Reflections with... Nigel Roebuck

A conversation with Raymond Mays, BRM’s soulful V16

As I write it is January 8, and that has a particular resonance for me as it was on this day that my mother died young in 1980. My wife broke the news when I got home. I had spent the day writing about Raymond Mays, who had passed away a couple of days earlier.

This flooded back to me when I heard the sad news that Jean-Pierre Beltoise – the last man to win a Grand Prix in a BRM – had died, and I dug out the tapes of my only interview with Mays, recorded on December 1, 1977. With a friend who knew him well, I drove up to Bourne, to Eastgate House, where Mays had been born and where he would die.

It was a frigidly bright day, I remember, and the journey – in a borrowed Ferrari 308 – passed very easily. “Looks like a nice little car,” murmured Mays as he greeted us.

Even 35 years ago, his were manners from another time. As we walked into the house, he waved vaguely in the direction of the cloakroom, “If you need to wash your hands…” When lunch was served, we began with Brown Windsor soup: anything else would have been a surprise.

Perhaps inevitably, given my childhood devotion to Jean Behra, I began by asking Mays for his recollections of him. ‘Jeannot’ hated a weekend without a race somewhere, and at Aintree in July 1957 asked Mays if a BRM might be made available for him to drive the following weekend, in the non-championship race at Caen.

“Things like that were very straightforward in those days,” said Mays. “Behra was a works Maserati driver, but they were not entering for Caen, which was why he spoke to us about letting him have a car. There were no ‘contract problems’, or any of that nonsense.

“At that time no driver of real consequence was interested in BRM, so when someone of Behra’s calibre actually asked to drive for us of course we jumped at the chance. Granted, there wasn’t much opposition at Caen, but Jean dominated the race and that gave our spirits an enormous lift. Maserati didn’t go to Silverstone, either, for the Daily Express Trophy in September, so Behra drove for us there, too, and led a BRM 1-2-3.

“At the end of the year Maserati withdrew from racing, and we signed Jean for 1958. He worked tremendously hard on improving the car, and was often very competitive – he was walking away with Monte Carlo, for example – but it wasn’t terribly reliable still, and we couldn’t blame him when he left us for Ferrari in 1959.

“Jean was an immensely likeable person. French-ly temperamental, of course, and apt to burst into tears of frustration at difficult moments – he had plenty of those when he was with BRM, so I deeply sympathised.

“Now, at the mention of his name, I remember a magnificent little driver, temperamental and enormously brave. We were very sorry when his days with BRM came to an end, but I believe he would have rejoined us. By the middle of ’59 he had fallen out with Ferrari, and came to Germany with his own Porsches – a Formula 2 car and also a sports car for the supporting race.

“It was the most ghastly weekend in Berlin, from every point of view. By rights we should have been at the Nürburgring, but for political reasons the German Grand Prix was held that year at this ridiculous AVUS track – two long straights, with a hairpin at one end, and a steeply banked bowl at the other. The atmosphere was officious and hostile, the pits about a mile from the paddock…

“I felt very sorry for Jean that weekend – somehow he seemed awfully lonely, working on his Porsches. He was obviously very fond of us at BRM, and he seemed to want help, so we gave him a hand. At one stage he told Peter Berthon and myself that he would love to rejoin BRM, and we’d have had him back like a shot, but it was the middle of a season, and we had a full complement of drivers. We would certainly have signed him for 1960.

“As it was, of course, in the sports car race the day before the Grand Prix there was this dreadful disaster – in the wet Behra spun on the banking, hit a concrete block at the top of it, and was thrown out and killed instantly. It happened to be my 60th birthday, and it was one of the saddest days I can remember.”

Mays’s memories of Behra concluded with the passport story, which I have related before, causing a reader to remark that it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. It had just that effect on me when Ray came out with the words.

“I once asked Jean how he kept his spirits up when things weren’t going well, and he told me he would get out his passport. ‘I look at the first page, where it says ‘Profession: racing driver’. Then I look at all the stamps in it, all the places racing has taken me, and think how lucky I am to have this life…’ I must say I found that rather moving – and very different from most racing drivers I have known…”

When it came to the greatest of the drivers he had encountered, Mays was unequivocal: “Oh, without any question of doubt, Fangio. For one thing, he was the only one – the only one – who never complained about the car…”

By ‘the car’ he was alluding, of course, to the V16, and to the end of his life Ray remained dewy-eyed about this most maddening of all racing cars. “I suppose,” he admitted, “that to me the letters ‘BRM’ always referred to the V16…”

It has always seemed to me that the BRM V16 was to Grand Prix racing what the Novi was to the Indianapolis 500. Listen to either engine ‘on full noise’, as Jenks would put it, and you can readily understand why people were in thrall to them. In their respective spheres they produced way more horsepower than their rivals, but they rarely did it for very long.

When I was a kid, someone gave me an EP of the BRM revving its heart out on all 16 cylinders. I have it to this day, and once mentioned it to Stirling Moss. “I’m amazed,” he said, “that it ran long enough to fill an EP…”

Stirling, who briefly raced the V16 in 1952, remembers it as the car he most disliked through his career. “Thoroughly nasty,” he said. “The brakes were OK, and the acceleration was incredible – until you broke traction – but everything else about it I hated, particularly the steering and the driving position.” What of its handling? “I don’t remember it having any…”

When I mentioned Moss’s observations to Mays, he airily brushed them away. “Well, you have to remember that when Stirling was driving the V16 he was still very young, and not the driver he later became.

I always felt sorry for him, actually, because inevitably he was in Fangio’s shadow, and there’s no doubt, either, that we always favoured Fangio: anything else would have been stupid. As I say, he never complained about the car: ‘It’s a monster,’ he said, ‘but it wants mastering – and I’ll master it…’”

Whatever its many shortcomings, the monster emphatically did not lack horsepower, producing close to 600bhp at 12,000rpm, but giving it in such a way as to make the car highly unamenable to the driver. Unlike the Roots-type blowers favoured by Alfa Romeo, which peaked, and then tailed off, the Rolls-Royce centrifugal supercharging used by BRM kept on coming.

That was fine on the wartime aero engines for which it had been developed, for they ran at virtually constant speeds, but in a racing car it was a different matter for the power increased as the revs did: factor in the primitive tyres of the time, and in the V16 traction was a relative term. The more the wheelspin, the higher the revs, the more the power, the more the wheelspin…

The car was launched shortly before Christmas in 1949. At the Folkingham Aerodrome, near Bourne, Mays briefly demonstrated it and its shattering sound sent all present into rapture. Almost wilfully it never missed a beat, either, and the following day Fleet Street confidently asserted that Britain had a world-beater on its hands. In some ways, it could be said that this was the high point of the V16’s career: the car’s race debut, at the Daily Express International Trophy at Silverstone the following year, rather set the tone for what was to come.

A month before the race a warning statement was issued by the team: “The BRM cars will be racing at Silverstone as an essential part of their development, as only by racing can there be a proper assessment of performance and reliability, and the public are urged not to be too expectant at this juncture.”

Even with that caveat in mind, British fans will have hoped for rather more than they got. Having missed practice – car unready – the great Raymond Sommer was granted a few familiarity laps on race morning, and allowed to start. When the flag went down, the BRM lurched forward a few inches and then stopped, transmission broken.

Mays not surprisingly found the crowd’s response hurtful. “There was a BRM Supporters Club, and the members had put a lot of money in it, but when the car was pushed back into the paddock, some people very impolitely threw pennies in the seat. Really rather disgusting. If they’d only known what we’d gone through to get that car there…”

All the way through to the V16’s final year of competition, 1955, probably no racing car ever promised more, nor delivered less, but Mays remembered it only with reverence. “The V16 was an awe-inspiring car to drive, particularly in the early days, when the power came in rather late, at about 9800 revs – with a bang!

“That car was a handful, and I ought to know because I did a lot of the testing. Before we went to Albi in ’53, I drove Fangio’s car at Folkingham, where there was a 2000-yard runway – with a 40mph corner before it, and another at the end of it – and, with a high gear in, I reached 11,800 by the end of the runway, which was about 190mph.

“It really was rather awe-inspiring, because you could re-spin the wheels at 9800 in fourth – which was getting on for 140 – and that was a frightening feeling, I can tell you. But, with all those cylinders, the engine was extraordinarily smooth, and by ’53 we really seemed to have sorted out all the problems…”

As Mays became lyrical in his memories, it seemed not to cross his mind that perhaps a racing driver wouldn’t actually want a car that could ‘re-spin the wheels at 9800 in fourth’.

“We’d envisaged it, of course, as a British car to take on Ferrari and Alfa Romeo,” he said, “but through 1950 and ’51 we were plagued with problems, and then the rules were changed. A new Formula 1 was announced for 1954, and for the two preceding years the Grands Prix were to be run for the existing 2-litre Formula 2 cars. The whole V16 project, it seemed, had been for nothing…”

The season of 1951 was one for the ages, with Fangio and Giuseppe Farina in their supercharged 1.5-litre Alfa Romeo 159s increasingly falling prey to the unblown 4.5-litre Ferraris of Alberto Ascari and Froilán Gonzáles. Particularly memorable was Silverstone, an Argentine battle between Fangio and Gonzáles in which Ferrari beat Alfa for the first time.

That afternoon the BRMs finished fifth and seventh, in the hands of Reg Parnell and Peter Walker, but they were five and six laps behind.

It was the only world championship Grand Prix the V16 was to start.

Had Mays and Peter Berthon been less determined – or perhaps more logical – the change of formula might have spelt the end of the V16 project, but doggedly they pressed on with it, even though the car’s future now seemed likely confined to Formule Libre races at British national meetings.

As there would be with the Intercontinental Formula in 1961, though, once in a while a race was run to the ‘old’ Formula 1. While Grand Prix racing went through a couple of Formula 2 seasons dominated by Ascari and Ferrari, many were those who missed the sound and sight of power, not least the organisers of the Albi Grand Prix.

“We went down there in ’52 with cars for Fangio and Gonzáles,” said Mays, “and they were comfortably the fastest things in the race – but neither finished, and Louis Rosier won. We were quite determined, if we ever got another chance, that this was never going to happen again.

“Praise be, the Albi people decided to allow Formula 1 cars into their race again the following year, and I think they did that very much as a favour to us. It was a joint event, actually, with one heat for Formula 1, one for Formula 2 and then a final for the fastest 15 overall.

“They were terribly nice people at Albi – always very pro-English. I knew them well, having won the race there in an ERA before the war, and held the lap record for a time. By now the V16s were at last going beautifully, and we entered three cars, for Fangio, Gonzáles and Ken Wharton. The Albi authorities said they’d get Alfa Romeo to bring the 159s out of retirement, and persuade Ferrari to enter his 4.5-litre car.

“That race meant the world to us – it was to be run a couple of days before the Coronation, and offered our last chance of showing we’d at least built a car capable of beating the cars in the formula for which it had been built. Eventually Alfa decided not to come, which was disappointing, but we felt that if we could beat Ferrari, that would be good enough.

“We arrived in Albi in mid-week, and on the first evening went to a champagne reception given by the organisers. There Monsieur Flad, the boss of the race, said he had an awful blow for us: Ferrari would not be sending his car, for Ascari, after all…

“I said, ‘Well, this is absolutely dreadful – if we win against what’s left, everyone will say it’s a hollow victory. For heaven’s sake, do something!’ A wire was sent offering more starting money – and of course Ferrari came like a flash! We were the fools, I thought. We should have asked for more money…”

Whatever, a factory Ferrari was now in the race, and although Tony Vandervell had entered his Thinwall Special variant for Giuseppe Farina to drive, the battle for pole position distilled to Ascari and Fangio.

The Circuit des Planques was a magnificent old-school road circuit, roughly triangular in shape, and beginning with a two-mile section twisting downhill into the village of St Juery. There followed a couple of miles of tree-lined straight, a right-hander and then another straight leading back to the pits area, which was dominated by an enormous grandstand. Five and a half miles in total, it had a lap speed of about 115mph.

For Fangio and Ascari, the great artists of their time, it was a delight to be working with power once more and, as Mays pointed out, Albi presented a rare opportunity for the great Juan Manuel to challenge his Italian rival on equal terms.

“In the Grands Prix Fangio’s Maserati wasn’t really up to the Ferraris, and Ascari was winning everything. I think they both saw that weekend at Albi as something different – fun, you know, albeit serious fun. They had power again, and there were no championship points to worry about.

“Practice was quite extraordinary. With a few minutes to go Fangio was on pole position, but then Ascari went out for one last effort, and it was brilliant – he pipped us by a fifth of a second. ‘Never mind,’ I said to Fangio, ‘you’re still on the front row’. But he wasn’t listening to me, and I saw he was picking up his helmet. He went out right at the end – in fact, the man about to wave the chequered flag fell over trying to get out of the way as he started his final lap!

“I doubt if anyone ever drove the V16 as Fangio must have done on that lap. He knocked Ascari’s time sideways – by three clear seconds! Typical of the man. He was utterly calm when he climbed out of the car, but mentioned that he’d detected a slight misfire. When you got a misfire on the V16, it could have been 1001 things…

“Fangio was up half that night, helping out, despite the fact that it was race day tomorrow – it wasn’t surprising that the mechanics worshipped him. A most pleasant and humble man, and yet he had the most extraordinary presence. He was a star without being a star – there was no fuss with him, no palaver. You’d find him huddled up in the back of the pit – and no one knew he’d arrived…”

Into the night the BRM mechanics worked, seeking to cure the misfire, and finally, at 3.30am, it was decided that at first light Mays would give the car a test run.

“Obviously we had to find a spot where we could really let the car out, and we found a long straight road, going out of Albi. The problem, though, was that at dawn there were horses and carts out and about, farmers coming out of gates and so on, so we had to station the mechanics – and the odd farmhand – at all the danger spots.

“It was an unforgettable experience – I can still see the sun rising, the gates being guarded and so on. On one occasion, you know, I’d had to drive the V16 – open exhausts and all – through the traffic from Brackley to Silverstone, but this was very different. I had the thing up to 180 on that road, and scared myself stiff!”

“How wide was the road?” I interjected. “Narrow,” Mays said. “Narrow…”

By now it was too late for sleep, so everyone went off to breakfast, confident that the misfire had been cured. “I had a large cognac with my coffee that morning,” said Mays, “and I remember that the morning papers were dominated by Fangio and Ascari – even though the French government had collapsed the previous day!

“It really was extraordinary the way that race gripped the whole region. There had been 50,000 spectators for practice, but on race day the crowd was estimated at around five times that number…”

Proceedings began with the Formula 2 heat, won by Rosier’s 2-litre Ferrari, the French veteran entering both classes just in case his 4.5-litre car should fail. A violent rain shower during the race speeded the pulse of anyone due later to drive a V16, but soon the track was baked dry. With hindsight, Fangio and his team-mates might have been better off with a wet race.

On to the Formula 1 heat, and the cars were wheeled out, Mays remembering this as one of the most moving moments of his life. As the BRMs emerged, he said, a rumble of applause from the grandstand built into an overwhelming wall of sound.

Behind Fangio and Ascari on the grid were Gonzáles, Wharton and Farina, with no one else of much account. Those fortunate enough to witness the start were to remember it with awe, Fangio and Ascari catapulting towards the first corner in a cloud of tyre smoke – indeed, the stench of burning rubber apparently hung in the air even as the stragglers made their way out of sight and on down to St Juery.

“I heard the start, God knows,” said Mays, “but unfortunately I didn’t actually see it. My nerves were so taut that I thought it would be better if I were out of the way. At the exit of the first corner there was a solitary straw bale in front of a grandstand, and I stood on that – no one tried to stop me…

“Later on Ascari and Farina told us that the start had been the most difficult of their lives,” he smiled. “The scream of the three V16s disturbed them to the point that they felt disorientated. They couldn’t hear their own engines at all – couldn’t get any ‘feel’ through them.”

For all that, Ascari was right with Fangio through that opening lap, the two of them immediately leaving the rest behind.

“The back leg at Albi,” Mays said, “was a two-mile straight – a typical French road of the time, narrow and highly cambered so that it fell away to each side, lined with poplar trees. The kind of road to make you think twice about overtaking in normal traffic…

“From what he said about his revs, Fangio was doing more than 190 down there – in fact, on the first lap he and Ascari overtook and re-overtook each other! People there reported that they’d never seen anything like it – these two cars flying along, side by side, absolutely filling the width of the road!”

For the first couple of laps there was nothing to choose between the BRM and the Ferrari, Fangio leading past the pits each time, but Ascari losing nothing to him.

Perhaps, though, it was all too heady to last. At the end of lap three Fangio screamed past the pits as usual, but of Ascari there was no sign. After quite an interval Farina’s Thinwall came by in second place, followed by Gonzáles and Wharton, and when the factory Ferrari eventually toured into the pits, it was trailing oil.

“Ascari was understandably livid, because he’d been really enjoying it. I didn’t know how to react, actually. On the one hand there was delight that the speed of our car had been enough to burst a Ferrari; on the other, we’d lost the pleasure of the battle…”

Farina lasted only two laps more, leaving the BRMs apparently set in the first three places, but on lap six Gonzáles was in, his left rear tyre shredded after little more than 30 miles. The mechanics changed it, whereupon he rejoined in 11th place, hauling back to fifth by the fall of the flag.

After the disappearance of Ascari, Fangio backed off somewhat, winning the heat by 12 seconds from Wharton, with Rosier’s Ferrari a minute further back in third place. Such was the superiority of the BRMs that, with Ascari and Farina gone, the final looked like a cakewalk, but Mays recalled that the interval was not without its concerns.

“After what had occurred with Gonzáles we were a little apprehensive. A similar thing had happened to him in practice, but in the race the consequences could have been very unpleasant. He was doing about 150 when the tread parted from the canvas – it flew forward, denting the exhaust pipe and breaking away part of the windscreen…

“He did a remarkable job in keeping the car on the road and getting it back to the pits, but then, after we’d changed the tyre, there was the problem of getting him going again. We had to push-start the cars, and a V16 – particularly with Gonzáles aboard! – weighed well over a ton. Only two mechanics were allowed for the job, so he helped them shove it, then leaped aboard, found a gear and banged out the clutch!

“Although neither Fangio nor Wharton had experienced a tyre problem, the 18-lap final was nearly twice the length of the heat. As we had no opposition worthy of the name, we suggested to Fangio that he set a much easier pace. Unhappily, not even that was enough…”

After seven laps the green cars were sitting pretty, Fangio leading from Wharton and Gonzáles, but on the eighth the third man was in, left rear tyre white and flapping as in the earlier race. Gonzáles and his mechanics went through the same restarting pantomime, and he rejoined fourth behind the droning Rosier.

On lap 10 another BRM trundled into the pits, Mays and his team groaning when they realised that it was number 7: Fangio. Out the great man stepped, unbuckling his helmet.

“He made no fuss at all, simply said that he had clouted a bank after a tyre had failed, and he thought the car was damaged. He was quite right – a hub was cracked. It was only later that we found out where he’d been when the tyre went – on the two-mile straight! He’d have been doing 190 or whatever at the time…”

Now Wharton led, but only briefly. At the end of lap 11 he stopped for a new nearside rear, and for the first time something other than a BRM was in front: Rosier had stumbled upon the lead, with Gonzáles chasing him.

“Worse was to come,” recalled Mays. “As it was, with Fangio out we were feeling despondent, but there was still a good chance that Gonzáles could win. Then Wharton went missing, and Harry Schell, who had retired earlier, came and told me of this dreadful accident.

“It seemed an eternity before any news came through, and all that time we were stricken with guilt – it seemed inevitable that he’d crashed because of another tyre failure, and after all that had happened, should we not have pulled him out of the race at his pitstop? It was harrowing. We couldn’t get any firm news.”

When word came, there was relief: Wharton had not been badly hurt, nor gone off after a tyre failure. Simply, he had made a mistake, but only later did his team appreciate how fortunate its man had been. This was one of the great escapes in racing history.

“There was a right-hander on the downhill swerves before the village, taken by a Fangio at more than 140mph. In practice Wharton had been going through there in fourth, but before the race he asked Fangio which gear he was using, and was told ‘fifth’.

“Ken,” said Ray, “was an extremely able driver – but he was not Fangio. He began taking the corner in fifth, and got away with it until this lap…”

It transpired that Wharton’s BRM had gone into a spin, leaving the road backwards and hitting a bank, over which it somersaulted. Beyond was a ditch – into which the driver was thrown – and immediately after it a brick wall, against which the car broke up.

From there the remains bounced back onto the track, tumbling down the middle of it before coming to rest upside down.

Wharton, quickly back on his feet, was able to witness the last moments of his car’s demented flight. He was bruised and suffering from shock, but not a bone was broken. “All in all,” said Mays, “he was jolly lucky to get away with it…

“After the accident we didn’t know what to do about Gonzáles. Should we bring him in? As it happened, Wharton hadn’t crashed because of tyre failure, but we didn’t yet know that. Gonzáles was back in the lead by this time, but we had reached a point where we were expecting treads to strip off. Fangio had had a near thing already…

“Six laps from the end Gonzáles came in with another ruined tyre, and I told him about Fangio and Wharton. He immediately said he wanted to go on, which I thought immensely courageous. After the stop he was a long way behind Rosier, but in a single five-mile lap he made up 12 seconds! He finished second, and that was all we came away with…”

Although the cars themselves had performed almost flawlessly, gone was the V16’s last chance of winning a major race against international opposition. Through the next couple of years, now relatively reliable, they ran competitively in Formule Libre races at such as Goodwood, Aintree and Snetterton, but that meant little compared with trying to beat the Italians abroad.

For all that, Mays remembered the day at Albi as one of some redemption for the V16, and certainly it stands as the apotheosis of the car’s life and times. In effect, I said to him, the V16 came right too late for the formula for which it had been designed – and the tyres came right too late for the car.

“Yes,” he agreed. “That’s about it. We weren’t ready for Ferrari and Alfa in 1951 – and Dunlops weren’t ready for 580 horsepower in ’53. As clearly as anything else from that time, I remember the gloom in the boardroom at Fort Dunlop afterwards. Everywhere there were these vast rear tyres with treads completely stripped away…

“We couldn’t blame Dunlops, of course. The V16 was finally delivering all its horsepower, and the tyre technology of the time just wasn’t up to coping with it. Thinking back, it was a miracle, really, that none of our drivers was killed in that race, but in fairness to Dunlop they’d never been able to test at the kind of speeds the cars were reaching…”

Somehow it didn’t seem quite the moment to suggest that perhaps the V16’s… unusual ‘power curve’ might have contributed to the problems: I desisted.

What the record books show is that the Albi Grand Prix of 1953 was won, just as the year before, by Louis Rosier’s 4.5-litre Ferrari, the ageing French journeyman each time outlasting the quick men, which was how Rosier’s victories invariably came.

“We didn’t win Albi, but I remember the race with some pride,” said Mays. “At the same time, though, something went out of my life that day, and although the BRM marque later went on to win Grands Prix by the hatful, and the world championship, and although I follow Formula 1 avidly to this day, I don’t suppose I ever felt quite the same about racing after the V16. Looking back, we aimed too high, with too little money…”

Sixty years on, a parable for our times, you might say.