If you were to ask an F1 fan to name one significant moment in the sports history, that would change its future you would likely get a different response from everyone you asked.
One response might be the introduction of turbo engines by Renault, or ground effects on the Lotus 79. Maybe someone would say the introduction of mid and rear engine cars or front and rear wings, maybe the introduction of the Cosworth engine which allowed almost anyone to get into F1. The list is almost endless. But the odds that someone would say the 1958 season would be almost nil. But in effect its a season that would be a pivot point in history. 1958 was a deadly season for Ferrari which took them years to recover from an, not as least, it opened the door to the privateers which then began the dominance of British based F1 teams – something which continues to his day!
The basic structure that F1 is today was established for the 1950 season by the FIA. That structure was a list of technical specifications that cars had to run to, a calendar of sanctioned races, a point’s structure for the race finishing positions. And finally crowning the F1 champion.
What many people don’t know is that F1 races were run prior to 1950. From 1946 until 1949 the FIA set the technical regulations and that was all. The FIA didn’t sanction races or crown a champion. The only other thing the FIA did was to classify the British, Swiss, French, Belgian and Italian races as “Grandes Epreuves” (great trials), which became the basis for GP’s being a national championship. Until 1950 anyone could organize an F1 race and in 1949 (with the “Grandes Epreuves” races included) a total of 27 F1 races were run around the globe.
When the 1950 F1 season commenced, the field consisted of a motley collection of cars most of which had their original designs dating back to the late 1930’s. With Europe still in recovery after WW2, motor racing was, outside of Italy, seen as an expensive and unnecessary drain on precious resources. And it wasn’t surprising that other than Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari, no other medium or large European car manufacturer entered F1. Until 1954, when Mercedes decided to participate. In those first four seasons until the arrival of Mercedes no one, other than Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari, won a race.
But their racing endeavors did take its toll on the F1 manufacturers. At the end of 1951 Alfa Romeo had no money to fund a new car and withdrew from F1. Mercedes withdrew at the end of 1955, after the famous Le Mans disaster and, even though Fangio had won the drivers title for Maserati in 1957, they were in financial trouble and pulled out at the end of the season. Leaving Ferrari as the sole survivor. Ferrari had been able to largely weather the financial storm which hit Alfa Romeo and Maserati by selling cars in the US at a great profit. There were serious questions raised about whether F1 without the support of major manufacturers was viable.
But all wasn’t well at Ferrari. Enzo’s son Alfredo (Dino) died in 1956 of muscular dystrophy. Peter Collins, one of Ferrari’s drivers, was good friends with Dino, and after Dino’s death Enzo Ferrari almost viewed Collins as an adopted son. Some have said that Collins was viewed by Enzo Ferrari the same way Gilles Villeneuve was. The parallel would end tragically for both drivers.
1957 would also be another trying year for Ferrari. In the Mille Miglia tragedy occurred; Ferrari factory driver Alfonso de Portago and his co-driver Edmund Nelson were killed in a horrific accident. What made matters worse was that ten spectators, five of them children, were also killed in the accident. Ferrari would be charged with manslaughter by the Italian authorities. It wouldn’t be until 1961 that these charges were finally dropped.
In F1 his cars never won a race, the first time since 1950 that that had happened. And beginning to loom large were the British privateers.
There is a misconception of F1 that in its early days it was a sport for someone with a death-wish. While motor racing is inherently dangerous the number of deaths during an F1 race from 1950 to 1957 was remarkably small. In fact there was only one; Mario Alborghetti in 1955. There were several deaths in testing and practice, but it was nowhere near what we would see in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. However, 1958 would be different.
As the 1958 F1 season was about to open it was clear that change was coming. The British economy was recovering and support from industry for motor racing was increasing. That money allowed engineers, many from the aviation industries, to get jobs in these new F1 teams. Those aviation engineers fundamentally changed the nature of F1. The main focus shifted from having the most powerful engine to how aerodynamically efficient your car was. Even Enzo Ferrari didn’t grasp what was happening when he stated, “Aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines”. In fact Ferrari would not have a race ready mid-engined car until 1961 – four years after Cooper did. It was a miscalculation that Ferrari would pay dearly for.
Another consequence of these new British teams was the opportunity for home grown drivers to enter F1 and not be dependent on the Italian teams for a ride, or having to buy cars from them. This extended to Commonwealth and American drivers who now moved to the UK instead of Italy to race at the highest level.
The 1958 grid was built out of sleek aerodynamic cars from the likes of Lotus, BRM, Cooper and the team Ferrari underestimated the most for 1958 – Vanwall.
There were a few changes for 1958. We would see the introduction of the International Cup for F1 Manufacturers, which was the forerunner of the Constructors World Championship. The most significant technical change was the banning of alcohol based fuels for commercial petroleum race fuel. That change was significant as Ferrari introduced their new Type 246 V6 engine which was designed for the new fuel spec, while the British privateers had to make due with modifying their existing straight fours to work with the new fuel. Enzo Ferrari went into the 1958 season believing that with the new engine and with their drivers, Hawthorn, Collins and Musso, he had an unbeatable car and driver combination.
The first race of the season was in Argentina at the end of January. Most of the British teams had to forego this race to get their engines working with the new fuel spec. One didn’t however. Rob Walker took his privateer Cooper – Climax to Argentina, and as Vanwall weren’t going, Walker was able to get Vanwall driver (and personal friend) Stirling Moss to do a one-off race for him. Fun fact, Moss would give the Lotus F1 team its first F1 win in a privately entered Walker Lotus.
Cooper was a game-changer in F1 as it was the first rear-engined car to compete. Ferrari believed they would easily race away from the field, only to find themselves chasing Moss, who ultimately won. The Ferrari’s of Musso and Hawthorn came in 2nd and 3rd.
With the teams back in Europe the gap to the next race in Monaco was four months. That gave the British teams the time to get their engines ready, but more importantly for Vanwall, to continue their aero development.
Monaco proved to be another eye-opener. The Vanwall’s and the BRM’s turned out to be much quicker than everyone else. Unfortunately for both Vanwall and BRM they still hadn’t solved their engine problems and all suffered from it during the race, which in turn opened the door for the works Cooper of Maurice Trintignant to win. The only Ferrari to score was Musso’s who came second. It became clear that on slow and medium speed courses the rear-engined Cooper was the best of the field and for sheer speed it was the Vanwall.
Race three was the Dutch GP. The high speed Zandvoort favoured the Vanwall’s and BRM’s and the results showed it. Moss easily won. Hawthorn was lapped once and Musso twice! It wasn’t going the way Ferrari had planned.
The next race was the Belgian GP at Spa. Yet again the Vanwall’s were the class of the field, with Brooks winning and Lewis-Evans coming in third. Hawthorn in the Ferrari was a distant second. The only consolation for Ferrari was the point’s leader, Moss, had an engine failure and therefore did not score any points. The race was also notable as it was the first time Lotus had scored points in an F1 race, with Cliff Allison taking fourth.
“I gave (my drivers) three things: a sense of optimism, a creative environment, and the ultimate motivator-competition. By competing with each other in-house, we wound up beating our rivals.” – Enzo Ferrari.
If Enzo Ferrari was to return today he would be aghast at what he would see in F1. A number one driver and team orders were something he couldn’t abide to. He believed that competition amongst his own drivers pushed them to perform better. He may have had favourite drivers off-track, but when they were racing they were treated equally. And that competition would have tragic consequences in the next race.
The French GP at Reims was the fifth race and halfway point of the season. The season had been disappointing for Ferrari so far, without a single win. The season was also becoming desperate for Luigi Musso. He was deeply in debt and needed to win the French GP, which had the highest payout and drivers then got a share of the race winnings, to save himself from bankruptcy. He had suspected that Hawthorn and Collins had a private agreement to share their race winnings and so did everything to keep Musso from winning.
The Reims circuit, which was a temporary road course, favoured the Ferrari’s. More so since Vanwall and the other British privateers were still having engine problems. Hawthorn took pole and Musso was second. The race started with a Hawthorn and Musso one-two, easily pulling away from the rest of the field. Musso, desperate to get past Hawthorn, began to take more and more risks. On lap 9 he lost control of his car, it left the course and crashed into a ditch. Musso was thrown out the car and suffered severe head injuries from which he died later that day. He was to be Ferrari’s first F1 race fatality. The race was also notable for being Fangio’s last ever F1 race.
Ultimately Hawthorn won the race with Moss coming second. It left Moss and Hawthorn tied in the Driver’s Championship.
Round 6 was at Silverstone and as that was the track most of the British tested at they held a distinct advantage and during qualifying that proved to be true. Moss in the Vanwall took pole. Schell in the BRM was second and Salvadori in the Cooper third. The Ferrari’s were way off the pace.
The race however fell into the familiar pattern. Ferrari’s reliability and the British teams engine problems gave the Ferrari a one-two, with Collins taking the win and with Hawthorn second. Moss suffered an engine failure and a DNF. Ferrari left Silverstone for the next race at the Nurburgring on a high. Hawthorn led the drivers’ championship and Ferrari the team championship. But Ferrari’s euphoria would be fleeting.
The Nurburgring round of the championship was truly one of the most bizarre F1 races to ever have been run. For a variety of reasons only 13 F1 cars were entered. To fill up the field the organizers decided to run an F2 race at the same time. F1 cars were lapping the Nurburgring at an average speed of 145 kph (90 mph), while the F2 cars were averaging around 130 – 135 kph (low 80’s mph). The speed differential on the long start finish straight was close to 35 kph (20 mph) and more. As the track back then was 23 kilometres long (14 miles) it was assumed the F1 and F2 cars would separate quickly.
The Ferrari’s and Vanwall’s were the class of the field. With Hawthorn qualifying first, followed by Brooks, Moss and Collins.
The race got off to a bad start for the championship contenders. Hawthorn had mechanical problems from the start and quickly fell back. Moss had electrical problems. Both would eventually retire. That allowed Brooks and Collins to race away from the rest of the field. Lap after lap Collins tried to find a way past Brookes but couldn’t. On lap 11, Collins overdid things and had an accident eerily similar to Musso’s. He lost control of his car and went off the circuit where the car hit a ditch. Collins was thrown from the car and hit a tree. He suffered massive head injuries and died later that afternoon. He was 26.
Ultimately Brooks would win, with the Cooper’s coming second and third. It was a disaster for Ferrari having their second driver killed in three races. The driver’s championship remained the same but Vanwall were now only four points behind in the International Cup for manufacturers. Another notable aspect was that the F2 race was won by a relatively unknown, but up and coming, driver named Bruce McLaren.
With three races left; Portugal, Italy and Morocco, the title fight was between Moss and Hawthorn.
The Portuguese race was to have a major impact on the driver’s championship. Moss and Hawthorn had qualified one-two on the Boavista circuit, which used public roads. The race took place during a rainstorm and saw many drivers spin off the track, one of them being Hawthorn. The race was to finish as it started, Moss followed by Hawthorn. But after the race the stewards disqualified Hawthorn for driving the wrong way on the circuit after he had spun. Moss who had seen the incident went to the stewards and told them he had seen the incident and that Hawthorn was actually off the course when he drove the in the wrong direction, so therefore he had done nothing wrong. The stewards agreed and reinstated Hawthorn’s second place. That incident showed the integrity that Moss had and if he was to win the driver’s championship he was going to do it fair and square.
The penultimate race of the season was the Italian GP at Monza. Disaster again for Moss as he had yet another failure and a DNF. Hawthorne was second to Brooks. Hawthorn now had an eight point lead over Moss. The final race would be the Moroccan GP.
The Moroccan GP was held on a circuit that was partly public roads and a permanent stadium area, where the start finish line was. There were some concerns about the quality of some sections of the public roads, but the race went ahead anyway.
For 53 laps Hawthorn chased the race leader Moss but couldn’t catch him. But it didn’t matter. Second was all Hawthorn needed to win the driver’s championship. Mike Hawthorn was the first British F1 driver’s champion. For Hawthorn the championship race had brought little joy. His good friend Stuart Lewis-Evans one of the Vanwall drivers had been in an accident and suffered severe burns over most of his body. He would die six days later. Lewis-Evans contribution to Vanwall winning the first International Cup for manufacturers was significant.
Hawthorn would retire from racing after the Moroccan GP. Tragically he would die in a motor accident a mere three months later.
1958 almost destroyed Ferrari as Enzo Ferrari was to say that he considered pulling out of the sport after the deaths of Musso and Collins. Tony Vandervell the owner of Vanwall did pull out after Lewis-Evans death.
The 1958 F1 season was one that would begin to define F1’s future. While the new British private teams looked to the aerospace industry for inspiration, Ferrari and what was left of the continental manufacturers still believed that It was all about engines. Ferrari refused to design a rear-engined car until 1961 and by then it was too late. The sleek aerodynamically efficient rear-engined cars from the likes of Cooper, BRM and Lotus became virtually unbeatable. And once the cheap, powerful and reliable engine from Cosworth was available in 1967 that domination was almost total. Ferrari wouldn’t dominate F1 again until the mid-1970’s with its beautiful 312 series car.
The composition of where the top F1 drivers came from also changed. From 1950 to 1957 Italian and South American drivers won every drivers championship. By 1958 the top five drivers in the final standing were British. In 1959 no Italian or South American driver had a full-time seat in F1. With the exception of the American Phil Hill in 1961, from 1959 until 1970 when German born Jochen Rindt won the drivers world championship (but he did race under the Austrian nationality), every driver who won the championship was British or from a Commonwealth country.
And that’s why I believe 1958 was the most significant moment, that set the changes in motion that have made F1 the sport it is today.
Article written by Cavallino Rampante (@CavallinoRampa2) and edited by Phil Bruznic