The Maserati 250F is rightly regarded as one of the greatest Grand Prix cars, so the chance to drive Stirling Moss’s 1956 Monaco GP winner was the fulfilment of a dream
By Andrew Frankel
Though I lack the empirical evidence to back it up, which may make what follows little more than a hunch in your book, I am confident that if you played a word association game with the readership of this title and started the ball rolling with ‘Grand Prix car’, more of you would instinctively respond with ‘250F’ than anything else.
The choice of words is important, because if we started with ‘Formula 1 car’, any number of options from a McLaren M23 past a Lotus 49 to a Ferrari 312T might result. But although the Maserati 250F was and is a Formula 1 machine, it lives in many hearts and minds as the epitome of the infinitely more romantic concept that is the Grand Prix car.
How could it not? The 1954 Argentine Grand Prix and the 1960 US GP at Riverside were respectively the first and last races of the 2½-litre engine era and had just two things in common: Maurice Trintignant – whose appearance at both events need not delay us here – and the Maserati 250F.
Its presence through seven consecutive seasons serves to bookend the age of the classic front-engined Grand Prix car, and while it can rightly be regarded as an obsolete design for the last three of those seasons, its legacy cannot be doubted.
Look at it another way: though just 26 250Fs were built in period, I count a total of 63 different drivers from five different continents who raced or at least attempted to race them in World Championship Grands Prix. Since the dawn of the championship, no other car before or since can have approached that level of reach or influence. And that influence stretched not just all over the world, but through the fourth dimension too. It may seem faintly unbelievable that one car could have been raced at the top level by drivers who won Grands Prix in both the 1920s and 1970s, but the 250F, raced in period by both Louis Chiron and Jack Brabham, was that car.
Other names of people you simply don’t associate with the 250F leap off the page at you: Peter Collins, Hans Herrmann, Ivor Bueb, Troy Ruttmann, Carroll Shelby and John Fitch were all touched by the magic of Maserati’s most famous, successful and enduring racing car.
And then there are the big boys: Fangio and Moss, the two greatest drivers of their and, some say, any era for whom the 250F was the medium through which their talent was expressed perhaps better than any other. It was Stirling’s performances in his private 250F in 1954 that got him hired by Neubauer and Mercedes, and Fangio’s heroics in the works 250F at Rouen and the Nürburgring in 1957 which left those who saw it knowing that man and machine would never be seen working in closer harmony.
The 250F in these colour pictures was driven by both of them. In 1956 Moss used it to score his second Grand Prix win and the first of his three in Monaco. Then Fangio would use it to do the development work for the V12 engine with which Maserati tried, and failed utterly, to take the 250F into a league of its own. But it is the old Colombo straight six back under its bonnet that’s being warmed for me, as I prepare for a lesson from the master.
Looking at its design, there appears very little about it that explains why it was so quick, why it was so loved and why – uniquely among those it raced against – it stayed fully competitive for four consecutive seasons. It’s technically a spaceframe, but owes more than a little to the ladder chassis of the horse and cart era. Two 40mm side members formed its basis from which tubular constructions were added for strength and support. The engine was a twin-cam straight six based on that used by the A6GCM Grand Prix cars during the 2-litre formula of 1952-3, but heavily reworked by the recently arrived Colombo and bored out to 2493cc. Said to develop 240bhp from the start, its output was probably closer to 220bhp, which rose steadily to around 270bhp in the years to come.
Brakes were naturally drums, despite a Jaguar winning Le Mans using discs the year before, and suspension came in the time-honoured configuration of coil springs at the front and a single transverse leaf at the back. But there was some innovation here: if the double wishbone construction of the front suspension was nothing new even in 1954, the De Dion rear axle, with the tube mounted ahead of the back wheels for better weight distribution, was at least state-of-the-art. And it was streets ahead of the solid rear axle design that so hobbled the otherwise impressive A6GCM, which managed but one World Championship win, the last of 1953, throughout its career. Transmission came from a gearbox mounted in line with the rear axle, with at first four and then five gears as standard.
As you might expect from a front-line Grand Prix car being pressed into service for so long, the 250F was modified extensively throughout its working life in all areas, from its engine and transmission to its suspension and bodywork. Fuel injection was tried, as were disc brakes; various different chassis with different tubular structures and even different wheelbases were used. The body got lower, wider and then shorter but, V12 misadventure aside, the fundamental formula that had worked so well was never changed, merely refined through the car’s life.
It is no surprise to find that, even today, the 250F is a car Stirling Moss remembers with inordinate fondness. He may have won his first Grand Prix in a Mercedes-Benz, but he’d never have got the drive were it not for the Alf Francis-spannered private 250F providing the perfect platform for him to demonstrate his extraordinary talents. Indeed, although it is well remembered that Stirling’s giant-killing efforts in 1954 in the 250F scored him the drive that would launch him to superstardom, it is less regularly recalled that, the year before, he had been offered to and turned down by Mercedes-Benz on the grounds that he had not yet proved himself. The 250F was his means of providing that proof. In a customer car, usually observing a rev limit almost 1000rpm below the works cars, he was a consistent front-runner until, with tedious inevitability, the machinery let him down. He even managed to lead for 20 laps at Monza but, by that stage, Neubauer’s mind would have been more than made up.
“It was just such an easy car to drive fast,” Moss recalls today. “Absolutely no vices and the faster you went, the better it felt. There was no one thing you could point to and say ‘that’s the secret of its success’. It was the way that all the differing elements – the brakes, chassis, engine and gearbox – came together that made it such a beautiful car to drive.”
And then he utters the one word it appears impossible to write anything about the 250F without using. “It had such wonderful, natural balance. You could drive it with such confidence on the limit because you knew it was a car without vices. The only other front-engined car of the era that had that kind of feel was the BRM P25 which, for all its problems, was also a very well balanced car.”
The interesting omission here is the W196 Mercedes in which Stirling would score his first win. “An incredibly engineered car, it only ever broke on me once, which I certainly can’t say about the 250F, but it wasn’t anything like as nice to drive as the Maser.”
But the Maserati was a much slower car than the Merc, right? “Maybe in certain places the W196 had an edge in pure speed, but because the Maserati gave such confidence you could drive it harder and get more out of it. I think at somewhere like Monaco, I might actually have been quicker in a 250F.”
Willie Green, probably the only man alive to have driven an example of every single significant 2½-litre Grand Prix car, goes further. “I reckon the 250F was just as fast as the W196, possibly faster. I think the reason the Mercedes was so successful was partly because it was so over-engineered that it hardly ever broke, but mainly because of the crushing psychological effect on the other drivers of seeing Stirling and Fangio as team-mates. They must have wondered why they bothered.”
It seems strange after all these years to finally get behind the wheel of a 250F, as if the dream I had held from childhood had no place landing in reality. Happily the car’s owner and long-time racer Peter Heuberger is there to show me around. Once you’ve climbed over the side, stood on the seat and fed your legs down either side of the transmission tunnel, the cockpit is tolerably comfortable, even for an inconveniently large driver like me. To the left of the tunnel is the clutch, to the right the brake and accelerator, in that order. I had expected a centre throttle as almost all 250Fs were made this way, but I’d forgotten that Stirling hated this arrangement, not least because he’d once crashed a works 250F by standing on the wrong pedal.
Flick on the magnetos, press the button and the straight six fires seemingly before the crankshaft has time to complete its first revolution. The noise can be described in many ways: rich, sharp, clean and cultured to name but four, but ‘pure’ is the word that came most readily to me, as only a straight six twin-cam Grand Prix engine could be.
This 250F has five gears in its Colotti gearbox and the lever is strangely located low down on the right-hand side. The clutch is manageable and as I chunter out onto the circuit to do some slow laps behind the camera car, I am struck by the total lack of slack or shunt in the driveline, the engine’s willingness to pull from a low 2000rpm, and a gearchange that would shame the action of an unusually well-assembled and very well-oiled Lee-Enfield. So far, it’s making life very easy.
A couple of laps later the camera car pulls off, I check the Jaeger dials for engine temperature plus oil and fuel pressure, ease my right foot to the floor and realise the ambition of a lifetime.
You don’t have to wait for the motor to come on song because it always is. I’ve been asked to use no more than 7000rpm, but as this engine develops peak power at 7700rpm, that is no hardship. And because there is no bang in the back, just one constant and ever more urgent surge, it’s instantly manageable despite its 620kg mass giving a power-to-weight ratio similar to that of Ferrari’s fastest ever road car, the 650bhp Enzo. Even within the confines of Silverstone’s Stowe circuit, it would reach my allotted rev limit in fourth gear before the brakes were needed.
But this is not the 250F’s most conspicuous talent. I loved the gearbox – something you read little about in the many 250F eulogies, so perhaps this one is unusually good – but not so much as the steering. There’s no other front-engined racing car I’ve driven that has managed to combine such lightness with such precision and feel. Whatever the balance of the chassis, without steering of this calibre the 250F would not have half the reputation it enjoys today.
As for that renowned balance, I started to feel it after a few laps: the merest hint of stabilising understeer on the way in that can be tuned out by degrees of throttle travel. Willie Green says, “the steering is wonderful, but once you’re in the corner you don’t really need it.” And I don’t doubt him for a moment. What I didn’t enjoy was the brakes – the pedal felt hard, wooden and disinclined to slow the 250F at a rate commensurate with its performance.
I’m not sure how many laps I did because I was in a world of my own; it was only the sight of Heuberger’s extended thumb that jolted me back to reality and into the pitlane. Turns out I’d been out so long he was worried it would run out of fuel.
But that’s how it must be with a 250F. I’d defy anyone to drive one and come in because they’d had enough. Returning to the paddock can only be a matter of circumstance – the end of a session, the end of a race, the end of your fuel. That it could be a matter of choice is laughable.
There’s nothing more to say. I knew that of all the cars from its era the 250F was the best to look at and listen to. I’d been told it was even better to drive. And now I’ve not only seen and heard it but driven it too, I no longer wonder why.