At the end of 1951, the Formula One for which the V16 had been built 4.5-litres unsupercharged, 1.5-litres supercharged was abandoned. By that time the BRMs had competed in precisely three Grands Prix, with a singular lack of success.
The V16 had made its debut at the Silverstone International Trophy the year before. Having missed practice car unready Raymond Sommer was nevertheless permitted to start. Down went the flag, whereupon the BRM lurched forward a few inches, then stopped, transmission broken.
Mays found the crowd’s response hurtful. “There was a BRM Supporters Club, and the members had put a lot of money in it. But when the car was pushed back into the paddock, some people very impolitely threw pennies in the seat. Really rather disgusting. If they’d only known what we’d gone through to get that car there…”
Well, yes, but then they had turned up in the hope of seeing the BRM at last show something. By 1952 it was eligible only for Formule Libre events and the very occasional race run for the old Formula 1. One such was at Albi, where Fangio and Gonzales dominated until they retired. Victory went to journeyman racer Louis Rosier and his ancient Ferrari.
BRM returned there in 1953, with Ken Wharton backing up the two Argentines. The weekend was etched in Mays’s mind. “It was two days before the Coronation, and we were determined to show how those cars could go. It meant the world to us…
“They virtually staged the race for us, you know, the Albi authorities. They were always friendly towards England, and they said they’d get Alfa Romeo to bring the 158s out of retirement, and persuade Ferrari to bring his 4.5-litre car. Here was our one chance of showing that we’d built a car capable of beating the cars in the formula for which it was intended.” I don’t believe Ray saw any irony in his own words.
“At the last moment Alfa decided not to come, which disappointed us, but we felt that if we could beat Ferrari, that would be good enough. Then the organising club said they had an awful blow for us: Ferrari would , after all, not be sending his car, for Alberto Ascari.
“I said, ‘Well, this is absolutely dreadful. If we win against what’s left, everyone will call it a hollow victory. For heaven’s sake, do something!’ They offered Ferrari more starting money and he came like a flash…”
Towards the end of practice. Ascari beat Fangio’s time, whereupon Juan Manuel went out again. “He knocked Ascari’s time sideways, of course. Typically Fangio. And the whole grandstand got up and cheered. It was a very uplifting moment for me.”
By the end of that lap, though, Fangio detected a misfire, and, as Mays admitted, “When you got a misfire on the V16, it could have been 1001 things.. .We worked through the night, and at 3.30am it was decided that I would test the car. At that time of the day early dawn there were horses and carts about, farmers coming out of gates, but on this long straight road I had the thing up to 180, and I scared myself stiff”
How wide was the road? I asked. “Narrow,” said Mays. “Narrow.” Whatever the problem, it was now cured, and in the heat Fangio was unopposed, once Ascari had retired. Albi, over five miles in length, was an open road circuit, its back leg a two mile, poplar-lined straight, both narrow and highly cambered. “Believe it or not, Fangio and Ascari overtook and re-overtook each other down there, at around 190mph!”
The final should have been a cakewalk for the V16s, but Fangio, leading, had a tyre failure, his car suffering consequent and irreparable hub damage, and Wharton had an enormous accident. “That was dreadful,” Mays recalled. “He was lucky to get away with it, being thrown into a ditch, then seeing the car roll over three times, and land back on the circuit. Somehow he was almost unhurt.” As for Gonzales, he finished second, after losing the lead when a rear tyre failed. The winner? Monsieur Rosier and his Ferrari, proceeding at a leisurely pace, as ever.
Mays clearly remembered Albi ’53 as a day of redemption for the V16s, and they certainly gave a glimpse of what might have been. “It was the tyres, you see. In fairness to Dunlop, they’d never been able to test at the kind of speeds the cars were reaching.” It didn’t seem the moment to suggest that the V16’s ludicrous power curve’ might have had something to do with it, too.