Customer cars are now well and truly banned in F1, but in the early years it was common practice for a manufacturer to sell some of its cars to a privateer team which would be run alongside a works effort. It wasn’t uncommon for the customers to occasionally beat the big boys (or even win) in the odd race, but over a season, the works teams usually came out on top.
However, there have been a few occasions where the works outfits were outscored over the entire season by the very team it had sold its cars to.
The greatest and most successful privateer F1 team of all time, Rob Walker Racing Team ran various cars between 1953 and 1970, the famous blue and white livery winning nine races – mostly in the hands of Stirling Moss.
In 1958 Rob Walker used some Coopers and Moss made history in the opening race of the year in Argentina by winning – the first F1 victory by a rear-engined car. Moss then left for Vanwall and Maurice Trintignant took over driving, winning in Monaco (making it two wins in a row for the team) and taking a podium later in the year at the Nurburgring.
Meanwhile the main Cooper team didn’t enjoy the same kind of success. Roy Salvadori took a couple of podiums and Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren scored a few points, adding up to a total of 22 – the same amount as Rob Walker’s squad had scored.
Countback wasn’t a thing back then, but if it was, Rob Walker would have beaten Cooper. It’s also called the ‘constructors’ championship’ and not the ‘teams’ championship’, so the points scores were combined, enough to give Cooper third in the inaugural constructor’s title. It’d go on to win both titles for the next two years, though, as Jack Brabham took his first two championships.
When missile manufacturers (no, really) Matra decided to move up from Formula 2 to Formula 1, it did so on two fronts. On the one hand, Matra’s own team, with a car using Matra’s own V12 (which sounded absolutely glorious) and on the other, a car run by Ken Tyrrell, but using the Cosworth DFV instead.
Matra’s effort wasn’t too bad for a new team, with Jean Pierre Beltoise finishing second in the Dutch GP, but Tyrrell did a fair bit better. Not only was the DFV a better engine, but it also had a better driver – Jackie Stewart.
Stewart won three races and challenged for the championship, whilst Johnny Servoz-Gavin also took a podium for the team at Monza. Matra was third in the constructors’ championship, but Tyrrell’s Ford-powered cars had scored 44 points, whilst Matra’s own team had only scored 10.
In 1969 Matra ditched it’s own V12 engine and put all its weight behind Tyrrell. Stewart romped to the championship and Matra won the constructors’.
In 1970 Matra wanted Tyrrell to use its own V12 engines, but since the Cosworth DFV was so good (and also because of budget reasons) the team stuck with Ford, but that meant it could no longer use the Matra chassis. Tyrrell started designing its own car, but whilst that was being built had to make do with a March 701 chassis for the first 10 races of the year.
During this time Stewart took a win and three other podiums whilst the works March squad (in its first year in F1) managed just two second places and a fifth in the hands of Chris Amon – again, not bad, but for the second time in three years Tyrrell had outshone the manufacturer it had bought its cars from.
Poor March didn’t have a particularly good time selling its cars to other people, did it? In 1973 things were especially bad, as a lack of money meant it had to run its not-entirely-brilliant 721 and 731 again, and the team scored precisely zero points all season.
Meanwhile an eccentric chap by the name of Lord Hesketh was looking to enter F1 with James Hunt and bought a March 731 to race for much of the second half of the year. He got Harvey Postlethwaite (who had actually been a designer at March) to fettle the car and it became a much better prospect – Hunt was not only a regular points scorer with the car, but he also took two podiums and two fastest laps with it.
Despite only competing in seven of the 14 races, Hesketh’s efforts were enough to give March fifth in the constructors’ championship – ahead of even Ferrari!
The tiny Ensign team pluckily stuck it out in F1 from 1973 until 1982. Generally a backmarker, its best season came in 1977, when Clay Regazzoni got into the points on three occasions for the one-car team with the N177 chassis.
For the last eight races of the year there were two N177s on the grid as Theodore Racing (itself a major backer of the Ensign team) decided to run a car with Patrick Tambay at the wheel. During those races, Theodore scored five points whilst Ensign itself only scored four.
Added to the single point Reggazoni had scored earlier that year gave Ensign 10 points and 10th place in the constructors’ championship. Theodore went on to build its own chassis, but never had as much success as it had with Ensign.
Amazingly, customer cars weren’t officially banned in F1 until 2010, though teams never really made use of the practice. It made a bit of a comeback in the late-2000s when Super Aguri ran old Honda chassis, and when Red Bull used the same cars for both of its teams, Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso.
In 2008, Toro Rosso didn’t get its new car until the Monaco Grand Prix but when it did, Red Bull Racing was in for a bit of an embarrassment. Dubbed the STR3, the Adrian Newey-designed chassis was basically identical to Red Bull’s RB4, the only difference being the Ferrari engine and gearbox in the back, compared to the Renault which powered the Red Bull.
Despite the smaller budget and lack of updates compared to Red Bull, the engine gave Toro Rosso a bit of an advantage – well, that and the fact it had a young Sebastian Vettel as a driver. He became a regular points scorer and took that brilliant victory at a soaking wet Monza, and by the end of the year Toro Rosso had scored 39 points – 10 more than it’s sister – and supposedly ‘main’ – team.