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Obituary

Neil Brown obituary: Leading engine builder dies aged 74

Neil Brown, who has died after a brief illness a few days short of his 75th birthday, was one of the most important figures in British motorsport.

Neil Brown

Few can match the record of his Lincolnshire-based Neil Brown Engineering company, which built engines that were victorious in European and British Formula Ford 2000 in the 1980s, via domination in British Formula 3, a host of DTM and British Touring Car Championship title successes, to servicing the spec engines in British Formula 4.

From his early days at BRM and Vegantune, then one of the top Ford twin-cam engine tuners in the 1600cc Formula 3 era, Brown formed NBE in 1973, initially working on Ford F3 and Cosworth BDA Formula Atlantic powerplants. But it was after the launch of the Pinto-engined FF2000 category in 1975 that his company really came to prominence in single-seaters.

NBE was also contracted by Ford in the late 1970s to prepare the 3.0-litre V6 engines powering the Group 1 Capri, and Gordon Spice won British Saloon Car Championship class titles with Brown-built powerplants, which also triumphed in the Spa 24 Hours.

After Pacific Racing and JJ Lehto won the European and British FF2000 crowns with NBE power in 1987, they graduated to the British F3 Championship in 1988. Team boss Keith Wiggins chose the promising Toyota engine – already winning races with the official TOM’S GB-supported Intersport Racing team – and asked Brown to prepare it. Lehto went on to claim the crown.

West Surrey Racing’s F3 deal with Mugen Honda for 1989 led the Japanese company to appoint NBE as its preparation house for European motorsport. The team’s Mika Hakkinen was the first to claim a title with NBE-supplied Mugen engines, in 1990, and NBE powered every British series champion but one with its Mugen hardware up to and including 2005.

Mugen and Honda took stakes in the company, which powered the manufacturer’s entry to the Super Touring arena in 1995. Drivers including Gabriele Tarquini, Tom Kristensen and James Thompson won races at the wheel of NBE-powered Accords, with WSR running the factory BTCC team from 1999-2000.

From then on, NBE was inextricably associated with Honda in the BTCC, its engines powering Team Dynamics pair Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden to three titles apiece. When the current NGTC formula was introduced, WSR also returned to NBE to build its turbocharged BMW engines, which have been driven to three drivers’ crowns by Colin Turkington.

Takuma Sato won 2001 British Formula 3 title with NBE engines on his way to Formula 1 the following season

Takuma Sato won 2001 British Formula 3 title with NBE engines on his way to Formula 1 the following season

Photo by: Sutton Images

With NBE adding the Toyota engines for Speedworks Motorsport to its roster for 2023, that means that it now powers 10 cars in the BTCC (four BMWs, three Hondas, three Toyotas) – more than the official TOCA customer engine.

NBE has also enjoyed tremendous success in the DTM. When Abt Sportsline began its Audi project in 2001, Brown’s company built the 4.0-litre, 90-degree V8 powerplants, and continued in the role once the Ingolstadt marque returned to the series in an official capacity, winning numerous titles.

The British F4 Championship moved under NBE’s remit in 2018, when the company replaced Sodemo in servicing the Ford EcoBoost engines. This transferred to the new Abarth-powered era starting from 2022.

The company had long since moved back under the ownership of the Brown family, daughter Fiona working full-time and son Matt on engine mapping. “Neil was still there every day,” remembers Fortec Motorsport boss and fellow Lincolnshire man Richard Dutton, his friend since 1974.

WSR chief Bennetts, whose team won a further Mugen/NBE-powered British F3 crown with Rubens Barrichello in 1991, recalls: “Mr Hirotoshi Honda came over in 1988 and we had a meeting, and he asked me which engine builder to use.

“I thought we were going to have engines straight from Japan, but he wanted to set up a European branch, so I took him to Neil Brown, Mountune and Nicholson McLaren. He then said, ‘Which one do you want?’ and I said, ‘It’s your money, Mr Honda!’

“With my background in engine building, Neil and I had a good rapport together. He was very clever, with a good understanding on how engines work and the development side.

“We had some really good times together, so this is a real shame. He was a good bloke.”

NBE powers 10 cars in the BTCC including Turkington's BMW run by WSR, a long-time client

NBE powers 10 cars in the BTCC including Turkington's BMW run by WSR, a long-time client

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

As Mercedes and Volkswagen began to dominate F3 in the late 2000s, T-Sport remained the main Mugen/NBE loyalist and Sergio Perez vied for the British crown in 2008. When the FIA opened its European championship to racing engines in addition to production-based blocks in 2014, T-Sport used the new NBE unit. Without manufacturer support results were scarce but, once a recognised talent got on board in the form of Nick Cassidy, the combination finished third in the blue-riband Macau Grand Prix.

“It was always easy to deal with Neil,” says T-Sport supremo Russell Eacott. “If he said that’s what he was going to do, that’s what he did. He said that engine [in 2014] was going to be good, and it was. He always looked after us.”

Brown had dabbled behind the wheel as a young man, but at the age of 63 took up racing in historics with the help of Dutton, who had bought an FF1600 Titan from a mutual friend. He asked Brown to prepare his engines for FF1600, FF2000, Sports 2000 and, later, Volkswagen powerplants in British F3 – first for Dutton as a driver himself, then for his increasingly successful Richard Dutton Racing team.

“We were very close, we used to go on holiday together,” says Dutton. “I taught him to waterski before he got better than me, and then I taught him to drive classic cars before he got better than me!”

“I got this phone call from him and he said, ‘Can you come over? I’ve got a collection of classic cars I want you to race with me.’ He had this ex-Moss Cooper 500 and I said, ‘I’m not driving that!’

“He said, ‘If you do classic racing, what do you think we should do it in?’ I said that when I was 14 I used to climb over the wall at Mallory Park to watch Graham Hill and Jim Clark in Lotus Cortinas, so one of them. And he said he used to build those engines for BRM.”

Another string was added to NBE’s bow, with the company supplying hugely coveted twin-cam powerplants in the historic arena to Cortina racers, as well as A-Series units, predominantly in Austin A35s. Dutton and Brown won a race together in a Cortina as recently as last summer at Thruxton.

“Every quick Cortina has a Neil Brown engine,” adds Dutton. “He would stay late and work on the engines himself. I’m a bit mad with him – it’s not right – because we were supposed to do the Silverstone Classic [Festival] together this month.

“Neil’s a true legend. I’ll race on my own without him. Nobody can replace him.”

Brown was due to race at this month's Silverstone Festival with Richard Dutton

Brown was due to race at this month's Silverstone Festival with Richard Dutton

Photo by: JEP

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