The early cars
After six seasons with Ferrai-based Thinwall Specials, it was time to go it alone…
You can imagine GAV’s foul mood when the organisers of the 1954 Swiss Grand Prix at Berne rejected his entry. They had plenty of cars, thank you. Their dismissive attitude to this new British car was, however, partly GAV’s fault. He eschewed PR to such an extent that the official programme for the BRDC International Trophy meeting in May, scene of the debut of his 2-litre Vanwall Special, carried no more information about this important car than its name, its entrant and its driver, who was Alan Brown. Tony Vandervell had seen the folly of the fanfare that surrounded the V16 BRM and was determined not to fall into the same trap.
He had also seen BRM delay and delay and delay. GAV was much more up and at ’em, firm in the belief that the only way to learn was to compete — when he was allowed to, that is. The Swiss snub, however, would be just one of many hiccups over the next two seasons. GAV’s team was learning, but it was learning the hard way.
Surrey’s Alan Brown, a driver not of the highest order but a man in demand because of his testing skills — and availability — drove the ‘mysterious’ Vanwall Special on its debut. He did well to qualify on the front row for the first heat and finished sixth. In the final, however, he retired with a broken oil pipe when running fifth.
These performances received a great deal of favourable comment. The doubters, however, were misled by the car’s two-litre engine and low-key exhaust note, dismissing it as a Formula Two car that had missed the boat. In fact, the car had been designed with the new 2.5-litre formula in mind and the team was working flat out on the next phases of the engine’s development. Peter Collins used an interim 2.3 in the British GP at Silverstone (he retired after 17 laps with a cylinder head problem) and the Italian GP at Monza (where the car finished seventh after a stop to mend a broken oil pump). The 2.5 finally turned up at Goodwood’s Autumn meeting — as did Mike Hawthorn, who drove the car to fourth in the Formula Libre Woodcote Cup; Collins had earlier finished second in the Goodwood Trophy for F1 cars.
The results were beginning to come, albeit in sprint races, and GAV’s plans were taking shape. Hawthorn and Collins, in fuel-injected evolutions of the car, was his dream team for 1955. He was, however, getting a little ahead of himself.
The team ended 1954 on a down note, Collins writing off the car in practice for the Spanish GP at Pedralbes. The young man from Kidderminster would then further queer GAV’s plans by signing for BRM but not having the courage to tell ‘The Guv’nor to his face. Instead he gave Vanwall’s lawyer the runaround. A homesick Hawthorn took little persuading to sign on the dotted line, but by time the ‘Collins Affair’ had run its course, there were no top-ranking drivers left on the market. The all-round talents of Ken Wharton plugged the gap. And to think that GAV had considered running three cars in the grands prix of 1955.
In many respects, the second season proved tougher than the first: expectations were higher, but reality bit.
Wharton was burnt in his first race for the team, Silverstone’s International Trophy, and Hawthorn soon became disenchanted with the handling of the reworked car. His mood darkened further when GAV “buggered” the clutch while driving the car from the hotel, through traffic, to Spa before practice for the Belgian GP. With a face like thunder Mike trudged to the pits on foot when the unit let go on his first lap out. He retired from the race, too, after just nine laps, because of a gearbox oil leak. Heated words were exchanged, and Hawthorn and Vanwall went their separate ways.
It’s true that Vanwall were now without a proven race-winner, but on reflection this was perhaps a good thing. A dose of Harry Schell press-on geniality was just what the doctor ordered. Plus the team was now able to learn the ropes without the pressure of expectation.
Schell made a spirited debut with the team in the British Grand Prix at Aintree. He lined up an encouraging seventh, only to fluff his start and finish the first lap way down in 19th place. Furious, he charged through the field to be 11th by lap five. He then proceeded to pass the Ferrari 555s of Maurice Trintignant — and Hawthorn! He was running eighth on lap 20, which is when it happened — Harry snapped the throttle pedal off at its root!
That first win did come, though, Schell prevailing in a heat at Crystal Palace before finishing second in the final in July’s BARC International Trophy. There was more. In the Redex Trophy at Snetterton in August, Schell and Wharton finished 1-2, comprehensively beating the Maserati 250F of Stirling Moss, who had his hands full that day with the cheeky Cooper ‘Bobtail’ ofJack Brabham.
Schell would score two more wins that season, the F1 and Libre races at Castle Combe in October. However, the real proof of the pudding was the Italian GP at Monza, where both Schell (suspension) and Wharton (fuel injection pump brackets) were out before 10 laps had passed.
Progress had been made but it was clear that there was still a large gap to span between Vanwall and the GP-winners. The engine was GAV’s only real love and he was confident that it was powerful enough to do the job. It was the chassis that was letting the side down. Something had to be done. Something radical, because catching the pace-setters was not enough, they had to be overtaken.