A Pit Stop Through Time: Ferrari 1955 to 1959
As Ferrari headed in to the second half of the 1950s, having cemented themselves as a one of the front running teams within Formula 1, they were up against a new challenger, in the shape of Mercedes Benz.
The 1954 season ended with Juan Manuel Fangio winning the championship with the new team (the Argentine driver had also driven for Maserati in the 1954 season).
It was clear that Mercedes was a legitimate challenger to the Ferrari dominance of the last couple of years.
The 1955 season was dominated by the Mercedes cars driven by Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss. Ferrari won one race at the Monaco Grand Prix; it was won by French driver Maurice Trintignant.
The race was remembered when the Lancia of Alberto Ascari left the track and crashed into the Harbour, Ascari would survive the crash largely unscathed, however he was killed while testing Sportscars at Monza only 4 days later. He was 36.
The next race in the 1955 Championship was and the famous Spa-Francorchamps circuit for the Belgium GP, the race was won by the Mercedes of Juan Manuel Fangio, this was the last race before a tragedy that changed motorsport forever.
The Tragedy of the 24 Hours at Le Mans.
June 11th, 1955 is a date that is written in the history books of motorsport for all the wrong reasons. A tragedy that has (thankfully) not been surpassed.
The 24 hours of Le Mans was a race that attracted motorsport fans from all over the world. The 1955 event was no different, with anywhere between 250,000 to 300,000 motorsport fans descended on the circuit in anticipation of the prestigious event.
Fans were there to see Ferrari, who were at the peak of their powers and reigning champions, Jaguar, who had thrown all their resources at the race to beat the dominant Italians and the new boys the Mercedes, who arrived with a new car called the 300 SLR, with its ultra-lightweight magnesium alloy body.
Some of the best racing drivers of their generation were also taking part including Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorn.
The start of the race did not disappoint, with Hawthorn and Fangio trading lap records. There was also added spice to the racing from Hawthorn, who was angry at the Mercedes cars due to the death of a close relative in the second world war.
3 Hours / 35 laps.
It was 3 hours into the race on the 35th lap of the race when disaster struck. Fangio and Hawthorn were in an intense battle, Hawthorn passed the British driver Lance Macklin, before realising that he was being called in to the pits, he braked sharply, veering towards the pits. Macklin took avoiding action, drifting off the track, re-joining the track in front of the Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh, who was driving at 150mph, with no time to react he hit Macklin’s car.
The speed and force of the impact launched the Mercedes car into the air and hitting an embankment and disintegrating. Levegh was thrown back on to the track which killed him instantly.
Debris from the car including the engine block flew into the crowd, that along with the cars bonnet which acted like a giant guillotine killing all that were in its path.
When the dust settled, 83 spectators along with Levegh were killed. Hawthorn, who had overshot the pit entry pulled up in the pits a lap later with tears streaming down his face.
Spectators used advertising banners to carry the wounded to help, people frantically searched for missing loved ones and priests carried out the last rites. Yet with no logical reason the race continued.
With the second World war still fresh in the memory in 1955, Mercedes was urged to withdraw for the race, as a German Manufacturer seeming so cavalier about French bloodshed would be catastrophic. The call was finally made, and the remaining Mercedes cars were withdrawn at 1:45am. The were running first and third at the time.
The race, inexplicably continued to its conclusion, the organisers seemingly cavalier attitude to a tragedy of monumental proportions is hard to understand, along with the justification of the decision being about gridlock hampering the emergency effort. Afterall this is a 24-hour race, it could have been cancelled at 3am, when crowds were at their lowest.
The race was won by Hawthorn and co-driver Ivor Bueb with an average speed of 106mph. Hawthorn was still distraught after the race, however a photographer captured Hawthorn smiling and sipping Champagne, the image appeared in the French magazine L’Auto Journal with the bitter caption “A votre sante Monsieur Hawthorn” (“To your health, Mr Hawthorn).
The inevitable enquiry into the tragedy concluded that the drivers were not to blame for the accident, it pointed the blame at the circuit, stating that it was woefully unprepared for a race of such speed.
The track was built in 1923, when cars raced at speeds of around 60mph. with cars travelling at three times the speed, with the track only seeing minor adjustments since 1923, it was inevitable that something would happen. Few would have imagined the scale of the tragedy.
The fallout from that fateful day was almost immediate, with 4 races in the 1955 Formula 1 season cancelled, these were the German, Swizz, French and Spanish Grand Prix. Most countries across Europe banned motor-racing until safety standards were improved, Switzerland are still to lift the post Le Mans ban.
Juan Manuel Fangio would never compete in Le Mans after 1955, the most dramatic effect for Formula 1 was the withdrawal of Mercedes from all form’s motorsports. The German manufacturer would not return to Formula 1 as a team until 2010. If was a further two years until Mercedes would win another race, when they won the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix.
The 1955 season would end with Juan Manuel Fangio winning the Championship again, the Ferrari cars were just not up to the challenge.
Heading into the 1956 season with Mercedes deciding to withdraw from Formula 1, could Ferrari become the dominate force that they once were? The first Formula 1 superstar join the team, Juan Manuel Fangio joins with Ferrari after Mercedes decided to withdraw form Motorsport following on from the Le Mans tragedy the previous year, Ferrari also bought the cars form the now defunct Lancia team.
Fangio continued his domination with a win at the opening race of the season after commandeering Musso’s car after his broke down.
Ferrari and Fangio’s main title challengers were his teammate, Peter Collins, and former Mercedes teammate Stirling Moss, who had moved over to the Maserati team following the withdrawal of Mercedes.
The title would go to the wire, heading into the final race of the season, Fangio would have an 8-point lead over Collins and the consistent Jean Behra, the Maserati driver was not able to win the title due to a driver only able to use his best 5 results towards the title.
Fangio was in the front seat, the only way he could lose the title would be if he were not to score and Collins was to win and gain the extra point for the fastest lap.
In a sporting gesture that has rarely been seen or surpassed, Collins would give up his car to his rival and teammate Fangio, the Argentine racer had to retire from the race and Musso was unwilling to give up his car. It seemed all but certain that Collins would win his first Formula 1 championship.
Collins would drive into the pits and give up his car Fangio allowing him to re enter the race and win his third championship in a row, the remarkable act of sportsmanship earned him respect from Enzo Ferrari and Juan Manuel Fangio, who was almost moved to tears.
1957 Formula 1 season would be a dismal season for Ferrari, the reigning champion Juan Manuel Fangio, decided to head off to Maserati. The combination of Peter Collins, Eugenio Castellotti and Mike Hawthorn failed to win a race.
To make matters worse for Ferrari, Eugenio Castellotti was killed on 14th March 1957, he was killed while testing a new Ferrari Formula 1 car.
The season was contested by Fangio and Stirling Moss, who had moved over to the promising Vanwall. All races in that season were won (except for the Indy 500) by both these drivers.
A notable incident occurred in the German GP, when Fangio who was at one point a minute behind due to a pit stop managed to pass both Collins and Hawthorne on thew penultimate lap of the race. In the charge Fangio would break the lap record a remarkable 10 times, he would win the race and the Drivers Championship.
Juan Manuel Fangio would go on to win the 1957 World Drivers Championship, his fifth in a row. This record would stand until Michael Schumacher beat it in 2003.
The 1957 German Grand Prix is widely regarded as one of the best drives in Formula 1 history, it is also notable as Juan Manuel Fangio’s last victory.
The 1958 season was notable for the inclusion of the first Constructors Championship, the International Cup for Manufacturer, this would run concurrently with the Drivers’ Championship, except for the Indy 500.
The Drivers Championship would be between Stirling Moss and Ferrari’s Mike Hawthorn. The 1958 season would bring another Drivers Championship to Ferrari, Hawthorn would win the Championship after winning only 1 race all season a feat that only Keke Rosberg has done since in the 1982 season.
The first ever constructors title went to Stirling Moss’s team Vanwall.
The 1958 season was marred by tragedy for Formula 1, with four drivers dying due to injuries sustained in a Grand Prix, tow of these deaths was for Ferrari drivers, when both Luigi Musso and Peter Collins were killed at the French and German Grand Prix, respectively. Stewart Lewis-Evans in the Vanwall was seriously injured during the Moroccan Grand Prix, when his Vanwall engine failed, unfortunately he succumbed to his injuries later in hospital. American Pat O’ Conner would be killed during the Indy 500, although the Indy 500 was running to different regulations it was still part of the Drivers Championship in 1958.
Mike Hawthorn, after his success in Formula 1 retired at the end of the 1958 season. This would be bittersweet, on 22nd January 1959, Mike Hawthorn was killed in a car accident on the A3 Guildford Bypass. He was 29.
As Formula 1 evolved, the 1958 season was notable as the final year that the field would be dominated by front engine cars. Over the next 2 years, the grid would transition more to a mid-engine set up, they would provide better driver, comfort, road handling, lighter weight and ease on tires and mechanical components.
Enzo Ferrari would concede that Ferrari would need a mid-engine car to remain competitive. Ferrari would not have this ready until 1961.
The final season in the 1950’s was notable for a few reasons, the withdrawal of the Vanwall team, due to the mortality rate of the previous season meant that Ferrari were the only race winning team on the grid, further with the retirement of Mike Hawthorn and Juan Manuel Fangio, it would be the first time that there was no world champion was on the grid.
With the mid-engine revolution gathering pace, Ferrari were not able to mount a challenge for the championship. They managed to win two races at the French and German Grand Prix, both races were won by British Driver Tony Brooks.
Jack Brabham would win the Drivers Championship with the Manufacturer’s title going to the Cooper-Climax team.