Stacking the odds
With a huge budget and vast resources, BRM still wasn’t winning. The team faced the chop, when suddenly it all came right. Gordon Cruickshank explains
Committees. They’re no way to run a major racing team.
BRM, born out of a committee, proved that. Over its first painful decade it was on a sea of cross-currents, with too many captains sailing it. The V16 had become a joke, and the belated switch to four simple cylinders brought only a solitary GP win. Its engineering standards were high, but even with star men on board — Moss, Hill G, Gurney and Brooks had all driven BRMs by 1961 — Bourne somehow contrived to fritter away its skills in a welter of over-innovation and under-preparation.
There was one person who had made some progress towards drawing the team into a coherent whole — team manager Tony Rudd. But he had never had the authority to override the prewar views of Raymond Mays or to refuse the various engineering distractions which Peter Berthon laid on the race team. Only one man could sort it out — and in early 1962, he did.
Rudd was summoned to team owner Sir Alfred Owen’s office and given the facts. So far, said Sir Alfred, he had spent £1m on racing. If 1962 didn’t bring success, BRM was history. He put Rudd in sole charge of the racing, and gave him a target of two GP wins. Rudd accepted the challenge, knowing that he had two strong weapons: a new chassis, the 57, and a promising engine.
BRM had been sluggish to react when F1 shrank to 1.5-litres in 1961, but then went into overdrive. Alec Stokes worked on the new V8 design, and recalls it took only six months from drawing to testing: “We did the engine, gearbox and the chassis. Tony Rudd sketched his ideas on fag packets, and we drew them out.”
Meanwhile, the new spaceframe had had to be built around the Climax FPF four. But it looked good: it was low, it was slim and it had junked the troublesome gearbox-mounted brake for conventional outboard rear discs.
That four-cylinder season was one to forget, with BRM bottom of the constructors’ table. But the new power plant was one to remember. In one season it was about to rocket the team to the peak of F1.
Berthon plumped for a 90degree V8: four gear-driven cams, Lucas fuel injection, electronic ignition. Aware of the trade Climax did with off-the-peg motors, he planned to sell the new V8s to privateers. And according to Stokes,”We finished it early, so we were able to test it in Italy.”
When the first V8 car, now labelled 578, was rolled out at Monza in practice for the Italian GP late in 1961, the paddock was impressed. The driver now lay further back, making the new, slimmer elektron body even more lithe. It was quick too, but the team decided not to risk a start.
In the engine test house the team was busy — “A hundred hours a week, and no overtime,” says Stokes. Teething problems to overcome, power figures of 188bhp matched the Climax V8 and Ferrari’s V6. When a slide throttle system replaced butterflies, the dyno jumped to 195. But where the Coventry unit had a bucketful of torque, the BRM was fussier — it peaked at over 10 grand. Large valve overlaps made it very sensitive to exhaust flow, so Rudd borrowed a Climax system: it boosted the mid-range but strangled the top end. The best compromise seemed to match the pipe lengths, which meant pointing them skywards, and adding megaphone ends to assist extraction. Thus the slinky 578 gained its famous stackpipes: its most famous feature is a drag-making lash-up.
With Graham Hill still aboard, joined by technically astute American Richie Ginther, Rudd now had a good package. April 1962 came, and the new car appeared for the Brussels GP. And won — against the V8 Climax. Alright, it was one heat of a non-title event, Jim Clark’s Lotus-Climax broke, Stirling Moss crashed and both BRMs were disqualified in the second heat for push-starts — but the car was clearly fast. Surely Sir Alfred would be pleased? No. He saw it as another failure, and this was what triggered his make-or-break ultimatum. Rudd now carried the weight of the race department’s future on his shoulders.
Things soon turned around. Despite cracking exhausts, Hill had little difficulty winning Goodwood’s Glover Trophy. The same problem recurred in Silverstone’s International Trophy in May. Hill and Ginther made the front row. But so did Clark, and his V8 Lotus tore into the lead. Though Graham ran second, he began to lose ground — and exhaust pipes. Soon he had three on the left and only one on the right. He felt the motor getting flat and was jumped by the Lola of John Surtees.
Hill then recalled the early exhaust findings; he knew the V8 was safe to 12,000rpm, though with the stacks power dropped off that high. But with pipes missing, he reasoned that he might regain some bhp by stretching it. Immediately his lap times improved. He repassed Surtees, and took 4sec a lap out of Jimmy’s lead, so that he was on him by the last lap. He nosed towards the inside line at Woodcote, Jimmy shut the door, and Graham powered round the damp outside, taking the flag in a broadslide. A fair-and-square defeat of BRM’s biggest challenger.
That 1962 season would be glorious — BRM’s zenith. The two GP wins Owen had demanded, and two more for extras, plus enough points to crown Graham world champion and this much-maligned outfit the top constructor.
The handsome P578, meanwhile, had created its own moniker. Say `Stackpipe’ and the mental file search immediately turns up a shot of Hill and those vertical funnels. So you may be surprised to discover that the car only ran two grands prix like that; from Belgium onward the V8 exhaled into a lowline system. Superior, sensible — but not half so evocative.
Bourne versus Hethel: The view from the next-door pit
From being 1961 no-hopers, the first season for BRM’s V8 cars turned into a head-to-head challenge; 1962 panned out as a prizefight between two well-matched opponents. Not just BRM versus Lotus, but Graham Hill against Jim Clark, Berthon’s V8 against the similar Climax unit. It was a scrap only decided in the last round, at South Africa’s East London circuit, by a mechanical weakness.
How did the opposition view BRM’s lightning charge as the season progressed?
Lotus mechanic Cedric Selzer got first-hand experience of the BRM V8: ‘We knew they were working on a V8, and that they would be selling them to other teams. So we bought one and fitted it to a spare car. It was never as torquey as the Climax, and the rev-band was too narrow — it really needed a six-speed ‘box. And those stackpipes kept breaking. It was beautifully engineered — even the camshaft ran in roller bearings but you don’t want too much complexity. The Climax was more basic, and became more reliable, though in 1962 we lost the championship through a mechanical failure. Everybody said the oil plug fell out, but I suspect it was a scavenge pump that failed.
“Anyway, the 25 was designed round the Climax specifically, so there was never any question of us switching horses.”
Trevor Taylor drove both engines. In 1962-3 he piloted a works Lotus-Climax, and in 1964 the BRP-BRM. “That BRM engine was very good,” he recalls, “but the Climax was just the bee’s knees. It had more acceleration because of its torque. But the BRM did sound better!
“As a team I’d say that BRM was superior to Lotus in 1962. They built everything aircraft-style, where with Chapman lightness came first; everything was built of the thinnest material possible. The things that used to break under me! Of course, we had Jimmy Clark, but think even if you gave him a BRM to try, the Climax would still be quicker”
Clark’s Climax meltdown in South Africa tipped the balance to Bourne and Hill, but either would have been a worthy world champion. It was the 1963 season which would prove beyond all doubt that Chapman had the mechanical edge.