The archives: January 2018

Against the backdrop of a brewing row about future Formula 1 regulations, here’s how Grand Prix racing looked almost 60 years ago. Plus ça change…

Here we go again. Any combination of big-time sports promoters and small-time politicians, spiced with entirely self-interested team chiefs and sometimes compliant engineers, spells motor sporting trouble. Still one suspects that much of the fuss over the future of Formula 1’s engine regulations will be just so much hot air before the scrum engages in earnest. Ultimately white smoke will puff from the FIA’s chimney, Liberty’s over-riding showbiz ambitions should be appeased and a new set of regs will be greeted as a great breakthrough.

All will surely then be sweetness and light – until one team emerges dominant and the wonderful new regulations prove to be as inadequately phrased or over-engineered as the last. Ask the motorist in the street about Formula 1 engines’ mgu-H and mgu-K componentry and enjoy the blank stare… The sports promotion people will conclude that the drive towards a standardised show based around a one-make engine should really ratchet forward… so we can concentrate on the personalities, dude – and Formula 1 as we know it will surely be diminished.

Opposition to engine regulation changes is, of course, nothing new. Back in November 1958 at the world championship presentation ceremony at the RAC in London, FIA president Augustin Perouse announced the new replacement Grand Prix formula for 1961-63 to a dismayed British audience.

They could not believe their ears as Perouse announced that maximum engine capacity was to be slashed from 2500cc to 1500cc, and a new 500kg – 1102lbs – minimum weight limit introduced.

Such well-established continental constructors as Ferrari and Porsche cheerfully absorbed the decision and set about developing 1500cc Formula 2 designs to match for 1961, but the arriviste Brits like Cooper and Lotus, backed by old hands BRM, protested bitterly and set about perpetuating their own 2½-litre programmes beyond 1960.

They floated instead an alternative category which would enable them to continue to use 2½-litre F1 hardware, to be known as the InterContinental Formula – extending the capacity to three litres to attract US and even Tasman entries. But British grumbling failed to shift the FIA.

As late as March 10, 1960, a meeting was convened in London of the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders’ sporting sub-committee, chaired by ‘Lofty’ England of Jaguar. It issued a clear challenge to the sporting authority of the FIA. The SMMT committee, representing the most powerful force (the British constructors seemed to think) in contemporary Grand Prix racing, simply rejected the forthcoming Formula 1 – and refused to support a drivers’ world championship run to it.

Instead they proposed that a 2½-litre Formula 1 extension should apply for three years, 1961-63, with 1500cc Formula 2 continuing as a subsidiary class. The SMMT committee declared that “Only in this way can Grand Prix racing hope to maintain majority support from the international industry”. Yeah, but nobody seemed to have involved the ‘international industry’ – in this case Ferrari and Porsche – in this new master plan.

The SMMT asked the RAC to forward its protest to the FIA in Paris. Ever since the original 1½-litre Formula 1 announcement had been greeted by British abuse, the FIA had muttered about the possibility of a new Formula 2, or an InterContinental Formula intended to bring America and Europe together in some kind of parallel single-seater race series, floated as Formule Course, to perpetuate existing 2½-litre cars.

Twelve nations sat on the CSI – the FIA’s relevant sporting commission – but while Britain and Italy together provided every car on the regular 2½-litre F1 starting grid and eight of the 19 graded drivers, they could always be outvoted 10-to-2 on the CSI. Which sailed on regardless – for powerful factions still gave qualified and self-interested support. The British view would be struck down through lack of political presence.

In Modena, Enzo Ferrari criticised the British protest by declaring, “We stopped designing 2½-litre cars in 1959 and instead have concentrated upon the preparation of two new 1½-litre cars for the 1961 formula”. He disapproved of the proposed 500kg minimum weight clause, but was otherwise perfectly happy to see 1½-litre Formula 1 proceed.

Porsche also expressed surprise that the British should be demanding changes for the new formula, just nine months short of its introduction yet 18 months after its announcement, when its own new F1 chassis project was already well advanced. In truth, the British constructors had missed the vital point. The bodies most capable of cracking the whip were at that time the continental race organisers. When Ferrari had stayed away from the 1959 British GP, the Aintree crowd had been meagre. Back in 1952-53 Formula 1 racing had become a second-class citizen in precisely this manner and world championship Grand Prix status had been awarded instead to Formula 2.

This could easily happen again.

At the end of April, 1960 – with only eight months to go – the CSI convened a special meeting in Lausanne to consider the British protest. They rejected it. The 1½-litre formula would proceed for 1961-63, but with minimum weight limit reduced from 500kg/1102lbs to 450kg/992lbs. And an InterContinental Formula would indeed be introduced, to cater for cars “with engines from 2½ to 3 litres capacity”. Both Germany and Italy supported the CSI verdict, while British interests were allowed until May 15 to react.

The 50kg minimum weight reduction was regarded – or at least, was promoted – as a British victory, since the high minimum weight had been the SMMT sporting committee’s main objection. On May 3, the SMMT committee resolved to support InterContinental racing.

In Paris on May 19 the CSI confirmed that its new 1½-litre Formula 1 would indeed apply from January 1, 1961. The vexatious British stance concerning InterContinental Formula was accepted – which then begged the question “Which Formula will receive world championship status?”. The answer to that was 1½ litres.

In fact there was no chance that the French and most other continental factions would agree to a reprieve for 2½-litre racing. The French argument was decisive. Theirs was one of the few remaining countries to use real road circuits – public roads simply closed for a race weekend. Spectator control there was more difficult and demanding than on an artificial course on private land. If the speeds of current Grand Prix cars continued to rise – as they surely would if 2½-litre racing was reprieved – then more strict spectator control would be required, demanding more police. Since newly introduced weekend speed restrictions in France had already placed extra demand upon police time, sufficient officers were simply unavailable. In effect therefore, the change of formula came about to settle a virtual ultimatum from the French gendarmerie – either 1½-litre racing had to be introduced to diminish speeds, or police supervision at French events would be withdrawn. In France, that would spell the end of motor racing… So les flics snapped their fingers – and the British Formula 1 constructors were forced into line. Funny thing, war…

The AC de Monaco made it clear that, in view of its confined circuit, the club would definitely run a Grand Prix to the 1500cc formula in 1961. The Dutch GP gate was doubled by Germans making day trips over the frontier, whenever German entries were competing, so if Porsche fielded 1500cc F1 cars for 1961, they would also adopt the new formula. Two fatalities in the 1960 Belgian GP, similarly benefitting from many German fans, had seriously shaken the local authorities, who were seeking any means to reduce speeds.

In a letter from BRM chief engineer Peter Berthon to team owner Alfred Owen, he commented that “I think you will agree that the eggshell solidarity of the British is bound to fall apart, as they can all get 1500cc Climax engines – and we shall have to prepare for 1500cc”. Brief talks with Porsche about a BRM-Porsche for 1961 evaporated in a flash. The ‘eggshell’ became even more brittle as Coventry Climax announced that since its big 2½-litre FPF 4-cylinder engine was already near its possible bore-size limit it would be unable to produce a unit competing with pure 3-litre engines as proposed for the new InterContinental Formula…and it would instead concentrate upon 1500cc engines to supply interested F1 teams while developing a new V8 for the category.

As it was, the new 1½-litre Formula 1 took off in 1961, the slow-starting, recalcitrant Brits caved in and built eventually dominant BRM and Climax V8 engines. Ferrari alternately shone and really struggled, while Porsche won two races (one major, one minor) before retreating – somewhat humbled – to sports car competition, which they ultimately dominated while happily beating nobody but themselves…

And InterContinental? It proved a dismal joke, with undistinguished races at Snetterton, Goodwood, Brands Hatch and twice at Silverstone. For most teams running 2½-litre machinery, with bit-part appearances by Scarab and Aston Martin, ICF was a pain in the exhaust pipe.

But what the lesson of 1½-litre Formula 1 most plainly holds for the modern category’s future is surely that 30-strong starting grids and plenty of private entrants prove there is no substitute for the sheer spectacle and entertainment potential in attracting a packed entry. It simply makes for a better show. But to do that affordable engines – a la DFV days – have to be encouraged. And currently, one sees precious little evidence of vested interest allowing that to happen.

NASCAR provides 40 starters, Indy 33, F1 just 20, fewer than half of real quality. There’s ammunition for Liberty right there…

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