Bold Ambition: The BRM Type 15 V16 Story

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By Ben Selby

In the years following World War 2, Italy dominated Grand Prix motor racing. Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari, achieved a winning formula which made these Italian giants the teams who everyone made their goal to vanquish.

One of the earliest challenges to Italy in Formula One Grand Prix came from Britain. The team in question? British Racing Motors. BRM. The BRM project was intended to be Britain’s spearhead into Grand Prix racing.

BRM can trace its origins back to the pre-war years and a racing driver, Raymond Mays. Mays was a patriotic Englishman and one of the brains behind the successful ERA racing team. The ERAs, or English Racing Automobiles, competed in the Voiturette class of racing, the class below Grand Prix. With drivers like Thailand’s Prince Bira and Mays himself, ERA achieved victory after victory.

However, Mays had his eyes set on Grand Prix. Much like the rest of the European racing fraternity, he was thunderstruck by domination of the Silver Arrows of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. Mays wanted Britain to have a Grand Prix car which could bring the same kind of success. With the help of ERA engineer Peter Berthon, the two set up Automobile Developments Limited in 1939, with the sole aim of building a car to do just that.

With the onset of the Second World War, Mays and Berthon worked on their project in secret and when the war ended, Mays was ready to pitch the ideas to potential backers. Stirling Moss once said that Mays could “sell an Eskimo a bathing costume” so it wasn’t long before many other patriotic businesses jumped on board.

Names like Girling, Lucas Electrics, Rolls Royce and industrialists Tony Vandervell and David Brown, the latter two of whom would go on to make their own mark in British motoring, pledged their support for the project. All in all, it is said around 350 companies were involved in some degree.

With access to the Mercedes and Auto Union designs now possible, the BRM Type 15 began to take shape. The BRM used trailing arm front suspension and de Dion radius arms at the back, just like the Auto Unions and Mercedes. The chassis was a simple ladder design and the looks of the car did strongly resemble a Mercedes W154 of the pre war era.

The biggest talking point was the choice of engine. Mays and Berthon had decided early on a V16 configuration. This was partly down to the desire for big power, but also to make it more sellable to backers and the media.

The 1.5L supercharged V16 engine was designed to comply with the new Formula One regulations. It was essentially two 750cc V8 engines joined together with drive cams and gears in the centre on the engine. The superchargers were the same used on Rolls Royce Merlin aero engines. As a result, the power output was hefty, 450kW no less at a screaming 12,000rpm. It is still regarded as one of the most amazing engine notes of all time.

Despite its complicated design and the expense involved, hopes were high in the BRM camp. The post war public were also enthusiastic. Magazines, newspapers and books across the country were all agog about this new world beating British racing car.

However, the first cracks were starting to show. Delays in production meant the BRM was not able to tested until mid-1949. The car had its first shakedown session with Raymond Sommer at the wheel in December 1949 on an RAF airfield. Despite the delays, the team were confident for the BRM to start at the first Formula One round in 1950.

The first ever British Formula One Grand Prix was held on May 13th 1950 at Silverstone and attracted a vast crowd of spectators, including His Majesty King George VI, the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Lord and Lady Mountbatten of Burma. All were expecting to see the BRM race, but this was not to be.

The Type 15’s complicated engineering led to a combination of cracked cylinder heads, overheating and piston failures so the best the team could do on its first outing was a few demonstration laps. The race itself was a clean sweep for the Alfa Romeo 158 with Giuseppe Farina having an easy run to victory. This was embarrassing for BRM, but worse was to come.

The non-championship Daily Express trophy race at Silverstone followed three months later and the BRM was on the grid. That said, it was at the back due to having missed the practice sessions.

The flag fell and Raymond Sommer punched the throttle. He shot forward a few metres and then stopped. He had no drive thanks to failed universal joints. The team hurriedly pushed Sommer’s car off the track and back to the pit garage. Boos came from the crowd and people angrily discarded their BRM brochures.

Despite Reg Parnell winning the non-championship Goodwood Trophy sprint race, the British public soon lost interest in what to them had been a colossal embarrassment. Even praise from the great Juan Manuel Fangio wasn’t enough to shake off the BRM Type 15s reputation as a fast but unreliable racing car. BRM was bought by the Owen Organisation in 1953. The team continued to fight in Formula One until they finally won the Dutch Grand Prix in 1959.

This was when BRM finally started to become competitive. Graham Hill won the first of his two World Championships with BRM in 1962. Plus, drivers like a young Pedro Rodriguez and Jackie Stewart notched up further victories during the decade. BRM carried on in Formula One until 1978.

It might have been an under achiever, but the V16 BRM Type 15 is still an icon to this day. It would inspire Vanwall, Cooper and Lotus who would go on to revolutionize Formula One. The Type 15 also still exists today by way a handful of continuation models built.

Oh and did I mention the noise? Have a listen below.

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