BRM's Louis Stanley: The man who played with fire

Jos Verstappen's pitlane incident at Hockenheim '94 brought the spectre of fire back to Grand Prix racing. In his first interview for almost two decades, former BRM chief Louis Stanley, who pioneered means of eliminating such risk, recalls the days when safety was a dirty word

BRM team principals Jean and Louis Stanley ca. 1967. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

Louis Stanley was a leading light in introducing medical provisions to F1

Grand Prix Photo

In his heyday on the Grand Prix circuits Louis T Stanley cut an imposing figure. Tall and corpulent, ruddy of face and silver of hair, his blue blazer and old school tie stamped upon him an authority that could outmanoeuvre even the most awkward admissions gateman at any circuit in the world, and his firm but authoritative manner quelled many an argument before it had really begun.

They called him ‘Lord Louis’, ‘Big Lou’ ‘Lord Trumpington’, but those who sniggered behind that broad back rarely dared do so to his face. Stanley had married into the Owen family which at the time still owned BRM. His wife Jean was the sister of Sir Alfred, the Industrial Knight who had rescued the ailing team and whose businesses pumped in so much money to finance it over the years. By the 70s he was joint Managing Director with Jean and, as one of the most outspoken and controversial figures in racing in the ’60s and up to the mid ’70s, he took on something of a self-styled role of senior statesman.

Graham Hill said of him: “Aim Big Lou, pull the trigger, and duck!”, while Jackie Stewart once remarked: “Louis Stanley is an extraordinary man. He has many talents and some failings, not all of which are obvious to him. He writes a very amusing book, takes terrible pictures, and can be diplomatic or not depending on the circumstances.”

Over the years Stewart’s contribution to progress in safety – quite rightly – has received its due recognition, and that mantle that he had taken over from Jo Bonnier was in turn rather quietly passed to Jean-Marie Balestre as he tackled the problem from the technical side during the ’80s. But in truth Stanley, for all that his intransigent views on team management helped to surround him with an almost permanent cloud of controversy, was probably the true father of the safety movement, and almost certainly influenced Bonnier and Stewart to initiate their crusades in the first place. Like Balestre, care is needed to avoid letting a mans perceived public image, with its dogma and occasional pomposity, obscure precisely what he achieved behind the scenes.

Jackie Stewart (BRM) after winning the 1966 Monaco Grand Prix. Also in the picture: BRM team principal Louis Stanley. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

Louis Stanley with Jackie Stewart after winning the 1966 Monaco Grand Prix.

Grand Prix Photo

Stanley succeeded Autocar’s Sports Editor Peter Gamier as Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of the original GPDA, and later emerged as a trustee of the Jim Clark Foundation and the founder of the Jo Siffert Advisory Council. He was also the Director General of the International Grand Prix Medical Service.

This was by any standard a worthy undertaking, and a significant achievement when the mobile hospital unit was finally ready for action. It was a project he created himself, virtually unassisted, in a remarkably short space of time after Stewart’s accident at Spa in June 1966. At the Oulton Park Spring Cup in April 1967 Lord Chesham handed over the keys and the Bishop of Chester dedicated the unit.

Its raison d’etre was to prolong life, to ensure that accident victims could be stabilised immediately prior to receiving intensive medical care within the most apposite hospital facilities in the region. It was to travel from circuit to circuit, with a roster of suitable surgeons ready to offer their services as and when the need arose.

The hospital trailer was hitched to a Ford tractor unit and the whole thing cost more than £50,000 to equip, no small sum in those days. There was a bank of refrigerated blood, a revolutionary X-ray unit which could run off batteries and which had automatic development facilities that obviated the need for a darkroom, the latest equipment for dealing with burns and fractures, a full staff of doctors, surgeons and nurses, full anaesthetic facilities, and gradually there was also a card index of all of the Grand Prix fraternity to match blood types.

The facilities existed too to carry out full operations within the unit if the crisis was of sufficient magnitude. Sadly, however, there were times when politics prevented full advantage being taken of the mobile hospital. When Jochen Rindt crashed at Monza in 1970 the ambulance actually stopped by it, before being waved away on a terrible hour-long drive to a hospital in Milan. Along the way Rindt succumbed. Stanley was with him at the time, and at one stage risked having his passport confiscated when he refused pointblank to sign a statement confirming that a professor of medicine had been present during the ordeal. “It was nonsense. It was just me, a nurse and a medical attendant. I’m not saying that the unit could have saved him, because he was beyond that, but he could have passed away there with his wife by his side, with some semblance of dignity. . .”

From the archive

Louis Stanley today is not the man one might expect to meet if one had merely relied on the written word of yore. Doubtless, however, he has mellowed with the passing of the years, although his appearance has barely changed and the blazer and smart flannels are still an everyday part of his life. The Stanleys continue to reside at the Old Mill Cottage in Trumpington, Cambridge, an elegant, exciting house bristling with individualistic decor and the accoutrements of a lifetime’s exposure to interesting people and situations across the globe. Its gardens are a testament to Jean Stanley’s green-hued fingers, and despite the normal climate she succeeds in growing her own oranges and lemons. The Mulberry tree in the copious grounds is a little older than the house and won’t see the low side of 300 again. As he guides you hospitably around, Stanley concedes: “It’s propped up now, of course, but then at that age I think it’s entitled to be, don’t you?”

We sit on the veranda, the hum of traffic on the main road into Cambridge muted by the 18-foot wall which surrounds the garden. Water plays gently into an ornate pond as the sun starts to set, and as Stanley politely excuses himself momentarily to finish a television interview I watch a wasp behead its afternoon tea and wonder what stories the house could tell of the various motor racing personalities who have passed through its portals over the years.

When Stanley returns, I ask him whether he agrees with the assessment of his role as safety prime mover.

“Well, it would be nice to think I had played a part. Over the years, if the Medical Unit had saved a life, I would have been satisfied, it would have done its job. As it was, I think it saved more than a dozen.

Louis Stanley (1912 - 2004, right), chairman of the Formula One team BRM, with helicopter pilot Ted Malet-Warden during experiments with a helicopter to improve safety for racing drivers during a crash, UK, 25th November 1971. (Photo by Victor Blackman/Daily Express/Getty Images)

With helicopter pilot Ted Malet-Warden during experiments with a helicopter to improve safety for drivers

Victor Blackman/Daily Express/Getty Images

“With the GPDA I was always reluctant to hold press conferences, which may have been wrong. But these were private meetings, so we did not tell the press what had happened during them. We carried on the jobs we had to do without telling them. One or two of them got upset; to them Bonnier was cowardly, Denny Hulme was yellow. That sort of remark was so silly. Of course, none of them made them to Denny’s face, otherwise they would have had their own changed. . .

“But there were certain irritations which one ignored. The main thing was to try and make progress. I was put in charge of circuit safety and also had the authority to say no if a circuit didn’t come up to scratch. That only happened twice, once with the AvD at Hockenheim, and the same at Le Mans.

“Have you ever tried to tell a doctor that you’d be better off being treated by a vet?

“In those days one didn’t do things for publicity. I was just so appalled at the safety standards, especially at the medical centres at tracks or at the hospitals. There was no one particular incident that got me started. It was a cumulation, really. And this country was no better. Brands Hatch was poor at the time, and Silverstone too. The attitude was that drivers could take their chance in a shunt.

“At one time I inspected the medical centre and found the outline where bodies had lain on beds that were supposed to be in a sterilised area where somebody might be treated for burns. At Monza, the medical centre was full of beer cans and smoke. “The standards were appalling. I remember the case of Richard Burton, the Formula Two driver. I had a call early one morning from Lucas to say Burton had had a bad accident in France, there were burns, and they didn’t know what to do. So I got through to Geneva, I got an air jet over and we got him to a proper hospital.

Jo Bonnier, BRM P25, Grand Prix of Germany, AVUS, 02 August 1959. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

Bonnier was one of the first drivers to push on safety…

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

“But some of the first aid standards in those days. . .” In particular, Stanley recalls Bob Anderson’s fatal accident while testing at Silverstone in August 1967, just prior to the Canadian GP. “There was no proper ambulance. There was no doctor. After half an hour they got someone to release him. The vehicle they put him in was full of mud, there was no bell, no suspension. Both of his lungs had been perforated and he was in agony. Halfway to Northampton he was met by a proper ambulance, but he was too ill to be transferred. Sadly, he died shortly afterwards.”

Gradually, despite such accidents and the obvious value of the International Grand Prix Medical Service, the impact of the unit was eroded. There was the need for different medical staffs at each circuit, which affected the smoothness and continuity with which it functioned. Race organisers did not react well, either. They were defensive, and, it must be remembered, the unit arrived at a time when very few really took safety seriously. In those days the usual technique after an accident was to bundle the injured or deceased driver out of view of the spectators, and to continue a race as if nothing had happened. At Rouen in 1968 when Jo Schlesser perished during the French GP, it was a callous two hours before his widow Annie was informed that he had actually succumbed.

Stanley pondered the past, and smiled. “You see, have you ever tried to tell a doctor that you’d be better off being treated by a vet? Because that is tantamount to what you had to tell circuit doctors. One, who shall remain nameless, came to the circuit hospital on one occasion so smelling of drink that I had to ask him to leave. Another man came smoking, and I asked him to get out. This is into a sterile atmosphere for operating. In Monza one time when Jackie Stewart had a burn, the doctor came down, opened up his dispenser, and dropped his forceps and so on in the dust and never bothered to wipe them. I could go on. . . One time in Sicily I asked the doctor about anaesthetising a driver and he said, ‘No, we’ll wait for the pain to put him out.’ Well that’s rather primitive.”

Co-operation was vital to the Medical Units success, and vested interests ensured that this cooperation was not always forthcoming. Also, it must be said, Stanley’s resolute blend of ruthless determination, disdain for red tape and sheer bombast sometimes militated against its acceptance.


Now, as in his F1 heyday, he retains outspoken views. As the conversation turned to the progress that has been made over the years, exemplified by the speed of intervention of the firefighting services at Bergers Imola accident in 1989 or the medical services for Barrichello and Ratzenberger this year, he remarked: “May I counter that? Look at Senna’s accident. You were there in person, I saw it on the screen. The car comes to rest, the driver slumped. It was just on five minutes before medical help arrived. They said there was no question he was dead; they didn’t know that. We did exercises with firefighting and so with medicine; there must only be so many seconds before help arrives. There was no excuse for the delay.”

He agrees that the sport had not become complacent about safety, but that perhaps standards had slipped a little without anyone really appreciating it. “And whatever you do in a racing car, it has to be potentially lethal. If you clout a pile of tyres, well. . . you’re going to get more than a headache, aren’t you?”

In his excellent book The Chequered Year, writer Ted Simon remarked: “Grand Prix without Louis Stanley was as unthinkable as Trafalgar Square without the lions.” But the lion duly disappeared after gracing the flanks of Mike Wilds’ ageing BRM P201B as the Stanley BRM teams logo. Stanley admits that it was difficult to walk away after more than 16 years, and that he missed racing badly at first. “But after we closed Stanley BRM I had so many other interests, really streamlining our industrial works. You can’t keep things going on sentiment. The bottom line has to be taken into account, and although they are unpopular people accountants are the people in the end who talk sense.

“And I have seven publishers, so I’m always seven books behind!”

“One of my greatest regrets was that I introduced Marlboro to the sport”

He keeps fully up to date with racing’s present-day developments, while expressing distaste for the way that commercialism has changed its face and character.

“You see, though, it has ceased to be a sport, as we knew it. In the old days – and not too far away – the drivers, team owners, everyone, stayed on after a race and enjoyed it. There was pleasure, instead of getting straight into a helicopter, or hiding in one of these motorhomes or having a press conference or whatever. That’s not the same.

“Not many of today’s drivers have charisma. And the fastest race some of them have is the race to the bank.”

He smiles when I mention that the sport could do with a fresh injection of Dan Gurneys and Chris Amons. “Dan was on the phone last week and never stopped talking! And he reminded me how at BRM we always insisted that the drivers turned up at the prize-giving and had dinner afterwards.

“I mean, take Mansell. . ‘ A pause. “What a thing to say! I mean let’s talk about Mansell. Somebody must love him. He comes back in France, according to the press, for £1M. And he’ll get £3M for the last three races. In France there were 72 laps and he did 46 and he was lying, until those two cars shunted each other, a bad fifth. That’s more than £21,000 for each of those laps, and he didn’t have the courtesy to wait until the end to congratulate the winner. The payment is obscene. It is totally and utterly obscene. It’s the tail wagging the dog.”

Scottish racing driver Jackie Stewart in his car at Brands Hatch, late 1960s. Stewart, who won the World Championship three times, drove for BRM (British Racing Motors) from 1965. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

…with Stewart following the Swede

Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Like many, Stanley now believes that the commercial side of F1 is out of control, but unlike those involved he is all too willing to blame one of the people he believes started that particular ball rolling: himself. As an indication that old wounds are the deepest, he remains steadfastly opposed to one of the leading sponsors.

“One of my greatest regrets – although if I hadn’t done it somebody else would have, was that I introduced Marlboro to the sport. That was the worst thing I have ever done. Now they have gradually developed and monopolised and they’ve got what they wanted. The driver and the car are just mobile hoardings. But look at all the research and development that is going on now. The technicians are overjoyed at all the money they have to spend. I don’t blame the teams. After all Frank Williams, for example, used to be very hard up. He is one of the hardest workers and nicest fellows there has ever been, but at the same time they have produced a monster that is destroying the sport.

“I mean, before they made the modifications for this year, you could take a Williams, set it up on the computer, and if there was no traffic that could go round Silverstone and even conceivably break the lap record, without a driver. It had reached that point. And the driver had reached the stage where all we wanted was a fellow with a strong back and a weak head, and if he’d got a name so much the better. That’s a perk.

From the archive

“And how on earth in a field of, say 30 cars, you’ve got only six that could possibly win and two that certainly could. . .And the best the rest can hope for is that someone will break down. They have sponsors, but what they think they are doing, I have no idea. They get no mention. They’d be quicker by taxi, and much cheaper! It’s so stupid.

“And who’s that verbose chap? Murray Walker. He has a thankless task making a dull race sound exciting. The races last year and the year before and the year before; they were the perfect answer to insomnia. You’ve got a procession.

“And then you’ve got somebody, say, Herbert, doing marvellously well. Lotus doing well. With a bit of luck they’ll get a point. They forget to mention that he’s nearly six miles behind! “And with Mansell, all the talk was like it was a second coming. And that, like so often with second comings, was rather an anti-climax. And you look at Mansell and his so-called fans running across the track. . .That’s not motor racing!”

Indeed, he has a fairly dim view of today’s racers. “If you take their helmets off and make them stand in a crowd, how many would be recognised?” he asks. “Very few Because you are not dealing with personalities, are you?”

In 1968 Stanley’s regular column in the sadly short-lived weekly magazine Speedworld International was ever acerbic, and his latest book, Grand Prix, The Legendary Years is no different. But what is so terrible about Marlboro, bearing in mind that I backed BRM in only 1972 and ’73 before forging its markedly more successful link with McLaren?

“Siffert died because of the ineffectiveness of the firefighting. Those aren’t my words, but from the coroner’s report”

“Speaking my mind has not always made me popular. . .But with Marlboro it’s quite simple. We came to an agreement on terms, I went over to Geneva, and they tried to alter the contract so I told them where to put it even though it was painful. I came back, they changed their mind and they came to the Dorchester and signed.

“Now, they had their job which was to sell cigarettes, and I wouldn’t dream of telling them how to do that. And I don’t expect a novice to tell a chief engineer what he should do with his engines or the drivers. I said, ‘You can obviously make suggestions and they will be considered, but I will not gatecrash your meetings on sales. . .”

Looking back on BRM’s pre-1970 efforts, while ruminating on the recession that is currently making life so difficult for so many F1 teams, he says: “We spent our own money, that’s the difference. Money then was money; a pound was a pound. Over 20 odd years I suppose we spent on the verge of £20M. At least it was spent on a good cause, one that gave pleasure.” He reflected a moment and smiled. “And pain, as well. . .”

Another moment of reflection, then: “It’s like Surtees when he left to set up his own team. He came to see me and said he had two sponsors, a cigarette firm and a rubber company. What did I think? I said, ‘I think it’s pathetic’ and he said ‘Why?’ ‘Because your car’s circulating with a fag at one end and a condom at the other. I don’t call that progress.”‘

From the archive

In his book John Surtees, World Champion, Big John recalled of his unhappy time at BRM in 1969: “That was the story of BRM. We would have a meeting to decide our strategy, then the whole thing would be overturned by a telephone call – usually at about 1.30 in the morning – from Louis Stanley. . .

The latter admits cheerfully that he never goes to bed before two o’clock in the morning and habitually rises by eight. “I don’t think people should spend half of their lives unconscious.”

He doubts that BRM’s activities on the track had much benefit commercially to the Owen Organisation. “We didn’t sell BRMs. But we did make six prototypes in conjunction with Chrysler for a BRM-Chrysler 1600cc road car. It was going to be announced at the 1974 Motor Show but then they struck financial problems. Their MD, Geoffrey Ellison, used to exercise it on the M1 and he’d say how he would wait for a Bentley or something to overtake, and they couldn’t. He would always have people asking, ‘What have you got under that bonnet?’”

Though he hasn’t been to a Grand Prix since Monza a long time back, he is clearly informed about the current situations and it is interesting that Max Mosley was amongst those prevailed upon to write a foreword to his latest book, in which another contributor makes the point that during firefighting tests which were conducted in the wake of Jo Siffert’s fiery death in a BRM during the Tribute to Jackie Stewart non-championship race at Brands Hatch in October 1971, Stanley insisted on being in the helicopter that was being used in an experiment to fan away the flames in an attempt to find a new method of fighting fires.

“You see, Siffert should not have died. He died because of the ineffectiveness of Brands Hatch’s firefighting. Those aren’t my words, but from the coroner’s report. All right, you couldn’t bring him back, but their extinguishers didn’t work, they were empty. It was terrible. A nightmare.”

Criticised though he might have been for a lot of things, Stanley’s courage in not only standing up for his convictions, but actually seeing them through, drew universal praise in the experiments that followed. Partly because of what he achieved back then, in conjunction with dramatic improvements in car design, fire is now almost a thing of the past at motor races.

“So then I thought that the best way was to get the head man from British Airways, the Home Office expert on it, people like that. There were eight on the committee, and we devised these tests and gave the marshals so many seconds. The driver in a burning car doesn’t die from burns he dies from asphyxia. Along with Dennis Poore we devised a plan that wherever a driver crashed a marshal with a proper extinguisher filled with proper extinguishant should be on the spot within five seconds. That was the maximum.

“The next thing was to get the right extinguishant.” They ran up against all sorts of clashing commercial interests, in which Stanley’s oft-criticised traits came into their own. The best was chosen, not the most commercially viable. “We developed a fresh backpack that left both hands free, and then trained marshals to fight a fire in tests at Stansted. So we tried the experiment with the helicopter and I went up with the pilot and told him that he had to drop to do the job effectively. When we were airborne I suddenly realised that the higher we went with my weight aboard, the quicker we’d drop! But it worked.”

Jackie Stewart in a BRM P261 at the Monaco Grand Prix, 30 May 1965. (Photo by: GP Library/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Cars and circuit swere lacking in safety provisions during F1 ‘golden era’, as were medical facilities

GP Library/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

He also tried out the fireproof suits that were being introduced because of the need to get to the seat of a fire in order to put it out. “I was told that I had 48 seconds, then my skin would start to prickle. It’s childish really, because I knew I could walk through. But when you are in there you can’t see and it is extremely claustrophobic. I must say, after 30 seconds I cheated and came out!

“I remember we used to have GPDA meetings at my suite in the Dorchester and we had all the drivers round one very hot summer day. Graham was trying a new driving suit to see what it felt like, and he kept it on to see how it was. He was like a lobster at the end!”

Stanley is still very active in the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and remains a prolific writer in the Alan Henry/Chris Hilton bracket. His annual Grand Prix book reviews were always pithy and pulled no punches. And after The Legendary Years he is working on another novel and planning a new book entitled Defining Genius, which will include his own photographs and character portraits of past dinner guests such as TS Eliot, Somerset Maugham, Gloria Swanson, Ernest Bevin, Ben Hogan, Merle Oberon, Joan Collins, Ralph Richardson and Harold MacMillan.

You sense that he would be a formidable adversary in an intellectual argument, and his persuasive abilities are well illustrated when you find yourself yielding and accepting the offer of the second cake that you hadn’t wanted over afternoon tea. In view of his reputation for pomposity it is a pleasant surprise to be entertained by a charming and self-effacing host. Discussing one of his many golf books, Golfing With Your Hands, which was inspired when he put one of his pet theories to the test and played a successful round with a novice for whom he had prescribed a rigid style, he remarked laconically: “It may have helped some to improve their hockey.”

He has always had a neat turn of phrase, and this is nicely illustrated in The Legendary Years when he says of Tom Wheatcroft: “He belongs to the pool room and the bar room, and looks like a brimming toby jug, though it is obvious no mantelpiece would hold him.”

And it was at Tom’s request that Stanley accompanied him to the mortuary in Zandvoort to identify the body of Roger Williamson after the 1973 Dutch GP. Stanley’s account of that harrowing experience is as powerful a piece of motorsport writing as I have read in a long while, and concludes: ‘The mortuary was a simple building with a church-like atmosphere except that instead of an altar, there was a coffin. The attendant gave me a key to unscrew one end and the lid was raised. If ever there was a condemnation of motor racing, it was there. Roger Williamson, in stained flame-resistant suit, had both hands raised before his face as if to fend off the approach of death. The instinctive urge was to take those outstretched hands and help him out. The formalities completed, the lid was screwed back. Roger Williamson was now only a name on the roll of racing victims. Back at the Bouwes Hotel everyone was excited over a championship victory, but that night and ever since I can see again the horror on the face of a young man who lay alone as others celebrated.’

Say what you will about Big Lou, and his detractors have said plenty, the man was there during one of motorsport’s most painful eras. And he paid his dues. D J T