Alone in a crowd

BRM was at fours and fives in 1972 – Cars per GP, that is – Yet none of its drivers wanted to be the Guinea Pig for the new P180. We reunite one of them, Howden Ganley, with that car 30 years on and ask if they should have concentrated their efforts on it. By Paul Fearnley

photography by Malcolm Griffiths

James (No, I didn’t know either) Howden Ganley, like most of his Anzac racing ilk, was mechanically adept and maniacally determined. His Formula One break with BRM in 1971 was the upshot (long shot?) of six or seven years of Swarfega slog rnechanicking for the famous and not so famous, of fitting in drives as and when he could, followed by three years of harum-scarum F3 (100 races). He was, you might say, well acquainted with the mucky end of stickability.

Indeed, there was a hint of desperation in his iron grip of it – check out a later decision to race the Maki, unseen and untested but this was usually subsumed by a man-sized portion of Kiwi equanimity. For instance, at the all-muxed-up 1973 Canadian Grand Prix, film footage shows a wry Howden bemused by his team boss Frank Williams’ eye-for-the-main-chance insistence that he might have, possibly could have, just maybe won the race. To Frank’s obvious frustration, Howden was unconvinced. He was adamant that Emerson Fittipaldi had won it, and that he was maybe third, or fourth. The stewards eventually gave the win to McLaren’s Peter Revson, and plonked Howden’s Iso in sixth. Ah well.

BRM, however, would try the patience of a saint. It wasn’t too bad in 1971, when Tony Southgate’s P153 and follow-up P160 were competitive with their DFV rivals. And anyway, Howden was the junior member of the squad, all ears and happy to learn. But things changed quickly.

The death of team leader Pedro Rodriguez in a piffling sportscar race rocked BRM. To its immense credit, it responded magnificently: Jo Siffert stepped up to the plate and won in Austria, then McLaren refugee Peter Gethin won third time out, in the closest and fastest GP ever. Ganley, too, was increasing his stature. He was just eight-tenths behind Gethin at Monza, albeit in fifth, and finished fourth at Watkins Glen. The Bourne team was back on track, and Ganley was a shoe-in for ’72.

Then Siffert was killed at Brands Hatch’s Victory Race.

So how did the shattered team regroup this time? By expanding.

There had been a happier-times precedent for this – all five BRMs having finished at Watkins Glen but it was to prove a disastrous decision.

“When I signed up with BRM for 1972, it was to be part of a three-car team,” says Ganley. “But by the time we got to the first race in Argentina, I was just happy to be in the ‘A’ team. It usually comprised me, Peter Gethin and Jean-Pierre Beltoise in P160s, while the ‘B’ team was a couple of ‘guest’ drivers in older P153s. The team was overstretched.”

And chaotic. And misguided.

Beltoise missed that opening race, the legal ramifications of his part in Ignazio Giunti’s fatal shunt in the 1971 Buenos Aires 1000Kms rumbling still. His seat in the ‘A’ team was taken by Reine Wisell, who was promptly handed an ancient P153. In contrast, the distinctly ‘B’ team Alex Soler-Roig, influential Marlboro Spain’s man, was given the newest of the P160s – which he promptly crashed on the second lap. Team boss Louis Stanley had been blinded by money. True, he’d landed a plum sponsorship deal with the red-and-white, but instead of investing wisely, he went on a spree that soon spiralled out of control.

Just two of five BRMs finished in Argentina, neither in the points. Only one of four was classified at Kyalami, and only one of four finished the non-championship race at Interlagos.

Ganley: “It was as frustrating as hell. You would come into the pits during practice and there would always be two or three BRMs there; you’d just have to wait your turn. Sometimes, though, I couldn’t wait and would make the changes myself I even made a few bits for the car.”

Southgate concurs: “I was the only engineer at the team and I couldn’t keep up. I remember asking Howden to remind me what the last change we’d made to his car was. I didn’t always have the time to make notes.”

A team out of control: its drivers climbing over one another in a bid for attention, its loyal mechanics flat out, reliability problems, not unnaturally, abounding. Everyone was pressed into service: gearbox designer Alex Stokes was designated to look after the ‘B’ team. And it wasn’t just F1: Ganley was the lead driver in BRM’s Interserie campaigns with the P167.

And in this atmosphere, P180 was supposed to flourish. It didn’t

Once Southgate’s latest offering had failed to be immediately quicker than P160, it became a pariah. None of the drivers wanted to be its fall guy and it was passed around like a hand grenade with the pin out. Gethin was less than thrilled to give the car its GP debut: “It was truly horrible. The most understeery car I have ever driven.” He wanted no part of it thereafter.

Ganley was next, at Monaco: “It had terrible understeer in the wet.

Then somebody blew up in Casino Square. I hit the oil and got on the wrong side of the road’s camber and that dragged me into the barrier. I went right round the bend on the Armco, like a slot car. After that, and I don’t know why, perhaps some extra toe-out or something, the car started to handle better and I was passing people. It always had good traction, and the V12 suited the conditions.”

The recovering Ganley eventually ran unsighted into the back of Mike Hailwood’s Surtees and retired, but his set-up ‘discovery’ might have been a turning point. Instead, it was lost in the euphoria of Beltoise’s amazing win. BRM was blinded by the spray; P180 was lost in the mist.

“We just didn’t have the resources or time to develop it,” Southgate says. “I was looking for new design directions and the idea with P180 was to try some of the more extreme stuff. F1 cars had still to find their ultimate expression, and this was a period of much experimentation. At the time, I was really interested in weight distribution, centre of gravity and polar moment of inertia.”

To this end P180’s nose was given a low profile by removing the front-mounted radiator of its predecessor and replacing it with two mounted just behind the rear axle line.

Southgate: “The typical weight distribution back then was 45/55, and I wanted to find out if we could run an even stronger rearward bias. We had those big rear slicks and we had discovered that the gains made on soft qualifying tyres came from the car’s acceleration out of a corner rather than speed carried into a corner. So we tried to optirnise that.”

Southgate had hoped to do all this behind closed doors, but P180, and its teething troubles, were outed at its very first ‘secret’ test. BRM had arrived at Silverstone, P180 bedecked, by order, in Marlboro colours, only to discover that the place was swarming with press. They had all been invited to view Chevron’s latest F2 car. Its driver? Gethin. Keeping track of all its drivers was a problem for BRM.

“Of course, everybody expects a new car to be the bee’s knees,” says Southgate. “The car was painted up; the press saw it and expected it to be raced immediately.” They weren’t the only ones. “There was also a lot of pressure on us to do this from Lou [Stanley]. He expected P180 to be an instant fix, but it wasn’t. We ran the car before it was ready.”

Southgate’s most pressing problem now was to keep P160 competitive. He adopted and adapted P180’s wider track and suspension geometries to create 160s B and C. They were on the pace in non-championship races, the shorter distances of which meant their full-tanks disadvantage caused by a thirsty V12 was not as exaggerated as in a GP — but the retirements continued to rack up.

Southgate and team manager Tim Parnell finally managed to persuade Stanley to run just three cars at the British GP. All three retired. ‘Big Lou’ had ‘proved’ his point, and the mad scramble resumed.

Ganley raced a P160C in the non-championship Rothmans 50,000 at Brands Hatch in August, but practised a P180 — and was pleasantly surprised.

“It felt really good,” he says. “It was brilliant out of Druids and Stirling’s, and at the time I had to leave to compete in an Interserie race at Keimolo in Finland [he was back in time for the race], I was fastest, quicker even than Fittipaldi in the Lotus 72.”

Beltoise was getting keener, too, especially as P180’s lighter steering was easier on his weakened arm, and he used it in Italy, Canada and America. Ganley’s confidence in it, though, was dented when P180 popped a disconcerting wheelie over one of Mosport’s crests. He happily handed it over to local hero ‘B’ teamer Bill Brack, who crashed it. Brian Redman drove the car, too, at Watkins Glen, and even this most versatile and adaptable of pilots struggled.

But Beltoise stuck with it, and ended the season on a high note by winning the Victory Race at Brands. True, this particular success had a lot to do with a brave, prescient decision to start on slicks on a wet-dry track, but there could be no denying that P180 was getting there.

But by 1973, it had gone. Along with Gethin, Ganley and Southgate. Beltoise, and new recruits Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni, would instead drive C, D and E variants of the remarkable P160. And BRM would continue to overstretch itself. Don’t forget, this team was building its own engine and ‘box, not just the chassis.

“That we didn’t use the P180 in 1973 was absolutely ridiculous,” says Parnell. “As was the reason we didn’t. The simple fact was that Louis Stanley had fallen out with Tony [Southgate] and he stipulated, bloody-mindedly, that the P180 be put away. Losing Southgate was a big blow for the team — he was a brilliant designer. Louis didn’t know what he had in Tony. The P153 and 160 were very good cars — and so could the P180 have been.”

Southgate left for Shadow with the knowledge that a 35/65 rearward weight bias was too extreme, that a faired-in cockpit reduced drag, and that a clean flow of air around the rear wing was vital. His resultant DN1 was not the most successful car of 1973, but it was one of the very neatest, its completely enclosed rear end a clear pointer to the sport’s aero-led future. P180 played its part in that and, according to its designer, had been a few alterations away from making a much bigger impact

“What I should have done,” admits Southgate, “was plonk those rear radiators just ahead of the axle line rather than just behind it; I think that would have made a significant difference.

“Also, what! didn’t twig at the time was that the ducts from the radiators were reducing the downforce generated by the rear wing. We had wanted to pass them through the suspension, but that proved too complicated, so we just swept them over the top of it, and there they disturbed the airflow. But it stayed like that throughout the season; there was no 180B or C, its configuration never changed.”

Nor has Ganley’s. Much. There’s ‘snow on the roof’, but his replica 1970s Gulf overalls are not that much larger. P180 hasn’t changed one iota, and he still fits that — although he could have done with the flat-underside steering wheel that he used in ’72. Gloves, boots and helmet are original, too. The genial New Zealander has entered into the spirit of the day: no squabbling team-mates, no P160s, B, C or otherwise. Bliss. This is how it should have been — more mechanics than cars, and all of them fussing over P180 rather than cursing it.

His speed increases over the four or five laps, downchanges becoming crisper, more forceful, Aubrey Woods’ V12 providing a sonorous backdrop.

And then he comes in. No need to shorten top. No need to go stiffer on a damper. Just one big happy smile and several rekindled memories.

“I’d forgotten just how tractable that V12 was,” Howden explains. “And BRM gearboxes were always lovely. They had some great engineers: it’s just that they were always trying to do far too much.

“I was aware of that cockpit fairing over the top of my wrists for the first lap or two, but forgot about it thereafter — just as I had done in 1972.”

But could P180 have been competitive in 1973?

“I remember being unimpressed with the rads and its full-profile flat bottom: I was right about the former, wrong about the latter. But, for me, what hampered us most in 1972 was a power ‘shrinkage’. But I always thought that some good development of the V12 would have turned it into a winner. And I think BRM were capable of running a three-car team…”

Maybe, but it never won again.

Thanks to Luke Chapman, Hall & Hall and Donington Park for their help