Watershed at Aintree

Sixty years ago, the eighth season of the FIA’s Formula 1 world championship started with a race whose runners, riders and results seemed to confirm the well established order of Continental supremacy. At the finish of the 1957 Argentine Grand Prix, held in the broiling January heat of the Buenos Aires autodrome, the first four places were occupied by the Maseratis of Juan Manuel Fangio, Jean Behra, Carlos Menditeguy and Harry Schell. Next came a pair of Ferraris: Froilán González and Alfonso de Portago sharing one car, with a second crewed by Cesare Perdisa, Peter Collins and Wolfgang von Trips. They were followed by two more Maseratis, another Ferrari and – bringing up the rear – a seventh Maserati. Four Ferraris were non-finishers. You would hardly have thought that the era of domination by two factories located barely 20 kilometres apart in Emilia-Romagna was under threat, and that its end would come within months.

Fangio and the Maserati 250F would win the next two races, in Monaco and at Rouen-les-Essarts. But then, at Aintree, came the great convulsion. Held on the clockwise perimeter road of the Grand National course, the Grand Prix d’Europe – incorporating the 10th British Grand Prix – welcomed four entries apiece from the works Ferrari and Maserati teams in a field of 18 starters. A hint of change in the air came when the Vanwalls of Moss and Tony Brooks flanked Behra’s 250F on the front row, and although the Frenchman blasted away into the lead, Moss had displaced him by the time they reached the first bend. With Brooks feeling the effects of a leg injury suffered at Le Mans and losing places, Moss led comfortably until the 19th lap, when his engine began to suffer with a faulty fuel pump. As the rules then allowed, he took over Brooks’s car, restarting in ninth place. After overtaking the Maseratis of Schell, Menditeguy and an off-colour Fangio and the Ferrari of Musso, he had a streak of luck when the cooling system on Collins’s Ferrari broke, the clutch of Behra’s Maserati disintegrated and a piece of metal punctured one of the tyres on Hawthorn’s Ferrari, while Stuart Lewis-Evans stopped with a broken throttle linkage on the third Vanwall. 

In these slightly chaotic circumstances, Moss and Brooks thus became the first British drivers to win a world championship Grand Prix in a British car. “Enthusiasm for this hard-fought victory knew no bounds, and the crowds flooded on the track to acclaim the greatest British victory of all time,” Denis Jenkinson wrote in these pages, overcoming his dislike of the “flat and uninspiring” circuit and the smell – “Oh dear!” – from its neighbouring factories. A follow-up would not be long delayed. After Fangio had secured a fifth title with his masterpiece at the Nürburgring, Moss won first in Pescara and then at Monza, the consecutive victories on Italian soil emphasising the shift in the balance of power. Cooper would win a Grand Prix for the first time the following year, BRM in 1959 and Lotus in 1960.

Would all that have happened, had the catastrophe at Le Mans in 1955 not spooked Mercedes into withdrawing from Formula 1 at season’s end, having won two straight titles with Fangio? It’s easy to hypothesise that Fangio could have won his fourth and fifth titles with the Untertürkheim cars, before retiring and leaving Moss to assume the leader’s role.  

Probably the surge of British success and its consequences, including the fact that seven of the 10 teams on this year’s F1 grid have their factories in England, would have happened anyway, although not in the same way or at the same speed. All those ingredients – the technical ingenuity of men like John Cooper, Colin Chapman and Frank Costin, the effect on their design concepts of the smooth British airfield circuits that shaped Formula 1 racing from the 1960s onwards, and the supply of talented young drivers denied the chance to fly Spitfires in the war but still yearning for glory – would surely have converged in a moment of destiny. 

With Mercedes out, the Italians must have assumed the familiar battle between their two top teams would resume. But the financial troubles that would soon end Maserati’s full-scale competitive activity and the conservatism that led Enzo Ferrari to delay building a lightweight mid-engined car opened the way for a generation of British designers and team owners who pared away excess kilos from both their cars and their thinking. It was the British, who had grown up tinkering in sheds with war-surplus bits, whose gift for improvisation and creative thinking led to the Formula 1 of today, in which the drive for continuous development is the engine of success.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the modern Mercedes team, winner of the last three titles for drivers and constructors. I still pinch myself when I think that the cars carrying the three-pointed star into today’s battles were designed and made in British factories – made, in fact, by the heirs to a story that has now dominated almost exactly half of the sport’s entire history and shows no sign of wilting as it begins its seventh decade.