Britain and Grand Prix Racing

At the beginning of the year I wrote about the possibilities of Britain getting a foothold in Grand Prix racing, pointing out that the combined forces of Connaught, BRM and Vanwall should be capable of producing a win in a major Grand Prix, through weight of numbers if nothing else. More important still was that fact that we did not have to worry if none of the top drivers were in our cars, so long as the cars put up a good performance and finished the races, for then the ace drivers would begin to wonder whether perhaps they were in the wrong cars. Now, after a full season of Grand Prix racing the record shows a truly miserable result, with Connaught achieving third at Monza by reason of not going fast enough to blow up, a fourth at Silverstone by consistent steady driving, and Vanwall achieved fourth at Spa. Admittedly Vanwall finished first at Silverstone in the International Trophy, but that was not a full-length Grand Prix race and cannot be brought into the present discussion, the, events under consideration being the National Grandes Epreuves.

If we look back over this season’s races we do not see a very impressive demonstration of British ability in the Grand Prix field, especially when we remember that in November, 1955, as I pointed out at the beginning of the year, we had three Grand Prix designs capable of lapping any given circuit as fast as the opposition. In the Argentine none of our teams were ready to compete. At Monaco Vanwall and BRM entered, the Vandervell cars being impressive enough in practice but both being eliminated in the race due to unforeseen crashes which could not he blamed on the cars. BRM practised in a rather mediocre manner and did not start in the race due to faulty material in the engines, while Connaught did net even enter. At Spa for the Belgian Grand Prix, Vanwall showed a marked improvement and Schell finished fourth, having shown more than one driver in other teams that the Vanwall was much faster down the straights. However, they did not worry for the car was virtually uncontrollable on the corners and the extra speed proved useless. The second Vanwall retired with a loss of power. Once again BRM did not start, the trouble at Monaco taking them an unbelievably long time to overcome. Connaught entered one car, to be driven by a private owner, but it did not last, suffering from a structural failure in the brake-pedal mounting and loss of oil pressure in the gearbox.

The next big meeting was Reims for the French Grand Prix, and here the Vanwall really showed enormous promise and while it was going no one could complain, but then all Schell’s efforts became fruitless because part of the throttle linkage came adrift, a trouble experienced on the car on more than one previous occasion and really inexcusable. Before taking this car over Schell had retired with his own car due to a number of troubles started by having second gear break up in the gearbox. Connaught did not enter for this meeting and once more BRM were not ready. 

At Silverstone the British teams saw their big opportunity, for not only were they on their home ground but all three teams were ready and fielded three cars apiece. Here if anywhere a green car should have won, or at least been well placed, but the result was that one Connaught finished out of nine British cars that started. One Connaught broke a rear hub, another broke a conneeting rod, one Vanwall broke a half-shaft and the other two had the inside coating of the fuel tank disintegrate and choke up the fuel system, while one BRM broke its engine and the other two suffered failures in the transmission. Of the nine cars eight retired due to some structural or material failure and the only saving grace was the fact that two BRMs led the entire field in the opening laps, but it really did not make up for the abysmal display by our cars on their home ground. So depressing was this display at Silverstone that not a single British car entered for the next Grand Prix at Nurburgring, and it was not until nearly two months later than green cars appeared once more on the starting line. This was at Monza, and though Vanwall showed terrific promise it was Connaught who achieved results by plodding along. Vanwall proved beyond all doubt once again that it is the fastest car racing today, but its chassis leaves so much to be desired so far as handling at high speed is concerned that cars with less horsepower were able to beat it. As if this was not enough the leading Vanwall then retired with a failure in the transmission. Of the other two one went out with an oil leak in the rear axle and the other suffered a structural failure of the front suspension. Of the Connaughts, apart from the third place achieved by Flockhart, another finished fifth but with a completely collapsed suspension. And the third one suffered a failure of the splines in a rear torsion-bar. Once more BRM did not enter. If excuses are needed for the breakages that occurred at Monza one can put forward the excuse that most of the foreign opposition also suffered structural failure, but personally I think the time is past for making excuses for the failure of British cars, for we have been doing that long enough.

I honestly believed last winter that we were going to see British Grand Prix cars get somewhere in first-line racing, for I could see that we had the potential to produce teams of good cars. Admittedly Connaught and Vanwall did not have drivers from the elite top flight, but BRM had Hawthorn and they could not wish for better, yet 1956 proved to be a fruitless and wasted year for him. Vanwall had a car that at least proved itself worthy of standing up against all the opposition even when driven by lesser drivers than Fangio or Moss, but they achieved nothing in the way of results due in the main to little pettifogging troubles that should have been ironed out two years ago. Connaught were no better off for their car was just not quick enough, having made little progress over the 12 months, and apart from being slow was also unreliable.

At the beginning of this season the main opposition in Grand Prix racing, Maserati and Ferrari, were both in an undetermined state and it was a golden opportunity for a new British team to get on top and stay on top, but now it is too late. Ferrari took only a matter of weeks to get himself organised with his new Lancia/Ferrari cars and Maserati, although making some awful bloomers during the season, at least won two of the big races in a convincing manner and finished second in two more in an equally convincing way. The British teams did absolutely nothing in comparison and if we add up the efforts into figures they read like this : Vanwall started 12 cars, finished two; Connaught started seven cars, finished three; BRM started three cars, finished none; these figures referring to the first-line Grand Prix events, not small national meetings or short races. It will be seen that Vanwall made the biggest attempt to get somewhere, but suffered the greatest percentage of failures. During the season Vanwall twice showed that their cars were capable of leading against all-comers and BRM did so once, so that on the credit side we still have a ray of hope, but on the debit side we have nothing but a series of failures due to material failure or bad preparation and design of details, or in the case of BRM failure before the starting line was even reached.

The whole season has been one of disappointment so far as British Grand Prix cars have been concerned, disappointment that is relative to the obvious possibilities. As with last year, both Vanwall and BRM evoked excited cheers from me when they really “mixed-it” with the foreign opposition, but the cheers had to turn to groans as both makes fell by the wayside. While it is all very well to moan and groan like this and complain of the pathetic exhibition that our cars have made over the season of racing, one should really try and offer constructive criticism and assistance to the teams concerned, in an attempt to make next year a far better one. Without being on the inside of any of the three teams it is difficult to know exactly the reasons for the failures and troubles involved. BRM would appear to have difficulties in producing parts and obtaining the right materials. Connaught still suffer from lack of money sufficient to enable them to build a new engine, for they have little hope of improving much over 250 bhp with their existing one, while Vanwall have all the money and facilities necessary for running a Grand Prix team and have more power from their engine than anyone else, yet their cars fail through detail faults or material faults. Surely there must be a reason somewhere for the continual inability of any of our three teams to get any success in real Grand Prix racing.

All I have done in the foregoing is to chronicle the events that have happened, and no doubt many of them have good reasons for happening, but I am not convinced that any of them need have happened. I would like to suggest that Mr Vandervell or his technical men let us know just why their cars failed to win a Grand Prix race this year; and for Rodney Clarke to say why the Connaughts fell to bits; and Peter Berthon to explain why the BRM has been such a failure after the initial excellent showing at Oulton Park last year, and why it has taken so much time to get them raceworthy, so long, in fact, that the season was finished before they re-appeared from Bourne. I know many of the reasons given for failures, but what of the reasons for bad workmanship, or the reasons for the supply of bad material, or, even more pertinent, the reasons for delay in supply of parts or materials. All three teams can offer explanations of delays and errors but they are never very convincing when the efforts of our sports-cars teams are compared. Jaguars, Aston Martins, Coopers and Lotus have all made efforts this past year that have been far more worthy of British engineering than have the efforts of our Grand Prix teams.

Can it be that the people behind our three Grand Prix cars are the wrong ones, or can it be that Grand Prix technicalities and brainwork is more exacting than in sports-car racing ? I doubt it very much. Just what is wrong with British Grand Prix efforts is hard to say, but something is definitely wrong, for now, in November, 1956, we are in no better position in Grand Prix racing than we were in November, 1955. In 12 mouths we have made no visible progress, whereas Ferrari and Maserati have shared the spoils in all the big races of the year. Any suggestion that either of those firms has bigger or better facilities than the Vanwall team is nonsense, and equally it is nonsense to imagine that Ferrari or Maserati mechanics are better than British mechanics, for I am convinced they are not. As far as organisation goes neither Italian team has much ability and I have personally experienced some of the chaos that goes on in both factories, and every time it makes me wonder just how they ever manage to win a race. I think many times that a well-organised and efficient British team could wipe the floor with them they are in such chaos, yet every time they win. Is it that Grand Prix racing is just too much for our technical ability, or is it that our standards of workmanship are just not high enough ? Whatever it is something is still seriously wrong and much money is still being wasted. To spend a vast sum of money and get something back in return, namely first places in the important events, is worthwhile, but to spend all the time and effort in producing a result such as we have had this season really does seem a waste of time. The past season has been miserable. the only gratification was that at least there were some green cars on the starting grid. but I sincerely hope that 1957 will produce something a bit better.—DSJ.