, who politely informed Raymond Mays that the Owen Racing Organisation needed a decent ’62 season, otherwise he’d find it hard to justify the expense going forward. The pressure was relentless; far worse than that generated by the old V16, and Berthon departed for Weslake’s. He was replaced as chief engineer and team manager by Tony Rudd. It was to be a critical season; Owen needed, as well as wanted, a result.

Famously, he got one. The combination of Graham Hill, Richie Ginther and the new BRM V8 was to prove, in the well-balanced 1962 season, immensely successful. The new engine actually owed a lot to the old V16, using the same timing gear and con rods. The season started awfully, with the accident at Goodwood which finished Moss’s career, but at Zandvoort, scene of the marque’s solitary Grand Prix win thus far, Hill won convincingly.

Suddenly, it came together in a season whose high point was a resounding 1-2 at Morin; Hill won his first championship, BRM the constructor’s trophy and, for the first time, a British car and driver combination had accomplished what had been previously a Commonwealth preserve. Vanwall had come close, but BRM were the first to do it. In fact, much of the xenophobia of the postwar years of British racing was fading, but it was still a high point of British sport, eclipsed only by the 1966 World Cup final.

The ’63 season was a more consistent result for the team, with Hill and Ginther sharing second place in the title with 29 points each (against Jim Clark’s 54); the following year, Graham Hill came second by one point to John Surtees’ Ferrari and in 1965, Hill was only six points adrift from Jim Clark’s Lotus to take second again. The 1.5-litre Formula had, to the surprise of many (Mays had protested the change vigorously) finally proved that the BRM was indeed a viable project. They had won the championship in 1962, and were runners-up in 1963, 1964 and 1965. It had taken too long for Mays to justify being triumphal about it, but that was as well, because the 3-litre Formula in 1966, followed by the introduction of the Ford-Cosworth V8 in 1967, signalled the eventual end of BRM’s ambitions. The money involved was startling, and while they pressed on, with both the extraordinary H16 (in effect two flattened 1.5-litre V8s geared together) and a more conventional V12 engine, the glory days were almost over.

The H16, using as it did the same valve gears and cam profiles of the V8, which had been re-worked extensively under Rudd, thus established another link with the original V16. The V12, of which there were two versions, was to carry the firm through to the end. The two-valve version was available to customers; the four-valve, launched in 1969, was not. Incredibly, it produced about 460bhp, against the Cosworth V8’s 420bhp. Yet it never seemed to win races. It is still a mystery to Rudd as to why not…

In 1968, Ernest Owen, Sir Alfred’s brother, had died, which put pressure on the organisation of the Owen empire, as he had been its managing director. The man who stepped forward was Louis Stanley, Owen’s brother-in-law. He was an accomplished writer but knew little of racing except as a spectator. Nonetheless he took an active role in the team’s management, not to everyone’s glee, particularly Tony Rudd’s. It is perhaps unfair to those who carried on to say it, but the death knell of BRM was sounded at Zandvoort, the scene of the first triumph. It was June 1969, and Stanley told Rudd all future projects were now on hold.

This was unexpected. Rudd had been at BRM since ’51; his work on the P25 had so impressed the suspension designer, Colin Chapman, that he had been pestering Rudd to join Lotus for some time. Stanley’s announcement was the perfect justification. He resigned on the spot. One project which had been occupying Rudd was a ‘ground effect’ car, an idea Lotus used to claim the ’78 title.

A few months after Rudd’s departure, Alfred Owen succumbed to a stroke. The empire was, with the death of two brothers in two years, in severe danger. David Owen, who took over, delegated to Stanley until 1971, then transferred the entire operation to him.

Much has been said about Stanley, most of it critical. He has been described as faintly ridiculous, but it is fair to say he did his best. He raised sponsorship from Yardley in 1970, and their investment seemed sound when BRM, led by Jo Siffert, managed second place in the championship in ’71, but Siffert’s death at the end of the season at Brands Hatch was a hammer blow. Yardley switched to McLaren and Stanley persuaded Marlboro to replace them.

The 72 season, for a while, looked promising. Beltoise had a fine win at Monaco, but that was the last GP victory for the team which had accomplished so much. Sponsors changed; to Motul, then Rotary, but finally, it was just Stanley BRM. The final entry was at Monza in 1977. Fifteen years before, Hill and Ginther had scored a triumphant 1-2. This time, the single car, driven by Teddy Pilette, failed even to qualify. The BRM dream was gone.