FEATURE BY MAX NOBLE
Dispensing with the herbal tea, or possible G&T, of our last review, I think it best dear reader to reach for the Absinthe, replete with sugar cube for the most balanced impact, so we can have the bitter-sweet taste of our drink match the racing years from 1988, all the way back to the genesis of Formula One as a series in 1950.
I elected to draw my own 'Modern Era' line in the 1989 season in the last article, and from that line I will now glide gently back in time as we call to mind the heroes of years now fading softly in the mind, not unlike an Absinthe soaked beachside sunset. Or indeed a mellow late summer sunset over the river Rhone in Arles...
1950 was not the first year of organised motor sport. By this time the heroic endeavour of motor sport was over fifty years old, and many famous races had already been run, and a number banned. Specifically open road races were coming under pressure due to the immense speeds the cars could now reach, with curious spectators at every apex.
With the world rebounding from World War Two, social and sporting endeavours were on the rise. Sadly a return to the pre-war approach of open public road racing, with the tragic loss of both drivers and spectators, was too much for the sport to survive. As a result the post-war period saw a surge in the creation of dedicated circuits to allow for marginally safer racing.
So adding to the delights of the Indianapolis circuit, and moving from sand to track at Daytona Beach, Europe too built more circuits. Two classics, Spa, and Le Mans, still used mostly public roads, but took the wise decision to close the roads to public use during the race, slowly moving the crowds back and improved crash barriers.
Yet even with these increasing safety precautions these were destined to be bloody decades in the history of Formula One.
1950, and Alfa Romeo triumphs with Giuseppe Farina behind the wheel of a car with its roots set back some years before. The 44-year-old won the championship in the seventh and final race of the year at Monza, having opened the season by winning the very first race under Formula One World Championship rules at Silverstone.
Farina retired from racing after the shock of watching his teammate take over from him poor during practice for the 1957 Indy 500, and spin into the wall and kill himself. Farina walked away from the Indy 500 and racing. For the next decade he was involved in the Pininfarina factory, and Alfa Romeo and Jaguar dealerships. Then in summer 1966 he was driving over the Savoy Alps in his Lotus Cortina when he lost control near Aiguebelle, tragically hitting a telegraph pole and dying instantly. He was 59 years old.
1951 saw the first World Championship win for Juan Manuel Fangio. As a child Fangio left school early to enter the world of automotive mechanics. He first raced a Ford V8 in 1938 in the Turismo Carretera, aged 27. Once he entered the world of Formula One, Fangio set a record of five World Championships titles that went unbeaten for 47 years until Michael Schumacher eclipsed the record. His record of winning with four different teams stands to this day. Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Mercedes, and Ferrari all carried the mighty Fangio to glory, rather cementing him as the polar opposite to Fernando Alonso in terms of his ability to select the right team at the right time. 1951, 54, 55, 56, and one last time in 1957 Fangio ruled supreme.
After a few late-life illnesses Fangio died in 1995, aged 84, having been an admired and respected living legend for nearly half a century.
In between Fangio's wins Alberto Ascari piloted Ferrari to World Championship glory in 1952, and 53. Along with Michael Schumacher, Ascari is Ferrari's only back-to-back world champion, and in addition, he is their last Italian World Champion. A fine clinical driver, he was known for his clean driving style, as well as his excellent motorbike handling and racing capabilities.
On 22 May 1955, Ascari, possibly distracted as he entered a chicane, flew through hay bales and into the cool waters of the Monaco Harbour in his Lancia D50. Thankfully he swam to the surface with nothing more alarming than a broken nose.
May 26th, just a few days later, saw him at Monza to watch his friend Eugenio Castellotti test the latest Ferrari 750 Monza sports car, the plan being they would share the car in the forthcoming 1000Km race at the legendary circuit. Ascari was not supposed to drive that day, and as such did not have his famed blue helmet with him. But he could not resist and set off for a few laps in his shirt and trousers, using Castellotti's white helmet. On his third flying lap he appeared to lose control at Curva del Vialone, and the car somersaulted, throwing him across the track. He died within minutes. Just like his father he died at the age of 36, on the 26th of the month (his father died in July), and left behind a loving, grieving, wife and two children.
(On receiving the call to notify him that Ascari, his world champion had perished, Enzo Ferrari is alleged to have enquired... "and the car?" - Ed)
1958, and the first Englishman to win the world championship lifted high the winner's trophy. John Michael 'Mike' Hawthorn won that year for Ferrari, and promptly retired, having been deeply affected when his friend Peter Collins had been killed earlier that year at the German Grand Prix. Some also considered him to be still haunted by the horrific 1955 Le Mans crash that killed many spectators and caused Mercedes to withdraw from racing.
A few months into his retirement Mike was at the wheel of his modified Jaguar 3.4-litre sedan, possibly racing the motor team manager Rob Walker who was driving a Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, on the A3 Guildford bypass in light rain. At speed it appears Mike clipped a keep left bollard, glanced off an oncoming Bedford lorry, before spinning back across the carriage way into a tree, killing him on the spot. Mike was 29 years old.
1959 and the Australian legend John Arthur 'Jack' Brabham lifted the trophy for the first time. Driving a Cooper-Climax, Jack sealed the championship at the ninth and final race of the season.
He repeated this feat in 1960, again with Cooper, before several years of missing out on the trophy, while racing hard. He then rather uniquely won the championship for a third time in 1966, while driving a car from his own team, Brabham. His final season was 1970, when he still won races, but missed out on the championship before, much to his long suffering wife's relief, he finally retired.
Jack returned to Australia, to the Gold Coast in Queensland, where he and his wife raised their three boys, and continued to be associated with motorsport until Jacks' death in May 2014, at the age of 88.
After Brabham's victories of 1959, and 1960, the first American to win the title, Phil Hill, took the 1961 championship for Ferrari. He raced for Ferrari for many years winning in Sports Car and Formula One, but 1961 was his greatest year, winning at Le Mans for a second time then going on to win the F1 crown. He raced on with various teams until the 1966 season with reducing fortunes each year.
After a long a peaceful retirement Phil passed away in California in August 2008, at the age of 81 from complications arising from Parkinson's disease.
1962, and Graham Hill wins the championship driving for BRM. A wonderful all-British season of winning. Graham (father of future champion Damon) was the embodiment of dashing hero English driver, and did much to shape the exciting view of the sport at a time of rising popularity. He raced on for many seasons, winning the championship a second time in 1968, driving a Lotus-Ford.
Famously, Hill, was to be known as Mr Monaco, winning the event a remarkable five times. He died in November 1975, when the plane he was piloting from testing at Paul Ricard, crashed in heavy fog, killing Graham and five other Embassy Hill team members including rising star Tony Brise. Graham was 46 years old at the time of his death.
1963, and Jim Clark piloted his Lotus Climax to championship victory winning seven of ten races. At a time of unreliable cars, and questionable track safety, to win 70% of the races in a season is still a percentage record. Indeed it took twenty odd years for Alain Prost to equal this number of wins a in a season and then another year for Senna to finally break it and win eight. Even in the current period, with Lewis winning many races, he has not won 70% in a season... yet...
1965 and Clark repeats the championship win. 1968, and at Hockenheim he was competing in a Formula Two race when circumstances conspired to throw him from the circuit at speed and kill him instantly. Aged just 32, he was at the time the driver with the most wins (25), and pole positions (33). Chris Amon summed it up perfectly at the time, being quoted as saying "If it could happen to him, what chance do the rest of us have?"
Sandwiched between Clark's sublime championship years, was an equally impressive performance. 1964 saw John Surtees take the championship with Ferrari. It was his only championship in Formula One, but remains to this day a unique feat for someone who already won multiple motorcycle world championship titles. Starting in Formula One at the age of 26, John was placed second in only his second race, and claimed pole in his third. Clearly he was making an impression! His last win was the Italian GP of 1967, and it was at the same race in 1972, that John got behind the wheel for the last time before retiring.
Surtees had three marriages and three children, before the utter horror of having his son Henry killed in a freak racing accident in July 2009. A wheel from another racing car struck Henry's head, inflicting terrible head trauma and leading to his death later that day. Henry was buried at St. Peter and Paul's Church Lingfield, Surrey. In Spring 2017, at the age of 83, John was laid to rest next to his dear son. A remarkable man who raced in a highly dangerous era, only to witness his son die racing before him. At least Henry's death had a positive impact by aiding the push for the now mandated HALO device to protect open cockpit racers.
1966 has already been covered by "Black Jack" Brabham, so we come to 1967 and Denny Hulme, another antipodean, from New Zealand, and also driving a Brabham race car. Denny had only been in Formula One three seasons when he won the championship. He mounted the podium eight times, with two victories, one in Monaco, one in Germany, sealing an impressive year. He raced on, frequently placing well, until 1974, when in his final season of Formula One he won the opening round in Argentina, before a run of average results saw him placed seventh overall in his final season racing with McLaren.
Always in touch with motor sport, Denny was behind the wheel of a semi-works BMW M3 at the 1992 Bathurst 1000 at the legendary Mount Panorama circuit when, after complaining to the pits of blurred vision, he died at the wheel of a massive heart attack, aged 56.
1968 was a Graham Hill year, and then 1969 saw a Scotsman by the name of Jackie Stewart claim the championship in a Matra Ford. Jackie had his first start in the 1965 South African Grand Prix, and his first win later that same year at the Italian Grand Prix. He would go on to record 27 wins, 43 podiums, 17 poles, and 15 fastest laps on his way to three world championships in 1969, 1971, and 1973. His final win was the German Grand Prix of 1973. He walked away from the sport at the 1973 US Grand Prix following the death of his teammate, Francois Cevert, in qualifying, Stewart opting not to take the start and thereby ending his career on 99 races.
Jackie has been a force for safety in motor sport, a brand ambassador for Rolex, a promoter of all things Scottish, a founder of a Grand Prix team, Stewart Grand Prix in 1996, which became Jaguar for the 2000 season, which became... well... Red Bull in 2005.
He has been (most deservedly) knighted, he has offered insightful, amusing, and politely misguided (on rare occasions) TV commentary, and, at the of this article, continues to be a wonderful, larger than life character frequently wearing more tartan than the Black Watch and somehow making it all work at the age of 80. He also sold his Swiss house near Lake Geneva to Phil Collins.
As of 2018 he has thrown his energy into dementia research as his dear lady wife, Helen (married 1962), has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. Go Sir Jackie.
Learn more about Max and check out his previous features, here