When Moss met Brabham
When two legends met
Arguably the finest looking Formula 1 cars in the 1980s were Brabhams. So imagine the story and images that were produced in 1983 when Sir Stirling Moss drove Nelson Piquet’s World-Championship winning Brabham-BMW BT52B. It was the first time Sir Stirling had been in an F1 car since his fateful crash at Goodwood more than 20 years previously.
Photographer John Townsend was at Brands Hatch to record the day when history met modern. The Brabham and its 650bhp turbo BMW engine – the first turbocharged car to win the World title – was much more than Stirling had ever sampled in his illustrious career. It was quite a way to re-acquaint himself with an F1 car.
Stirling being Stirling, he still stuck to his roots. Yes, it was a current F1 car, but his attire was his 1960s thin Dunlop race suit and cloth helmet. For Townsend it was a photo godsend! For Stirling, despite his skills, the day was a heck of a challenge.
“Maybe I should have driven an F3 car or something before that first,” admitted Moss after. “Just to get used to the speed again.”
The whole idea for the run came from then-Brabham owner Bernie Ecclestone. “He is a persistent chap,” said Moss. “It must have been the year before that he suggested I tried the car. I wasn’t too keen at the time, and I forgot about it – and thought he had too.
“Then Bernie arranged for a seat fitting at their factory, and I had to go…”
Remember that the power of the turbo cars of that era was brutal – almost like a light switch. Brabham’s team manager Herbie Blash talked Stirling through the controls of a cockpit much more cramped than he had ever experienced before. Then the maestro embarked on his first run.
“The rev counter was rushing around to 7000rpm. ‘That’s quite impressive’, I’m thinking,” he said at the time. “Then suddenly it happens – at 7000rpm in comes the turbo, and boy you’re off. The whole car just pushes forward with this incredible surge of power.”
Stirling readily admitted that he was nowhere near the limit of the car, which in reality made it harder to drive. “If I had more ability today,” he said at the time, “I could have kept the revs over 8000rpm and on the turbo all the time, which would have made the power smoother and less inclined to bite me. At Bottom Bend, I wanted to hold the car on a constant speed, but you can’t do that. The power appears to be rising or falling all the time. I’m sure Nelson would take Bottom Bend flat – but I wasn’t ready for that….”
A little frustrated at not getting the best out of the 1983 thoroughbred, it was certainly an unforgettable experience for one of the greatest racers of the 1950s and ’60s. “It has certainly given me a new respect for the today’s drivers,” he said at the end of his test that summer. “I spent most of the time – I did 60 laps – just concentrating on keeping the car on the road. The closest thing to it I have ever known was the BRM V16 which I raced in 1952 – that had 580bhp, and when the blower came in you had the same jet-propelled kick from behind. But that car, superbly engineered as it was for back then, was a pig to drive. No traction, and at times you were just a passenger with all that power.”
A few of the 60 laps Moss did, were ‘photo opportunities’ for the now defunct Automobile Sport magazine which Stirling wrote for. While the Brabham-BMW BT52B and its guest driver for the day were state-of-the-art, the story behind the taking of the on-track photos is not!
Long-time Formula 1 photographer John Townsend tells the story: “I had my old Ford Escort XR3, opened the hatchback, and hung out of the back of the car with Stirling following us. Herbie was driving,” he laughs today. “Because the boot lid was open, it acted like a huge wing, and Herbie had trouble getting the car to go fast enough on the straight. We had to get a mechanic in the back as well to hold the thing open, and stop it closing on me.”
Final, honest, words from Moss on taming the Brabham-BMW beast: “I know if I was to drive it regularly, I would become used to it,” he concluded. “Mind you, Herbie had slackened the boost off, and although he was gallant enough to show me the boost control…. I never touched it.
“With that power I would be surprised if I was in second or third gear for more than two or three seconds at a time – so I was driving one-handed much more than I would have liked, although that never worried me in my day when there were girls to wave at!”
Moss/Brabham test pictures copyright John Townsend/Formula One Pictures www.f1pictures.com