OK – forgive me if I have a patriotic gush right here, right now – the best kind of patriotism, pride in national achievement, and in top-level sporting success – remember that? It’s an innocent naive emotion, but it’s surely deep within most of us. It’s the kind of naturally inculcated pride about which none should ever feel ashamed.
AUG 31st 2017
Doug Nye: Was this the proudest day in British motorsport?
And it’s for an occasion and a day which will be celebrated at the forthcoming Goodwood Revival Meeting. Just one of the historic landmark events that we will be celebrating there is the 60th anniversary of the first all-British victory in a Formula 1 World Championship-qualifying Grand Prix race. For non-students of our majestic sport, this was the 1957 British Grand Prix win notched at Aintree by Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks, sharing the drive in one of Tony Vandervell’s wonderful teardrop Vanwall works team cars.
Ever since he had first become involved in motor racing postwar as an entrant, industrialist Vandervell – manufacturer of ‘ThinWall’ shell bearings for automotive engines the world over – had aimed to boost British engineering prestige by excelling in Grand Prix motor racing. At that time, the great game was dominated by Italian manufacturers like Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari, whose cars most notably relied upon Vandervell ‘ThinWall’ shell bearings to sustain their latest V12 racing engines.
No matter whether he was taking on a customer or not, Vandervell’s declared ambition was “to beat those bloody red cars” with his British Racing Green machines. Initially, he was a Trustee backing the BRM Grand Prix car project, but once he realised he could not have entirely his own way within that cooperative industrial project he opted instead to go it alone. First with Cooper-designed chassis he had an engine developed using Rolls-Royce bottom-end technology and Norton motor-cycle top-end know-how. That did not quite work out for him though – as we have related previously in this column – some Formula 1 race wins were achieved in minor British events.
Then for 1956 ‘Old Man Vandervell’ became deadly serious – he accepted advice to engage Colin Chapman as his chassis designer on a freelance basis, and that worked well. Colin recommends aerodynamicist Frank Costing to design a wind-cheating body shape, resulting in the definitive ‘teardrop’ Vanwall body form. And that worked well too. And then Vandervell Products’ own in-house experimental department perfected its 4-cylinder racing engine, and all the British team needed was a truly world class driving skill in the cockpit.
Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks were engaged to drive for the team in the 1957 racing season, and from mid-year they were joined by the emerging new star, Stuart Lewis-Evans – who praises have also already been sung here. And the Acton-based team were on the road to glory.
It was not easy, as Sir Stirling Moss has recalled: “The Vanwall…did not do its winning easily….bad flat spots, bad gearbox and a car which demanded delicate handling, but very fast, with good brakes, and acceptably reliable…”.
Was the great man damning the car with great praise? Absolutely no way. But he was always, and is still, totally honest and objective – telling it exactly as he saw things – peerlessly honest. While Moss was very much team No 1 driver, Tony Brooks was the fabulously gifted No 2 – a profoundly talented driver, equally honest and straightforward – and as blindingly quick on his day. As a dentistry student-cum-part-time racing driver in 1955 he had won the Syracuse GP in Sicily for Connaught – thus became the first British driver to win a proper Grand Prix race in British Grand Prix car since Henry Segrave’s win for Sunbeam in the French GP at Tours in 1923.
In the mid-summer of 1957 Tony found himself reporting for Vanwall duty in the British GP at Aintree, beaten-up, battered and sore with a hole in his hip the size of his fist. Driving a works Aston Martin sports car at Le Mans he had made a mistake, crashed and rolled the car over upon himself. He had been forcibly freed by a Porsche then tee-boning his overturned Aston and knocking it off him… At Aintree, he arrived a stone below his normal racing weight, bandaged and padded for his return to racing.
After a wet race day morning Aintree dried out and as Tony wrote at the time: “Behra (Maserati) made an excellent start, leading Stirling and me into Waterways Corner, but Stirling squeezed by on braking into the long right-hand corner leading onto the straight, and at the end of the first lap it was Moss, Behra, Brooks… Stirling edged away from Behra and was 7.5secs ahead by lap 10, stretching it to 9secs by lap 20, but then things started to go very wrong. Unbeknown to me, Stirling’s car had developed a misfire and he pitted on lap 21 to investigate. In desperation, the mechanics ripped off the magneto earth wire and he rejoined the race in seventh, but the engine was no better so he pitted again after the next lap.
It was time for plan B. I was still in touch with the leaders in fifth, and on an agreed signal I brought my car in and Stirling took over on the 26th lap. The pit stop was slow because the only way into the enveloping Vanwall cockpit was by standing on the rear wheel and stepping over the screen. I was aching all over so the change-over was a performance to behold. This and the time lost in coming into and out of the pits meant that Striking rejoined the race in ninth position…”.
Stirling then recalled: "By lap 30 I was seventh. Behra led by over a minute. Four laps later I passed Fangio, and Stuart (Lewis-Evans) meanwhile passed Collins (Ferrari) into third place. I closed on Musso and passed him on lap 40 for fifth place, six laps later taking Collins for fourth…
On lap 51 Jean Bahra lowered the lap record to 2mins 00.4secs, but two laps later I managed 1:59.2 – the first 90mph ap of Aintree. With 22 laps to go, I was 28 secs behind. On lap 69 I caught and passed Stuart for third, and at that moment Behra’s clutch disintegrated and Mike Hawthorn in second place (for Ferrari) ran over some of the pieces and punctured a tyre. This was a fantastic strike of luck for our team, and it left myself and Stuart running 1-2 in the British Grand Prix in our green Vanwalls, with 20 laps to go…”.
Meanwhile, the 11-year-old me was listening to this on the radio commentary. As might be said today – OMG this was totes amazeballs. Two British cars leading the Italians in the British Grand Prix. That just didn’t happen – except as in the previous year’s early laps of the British GP at Silverstone when two BRMs had blazed away… into brief infinity, and inevitably broke.
Stirling again in the book we produced together ‘My Cars – My Career’ (PSL, 1987): “That was a marvellous moment; one I had dreamed about for years. But it did not last. Two laps later Stuart stopped with his throttle linkage adrift, and now I was leading Musso’s Ferrari by over a minute, but feeling terribly alone…
“With ten laps to go, I stopped for some fuel as a precaution and rejoined with 41 secs still in hand over Musso. I took no chances at all in those final laps and eventually took the flag to win at a record 86.8mph – Tony and I thus becoming jointly the first British drivers to win a Grande Epreuve in a British car since Segrave for Sunbeam etc etc…and also the first all-British winners of a British Grand Prix.
“Tony Vandervell was delighted and we were absolutely thrilled. It meant an awful lot to me… That evening I made a brief TV broadcast, then drove off with Ken Gregory (friend and business manager) and his fiancee to dinner in Chester and bed at 1am in the Kenilworth Motel, ending one of the most satisfying days of my entire career…”.
Tony Brooks in his lovely autobiography ‘Poetry in Motion’ (MRP, 2012): "The spectators were beside themselves…when Stirling, at last, took the chequered flag… the stands erupted and the crowds were jumping up and down all round the circuit, any remaining English reserve having been totally forgotten. Stirling had barely completed his lap of honour before the crowds flooded onto the circuit and the car and driver disappeared under a mass of humanity".
“It was pandemonium in the Vanwall pits with mutual congratulations and unrestrained expressions of joy, including the normally rather sombre team manager, David Yorke. Even Tony Vandervell allowed himself what looked to all intents and purposes to be his version of a jig! I managed to gingerly struggle through the crowd enveloping the Vanwall to reach Stirling to congratulate him on his fine drive and we both joined a very proud Tony Vandervell, the architect of it all, to share our joy before the three of us eventually managed to make our way through the enthusiastic crowd to the podium for the presentation….”.
Tony then added this passage by recalling how “I don't believe that any of us imagined that next year we would win six World Championship Grands Prix and the first Constructors’ World Championship for Vanwall…”.
That emotion was true of thousands of British motor racing fans who had also been dreaming of such a moment as the Aintree win for long years past. I recall that day the 11-year-old me being so excited by the news I couldn’t sleep that night. If you weren’t around then – just think back to a country which had struggled for decades to achieve anything worthwhile in Grand Prix racing – it was pretty much as if the state of ‘our’ motor racing then was internationally on a par with what ‘our’ national football team has managed to achieve since goodness knows when. That’s right. Zippo. And now here were our boys, our cars, our lovely, gorgeous British Racing Green cars as Grand Prix winners, yes – and at Aintree – and Tony Vandervell had achieved his long-held ambition of “beating those bloody red cars”.
And we were all fit to burst with excitement and pride and joy…
Imagine that at the forthcoming Revival, and just recognise and understand the emotion of that great day, sixty years ago this year. It was the day when the country’s motor racing fraternity could at last stand tall and beat its chest with pride. It was a day none of us wanted to end. And in fact, in many ways, it proved to be the end of just the beginning – there was so much more success to come…
Photography courtesy of The GP Library
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