Extreme machine

This BRM won the fastest, closest World Championship Grand Prix in history and the third slowest too. It also gave BRM its last win. After 25 years in pieces it has been restored to perfection. Andrew frankel drives it at Silverstone.

Few racing cars can claim to have given its marque its last Grand Prix win and only one can claim the closest GP win of all time. Similarly, just one car can hold the honour of having won the fastest Formula One race in the history of the sport. Thing is, all these accolades are held by just one car; this car: BRM’s P160/01.

You’d be forgiven for not realising the car that swept to victory by 0.01sec and at an average of 150.755mph at Monza in 1971 was the same that crawled to the flag at Monaco thee next year (adding, incidentally, the third slowest GP win since the World Championship started to its claims to fame). By then the sponsors had changed from Yardley to Marlboro and the bodywork altered but, underneath the car was the same. And, had Jody Scheckter not sparked a pile-up at the start of the ’73 British Grand Prix, so it might well have stayed. In the event, P160/01 was badly damaged, returned to the works, stripped down, dismantled and put into storage.

That was that for over 20 years. What remained of BRM shut in 1977 but the premises, parts and drawings were sold to Hall & Fowler who finally got around to examining the remains of P160/01 in the mid-’90s. Expecting little, the staff of Hall & Fowler – many of whom were ex-BRM – were somewhat surprised to find how much of the car had survived. There’s an appreciable amount of the monocoque, parts of bodywork, the rear cooling ducts, the roll hoop and the famed shovel nose that, had it been just inches shorter, would have ceded victory at Monza to Ronnie Peterson’s March 711.

Painstakingly, Hall & Fowler restored the P160 to its original, 1971 specification discarding only those components too damaged to be salvaged in time for Peter Gethin, the man who drove over the line at Monza, to be reunited with it at last year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed. He will drive it again at the Coys Historic Festival in July.

The P160, like most good BRMs, is technically straight-forward. And, in some respects, it is almost backward. It evolved from the P153, designed by Tony Southgate for 1970 and features a 3-litre V12 engine mated to a five-speed gearbox both of which like most components were designed by BRM.

But it owed its existence, as much as anything, to the failure of the H16 engine first used by Lotus and BRM in 1966. The principle of the H16, mating two extant 1.5-litre V8s in a common block made sense on paper: the engine would be powerful, compact and cheap to develop. It was also designed to fit into the car as a fully stressed chassis member long before the Cosworth DP/ or Lotus 49 were even on the drawing board. Sadly the H16 was also complex, heavy and unreliable.

When the writing appeared on the wall for the H16 at the end of the ’67 season, BRM press-ganged a VI2, designed to meet new 3-litre sportscar regulations, into its F1 car for 1968. And the same engine saw BRM through to the end when Teddy Pilette failed to qualify his Stanley-BRM for the Italian GP at, of all places, Monza in September 1977.

Back in 1971, however, it was a fine engine even if, thanks to its size, it was carried by an A-frame, by then, antediluvian F1 technology. But there was nothing wrong with the power generated by its four cam, 48-valve layout. It peaked at 450bhp at 11,000rpm, figures which then would have required an unusually happy Cosworth DFV to eclipse.

The rest of the car subscribes to the conventional F1 theory of the era: an aluminium monocoque onto which bolts double wishbone front suspension and, at the rear, a lower wishbone, upper link and upper and lower radius arms. Girling brakes and calipers (in board at the rear) provide stopping power.

At the time, it was the right way for BRM to go. With just one win in four seasons and with memories of its 16 cylinder adventures still painful, BRM needed a car whose actions spoke louder than its technical description. Besides, truly radical cars rarely worked. Look at the most successful cars of the decade: The Ferrari 312T-series was conventional save its transverse gearbox, there was nothing that revolutionary under the skin of either the McLaren M23 or Tyrrell 003 while even the Lotus 72 could boast only its side-mounted radiators as truly mould breaking – small beer compared to its predecessor, the entirely unsuccessful four-wheel drive, gas-turbine 56B.

The result, says Peter Gethin today, “is pretty much as good as anything I raced. It was a car which was quite easy to drive unless you were right on the limit when it was a bit tricky, but it had no real vices.”

Gethin singles out the engine for special praise. it was competitive and had good power. It was strong too: at Monza in 711 lost the tow early on and, for the rest of the race! over-revved it by 500rpm on every single gearchange. And despite that length of time at 11,500rpm, it never missed a beat. Best of all, however, was its torque. It was more flexible than the DFV and on those circuits where low down torque was important it was just brilliant.”

This presumably goes a little way to explaining why Beltoise was able to drive away from the field at Monaco in 1972, with only the world’s greatest wet-weather driver, Jacky Ickx, able even to stay on the same lap as the BRM. A car capable of producing its best at both the fastest and slowest circuit in the world? The P160 was, indeed, a versatile F1 car.

But, says Gethin, in reality the world overtook it. “By the middle of the ’72 season, others teams had eclipsed it but that was really because BRM entered too many cars. It wasn’t the car’s fault.” The history books back this up. Throughout the season at least four and frequently five BRMs contested each round, overstretching the team and offering only rare opposition to the rampant Lotus 72.

Sitting in the pits at Silverstone, watching the P160 being prepared, all this seems a very long time ago and, in the fast forward world of Formula One, it is aeons. Remove the fat slicks, decals and wings and what remains, conceptually, is a child of the ’60s, a cigar bodied, bulbous and beautiful racing car.

There’s room inside – another sign of its age – for a tall driver, particularly if the plate behind the seat, specifically designed to locate Gethin’s body, is removed. Your knees aren’t jammed up against the steering wheel nor are your shoulders and elbows so cramped you can’t gain sufficient articulation to manoeuvre the gear-lever around its conventional gate. The footwell is small for size 11 boots but this problem is soon solved by the simple expedient of driving in my socks.

The instruments are small, even the rev-counter with a strip of red-tape meeting the circumference at 9000rpm, some 2000rpm below its capability. It sits to the right of the steering column, mirrored on the left by two smaller dials indicating oil pressure and water temperature. Oil temperature and fuel pressure readouts are further to the left.

Sitting inside, even with the engine off is a joy. The car is in immaculate condition – “probably better,” Gethin had said only a touch ruefully, “than when I used to drive it”. Rob Hall, from Hall & Fowler and an accomplished racer himself, had brought the P160 to Silverstone, carefully fitted me inside and made sure everything was alright. Now he leant in and provided a few last words of advice.

“You’ll not have any problems. The engine is very docile and if you keep it above 5000rpm, it will pull without problem. The gearbox is fine too; finding second from the first dogleg can be a little tricky, otherwise it’s dead easy.”

He plugs a starter motor in and spins the V12 over, which catches on the first prod of the throttle. It’s seems a little quieter than a DFV and a whole lot sweeter. Gethin remembers it as being “bloody noisy” so it’s possible I have mistaken the lack of vibration for a quieter note. Whatever. It’s still loud enough to make every person in the pits look up and Silverstone’s entire wildlife population run, flap or hop for cover. More importantly, this is a beautiful noise, perhaps lacking the haunting music of Matra and Ferrari’s V12s but even more aggressive and hardly any less captivating for it.

The clutch is as gentle as that fitted to any racing car I’ve driven, easier even than one or two road cars and the BRM toddles down the pitlane and onto the track at the exit of Copse with a docility you would not credit any purpose-built racer, let alone one of the fastest F1 cars of its era.

We’re on the International circuit which is a great track for this sort of test: easy enough not to add to an already full work-load but sufficiently challenging and varied to let a good car shine and a bad one reveal its true colours. In the early laps, few cars of this calibre have offered such reassurance. With the engine batting between 5-8500rpm, gears slipping in and out of mesh as swiftly and more pleasantly than any Hewland gearbox I’ve used, steering light, keen yet not savage on turn in… There’s not even that much buffeting from the wind even when using the full 9000rpm in the short top gear ratio.

I retumed to the pits, more to remove some foam that had been intended to locate my lower back than anything else and rather too aware that, so far, I had only been playing at driving this car. Rob suggested I use more revs and let the engine pull whatever it wanted to on the straights. And there, at a stroke, was the answer. A bit more comfort, a few more revs, a lot more determination and suddenly this amusing play-thing became a serious challenge.

I still never did more than 10,000rpm but so close were the gears it meant the engine would pick up the next ratio at roughly the same revs that, earlier, I had been changing up. Suddenly I was riding the wave again, savouring the kind of acceleration that comes only when you have over 800bhp per tonne of car at your disposal. The melodic yowl of the engine which I had enjoyed until now became a frenzied scream, matched for brutality only by the thrust with which the motor would bowl the P160 down Silverstone’s tarmac.

Accelerating out of corners was no longer a matter of waiting for the all-clear and planting your right foot; now at Becketts, Abbey and all through Luffield it was squeeze-wiggle-squeeze-slide-hold-squeeze and go. Under braking you could see the nose dip down confirming how soft the car feels compared to a modern racer but only once or twice did it feel edgy as it issued a mild but unmistakeable reminder as to the nature of the animal within.

If it felt old, it was only because it was more fun than frightening. There was grip aplenty, enough to make me know Bridge and, quite possibly, Copse would be fifth gear corners if it were not someone else’s car, yet it was not so far beyond one’s ken that driving it quickly was out of the question.

But what pleased most was a passing comment from Gethin when I spoke to him some weeks later. I’d asked him how it had felt when he drove it after 27 years away. “You know,” he said, “I’d done one run and found myself sitting in the car thinking, ‘well it needs a bit more wing and I’d probably change the front anti-roll bar’ but other than that it felt exactly the same as it did the last time I raced it.”

There is always a worry when driving old racing cars, particularly those that have been extensively rebuilt. What you want is to savour the device its race driver enjoyed but it is almost always impossible to judge how far from the original it has veered in the intervening years. Not this time. This P160 has been so faithfully rebuilt that not even the person most likely to know could detect any real difference. Which not only makes this BRM an incredible, thrilling yet vice-free Grand Prix car I could have told you that after five laps but more significantly it is also a time capsule, a slice of history preserved from a day an entire generation ago when one car won the fastest, closest Grand Prix there has ever, or is ever likely to be.

Our sincere thanks to the car’s owner, Rob Hall of Hall & Fowler, Sheridan Thyme and the BRDC for providing the track time at Silverstone. This BRM will be taking part in the marque’s 50th anniversary celebration at the Coys Historic Festival. See page 72 for further details.