The British Era
Copyright © 1997, 2014 Glenn B. Manishin.
Despite Sterling Moss’s mid-1950s heroics, the British era really began in the 1958 season, when Moss won the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix in Rob Walker’s privately-entered, underpowered but revolutionary rear-engined Cooper T45, a car that gave away almost half a liter to its rivals and for which the race promoters at first refused to pay up, saying the “funny little” car did not look like a proper Grand Prix machine. The Cooper started a coup d’état that would soon overthrow the existing scale of values in the small society of Formula One. Taking advantage of rule changes that outlawed aviation petrol, Cooper recognized that reduced fuel consumption and shorter races inevitably gave an advantage to lighter cars, with less generous proportions, as the cars did not have to last so long or carry as much fuel. The 1959 season then produced a fabulous contest in which Briton Mike Hawthorn captured the Formula One World Championship driving a Ferrari 246 — after the death of fellow Brit Peter Collins in the French GP at Reims — and Moss once again finished second in the Vanwall (designed by Colin Chapman). Disenchanted and distraught by Ferrari politics, Hawthorn — the first British World Champion — retired at season end, only to be killed just months later in a road accident in his Jaguar in January 1959.
Vanwall withdrew from F1, but in its place were to come a series of dominant British Grand Prix teams, making British racing green the “official” color of F1 for a more than a decade — and ushering in an era of British F1 engineering excellence that extends to today. Between 1962 and 1973, British Formula One teams won 12 World Championships with drivers the likes of Scots Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart, Australian Jack Brabham, Englishman Graham Hill and New Zealander Denny Hulme. It started in 1959-60 with the Cooper team, using a 2,500 cc Coventry-Climax engine and a new iteration of their astonishingly innovative rear-engine design, coupled with front-mounted radiator, which captured back-to-back F1 titles for Jack Brabham with a combination of superb weight distribution and handling. (Driving a “works” Cooper along with Brabham to second place in the 1960 World Championship was young New Zealander Bruce McLaren — whose real fame, like Enzo Ferrari, came later as a team owner.) Every F1 World Champion since has been sitting in front of his engine.
Yet it was Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus, pushed by his engineering brilliance, that dominated the second decade of Formula One. Chapman’s mustache and blue cloth cap — which he threw into the air at trackside whenever Lotus won a race — would become familiar at circuits around the world. He was a constant source of technical innovation, and it is fair to say that Chapman did more than anyone else to change motor racing worldwide. He realized that for racing cars, reliability meant increased weight and lost speed, so there was an advantage in making cars so light they would be at the point of mechanical failure by the end of a race. All too often this meant that Lotus F1 cars collapsed a few miles too early; but when they didn’t, they were unsurpassed. Beginning in 1960 with Moss and Innes Ireland, Lotus thrived on the extraordinary relationship between Chapman and his prodigy driver, Jim Clark, who was to make the most of Lotus’ technical advances for F1 cars. The most important of these was the monocoque (or one-piece) chassis, introduced with the Lotus 25 in 1962, which along with rear engines marked the second watershed technological change in Formula One. By reclining the drivers’ position, Chapman was also able to reduce the car’s cross-section, hence aerodynamic drag. Shortly later, Chapman would take things a step further, bolting Coventry-Climax and then Ford Cosworth engines to the rear of his Lotus’ monocoques and hanging the suspension off of them, thus transforming the engine into a stressed member of the car’s chassis itself. Those same three features continue as the fundamental basis of Formula One car design to this day.
We must picture it as best we can: the low, low Lotus 25, Clark’s hands encased in black driving gloves and holding the wheel with such sensitivity, such lightness of touch. Jim Clark did not beat the Nürburgring into submission. He caressed it into surrender, seduced from it every secret it had.
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After an initial controversy at Monza in 1961, where he was involved in an accident that claimed the life of Wolfgang (“Taffy”) von Trips, giving the ’61 World Championship to American Phil Hill and his famous shark-nosed Ferrari 156 Dino, Clark barely lost the 1962 title to Graham Hill (then driving for BRM — “British Racing Motors”) when an oil leak caused a DNF while leading the final race, and the season points, at South Africa’s Kyalami. In ’62 the only interruption to British dominance was Dan Gurney’s win for Porsche at Rouen in France; also of note during the season was the appearance of a small new car at the Nürburgring, which was piloted by its builder and owner, Jack Brabham. Clark won handily for Lotus in 1963, and repeated in 1965, posting the maximum possible F1 World Championship points in both seasons. All this despite taking May off almost every year, and missing Monaco, to compete in and become the first Briton to win the Indianapolis 500 — bringing the rear-engine revolution to the winner’s circle at The Brickyard.
While Clark scored points in just six 1965 races, all six were wins (including a victory spree of five consecutive GPs, taking the checkered flag at Spa, Clermont-Ferrand, Silverstone, Zandvoort and the Nürburgring). A rising star in F1 was Jackie Stewart, rookie driver for BRM, who scored a point in his first ever Formula One race and posted a win at Mona in just his 8th Grand Prix start. A small Japanese automaker, Honda, also won the last race of the year with Richie Ginther driving, giving the Asian firm its first-ever victory in Formula One. Nonetheless, a brief five years after its maiden F1 victory, Lotus was indisputably the best team in the world. The Lotus string of championships was broken only by two drivers. The first was former motorcycle great John Surtees in the 1964 Ferrari 158 (it would be 11 years before the Scuderia of Maranello would win another F1 title), the only man ever to be World Champion on two wheels and four — and only because Clark suffered engine failure on the second-to-last lap of the 1964 Mexican Grand Prix, allowing Surtees to slide into 2nd place and beat Graham Hill by a single point for the World Championship, as only the top six results counted. The second was Jack Brabham with his Brabham Racing team, which won in 1966-67 while Lotus struggled with horsepower after Formula One belatedly moved to an increased 3.0 liter specification…casuing Coventry Climax to withdraw from racing at the end of ’65 while other British engine suppliers were not ready for the new specifications.
Jimmy Clark may have been the most naturally talented driver ever to appear in Formula One. He won four straight Belgian GPs at the tremendously difficult Spa-Francorchamps circuit, a track he despised, and was masterful in wet conditions. Clark raced intuitively, saying that when he needed to go faster, he would not drive any faster, rather “concentrate harder.” His dominant 1965 season in the Lotus 33 — in which he led every lap of every race he finished — is matched in F1 history perhaps only by the spectacular 1988 results of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna at McLaren. But the single fact which tells the most about him is that only once did Clark finish second; in other words, if he made it to the flag, he invariably made it before anyone else, typically running away into the lead and driving uncontested to the finish.
Clark broke the immortal Fangio’s record for career GP victories in the opening round of the 1968 season at Kyalami in January, where the first sponshorship-liveried F1 car was unveiled by Chapman, but died a few short months later at Hockenheim in a relatively inconsequential F2 race after veering off into the trees in the wet on 7 April. A small plaque — now located behind a protective Armco guardrail — is set in the forest to mark the spot of his tragic, and still largely unexplained, accident. Even more sadly, the Hockenheimring was reconfigured in 2001 to take away its classic long straights through the forest and then dropped as the home of the German Grand Prix in favor of an equally emasculated Nürburgring,
Chapman’s deal with Walter Hayes of Ford in 1966 would revolutionise Formula One as much as his deal with the Imperial Tobacco Company (Gold Leaf at first, later John Player) two years hence. . . So Ford put up the money and the Blue Oval would grace the cam covers. Cosworth designed and built it, while Lotus would have exclusive use for the first year before availability was extended to other F1 teams. That the DFV-powered car won its debut outing, having also taken pole position and fastest lap, has become Grand Prix racing legend.
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making that small monument itself now a part of F1 history. Whether Clark, a private and soft-spoken man, would have prospered in the modern era of F1 commercialism and downforce will never be known, but his absence ended a time of relative innocence in Formula One. As Chris Amon, then with Ferrari, said in 1968, “If it could happen to him, what chance did the rest of us have? I think we all felt that. It seemed like we’d lost our leader.”
One of the more significant developments in Formula One history occurred before Jim Clark’s death, in 1967, when Ford partnered with Team Lotus to develop the fabled Cosworth F1 engine. Indeed, if the ’60s had a turning point it was the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. While earlier engineering innovations, like the monocoque chassis, were more important technically, Zandvoort witnessed the debut of the Ford Cosworth DFV 3.0 V8, the power plant that would go on to dominate Formula One for nearly two decades. At Zandvoort, the new Cosworth engine brought two-time F1 World Champion Clark just the second Grand Prix victory since his amazing 1965 season. With minor trouble from wheel bearings hampering the qualifying performance of his Lotus 49, Clark started well back in 8th on the grid behind teammate Graham Hill’s pole position (4.2s faster than the lap record). After 11 laps Hill was out, handing the lead to Jack Brabham, followed by Jochen Rindt, but just five laps later Clark had passed both, taking a lead which he held to the end, eventually winning by 23.6s. By the end of 1967 the Lotus 49s were so dominant that Hill and Clark would toss a coin to see who should win, with only unreliability denying Clark a third World Championship. Although Team Lotus’ exclusive use of the DFV ended with 1968’s season-opening South African GP, the Cosworth would go on to win more than 150 Grands Prix — the most persistent and successful of any F1 engine ever — and ushered in an era of of Formula One constructors in which a comparatively level playing field prevailed. For nearly 20 years afterwards, aside from Ferrari and BRM, all race-winning teams used off-the-shelf Ford Cosworth engines. Only the arrival of the turbo era eventually displaced it. As we would soon see, although the age of F1 privateers was almost over, by virtue of the Ford Cosworth the epoch of garagistas (as Enzo Ferrari disparagingly dubbed them) like Ken Tyrrell, overwhelmingly British, would continue well into the 1970s.