Dan Gurney’s flying Brabham
One F1 car at the Revival should be more famous. Dan Gurney’s Brabham BT7 had the pace to be a world-beater, but luck was always elusive
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.
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 ’61.
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 Grand Prix, 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
“HE WON, LED OR QUALIFIED ON THE FRONT ROW IN ALL BUT ONE RACE”
lost out on motorsport’s greatest prize.
Gurney failed to score points in seven grands prix that season, despite some standout performances.
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.
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 Grand Prix at Rouen. Polesitter Clark was hounded down by secondstarting 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.
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
“HE MADE THE SPA LAP RECORD LOOK SILLY”