The H16 BRM

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Would it ever have been massaged into a dominant racing car, if Rubery Owen had made the necessary budget available? Or was it really just another 16-cylinder disaster for BRM that raked open all the old wounds of the infamous V16?

Opinion will always be divided on Tony Rudd’s gorgeous looking and sounding, but ultimately woefully unsuccessful, challenger for the new three-litre formula of 1966, the BRM H16.

In concept it had much to recommend it, for Rudd had been attracted by the power and reliability of Napier’s H24 Dagger aero engine, and reasoned that a couple of the highly successful BRM V8s, flattened to 180 degrees and mounted one atop the other, could create a very compact powerplant that within a couple of years could be developed from an initial 400bhp to 600 — enough, surely, to dominate the new formula in time?

Such thinking, back in 1965, could not have foreseen the incredible impact of the Cosworth Ford V8, an engine which followed all the precepts of racing design – lightness, strength compactness, simplicity and. . . power. It was many things that the H16 wasn’t, and when mated to the Lotus 49 in 1967 it scrawled big, unpleasant words across BRM’s wall. Big enough to convince most that after a season and a half without a works victory (and only Clark’s slightly fortuitous American GP triumph in 1966 in the Lotus BRM 43) the H16 was a white elephant.

The P75 two-valve engine developed only 280 bhp at 7500 rpm and 395 at 10,250 in 1966, and the best dyno figure ever seen was said to be 420 from the engine Stewart had at Monza in 1967. Worse, the initial units weighed in at 508 lb. When Lotus’s H16 arrived in 1966 it weighed as much as the Type 43 chassis and, according to legend, took four men to lift it off the truck.

I loved the cars. The photo that Autocar ran in its May 5 1967 report on the BRDC’s International Trophy race at Silverstone was what first got me hooked on F1 cars instead of Maserati 151 and Aston Martin 215 sportscars. It was big, it was brutal and, most necessary of all, it was an underdog. A bulbous underdog, true, but an underdog nevertheless. And I rejoiced when JYS manhandled a P83 to second place at Spa, holding it in fifth gear with one hand while whacking it up the climb from Stavelot on full power. And still there were some who thought he was a milk-and-water nancy boy because he quite liked the idea of staying alive while going racing. . .

The P1 15 was the supposedly lightweight version of the original P83 which had appeared sporadically early in 1966 but was not raced properly until Monza. It appeared first at Zandvoort, where its presence was totally overshadowed by the arrival of the Lotus 49. The P83s were dramatically overweight at 1480 lb (the minimum weight was then 1100). With its magnesium skin the P115 was three inches slimmer and cleaner aerodynamically, and at last the water pipes had gone back beneath the skin where they belonged, having perforce been brought to the top surface of the P83s for South Africa to aid cooling and left there ever since. (When Mike Spence had his one and only race in the singleton P1 15 in South Africa in 1968 the pipes crept out again and, sadly, stay there to this day!). But though it was lighter at 1360 lb, it was still no waif compared to the Lotus 49 which scaled a mere 1136.

The new car also differed from the old in having a revised rear suspension where the upper radius arm and single top link had been replaced by a sturdy N-shaped upper link which did away with the need for the radius arm altogether. Stewart tried it in practice, but it didn’t handle as well as the regular cars and was not deemed raceworthy. Indeed, it was returned to Bourne and did not reappear until the German GP, where Jackie would place it third on the grid. Behind the scenes, however, Stewart’s urgent and persistent plea to Sir Alfred for a parallel V12 build programme had virtually sounded the H16’s death knell, and after that its development suffered as other projects took priority.

After qualifying well, less than two seconds behind second man Hulme but 11s off Clark’s pole time, Stewart ran third for a while at the Nürburgring, but like most was embarrassed by the incredible pace of Jacky Ickx’s F2 Matra which ran behind only leader Dan Gurney and Hulme before it retired. Sadly, the BRM spent too long in the air despite its weight and the shock loads on landing proved too much for the crownwheel and pinion.

Mosport was a horrible mixture of wet, dry and wet again for the Canadian GP, and there the markedly narrower power band of the H16 in comparison with the new two-valve V12 which was making its debut in Bruce McLaren’s M5A made life very difficult. Even JYS needed all his considerable skill to keep the P115 up in fourth place until he succumbed to the almost inevitable and lost it. Dirt got into the throttle slides, and after two fruitless stops he called it a day.

At Monza he ran sixth on the opening lap and moved up a place when Gurney’s Eagle dropped out, but almost inevitably the engine failed.

The P115 failed to feature in either the American or Mexican GPs, and after Spence’s fruitless outing at Kyalami in 1968 was poisoned by fuel vaporisation. Bourne quietly pensioned off the H16 and enjoyed a brief spell of promise with the new V12s. Although there was only a year’s gap from the P83 to the P115, there were some 32 Rubery Owen projects between them, which gives some idea of the conditions under which Rudd and his team were required to function. Small wonder, perhaps, that the H16 never made the grade.

Through 1968 there was talk of racing it again in dramatically revised form, with 64 valves, and Rudd spoke optimistically of 500 bhp and 400 lb weight; his critics suggested quietly that he might have got the figures round the wrong way. . . The man himself admitted that he was appalled by the internal frictional losses of the engines, although he felt that the 64-valver was much better in that respect. In the end, though, it never produced the power that was expected from it; Sir Alfred Owen and the Stanleys dictated a four-valve version of the trusty V12 and the H16 really did fade into ignominy.

In his interesting book It Was Fun! My 50 years of high performance (published recently by Patrick Stephens Limited, price £19.99), Tony admitted: “I realised if I had had more courage designing the H16 it would have been much lighter and it would have been ready to race three or four months earlier.”

Today, Stewart blanches when you mention the cars. “The P1 15 was never very good. None of the H16s ever handled. Anybody could drive that car. The test of a bad car is that everybody does the same time, whatever the level of driving competence, or even experience. And that was the perfect example. The worst thing about its handling was its pregnant elephant-like behaviour. It was slow, unresponsive, no power, no agility. It was not a nimble motor car. It was very clumsy. Even the lightweight.”

At Monza in 1967 the P1 15’s throttle stuck open at 170 mph in the Curva Grande, and though he should never have made it through at that speed, Stewart somehow got round unscathed. “Yeah, I did,” he recalls. “But it was one of those situations where when something like that happens everything in your entire psyche goes to survival and you do things that you would never do with a racing car, just to survive. Somebody could say if you did that going through there flat you should be able to do that every time, but you would only get off with it once. It would only have been a stroke of good fortune, the spontaneous action of life dependency. It’s like you couldn’t hold on to a cliff in normal circumstances if you knew you could just drop down. This was survival.”

History may benignly remember the H16 BRM as a magnificent failure that, to its creators, seemed like a good idea at the time, but its leading driver says: “I have no fond memories of the whole H16 dilemma. Tony wanted to prove the concept was right and Tony was a good man but it was very clear it wouldn’t work, and that’s in the end why I left. When the Ford engine arrived we all saw the potential over the H16; it was like a Mini in comparison to a Bentley. . .” An unsuccessful Bentley at that, that cost BRM dear in the long term, but nevertheless one that looked beautiful, reeked character, and proved an inspiration to a teenaged schoolboy… D J T

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