Nigel Roebuck

Legends: 1959 American GP

When the world championship calendar for 1959 was published, I remember being amazed by the inclusion of a race at Sebring. Going on 13, I was an obsessive F1 fan, and also besotted by Indianapolis roadsters; but this blending of European and American racing cultures seemed odd. Would they appreciate Len Hutton at Yankee Stadium?

Apart from the novelty value of the race, there was also a great deal at stake, for it was the concluding round, and three drivers — Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss, Tony Brooks — were in contention for the title. Brabham had not been to Sebring before, but both Moss and Brooks had taken part in its 12-hour sportscar race.

Moss was unquestionably the best driver on earth, and the favourite to win the tide. In Rob Walker’s Cooper, he’d won the two most recent races, in Portugal and Italy. Brabham was also driving a Cooper, a factory car and more ‘standard’ than the Walker entry. Moss, like Mark Donohue, always a man to look for ‘the unfair advantage’, had on his car coil-spring rear suspension rather than the well tried transverse leaf-spring type. He also had a different ‘box, built by Colotti; it was lighter and quicker-changing, but of doubtful reliability.

Brabham’s team-mates were F1 rookie Bruce McLaren and Masten Gregory, but unfortunately Gregory was unable to take part in his country’s first GP, having recently broken his arm in the TT at Goodwood. Also absent from the inaugural race was Dan Gurney, whose rookie F1 season with Ferrari had caused a sensation. “I was sad to miss the race,” Gurney recalled, “but, for one thing, I had already made the commitment to leave Ferrari for BRM in 1960, and the Old Man [Enzo Ferrari] wasn’t too thrilled. And for another, I had injured my anlde in a go-kart race in Nassau.”

For Brooks, the Ferrari team leader, this was unfortunate, but still he had support from Wolfgang von Trips, Cliff Allison and — Phil Hill, who would become America’s first world champion two years later. On the twisty Sebring track, the front-engined Ferraris were not expected to be a match for the nimble Coopers, and so it proved, but still Brooks did well enough, qualifying third. Remarkably, the championship contenders lined up 1-2-3, with Moss, who lapped the 5.2-mile track in three minutes flat, an amazing 3sec faster than Brabham.

Given the then-points standings Brabham 31, Moss 25.5, Brooks 23 the odds lay with Jack to become Australia’s first world champion, while Tony, with his obsolete car, obviously had the most to do. His highest card was Ferrari’s unequalled reliability.

If Moss, Brabham and Brooks were at one end of the grid, at the other was one of the oddest cars ever to appear in a GP. Rodger Ward, winner of that year’s Indianapolis 500 in the Leader Card Special — chassis by A J Watson, engine by Offenhauser — had been desperately keen to take part in the first US Grand Prix and tried to find a ride in a regular F1 car. When none was forthcoming, he decided to enter anyway — in a midget, no less!

“Earlier that year,” Ward said, “I’d driven a midget in a European-style Formule Libre race at Lime Rock, Connecticut. I was the defending Indianapolis champion, the promoters wanted me there and I guess they figured, ‘Well, we’ll get him to Lime Rock, a road course, and we’ll show him how to drive’.

“Turned out that it was a superior midget, really a great little car, and we won the race, kind of going away.

“For Sebring, I had a different car. We did some work on it — had to put a clutch in it, first of all, and we put in a two-speed rear end (diff) and a two-speed transmission (gearbox). Being a GP, we also had to run on gasoline, not great for an Offy engine.

“Was I surprised by how the F1 cars went? Not really. But back then they were not that sophisticated — at one point I was running eighth. It was a lot of fun. That was where I first met Jack Brabham and John Cooper, who became great friends of mine.”

Their meeting was ultimately to have profound repercussions for the Indy 500, as the late John Cooper recalled: “God knows how Rodger got that midget through scrutineering for a grand prix, but there was much less red tape in those days, and nobody objected. Everyone was pleased to have him in the race.

“Rodger was a brilliant driver on ovals, but he hadn’t done a lot of road racing and didn’t know what it was about. However, he was big enough to admit it. He told us, too, that we had to take our car to Indy. To that point, frankly, I’d never even thought about it. As far as I was concerned, it was a different world — and we had our hands full trying to win GPs.”

In 1961, though, Cooper did build an Indy’ version of his F1 car, and took it to the Speedway. Although way down on power to the roadsters, it ran rings round them through the turns, and Brabham finished a decent ninth.

“I drove the car during practice,” said Ward, “and said to John, ‘That is the future — but you gotta find some horsepower…” Cooper never did go back to the Speedway, but Colin Chapman was paying close attention. In 1963, Lotus had cars for Gurney and Jim Clark, and soon the roadster era was in its death throes.

As well as Ward and Hill, there were three other Americans in the Sebring race: George Constantine in a Cooper-Climax, Bob Said in an old Connaught and Harry Blanchard in a Porsche RSK sportscar. Only Blanchard, seventh and last, was to make the finish.

All the focus was inevitably on the championship aspirants — and there was a last-minute problem for Brooks, who was notified that he would not, after all, be starting from the front row. Harry Schell, noted for his keen sense of mischief, had actually qualified his Cooper 10th but somehow persuaded officials that they had missed his best time, some 5sec faster. When they looked into it there was no doubt that Schell had set this time, and his car was duly promoted to third on the grid. What the officials didn’t know, though, was that Schell had set the time by the expedient of taking a short cut on a remote part of the circuit!

In absolute terms, it made no difference to Schell, who was left behind as soon as the race got underway, but it was to have serious consequences for Brooks, who now started from the inside of row two, with team-mate von Trips directly behind him. On the opening lap von Trips ran into him, and at once he came in to have his car’s suspension checked over.

“My natural inclination,” Tony said, “was to press on. Believe me, that would have been the easiest thing to do, but I made myself come in.

“My philosophy changed after an accident at Silverstone in 1956, when my BRM’s throttle jammed open. The car somersaulted and exploded, and I was lucky to be thrown out. Then, at Le Mans the following year, my Aston Martin was having gearchange problems. The lever was stuck in fourth, and I was desperately trying to wrench it out — and looking at it! When I looked up, I’d missed my braking point for Tertre Rouge. The car drifted wide, went up the sandbank — and flipped.

“I was trapped underneath, with the tail of the car on the track. I could do nothing except wait for it either to catch fire or to be hit by the next car round. Fortunately, Umberto Maglioli hit the Aston and knocked it off me! A piece of amazingly good luck. I had no fractures, but very severe abrasions, including a hole in my thigh I could literally have put my fist into. But I was very fortunate.

“Anyway, after that I made a firm decision never to try to compensate for a car’s mechanical deficiencies. If something wasn’t working properly, too bad. I felt it was morally wrong to take unnecessary risks with one’s life, because I believe that life is a gift from God, and I felt I had a responsibility to take reasonable care of it.”

While Brooks rejoined in ninth, Moss was charging along in first, pulling away from Brabham at 2sec per lap. “I don’t blame Tony for stopping to have his car looked at,” said Stirling, “but I wouldn’t have done it, I must say. I think I’m the one who’s wrong, I’m the odd man out. If a wheel didn’t come off, or something, I’d drive it, I’d compensate. To me, you see, that was part of the challenge of being a racing driver.”

His challenge for the 1959 world championship, though, evaporated on lap six. ‘Took the lead at the start,’ reads his diary entry, ‘and pulled out to 10 seconds. Then the bloody gearbox broke.’ Ah, that wretched Colotti ‘box; without it, Moss would have waltzed to the title that year.

Now that he was gone, and Brooks was playing catch-up, Brabham, tailed by McLaren, looked to be cruising to the title. There were fleeting challenges from Allison’s Ferrari and, later in the race, from Moss’s team-mate Maurice Trintignant, but the Cooper team looked set fair until the very last lap, when Brabham stuttered to a halt., out of fuel.

As a bemused McLaren, closely followed by Trintignant, took the flag for his first victory, Brabham climbed from his car and began to push it — slightly uphill — to the finishing line, where he collected three points for finishing fourth, the world champion of 1959. Brooks, after a fine comeback drive, finished third. And Ward? “Eventually the clutch let go. But I enjoyed myself. It really gave me a taste, and I’d have loved the chance to go F1 racing properly, believe me. I’ll always be proud I was part of the first US Grand Prix.”