1950s

Italian pride shines bright at the start of a new World Championship, but 10 years later the British turn F1 on its head – and back to front
By Doug Nye

GiovanBattista Guidotti was a jovial, charming old gentleman. He was a racer right from his toecaps to his fingertips. But he came from a different era. Before World War II he had been a mechanic, tester, and eventually capo collaudatore – chief test driver – in Alfa Romeo’s experimental department. The capo naturally drove as part of the works racing team, and Guidotti did his share alongside the best; Nuvolari, Varzi, Trossi… he had known and worked with them all.

Post-war, he remained with Alfa Romeo. Indeed, he probably had the company name lettered all the way through him, like a stick of rock. And once Alfa Corse – the works racing team – had returned to serious competition in 1946, Guidotti became team manager. His squadron of 1½-litre straight-eight supercharged Alfettas utterly dominated Grand Prix racing, 1946-48.

The star drivers were mainly grizzled veterans, men who had learned their racing pre-war, bouncing back from six wartime years of sporting frustration. The lost years had left them variably embittered, but equally case-hardened. ‘Nino’ Farina was regarded as quite the toughest of them all, a bullying thug on track. ‘Gigi’ Villoresi, snowy-haired, prematurely aged, was an artist-driver, rivalling the theatrical Louis Chiron, whose war in his native Monte Carlo had been relatively comfy. Former champions Achille Varzi and Jean-Pierre Wimille would both die driving, in 1948-49, while pre-war bruiser Luigi Fagioli would also reappear, still elbows out, but much diminished by age.

It was something that Guidotti told me which encapsulated the joy of racing into the early 1950s. I had asked what most stuck in his mind about Alfa’s long status as Formula 1’s absolute elite, and he painted the scene for me at Royal Silverstone for the 1950 British Grand Prix. “Just imagine,” he said, “first race of the new Drivers’ World Championship. On the front row: four Alfa Romeo uno-cinque-otto [158]. On the second row, three Ferrari voo-dodici [V12], on the next row, three British BRM voo-sedici [V16]. I, Guidotti, stand with our Alfa Romeo star drivers, Farina, Fagioli, Fangio and our British guest, Parrr-nell. And we are greeted by your King George and his larvally Queen Elisabetta and le belle Principesse Elisabetta e Margareta. The crowd, 250,000! And Farina in our wunnerful Alfetta will win the Grand Prix, and the World Championship… ecco, I have a photograph. Was wunnerful time!”

Guidotti’s enthusiasm was absolutely infectious. His drift was spot on, despite his rosy memory being largely tosh. Neither Ferraris nor BRMs ran in that British GP and Princess Elizabeth wasn’t there. He’d also added around 150,000 to Silverstone’s crowd, but hey – we’re talking enthusiasm here. The spirit was exactly right. That had been the inaugural round of the new FIA Drivers’ World Championship – the dawn of a new age, and with Royal patronage it really was a huge deal. And so major-league motor racing entered the 1950s, upon a wave of burgeoning public focus.

To get a grasp of the period – I was five years old in 1950, but I’ve always been a good listener – consider its recent history. The war had ended only five years earlier. Think back from 2010 to 2005… not long, is it?

Not only Germany, but also Europe and Great Britain were shattered and bankrupt. Any new hardship could come the next day. The immediate post-war recession meant draconian austerity. Post-war British rationing was more strict, supplies more restricted, than at any time during the war itself. Throughout Europe, and in the UK, Government ministries gripped almost every area of industrial and daily life. There was a British general election early in 1950 in which Churchill’s Tories had promised an early end to rationing, but Clem Attlee’s Labour Party scraped a win, by five votes. It wasn’t until two months after Silverstone’s Grand Prix that Labour finally ended petrol rationing, but it lost the next election, in 1951. Sweets and sugar rationing ended in 1953, but it wasn’t until July ’54 that food rationing was lifted, with meat and bacon last to be freed. My mum was absolutely not alone in starving herself into illness just to ensure her two strapping boys thrived. I didn’t discover this buried family secret until I was into my thirties, and it rammed home for me just how tough those times had been. Yet this was while the V16 BRM was spluttering into reality and the Bristol Brabazon and the East African groundnut scheme were costing UK taxpayers pretty much the same as RBS and Lloyd’s Bank do today. The triumph of spin over simple competence is nothing new…

So picture yourself as a racing enthusiast, living in such a world. That’s right. They just said “Oh ****** it, let’s go racing”… and they did.

While there was a minimal British culture of motor racing, in effect it had long been Italy’s national sport. The moment wartime fighting had moved north, the old-time racers returned to work. Ferrari began building cars. Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and myriad backstreet etceterini marques rapidly emerged. Into the early ’50s motor racing was simply red, led by Maserati, then Alfa Romeo. France clung on with Tony Lago’s re-emergent Talbots and Amédée Gordini’s little Simca-Fiat-based specials. State-backed German marques had of course dominated Grand Prix racing 1934-39, but their factories were rubble and the vengeful French-dominated FIA banned Germans from racing internationally until 1950.

So the smart way to go racing into the ’50s was to buy a car if you had the cash, or to build one if you had the skills, and the finance. Pre-war ERAs were the choice of numerous British privateers, while the more ambitious (and more shrewd) like Reg Parnell and Prince ‘Bira’ bought Italian – Maserati 4CLTs. French privateers commonly bought Talbot-Lagos or joined Gordini. BRM struggled, over-ambitious, over complicated and underfunded.

But in suburban Surbiton, Charlie Cooper and his son John – effectively the Del Boy and Rodney of British motor racing – were doing good business with what would become their Formula 3-dominating line of rear-engined racing cars. Their customers – including Stirling Moss, Peter Collins, Stuart Lewis-Evans and several more – would provide an emergent pool of world-class driving talent.

Nearby, in Walton-on-Thames, the urbane George Abecassis and his HW Motors business partner Count John Heath were ducking and diving in a more gin-and-tonic style than Cooper’s half o’ brown ale. They built their four- and five-car teams of HWMs largely by scavenging Coley’s of Hounslow, the military surplus and scrap specialists. They raced everywhere and anywhere that good start and prize money was available. They bolstered funds by flogging visitor petrol coupons to the pavement spivs in Paris, while their transporter relied upon its 100-gallon underfloor tank, filled in England. Racing tyres were scarce in France, where George sold worn covers to the Talbot boys. Private Maseratisti would play fast and loose with currency controls and travel restrictions, and swop British tyres, fuel and racing oils for the latest works cams, pistons and gear ratios, always abetted by the ever-friendly and welcoming Orsi family and capo meccanico Guerino Bertocchi. Wealthy Peter Whitehead bought the first Formula 1 Ferrari V12 to be released by Maranello. Old Man Ferrari had an especially soft spot for British gentleman racers – after all, they signed cheques on trust and a handshake.

The Ferrari V12’s potential was realised once fitted with British-made Vandervell ‘Thinwall’ shell bearings. Industrialist Tony Vandervell and Enzo Ferrari had much in common. Both were hard-nosed, single-minded and combative. But where Mr Ferrari could play the wheedling diplomat, Old Man Vandervell had been born to command, full stop. He was one of BRM’s early backers, and frustrated by the V16’s delays he bought them a Ferrari – the first ‘Thinwall Special’ – to learn about cutting-edge Formula 1. They crashed the car, BRM inanities continued and Vandervell stamped out to create his own Vanwall marque. And his avowed aim was “To beat those bloody red cars!”.

Through 1950 the inaugural World Championship comprised just six Grands Prix, plus the anachronistic Indy 500. Alfa Romeo won all six road races – Farina and new recruit Fangio three each – Farina becoming champion.

Into 1951 Ferrari’s fast-developing new unsupercharged 4½-litre cars closed the performance gap on the supercharged 1½-litre Alfettas. Roly-poly José Froilán González scored Ferrari’s momentous maiden World Championship GP win at Silverstone. Alfa ran last-ditch, re-chassised, fuel-bloated 159s from the German GP, where Ascari won in that old Ferrari muletto. At Monza, Ascari (Ferrari) won again, with team-mate González second ahead of the Bonetto/Farina Alfa with two more Ferraris fourth and fifth. The sun was setting fast on Alfa. The Spanish GP at Barcelona would decide the 1951 world title between Fangio and Ascari, Alfa and Ferrari. They bet one another a slap-up dinner, winner to pay. Ferrari made a wheel/tyre-choice error – Fangio clinched his maiden world title, Alfa Romeo’s board heaved a sigh of relief and withdrew from Formula 1… which then imploded.

Without Alfa, with Maserati confined to oil-oozing obsolescence and the BRM challenge more threatened than tangible, 1952 Formula 1 promised a Ferrari walkover with sparse grids. In contrast, unsupercharged 2-litre Formula 2 had shown burgeoning support through 1950-51. Several major race promoters opted for F2, to protect their grids, and to attract better crowds. BRM promised to confront Ferrari in the early season non-championship Turin GP. HWM-nurtured new star Stirling Moss had been testing the V16 at Monza. A hop to Turin should have been easy. But BRM’s creator, Raymond Mays, had always been a star-struck theatrical. When Fangio and González offered to test drive the V16 in England, perhaps to join the team, Ray ordered the cars back to Silverstone. So they non-started at Turin. It became a Ferrari walkover. And Formula 1 died. GP promoters swopped to unblown Formula 2, with FIA blessing. For two seasons – 1952-53 – the Drivers’ World Championship was run for 2-litre F2 cars.

Ferrari still dominated, but at least the grids were packed. Those two seasons were the heyday of Ascari (Ferrari), winning six consecutive 1952 GPs after Piero Taruffi had won the opening round for Ferrari in Ascari’s absence. In 1953 Ascari (Ferrari) won three consecutive GPs before a team-mate won at Reims, Ascari won again at Silverstone and team-mate Farina in Germany. Maserati’s six-cylinder A6GCM cars had been creeping closer to the four-cylinder Ferrari 500s, and late-season became very competitive. A sensational last-corner pile-up in the Italian GP at Monza saw Fangio duck clear to win Maserati’s home Gran Premio.

But back to Ascari’s young team-mate who had won the French GP at Reims. This was Mike Hawthorn, recruited after scintillating drives in private Cooper-Bristols through 1952. Unlike its F3 predecessors, the water-cooled, six-cylinder Bristol-engined Cooper was conventionally front-engined. Like them, it was peerlessly practical, light, quick and nimble. Like all British racing cars then, it was underpowered. The rival Connaught cars with modified Lea-Francis four-cylinder engines shone in home F2, magnificently engineered in detail by Rodney Clark and Mike Oliver. They again handled well, but were underpowered and also rather heavy. Frazer-Nash built Bristol-engined F2s and Alta engines in Cooper chassis were tried most notably by Moss – increasingly desperate to find a competitive British-built GP car. But there was none, least of all perhaps his plug-ugly G-Type ERA…

The Formula 2 years gave way to a new unsupercharged 2½-litre Formula 1 launched for 1954-57. To intense Italian alarm, 1952 had already seen stirrings by the dreaded TransAlpini, those Germans in Stuttgart. Mercedes-Benz had returned to sports car racing and declared it would aspire to F1 in 1954, perhaps missing early-season races. To Maserati’s disgust, Fangio accepted Mercedes money to lead the new team, continuing with Maserati only until the new cars’ debut.

In Fangio’s hands, the latest six-cylinder Maserati 250F proved supreme before Mercedes’ reappearance. He won in Argentina and Belgium for Maserati before three streamlined Mercedes-Benz W196 cars were rolled out at Reims, where Fangio led home Karl Kling to dominate the French GP, 1-2 over Italy’s finest. González and Ferrari struck back with a win at drizzly Silverstone, where Mercedes’ new Continental tyres proved inadequate, but at the Nürburgring, Bremgarten and Monza it was Fangio triumphant. Roasting temperatures – and flying litter – cooked the Mercedes goose in the closing Spanish GP at Barcelona, leaving Mike Hawthorn to win in the latest four-cylinder Ferrari.

Without Fangio, Maserati had seen private owner Moss shine so brightly that he was adopted as the factory’s star. But he had also earned Mercedes team manager Neubauer’s respect, and he signed to join Fangio in the Stuttgart team for 1955. Neubauer thus deprived the opposition of their services.

But at Barcelona ’54, double champion Ascari’s latest V8 Lancia D50 had qualified on pole. Into 1955 Ascari won at Turin and Naples. It was the only combination Mercedes feared, but ‘Tubby’ Ascari’s dive into the Monte Carlo harbour followed by his death at Monza, trying a sports Ferrari, was followed by Lancia’s financial collapse. Its F1 assets plus Fiat funding went to Ferrari “to race for the nation”. The 1955 F1 season was truncated after the Le Mans disaster in June, but Mercedes won five of the six GPs run, and Maurice Trintignant scored for Ferrari in Monte Carlo. Ending the non-championship season, Maserati fielded a fleet of 250Fs for the Syracuse GP, but were beaten on merit by dental student Tony Brooks, making his F1 debut in a works Connaught. I remember the news vividly. Hurrah for the Brits! For the first time since Segrave and Sunbeam at San Sebastian in 1924 we had an all-British win in a representative Continental GP.

Having reset the performance bar, Mercedes-Benz returned to a long slumber. It had put the little people squarely in their place, and in its absence the pecking order reverted to Italy number one, Britain arguably number two, with France hanging on by its finger nails with Gordini’s shoe-string operation, and the daft cross-engine straight-eight Bugatti on the stocks at Molsheim. And in home F1 racing, Tony Vandervell’s Cooper-chassised four-cylinder Vanwall Specials had started to do rather well.

Ferrari made the most of its Lancia V8 windfall, bought Fangio’s services on a bargain-basement deal and added an array of developing stars, notably the Englishman Peter Collins and Eugenio Castellotti. Moss led Maserati’s factory team, with Luigi Musso its best Italian. And the further British driving talents of Hawthorn and Brooks were to drive the new four-cylinder BRM Type 25s. Of that year’s seven GPs, Fangio and the Lancia-Ferraris won three, team-mate Collins two, Moss for Maserati two. In the closing Italian GP, only Collins could deny Fangio – by this time regarded as the much-loved ‘Old Man’ – a fourth world title. Yet Collins surrendered his chance by offering Fangio his car when the Argentine’s own failed. “I’ll get another chance,” he grinned…

Moss, meanwhile, was regarded as Fangio’s closest rival and natural successor. He had always wanted to drive British, but no British F1 car had sufficed. In the 1956 non-championship International Trophy race he had given Vandervell’s latest teardrop-bodied Vanwall a debut victory. It was a short race, in Ferrari’s absence, but the promise was obvious.

For 1957, after testing Vanwall back-to-back against BRM and Connaught, Stirl signed with Vandervell, as did Tony Brooks. Into the new year, Connaught sadly lost its financial backer and folded.

But 1957 was the breakthrough season. Fangio was Maserati number one and won in Argentina, Monaco and France. But the British GP at Aintree saw Moss take over team-mate Brooks’s Vanwall to win on home soil – the first all-British victory in a Championship Grand Prix (yes, with German fuel injection, American-based disc brakes, Italian Pirelli tyres – but Old Man Vandervell was racing to win, not just to wave a national flag).

Fangio bounced back with his legendary Nürburgring drive, in which he caught Hawthorn and Collins’s Lancia-Ferraris after an early delay and “ate the two English boys alive”. But Vanwall had become unstoppable. Stirling humbled the Maseratis at Pescara, and three Vanwalls topped the starting grid at Monza; green submerging racing red. Fangio had already clinched his fifth and final world title, but Moss and Vanwall won the Italian Grand Prix. We cheered.

Formula 1 was revised for 1958-60. The race distance was slashed from 500kms to 300, or from a maximum three hours to two. Alcohol fuel brews were banned, maximum 130-octane AvGas aviation petrol being required instead. Shorter races, fuel which went further, smaller tankage – all permitted smaller, lighter cars.

Back in 1956 Cooper had adopted lightweight Coventry Climax four-cylinder fire pump engines for a prototype batch of 1500cc rear-engined F2 cars. This was a newfangled FIA class taking effect internationally in 1957. Both Cooper-Climax and Colin Chapman’s Lotus-Climax (front-engined) designs appeared that year, and shone. Roy Salvadori had suggested a Climax engine stretch towards 2 litres to make a hybrid Monaco F1 entry. Private owner Rob Walker underwrote the project. Jack Brabham drove, and despite last-minute failure pushed across the line to finish sixth. Cooper’s embryo works team then ran makeweight F1 sister cars for Brabham and Salvadori.

Into 1958, a last-minute season opener was organised in Argentina. Vanwall was still converting its engines to run AvGas and refused to enter, but released Moss to drive a 1.96-litre Walker Cooper. The team comprised Stirl, his wife Katie and mechanics Alf Francis and Tim Wall. They fooled Ferrari by running non-stop on Continental tyres, and Stirling scored the first-ever F1 World Championship-qualifying GP victory for a rear-engined car.

Ferrari had been pre-prepared with a team of its latest AvGas-burning Dino V6s for Hawthorn, Collins, Luigi Musso and ‘Taffy’ von Trips. They were aghast. At Monaco it got worse, a hybrid Walker Cooper-Climax won again, driven by Trintignant. But on faster circuits the 2-litre Coopers were overwhelmed. Vanwall won six subsequent GPs, Ferrari two – Hawthorn at Reims and Collins at Silverstone – but the price was horrifying. Musso killed at Spa, Collins at the Nürburgring, and Vanwall’s Stuart Lewis-Evans at Casablanca, where Hawthorn finally pipped Moss to the title by one solitary point.

Old Man Vandervell’s health was failing. Lewis-Evans’s death hit him hard, and since Vanwall had ended the 1958 season as the sport’s inaugural Formula 1 Constructors’ World Champion, he withdrew from competition, releasing his great drivers. Brooks joined Ferrari, while Moss joined Rob Walker to run underdog Coopers. Meanwhile Coventry Climax head Leonard Lee had authorised manufacture of full-sized 2½ litre racing engines, primarily for the Cooper works, Team Lotus and Walker.

Ferrari’s latest V6 cars ran Dunlop tyres and disc brakes. They had a power advantage but the lightweight, low frontal-area rear-engined Coopers and fragile front-engined Lotus 16s were more nimble. BRM’s four-cylinder, disc-braked Type 25s were somewhere in between.

And so the final season of ’50s Formula 1 saw Jack Brabham’s Cooper win at Monaco, Jo Bonnier’s BRM at Zandvoort, Tony Brooks’ Ferrari at Reims, and ‘Black Jack’ again, in the uncatchable Cooper, at Aintree. Tony triumphed in a Ferrari-fest German GP on Berlin’s weird AVUS speedway. Stirling won in the Walker Cooper at Monza, with Jack third – Cooper becoming the second successive British marque to become F1 Constructors’ Champion. The drivers’ competition again remained wide open into the deciding round – the inaugural United States Grand Prix at Sebring, Florida. It was a three-way bet, Moss, Brabham, Brooks. And Jack won, pushing his fuel-dry Cooper across the finish line in fourth, with Tony’s delayed Ferrari third and Moss out with Colotti gearbox failure after just five laps.

By the end of 1959, Cooper’s factory team was poised to crush all opposition through a convincing second consecutive world title. Colin Chapman would build the first rear-engined Lotus, and learn how to win Grands Prix. After internal revolution, BRM would lay the foundation for future success – while Ferrari struggled with outdated principles, prejudice and hurt pride. Being beaten by the better-funded, better-found TransAlpini had been regarded as inevitable. But to be bested by a bunch of garagisti, mere assemblatori – not even tweedy British gents – was an absolute affront. A new racing age had been born, and the traditional front-engined GP car had become an outmoded dinosaur – while the triumphant new little mammals were coloured green.

That was the decade that was

1950 War breaks out in Korea, Albert Einstein warns against nuclear war, influential British comic Eagle is launched and the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M Schulz is first published in US newspapers. Giuseppe Farina, in an Alfa Romeo, wins the first ever Formula 1 World Championship.

1951 The United Nations opens its headquarters in New York, Winston Churchill is re-elected as British Prime Minister, King George VI opens London’s Royal Festival Hall and J?D?Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is published. Alfa Romeo wins the championship again, this time with Juan Manuel Fangio.

1952 HM Elizabeth ll is crowned Queen of England, the USA ratifies a peace treaty with Japan, a British passenger jet flies twice across the Atlantic on the same day and The Diary of Anne Frank is published. Ferrari dominates Grand Prix racing with Alberto Ascari the new F2 World Champion.

1953 Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay become the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest, Joseph Stalin dies after suffering a stroke, the first colour TV sets go on sale in the US, The Crucible by Arthur Miller opens on Broadway and Ian Fleming publishes the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. Ascari wins the title again for Ferrari.

1954 Roger Bannister runs the first four-minute mile, food rationing ends in Britain, Queen Elizabeth becomes the first reigning monarch to visit Australia and the first Burger King opens in Miami, Florida. Mercedes-Benz returns to F1 and dominates, while Fangio wins the world title.

1955 There are race riots in America, the Warsaw pact is signed, Winston Churchill resigns as Prime Minister, the first Guinness Book of Records is published in London and actor James Dean dies in a car crash aged 24. Stirling Moss joins Mercedes, but the marque withdraws at the end of the year after 83 spectators are killed in the Le Mans disaster. Ascari is killed at Monza.

1956 Crisis in the Suez Canal zone leads to petrol rationing in Britain, British spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean resurface in the Soviet Union after being missing for five years, actress Grace Kelly marries Prince Rainier III of Monaco and Elvis Presley enters the US charts for the first time with Heartbreak Hotel. Fangio takes his fourth title, this time with Ferrari, running developed Lancia V8 cars.

1957 The Soviet Union launches Sputnik 1 – the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth, Harold Macmillan becomes British Prime Minister, John Lennon and Paul McCartney meet for the first time and Patrick Moore presents the first episode of The Sky at Night. Fangio takes a fifth championship, this time for Maserati. He is not to win another GP.

1958 Eight Manchester United football players are among 23 victims of The Munich Air Disaster, NASA and The European Economic Community are founded, the first plastic Lego bricks are produced, and Madonna and Michael Jackson are born. Mike Hawthorn becomes the first Englishman to win the World Championship. Fangio retires and Vanwall wins the new F1 constructors’ title.

1959 Fidel Castro comes to power in Cuba, Alec Issigonis’s Mini is launched, the first section of the M1 motorway opens in Britain, Lee Petty wins the first Daytona 500 and Motown Records is founded by Berry Gordy Jr. Mike Hawthorn dies in a road accident in January. Charles and John Cooper redefine the shape of F1, with Jack Brabham winning the title in a rear-engined Cooper-Climax.

DSJ on...
1957 Pescara Grand Prix, Motor Sport, September 1957

The history of the Pescara circuit goes back as far as 1924, when Enzo Ferrari was the winner, driving an Alfa Romeo. The circuit is comprised of normal everyday roads; it runs slap through villages, contains every known hazard of normal motoring, such as kerbstones, bridges, hairpins, rough surfaces and every type of corner imaginable. Out in the country section the road is bordered by fields, trees, high banks, hedges, sheer drops and concrete walls; in fact, the whole thing is pure unadulterated road racing.

In view of the terrific heat of the midday sun, the start was planned for the delightfully vague time of ‘about 9.30am’. It was a little chaotic to say the least, and one mechanic got scooped up on the bonnet of Gould’s Maserati as the 16 cars streamed away down the straight towards the winding section of the triangular circuit. On the second lap, up through the twists and turns Musso was keeping ahead of Moss, but only just, and before the lap was completed the Vanwall went into the lead, and so hard were these two driving that Fangio and the rest were getting left behind…

…Before starting his 13th of 18 laps Moss stopped at the pits to take on oil, as the pressure was varying under braking, but with over three-and-a-half minutes lead he could well afford this. In spite of slowing his lap times to 9min 53sec Moss was still pulling away from Fangio, and Maserati were in a state of despair at such a dusting-up by the dreaded ‘Wan-whol’ that had started not so long ago appearing to be just another British sporting attempt at GP racing, but which was now capable of beating the world in general and Maserati and Ferrari in particular…

…Moss toured round for the last two laps, in complete command, and came home the winner at record speed, with the lap record. This had been a hard battle of man and machine against the conditions, and though his team-mates had had trouble, Moss had achieved a resounding victory in the finest type of GP road race imaginable.