Murray's Mint Brabhams

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There will be a lot of Brabhams at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. This is good news. I have always loved and admired Brabhams by Gordon Murray, from the days when Bernie Ecclestone owned the team made famous by Jack himself.

Thinking of Murray’s Brabhams got me going through my scrapbooks for the 1978 Grand Prix season. Niki Lauda joined Brabham to work alongside John Watson who, having been a friend since moving to the South coast, contrived to get me inside the team for a couple of races. I hesitate to say ‘work alongside’ as it often appeared to me that Niki used every opportunity to gain the psychological advantage, a modus operandi that revealed what a clever and ruthless competitor he could be.

At Monaco in May Wattie and I stayed at the Loews Hotel where we would meet for breakfast over a tape recorder. Unusually, my wife had also made the trip that year. She knew Wattie well but was hardly prepared for Herr Lauda who immediately took a liking to her, suggesting that she might enjoy spending some time with him while the journalist went to work. Not overly amused at the time, I later came to appreciate Niki’s mischief and sharp humour.

Back at work, Gordon Murray showed me around his Brabham BT46, a thing of functional beauty, resplendent in red with subtle blue stripes. It sounded good too, the powerful Alfa Romeo 3-litre Flat 12 providing as much as 50bhp more than a Cosworth. But, Murray explained, the engine was heavy, used a lot of fuel, and this compromised the perfect design of his aluminium monocoque. His original concept employed the use of flat panel heat exchangers flush with the bodywork instead of normal radiators, thus reducing weight and frontal area. Cooling, however, was not sufficient and BT46 was returned to standard trim by the time it replaced BT45C at Kyalami, where it sat on pole.

At Monaco Watson put his car on the front row alongside Carlos Reutemann’s Ferrari with Lauda third. Watson led away and stayed there until he ran wide at Ste Devote, allowing Lauda through. “I’d used the brakes too hard staying ahead,” John later told me, “and just ran wide.” But the Austrian had a puncture, pitted, and drove back through the field on fresh rubber to take second behind Patrick Depailler, with Wattie third.

Two months later at Brands Hatch, it appeared that Lauda had the upper hand, at least in the gamesmanship of F1. In qualifying, I remember sharp words were spoken, voices raised in the motor home, about who would get a perfectly matched set of cross-ply Goodyears. Lauda, using some colourful language, prevailed. On Sunday he would start five places ahead of Watson.

“Niki was very clever, very skilful, he knew how to work the system,” John told me. “At Monaco I’d had one set of tyres left for a final run. Niki came in, demanding new tyres, saying he could get pole. Bernie says: ‘whose tyres are those?’ looking at mine, ‘put them on Lauda’s car’. I had a rant about that, it was my set, but Bernie thought Niki would get pole. I was smiling later when I was on the front row and Niki was third…”

The Brands Hatch result was a repeat of Monaco. The Lotus boys disappeared, only to retire, as did Jody Scheckter, leaving Lauda in the lead, only to be hunted down by Reutemann in the Ferrari who won by a fraction over a second. Wattie came in third, on the podium for his home race.

In the autumn I did not go to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix, where the cars came first and second. I’m glad I wasn’t there that day, the Brabham 1-2 coming in the gloomy aftermath of Ronnie Peterson’s dreadful crash and after winner Mario Andretti and runner-up Gilles Villeneuve were penalised for jumping the start.

“The BT46 was a lovely car, like all Gordon’s cars,” says Watson now, “but it was thirsty and we always started with more fuel than a Lotus or McLaren.”

Lovely car indeed, and great memories. Roll on Goodwood.

Rob Widdows

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