When 1976 passed with only one BRM grand prix entry, it seemed that the team from Bourne had reached its end. But suddenly an all-new car was announced. Paul Fearnley examines the fallout from this last, spectacular act in the BRM soap opera
There are two sides to every story, they say. Not everything is black and white, however — some of it is British Racing Green. But through the fog of acrimony — it’s lifted since 1977, but has yet to disperse completely — shines an incontrovertible truth about BRM’s final F1 fling: this is a sad and cautionary tale.
Everyone thought they had seen the last of BRM. An aged P201 driven by Ian Ashley had made an underwhelming appearance at Buenos Aires — the opening round of the 1976 F1 world championship — and that was that. Done. Best forgotten. Outsiders could see the team had lost the plot: to build a car in its entirety, while commendable, was no way to go motor racing in the Cosworth/Hewland ‘kit car’ age — unless you had the backing of Fiat. To compound this by running three, four, or more, cars in a GP, was sheer lunacy. The team was blessed with talented engineers, but they were overstretched. The slide following Jean-Pierre Beltoise’s season-closing win in the 1972 Victory Race at Brands Hatch and Clay Regazzoni’s season-opening pole position in the 1973 Argentine GP had been swift, inexorable and painful to watch.
But Lou Stanley, who owned BRM jointly with his wife Jean, is not a man beholden to convention. He turned the F1 world on its ear: BRM were coming back in 1977, with an all-new design, the P207. It wasn’t until the car was unveiled at the swanky Dorchester Hotel on 3 December, 1976, that he was truly believed. He’d pulled it off, though, thanks to backing from Rotary Watches and the speedy pencil of Len Terry, the freelancer he had called in and given four months to design a car. When ‘Big Lou’ was fired up, nothing was allowed to get in the way. In front of the assembled press, the doubting Thomases, he railed against this and that, and promised much from his team — his words becoming ever more passionate, ever more lavish, with ever more pomp and circumstance.
His cohorts must have cringed. In a few weeks’ time they were due to fly to South America for the Argentine and Brazilian GPs — and they simply weren’t ready. An extended test at Snetterton would have made more sense. They grabbed some straight-line runs on a Cambridgeshire airfield in December instead, where matters got worse: the car boiled — despite the snow!
Australian Larry Perkins was the team’s sole driver. He’d had a tantalising glimpse of how an F1 team should be when he contested three GPs at the end of 1976 for Bernie Ecdestone’s Brabham, replacing the Ferrari-bound Carlos Reutemann. Larry was rated by many, but made a bit of a Horlicks of it, and was hardly spoilt for choice the next season.
“Sometimes,” he says, “a driver finds himself in a good situation, the next moment you’re thinking, ‘Christ, will another opportunity come along?’ Well, BRM came along, and I reckoned it was better than nothing. There were some capable people at BRM, and I’m a hands-on sort of guy who reckons you should be able to turn things around if you have good people around you.” He was just 26 at the time, used to winning back home and in Europe’s lesser formulae.
Chief engineer Aubrey Woods, in contrast, was BRM to his core. He’d worked for other outfits, but had been given his break by BRM’s Peter Berthon. He had been with the team when it was nothing more than six men in a drawing office, been through the bad times, been through the good times. BRM meant a lot to him. Which is why he was tempted back. And why he didn’t appreciate being told what to do and how to do it by a straight-talking Aussie young buck. When Perkins buttonholed him to point out he knew a thing or two about radiators and cooling after spending his childhood on a farm in the Outback, inwardly Aubrey must have agreed with his sentiment, for he too felt this was a particular design flaw. Yet, according to Perkins, his viewpoint was met with a wall of indifference.
In Woods’ defence, he states that he had been told to keep his nose out of the design side; his job was to oversee engine development and manage the team. It was not a role he was totally happy with. In an earlier BRM comeback, he’d been asked to act as designer, and the commercial and team manager. It was an impossible task, so he persuaded Sir Alfred Owen, BRM’s patron, to sign Tim Parnell as team manager, a suggestion which reaped dividends during the Yardley/Marlboro era. But now he found himself back at square one, watching someone else do the job he wanted. Put plainly, Woods wasn’t enamoured by Terry’s appointment — even though they’d worked on Dan Gurney’s Eagle project In the rush to pull everything together, toes were being trodden on, corners were being cut. The team had a great name, there was a huge willingness to make it work, but it wasn’t gelling.
Terry has a slightly more detached view. He had been freelance since leaving Gurney’s operation towards the end of 1967, his first commission springing from BRM, who asked him to design the V12-engined P126 F1 car. This, too, was a tricky time politically, long-time BRM chief designer Tony Rudd persisting with the troubled H16 engine.
“Like the P207, I only had four months to design P126,” Terry recalls, “but it was a reasonably successful car given that it had a touring engine rather than an out-and-out racing unit” P207 was to prove a lot more problematical and a lot less successful.
“The big problem was there just wasn’t enough money,” Terry continues. “We had about £300,000 when a top team had approximately £1.5m. And you must remember that we were building the engine and gearbox as well.” Tight budget, tight schedule, pressure building — radiator and all.
Naturally enough, Terry disagreed with Woods about the cause of the overheating problem: “Aubrey thought it was an airflow problem, but I reckoned it boiled down to the design of the water pump housing. The pump I designed was intended to send the water in two directions, diagonally opposite to each other. But because of a lack of finance, the actual pump was a cobble-up of two pumps cut in half. As soon as I saw it, I knew we would have trouble with it. The interior of the pump was such that it was stirring rather than circulating — and the water was just sitting in the head.”
That should have been a small problem, easy to solve. The bigger deal was the clash of personalities. As Terry recalls: “I was saying that the main problem with the car was the engine, and Aubrey was saying it was a fundamental design problem. He wouldn’t accept it, and I wouldn’t accept it. In fact, looking back, it was neither an engine problem nor a design problem.” Heels were being dug in. They’d all soon be up to their necks.
The project descended into farce because of a logistical lulu. The team were sat in Gatwick’s departure lounge, ready for the flight to Argentina, when an urgent message called Woods down onto the Tarmac apron: the car wouldn’t fit in the plane.
“We had been given the dimensions for a commercial freight airliner with double doors,” explains Woods. “But now we were faced with a passenger flight which only had a single door. The crate would fit through it but there wasn’t enough room to manoeuvre once inside the fuselage. We couldn’t go.” It was an understandable oversight given the whirligig schedule, and the divvying up of duties, but it was hugely embarrassing nevertheless.
And infuriating. An expectant Perkins waited to greet the team at Buenos Aires airport. And waited. And waited. You can imagine his mood. It wasn’t improved when, in his new role of unwilling spectator, he read the race programme and discovered the mugshot purporting to be him was actually of Derek Bell, with a pair of glasses drawn on.
A last-minute deal with Brazilian airline Varig meant the car arrived at Interlagos in time for the year’s second GP. It was, however, stubbornly 12sec off the pace, boiling like a kettle every time it went out. The ‘Stanley Steamer’ nickname was cruel but accurate. It started the race but lasted only a lap before disappearing in a puff of smoke. Perkins was resigned to it by then, his mood alleviated a little by his victory in the one-lap drivers’ bicycle race, beating “Jacky Ickx, who was said to have been training with Eddy Merckx”. Every straw had to be clutched.
The team managed a modicum of testing back home, which only served to break enough bits to put the car out of action for the South African GP. They’d have to take an old car instead. “I think it had Jo Siffert’s name on it,” says Perkins.
It wasn’t quite that old, but it was the car that hadn’t run since Argentina in 1976. This was loaded onto the slow boat to Cape Town — there wasn’t enough cash to fly — and it arrived, according to one journalist, looking as though it had been used as the ship’s figurehead. The beleaguered team trailered it to Kyalami, near Johannesburg, where Perkins did well to qualify, especially as the old girl sauntered along Kyalami’s long, downhill straight at a steady-as-she-goes 148.51mph. Larry finished, too — last, five laps down, his hands and arms numbed by a vibration caused by missing wheel weights.
P207 returned to the fray at Brands Hatch’s Race of Champions on 20 March, but withdrew when some old ‘parts bin’ uprights showed signs of wear. This was far from being an all-new car. Terry: “I was told to use as many existing bits as possible.” The more forthright Perkins calls it “old rubbish recycled”. His BRM adventure had come to its end.
“You dream that someday you will become an F1 driver, and now here I was doing it. I couldn’t believe it. But then I couldn’t believe that, having got there, you could be treated so badly.
“The car had some nice bits. The engine lacked power initially, but they found 50bhp with a new sump. It sounded beautiful. But then it would break. The gearbox was lovely, too. There were some good engineers at BRM.
“I wasn’t politically correct; I don’t remember having a long chat about it all — I think I just rang up and said, ‘You won’t be seeing me again.'”
Terry left at about the same time. It was his last foray in F1: “There was a lot of energy and ideas, but much of it was at cross-purposes, especially between Aubrey and me. It was one big cock-up.”
Woods stayed on as the team lurched from crisis to crisis during a European season notable only for the car’s failure to qualify. A hue-and-cry at the time was that the independents felt they were being squeezed out by the big wheels, and there’d often be 30 cars gunning for just 22 places. Sweden’s Conny Andersson, Guy Edwards and Teddy Pilette wrestled with P207 to no avail.
Woods reckons his reworked V12 was giving a very competitive 480-490bhp. Pilette concurs, but also remembers that it kept dropping valves: “There was just no money. There was a patch on one block that was leaking. So we sealed it with Araldite.”
Iniquity followed iniquity: the team gave Monaco, scene of its greatest triumphs, a miss; BRM was demoted from the F1 Constructors’ Association just days before the British Grand Prix; both P207s (yes, they built two) were entered for the 1978 British F1 championship — and still couldn’t win.
Yet Woods stuck it out, designing the car he hoped would modernise BRM, a Lotus-like wing car. It ran, briefly, on Donington’s Melbourne Loop, but went no further.
Woods: “There’s only one good thing I can say about all this: I was there at the start and I was there at the finish.” He even oversaw the sale of BRM on 22 October, 1981.
And that was that. Done. Best remembered.