Ecclestone, Hill and Allison: F1 debutants with diverse destinies at Monaco '58


65 years ago, three drivers made their world championship debuts at the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix: Bernie Ecclestone, Graham Hill and Cliff Allison would each make their F1 mark in very different ways

Start of the 1958 Monaco GP

Salvadori leads Behra, Brooks and Moss at the start of the 1958 Monaco GP

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As the unexpectedly rusty members of the Formula 1 travelling circus assemble in Monte-Carlo, having envisaged being battle-weary from Imola but instead having not raced for three weeks, I find myself pondering the history of the Monaco Grand Prix, and particularly the 1958 race, a captivating event from a number of perspectives.

Heading the drivers’ world championship table as the then much smaller Formula 1 travelling circus arrived in Monte-Carlo, having won the previous round in Buenos Aires four long months before, was Stirling Moss, who had driven Rob Walker’s privateer Cooper brilliantly in Argentina to beat the Ferraris of Luigi Musso and Mike Hawthorn. In so doing, he had scored the first Formula 1 victory for a rear-engined car, but that aspect of his success had not been widely regarded as portentous for three principal reasons: no championship grand prix had ever attracted so few entries as had the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix (just 10, a record that stands to this day and hopefully always will); Moss had managed to drive the whole race on one set of tyres, whereas the Ferraris had required tyre stops, which in those days were seriously time-consuming; and ‘the Boy’, still only 28, was rightly regarded as a genius behind the wheel.

Cliff Allison had been welding Graham Hill’s car. Things really were different in those days

Next time out, at Monaco, Moss was back in his regular works Vanwall, Tony Vandervell’s not-quite-eponymous team having skipped Argentina. Moss’s team-mate Tony Brooks stuck his works Vanwall on the Monte-Carlo pole, while Jean Behra qualified his BRM second. Both cars were front-engined, and the Formula 1 cognoscenti appeared to agree that normal service had been resumed. However, Jack Brabham and Roy Salvadori qualified their works Coopers third and fourth. Alongside Salvadori on the second row of the three-two-three grid, fifth, was 40-year-old Maurice Trintignant – a previous winner on the tricky streets of the Principality, in 1955, in a works Ferrari – but now in a privateer Rob Walker-entered Cooper.

From the archive

Behra made a great start and led the race until his run was ended at one-third distance by brake problems, after which a hard-charging Hawthorn took over the lead for Ferrari. Moss then passed Hawthorn and spent a short time in the lead before being forced to retire with a persistent and incurable misfire, letting Hawthorn back into the lead. Everyone who had led the race – Behra, Hawthorn and Moss – had done so in a front-engined car. But attrition, exploited by a canny drive from a wise old soul, would change that. In his Motor Sport report, Denis Jenkinson wrote: “On lap 46 nobody was more surprised than Trintignant when he came around in the lead, for the Ferrari had given the appearance of being indestructible, but, no, Hawthorn’s car had come to rest after the descent from the station. This was 1955 all over again, Trintignant driving a model race and profiting from the misfortunes of his faster rivals.” He duly won, thereby making it two grand prix wins out of two for Coopers in 1958, the little rear-engined cars finishing ahead of the second- and third-placed front-engined Ferraris in both Buenos Aires and Monte-Carlo. It is said that it was on the evening of that Monaco defeat that Enzo Ferrari began to wonder whether he might one day have to consider putting the cart (car) before the horse (engine).

Also present at Monaco that weekend, not unnoticed but little remarked upon, were three Englishmen, including Graham Hill and Cliff Allison, who had both performed well on their grand prix debuts, despite their team, Team Lotus, also having entered a grand prix for the first time. Hill had retired from an encouraging fourth place, stopped by a broken halfshaft, and Allison had scored a world championship point on his grand prix debut, sixth, albeit 13 laps behind the winner. The day before, Allison had been seen welding Hill’s car. Things really were different in those days. Just imagine Pierre Gasly working on Esteban Ocon’s Alpine.

I wrote ‘three Englishmen’ but you may have noticed that I have mentioned only two. The third failed to qualify his ageing Connaught. His name? Bernie Ecclestone. I once asked Moss how good a driver Ecclestone was. ‘About as good as Horace Gould,’ he replied, grinning. Not very then.

Bernie Ecclestone at Monaco GP in 1958

Bernie Ecclestone at Monaco, '58

Cliff Allison in 1959

Cliff Allison at Monza, 1959

Ecclestone later became a Formula 1 deity, albeit for achievements outside the cockpit. Hill, too, is widely regarded as a racing god – a two-time F1 world champion, a five-time Monaco Grand Prix winner, and still the only driver to have achieved the Triple Crown of victories at Monaco, Indianapolis and Le Mans. And Allison? He is but a footnote to motor sport history now. He raced 16 championship grands prix, his best result second for Ferrari in Buenos Aires in 1960, but he crashed that Ferrari heavily in practice next time out in Monte-Carlo, only regaining consciousness after 16 comatose days in hospital, and he was out for the rest of the year while he recovered from his injuries: a broken left arm, a number of shattered ribs, and cuts and bruises everywhere, including on his head and face. He raced a UDT Laystall Lotus 18 at Monaco the following year, 1961, finishing a distant eighth, then had another huge shunt next time out, at Spa, breaking his pelvis and both knees. He called it a day after that.

I met him 40-odd years later, at Monaco, I cannot remember the exact year. I was the editor-in-chief of F1 Racing, now GP Racing, and he was a guest of, I think, Ford. He was in his late 60s, looked a bit older, and unsurprisingly walked with a limp. He was chummy and funny, and he told me that his business, Allison’s Garage in the small and windswept village of Brough, Cumbria, had not done very well, and that lately he had been earning a few bob by driving the village bus. He gave me his card, and when I got back to the F1 Racing offices I added him to the ‘free list’ so that he would automatically receive a complimentary copy of the magazine in the post every month.

He died, aged 73, on 7 April 2005. The next day I awoke, strolled downstairs to gather up the post, and, among the bills and junk mail, I found a hand-written envelope, postmarked ‘Brough, Cumbria’. I opened it and, unfolding with trembling hands a sheet of old-style headed paper, I read a neatly typed letter of one paragraph, dated the day before. It was signed ‘Kindest regards, yours sincerely, Cliff’, and, yes, he had written it on the day he died. Even now, years later, I find it very poignant. The paragraph was as follows: “The last copy of your F1 magazine I received was the end of 2004. As I am now seventy three your wonderful mag was the only way of keeping in touch. I do hope you can resume sending me copies as times are hard for a poor old pensioner.”

I had no words then. I have these few words now. RIP Cliff Allison.

Cliff Allison letter

Allison in Buenos Aires, 1960, where he finished second – his best World Championship race result

Grand Prix Photo

Cliff Allison