Twelfth knight

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BRM entered its final Formula One phase — its V12 era — with a car conceived by a freelance designer, built by an unproven firm and fitted with a sports car engine. Paul Fearnley drives it and explains how this ‘recipe for disaster’ came to the rescue of a team in distress

The closing months of 1967 were tricky for BRM. Tony Rudd, the guiding light who had steered the team off the rocks and into the safe harbour of the winner’s circle, found himself in difficult waters. He’d nailed his colours to the complex and cumbersome H16 Formula One engine – and was in danger of sinking with it after two floundering seasons. The Bourne outfit’s second ‘sour 16’ period had divided it: some wanted to plough on in the hope that the under way ‘lightweight’, four-valve head version would make H16 a regular winner; others had in mind a Plan V — 12, that is.

The latter case had a healthy precedent: the performances of Bruce McLaren’s M5A in the last four GPs of the year. The pragmatic Kiwi had fitted his neat machine with BRM’s P101 3-litre V12 — ostensibly designed as a sportscar engine by Rudd and Geoff Johnson. With not much more than 350bhp, McLaren almost won first time out at Mosport. He rose as high as second in the wet early stages — passing Jim Clark’s Lotus in the process — before dropping back as the track dried. A second spell of rain, however, made victory a real possibility except that a too-close exhaust had brought the battery nicely to the boil, causing a misfire and eventually costing three laps while a replacement was fitted. At Monza, Bruce lined up third, on the front row and again ahead of the H16s of Jackie Stewart, Mike Spence and Chris Irwin. He beat them in qualifying at the ‘Glen and Mexico, too. The writing was on the wall, but Rudd, still flat out on H16, barely had time to look up from his drawing board.

Tim Parnell, however, was looking to the other side of the world. Reg’s son had been BRM’s successful Tasman Series team manager since 1966. He knew that the long-in-the-tooth V8 could no longer cut it Down Under and proposed the use of a short-stroke 2.5-litre version of P101; he proposed also that a new car be built to carry it. Rudd had no problem with either suggestion as long as he didn’t have to get involved. A tradition was about to be broken: BRM, an engineering-based team that prided itself on making just about everything in house, was set to employ outside help.

Len Terry was the man Parnell turned to: “I’d known Len since his Lotus days and thought he had an amazing pedigree; some of the things he’d done were well ahead of their time.” A prolific designer renowned for the speed and accuracy of his draughtsmanship, Terry had recently left Dan Gurney’s Anglo-American Racers to set up Transatlantic Automotive Consultants (TAC) in Hastings, in conjunction with Frank Nichols of Elva fame. This short-lived partnership’s first commission had been the mid-engined King Cobra sports-racer for Carroll Shelby; its second was the Terrier Mk11, aka BRM P126.

“When Tim asked me to design a car for BRM, I knew that the plan was to use it in the Tasman Series,” says Terry. “But that was only to test it out; right from the start my understanding was that it was going to be an out-and-out Formula One car.

“Basically, it was the Eagle I would have built had I stayed with Dan. I was able to make it smaller and lighter because this time I didn’t have to design a car to work in grands prix and at Indianapolis. Also P126 was the first car to use my twin-parallel link rear suspension. This was done to avoid the bump-steer caused by a reversed lower wishbone set-up. With twin links at the bottom, and a single at the top, the rear wheels will always be parallel with the centre line of the car. This gives you much better control.”

Time was tight and TAC worked quickly on the first BRMs (two, to be precise) born outside Bourne. This rush made itself into metal; the side body panels are split in two vertically and riveted. The reason for this was that TAC did not have access to rollers long enough to do the job in one piece; BRM did, yet copied the design when it built its own P126 (chassis 03).

The V12 was light and cheap — £2000 compared to £7500 for a customer DFV — but had not been designed to act as a fully stressed member and so sat between two pontoons extending from the back of the tub. Its oomph passed through another first for BRM: a Hewland gearbox. A DG300, to be precise, albeit with BRM tweaks to make for a shorter throw. And I must admit that I’m struggling with it.

The cockpit is tight (despite the blister added for the tall current owner David Brown) and the right-hand change has a dainty lever topped by a weirdly shaped knob about the size of a dice you get in a game of Monopoly. Going up the ‘box is okay — apart from the fact that second leaves the lever pressed tight against the dash — but coming down is tricky, even when pushing straight through. The subsequent grinding of teeth — mechanical and human — is the antithesis of the glorious wail flowing from those open pipes.

An ignition retard switch is located somewhat awkwardly behind the wheel and under the dash. Once located, this is pulled left as the starter button is pushed, and released as the symphony begins. P101 lacks the snarly bark of a DFV — and ultimately its sharp bite — but pulls uncomplainingly from as low as 3000rpm; a DFV in contrast is spitting and cursing at anything below 5000. The clutch is either in or out, with a slightly odd up-and-over centre feel, but those impeccable low-speed manners make for a straightforward getaway and we wash out of the pits on a sea of sound.

The surf’s well and truly up by about 8000rpm (our limit for the day) and second is carefully selected. What strikes me as the speed increases is the relative lack of vibration, and the beguiling undulations of the front suspension arms. Downforce was on the up in 1968 — chassis 01 would sprout its wings at the Nürburgring in August — but mechanical grip was still king. On its adjustable Armstrongs, therefore, P126 feels plain soft and comfortable. This is a sensation heightened by that trademark red steering wheel, the padded rim of which is extremely compliant to the touch. They were all like that apparently, restorers Hall & Hall being in possession of drawings and notes that indicate each driver’s preference in terms of size and squidginess. My preference would be for a more communicative solid rim — but then I was never a works BRM driver!

The flat torque curve makes itself plainly evident in third and fourth before it’s time for my favourite bit: never can resist a bit of heel-and-toe. Dip, neutral, release, blip, dip and… crunch! Urgh. Blip. Crunch. I slot back into third, speed up and try again. No. And again. No. I try without a blip. I double-declutch. I single-declutch. All of which makes no difference and I am defeated — to the point of being embarrassingly stranded when even this most forgiving of engines dies on me.

It turns out that I’d not been ‘heeling’ hard enough. A morning run in a car fitted with the later FT200 Hewland had seen me blipping too enthusiastically on downchanges. Ironically, I compensated for this just when I needed those revs to spin up the heavier internals of the DG. Even one graunch in somebody else’s car is too many, however, and this tends to make you more cautious. A vicious circle in this case.

It goes without saying that Richard Attwood had no such problems as he gave this model its finest hour, finishing second and setting fastest lap at Monaco in 1968. This confirmed that P126 was a fine-handling car and that it was hampered by a lack of top-end urge elsewhere.

The tragic death of Spence didn’t help either. Croydon’s finest was renowned as one of the best testers of his generation, and he and Rudd took over the car’s development once Terry had delivered chassis 01 and 02 in time for the January/February Tasman Series. (03 beat them to it, however, giving P126 a New Year’s Day debut in the South African GP).

“That was a frustration I suffered a lot being a freelancer,” says Terry. “I met Tony [Rudd] while I was working on the P126 project, but I don’t remember us doing anything much other than pass the time of day. I don’t know if he felt that his position was threatened; I, of course, had nothing to lose. I’d been employed to do a job and I just got on with it. That’s what I always did. And if I was lucky, I went to the first test.”

The car appeared to be in good hands, however, Spence tearing up his paper tiger label with fighting front-row performances against the now DFV-powered McLarens of Denny Hulme and McLaren in the non-championship Race of Champions and International Trophy. Little more than a week after the latter race, though, Mike was dead, killed sorting out a Lotus 56 turbine at Indy. Motor racing had lost a bloody good bloke, a blossoming talent; P126 had lost its guiding light.

Team-mate Pedro Rodriguez’s tearaway speed was not in doubt, but his chassis-sorting abilities definitely were. He ran the updated BRM-built P133 for the bulk of 1968, leading the Spanish GP at Jarama, setting fastest lap at Rouen, and scoring points at Spa (second), Zandvoort (third), Germany (sixth), Canada (third) and Mexico (fourth). Three of these races, however, were held in tippling rain, and the little Mexican was masterful in such conditions.

In the dry, it was usually a case of hanging on and bringing it home, hopefully in the points. For whereas the DFV continued to make strides in terms of power and reliability, BRM continued to wait for the V12’s four-valve head. It eventually arrived in 1969, along with the Lotus-bound Rudd’s replacement Tony Southgate, who married it to his excellent P153 and P160 of 1970-71. That was how long it took the team to fully recover from H16; that technical tour de force had almost bled BRM dry. Terry’s keep-it-simple car and BRM’s low-key V12 were the sticking plasters that began its healing process.

Our thanks to David Brown, Hall & Hall, Dave McLaughlin of The Force and Rockingham Motor Speedway for their help with this feature.

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Technical specification

Engine

Type: V12, DOHC, two-valve heads, dry sump

Capacity: 2997cc

Bore x stroke: 74.6 x 57.15mm

Max torque: 270lb ft @ 9500rpm

Max power: 365bhp @ 10,500rpm

Ignition: Lucas coil

Compression: 12:1

Carburation: Lucas mechanical fuel injection

Drivetrain

Gearbox: Hewland DG 300, 5-speed

Clutch: Dry, multi-plate

Chassis

Type: Aluminium monocoque

Wheelbase: 2337mm

Track (f/r): 1524/1492mm

Weight: 560kg

Suspension (f): independent, double-wishbone, inboard coil springs/dampers, anti-roll bar

Suspension (r): independent, twin lower links, single top link, twin radius arms, outboard coil springs/dampers

Running gear

Dampers: Armstrong adjustable

Steering: Rack-and-pinion

Brakes (f & r): Girling, 11.5in vented discs, three-piston, outboard

Wheels: Magnesium alloy, (f) 15 x 9in, (r) 15 x 11

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126-01 track record

Chassis 126-01 made its debut in the New Zealand GP at Pukekohe on January 5, 1968. Driven by McLaren, it retired with ignition/injection bothers. He then raced it at Levin and in the Lady Wigram Trophy at Christchurch, finishing fifth on the latter occasion. His final drive of it before Attwood took over for the Tasman’s Australian leg was at Teretonga, where he profited from a late spin by Clark’s Lotus to take a surprise win. Attwood drove it at Surfers Paradise, Warwick Farm, Sandown Park and Longford — a fourth at the latter track his best result.

01 returned to the UK and was fitted with a 3-litre motor before being handed over to Parnell’s satellite team. For the rest of the season — barring a one-race chassis return for Attwood at Zandvoort — Piers Courage drove it. Amid a welter of retirements, he racked up a fifth (International Trophy), a sixth (Rouen) and a fourth (Monza). That Rouen result, however, might have been a win had the team not put him on dry tyres at a wet start. There had also been an outside chance of victory at Spa. A late engine failure looked to have cost Courage fourth… As it turned out, his fellow duellists, McLaren and Rodriguez, finished first and second after Stewart’s Matra ran out of fuel on the last lap.

01 did a four-race spell of duty with Rodriguez in 1969 — Race of Champions, International Trophy (eighth), and the Spanish and Monaco grands prix — before being withdrawn from active service.

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