Panoz's front-wheel drive Le Mans rocket

"Victory in the 2000 Nürburgring 1000Kms gave Panoz stature"

Ever since the ‘rear-engined revolution’ – which Cooper led through 1957-60 – the immense majority of truly purebred racing cars have had the engine behind the driver. The beneficial reasons are compelling. The last front-engined Grand Prix car to win a Formula 1 race was Stirling Moss’s four-wheel-drive Ferguson-Climax P99, in the damp 1961 Oulton Park Gold Cup.

So front-engined configuration became the preserve of production-derived designs, and remained so until a Le Mans-legal front engined sports-prototype emerged in 1999 – the Panoz LMP-1, in effect an open version of the Reynard-chassised Esperante coupé which Don and Dan Panoz had been racing in the GT-1 category. For 1999, both the FIA GT series and the US Road Racing Championship ditched GT-1, so the new open-cockpit Panoz LMP-1 emerged to keep the American marque in frontline competition – its engine, like the Esperante’s, positioned up front.

Team driver David Brabham recalls: “I spent six years with Panoz, initially with the Esperante, which I first read about in Autosport and I thought ‘What? Front-engined? Surely that belongs in the ’50s? I’ll never drive that!’.

“I’d just won the 1996 All-Japan GT Championship in a McLaren, but then Dave Price rang and said ‘You ought to look at this new Panoz. The McLaren F1 doesn’t have proper racing suspension, it’s a converted road-car’. Pricey said ‘We’ve got a deal and money to pay you’, and I soon had a handshake deal, which I stood by when McLaren came back with another offer.

“Initially the Panoz felt very different – there was a lot of movement. By Suzuka James Weaver was saying ‘Driving a Panoz, you lose the will to live’ – they were hot, noisy and hard to drive, though some things did get sorted – and the suspension was better than other cars’.

“But the 1999 open car was a rocket, well finished, really good. I was P2 in the pre-qualifying race at Le Mans, and only lost out by being a good boy not straight-lining the last chicane. But the Panoz was just too unreliable for the 24-Hours. Still it was a good team, we punched way above our weight, and then beat Audi and BMW at the Ring!

“One thing we all bitched about constantly was the lack of power steering. Don always refused until he let Paul Newman test the car at Atlanta. And when Paul did ten slow laps, came in and said ‘Don, with my hands, unless that car’s got power steering I can’t drive it’ – Don said ‘Guys, put power steering on it’. Only then Magnussen, Bernard, O’Connell and I could drive the thing properly.”

That overall victory in the 2000 Nürburgring 1000Kms gave Panoz stature, but David Brabham and Jan Magnussen also won for them at Portland and Mid-Ohio 2001, and also at Sears Point and Washington DC in 2002. David: “We had quite a few good races, but while the replacement LMP-07 car felt good it was 3-4secs off the pace. At Le Mans it was 10secs off. That was when we took the old car to Sears Point and won! But by then Don was losing interest in spending; he cancelled the programme, and luckily I moved straight into a Bentley.”

While the front-engined Panoz LMP had its success, it was still way back in 1958 that Vanwall had become both the first and last front-engined winner of the Formula 1 Constructors’ World Championship title. That competition, launched by the FIA to run parallel with the Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship, had been conceived in hope of attracting mainstream motor manufacturers back into Grand Prix racing.

With the notable exception of Mercedes-Benz and Lancia, no mainstream production car manufacturers had taken up the postwar Grand Prix cudgels. Ferrari and Maserati both built road cars in series, but very small series, and both aimed at a confined ‘look at me’ clientele. So what changes?

When Vanwall drivers Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks won six 1958 GPs between them, their British-green ‘teardrop’ bodied cars defeated Ferrari’s Dino V6s to clinch that inaugural Constructors’ title.

This magazine’s outstanding Continental Correspondent Denis Jenkinson had avidly followed Vanwall’s rise. Through 1958 he often kept the team’s lap chart. When the season ended with the British triumphant, Jenks could happily report that Tony Vandervell’s ambition, “to beat those bloody red cars”, had been achieved.

In the mid-1970s, he co-authored a fine history of Vanwall with his friend, racing historian Cyril Posthumus – a fascinating but slim volume, with little photography. I always wanted to see the text, and Vanwall, done better justice.  Well, last November Vanwall was republished by Porter Press International, large and packed with both fine period photography and reproductions of several hundred contemporary team documents and letters. Jenks had preserved them for years before they ended up – for even more – in my spare bedroom. Now many are presented for other enthusiasts to enjoy, and for me it’s fun (at last) to share them.

Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s