Vanwall in Formula 1 – Triumph of British Racing Green
Vanwall in Formula 1 – Triumph of British Racing Green
At Revs Institute in Naples, Florida, as part of the Miles Collier Collections, a lineup of Formula One race cars traces Britain’s involvement — and, indeed, dominance — in Grand Prix design. It ends with a 1988 Arrows that, while not the most competitive racecar of its era, embodies fundamental innovations that shape all contemporary F-1 racers.
Near the start of this lineup, which includes one of John Cooper’s early rear-engined cars and a legendary BRM, is a car built more than 30 years before the Arrows: the Vanwall F-1. It looks nothing at all like the Arrows. Its engine is in front. It has no wings or ground effects, and it uses tube-frame construction instead of a monocoque that features the engine as part of the chassis.
Yet the Vanwall is inextricably linked to the Arrows by the basic design philosophies that it pioneered. These principles helped make it the first British car to win the Formula One constructors’ championship — 61 years ago — and started an engineering dominance that continues to this day. Yes, Ferrari still wins titles, but the carbon fiber version of Silicon Valley is firmly ensconced in England.
Back in the mid-1950s, however, Formula One racing belonged to the Italians and Germans. Barely a decade earlier, Britain’s engineering and manufacturing prowess had helped preserve democracy. But now the two vanquished nations — Italy in particular — held the upper hand in the cutting edge of racecar design.
Britain did field teams during the early days of the Formula One drivers’ championship, which began in 1950. Cooper, ERA, BRM and Frazer-Nash were a few — and none but Connaught, in a non-championship race in Syracuse in 1955, were victorious through 1957. Enzo Ferrari dismissed the British teams as garagistas. All a British fan could say was “Oh, the shame of it!”
Enter the British industrialist Tony Vandervell, whose company made the Thin Wall line of bearings and who railed against “those bloody red cars.” In 1954, Vandervell started his own team — Vanwall, a combination of his name and his product’s. At first, Vanwall campaigned modified Ferraris in British Formula Libre events, but Formula One was always the ultimate goal. After unsuccessful attempts to build his own car, in 1956 Vandervell hired a young designer named Colin Chapman.
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Chapman applied the philosophy that would guide his subsequent Lotus racing team, along with his sports car company: trim every ounce of fat. Chapman designed a thin but rigid tube frame chassis, like the one in the Vanwall at the Revs Institute (this particular car won the Grand Prix races at Pescara and Italy in 1957 and the Belgian, Italian and Moroccan races in 1958).
Realizing the importance of aerodynamics early on, Chapman brought on Frank Costin, from the De Havilland Aircraft Company, as his aerodynamicist to create a sleek, teardrop-shaped body. It paid off. Starting with the 1958 season, a rules change banned alcohol fuel, which the Vanwall’s four-cylinder, 2.5-liter engine was designed for. That left it at 262 horsepower.
In a recent interview, Tony Brooks, one of the three British drivers on the Vanwall team, recalled that the ban on alcohol fuel put the Vanwall at a horsepower disadvantage, at least to the Ferraris. “My account of the 1958 German Grand Prix underlined their superiority on the straight,” Brooks said, “which was surprising given the aerodynamic superiority of the Vanwall. Stirling Moss [one of Brooks’ teammates] estimated that Ferrari had a 15-mile-per-hour speed advantage, with the edge on acceleration. It has been estimated that Vanwall’s horsepower disadvantage was in the 20 to 30 bhp range.”
But the Vanwall’s weight, 1,346 pounds at the time, was estimated to be 100 pounds less than the Ferrari. Then there was Costin’s sleek bodywork. Costin borrowed tricks from his aerospace work, most notably a NACA duct, which blended smoothly into the bodywork, to channel air into the engine.
“F-1 was not aerodynamically conscious at the time,” Brooks recalled in the interview. “But Frank Costin incorporated all this knowledge in the Vanwall, and with competitors not being fully appreciative of the technology, they decided not to emulate him.”
Photos of the Vanwalls on starting grids show that they physically dwarfed their competition. Costin’s body had to be large to accommodate the driver. Unlike most other F-1 cars of that era, it did not use an offset driveshaft. In the Vanwall the driver was positioned above the transmission and rear axle, seeming to tower over competitors.
“With the engine in the front driving the rear wheels, the propeller shaft necessitated the high seating position, and the rules of aerodynamics dictated the shape of the car,” Brooks said.
Despite its greater frontal area, the Vanwall’s body was so carefully sculpted by Costin that it had less drag than the competition.
The results became evident in 1957 when the Vanwalls won three races — including the British Grand Prix at Aintree — and finished second at the Monaco and Morocco Grands Prix.
The victory at Aintree was sweet, coming before the home crowd and being the first for a British car in an official F-1 championship event. Brooks started in the winning car, but handed it to Moss to finish because of the lingering effect of injuries Brooks suffered at Le Mans earlier that year.
In a 2007 article, Brooks recalled the reaction as Moss took the checkered flag: “… the stands erupted and the crowds were jumping up and down all round the circuit, any remaining English reserve being totally forgotten.”
During that season, Brooks recalled in his autobiography, “Poetry in Motion,” he made a messy discovery about the Vanwalls. Dust from their inboard rear disc brakes exhausted though the cockpit — along with the usual swirl of grime and oil.
“After three hours of hard driving round the streets of Monte Carlo, I looked like a chimney sweep,” he wrote. “…it was perhaps as well that we were ignorant about the dangers of asbestos at the time.”
While the car started auspiciously, the pinnacle was 1958, with Moss winning the Dutch, Portuguese and Moroccan races. Brooks won at three classic venues: Spa in Belgium, the Nurburgring in Germany, and the Italians’ own hallowed turf at Monza. The Formula One constructors championship, which was being awarded for first time in Grand Prix racing, went to Britain.
Moss might have added the drivers’ world championship, too, if not for a supreme act of sportsmanship in Portugal. He stepped in on behalf of Mike Hawthorn, who was going to be disqualified out of second place for apparently restarting his stalled car improperly. Moss explained to the stewards why his countryman hadn’t violated the rules, and Hawthorn kept the seven points from that race, eventually nipping Moss for the world title by one point.
But the Vanwall story had already taken the tragic turn that was to be its ultimate end. Stuart Lewis-Evans, the third Vanwall driver, died from burns suffered in a crash in the last race of the 1958 season, Morocco. Vandervell, already showing the physical strain of running his team, was overwhelmed by Lewis-Evans’ death. His grief combined with his declining health, caused him to reduce his involvement with the team. It disappeared from Formula One entirely after 1961.
By then, however, the point had been made — by Vandervell, the British industrialist; Chapman, who studied structural engineering at University College London (and would go on to win seven F-1 constructors titles); and Costin, the British aeronautics expert. “Tony Vanderwell, Colin Chapman, and Frank Costin certainly established the foundation on which Britain’s dominance in F-1 design was established,” Brooks said in the interview.
So perhaps you’ll forgive the racing journalists Denis Jenkinson and Cyril Posthumus for a bit of hyperbole when they wrote in their book “Vanwall”: “Just as Churchill had stuck his jaw out and taken over the country in its darkest hours, so Tony Vandervell had taken motor racing by the scruff of the neck and given it a thorough hiding.”
Well, the Italians, anyway.
Joseph Siano was a copy desk chief at The New York Times for over 30 years. Overseeing copy for Styles, Travel, Dining, Home and Special Sections. He also did occasional reporting on collector-car market and historical auto-racing pieces. Now, he is a freelance copy editor at The Motley Fool and the Revs Institute for Automotive Research.