The 1950s opened with Italian domination of the tracks and closed with British-built cars taking the lead, both in the championships and in the technical revolution. Front-engined cars became obsolete in favour of the lighter and better balanced mid-engined British Cooper-Climax and Vanwall.
Tragedy and heroism marked the era in equal measure, as the drivers drove heavy front-engined cars at high speeds in just shirts and leather caps. Drivers like Juan Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, Giuseppe Farina, Alberto Ascari, Peter Collins, Tony Brooks, and Mike Hawthorn set the standards to which future drivers in the decades to come, would be measured. They also helped move Formula One to the forefront of international racing and set it on the path of glory that it remains on today.
The Tracks of the 1950s
Argentina - Buenos Aires: 1953-58
Belgium - Spa-Francorchamps: 1950-56, 58
England - Silverstone: 1950-54, 56, 58; Aintree: 1955, 57, 59
France - Rheims: 1950, 51, 53, 54, 56, 58, 59; Rouen: 1952, 57
Germany - Nurburgring: 1951-54, 56-58; Avus: 1959
Italy - Monza: 1950-59; Pescara: 1957
Monaco - Monte Carlo: 1950, 55-59
Morocco - Ain-Diab: 1958
Netherlands - Zandvoort: 1952, 53, 55, 58, 59
Portugal - Oporto: 1958; Monsanto: 1959
Spain - Pedralbes: 1951, 54
Switzerland - Bremgarten: 1950-54
United States - Sebring: 1959
The first modern Formula One Championship was run in 1950 and every single race that year was won by Alfa Romeo. The glory of having won the first title went to their driver Giuseppe Farina after having won three of the six races held that year, the other three going to Juan-Manuel Fangio.
The first race of the new championship was held at Silverstone and was won by Farina leading a one, two, three finish for the Alfas. Fangio was able to take advantage of a multi-car crash at Monte Carlo to take the win ahead of Alberto Ascari in a Ferrari. Farina then struck back at Bremgarten with another win, retaking the lead in the championship due to Fangio failing to score. This would often be the case this season, one man winning while the opponent failed even to score a point.
The season continued this way with the Alfa Romeos dominating by winning all pole positions and all races. Farina was able to win the championship by three points because in addition to his three wins he had a fourth place finish, as opposed to Fangio's three wins and no other points-paying positions. Alberto Ascari was a distant fourth place in the championship for Ferrari, Alfa Romeo having claimed the top three spots, followed by Louis Rosier for Talbot who had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans that year.
The season opened much as the previous year had left off with Fangio winning two of the first three races and Farina picking up the trophy for the third. Then the amazing happened: at Silverstone the Alfa Romeos were beaten for the first time in almost five years when Froilan Gonzalez won the race for Ferrari and another Ferrari driven by Luigi Villoresi came in third. It looked as if the Alfas finally had some competition.
As it turned out, the Alfa Romeo team did have a worthy challenger in Ferrari, as the next race at the long and twisty Nurburgring was won by Alberto Ascari for Ferrari and Ferraris also finished in third through sixth place. The only Alfa up front was Fangio, coming in second. Ascari then went on to win at Monza, Italy, and Ferrari again dominated the points-paying positions. However, Fangio was able to strike back and win the final race of the year in Spain and secure his first championship.
The next season promised to be a Ferrari year, as Alfa Romeo announced its retirement from Formula One at the end of the year. Ferrari had dodged a potential threat, Mercedes, who had been planning to return to Formula One but the impending rule changes regarding engine size stopped them from doing so and it looked as if Ferrari would have no serious competitor the next year.
As expected, 1952 was controlled by Ferrari, their cars taking the first four spots in the championship and finishing in at least the top two spots every race except one, when a Maserati finished second at Monza, Italy.
The season started with Piero Taruffi winning at Bremgarten for Ferrari while team leader Alberto Ascari was away in America running at the Indianapolis 500 for Ferrari, where he was forced to retire from eighth place. When Ascari returned to Europe nobody could even come close to beating him and he won every single race for the rest of the season, easily taking his first driving title.
At the last race of the season Maserati unveiled its latest six-cylinder car, with which they were able to take a second place finish at Monza, making it appear that the next season it would again be a battle of Italian giants.
Ascari claimed the distinction of being the first repeat world champion by the end of 1952. Development of the cars was slow because the engine formulas would be changing again for the next year. This meant that the cars were basically the same with only slight modifications as time allowed. Fangio was also able to pull Maserati back up into the winner's circle by the year's end, thus preventing Ferrari from having two perfect seasons in a row.
Ascari won five races this year with Farina and Mike Hawthorn each picking a trophy each, also for Ferrari. Fangio's sole win of the year came in the final race in Italy at Monza but this single win did not show his true competitiveness - in the latter part of the year he had four top-two finishes in five races. Included in these finishes was his amazing duel with Hawthorn at Rheims where he was beaten by a short two metres.
By the end of the year the teams had all prepared for the upcoming season and new formulas. Ferrari and Maserati had new cars and Lancia and Mercedes were joining the circus and they all were starting from a clean slate.
Of the major teams expected to do well in this season only Ferrari and Maserati were ready to race at the start with their new cars. Mercedes and Lancia would debut their cars mid-season and released their drivers to run other teams' cars early on. It was this strange practice that allowed Fangio to become champion while winning for both Maserati and Mercedes in the same season.
Fangio won the first two races of the season in his Maserati, including his home Grand Prix in Argentina. Then at the third Grand Prix of the year he easily took the victory in the new Mercedes W196, unbeatable on the fast Rheims track.
The next race at Silverstone was a strange one, with the timing only being different to a tenth of a second and a total of seven drivers tied for fastest lap. Gonzalez and Hawthorn in Ferraris, Sterling Moss, Ascari, and Marimon in Maseratis, Fangio in a Mercedes, and Behra in a Gordini all ran a lap of 1 minute 50 seconds, with Ferrari winning. Fangio easily won the next three events in succession, with Hawthorn taking the season's last race in Spain. Ascari amazingly set the fastest lap in a new Lancia, with full tanks.
In the end Mercedes proved to be almost unbeatable in their W196s with an interchangeable body, simply running the car both as a covered, streamlined version for high speed and a roadster for slow speed tracks. The Lancia proved to be a fast car and when fully developed could pose a threat to the newly revived 'Silver Arrows'.
1955 is a year that will go down in infamy in motor racing. In a single year the lives of Alberto Ascari and Bill Vukovich, two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, were lost and the terrible Le Mans disaster occurred. Racing in the world came to a virtual standstill and much of the Formula One season was cancelled.
The season opened with Juan-Manuel Fangio winning his home Grand Prix in terrible heat. Only two drivers finished the race without relief, Fangio and Roberto Mieres who were both Argentinean. Some cars had as many as five drivers due to exhaustion caused by racing in a climate that was 37°C1 in the shade! Driving in the hot sun in cars where there was minimal heat shielding and where the exhausts either ran under the floor or along the cockpit is almost unimaginable. How Fangio and Mieres were able to last the whole race is incredible, a true feat of endurance.
The season continued, the next race was in Monaco where Alberto Ascari plunged his car into the Monte Carlo harbour after taking the lead. Maurice Trintignant went on to take the one and only win for Ferrari in this short season. Four days later in a test at Monza, Alberto Ascari was killed at the Vialone curve, which has since been named after this talented driver and champion. After Ascari's death Gianni Lancia, who was also in financial straits, decided to withdraw his team from racing, donating all his equipment and cars to Ferrari who would then continue to develop the Lancia-Ferraris, as they were called for several years.
Fangio dominated the rest of the year winning all the races but one. The only one he did not win was the British Grand Prix, which was won by the man who was to give Fangio a strong challenge in future years, Stirling Moss. This was also the first time an Englishman had won his home Grand Prix, albeit for a German team. However, Fangio won the drivers championship over Moss, Castellotti and Farina.
The season had been run under a black cloud, as, at the 24 hours of Le Mans, a Mercedes driven by Pierre Levegh had flown off the track and into the watching crowd, killing the driver and some 83 spectators. The French, Swiss, and German races were cancelled mid season and Switzerland banned racing within its borders, where it has not been re-established. Mercedes then withdrew from all forms of racing at the close of the year, leaving an impressive history in the mere two years they raced in the 1950s, having taken home nine wins in only fourteen points-paying Grand Prix starts.
After the departure of Mercedes it looked as if the control was back to the Italian teams of Ferrari and Maserati. Fangio and Moss went different ways, with Fangio going to Ferrari and Moss to the other Italian giant, Maserati, each hoping to gain an advantage over the other. For the first time in a long while British cars began to make themselves known as a force on the track. BRM returned after many years of absence with an extremely quick car that unfortunately suffered many mechanical problems and Vanwalls were gaining ground as well.
However it was still the Italian teams taking home the wins with Fangio and Peter Collins taking home a total of five wins to Ferrari and Stirling Moss taking two wins to Maserati. An interesting thing happened at the opening race in Argentina, where local sporting star Carlos Menditeguy, a tennis, polo, and golf ace, tried his hand at Formula One in an older model of Maserati. He then went on to lap the whole field and was apparently on his way to an amazing and easy victory until his axle broke, allowing Fangio to take the win. Moss then won at Monaco with Peter Collins taking the next two races in Belgium and France. The French race however was also the scene of history, as it was Bugatti's final race in Formula One. The once great team entered a car for the final time and though its design was revolutionary it was unable to compete with the more modern cars - after the race Bugatti disappeared from the racing world forever.
At Silverstone the new BRM appeared again, leading the beginning of its debut race until a mechanical fault forced it to withdraw. Fangio then led the German Grand Prix start to finish but Moss was able to pull up a surprising win at Monza for the Maserati camp. His win was not without controversy due to the fact that at one point his car had run out of fuel and was given a push by another Maserati. Fangio won his fourth world title at the age of 45, but he was beginning to face stronger and stronger competition from all sides in drivers like Hawthorn, Moss and Collins.
Fangio again switched teams this year, this time moving to Maserati. Moss joined the Vanwall team and by the end of the year the British outfit was able to give the Italian teams an extremely strong challenge with Moss winning in England and Italy, both at Pescara and Monza - surely a major upset to the Italian teams not to win on their home soil.
The season started off with Fangio taking a win in his home country and then moved to Monaco where he won again. However at this race in Monaco a strange new type of car appeared. The small Cooper-Climax Type 43, driven by Jack Brabham, came onto the scene and started what was to be the mid-engine revolution. Moss' victory in England was an amazing feat as he had fallen from the lead all the way down to ninth place on the eighteenth lap, when he had to change cars. He then fought his way all the way back to the front to take the lead and win.
Next came the German race at the Nurburgring, which is often considered Fangio's greatest drive. At the beginning of the race he allowed Hawthorn and Collins to lead but then passed them on the third lap while setting a new lap record. It was not the last record he was to set that day. Eventually Fangio was forced to pit for fuel and fell back to third place behind Hawthorn and Collins, who had set a new fast lap record. Fangio drove like he had never driven before, chopping time off the Ferraris every lap and setting another new record for a lap of the Nurburgring at 9 minutes and 17.4 seconds. This smashed his older record, from the year before, which had been a 9 minute 41.6 second lap. Fangio then passed the Ferraris on the pen-ultimate lap and went on to victory.
Moss went on to win both Italian events but it was still not enough to overtake Fangio who won his fifth and final world championship. At the end of the year Maserati pulled out of Formula One for financial reasons and it was announced that in 1961 a new formula would be introduced into Formula One changing the engine size again. However, this time the teams had several years to prepare.
Also of note in 1957 was the race held at the Monza oval course between American and European drivers. However, the race attracted little support in Europe and was won by the American Jimmy Bryan.
1958 was the first truly competitive year with five different drivers winning for three different teams. Stirling Moss had four victories for Vanwall and Cooper-Climax, Tony Brooks with three for Vanwall, with Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins winning one each for Ferrari and Maurice Trintignant winning one for Cooper-Climax. However despite his wins Moss finished second to the consistent Hawthorn who had the honour of being England's first champion.
The year started with Moss in a private Cooper-Climax due to the fact that the Vanwalls and BRMs were not ready to race yet. Surprisingly, the lightweight, nimble, mid-engined car was able to take victory. Next came the Monaco race where Trintignant took victory in a Cooper-Climax, again over the front engined cars. Also worth a mention at Monaco was the appearance of a new team on the grid, Lotus, which was to become a force in Formula One. Vanwall began to take charge again with Moss winning at Zandvoort and Brooks taking the Belgian event at Spa-Francorchamps.
Tragedy was soon to strike this season though. At Rheims Mike Hawthorn gave Ferrari the first win of the year but the event was marred by the loss of Luigi Musso who was killed when he lost control of his Ferrari while challenging Hawthorn for the lead. Also on a sad note, the race at Rheims was the last for Fangio who retired from racing after his final fourth place finish. Peter Collins then won the British round at Silverstone for Ferrari but again tragedy was to strike Ferrari, as Collins was killed during the next event at the Nurburgring and Ferrari had now lost two top drivers in only four weeks.
Tony Brooks and Stirling Moss each won two of the final four events for Vanwall, securing the British team the first ever constructor's title in Formula One though they pulled out of Formula One racing at the end of the year, only to return briefly in 1959 and 1960. However, it was Mike Hawthorn who went on to take his one and only title with only one win and five second place finishes, scoring points in all but two races. Tragedy was not yet done with Ferrari this year, as Mike Hawthorn was killed driving along a road in England. He had been passing Rob Walker, the owner of the private Cooper-Climax supplied team that had won that year, waved and accelerated his Jaguar, but seconds later he hit a wet spot on the road and lost control of the car. It seemed tragedy was to closely follow the prancing horse2 of Ferrari this year.
This year also saw the second and final race between Americans and Europeans, held on the Monza oval again. European support had grown but the Americans were more experienced at oval racing and Jim Rathman, in a Zink Offenhauser, won the event.
1959 proved to be a turning point in Formula One design. For the first time a mid-engined car, the Cooper-Climax, was able to dominate the front-engined roadster and win a world championship. Jack Brabham took the title for the first time, over Tony Brooks in a Ferrari, with Moss coming in third. Though Moss was considered the greatest driver of the time his search for the perfect car led him to try almost every car in the paddock from BRM, to Cooper-Climax, to the new Aston-Martin that was obsolete by the time it raced, as it had been designed in 1957. This constant switching of teams thus made it impossible for Moss to be a real challenge.
The season opened at Monte Carlo where the light and nimble Cooper-Climax was guided to victory by Brabham for his first win. Joakim Bonnier took BRM to their first win in the next race at Zandvoort while Brooks won in France for Ferrari. Brabham and Brooks split the next two races though Brooks' win was saddened by the loss of fellow Ferrari driver Jean Behra, who crashed during a Porsche sports car race. Moss then regained his form and won the next two races. The final race of the season was the United States Grand Prix held at the Sebring track in Florida. It was won by Bruce McLaren, who would later go on to manufacture his own cars and start the team that bears his name today, at the age of only 22. Worth an amusing mention is the fact that the Indianapolis 500 winner of 1959, Roger Ward, competed in the American race in a Kurtis Midget and was completely outclassed.
Jack Brabham finished the season four points ahead of Brooks and in fourth place in the title was the American Phil Hill giving America their best performance yet. The 1950s came to a close with mid-engined British cars taking the lead in technology and starting the revolution in car design to come.
Statistics of the 1950s
Here are just a few statistics for the 1950s, including race wins, pole positions, fast laps, and world champions:
|Driver||Home Country||World Championships|
|Fangio, Juan Manuel||Argentina||5|
NB: The Constructors' Title3 was awarded from 1958 onwards.
Grand Prix Winners
|Fangio, Juan Manuel||Argentina||24|
|Gonzalez, Jose Froilan||Argentina||2|
|Vukovich, Bill*||United States||2|
|Bryan, Jimmy*||United States||1|
|Flaherty, Pat*||United States||1|
|Hanks, Sam*||United States||1|
|McLaren, Bruce||New Zealand||1|
|Parsons, Johnnie*||United States||1|
|Ruttman, Troy*||United States||1|
|Sweikert, Bob*||United States||1|
|Wallard, Lee*||United States||1|
|Ward, Rodger*||United States||1|
* = Winners of the Indianapolis 500 between 1950 and 1959. During these years the Indy 500 was considered to be a World Championship event, contributing points toward Formula One.
|Driver||Home Country||Pole Positions|
|Fangio, Juan Manuel||Argentina||29|
|Gonzalez, Jose Froilan||Argentina||3|
|Agabashian, Fred*||United States||1|
|Faulkner, Walt*||United States||1|
|Flaherty, Pat*||United States||1|
|Hoyt, Jerry*||United States||1|
|McGrath, Jack*||United States||1|
|Nalon, Duke*||United States||1|
|O'Connor, Pat*||United States||1|
|Rathmann, Dick*||United States||1|
|Thompson, Johnny*||United States||1|
|Vukovich, Bill*||United States||1|
* = Winners of a pole position for the Indianapolis 500 between 1950 and 1959. During these years the Indy 500 was considered to be a World Championship event.
|Driver||Home Country||Fastest Laps|
|Fangio, Juan Manuel||Argentina||23|
|Gonzalez, Jose Froilan||Argentina||6|
|Vukovich, Bill*||United States||3|
|Hill, Phil||United States||2|
|Bettenhausen, Tony*||United States||1|
|McGrath, Jack*||United States||1|
|McLaren, Bruce||New Zealand||1|
|Parsons, Johnnie*||United States||1|
|Rathmann, Jim*||United States||1|
|Russo, Paul*||United States||1|
|Thompson, Johnny*||United States||1|
|Wallard, Lee*||United States||1|
* = Holders of a fastest lap for the Indianapolis 500 between 1950 and 1959. During these years the Indy 500 was considered to be a World Championship event.