If you have any interest in the history of motor racing then you will know something about 1958. If nothing else, if you are English you will probably know that Mike Hawthorn became the first Englishman to win the Drivers’ World Championship. If you are a Ferraristi you will certainly know that he did so driving a Ferrari.
If you’re interested in the technical side of the sport then you’ll know that this was the year of the first Constructors’ Championship, and it was won by British manufacturer Vanwall. Yet there is much more, probably making it one of the most extraordinary years in the history of the sport. Half a century on, we thought it was time for a re-cap.
Initially our thoughts were to run through the significant events of the year but we then decided some scene-setting would be advisable, especially for younger readers as Formula 1 was incredibly different then. Having said that, in one aspect things were very similar; the maximum engine size then was 2.5 litres, and it's 2.4 litres now, though 50 years’ development has meant that engines deliver around 750-800bhp now as opposed to 250-280bhp then. Ferrari’s 65° V6 was the most powerful of its day and had been evolved from the Dino 156 F2 engine which first appeared in 1957.
This lusty power unit was mounted in a new car, the 246 Dino F1, which replaced the Lancia- derived 801. As was standard practice for “proper” racing cars the engine was mounted in the front. There was a tubular steel chassis clothed with bodywork of hand-formed aluminum as opposed to the moulded resin-bonded composites that make up so much of a modern car. The engine drove the rear wheels through a four speed gearbox. The front suspension was by double wishbones and coil springs and the rear by De Dion axle mounted on a transverse semi-elliptic leaf spring.
Cars looked very small by modern standards, although the track wasn’t dissimilar with the Dino at 1240mm and the F2007 at 1470/1405 mm; however the modern car had a much longer wheelbase of 3135mm vs. 2160mm. A major and visual difference is of course the wheels and tyres, the older car had 5.50 inch and 7.0 tyres mounted on 16” diameter wire wheels, whereas the 2008 F1 regulations state that the front wheel (and tyre) width must be 305-355mm (12”-14”) and 365-380mm (14”-15”) on the rear. The word “regulations” introduces another colossal difference between 1958 and now. Then, almost nothing was regulated; now, almost nothing is not! The weights weren't too far apart at 560kg for the 246 F1 and 600kg for the F2007.
In 1958 there were no wings and no downforce, aerodynamic research was almost unheard of and many cars had upward lift. Neither were there any on-board electronics. Computers were huge transistorized machines that lived in the basements of big organisations and were few and far between. The day when every home, car and appliance would be stuffed with the things was beyond anybody’s wildest imaginings.
A colossal difference between then and now was standards of driver safety. In 1958 the driver sat in a small tubular steel box with projecting hard bits and pieces everywhere and surrounded by unprotected aluminium tanks with fuel sloshing about in them. There were no seatbelts, no roll-over bars and no on-board fire extinguishers. Protective clothing was limited to a crash helmet, goggles and gloves. In hot weather, drivers often wore short-sleeved shirts! The cars of 1958 may look a bit like toys to modern eyes; but they were very serious and very fast machines, with a power to weight ratio better than a 430 Scuderia and a top speed of around 180mph.
Circuits were very different too. A number were closed public roads with rough surfaces, no run-off areas and nothing other than the odd straw bale to prevent a car hitting some piece of scenery if it did go off. The bespoke racing circuits were not much better; consequently, racing drivers being killed was a regular occurrence and an accepted occupational hazard – unthinkable today.
The traditional approach to racing car design was that to win you needed the most powerful engine. The chassis and suspension were just something to carry it around. Consequently, not much science went into vehicle handling and the 246 F1 still had drum brakes. This approach had served well and since 1950 Italian manufacturers like Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati had ruled the roost except for a brief interlude where Mercedes-Benz steamrollered the opposition into submission, though their W196 was a design dead-end.
Britain had not been a significant force in Grand Prix motor racing for many years, not winning a GP between 1924 and 1955 when a young dental student, Tony Brooks, drove a Connaught to victory in the Syracuse GP. Connaught was a small private team who used relatively low-powered Alta engines, and Brits had to wait until 1957 before a green car (national racing colours, no advertising) won a World Championship round when Brooks and Stirling Moss shared a Vanwall to win the British GP at Aintree (yes the horse racing place in Liverpool). Having got the taste for it Moss then won the Pescara GP in Italy and then the Italian GP at Monza!
The Vanwall was the personal project of Tony Vandervell, the millionaire proprietor of Vandervell bearings and it was painstakingly developed into a fully competitive GP car regardless of cost. It had no shortage of power, with an engine based on four Manx Norton units, but it did have a “scientific” chassis and suspension designed by someone whose cars once did. Colin Chapman started with Austin 7 specials and his early Lotuses had to make up with cornering speed what they lacked in power. Vanwall was also one of the first constructors to pay serious attention to aerodynamics, with a body designed (at Chapman’s suggestion) by de Havilland aerodynamicist Frank Costin who had done a similar job for Lotus. This car had been wind-tunnel tested and this meant it was faster in a straight line than any of its rivals. Vandervell had assembled a mighty team to drive his car with two top-class drivers in Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks and the up-and-coming Stuart Lewis-Evans.
Team Lotus would make its GP debut in 1958, but Colin Chapman had also had a hand in sorting out the suspension of another British contender, the B.R.M. “P25”. British Racing Motors started in 1946 and was sort of a Nationalised Grand Prix team, the project of pre-war ERA duo Raymond Mays and Peter Berthon. It was funded by companies providing money and/or parts and run by a committee – this proved about as successful as you would think and in 1952 it was taken over by the West Midlands based engineering conglomerate Rubery Owen. Their first car was an incredibly complex V16 supercharged 1½ litre and was more-or-less a total failure. Their second car was small and simple with a 2½ litre 4 cylinder engine. B.R.M. had a reputation for eccentric management and bad preparation, with success always just around the corner. In 1958 they were driven by Jean Behra, a top-class if temperamental driver, and Harry Schell.
During WW2 impecunious British enthusiasts discussed what form motor racing should take after the war. They came up with the idea of 500cc motor cycle engined single-seaters. As engines were chain-drive the obvious approach was to place them behind the driver. This was contrary to perceived wisdom of the time with the mid-engined layout regarded with suspicion. The Cooper Car Company of Surbiton England gradually emerged as the dominant force in 500cc racing which became the first Formula 3. By necessity these cars had to be lightweight with good handling.
Coopers were made out to be the product of cheery blacksmiths, but although it is true they adopted a less scientific approach than Chapman, a lot of deep thought and sensible pragmatism went into their designs, which consequently were practical, nice-handling racing cars. Cooper and Lotus had worked their way up to Formula 2 powered by Coventry Climax engines. This firm was the final part in the equation, the result of which was Britain becoming the centre of World motor racing industry; they made the first bespoke “proper” racing engines anyone could buy.
Cooper had made their GP debut the year before at Monte Carlo with a modified F2 car powered by a Climax FPF engine enlarged from 1500cc to 1960cc all paid for by privateer Rob Walker. More of the little cars appeared throughout 1957 though they were out-gunned on faster circuits by the full 2.5 litre cars. For 1958 Coopers would field two works cars powered by 2.2 litre Climax engines and driven by the first of the engineer drivers Jack Brabham and Roy Salvadori; these would be backed up by a two car Walker team.
Juan Manuel Fangio was the greatest driver of the era and his tally of five world championship titles wasn’t surpassed until 2003 when Michael Schumacher secured his sixth. In 1958 he was the reigning champion, having won the year before for Maserati in their lovely 250F. Maserati were in financial trouble and withdrew from Formula 1 at the end of the year, effectively leaving the great man without a drive. He and Enzo Ferrari had not got on in 1956, his only year with the Prancing Horse, though they did win the Championship.
Vandervell was committed to an all British team and I have never seen any suggestion that B.R.M. was a possibility for Fangio at this time. He did appear in a couple of races in 1958 but at 47 his time and that of Maserati was over, thus leaving the young chargers of Scuderia Ferrari of Maranello, Italy and Vandervell Products of Acton, England to fight for the titles. It was to be a season of triumph and tragedy, the end of one era and (inevitably) the start of another.
More in Part 2 soon....
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