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Monaco Grand Prix: Origin of the Species

FEATURE BY GUEST AUTHORS
25/05/2018

As we come up on the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix, it is worth noting that the Magic of Monaco really has its roots in the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix 60 years ago, when Grand Prix racing began its transformation into Formula One.

The 1958 race in the "sunny place for shady people," as Somerset Maugham called Monte Carlo, took place on May 18, 1958, and the glamour component of Monaco was already in the air. Prince Rainier had married 26 year-old American actress Grace Kelly on April 18, 1956, and just two months before the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix, Princess Grace kept her part of the royal bargain and gave birth to Prince Albert on March 14, 1958, a son and thus an heir for Prince Rainier. It was very important to Prince Rainier to have a male heir as there was a treaty that provided that if he died without leaving a male heir, the Principality of Monaco would revert to France! Having recovered from childbirth, Princess Grace took her place next to her husband in the royal box where the winner's trophies are handed out, then and now.

Away from the royal box and out on the twisty, round-the-houses circuit with its picturesque corners - The Chapel at Sainte Devote, Casino Square, the Station Hairpin, Tabac - the growing popularity of the Monaco race amongst drivers and Grand Prix marques was manifest. Never have so many sought so few positions on a Grand Prix grid as in that 1958 race. The Automobile Club of Monaco had limited the grid to 16 positions but there were 30 drivers competing for those positions. Would that we had such capacity problems these days in F1.

The "formula" for 1958 was an engine capacity of up to 2.5 litres and there was a tremendous variety to the cars and their configurations. The entry list had seven separate manufacturers competing against each other, from legendary Italian marques like Ferrari and Maserati to the garagistes, as Enzo Ferrari called them, emanating from England such as Vanwall, BRM, Cooper, Lotus and Connaught.

The team owners were also a motley crew, from the little OSCA team from Bolognas, Italy, fielding a 1.5 litre sports car-like entry, to the factory teams like Ferrari and Vanwall which had entered multiple-car teams. Smaller teams like Cooper Car Company had learned the ropes in the lower formulas and were just beginning to show the more famous manufacturers that power was not the only answer to being the fasted car over one lap. Maserati as an official factory team had withdrawn from racing at the end of 1957 but 10 Maserati 250Fs were among the entries and two of them made the race.

The engines were also a mix, with Ferrari and Maserati and BRM making their own engines and the privateer British teams tending to rely on some form of the Coventry-Climax engine. Vanwall and Connaught were the exceptions to the rule, with Connaught using an aging Alta 1.5 four-cylinder inline engine and Vanwall running its own 2.5 litre four cylinder.

Tire suppliers were also numerous in that day with Dunlop, Avon, Englebert and Pirelli all participating.

Amongst the 30 drivers competing for those 16 spots on the grid were stars of Grand Prix's past, present and future.

Maria Teresa de Filippis, who was to become the first woman to start a Grand Prix later on in the 1958 Season at the Belgian Grand Prix, was among the hopefuls in Monaco, driving a Maserati 250F, managing to set the 22nd fastest time, faster than several of the more experienced drivers, but not fast enough to get into the race. Sixty years later, there are still no women drivers in F1 so some things have not changed.

On the other end of the Monaco experience spectrum was Monegasque Louis Chiron born in 1899, who had a long and distinguished record at Monaco. Chiron won the 1931 Monaco Grand Prix in a T51 Bugatti, had driven the original Silver Arrow W25 for Mercedes-Benz in the 1936 Monaco Grand Prix with notables like Bernd Rosemeyer and his Auto Union as his competition, and had recently taken sixth place at the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix at age 55, driving the elegant Lancia D50. At 58 years-old, Chiron failed to qualify a Maserati 250F for this 1958 race, his best practice time being a second behind Maria Teresa de Filippis in a similar Maserati. Today, the Bugatti Chiron supercar is the latest testament to his fame.

As to another old-timer, Juan Manuel Fangio, the winner of the 1957 Monaco Grand Prix driving his Maserati 250F for the Maserati factory team, it was surprising the Argentine was not present at all for the 1958 race. He had been lured away to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where he attempted unsuccessfully to qualify a traditional front-engined Offenhauser - powered Indy roadster called the Dayton Steel Foundry Special. Sounding a lot like Fernando Alonso explaining why he wanted to run the Indy 500 in 2017 with McLaren-Honda, Fangio was quoted in the Indianapolis Star of the time as saying that "my desire to participate at Indianapolis is an aspiration which I have had for a long time." Fangio, then 46 years old, passed his physical examination, and passed his "rookie" test on the Speedway but having managed to get his Indy roadster up to 142 mph in time trials (which would have qualified him at the back of the 33-car grid), he begged off from competing in the race itself, withdrawing on May 15, 1958, too late to get back to Monaco and strap himself into a Grand Prix car. Fangio officially retired after the 1958 French Grand Prix later on in the Season.

A fledging driver and fledging constructor combined to make one of the most prescient of debut entries at the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix. For Graham Hill, the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix was his very first Grand Prix, and he was driving a primitive-looking, spindly front-engined Lotus 12 designed by Colin Chapman and powered by a somewhat anaemic 1.9 litre Coventry Climax engine. It was also the debut of Lotus in a Grand Prix. Ten years later, Hill would win the 1968 World Championship in Chapman's sleek, rear-engined Lotus 49B-Cosworth V8, resplendent in Gold Leaf Team Lotus colours. For many years, Hill held the record for most wins at Monaco, having won in 1963, 1964, 1965, 1968 and 1969. It took no less a talent than Ayrton Senna to take that "King of Monaco" title away from Graham Hill when the Brazilian scored his sixth win in 1993. But before all those triumphs at Monaco, Hill cut his teeth in this 1958 Monaco race, running well but going out on lap 69 of the 100-lap race when the driveshaft on the Lotus 12 broke, a harbinger of the delicately-built Lotuses of the future.

Speaking of Colin Chapman's design and engineering genius, it is ironic that there was only one manufacturer with a rear-engined car in the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix, the three rear-engined Cooper-Climax racers. One of them, the nimble winning Cooper T45 of Maurice Trintignant, showed the way to the more prestigious marques: four Ferrari Dinos, three Vanwalls and two BRMs, all of them front-engined dinosaurs.

Another significant aspect of the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix was that the winning team was owned by privateer Rob Walker, heir to the Walker whisky fortune, which had the benefit of the Cooper Car Company's shrewd design and the able mechanics Rob Walker had on his race team, a combination that took Stirling Moss to some of his most famous victories in 1958 in Argentina, in 1960 and 1961 at Monaco and at the 1961 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.

Finally, amongst the participants at this pivotal 1958 Monaco Grand Prix - both as a team owner and a driver - was none other than the man who would transform the sport of Grand Prix racing into modern F1: Bernie Ecclestone.

Bernie had been in and out of the swirl of British motorsports as a young man, mostly at Brands Hatch, which along with Silverstone, was one of the early home venues of Grand Prix racing for drivers and fans alike.

In the early 1950's at Brands Hatch, the track facilities and safety features were primitive. No cover for the rudimentary grandstands. No press box or tent for journalists. No hospitality units or motor homes for current or potential sponsors. It goes without saying that no airplanes or helicopters could land nearby circuit. When it rained, drivers still raced but for the fans the parking lots were a bog.

Finally, safety for race fans and drivers was very much an afterthought. Straw bales at the corners perceived to be the most dangerous was about the extent of protecting the drivers.

You can imagine what a fastidious young man like Bernie was thinking as he observed such a ramshackle state of affairs.

In time, Bernie would do something about it and professionalize the sport but in those early days at Brands Hatch his interests were more personal: speed.

A Man to Watch

It is not too well known that before he became F1's most successful entrepreneur, Bernie was in the first instance a racer himself, first with motorcycles and later on in the "500" movement, a 500 cc single-cylinder class of open wheel racing that cropped in the early 1950's, comparable to Formula 3.

How good was Bernie as a driver?

In the May 1951 issue of Motor Sport, the journalist covering the "Half-Litre C.C. Meeting" run in dry, cold weather before a big crowd on April 8, 1951 at Brands Hatch Stadium, proved to be a soothsayer. The journalist described the winning driver of a Cooper-J.A.P. 500 cc open wheel race: "Heat 1 of the Junior Brands Hatch Championship saw [Bernie] Ecclestone's smart Cooper-J.A.P. lead all the way, as befits the motor-cycle lap-record holder. Ecclestone is a man to watch in future..." Bernie was 20 years old, the same age as Max Verstappen and the young Brit was every bit as smitten by racing as is our young Dutchman.

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READERS COMMENTS

 

1. Posted by TorroVerde, 04/06/2018 13:23

"A very nice piece. As F1 fans, most of us have a working knowledge of the historical greats, but this narrative provides a lovely bit of context for how their respective threads weave the larger tapestry. Thanks for sharing."

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2. Posted by TokyoAussie, 01/06/2018 4:27

"Nice read."

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3. Posted by RobertC, 01/06/2018 3:50

"Good story, but the 500 cc racers were the current Formula 3 cars. The 500 cc cars were adopted by the
fia in 1950 as Formula 3, so the cars were not "comparable to Formula 3", they were the real thing."

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4. Posted by Rob, 25/05/2018 14:58 (moderated by an Adminstrator, 25/05/2018 22:59)

"Interesting article.

The Connaught's Alta engine was a 2.5 litre.

As far as the race itself went, Tony Brooks was on pole in a Vanwall, Jean Behra (BRM) led for the first 27 laps, then Mike Hawthorn (Ferrari Dino) 5 laps, Stirling Moss (Vanwall) 6 laps, Hawthorn again for 9 laps and then Maurice Trintignant for 53 laps. There were only 6 cars running at the finish."

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