The Formula A World Championship: 70 years old and counting. Formula A? Well, it could have been and almost was. When the Federation International de l’Automobile, the FIA, was formed in 1948, that’s the initial name it chose for the new premier class of global single-seater racing. Fortunately, by the time it launched the world championship two years later, to galvanise the sport and give it a new sense of purpose, the ‘A’ had been replaced by a ‘1’. It’s better that way, wouldn’t you agree?
The history of F1: The 1950s
The bleary-eyed re-awakening of grand prix racing after World War II needed the world championship as a shot in the arm, injecting a focus and status that convinced Alfa Romeo to return from its motor sport hiatus in 1949. On 13th May 1950, at Silverstone – one of a fresh breed of almost ready-made race circuits based on newly redundant wartime airfields – the world championship era began, as F1’s first super-power swept to victory at the start of a season during which it would remain unbeaten. Not even McLaren in 1988 or the modern-day Mercedes-AMG team have managed that.
The blood-red Alfa Romeo 158, aka ‘Alfetta’, was already 12 years old. But mothballed pre-war racers were the foundation upon which the world championship was built – through necessity. At this stage, there was nothing else to race. Consider how exotic they must have appeared to a British public still struggling under the austerity of strict rationing. Life was grey for the majority in this new Cold War world. The three Fs – Farina, Fagioli and Fangio – brought a welcome dash of colour, heralding new hope for a brighter future. Even the king and his daughters, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, attended to catch a flavour.
Tough, uncompromising Giuseppe Farina would claim first blood, but it was Juan Manuel Fangio – a stocky, balding Argentine already in his 40s – who would become the Maestro of that first F1 decade. He claimed his maiden title in ’51 in the Alfetta, but the 1.5-litre supercharged 159, as it had become known, was beginning to wheeze in the wake of the increasingly desperate development that had been required to stave off a new threat, from an unsupercharged 4.5-litre V12-powered rival: Ferrari. By the end of the year, under financial and political pressure back in Italy, the old powerhouse had been run out of town. Alfa wouldn’t return to F1 until the end of the 1970s.
As the Quadrifoglio departed, F1 took its first stumble. A lack of competitive cars almost caused the world championship to wither in just its third year, and evasive action was taken by switching to Formula 2 regulations for two seasons. In truth, it didn’t change the result: with only Maserati and occasionally the French Gordinis offering any resistance, Ferrari dominated with its Tipo 500. For a full calendar year, between 22nd June 1952 and 21st June ’53, Alberto Ascari – a bundle of muscle with the build of a wrestler – went unbeaten.
The return of F1 regulations in 1954 breathed new life, but before long a familiar old pre-war force delivered a devastating sucker-punch. When Mercedes-Benz rolled out its streamliner W196 at Reims for the French Grand Prix, just nine years after the Nazi occupation had ended, it represented a new invasion – one that directly recalled the pre-war days of the Silver Arrows. Fangio had kicked off the season winning for Maserati, but he had promised himself to Mercedes when it was ready, and at Reims he and Karl Kling proved unstoppable. Fangio would win three more grands prix through the summer to become champion for a second time.
The following year the Maestro would be teamed with a 25-year-old ‘apprentice’ who was ready to watch, learn and (in F1 at least) follow, with humble deference. Stirling Moss had emerged as Britain’s brightest prospect from the budding British national scene centred around Goodwood, Silverstone and the hillclimbs in the late 1940s, driving a new breed of 500cc Formula 3. Soon a works Jaguar driver in sports cars, his grand prix ambitions were frustrated by a lack of competitive British machinery. Mike Hawthorn would beat Moss to make his F1 mark first, sensationally beating Fangio for Ferrari in a slipstream classic at Reims in 1953. Perhaps it could have been Stirling, perhaps it should have been – but an infamous snub at Bari in 1951 had poisoned a furious Moss against Enzo Ferrari.
By 1954, Moss was finally forced to choose Italian – but looked to the other Modena marque for inspiration. The purchase of a new Maserati 250F would be the tool to prove his worth. Impressing at Bremgarten and then even more so at Monza, when only a split oil pipe came between him and a famous victory, Moss had earned his spurs. Now there was no doubt and Mercedes knew he was ready.
The 1955 season would mark the turning point of his professional life. In the 300 SLR sports car he would sensationally win the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio, playing a key role in Mercedes winning the World Sportscar Championship – and in F1, on 16th July, Moss would win his home grand prix at Aintree. Did Fangio ease off for his young friend? “It was your day,” was all the great man would say when Stirling asked him years later.
Mission utterly and completely accomplished, Mercedes withdrew at the end of the season, forcing three-time champion Fangio into an uneasy alliance with Ferrari for 1956, during which he’d claim his fourth, and perhaps least convincing, world title in the Lancia D50. Moss would switch back to a 250F, this time as a works driver, claiming the first of his eventual three Monaco GP wins.
Then in 1957, a revolution in British Racing Green began to build a head of steam. Industrialist Tony Vandervell had designs on achieving what BRM had abjectly failed to do with its overly-complicated V16. The teardrop Vanwall – body by aerodynamicist Frank Costin, chassis by a promising young engineer called Colin Chapman – would finally give Britain the convincing presence in F1 it craved. Moss and Tony Brooks, the latter still recovering from an injury sustained at Le Mans, would deliver a first world championship grand prix win for a British car, at Aintree. Fangio would sweep to his fifth title in a 250F, clinching the crown with his greatest drive as he defeated Ferrari’s Hawthorn and Peter Collins at the Nürburgring. But by the time the Maestro gracefully departed the scene during 1958, a new era was already underway.
In Argentina at the start of the year, Moss had rocked Ferrari and shocked the world by winning in a little Cooper T45 – powered by an engine behind his shoulders rather than dropped into a long nose ahead of his feet. Cooper’s funny little F3 cars had grown into funny little F1 cars, and they would soon change everything, for ever. But first Moss, Brooks and Vanwall would battle through the European summer against Hawthorn, Collins and Ferrari. It would come down to a desert storm in Casablanca, where Moss would win his fourth grand prix of the season, but Hawthorn would claim the second place he needed to become Britain’s first F1 world champion (even if he’d won just once that year). Vanwall did at least claim the inaugural world championship for constructors. But Britain’s new-found eminence came at a heavy price. At Reims and the Nürburgring respectively, Luigi Musso and Collins lost their lives, and in Morocco Vanwall’s talented Stuart Lewis-Evans would sustain burns from which he never recovered. This was also motor racing in the 1950s.
But by 1959, the British revolution was truly getting into its stride, as Cooper’s T51 took on Ferrari’s pretty front-engined 246. For now, Enzo remained defiant that F1 cars should be pulled rather than pushed, but that didn’t stop a gritty Australian who’d cut his racing chops on the rough ’n ready speedways back home from claiming a remarkable world title for Cooper. Jack Brabham outscored and outlasted Brooks and Moss, then pushed his out-of-fuel car across the line at the season finale in Sebring, as team-mate Bruce McLaren scorched past to become F1’s youngest winner so far.
In its first 10 years, F1 had come of age, leaving behind its pre-war roots as an increasingly distant and grainy memory. Sit Farina’s Alfetta beside Brabham’s Cooper and the rapid, fundamental evolution was stark, striking… and enthralling. Now the breathless pace would only pick up momentum as the world championship headed for the decade that put the ‘swing’ into F1, and a fast-changing wider world too.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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