Car: BRM Type 15 / Engine: 135º V16 Supercharged / Maker: BRM / Bore X Stroke: 49.5 mm x 47.8 mm / Year: 1950 / Capacity: 1,496 cc / Class: Special / Power: 525 bhp / 392 KW @ 10,500 rpm / Wheelbase: 2489 mm / Track: Front: 1321 mm Rear: 1295 mm/ Weight: 737 kilo / 1,625 lbs
On the 29th of December, 1962 in East London, South Africa at the South African Grand Prix twelve years of futility finally ended for British Racing Motors when Graham Hill crossed the finish line as the new World Driving Champion and the team became World Manufacturer Champion. By that time Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Maserati let alone the German Mercedes were no long racing and upstart Cooper with an Australian driver had already won two Championships but all that paled when the “rightful” knight of British motorsports claimed it’s first title. In light of recent British supremacy in motorsports it’s hard to imagine the utter futility of British efforts in earlier years. One such effort was British Racing Motors, (BRM).
The beginnings of BRM can be found in the pre-war ERA team and sadly the results were not much different if not actually worse. Raymond Mays and Peter Berthon dreamed of a car that could beat the best that Italy and Germany could offer. The BRM would be their second attempt, this time influenced by the government sponsorship provided to Mercedes-Benz, Auto Union as well as Alfa Romeo they sought and with the help of leading figures in the British manufacturing industry convinced 350 companies to provide funding for the establishment of the British Motor Racing Research Trust. The trust led by Oliver Lucas of Joseph Lucas LTD, and Alfred Owen, Chairman of Rubery Owen & Co Ltd also had the unfortunate result of saddling BRM with 350 masters.
The Trust set a budget of £50,000 for five years to cover racing as well as testing, a sum that would prove not nearly enough. Enthusiasm soon out paced reality and a booklet was published entitled BRM Ambassador for Britain: The Story of Britain’s Greatest Racing Car. The only thing missing was an actual car which hadn’t been built yet, nor would it be for quite some time. Still without a car an executive committee of Tony Vandervell, Bernard Scott of Lucas, Alfred Owen as well as the two originators took over the decision making. They in turn had to work with an advisory committee which met twice as year. Incompetence was replaced by internal turmoil and political intrigue. Promises were made and broken convincing Tony Vandervell to quit in disgust and start his own Vanwall team which would meet with considerably more success. After the war British forces were able to get their hands on several of the Mercedes and Auto Union designs, as well as other relevant German wartime technology. This showed in the design of the chassis, with Auto Union derived trailing arm suspension at the front and Mercedes inspired de Dion radius arms at the rear. This arrangement did little for the car’s road-holding ability when utilized by engineers without a clear understanding of its underlying technology. The car used Lockheed oleo-pneumatic struts in place of the conventional coil spring and damper units.
The new BRM it was thought needed to capture the imagination of the British Public to create the groundswell of support Mays and Berthon needed to ensure continued support of the British companies. The BRM would have a V16 engine. The engine, designed by Eric Richter with assistance provided by Frank May and Harry Mundy was a 135 degree V16, in the form of two 750cc (45.4 cubic inch) V8s mounted back-to-back with the timing gears sandwiched in between, giving a capacity of 1.5 litres (90.8 cubic inches). It would have some of the smallest pistons ever used in a racing engine which was boosted by a Rolls Royce two-stage centrifugal supercharger. Rolls-Royce had been commissioned to supply a smaller version of the centrifugal Supercharger fitted on the Merlin V12 engines used in the Spitfire and Mustang fighter planes. Originally it was mated to an elaborate Fuel Injection system. After problems early in testing this was abandoned in favor of a simpler twin SU Carburetor setup.
The objective for the engine was a peak of 14,500 rpm with a working range of 7,000 to 10,000. At the first tests the engine produced 400 bhp, which was already more than any other comparable engine and by quite a margin. Further development brought the power up to an incredible 525 bhp at 10,500 rpm in 1950. At the time the engineers believed that 585 bhp would be possible but there were no suitable Carburetors available. In fact current engine technology would not support the internal engine stress that these figures would create and the number of engine failures would prove this out. The engine and chassis designs were completed in early 1947 but a series of delays and the complication of the involvement of so many suppliers meant that the first complete car did not run until December 1949. On the 15th of that month the first BRM racing car was unveiled to the press that had gathered at Folkingham Airfield, nine miles north of the teams base in Bourne.
Its debut was to take place in front of the King and Queen at Silverstone. The much anticipated debut by the new machines could not have gone much worse. Of the two cars, only Raymond Sommer’s car was fit to start at the back of the qualifying race after the car had been flown down overnight, and at the start the car lurched forward only a few inches before being stranded by a driveshaft failure, putting it out of both that race and the final.
Loud boos rang out from the crowd and as the car was wheeled away some even mockingly threw pennies at the car. The car’s second race meeting at Goodwood a month later was considerably more encouraging despite very wet conditions, with Reg Parnell winning not only the minor Woodcote Cup but also the full Formula One Goodwood Trophy later that same day. “All we need now is a little longer time to develop it and then we hope to show the continent what we really can do said Parnell after the race, but in truth the cold conditions had masked overheating problems that would later come back to haunt the team. The final outing for 1950 came with a two car entry at the Spanish Grand Prix, but after qualifying fourth and fifth Parnell was out early when his supercharger’s driveshaft snapped before Peter Walker retired at two-thirds distance because of an oil leak in his gearbox. The cars did not race again for eight and a half months.
Whether it was eight months or eight years the the cars arrived late in 1951 for the one race the team could not afford to miss at any price: the British Grand Prix. Performance at Silverstone could be presented as encouraging for the dwindling band of BRM supporters, or they could be taken to prove the folly of the whole project. Two cars did finish – fifth and seventh – five and six laps down on the race winner. Only the fortitude of Reg Parnell and Peter Walker in cruelly overheated cockpits to the point that they had to have burns dressings applied during pitstops. saw them through to the end of the BRM V16’s only World Championship race. The team went to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix, where Fangio took pole position in an Alfa Romeo 159 and Parnell’s time, 19.9 seconds slower, would have put his BRM eighth on the grid. Presumably he would have been lapped very early in the race – if he had started. As it was the team withdrew the car.
During the winter the steering was modified, disc brakes were fitted, the engine air intakes made larger and cockpit air intakes introduced. BRM went testing at Monza early in 1952. Stirling Moss, Britain’s best driver would perform much of the testing with the purpose of racing the car. This, Mays assured race organizers, was in preparation for a full season of racing. Alfa Romeo had withdrawn from racing, and the series organizers needed BRM to provide some opposition to Ferrari. But with the withdrawal of the Alfettas from the World Championship, and with 1951 Champion Juan Manuel Fangio now a free agent Raymond Mays saw an opportunity to sign him up for BRM. Mays invited Fangio to test the car at Folkingham, and in an all-out effort to curry favor with the busy driver he decided on having a working car on hand for testing at a time convenient for Fangio.
The special testing session would have a devastating effect on BRM’s Grand Prix program. The BRM entry for the non-championship Turin Grand Prix in April were withdrawn under strict orders of Sir Alfred Owen and the Trust and the cars sent back to England. Fangio agreed to test the BRM and he would bring along his compatriot Gonzalez. Why they could not fly to Monza for the test has never been satisfactory explained. In fact Fangio and Gonzalez had flown to Turin expecting the BRMs to be there but were told that they had been sent back to Lincolnshire. The only thing that Mays could say in defense was that he felt – if the cars had a bad showing at Turin he would not be able to sign the Argentinean and even if he didn’t sign Fangio having him test the car had some value; “if Fangio could not drive the car, nobody could! In the end after a few days of testing he would lap the BRM test track 10 seconds faster than any other driver had done previously. Both Fangio and Gonzalez signed Formula 1 contracts. Unfortunately for the upcoming season the Championship would revert to Formula 2.
It was a comedy of errors that doomed all of the hard work performed by the team. Ferraris would take the first five places and though this was a non-championship event it convinced the FIA and the track organizers that they should change the formula and with a stroke of the pen obsolescing the BRMs. Thus the V16 built with so much promise was no longer eligible to race in World Championship events.
Later that year at another non-championship race, the Grand Prix de l’Albigeois.at In the hands of Juan-Manual Fangio and Froilan Gonzalez the BRMs were the fastest cars in the race and briefly ran first and second but with two retirements with failed engines they only had the lap record for their efforts and by then it was too late and the BRMs never competed in another World Championship race. Before the end of 1952, BRM Ltd was taken over by another of its early supporters, Sir Alfred Owen for £23,500.
The cars continued to be raced but were now mainly limited to short sprint races in Britain with lap counts being kept to a minimum, competing with Tony Vandervel Thin Wall Specials, not exactly what Raymond Mays and Peter Berthon had intended. The one major race of consequence that year was once again at Albi where The BRMs started from the front row, flanking the Ferrari of Alberto Ascari. At the start the BRM of Fangio rocketed in the lead. Later Ascari and Farina would claim that they became so disorientated by the noise of the BRMs that they could not hear the sound of their own cars. Ascari and Fangio would trade the lead multiple times in the first few laps until the Ferraris of Ascari and Farina both broke leaving Fangio to win the first heat. In the second heat all three BRMS were at the front before tire problems ended the race for Fangio and Ken Wharton. Gonzalez was able to salvage 2nd place behind the Ferrari of Louis Rosier. The Dunlops even with the tire pressure increased from 45 to 70 psi could not take the strain of the car’s horsepower.
Engine failures would continue to dog the car throughout its career, with cracked cylinder liners, melting pistons and porous engine casings heading the list of maladies. Efforts were made to upgrade the entire operation and a new lighter Type 25 was introduced but the team still suffered from what Stirling Moss called a “…classic example of a small concern convincing itself it was Mercedes-Benz and going into the high technology racing car business deeper than either its competence or its finances would allow.” Never before or after in the history of automobile racing has so much effort been expended that would produce so little in return and all the British fans were left with is the sound of a motor until that too was forgotten.