BRM P160

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Inheriting and developing another’s design can be a source of frustration for someone with his own clear idea of how things should be; but occasionally it proves a revelation.

I was impressed by the BRM P160, designed by Tony Southgate. I took the car over and developed it when I rejoined BRM in 1972 (I first went there in the ’60s), but it had already been running for some time. I actually went there to do a different job, but when Tony left I took over as chief chassis engineer. The 160 was his design, though, and I always felt it was such a nice car.

Aerodynamically it was clean — he’d put a lot of effort in at the Imperial College wind tunnel. That was before people started to put the wing right back, but for the time it was a class leader — I felt it gave more downforce than the opposition.

But where the car really scored — the crux of a good racing car design — was that it gave the driver a lot of good feedback. He always knew what the car was doing and what effect any changes had had. That helps the driver to drive quickly. He has to be happy to drive it at ten-tenths and know it isn’t going to bite back. There are cars which are quick without having that capability. That’s where the 160 was so good.

It also avoided a common problem of that time, which was the variation of downforce as rideheight changed. The 160 always retained its feel; almost anyone could drive it quickly, though a good driver would always extract that bit extra.

It wasn’t revolutionary like the Lotus 25, but it was finely thought out, and it was widely adjustable. More importantly, the adjustments made a difference: if you changed the roll bar, it responded, which is an indication that the chassis is quite rigid and the geometry is well worked out. It would run with very soft tyres, which some cars couldn’t tolerate. Some can only nut with stiff suspension, which to me says the geometry is wrong because the rollcentres move around, the camber changes and the whole car loses its way. But if correctly designed it should cope with more travel, which helps the driver to get the feedback he needs. That was before ground effects, of course, when no part of the car was less than three inches from the ground.

Rear suspension used radius arms and links, pretty conventional, really; the only unusual thing was that at the front the springs and dampers were steeply angled. Rather than progressive springing, it was digressive, with the result that on a full fuel load damper effectiveness dropped off. That meant understeer was inevitable on full tanks, not helped by the tanks being rather forward. But in spite of that, Beltoise and Regazzoni, and later Lauda, could put it on the front row of any GP. Beltoise in particular got some fantastic results out of it. When Niki Lauda joined the team, he turned up at Ricard where we were testing. I didn’t know him at all, but he said he’d been at March and had driven the 711 with the Spitfire front wing, and he’d almost begun to wonder if he was in the right business. He just couldn’t make the car work, and the team said, ‘What’s the problem? Ronnie Peterson seems to manage.’ But when he drove the BRM he said, This is so much better. Now I know I was right; there was something wrong with the March.’

Niki was getting suicidal until he came to us and realised his instincts were right. And he went very rapidly from a lad to a team leader. Shame he left us when he did, but it says a lot for the quality of the car that it suited experienced drivers and still allowed someone inexperienced to develop his skills. Niki was the best at feedback; very precise. He could drive the car near its limits and still notice what it was doing. Regazzoni was quick but didn’t have the ability to describe it; I’m sure he felt it, he just couldn’t pass it on. I designed the P201, the triangular-section car, around Lauda; he was going to be our lead driver, but he went to Ferrari instead.

The 160’s structure had fabricated steel bulkheads with folded alloy interior sections and welded alloy exterior, individually hand-formed because of the complex curves. But it was a more difficult engine to package than most. If you had mounted that long V12 like a Cosworth, only bolted at the front, it wouldn’t have handled at all. So it had a monocoque extension which carried two mounts part-way back along the engine, then a tubular structure back to the bellhousing, so that it was only partly stressed.

It was a nice responsive engine, it just didn’t have the power of the Cosworth. My feeling was that we had one of the best-handling cars, and that if it had the same power as the Cosworth, it would have been hard to beat.

Even the gearbox was a BRM unit; historically it almost seemed as important to produce a fine piece of engineering as it was to win races. In a way, the reason for the H16 was to try to bring back the days of fine engineering. It was different at Lotus, where design came first.

The problems I tried to tackle on the 160 were this empty/full tank thing and some aero development, moving the rear wing back and redesigning the airbox for clear entry.

The actual tank went right forward to where the wishbone joined the chassis; I would have liked to alter that front set-up with a different system, but that would have meant a new car. And with the V12 being so long, you couldn’t sneak a few inches into the wheelbase to even it out. I altered the suspension a bit and we changed the front end to a wide nose for more downforce to try to cut the understeer, which worked all right, but was far less elegant than Tony’s original.

With hindsight there were other things I could have tried — but then you’re always thinking that. Even on the car I’ve just finished, there are things I’d like to change — but if you don’t stop it’ll never reach the track.

However, the goal is always the same: to have a sort of empathy between driver and car. I’m sure every designer aims for that quality, but it’s a subtle mix of aerodynamics, suspension and structure. It’s always been my target to get that characteristic, and the P160 was a car which showed it very well. I learned a lot from it.

Mike Pilbeam was talking to Gordon Cruickshank

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