After years of disappointment, it was ironic, says Paul Fearnley, that BRM’s debut grand prix win came just as the sport changed
BRM and controversy, BRM and disappointment: excellent examples of 1950s tautology. The team was subsumed by one, consumed by the other. They raised the British public’s hopes time and again. And dashed them time and again. Good intentions and advanced engineering, entangled in a web of mismanagement.
Zandvoort 1959 was no different. BRM were up in arms. Their owner had, not before time, given them a short, sharp shock. Egos were bruised, resignation letters penned. The previous GP had been a disaster: the speed of the Coopers — Monaco had seen Jack Brabham record the works team’s first GP victory — meant the writing on the wall for the front-engined cars was now in block capitals; what’s more, although BRM had spent four years honing their P25, they couldn’t prevent all three cars retiring with brake problems. There had been glimpses of potential, but there was precious little to show for the heartache and all-nighters the project had caused. And now, still unfulfilled, the car faced obsolescence. The recriminations swirled like sand whipped from Zandvoort’s dunes.
There was, however, an oasis of calm: Jo Bonnier. The high-born Swede was often accused of being aloof. He kept his racing and private life separate, chose his words carefully, and would retreat behind his neatly-trimmed beard when it pleased him. Signed by BRM after just 12 GP starts, all in Maserati 250Fs, he made a good impression by finishing fourth in the 1958 Moroccan GP. His quiet approach was in stark contrast to the playboy shenanigans of Harry Schell, but they were to be BRM’s unlikely duo for ’59. A midfield pairing, with perhaps a podium or two thrown in.
BRM had tried, but no amount of persuading could convince Stirling Moss to sign. His dislike of the team ran deep; when he called the V16 the worst car he’d ever driven, BRM’s co-founder Peter Berthon countered by stating that Moss was frightened of it. Such things are not easily forgotten. But there was a complication, Stirling liked the P25. A lot. A dilemma, then. One of many. For the immediate period following Vanwall’s withdrawal was the one for which Moss received most criticism. Every works team would have given their back teeth to have him on their books, but he went with Rob Walker and Ken Gregory’s new British Racing Partnership outfit instead. And so began his ‘car-breaker’ phase.
He could have sat back and relied on his talent, but the search for that vital extra tenth was too compelling. He became what most designers of the period would label a meddler. Let’s run a Cooper. Let’s try it with a BRM engine. And let’s try a Colotti gearbox. And we’d better assess the P25 as well. This constant striving is what stood him apart from the Bonniers and Schells — but it cost him wins too.
He couldn’t be criticised for his distrust of BRM, though. His hopes and fears were confirmed when he drove a works-run P25 in the International Trophy on 2 May. He set pole, took the lead, and was romping away — when the front brakes failed, pitching him into a mother-and-father spin. Good car, bad team, was how he saw it.
Sir Alfred Owen, the patron whose money BRM was sluicing away, was reaching the same conclusions. He had been patient, but when Moss approached him directly to ask for two P25s, to be run by BRP, he jumped at the chance — and no amount of argument from a slighted Berthon would change his mind.
The week after Monaco, therefore, a P25 was hooked up behind the team’s Standard Vanguard van and trailered to Zandvoort for a test. For Moss, that is — not Bonnier, not Schell.
“It was a peculiar session,” remembers chief engineer Tony Rudd. “We did one hell of a mileage, which gave us a lot of confidence. We learned a lot about tyre wear rates.” And improved the brakes. According to Rudd, Moss made no drastic changes. But Bonnier and Schell did not rush to revert to their old settings — that vital extra tenth thing. The biggest change was a switch to 15in Dunlops from 16in.
Then came the real bombshell: Moss would race a BRP-run P25 at selected GPs. He planned to debut the car at Reims on 5 July, so it was undergoing an overhaul at BRP’s Lots Road HQ while he used the Walker Cooper to set fastest time in Friday’s Zandvoort practice. It all seems unnecessarily complicated but, in Stirling’s defence, 1959 was a difficult season of huge transition.
Bonnier was eight-tenths of a second shy of Moss. But he was comfortable with that, happy to be competitive — and much quicker than his team-mate.
His determined mood was mirrored by the team’s sense of purpose. Despite the resignation letters that had been pressed into Rudd’s hand, nobody left. Quite the opposite in fact. “The BRP/Moss thing actually united the mechanics like nothing else,” remembers Rudd. Bonnier was not adept at keeping his spannermen sweet — despite his wealth — but his misanthropy was forgiven the next morning when he set a stunning 1min36sec lap to annex pole.
Rudd: “I don’t know who was more surprised, Jo or me.” Jo probably, but he didn’t show it. He retreated behind his beard and sat out the afternoon session. BRM, a team renowned for last-minute tinkering, blind panic even, had composed itself.
Moss, who was two-tenths off pole, sat it out too, but that had more to do with him nursing his Colotti gearbox. Its late-race failure had cost him victory in Monaco, and team-mate Maurice Trintignant had already broken his here.
Brabham went out, though, and matched Bonnier for a place in middle of the front row. But he was worried about excessive tyre wear. BRM made great play of practising wheel changes, even though they reckoned on going the distance on a single set. But they were enjoying the time and space to pull a flanker. Ferrari, meanwhile, stripped their out-of-sorts 246s and were constantly mixing and matching their V6s. BRM appeared, at last, to hold all the aces. Except a top-rank pilot.
What they had was a driver at the start of his works career. The BRM wasn’t the best seat in the house, but it was the best he’d ever plonked his backside on. This was only his fourth GP start with them, yet he had achieved something Peter Collins, Mike Hawthorn, Tony Brooks and Jean Behra had not — a pole position for BRM in a world championship GP. And best of all, he appeared to be taking it in his stride. The team had not yet realised the main aim of his GP career was to secure solid finishes; neither, probably, had he.
What they also had was a car well-suited to the track. Despite its long pit straight, Zandvoort was considered medium-speed; it was, in comparison to Reims and Spa. Whereas the powerful Ferraris had the edge on the latter, and Cooper held the upper hand on tighter circuits, the flowing Zandvoort was heaven-sent for the P25.
So how would the cool Swede have played it out in his mind? Brabham was quick, but hard on his tyres. Ferrari were all over the place. The new Aston Martins were cumbersome. The Lotus 16s appeared very stable but surely couldn’t be expected to last the pace. BRM had them all covered. Except that damn Moss.
Bonnier’s composure did not crack at the start, and he led into the banked Tarzan corner. Masten Gregory’s works Cooper made a lightning getaway from the third row to be second. The American was a firebrand behind the wheel, and he impatiently bullied his way into the lead on the second lap. Jo knew the score, though. He kept the pressure on, driving smoothly, and retook the lead on lap 12, by which time Gregory was already struggling with his gears.
What of Moss? He made a steady, gearbox-friendly start and was eighth at the end of the first lap. Then he got bottled up behind Jean Behra’s Ferrari, the Frenchman signalling Moss to pass on the straight, knowing full well the Cooper did not have the legs. A fuming Moss eventually drove around the outside of him at Tarzan on lap 25. Free at last. But had there been one hurried downshift too many?
Bonnier now had his mirrors full of Brabham, who took the lead on lap 30. But his gearbox was also baulking and, as Moss loomed, Jo upped the pace and retook the lead three laps later. He appeared unruffled. That pole position was no fluke. This was a driver in the right car, making the most of his opportunity.
But that still wasn’t enough to stave off a fired-up Moss. The gap didn’t close as quickly as it might, a combination of Bonnier’s day of days and Moss eking out his gearbox, but the inevitable happened on lap 60 of 75. That damned Moss was leading.
Brabham was 17sec back, but Jo did not back off into what would become his usual comfort zone. He was dropping away from Moss, but remained there and thereabouts, ready to pick up the pieces — one of which broke inside the leader’s Colotti on lap 63. For the first time in eight years, Rudd was able to give the ‘slow’ signal. Twelve laps remained — a distance often beyond BRMs in the past. But not this time. The wait was over.
Rudd remembers the transporter disappearing into the sunset with joyous mechanics perched on its roof. They surely deserved their moment. But it was no more than a moment.
Designer Aubrey Woods had been given a rare weekend off to watch the race, and he returned home subdued, Bonnier-like. For on his desk were blueprints of BRM’s first mid-engined F1 car. The recently-announced 1.5-litre formula, scheduled for 1961, was the real chance BRM had to break free of its shackles, to forget the past and make that engineering ability count.
Back to the drawing board.