The early Brabham that could have given Gurney an F1 crown

The first Brabham Formula 1 cars should have achieved more, and in 1964 the BT7's rotten reliability meant Dan Gurney was out of title contention before sweeping to victory in the Mexican finale. To mark 30 years since Brabham's F1 demise, we revisit an article first published in the 13 September 2018 issue of Autosport magazine

The early Brabham that could have given Gurney an F1 crown

The BT3 was genesis, Brabham’s first Formula 1 car. But a delayed birth was compounded by unsteady first steps. After the team was supplied with the wrong exhaust, Ron Tauranac’s design wouldn’t replace the stopgap Lotus 24 as Jack Brabham’s steer until the 1962 German Grand Prix.

Engine failure during practice at the Nurburgring forced the team to fit a make-do-and-mend throttle linkage using borrowed parts from the 24 for the race. The improvised effort was insufficient, and Brabham retired the car from its first outing. A potential dream debut lay in tatters.

PLUS: How Brabham's history-making F1 odyssey began

Brabham was absent for the next race at Monza, ostensibly due to a disagreement over start money. But in the final two rounds at Watkins Glen and South Africa’s East London circuit, the BT3 racked up a brace of fourth places. The upturn in fortune was followed by Dan Gurney signing with the team for 1963 as it ushered in a new car – the BT7.

A delicate, precise and responsive chassis had to be mated with a more dependable engine. Coventry Climax took the BT3’s 1.5-litre V8 and stripped off the Weber carburettors. Mated to a five-speed Hewland gearbox, the revised fuel-injected unit was capable of 190bhp. With just 475kg to propel, the BT7 had innate pace. Gurney and Brabham taking fifth and seventh respectively in the 1963 standings was proof, delivering the team third place in the constructors’ points.

On paper, the duo looked to have regressed the following season – sixth for Gurney, Brabham tying with Peter Arundell for eighth, and fourth spot for the team overall. But numbers and headlines rarely tell the full story. The 1964 season is most notable for John Surtees becoming the first, and so far only, person to win world titles on both two and four wheels. It also marked Ferrari’s return to form having languished in the doldrums since 1961.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you find that Gurney’s sixth belies a credible claim that he should – or at least could – have taken the crown. With the exception of the United States GP, he either won, led or qualified on the front row for every one of the 10 rounds.

Gurney’s contemporaries, Surtees, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Richie Ginther and Lorenzo Bandini, were by no means immune to unreliability. But through fault after fault with his Brabham BT7, rather than driver error, 1964 is a story of how Gurney lost out on motorsport’s greatest prize. Gurney failed to score points in seven grands prix that season, despite some standout performances.

Gurney was one of the quickest drivers in 1964, but his Brabham BT7 frequently let him down

Gurney was one of the quickest drivers in 1964, but his Brabham BT7 frequently let him down

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The world championship season kicked off with 100 laps around Monaco. Clark and Brabham had the front row, but Gurney could only qualify fifth, behind Surtees and Hill. An underwhelming performance was soon overturned in the race. Gurney passed Hill, while Surtees was at the mercy of gearbox troubles. Clark’s lead would be wiped out as he pitted to remove a damaged anti-roll bar. He emerged behind Gurney and Hill, who were engaged in “real nose-to-tail stuff that had the crowds shouting with excitement”, as Gregor Grant wrote in the Autosport report.

Having profited from the reliability woes of others, it looked as though the tall American would start the new season with a maximum return. But as a sign of the season to come, he retired on lap 62 with gearbox failure and had to be treated for hot-oil burns on his leg after a pipe fracture.

Two weeks later F1 rolled into Zandvoort, with Gurney on pole from Clark, Hill and Surtees. Clark was faster away and passed for the lead. That first points haul of the season would continue to elude Gurney, his steering wheel breaking to force an early bath following a fierce battle with Surtees and Hill.

After the Dutch GP, the screen over the fuel injectors was removed from the BT7’s engine and that freed up another 250rpm at the top end. This extra firepower showed. At Spa, as Grant put it, “no one looked like touching” Gurney, “who had made the lap record look silly” in his most dominant performance of the year.

At Spa, as Grant put it, “no one looked like touching” Gurney, “who had made the lap record look silly” in his most dominant performance of the year

He qualified on pole by a scarcely believable 1.8 seconds and led Surtees at the start before the Ferrari 158’s engine let go, leaving the BT7 half a minute clear of the field. But the increased engine power led to a miscalculation with the car’s fuel consumption. Gurney was forced to make a splash-and-dash, but at the pitstop there was no more juice available.

He decided to rejoin regardless but spluttered to a halt at Stavelot on the very last tour. All he could do was watch Clark fly by as he passed an out-of-fuel Bruce McLaren within sight of the flag to win.

Gurney’s luck with the BT7 needed to change at the next round, the French GP at Rouen. Polesitter Clark was hounded down by second-starting Gurney, before Clark’s Lotus 25 dropped a valve. Grant opened his report:

“At last a world championship race has been won by a Brabham Coventry-Climax” as Gurney scored his first victory of the season, his second French GP win and Brabham’s first of 35 F1 triumphs.

Gurney scored an overdue first victory of 1964 in Rouen, his second French GP win and Brabham’s first of 35 F1 triumphs

Gurney scored an overdue first victory of 1964 in Rouen, his second French GP win and Brabham’s first of 35 F1 triumphs

Photo by: David Phipps

Brands Hatch for the European Grand Prix spelled business as usual. Gurney started on the front row but was forced to pit due to an overheating ignition box. Come the German GP at the Nurburgring, eventual champion Surtees had yet to win. Gurney took the lead on lap four, beating his rivals at the drivers’ circuit. And yet, in what was rapidly becoming the norm, reliability trouble ruined his race as debris blocked the BT7’s radiator. The car overheated and, although mechanics threw cold water over the engine in the pits to bring the temperature back down, it dropped him off the pace as Surtees held on for victory.

Clark fell by the wayside during the first world championship grand prix in Austria, leaving Gurney out front, and all he had to do was bring the car home. But a lower-front radius arm tried to break free from the chassis. No score.

In Ferrari’s backyard, Gurney impressed in a sodden qualifying to start second behind Surtees in the Italian GP. They fought at the front, but ultimately the Ferrari driver brought it home for the tifosi after Gurney’s fuel pump let go eight laps from the flag in a race that “will long be remembered for… the sheer bad luck of Dan Gurney, who continually swapped the lead with Surtees”, according to Grant.

Watkins Glen proved critical for the title fight. Surtees was the form driver, but Hill led the points. Neither Clark nor Gurney scored, “engine derangement” the latest issue to claim the BT7.

It was all too late for the title fight when Gurney was victorious in the Mexican season finale – and far more memorable for Bandini, driving a more powerful flat-12 Ferrari, moving over for his V8-propelled team-mate Surtees, allowing the Brit to take the championship by a solitary point.

For breaking through to score Brabham’s first world championship wins and giving Gurney potential victory-challenging performance at every round, the BT7 could be considered something of a giantkiller. But for the car’s unreliability, labelling 1964 an annus horribilis isn’t unfair either.

The BT11 replaced the BT7 and, testament to the latter’s strong platform, only the front suspension received extensive change. After 1965, when Denny Hulme made his grand prix debut in the BT7 at Monaco, what followed for Gurney’s chassis was a period of running in hillclimbs.

Gurney led the field from the start at the Austrian Grand Prix, but the ending would be a familiar one in another case of what could have been

Gurney led the field from the start at the Austrian Grand Prix, but the ending would be a familiar one in another case of what could have been

Photo by: David Phipps

American historic racer James King became its longtime owner after being bought off a trailer in Italy. What’s more, it’s thought to be the only example remaining. 

“My chassis [F1-1-63] is number one,” says King. “We don’t know where number two is, no one has ever offered it up. They only made two BT7s, so this is the only remaining one.”

Even in its day, Gurney’s car was a one-off. Due to his lofty frame, the multi-tubular spaceframe chassis was extended compared to Jack Brabham’s.

King and his Kendle Adams Motorsport-prepared BT7 have made regular appearances across Europe at the Goodwood Revival and Historic Monaco GP, plus outings at Dijon and Estoril. That brings with it an added pressure. While Gurney frequently failed to reach the chequered flag in 1964, rarely was it down to driver error. Naturally, King wants to keep it that way.

"As far as I know, he never spun or crashed the car in that season. That’s again testament to the level of skill when they’re flying around the Nurburgring" James King

“As far as I know, he never spun or crashed the car in that season. That’s again testament to the level of skill when they’re flying around the Nurburgring,” King continues.

“It’s one of those things that we all think about in historic racing. Whether it’s your car or you’re a guest driver in someone else’s, you’ve got to keep a little bit in hand. Ultimately, it’s a car that Dan sat in, won in and challenged world champions.”

Unfortunately, as King experienced at the 2018 Revival having led the Glover Trophy pack into Madgwick, anticipating the movements of backmarkers is all part of the risk.

Gurney had Clark comfortably beaten at Spa when he ran out of fuel, eventually classified an unrepresentative sixth

Gurney had Clark comfortably beaten at Spa when he ran out of fuel, eventually classified an unrepresentative sixth

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The BT7 has remained largely original – even the engine’s authenticity has been verified by Climax. So much so that when King first got the car it had two pieces of black tape wrapped around the steering wheel.

King built a genuine friendship with Gurney and his wife Evi after acquiring the car in 1999 and they were able to shed light on the tape’s purpose. In fact, along with the higher revving engine, they were the secret to Gurney’s blistering pace at Spa. Gurney revealed that these asymmetrically fixed bits of tape were to indicate where to position his hands so he wouldn’t unsettle the car at high speed through the Masta Kink.

It’s a combination of Gurney’s driving prowess and approachability that has kept King a lifelong fan. From being trackside at Spa, Rouen, the Nurburgring and Monza as a 19-year-old, King (and his son Alex) condensed his old recorded footage and released a 20-minute film, Summer of ’64. It recaptures both a halcyon season and how, had the BT7 been more resilient, it could have delivered Gurney a world championship title.

The 1964 title went to Surtees, but easily could have belonged to Gurney and Brabham had the BT7 held together more frequently

The 1964 title went to Surtees, but easily could have belonged to Gurney and Brabham had the BT7 held together more frequently

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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