Brabham Alfa BT45
Two little words: ‘slicks’ and ‘wings’. Together, these two ensure the jump from ’60s Fl car to ’70s F1 car make all others seem almost inconsequential. And then there’s the small matter of the 3-litre engine with over double the power of the most powerful from the previous formula. Those who have driven a very fast Caterham will have a tiny inkling of the BRM driving experience but there is nothing any road car, or even an unadorned racer, can do to hint at the potential within any 70s F1 machine, let alone one with the pedigree of this BT45.
Designed by Gordon Murray, powered by an evolution of the famed flat12 designed for the Tipo 33 sportscar, the BT45 is a rare and precious machine even by the exotic standards of those which joined it on the grid. This is Carlos Reutemann’s car and thanks to Murray’s admirable policy of designing all his early F1 cars to accommodate his 6ft 4in frame, mine fits the car gratifyingly well. The thick wheel rim means I can’t see most of the instruments but at least I’m comfortable, which is the first and most critical requirement before such a car can be driven at anything more than dawdling pace.
The Alfa fires up. Even through a helmet, balaclava and car plugs! can hear how sweet the music is and, from the way people are jumping around, have little trouble imagining how loud it is on the outside. There’s a conventional Hewland gearbox which makes life a little easier and it chunters around the track behind the camera car happily enough for a few slow laps. The engine has just been rebuilt and was running rich when I drove it so when the track cleared and the time came for some proper exercise, it took some time for the Alfa to clear its 12 throats. When it did however, at around 8000rpm, the effect was unusually dramatic, lunging the car forward and the rev-counter needle past 10,000rpm in an instant In its day it would have had around 450bhp but later that day I drove a lighter ’80s, DFV-powered F1 car with a true 500bhp and the Brabham felt no slower at all.
But even this mighty advance over the 1960s machinery in straight line performance pales besides the cornering forces which were now available. Though one such as the BRM can generate considerable lateral grip, you’re not routinely aware of the g-forces acting on your body; mid-corner in the Brabham, you’re rarely aware of anything else. Mechanical grip in slow corners is simply beyond the imagination of anyone who has not experienced its like before and while high speed downforce is inconsequential to the levels achieved by F1 cars today, by any other standards it is colossal. You notice it most as you hurtle in to the apex of Copse; there is a precision there, at wild speeds that was lacking entirely even from one as sharp as the BRM.
What it did share with the BRM, however, was the same feeling of security, that you could push harder than you’d dare and the car would look after you. For all its speed, the BT45 is a supremely friendly racing car, and one in which I was desperate to spend more time. Andrew Frankel