BRM’s early ’90s rebirth as a sportscar squad coincided with the death of Group C. Richard Heseltine relates a tale of woe
They say the secret to all good comedy is timing. John Mangoletsi would likely agree. As the architect behind BRM’s early ’90s revival as a Group C player, he could only look on open-mouthed as the sportscar series imploded just as his team got up and running. Not to worry, there was always the concurrent supercar project to fall back upon. Erm, no: stock markets took a tumble and demand for egregiously expensive road burners dwindled to nothing. So just another marque revival that singularly failed to emulate past glories, then? Undoubtedly. But comedy? Calamity would be closer.
“Yes I suppose our timing was impeccable,” laughs Mangoletsi. “History will judge us on our results but this was a serious project.” One that ironically was born of frustration at earlier ventures failing at the final hurdle. “I already had a staff of 30 people involved in the design, development and manufacture of fuel-injection systems before [ex-Chevron man] Paul Brown joined us in Congleton, Cheshire and established our design studio. That was in around 1986-87. We then started looking around for projects and did some sub-contract work for Reynard and Porsche. This led to us getting a contract from Al Holbert, President of Porsche Motorsport North America, to perform a complete update of the 962. We signed the agreement on a Thursday, and poor Al was killed in an air crash on the following Saturday. Two days later Porsche notified us that the deal was cancelled.
“Then we had a contract with General Motors to design a Group C Chevrolet Corvette, with Paul visiting the States each month to help set up facilities to assemble the car in-house. With the design completed, wind-tunnel models built and a lot of the patterns finished, GM pulled out because it was having to close several factories and a racing programme was deemed inappropriate. Running concurrently was the design and development of a new Jensen. In the six months that project ran, a tubular/monocoque chassis was designed and built.We also developed an alloy-block Chevrolet V8.” Then the money ran out. “Instead of wasting all the expertise gained, we then decided to form an alliance with a well-known marque.”
The marque in question being British Racing Motors, an evocative name that had nonetheless become n a laughing stock in its final ‘Stanley Steamer’ seasons in F1 (1975-77). But the Owen family that controlled the rights to the nomenclature was receptive, despite having reputedly turned down as many as 20 other proposals. “My association with BRNI goes back to my days at Oundle School, which is not far from Bourne,” says Mangoletsi. “David and John Owen and I were all there at the same time. When I was 16 I’d started the school motor club and Raymond Mays became our president: he helped us organise trips to BRNI. I suppose I’ve always been a fan of the marque. Anyway, following discussions with the Owens, they suggested Merrick Taylor [chief executive of Motor Panels, which had previously been a part of Rubery Owen] should vet our project. When the decision was taken to go ahead and build the BRM P351 towards the end of 1990, Group C was still riding high, as was the supercar market, so we decided to build a racing car and spin off the technology into a road car [the P401].”
The Group C weapon was built in nine months, featuring a 3.5-litre V12 designed by Graham Dale-Jones and built by Terry Hoyle’s JHS organisation. Derived from the Weslake grand prix unit, only the basic block was retained, with Ricardo Engineering assisting with development. To this was allied an in-house-made six-speed, three-shaft transmission. “The engine developed 626bhp at 11,300rpm,” claims Mangoletsi. “This compared well with F1 units.” With the arrival of former Richard Lloyd Racing man Ian Dawson as team manager [he was less than enamoured with his Lada Samara company car …], the staff and racer were in place. But there were problems ahead. Fairly fundamental ones.
BRM’s rebirth caught everyone off guard at its January 1991 International Racing Car Show debut when a model of the P351 was displayed. Eleven months later the finished car was unveiled at the Science Museum. Problem was, the FIA had axed the World Sportscar Championship a fortnight earlier, which did take the edge off proceedings: 1992 would be Group C’s final hurrah. “Of course virtually all sponsorship evaporated,” recalls Mangoletsi. “That final year was dismal. Nonetheless, we decided to support whatever racing emerged and Le Mans was obviously a major target. But that turned out to be a sad affair, with only 28 entries. We turned up having done only 150 miles of testing, most of which had been carried out at Snetterton, and a few laps of practice at the Silverstone 500Km. Wayne Taylor and Harri Toivonen were due to drive, but the new design ring and pinion around which the ‘box had been designed only arrived — after many delays at the manufacturer — during the first session of the Wednesday practice. Unfortunately the special 1 1 mm bolts had not been sent. None could be sourced in France, so we had to wait for a specially made set to arrive before final qualifying on Thursday.”
The P351 completed just three laps before stopping after problems with the hastily rebuilt final-drive assembly. In the race the BRM started from the pitlane and, by the first scheduled stop, was running in 17th place with Taylor driving. Then the gearbox selector jammed on entry to the pits. Some 51 minutes later, the South African-born, naturalised American managed to find a cog and made it back to the BRM garage. As the sole qualified driver, he would only be allowed to complete a maximum of 14 hours, so time wasn’t exactly of the essence. The transmission was stripped and repaired: he then headed out once again at 8pm. One lap later Taylor returned, reporting that “there’s something holding the car back.” He was out for good by 11pm as the car succumbed to valve failure, having reached a top speed of 216mph along the Mulsanne Straight.
One further outing in the Camel Continental IMSA race at Watkins Glen a week later — in which Taylor managed just eight laps, seven of them involving a visit to the pits — saw the misfiring BRM withdrawn on safety grounds. A further outing at the Donington Park 500km was scratched, as were plans to take in the Elkhart Lake IMSA race. One final no-show at the Suzuka 1000Kin and it was all over.
For five years, anyway. As sportscar racing crashed and burned, Mangoletsi began working with Main Bertaut of the ACO, in time creating a series for open sportsracers. This needed cars to make up decent grids, so BRM was back for ’97. With Nissan power. Mangoletsi: “Ian Dawson, who was by then the team manager at Pacific Racing, was looking for a new project following their withdrawal from F1, and I put together a package together with them to convert the P351 to open specification. As budgets no longer supported complex multi-cylinder engines, I looked for a proven 3-litre turbo unit. The highly successful [four-times IMSA
championship-winning] Nissan GTP car was powered by a lightweight 3-litre turbo V6. It was an extremely simple and strong engine. Nissan had withdrawn from sportscar racing and we had the opportunity to acquire some engines with a view to manufacturing them ourselves at a later date. We therefore had the opportunity to create a BRM engine from a well-proven and reliable basis. In fact the engine in the P301 only retained the basic Nissan head and block assembly.”
So, with great expectations, Le Mans beckoned: “Johnny O’Connell, a tremendously quick and likeable American driver, qualified the car, the first stage being to get through pre-qualifying in May. [Engine builder] Janspeed developed a race engine that produced 30bhp more than the 540 used for pre-qualifying. Sadly, Johnny broke his foot in an accident in the buildup to the Indy 500 so Toivonen became the lead driver for the race.” Following practice the race engine was installed and all was well — for the first half an hour. One of the oil lines proved to be faulty and the loss of the brown stuff proved terminal.
BRM’s swansong was the 1998 Misano 2.5 Hours, a round of the fledgling International Sports Racing Series. Mangoletsi pulled off a coup by roping in former BRM F1 pilote Henri Pescarolo to join William Hewland and Tim Sugden in the car. Not that the Frenchman would get a look-in. And lead driver Sugden wasn’t best impressed: “It was shit. Well actually, that’s not being fair. I’d only done a few miles at Snetterton beforehand so didn’t really know the car all that well. The chassis was actually very good. I remember it having a touch of understeer but it was fundamentally a decent car. The engine was the big problem. It misfired the whole time and you couldn’t do a lap without it going bang, bang, bang. I’m amazed I qualified it fifth [out of 20 cars].” The Yorkshireman’s race lasted just four laps: the combination of the Italian track’s bumpy surface and the huge torque loads from the turbo V6 destroyed the gearbox input shaft. Game over.
So no chance of another revival, then? “No,” sighs Mangoletsi. “It’s impossible to see an opening where BRM might realistically once again do justice to the marque’s history. The rebirth of BRM in Group C, competing against the world’s leading sportscar manufacturers, was absolutely the correct place for the marque to be. Sadly, it was absolutely the wrong time.” No kidding.