The Alfas for the ʻThree Fsʼ of Fangio, Fagioli and Farina parked at Silverstone in 1950
And what a decade of racing the ’50s was. F1 itself had withered and effectively died by the Spring of 1952. It had become so feeble, so uncompetitive, that the major European race promoters strong-armed the governing FIA into awarding their World Championship titles for unsupercharged 2-litre Formula 2 instead. The result was two seasons of grand prix racing which proved barely as competitive up front as even enfeebled F1 might have provided – but at least starting grids were full.
Racing had been revived in Europe after World War II on what was effectively a run-what-you-brung Formule Libre basis. The great pre-war German factory teams of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union had been consigned to history after the devastation of war.
Brabham’s rise came alongside Cooper
Pre-war, the accepted governing body of global motor sport had been the AIACR – the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus – based in Paris where ithad been created in 1904. Following WWII, authority was invested in the descendant Federation International de l’Automobile, today the FIA. Delegates then formalised Formula A, or Formula 1, in 1948.
“Straining Alfettas had become virtual hand grenades with the pin ever willing to fall out”
The last pre-war grand prix formula had sought to equalise competition between supercharged and non-supercharged cars by restricting the former to a 3-litre engine capacity – the latter to 4.5-litre. A sliding scale of minimum permitted weight was also applied, relative to specific engine size. A float of pre-war non-supercharged 4.5-litre designs was pulled out from storage and revived, and racing resumed. What confronted them was a similarly pre-war generation of surviving 1.5-litre supercharged voiturette cars, mainly from Maserati but most notably from the Alfa Romeo factory, plus an array of British ERAs and one or two optimistic post-war designs, such as Geoffrey Taylor’s British Alta. Initially, post-war racing was so pre-war in character that even hard crash helmets were not made compulsory until after Luigi Fagioli’s fatal accident at Monaco in 1952.
Fangio celebrates his 1956 British GP win at Silverstone
Premier-league F1 racing thus found its feet in still-shattered and austere Europe through 1948-49. The works Alfa Romeo Alfettas dominated the former season, but the Milan company took a sabbatical on cost grounds through 1949 – exacerbated by the deaths of two great works team drivers, Jean-Pierre Wimille and Count Carlo Felice Trossi.
In 1950, enthusiastic Alfa Romeo backers funded an Alfa Corse works team’s return to racing. With its formidable, if elderly, new driver team of ‘The Three Fs’ – Farina, Fagioli and Argentina new boy Juan Manuel Fangio – they put emergent Ferrari in its place. But with Ferrari’s chief engineer Aurelio Lampredi abandoning the supercharged 1½-litre engine option for first 3.3-litre, then ultimately full 4.5-litre unsupercharged V12 engines – the writing was on the wall for Alfa Romeo.
Ascari dominated the F2 era, pictured on his way to victory for Ferrari at Spa in 1952
Through 1951, the magnificent old straight-eight supercharged Alfetta, originally designed in 1937, was reaching the limit of reliable development. In seeking maximum power output, its supercharged fuel consumption soared. Races could be won on a tortoise-and-hare basis by intelligent driving (from the veteran Louis Chiron) and by a steady, reliable, economical 4½-litre straight-six Talbot-Lago camion. While the French cars trundled reliably round, the Alfettas would sprint madly, stop to refuel and change stripped tyres, then sprint again madly. Usually, their performance advantage was so great the Talbot ‘trick’ would fail. But Lampredi’s new non-supercharged Ferrari V12s could almost match Alfa power and, once reliable, they won on muscle and stamina, against straining Alfettas which had become virtual hand grenades with the pin ever willing to fall out.
“Ferrari could never match the elephant in the room – Mercedes bursting back upon the scene”
Alfa Corse’s Farina became the first F1 World Champion in 1950, and it just about staved off Ferrari late in the 1951 season so Fangio could clinch F1’s second world title.
By that time, the unsupercharged Talbot-Lago T26C was another ageing design – and so was Italy’s other vetturetta-derived contender, the 1½-litre supercharged Maserati 4CLT. Another contender was the new-fangled – and unrealistically ambitious – British BRM P15, with its two-stage supercharged V16 design. BRM and its industrial backers – directed by the British Motor Racing Research Trust – outstripped their joint development budget. The on-site management’s dilettante attitude and vulnerability towards the theatrical over common sense fatally undermined that British project. Then Alfa Corse withdrew from grand prix racing, leaving only Ferrari and BRM with supposedly up-to-date F1 cars.
The famous late duel between Fangio and Hawthorn at Reims in 1953
European race organisers opted to run their grands prix for well-supported Formula 2 instead. The V16’s game was then up when the BRDC’s Desmond Scannell and Earl Howe told BRM’s dismayed backers that their home British Grand Prix would run to 2-litre non-supercharged F2 rules.
Non-championship F1 racing would splutter on irrelevantly through 1951-52 – but it was F2 cars which took the glory. Alberto Ascari became the first man to win back-to-back titles in his four-cylinder Ferrari 500s, winning 13 times through 1952 followed by seven more in 1953.
In England, post-war austerity and rationing through the 1940s into the early 1950s was more intense and difficult to endure than during the war years. Pre-war bred racers such as Geoffrey Taylor, George Abecassis and John Heath decided to ignore such truths and “just go racing”. Taylor built his Alta cars and engines. Abby and Heath campaigned their Altas before the latter built his own HW and HWM specials, powered by Alta engines. HWM carved a tremendous reputation as underdogs challenging a European elite, and George Abecassis hadan especially adept eye for spotting and promoting new driver talent. Lance Macklin, Stirling Moss and later Peter Collins burst upon the scene as HWM drivers.
Jack Brabham,in the Cooper-Climax T43 at Monaco in 1957
Those arch racing pragmatists, father Charles and son John Cooper, were based barely five miles from HWM’s Walton-on-Thames workshops in Surbiton. Having founded their rapidly growing specialist racing car business upon 500cc motor-cycle engined cars, for a schoolroom racing class formalised in 1950 as International Formula 3, the Coopers watched HWM’s early enterprise as part of the European road racing circus with growing interest. Big-engined F3-based 1000cc Coopers dipped into big-time races, including the Monaco Grand Prix. And for 1952 a chassis design with water-cooled four-cylinder Alta and six-cylinder Bristol engines mounted ahead of the driver carried Cooper into F2. Mike Hawthorn excelled in his Bob Chase-owned Cooper-Bristol, caught Mr Ferrari’s eye, and joined the Maranello works team for 1953. When Hawthorn beat Fangio’s works Maserati to win the 1953 Grand Prix de l’ACF at Reims-Gueux, ‘The Farnham Flyer’ was emulating Dick Seaman’s success for Mercedes-Benz in the German GP of 1938.