RAC British Grand Prix, July 16 1956
Denis Jenkinson, Motor Sport‘s celebrated GP reporter, on the epic 1956 race in which British drivers challenged the old world order
Maybe it was the lingering excitement of Tony Brooks’s victory at Syracuse the year before, but patriotic hopes were high at Silverstone in 1956. The first three rows of the grid contained six British cars and seven British drivers – “So many that the possibility of a British success was not unreasonable,” said Motor Sport – though at four-three-four abreast this did cover 11 machines.
Shaped by science and a healthy budget, Tony Vandervell’s Vanwalls held high promise, one driven by Harry Schell, the other by Froilán González. At BRM the piercing V16 wail had been replaced by the boom of the simple and rapid P25, this year with Mike Hawthorn and Tony Brooks aboard; rapid, yes, but the car had a habit of stopping before the race did.
Row three kept up the green quotient with a pair of Connaughts, solid performers though lacking horsepower. And in among the green machines in those three rows were the Latins – frankly, the cars expected to debate the win – also with their share of British drivers: on pole position Stirling Moss in his works Maserati 250F, plus the Lancia-Ferraris of unwell world champion Juan Manuel Fangio and points leader Peter Collins on row one, and Alfonso de Portago on row three.
When the flag fell, “It was Hawthorn who shot into the lead, closely followed by Brooks who made a brilliant getaway from the third row, the two BRM cars out-accelerating all their rivals. There was some rapid dodging as the Vanwall of González broke a driveshaft, so that 27 cars roared into Copse Corner in a jostling bunch with the two tiny BRMs in the lead.”
Pursued by Fangio, those tiny cars led the early laps – “drivers were heading for corners three and four abreast,” said DSJ. When Moss passed Hawthorn he pulled away “to a comfortable lead, looking completely relaxed, followed by Hawthorn still pressing on with the BRM, hotly pursued by Salvadori, then came Fangio, followed by Brooks, looking almost asleep so relaxed was his driving, while Collins brought up the rear of the bunch.”
But with the Vanwalls fading and Hawthorn suffering a transmission leak, Moss was “the complete master out in front.”
Meeting slower traffic, “Fangio was passing on all sides and entering corners much too fast for neatness, while Salvadori and Moss were making full use of the good roadholding of the Maseratis. Now it was a matter of sitting back and waiting to see what would happen.”
It was dramatic. “Brooks’ BRM suffered a structural failure and the car went end-over-end, throwing the driver out and then catching fire. Brooks received facial injuries and was taken off to hospital. Then it was Salvadori’s turn to run into trouble.”
Suddenly Fangio, ill as he was, had The Boy in his sights. The 120,000 spectators groaned as “the Maserati lost some of its power, so that the gap closed to 5sec, but there it stayed. Fangio, with a car that handled badly, and Moss, with a car that was down on revs, were now about equal and in complete command, the gap between them being constant.”
Suddenly the Maserati was missing, diverting to the pits with ignition trouble: “Though he rejoined the race in second place, ahead of Portago’s Lancia/Ferrari now driven by Collins, he could not lap as fast as Fangio.”
After much patriotic anticipation, could it be that neither car nor driver would be British? “By lap 90 Fangio had lapped Collins in third and was not far from lapping Moss, but this indignity was not to befall Britain’s number one driver, for as he started his 93rd lap a horrid noise came from the gearbox and he vainly stirred the lever, finally coming to rest on the far side of the circuit.
“Now it was all over, and the cars left running were reeling off the remaining laps until Fangio received the chequered flag for the first time since his Syracuse win in April.”
Britain’s surging hopes had been deflated by a combination of Italian mechanical nous and Argentinian experience.