500 TO F 1
May is a classic month, bringing both the Monaco GP and the Indy 500. And these two jewel-in-the-crown races were once even more closely related, as two events on the Formula 1 calendar
Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted the opening round of the rst world championship. In 1925. Twenty-ve years later, it began an 11-race stint as part of a revived championship – for drivers rather than manufacturers. Not that many of those involved were aware of it. Or cared. But, for a eeting decade, rumbling Indy roadsters were de facto grand prix cars as the Indy 500 constituted a round of the world drivers’ championship.
Motor racing in booming 1950s America was wealthily selfsufcient. There was a burgeoning, European-inspired roadracing scene, but it was a square peg in an oval hole. Indy turned left, Continental motorsport ran clockwise, and never the twain shall meet. Not even the sport’s richest purse could bring them together. That was the reality. But ideas cost nothing and, for a time, idealists held the theoretical high ground. When the FIA World Championship for Drivers was mooted in 1946, the idea was to agglomerate each member country’s most prestigious race, ie its grande épreuve. And America’s grande épreuve was the Indianapolis 500.
America had, in 1908, become the second country after France to host a national grand prix. Held on road courses, this ‘Grand Prize’ was dominated by foreign machinery – with six wins from seven – until the title fell into disuse upon the United States’ entry into the First World War.
From 1929, it was decided to award the dormant nomenclature to the Indy 500. This was no hollow honour. While its 2.5-mile circuit had been built 20 years before as an aid to the American car industry, founding father Carl Fisher was keen to promote international competition. Indeed, overseas drivers in overseas cars won every 500 from 1913-16 and the race kept in step with changes to the International Formula throughout the 1920s.
That hands-across-the-sea link snapped in the economic depression triggered by the Wall Street Crash, but was restored in 1938 when the American Automobile Association and Europe’s sporting body, the Commission Sportive Internationale, adopted the same formula: a 3000cc maximum for engines with forced induction; a 4500cc maximum for those normally aspirated; and a sliding weight scale according to engine capacity.
This ‘New Deal’ held good throughout the 1950s – even though regulations diverged in the immediate post-war period when Europe reduced its forced-induction limit to 1500cc and
America refused to budge. What helped was that organisers were under no obligation to run grandes épreuves to the new Formula 1 – or Formula A as it was in 1948 – and that the prestige Indy brought a edgling championship was more important than technical details.
Theirs remained, however, a cool and distant relationship that not even the Latin warmth of Alberto Ascari could thaw. The portly Italian was not yet world champion when he became, in 1952, the rst – and only – major European star to contest the 500 during this period.
That stemmed partly from the fact that of the overseas manufacturers, only Ferrari had a 4.5-litre single-seater capable of being competitive at Indy. And even that was relative. Its V12 lacked the torque of the American four-cylinders and Ascari had to change down for Turns 1 and 3, whereas local aces remained in the tallest of their (two) gears. He qualied 19th, but fared better in the race and was holding eighth place when a Borrani wire wheel, a proven item in European racing, collapsed after 40 laps.
Though Indy looked easy, it made different and very particular demands of a car and its driver – a blend of strength and subtlety – and gave up its secrets grudgingly. Its Month of May practice/qualifying/race rigmarole was a necessity that few from Europe could afford the time for. Indeed, although there were 12 days between them, Ascari had chosen to skip the Swiss GP, round one of the world championship, to contest Indy. Not that this did him any harm. He proceeded to win nine GPs on the bounce – unless you count the 1953 Indy 500, which he did not contest – to become a back-to-back world champion.
May was a busy time in the Continental racing calendar, too, and so drivers and teams understandably stuck with what they knew.
Though this lack of cross-pollination ultimately caused the American oval scene to become complacent and stagnate, leaving it vulnerable to invasion, it was arguably the more go-ahead of the factions in this period. It came to be dominated by garagistes building kit cars – Offenhauser engine, Hilborn fuel injection, Halibrand running gear, Firestone tyres – long before F1, and having 33 very similar cars on its grid made the Indy 500 more competitive than the grands prix of the period.
Also, whereas Europeans visited Indy in dribs and drabs, the Americans, now overseen by the United States Automobile Club, a professional body created in 1956 purely for this purpose, came over lock, stock and barrelcrankcases when invited to Europe. The Race of Two Worlds on Monza’s new banked oval was a nal throw of the unifying dice. The home talent all but ignored the rst in 1957, however, and though Maserati and Ferrari built cars for the second, only
the latter’s Luigi Musso, who drove with the ferocity of a man in debt, was competitive. Stirling Moss tried to put one across the visitors by practising in the wet – rather than be impressed, they thought him crazy – but ultimately received an unnerving insight into an unfamiliar world when his Maserati’s steering failed during a heat and, for once, he was a passenger.
Neither side of the equation knew enough of the other to reach meaningful conclusions, although those Americans who stayed on and watched Fangio win the 1957 French GP at Rouen in a Maserati 250F, the epitome of a front-engined F1 car, came away with the overwhelming impression that, “This fella really motor races”.
Ex-hot rodder Troy Ruttman, an Indy prodigy – he was 22 when he won the 500 of 1952 – was sufciently intrigued to hire a 250F for the ’58 French GP at Reims. The only Triple-A/USAC racer to contest a world championship GP in Europe throughout the decade, he nished ve laps behind in 10th. Phil Hill and Carroll Shelby, keynote names of American motorsport, also made their F1 GP debuts in hired 250Fs that day. That neither would include the Indy 500 in their storied driving careers further illustrates the starkness of the schism. That’s a shame because Bill Vukovich, ‘The Fresno Flash’, who came within a few laps of scoring Indy’s only hat trick, and who memorably qualied on the leading edge of a rainstorm in 1953, possessed a freakish talent that would have shone in GP racing. The same was said of Bob Sweikert, who succeeded ‘Vuky’ in tragic circumstances in ’55, only to suffer a fatal accident the following year.
Johnnie Parsons, the 1950 Indy winner, travelled to Europe to meet Enzo Ferrari but was unable to agree terms. He did, however, enter a Ferrari for the 500 of ’52 – but chose not to race it. Ferrari, in turn, would take delivery of a Kurtis-Kraft Indy roadster – and drop a 4.4-litre straightsix into it. Its half-hearted Indy programme was delayed by a year and dumped on the Maserati brothers for ’56. Running on gasoline and Weber carburettors – locals espoused injection and methanol, but the Europeans ‘knew better’ – the car was uncompetitive and failed to qualify despite the efforts of the rst world champion Giuseppe Farina.
Farina’s successor Fangio, who held a long fascination with Indy’s screaming supercharged Novi V8 – Offenhauser’s powerful but unreliable rival – also failed to take the start. Enticed to Indy in 1958, he was unimpressed by the machinery on offer – even the Novi that he briey switched to – made his excuses and left. Moss didn’t even get that far and regrets today that he found neither the time nor motivation to race at Indy.
This barrier – psychological as well as geographical – was broken in odd circumstances. For some unfathomable reason, reformed hell-raiser Rodger Ward, winner of the 1959 Indy 500, later that year entered an Offy-powered Midget at the revival of a road-based American GP. The car, designed to run on quarter-mile ovals, was laughably outclassed at Sebring and, to be fair, its driver saw the joke.
But Ward also took the opportunity to befriend Jack Brabham – who had literally pushed his way to the rst world title won in a rear-engined car. Ward insisted that Brabham’s light, compact and nimble Cooper would be competitive at Indy. Having earned his spurs on Australian dirt tracks, the latter was more open-minded than most and accepted the challenge. When it arrived at Indy in 1961, the Cooper was dismissively labelled a ‘funny car’. That stopped when Brabham qualied 13th and nished ninth. Four years on Jim Clark and Colin Chapman’s Lotus completed a dominant victory. Indy would never be the same again.
British designs and designers ruled its roost for the next 30 years: Lola, McLaren, Penske, March and Reynard; Eric Broadley, Gordon Coppuck, Geoff Ferris, John Barnard, Robin Herd, Nigel Bennett and Adrian Newey; plus Cosworth and Ilmor engines.
This transformation occurred after the Indy 500 had been dropped from the world championship. F1 had switched in 1961 to a 1.5-litre formula, whereas 4.2-litres and supercharged 2.8s – there had been a small reduction in 1957 – were still roaming Indy. The gap had become too wide to bridge. Nobody cried when it collapsed. Indy had never needed F1’s blessing to ourish, and F1 had by now found its American spiritual home at Watkins Glen.
The relationship between Indy and F1 didn’t end there, of course, as from 2000-2007 the US GP was held on a road course en-looped by the mighty oval. But that F1 adventure is a whole different story…
“ALTHOUGH INDY LOOKED EASY, IT MADE PARTICULAR DEMANDS OF CAR AND DRIVER… STRENGTH AND SUBTLETY”
In 1952, Italian Alberto Ascari (left) became the first European to contest the Indy 500
Bill Vukovich (left) won two F1 GPs at Indy in 1953 and 1954; in 1952, Troy Ruttman (right) became the youngest winner of a grand prix
Jack Brabham took the first world title won in a rear-engined car;
At the Race of Two Worlds in 1958, Stirling Moss (left) unnerved spectators by practising in the rain. He retired from the race when his Maserati’s steering failed