When the Formula 1 World Championship began in the fifties, it was a very, very different sport.
Formula 1 in the 1950s was almost like a completely different sport to what it is today. Although there are some elements which are comparable to modern times, there are some bits that just seem downright bizarre now. Here are eight of the strangest.
The Indy 500 was a championship round
Yep, that’s right. From 1950 to 1960 the Indianapolis 500 counted towards the World Championship in F1, even though it was run to completely different rules by completely different teams and drivers. A couple of F1 drivers did make attempts (notably Ascari in 1952 and Fangio in 1958) but it was mostly made up the of American racers and teams of the time.
This has led to some statistical quirks which aren’t always included in some F1 stats, such as 1952 Indy 500 winner Troy Ruttman being credited as the youngest F1 winner until Fernando Alonso (instead of Bruce McLaren). In 1956 the eight points Pat Flaherty got for winning the Indy 500 were enough to place him fifth in the F1 Drivers’ Championship!
Drivers often shared a car
In the 50s races were longer, the tracks were bumpier, the drivers were less fit and unreliability was often a factor. Quite often when a teams’ lead driver retired from the race they’d pull in a slower driver and give it to the faster guy in the hope of getting a better result…and it makes for some weird looking results.
The 1955 Argentine Grand Prix was one of the hottest races on record and most drivers had to swap with someone at some point just to have a rest. This meant that Maurice Trintignant and Giuseppe Farina BOTH finished second AND third!
Rules of the time meant that the points were shared evenly, and once other drivers they’d shared with were factored in Farina and Trintignant earned themselves three–and-one-third points each.
On three occasions the race win was shared, the last of which was in the 1957 British Grand Prix when Tony Brooks and Stirling Moss won for Vanwall. This meant that second-placed Luigi Musso actually scored more points than the winner!
For two years there was no Formula 1
Well, it was still called Formula 1, but there were no Formula 1 cars in the races. Alfa Romeo withdrew from F1 at the end of 1951 leaving Ferrari as the only serious team. To make things more competitive and encourage bigger grids all races (apart from the Indy 500, obviously) were run to Formula Two specifications.
Ferrari won everything anyway, with Alberto Ascari winning every ‘F1’ race he entered in 1952 and scoring five more wins the following year to take his second championship. Across the two seasons he won seven consecutive Grands Prix – nine if you discount the 1953 Indy 500!
For 1954 the races were run to Formula 1 specifications again and Mercedes were enticed back. Which leads us nicely on to the next thing…
Not all F1 cars were open-wheelers
‘What? Sacrilege! All F1 cars should be open-wheeled forever because they always have been!’ Not true. Even though aerodynamics wasn’t really a thing back then designers realised that by covering the wheels their cars would go faster in a straight line. This was especially important at fast tracks like Reims, Silverstone and Monza, where Mercedes fitted their W196s with ‘streamliner’ bodywork.
Vanwall also briefly tried out streamliner bodywork, while some of the early Porsches that raced in Formula 1 also had covered wheels, mainly because they were just sportscars that happened to race in Grands Prix.
The drivers were honourable and gentlemanly
Ok, not all of them were honourable or gentlemanly, but there are a couple of times when championships were decided because someone gave their rival a helping hand.
In the final race of 1956 at Monza, Juan Manuel Fangio saw his title hopes disappear when his car broke down. This left his Ferrari team-mate Peter Collins on course to become the first British champion but incredibly he handed his car over to Fangio at a pit stop because he felt he deserved the title more. The win was lost to Stirling Moss but Fangio went on to finish second as a result of Collins’ incredible gesture, enough to win the championship.
Two years later in Portugal Mike Hawthorn was disqualified from second place for bump-starting his car. His title rival Stirling Moss had seen the incident and protested to the stewards and Hawthorn was reinstated. Had Moss not done that he would have been the champion at the end of the year.
Can you imagine Lewis Hamilton going to the stewards to protest a penalty Nico Rosberg received? No, me neither, because Rosberg has retired.
Some of the tracks were insane
There were very few permanent race tracks in the 50s and those that did exist were usually formed on old airfields. This meant there were plenty of road and street courses, many of which were just bonkers.
Reims was basically just a triangle with very long straights, AVUS went up each side of an autobahn and had a massive banked turn with no barrier at the top, and Pescara – the longest track ever used in F1 – was so long and so dangerous that it made the Nordschleife look like Shanghai. Even Enzo Ferrari refused to race his cars there!
There were points for fastest lap
‘What’s so weird about that?’ I hear you say. You’re right, it’s not that weird – loads of modern championships offer points for fastest lap, and some would even like to see it return in Formula 1.
No, what makes it weird was the timing equipment. There was none of this highly accurate, thousandth-of-a-second stuff that we have now. It was usually just a guy with a pocket watch measuring it to the nearest whole second, which meant the single point on offer for fastest lap was often shared.
The most extreme case of this happened during the 1954 British Grand Prix when seven – yes, SEVEN drivers set fastest lap with a time of 1 minute and 50 seconds. Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn, Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Onofre Marimón, José Froilán González and Jean Behra each earned one-seventh of a point for their efforts.
People of royalty and nobility were regular racers
People may moan about modern pay-drivers with rich parents paying their way to the top, but in the 50s actual noblemen (and in some cases, royalty) entered Grands Prix on a regular basis just because they could.
One of the most famous of these was Birabongse Bhanudej, better known as Prince Bira of Siam (now Thailand). Prince Bira had a decent pre-war racing career and continued to race after the war, competing in 19 Grands Prix with a best finish of fourth.
Other notable noblemen include Swiss baron Toulo de Graffenreid, Dutch lord Carel Godin de Beaufort, and the F1 driver with the longest name of all *breathe in* Alfonso Antonio Vicente Eduardo Angel Blas Francisco de Borja Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton, Marquis of Portago – better known as Alfonso de Portago. Whew!