No need for cheating

In a patchy season BRM scored one memorable win, bringing hints of rule-bending. But the facts are there, if you want to look…

My friend Simon Taylor’s Lunch With Robin Herd, the ‘h’ of March cars, in the March issue, included a cheerful throwaway line about Pedro Rodríguez’s winning BRM in the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix having used a 3.3-litre V12 engine – which would have been a desperate cheat, entirely illegal. The driver whose March 701 it beat was Chris Amon, who emerged darkly suspicious of the BRM’s straightline speed.

I have probably done more than most to record BRM’s true history, helped by many of the talented men who actually did the work there. Among them, contemporary BRM designer Tony Southgate’s reaction to what is, in fact, a very demeaning charge pretty well sums it up: “Utter rubbish! We only had 12 engines. Hardly one of them wasn’t already patched and welded. The budget was incredibly tight. There just wasn’t the capacity to do a special engine for Spa. And just think of the risks…”

Hmm – Tony is slightly mistaken about 12 engines. A works report dated June 12, 1970, reads: ‘Fortunately, it was possible to keep our total of six works engines’. I still wondered if there was any faint possibility of the story being true? Apparently Chris Amon, who later (abortively) founded an engine preparation business with former BRM engineer Aubrey Woods, heard the story from Aubrey himself. I remember Aubrey having a jaundiced view of BRM at that time, and he always seemed averse to spoiling a good story with facts. The tale of winning a World Championship Grand Prix with an oversized engine could have been a particularly juicy one.

But several of BRM’s finest have now assured me that they recall no such rule-bending. Several spit blood at the very suggestion, since it downplays a quality performance, achieved after so much dedication and perspiration. A common reaction can be summed up by an expletive, which one of Churchill’s aides once paraphrased in the margin of a report as “Spherical objects”. To which Churchill characteristically responded “Who is Spherical, and to what does he object?”.

Well, in this case ‘we’ – if I may put myself squarely in the BRM camp – object to the claim that Pedro’s 1970 Belgian GP win was achieved by a blatant cheat – running an oversized engine. Once thrown, mud sticks, and in this case I think we should scrape it off. Contemporarily in 1970, Autosport listed engine identities used at each GP, but when checked against BRM’s equally contemporary factory records the two differ. Whatever carnet-satisfying numbers journos might have noted at the time, the engineers themselves had to keep proper track of what engine was which…

Pedro’s Spa-winning Yardley-liveried BRM P153 was one of a pair entered, to be driven by the little Mexican and his British team-mate Jackie Oliver. During first practice on the Friday both cars struck gearbox trouble. Lower ratios were fitted. During Saturday practice, Pedro then had his car’s engine fail in a big way, leaving him stranded on the circuit. A spare engine was fitted into his car overnight, and it was this BRM P142 V12 unit – No 142.005 (works record) – which he then used to win the race.

His broken practice engine was No 142.004, an engine he had used previously that season, initially finishing ninth with it in the South African GP at Kyalami. That engine was found to be in good condition during a top- and bottom-end check at the factory, so it was returned to service and used by Pedro again at the following Spanish GP at Jarama. He ran it in both practice and the race, from which his P153 was withdrawn early after stub-axle failure on Jackie Oliver’s sister car caused a fiery first-lap accident. BRM’s logs record just ‘Normal overhaul’ for the unit after this. It missed the next race, at Monaco, as part of an engine-alternation programme, before being re-assigned to Rodríguez’s car for Spa. But during practice there a conrod bolt let go, and the log records ‘Major rebuild necessary’.

Yes, but what about his race-winning engine? Well, No 142.005 had originally been consigned to Spa only as ‘team spare’. Had it seen little previous use? No, it had not.

This engine had been BRM’s centre-inlet valve development unit, with inlet ports angled to give better turbulence and provide better cooling water flow across the cylinder heads. It had a fully cross-bolted crankcase, and on its first dyno test with the revised heads its peak power rose by 8bhp at 11,000rpm, and showed signs of progressing still further the higher it sang. The works record shows that after extensive use in the test house, ‘005’ had then been the engine provided to BRM’s third-string driver, the young Canadian George Eaton, to power his old-style BRM P139 in South Africa on March 7, where an inlet valve broke, seriously damaging one cylinder head.

Engine ‘005’ had then been freighted back home together with the rest of the team’s hardware, and was rebuilt in time for Eaton’s use in the next F1 race, the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch on March 20. It survived that event, record-keeper Alec Stokes writing ‘Oil pressure fluctuating, otherwise OK – B.E. (big end bearing) shells replaced after bench test (NB – rev limiters inconsistent)’.

Number ‘005’ was not sent to the Spanish GP on April 19, but was ready in time for Eaton to use it yet again, in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix on May 10. Eaton failed to qualify so ‘005’ was used only in practice. Due to its low mileage since its last rebuild it was then used for two major test sessions, at Zandvoort and Silverstone, before requiring just ‘Normal overhaul’. The Spa race was run three weeks after Monaco, on June 7, with these two test sessions intervening, which left little time for capacity-enhancing jiggery pokery at the BRM works in Bourne. At Spa, Pedro won convincingly using this ‘old nail spare’ engine. Upon post-race strip down, the findings were summarised as ‘Engine good – only normal overhaul’.

This Spa-winning engine No 142.005 subsequently went back into George Eaton’s car for the following Dutch GP (‘Bad oil pressure fluctuation – otherwise engine OK’), Jackie Oliver’s for the French GP (‘Fluctuating oil pressure, all bearings run – otherwise OK’), Eaton’s for the British GP (‘Oil surge – filter collapsed – crank damaged’), Ollie’s for the German (‘Oil OK – thread pulled out of rod’) and Austrian GPs (‘Finished fifth in spite of worn clutch – oil OK’), but then back into Pedro’s car for the Italian GP (‘Rod bolt broke when leading – last engine with old-type bolts – oil pressure good’). Ah, now that might be construed by a conspiracy theorist as being suspicious. So ‘005’ having been the winning engine at Spa was then earmarked for Pedro’s use at another power circuit, Monza. And what’s more, it again led the race there. Just park that thought for a moment.

Ollie then used this same engine ‘005’ – necessarily rebuilt after its Monza breakage –for the Canadian GP, which it survived, before using it again – effectively untouched – in first practice for the US GP at Watkins Glen. Immediately after that session it was then transferred to George Eaton’s team car to complete practice and for the race… during which ‘005’ dropped a valve.

So while there’s a doubt seeded by the fact that ‘005’ is confirmed as having been used by Pedro both to win the Belgian GP and to lead the Italian GP until a rod bolt broke, its record elsewhere that season was undistinguished. Crucially, there’s precious little excess meat in a P142 cylinder block, and by 1970 BRM had endured so much trouble with V12 cylinder liners shattering (if iron) and splitting (if steel) it is most unlikely they would have tried fag-paper thick special liners to accommodate oversized pistons for a Spa special cheater. Different-throw cranks? Forget it. They were having terrible supply problems merely getting standard ones delivered. And there’s copious evidence of BRM P142 V12 engines being assembled with 2.9375-inch bore and 2.250-inch stroke (imperial measurements because that was BRM’s way) to displace a metric (and legal) 2998.8cc.

BRM chief mechanic Alan Challis’s reaction to the ‘oversize’ story clarifies the issue: “It is untrue. The engine was a legal 3-litre. The only thing about it was that the oil pressure on that engine was always low whatever we did; the drivers liked it because it went much better in the car than on the dyno. I suppose with less pressure there was a little less friction.”

Team Manager Tim Parnell: “It was a 3-litre, no question. We did do a 3.2 (ish) later, for the Rothman’s 50,000, but that wasn’t an F1 race.” That engine combined Mark II short-stroke V12 pistons with a Mark I long-throw crank. Spa and Monza favoured high-revving 12 cylinders over Cosworth’s V8s. Tony Southgate’s compact BRM P153 had a low frontal area and was very quick on the straight. So, critically, was Rodríguez himself, a really speed-happy driver if ever I saw one, and who was also just coming into his extraordinarily late maturity in 1970-71.

Above all, that was the season in which he was also excelling in Gulf-JW Porsches – the 917s and 908/3s. If there was one thing to which Pedro was fully acclimatised at both Spa and Monza, it was entering the braking areas at stratospherically high speed, then carrying much of that speed through the fast turns. Back in April, in the Gulf-Porsche 917s, he had won the Monza 1000Kms with Leo Kinnunen, and in May set fastest lap in the Spa 1000Kms, at a shattering 160.3mph.

Either Tim or Gulf-JW’s David Yorke told me once that Pedro had grown up at 7000ft in Mexico City, so “When he comes down to normal level he’s over-oxygenated… and goes bloody mad”. I think he had a point. If I find evidence to the contrary, I’ll be the first to print it, but I think Rodríguez didn’t need an illegal engine to win at Spa. And neither did BRM…