F1 non-championship races Part One: the ’50s

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Away from the limelight of the World Championship, these races sometimes ran at unusual venues, with drivers determined to gain recognition. In the first of a series, we pick out some great and obscure tales from a unique period in motor sport history
By Paul Fearnley

“Those non-championship races were just as important as the World Championship Grands Prix,” says Stirling Moss. “The BRDC International Trophy was in actual fact more important than the British Grand Prix because more prize money was at stake. That’s why it usually got a fantastic entry. The World Championship can spoil things because drivers spend more time trying to win it than actually trying to win the individual races. That, to me, is wrong. For me, the most important race is always today’s. Today I could win, lose, or get killed. What could be more important than that?”

1958 BARC 200

It had happened, the newspapers said so, but it was all so early in the year (January 19) and so far away. Moss himself couldn’t quite believe it. And Rob Walker, owner of the gallant Cooper, hadn’t even attended the race.

Stirling’s astounding Argentinian GP win marked the beginning of the end of the front-engined GP car, but the British public needed to see it with their own eyes. It was only nine months since Moss had ended his country’s World Championship wait by winning his home GP – in a classic, complex, craftsman-fit-and-finish, front-engined car funded and built by a Churchillian millionaire industrialist. Yet now, at the same track – Aintree – he was to drive an ugly-bug device welded together in a small Surbiton workshop and powered by a fire pump engine that was 500cc short of F1’s (normally aspirated) limit. This was a paradigm shift.

There were no Ferraris present to defend history’s honour, but Behra’s BRM P25 held back the tide by setting pole. He must have run very light to do so, though, because he was no match for Moss when the flag dropped. Instead he had his hands full with Jack Brabham’s works Cooper, a battle the Aussie won when the BRM’s brakes buckled after 27 laps.

Moss had a huge lead by this time, but his head gasket was starting to blow, then his clutch started to slip, and Brabham, his star ascending, homed in, sliced 6sec from Moss’s lead on the last lap and whizzed past on the back straight.

“[At that point] I discounted him, thinking, ‘I’ll win this one!’” says Brabham. “Then on the last corner he sprang to life.”

It was marginal. It was brilliant. It was Moss. But even he admitted to being “a little bit quivery” after his all-crossed-up pass and 0.2sec win.

“He caught me napping,” admits Brabham. “It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.”

The crowd had learned plenty, too: these teeny-weeny Coopers weren’t just quick, they could go the 200-mile distance – they finished 1-2-3-4-5-6, three F1s and three F2s – and put on a fantastic show.

It wasn’t only Moss who went home a bit quivery that night.

Louis Rosier

Fromage et French chalk: Raymond Sommer was Le Coeur de Lion, flat-out pour la gloire; Louis Rosier was Le Métronome, a wily fox, an astute tactician.

At the 1950 Dutch GP at Zandvoort Sommer, in short order, muscled his Talbot-Lago past the Maserati 4CLT/48s of Frolián González and Fangio, and pulled away. The sandy track was notoriously hard on tyres but racy Raymond, who pre-war had once upstaged Tazio Nuvolari despite driving a lesser car, gapped the field sufficiently to maintain the lead throughout his pitstop. The victory was his to lose.

Rosier, also in a Talbot-Lago, was making steadier progress. He’d moved up to second thanks to the suspension trouble/leaking fuel tank and tardy tyre stop of Fangio and ‘Gonzo’, but he wasn’t going to catch Sommer. He knew that, was comfortable with that, because this was his way.

Sommer knew only one way, too. Long before half distance his hard-pressed car was pushed away. A slipping clutch said some, a broken rocker surmised others, a bit of both like as not.

His had been a remarkable performance, even without factoring in his badly burned leg, legacy of a shunt at Albi the weekend before. Fangio had been leading comfortably in the South of France until his engine began to seize on the last lap. Sommer, fast catching him, lunged around the outside at the final corner and crossed the line sideways, taking the win, and several straw bales and a photographer with him.

But cagey Rosier won that race, too. It was a two-heat aggregate affair, you see, and neither Fangio’s nor Sommer’s car was in a fit state to take the second start.

When Sommer was killed flinging a Cooper 500 around Cadours in September it was Rosier, a Resistance man and heroic winner of that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, who replaced him in French hearts. This former bike racer, owner of an Art Deco garage and Renault dealership in Clermont-Ferrand, rarely let them down. At Pescara in August his doggedness had forced Fangio to give up his shepherding of hobbled Alfetta team-mate Louis Fagioli, local hero and designated winner, to cut and run for victory. In 1951 Louis’ blue Talbots, ultra-reliable, rarely crashed, won at Bordeaux and Zandvoort (again running non-stop for 90 laps).

But in 1952 he bowed to the inevitable and bought a 4.5-litre Ferrari 375, painted it blue, and beat the BRMs at Albi, a feat he repeated the following season.

Thereafter he gradually slid down the grids and finishing orders, but his team nurtured French talent – Trintignant, Behra, Simon, Manzon – while his enthusiasm helped create the Charade circuit. Sadly, he was not to be at its opening in 1958. He’d died three agonising weeks after rolling his Ferrari sports car at Montlhéry in late 1956. The nation mourned for, and his government posthumously decorated, a driver who was much more than the sum of his speed.

1957 Reims Grand Prix

Make no mistake, this was a full-shot GP – albeit without points, some first-choice cars (it was sandwiched between the French and British GPs), cautious BRM and Vanwall’s Moss and Tony Brooks.

You can be sure that Moss, sidelined by sinusitis caused by water-skiing, was fuming. He loved to race and loved to get paid for doing so, and the AC de Champagne was extremely convivial: 100 bottles of bubbly for every lap record in practice (to a maximum of 500) and a staggering £10,000 first prize.

Luigi Musso seemed less in love with his sport. For several seasons he’d fought a bitter, subsequently internecine (at Ferrari) battle with Eugenio Castellotti to be the pride of Italy. But the death of his younger, more swashbuckling, compatriot – killed in late March testing at Modena – rather than opening a door for the stylish 32-year-old Roman with the soulful eyes had instead heaped more pressure, internal and external, on him. Being the fastest, er, only Italian (of note) was no longer enough.

Ferrari, meanwhile, was in a slump – yet Mon Ami Mates Hawthorn and recently married Collins had never appeared happier. Perhaps distracted, for a brief spell in July they were shaded by Musso. At Rouen, scene of Fangio’s drifting masterclass, Luigi (also in the absence of Moss and Brooks) finished second and set fastest lap. The next weekend at Reims, according to Jenks, Musso, his foot to the floor through the sweeping bend after the pits, was the only Ferrari to come to the party.

The Scuderia, its resources stretched, had brought along a batch of second-strings and bitsas and plonked Musso in a D50 of January 1956-spec. This might have been a blessing given the team’s R&D mire, but Musso didn’t see it as a vote of confidence. Second place, his increasingly familiar slot, was not an option.

But in the race, having left Fangio and Hawthorn to a remake of their epic 1953 French GP duel, Musso realised there was nothing he could do about the leading Vanwall. Stuart Lewis-Evans had been drafted in to replace the team’s absentees – Brooks was nursing his Aston Martin Le Mans flip injuries – and he took his chance brilliantly. Having given Fangio, in the form of his life, the fright of his life in practice, he drove calmly away from the field and led until just after half distance. Musso, looking equally assured, had begun to catch him. The Vanwall had developed an oil leak. It smeared Lewis-Evans’s screen, gloves and goggles and forced him to back off. Musso swept by on lap 34 to win on a day that Fangio crashed and only one of four Ferraris finished. The money was handy – rumours of financial strife dogged the remaining 12 months of his life (he was killed at Reims’ sweeping first corner) – but the win was the real prize: he was no longer just the fastest Italian.

Jean Behra

Chris Amon: best driver never to have won a World Championship GP. A given, right? Maybe so, but there was a guy from Nice, him with the plastic ear, who must run him close.

Unlike easy-going Chris, there was a bubbling, hot-Latin-sun fury to Jean Behra that often burst forth and caused unhelpful tantrums and tussles. But when he bottled this fizz under his tipped-back, chequered-band skid lid, he was a tiger on the track.

At the 1954 Berlin GP, a supposed up-and-down of Mercedes-Benz superiority, brave Behra scrunched down in his Gordini’s cockpit as it was sucked along AVUS’s autobahn drags faster than it cared to go: 170mph, Jean reckoned. He passed Fangio, of all people, to take third on lap three, and when Fangio made his move for the lead on lap five, Behra went with him past the other two streamlined W196s, all
of which had been at least 10sec quicker than his little blue car in practice. The Gordini’s engine, of course, eventually went bang, but not before Jean had stolen the thunder.

Fangio and Behra became team-mates at Maserati in 1957, the Argentinian’s season of seasons, the Indian summer in which he won five F1 races in the lovely 250F… Behra won five F1 races that season, too. (It would have been six had not his clutch shattered and scattered across Aintree at the British GP.) In April he won at Pau, his third consecutive success at the ‘poor man’s Monaco’; in July, at Caen, he ended the BRM P25’s long wait; and in September he led a BRM 1-2-3 in the BRDC International Trophy. Both BRM wins were against reduced opposition, but they meant the world to this beleaguered team.

The following weekend, back in a 250F, Behra won September’s Modena GP. It, too, was a win with all the odds. The Moroccan GP in October, however, was a different matter: four Maseratis, three Vanwalls, three BRMs, two new V6 Ferrari Dinos. Jenks had no doubt: “Although this race was not a Grand Epreuve, it was the sort of event that the racing world could well repeat, namely a full-blooded Grand Prix on a circuit that justifies Grand Prix cars.”

And Behra won it. True, Moss had been too ill to take the start. And Fangio, too, looked green around the gills, yet he was well enough to set fastest lap on lap 42 of 55. But Behra, who’d been electrifying in practice to split the remaining Vanwalls on the front row, kept the fizz positively still – his rev-counter’s tell-tale read 8100rpm, Fangio’s had been pushed to 9000 – and was never troubled by his unusually ragged team leader.

Behra: born to win. Just like Amon.

1953 Albi Grand Prix

It had been (predictably) brief, but clamorous, glorious and spectacular. This was what might have been. For three laps the two fastest drivers in the world had been let loose – no tactics, no gloves – in the world’s two fastest cars: shattering sound, shimmering speed. In comparison their more usual F2 mounts were ‘clockwork toys’. Shame it all came much too late.

Surprisingly it was World Champion Alberto Ascari’s works Ferrari 375, looking a mite unkempt it must be said, that blinked first, oil pouring from its gearbox, and so Fangio cruised to victory. It was only a 10-lap heat – but it ran much deeper than that: BRM’s much-maligned V16 had finally delivered a knockout punch. That the subsequent 18-lap, Ascari-free final provided a litany of shredded rear tyres, a monumental crash for Ken Wharton’s V16, and a victory for the Ferrari of steady-away Rosier, almost didn’t matter. It sounds weird, but that’s how it was. This was a little victory of paramount, albeit parochial, importance.

The bigger picture had passed BRM by, of course. Had it sent a car to the non-championship Valentino GP in April 1952 rather than bring them home – after weeks spent pounding Monza – so that Fangio and González could test on an airfield, it might have had a meaningful category in which to race its thoroughbred. Moss, though far from convinced about the V16, was adamant that the eyes of the racing world would be focused on that Turin park: BRM had to go. It didn’t, and twitchy race organisers switched their attentions to F2. There were just six F1 events in 1952, four in ’53.

1954 Rome Grand Prix

Father figure Fangio, now with Mercedes-Benz, would still happily proffer advice, as would like-a-brother González, now at Ferrari, but it wasn’t the same as having them in your team: Maserati. Comfort blanket removed, Cordóba’s Onofre Marimón would have to stand on his own number one seat.

‘Pinocchio’ was happy-go-lucky, good friends with everyone and capable behind the wheel – Fangio approved of his skills – but, despite being 30, his promotion perhaps came too soon. This was to be only his second full season in Europe, and he was still maturing. Fangio loved him, had promised Onofre’s father Domingo, a former local rival, that he’d look after him, but there were times when he wasn’t sure how best to handle Onofre’s unabashed adoration.

Moss, though almost six years younger, was more experienced and seemingly more sure of himself, and at last had got a competitive GP car: a Maserati 250F. Stirl was being ‘watched’ by Maserati, and Marimón knew it. June’s Rome GP would be a good opportunity to put down a marker.

The new, four-mile Castelfusano track was flat, fast (a 108mph lap) and flowing. Moss put the wind up the works cars in practice, but Marimón, in Fangio fashion, responded with a pole lap almost 2sec quicker. He dominated the race, too. Despite a hesitant start, he was in the lead by lap two, set fastest lap on lap 14, and led to the end. Moss, whose transmission swallowed itself with seven laps to go, had had no answer. A works car ought to beat a privateer’s, but it was a meritorious performance by Marimón nevertheless.

Onofre then drove brilliantly in a dry/wet British GP at Silverstone to finish third after the late arrival of his team had forced him to start from the back. He set the fastest lap too, sharing it with no fewer than six others, including Moss, who had been set for second when his final drive failed with 10 to go.

At the German GP the inevitable happened – Moss’s 250F was painted works red, apart from its green nose. Marimón shook the Englishman’s hand, and then sought Fangio to ask how he might best combat his speedy new team-mate.

The offer was there to follow the maestro’s Mercedes during the next day’s practice. But when the morning dawned a glowering grey, Marimón decided to dash out to set a time. It was Fangio doing the chasing when the Maserati tumbled off the road near Wehrseifen. It would be Moss, not poor Pinocchio, who would learn in Fangio’s wheel tracks.

1951 Ulster Trophy

The World Champion yowling around public roads in the racing car of the moment: this was the UK’s only post-war glimpse of top-line Continental motor racing.

Ulster AC’s persuading of Alfa Romeo to bring to Dundrod one of its dominant 158s was a coup deserving of a Royal presence – Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, as it turned out – and the aloof, regal Giuseppe Farina didn’t disappoint them.

Narrow and hemmed in by banks, this 7.4-mile circuit in Antrim provided a daunting challenge to which Farina rose serenely. Kept honest by Reg Parnell’s Thinwall Special Ferrari, he caused the crowd to gasp at his 94mph fastest lap – a record that stood until the 1955 TT – and 158mph top speed. Reg led briefly during the thirsty Alfa’s refuelling stop, but in truth Farina’s win was a high-speed demo of how to go racing in the grand style that made a deep impression on those present.

“For once the sun shone on Dundrod and Farina in that Alfa was fantastic. What a noise!” says Malcolm Neill, son of Dundrod’s Clerk of the Course, Gordon Neill. “I used to sit in the grandstand opposite the pits and I remember the V16 BRMs, rear wheels jacked up, warming their transmissions before the following year’s Ulster Trophy. They made a hell of a racket. But those BRMs were useless around Dundrod.”

Even with Juan Fangio and Moss aboard, the Great Green Hopes, having dashed back from Albi, disappointed, both cars retiring after being comprehensively outshone by an F2 Cooper-Bristol with a warped cylinder head, albeit driven by Mike Hawthorn. Jutting from its cockpit, the Farnham Flyer might have beaten Piero Taruffi’s 4.5-litre Thinwall but for a steamy late pitstop. His second place, though, sent the crowd – at least those who’d stayed to the end – home with a real reason for hope.

Davidstow

Cornwall: hotbed of F1. Three races in a 12-month spell. More than Aintree, Goodwood, Oulton and Snetterton – even Silverstone. Davidstow dangled too far west and was perched too high (970ft) on a boggy Bodmin Moor plateau ever to be a hub, but even it felt the tremors of Britain’s post-war motor sport march.

A disused World War II airbase was its basis. Opened in 1942, Liberators, Hudsons, Wellingtons and Beaufighters flew out of Davidstow Moor, the UK’s highest operational airfield, a spartan place of violent storms and velvet fogs. But Cornwall Vintage CC and Plymouth MC subsequently saw its runways’ potential and ran their first meeting there in August 1952.

Two meetings were scheduled for 1954, on the Bank Holiday Mondays of June and August, and both would include an F1 race, of sorts. The first, a soggy 20-lapper around the 1.84-mile track – long straight, bale chicane, hairpin right, curving return, tight right, sweeping right – was won by John Riseley-Prichard’s F2 Connaught. In August John Coombs gave Lotus its first F1 win, admittedly in his Connaught-engined Mk8 sports-racer, in another rainy 20-lapper.

The 1955 F1 race was different: it was dry and warm – so most of the potential crowd hit the beaches – and genuine F1 cars were on its grid. Well, privateer Leslie Marr’s streamlined Connaught B-type, at least.

“My heart sank when I heard Peter Collins [entered in a 250F] was coming,” says Marr. “But he didn’t turn up. The circuit was primitive and its surface pebbly. I liked it, though. We’d tested at Goodwood but this was our first chance to race the car. It went well even though it still had that troublesome fuel injection and I didn’t like the fact that its body covered the front wheels.”

Despite a wheel-spinning start on crumbling asphalt, Marr led at the end of lap one and controlled the race, winning at 85.84mph. The £75 prize was his.

“I’d promised [Connaught co-founder and designer] Rodney Clarke a champagne lunch if we won. I immediately sent him a telegram: First plus lap record. Champagne earned.”

Davidstow’s spell in the F1 sun – rain and fog – however, was over. A lack of funds and the demand for an extensive safety review in the fallout of the Le Mans Disaster caused its demise.

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