Shadows on the sands

Casablanca – the sunlit scene of Britain’s first World Championship was darkened by tragic events
By Nigel Roebuck

Bernie Ecclestone recently said that, for him, the World Champion each year should be the driver who had won the most races, that only in the event of a tie on victories should ‘places’ come into the reckoning. And no season better supports Ecclestone’s notion than 1958, when Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss went off to settle the issue at the final race, in Casablanca.

For the two of them the wait was endless, for there was a six-week gap between the Italian and Moroccan GPs, particularly interminable for Moss, whose motto has always been ‘Movement is tranquillity’, and who loved to compete as often as possible in a variety of cars.

The weekend after Monza Stirling did compete in the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood (where he shared the winning Aston Martin with Tony Brooks), but thereafter time stood still, and he admits that he was not easy to be around in this period.

“The thing was, at that time I really felt I should try and get the World Championship, and obviously I was nervous about it – no, not nervous, more teed up.”

Extraordinary as it may seem today, there was not even any testing to take the drivers’ minds off what lay ahead. “No, nothing like that,” says Moss. “I mean, obviously we’d test a bit before the season started, but once we’d got the cars handling as well as they could, and the engine going as well as it could… really, what were we going to test?”

Given that the World Champion was bound to be British, and, moreover, the first to be so honoured, it was hardly surprising that the papers gave the forthcoming battle a huge amount of coverage. Television, too, got in on the act, with Moss and Hawthorn appearing on Sportsview, a weekly programme in the ’50s.

There was at the time a celebrated champion racehorse called ‘Ballymoss’, and as Hawthorn looked ahead to Casablanca, he said he was only worried about one thing: “What’s its name? Not Ballymoss… Stirling Moss, yes, that’s it…”

Good-natured, innocent badinage, you see, and Moss insists that he and Hawthorn always got along. “There were inevitably suggestions in the papers that we were enemies, but they weren’t true. OK, on the track I fought hard with Mike, as I did with anyone else, but off it I’d say we were friends, but not pals, if that makes any sense. I liked Mike, and I hope he liked me, but we were very different types. He was a great extrovert, who loved drinking beer, and I wasn’t. For him racing was mainly for fun, whereas I took it very seriously. In those days, you were either a Hawthorn fan or a Moss fan.”

In this, an era in which Grand Prix drivers’ managers have private jets, and cheapo airlines fly to anywhere with a beach, the travel arrangements to the Moroccan Grand Prix in 1958 take a little believing.

An Air France flight, used by many for the inaugural race 12 months earlier, had proved highly unpopular, and, amazingly, no other scheduled flight appeared to exist. Thus John Webb, later of Brands Hatch fame, chartered a Douglas DC6 and announced that seats were available for sale.

At the same time Tony Vandervell, the wealthy industrialist who owned the Vanwall team, chartered a Viscount from BEA, and this found greater favour with folk who put comfort ahead of cost. Thus, Hawthorn, Ferrari’s number one driver, travelled on the Vandervell flight, while Moss, the Vanwall team leader, did not!

“I see from my contract,” says Stirling, “that Vandervell was paying for my flights, so I can’t understand why I didn’t go on his charter. Probably wouldn’t have made a lot of difference – we travelled economy, all of us, in those days…

“My Aston Martin sports car contract, believe it or not, paid me an annual retainer of 50 quid, but Tony Vandervell – unlike David Brown – was quite generous. Checking back, I see that he paid me £1000 a race, and I also got 60 per cent of the starting money for the car – plus ‘The sum of £5 per day for expenses’!”

All his life Moss has religiously kept a diary, and a rich resource it is, not least as a record of motor racing from an era long gone. Thus, for example, we know that the Webb charter left Heathrow at 12.50pm on Thursday, October 16, and arrived in Casablanca at 5.20pm local time. Next morning Stirling gave interviews to the BBC and to Basil Cardew of the Daily Express, and in the afternoon set fourth-fastest time, behind Jean Behra, Hawthorn and Vanwall team-mate Tony Brooks.

“Tried practice car,” he noted. “Wiggled. My own felt better.”

The following day he tried Brooks’s car, and that felt better yet, which meant that numbers were swapped over for the duration. “I had it in my contract that I had choice of cars, and I know that used to get up Tony’s nose a bit, but I’m sure he’d have done the same…”

Brooks good-naturedly agrees that sometimes he found Moss’s demands a touch irksome. “Stirling might want my chassis and his engine, or vice-versa, and that all meant more work for the mechanics. So it was always better for them to keep this number two a few tenths slower – Stirling always made sure he had the best car, and if he thought he hadn’t, he’d mix it! However, I must stress that I’m saying all this in a very light-hearted way – 50 years on, we’re still the best of friends.

“I think it’s fair to say that in Stirling, Stuart Lewis-Evans and myself, Tony Vandervell had one of the strongest driving teams of all time, but one problem we always had with him was that he thought his cars were better than they were. Don’t get me wrong, the Vanwall was a great car, but it was never an easy one to drive, in the sense that you couldn’t steer it on the throttle, like a Maserati 250F, or the Ferrari Dino 246 I drove in ’59. You had to be very precise with it – and the gearbox was terrible!”

Moss agrees. “The Vanwall was a very quick car, but not a nice one to drive – it had a lousy gearbox, and quite a bad flat-spot in the engine, which we gradually improved, but never got rid of completely. The engine didn’t have the top-end power of the Ferrari, but, being a big four-cylinder, was bloody good on torque.”

Hawthorn’s abiding problem through 1958 had lain with getting his car stopped, for Ferrari, extraordinarily, were still using drum brakes, no match at all for the discs on the Vanwalls.

As the World Championship edged towards its crucial phase, therefore, Mike took matters into his own hands. His friend and team-mate Peter Collins had been killed at the Nürburgring in August, and this resolved him, come what may, to retire at season’s end, but he wanted desperately to win his last championship, as much for Collins as himself.

After the Portuguese Grand Prix, in which he ran out of brakes, Hawthorn told Enzo Ferrari he thought it essential that his car have disc brakes for Monza – and the source of those disc brakes was unusual, to say the least.

Collins had had a Ferrari road car, and, finding its drum brakes hopeless, had taken it to Dunlop during a visit to England, and had disc brakes fitted all round. Shortly before his death, he had then driven the car back to Maranello so that the engineers could look and learn.

Hawthorn proposed that the brakes be transferred to his F1 car, and Ferrari agreed. Dunlop sent over a couple of technicians to supervise the work, and at the Italian Grand Prix a disc-braked Ferrari raced for the first time, finishing a clutchless second to Brooks’s Vanwall.

In point of fact, Mike’s World Championship points lead, going into the final Grand Prix, had essentially come from ‘places’, for he had won only one race, at Reims, while both Moss and Brooks had won three apiece. The Ferrari’s strong suit was its reliability, for while Stirling had retired five times in nine races, and Tony four, Mike’s car had let him down only twice.

In 1958 the scoring system in use was 8-6-4-3-2-1, with a further point for fastest lap. Ten Grands Prix (plus, unfathomably, the Indianapolis 500) made up the World Championship, but only a driver’s six best results counted. So Hawthorn’s points lead over Moss, 40 to 32, was more tenuous than it looked, for already he had taken points from eight events, and dropped his two worst scores; further points in Morocco would mean dropping his next worst score, four points from a third place in Argentina.

To add to his total at all, therefore, Hawthorn had to finish second in Casablanca, guaranteeing him the championship, whatever happened to Moss. Stirling, by contrast, had scored in only five races, so any points that came his way in the last Grand Prix he would keep. And in a way that relieved the pressure on him, for there were no tactical decisions to be taken: to take the title, he had to win, and set the fastest lap and hope that Mike finished lower than second.

On Saturday afternoon the grid was set, Hawthorn taking pole position, a tenth faster than Moss, and they were joined on the front row by Lewis-Evans. Behra’s BRM and Phil Hill’s Ferrari made up row two, while Brooks was on the third, with Gendebien’s Ferrari and Jo Bonnier’s BRM.

The Ain Diab circuit, purpose-built and of 4.7 miles in length, was in Anfa, a sandy and barren area on the outskirts of Casablanca, and lined with straw bales in the custom of the day. While not as fast as Spa or Reims, it was way quicker than a place like Silverstone, Hawthorn’s pole lap being all but 120mph, and on paper that should have favoured the Ferraris. As it was, though, Moss was never headed.

The Ferrari game plan was clear from the outset: Hill was going to put Moss under as much pressure as possible. Away from the grid Phil, racing an F1 Ferrari for only the second time, latched on to Stirling’s tail, and the pair quickly left the rest behind.

Unlike Hawthorn and Gendebien, though, Hill had drum brakes on his Dino 246, and on lap three he disappeared up the escape road at the first corner. Such had been the early pace set by the leaders that he lost only two places, to Hawthorn and Bonnier, and, once back on the track, lost no time in catching and repassing them. Moss, though, was now long gone.

Vanwall’s hope had been that Brooks would run second to Moss, thus keeping Hawthorn out of the crucial place he needed. After a slow start Tony did indeed get ahead of Mike on lap 19, but still he was only third, and before he could go after Hill the Vanwall’s engine blew up, streaming oil on to the rear tyres and giving Brooks quite a moment.

At the front, meantime, Moss sailed on serenely, his car’s elegant nose dented by contact with the Maserati of slow journeyman Wolfgang Seidel. “It was actually a very uneventful race for me,” Stirling says. “I was leading, and I’d got the fastest lap – what happened in the championship was out of my hands, really.”

So it was. On lap 39, with 14 to go, Ferrari team manager Romulo Tavoni signalled to Hill that he should let Hawthorn through, and Phil duly complied.

“I remember Jenks got very upset about that!” Moss recalled. “He thought Phil did absolutely the right thing – as did I – but at the same time it offended him to see a driver almost stop, to let another driver past. Mind you, it was the smart thing for Phil to do. I don’t suppose Ferrari would have been too thrilled if he hadn’t…”

Two laps later came tragedy, as noted in Moss’s diary: ‘Poor Stuart had a ghastly shunt at 160. Burnt 70 per cent’.

As had Brooks, Lewis-Evans suffered a blown engine in his Vanwall, but he spun off on his own oil and hit some small trees, in the course of which a fuel line was torn away. In an instant the car was engulfed in flame, and as the unfortunate driver freed himself from the cockpit his overalls were ablaze. Worse yet, in his confusion and agony, Lewis-Evans ran in the opposite direction from the marshals trying to aid him. After being flown back to England, he died the following weekend.

After two hours and nine minutes, Moss went over the line to win the Moroccan GP, and take nine points from the day, for his fastest lap – well under the pole time – was unapproached. Hawthorn duly came in for the second place he needed, and thus beat Moss to the World Championship, 42 points to 41. Stirling, with four victories to Mike’s one, had lost.

That day fundamentally shifted his attitude to the World Championship, and he was never to care so much about it again.

“I don’t think I considered retiring – in fact, I can’t ever remember thinking of that. In my own mind, I had every intention of going on until I was about 50, like Fangio did.

“I did, though, absolutely change my feelings about the championship – I felt I deserved it that year, and I didn’t get it. But I suppose what concerned me most was having the respect of the other drivers, and how they regarded me. That was what really mattered – or, at least, that was what I told myself really mattered.”

Hawthorn, having won a single race, and having had second place handed to him by a team-mate in Casablanca, must surely have had some equivocal feelings about his World Championship.

“Yes,” Moss shrugs, “I guess it might have been a bit empty for him – but at the same time he must have felt euphoric about being Britain’s first World Champion, and all that stuff. I certainly didn’t begrudge Mike his title, but the importance of it lessened for me after that year.

“It was a bad time in every respect, particularly, of course, because of Stuart’s accident. Tony Vandervell was very gruff, and – like Ferrari – he didn’t let anything stand in his way: he’d do whatever it took, to get something done. But he was always quite nice to his drivers, and he was completely distraught that Stuart had died in one of his cars. There’s no doubt in my mind that that was why he withdrew his team at the end of the year.”

So, an era was over. In 1958 Fangio had driven his last Grand Prix, and four Englishmen – Moss, Brooks, Hawthorn, Collins – had won races, two of them going on to dispute the World Championship. If one of them won it in a Ferrari, the other driver’s team – Vanwall – won the constructors’ title. Within a few weeks, Moss had shaken hands with Rob Walker on a deal for 1959, and within a few weeks more Hawthorn, the retired champion, had died in a road accident near Guildford.

Casablanca, meantime, disappeared for ever from the World Championship calendar.

DSJ on...
The first year of racing at the Ain Diab track in Casablanca in 1957, and how getting there was the first major challenge

To conclude the 1957 Formula 1 season the Royal Automobile Club of Morocco organised an event at Casablanca, on a scale equal to any of the Grandes Epreuves held this year, though the event did not count towards the championship. Much effort and money was poured into the meeting in the hope that next year it will receive Grand Epreuve status. In a matter of weeks a circuit was laid out at Anfa, just on the edge of Casablanca, and pits, grandstands and control tower all showed a permanent frame of mind in the construction.

The circuit itself, of Tarmac, was smooth and fast, having many high-speed bends rather than long straights, and it undulated over 7.618 kilometres of sandy desert soil on the Moroccan coast. The only serious fault was in not providing a sharp dividing line between the edge of the track and the sandy infield, such as a bevelled kerb, for many drivers used quite a lot of the sandy edges, throwing sand and gravel onto the road. Only at the sharper corners were straw bales used and these were the only scenery around the circuit, the general décor being rather barren and arid.

Getting to Casablanca presented a major project in itself, some of the teams travelling by boat from Bordeaux or Marseilles, the more adventurous driving their lorries to Gibraltar, taking the ferry to Tangier and driving down the coast, while most of the drivers and important personnel travelled direct by air. By Thursday, all the regular members of the European Grand Prix circus were assembled, with teams from Ferrari, Maserati, Vanwall, BRM and Cooper ready to practice on this new circuit. Private owners were not encouraged by the club’s European agent, Giambertone, though Piotti, Godia and Lucas managed to get entries through influence.