BRM P201 track test: Downhill all the way

The BRM P201's first grand prix flattered to deceive: it was too little too late. Paul Fearnley tells the story and drives a survivor

Francois Mignault BRM 1974 Dutch Grand Prix in Zandvoort

Francois Mignault in the P201 at Zandvoort '74

Grand Prix Photo

As his wheezy, knock-kneed steed cantered along Kyalami’s main straight at almost 150mph — well, it was downhill! — the ‘Cowangie Kid’ had plenty of time to mull over his future. Larry Perkins, for it was he, desperately wanted to stay in Formula 1 — but no longer if it meant driving for Stanley-BRM. The team – renamed and “reconstituted” at the end of 1974 – had left him high and dry in Argentina when its crated-up P207, the new Len Terry-designed racer, wouldn’t fit its allocated slot in the cargo plane. The car made it to Brazil, where its outclassed V12 left Perkins in a puddle of coolant on the opening lap. And now, in South Africa for round three of the 1977 championship, the Aussie battler found himself driving a three-year-old car that hadn’t raced for over 12 months and which bore the scars of a three-week sea crossing. One wag wondered if the P201B had been used as the ship’s figurehead.

Perkins qualified 5.8sec off pole – a good effort by all accounts – and stoically tugged round on 10 cylinders to finish dead last, five laps behind Niki Lauda’s victorious Ferrari 312T2 and three behind the next-to-last privateer March 761 of American Brett Lunger. The ‘Cowangie Kid’ was strong and tough, but even he’d had enough of this increasingly cowboy operation.

BRM had been on a slippery slope since losing the Marlboro money to McLaren – and Lauda and Clay Regazzoni to Ferrari – for ’74. But Jean-Pierre Beltoise stuck by the Bourne outfit for a third season that year and gave it a glimmer of hope – at Kyalami, ironically.

Larry Perkins BRM 1977 South African Grand Prix in Kyalami

Perkins struggling with the P201 at Kyalami ’77

Grand Prix Photo

The 1974 South African GP was postponed by almost a month – from March 2 to 30 – because of a local ban on sport that used pump fuel. This delay allowed BRM, which had contested the opening two GPs with its long-in-the-tooth P160Es (Beltoise was fifth in Argentina), to complete its replacement model: Mike Pilbeam’s P201, the first all-new BRM since 1971. Gone were the compound curves of the ‘Coke-bottle’ P160, to be replaced by a ‘pyramid’ monocoque with ‘saddlebag’ side rads.

“When (chief designer) Tony Southgate left at the end of 1972, I reworked the P160,” says Pilbeam. “I worked closely with Lauda as it was already clear he was the man; Niki had a big say in P201 as well. We did a lot – for the day – of work in MIRA’s wind tunnel and I decided on a triangular-section monocoque. This shape loses less downforce as a car turns into a corner.”

The new-look BRM wasn’t as pretty as Gordon Murray’s similar Brabham BT44, but its tasteful green-and-silver scheme meant P201 caught the eye on the move – as did Beltoise halfway through its debut race.

Francois Mignault BRM 1974 British Grand Prix in Brands Hatch

Mignault at the 1975 British GP

Grand Prix Photo

The Parisian had qualified joint 11th – less than a second shy of Lauda’s pole – and had made an important discovery: P201 was so light on its tyres, even in these hot conditions, the team reckoned it could race on Firestone’s qualifying rubber. “Our inboard front brakes meant we didn’t roast the tyres from the inside,” explains Pilbeam, who had worked with Maurice Philippe on the similarly equipped Lotus 72.

Having avoided a first-corner tangle between the Lotus 76s of Ronnie Peterson and Jacky Ickx, Beltoise spent 30 anonymous laps back in the pack. He insists that this was not part of a pre-race plan to nurse the tyres. He was, however, staying out of others’ slipstreams to keep his P142 V12 cool (overheating had forced the team to trim the radiator shrouds). But by lap 40 (of 78) the race began to come to him. He picked off Denny Hulme’s McLaren M23 and the Tyrrells of Patrick Depailler and Jody Scheckter in short order. Two more M23s, both suffering bad tyre vibration, lay ahead: Emerson Fittipaldi was dispatched on lap 58, Mike Hailwood on lap 63. And that appeared to be the BRM man’s lot because the top three were way out front. But luck was on his side too: sagging oil pressure caused third-placed Regazzoni to pit on lap 66, and nine laps later his team-mate had second snatched away by an electrical glitch that strangled his flat-12. Thus Beltoise finished a surprised runner-up, 34sec behind Carlos Reutemann’s BT44.

From the archive

“It was a close-run thing, though,” recalls Pilbeam. “I was stood next to the car after the race when I noticed my feet were wet. A stone had gone through a radiator.”

Donington Park, with its sweeps and plunges, does a passable impression of the much-missed old Kyalami. My ‘Beltoise’, though, needs a lot of work. Even so, what strikes me immediately about P201/02 is how many options it gives you. That sonorous V12 pulls away from as low as 1500rpm and will happily short-shift from 6500 on. Which is handy because I’m having my usual early stirrings with an unfamiliar gearbox. The P161 five-speeder has no detent spring and I’m vaulting over the gate and catching the corner between third and dogleg first.  I’m still wrestling with the best method of cog-swappery when Justin Law’s Bud Light Jag almost blows me off the track.

Plan B: third for the Esses – we’re on the short circuit – and fourth everywhere else. It works a treat and frees up my tiny journalistic brain to concentrate on lines and braking points – they’re mine and I’m sticking to them – and that fantastic sound. Exiting Coppice faster each time I eventually see 10,000rpm in fourth (9,500 in top on my last lap) as I pass under the Dunlop Bridge. And to think that, like Nigel Tufnell’s custom-built Marshall amp, it will go to 11.

Geoff Johnson’s P142 – originally a two-valver designed for sports cars – is renowned for its smooth delivery. But is it too linear?  There’s none of that DFV kick out of corners or top-end grunt at the end of straights. Current driver (and preparer) Rob Hall reckons this 1968 design, albeit reworked by Aubrey Woods – four-valve heads, inlets to the inside of the vee – delivers around 420bhp at a safe 10,500rpm. That’s 50 down on a period DFV, albeit with a few hundred revs still to go. But just as telling is the packaging: this V12 is longer, taller and heavier by a full 80lb than its Cosworth rival. Yet it’s not stiff enough to act as a stressed member and is supported by an A-frame. It needed more fuel too: a tanked-up Lotus 72 carried 40 gallons, P201 had room for 47.

Bob Evans (BRM) in front of Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell-Ford) in the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix at the Osterreichring.

Bob Evans pressured by Depailler at Austria ’75

Grand Prix Photo

“You can feel that weight,” says Hall. “But you can work with it. You can chuck it in on the brakes, which are excellent, and catch that pendulum effect on the way out. The steering is very light; Beltoise used to drive with one arm, basically [his left was badly injured in a 1964 crash at Reims].”

Yeah well, I’ve got two left feet, which is why I leave the scruff-of-the-neck stuff to the experts. I’m instead left with (tinnitus-assisted) memories of a silky machine that takes you to extremely high levels of performance with the minimum of fuss. But then I’m not trying to match a Lauda pole. Beltoise had his arm full.

BRM’s 1974 went into steady decline after the dizzy heights of high-altitude Kyalami. The Belgian GP at Nivelles wasn’t too bad – Beltoise qualified seventh and finished fifth – but there would be no more point scores as the retirements and non-classifications began to rack up: engine, gearbox, ancillary drive belt, engine, electrics.

“The basic problem was that money was tight,” says Pilbeam. “The cars were built okay, but after South Africa we had a lot of blowups and the team was having to reclaim blocks, weld and patch stuff that should have been thrown away. The engine wasn’t bad – at its best. As for the car, I wasn’t happy with its radiator installation and I would’ve liked to tidy up the rear end…”

From the archive

But a disillusioned Pilbeam would leave at the end of 1974. As would long-time team manager Tim Parnell: “I wasn’t happy with the way things were going. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. Sir Alfred Owen [BRM’s longtime industrialist owner] was very ill and his sons were saying they could not afford to keep backing the team. The company, Rubery Owen, was a big supplier to British Leyland, and BL was in a mess… the whole country was. When it became clear Louis Stanley would take over the team, I knew it would be a disaster. He loved playing Formula 1, but he didn’t really understand it. That was a shame because P201 was a step forward. It had a fantastic chassis – but the engines weren’t good enough.”

The team unveiled its Peter Windsor-Smith-designed shortstroke V12 (new heads, wider valve angle) at Nivelles, where it gave Henri Pescarolo, still in a P160E, his best qualifying of the year: 15th. Beltoise tried it in a P201 at Dijon, but chose to race the older unit. He sampled it again at Brands Hatch, where it went bang in practice. It let go in Austria too. And even when it worked Beltoise felt short-changed.

“That engine (P200) was supposed to be our saviour,” remembers chief mechanic Alan Challis. “But the drivers preferred the older motor. Plus there weren’t enough bits to build enough of the new one.

“But what really hurt us was that the qualifying tyre we raced on in South Africa wasn’t suited to the sea-level European tracks. The difference between the qualifying tyre and the race tyre at those races was much greater.” The Euro qualifier was too soft to last a race distance, and although P201 invariably sat on the softest race tyre on offer it perhaps could have gone softer still. BRM wasn’t alone as Firestone-shod Surtees and Williams also tumbled down the grids after qualifying second and third at Kyalami. It was obvious who was winning the tyre war. Free-spending Goodyear had rounded up the big names – Lotus, Tyrrell, McLaren, Ferrari and Brabham – forcing Firestone to live on the scraps before pulling out for good at the end of a winless season.

Bob Evans BRM '75 Brands Hatch

Evans labours to sixth at the Daily Mail Race of Champions at Brands during 1975

Getty Images

BRM seemingly hit rock bottom at Monza where all three P20s had retired by the fourth lap – all for different reasons. But then Beltoise crashed out of what would be his last GP, the US at Watkins Glen, in first practice. Pressing too hard too soon on cold tyres, he chipped an ankle bone in the subsequent shunt. New recruit Chris Amon – he’d labelled P201 “undriveable” in Canada – spent the whole of that GP “on the door-handles” and drove brilliantly to qualify 12th and finish a distant ninth. And that, in truth, was this package’s absolute limit. Nobody as good as Amon ever climbed into P201 again, and it was left to the inexperienced Mike Wilds and Bob Evans (1975), Ian Ashley (for the team’s singleton GP of ’76) and the ‘Cowangie Kid’ to nail down its – if not quite yet the team’s – lid.

Yes, P201 died an undistinguished death, but for those who sought out the British Racing Motors’ performances before reading the rest of a Motoring News or Autosport GP report, it will be remembered fondly as the car that caused the last skip of the beat.


Stanley’s laurels (or lack of them)

BRM P201/02 was completed in the 1974 Monaco GP paddock and Jean-Pierre Beltoise undertook some leisurely laps with it during final practice. It was fitted with outboard front brakes. Henri Pescarolo gave the car (front brakes now inboard) its race debut at the next GP, the Swedish. He qualified 19th, but pulled off the grid due to a fire caused by a cracked fuel-injector pipe. Beltoise then used 02 in Holland (gearbox), France (a lapped 10th), Britain (a very distant 12th), Germany (electrics) and Austria (engine).

The third P201 was ready in time for the German GP, and the fourth made its debut in Italy. Beltoise switched to 03 at the latter race and so 02, which had been straightened after John Watson’s crash in a Silverstone test, was handed to third driver François Migault: he qualified last and retired on the first lap with a broken input shaft!

From the archive

The following year, under the Stanley-BRM banner, 02 gave Bob Evans his GP debut in South Africa: he qualified 25th and finished 15th, two laps down. Two weeks later he used it to finish sixth in the Race of Champions.

The team built a fifth P201 for this campaign but 02 was often pressed into action as the designated spare: Evans finished ninth in Belgium, qualified 23rd in Sweden (but raced 05 to 13th), sampled the short-stroke motor in final practice in Holland, finished 17th in France and retired with engine failure in Austria.

“P201 wasn’t a bad car — it handled and braked well — but it was let down by its engine,” says Evans. “I reckon we had no more than 410bhp. With a DFV I think it would’ve been a regular top-six finisher. We made some developments a wider front nose that helped in the medium speed corners and a narrower front track and we got rid of the airbox Jackie Stewart had called ‘a tent’.

“I’d expected BRM to be a step up from our little F5000 outfit: it wasn’t. Louis Stanley was in a dream world. He thought he was Britain’s Enzo Ferrari. His office at Bourne was dimly lit and had one of those ceiling lamps you could pull down. He’d have it so low that you couldn’t see his face. It was all pretence. We didn’t even have a decent F3 budget. It was laughable really. Sad too.”


TechSpec – 1974 BRM P201/02

Chassis: Type: Aluminium bathtub monocoque. Front suspension: double wishbone, outboard springs.  Rear suspension: lower wishbone, single top link, twin radius rods, outboard springs.  Wheelbase 101.5in.   Track (f/r) 60/62in.

Engine: Type BRM P142 V12, 2998cc. Bore/stroke: 74.7/57.2mm. Compression: 11:1. Fuel injection: Lucas. Ignition system: Lucas & Marelli
Transmission: BRM 5-speed gearbox; Borg & Beck clutch.

Running Gear: Koni dampers; BRM rack and pinion steering; Lockheed inboard disc brakes f & r.

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