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 self­sufcient. 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 qualied 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 sufciently 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 qualied 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 briey 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 qualied 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…


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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.