No. 27 The Maserati 250F
The F2 hybrid and enduring privateers’ favourite that defined an era
“A great car,” was the verdict of Stirling Moss on the Maserati 250F, “but built from crappy materials.”
Neither as quick nor as successful as the majority of its rivals, the elegant, front-engined 250F nevertheless came to epitomise an era. It won one drivers’ championship, contributed to another, and was on the grid for both the first grand prix of the 2.5-litre era in 1954 and the last in 1960. It enabled some of the most talented drivers of the 1950s – Moss included – to make their mark in the sport and move onwards and upwards, and enabled privateers to race competitively and cost-effectively at a time when F1’s very existence was in doubt.
Grids had dwindled over the first two years of the championship, with manufacturers unwilling to build new machinery to the existing formula of 1.5-litre supercharged and 4.5-litre naturally aspirated engines. By early 1952, after Alfa Romeo’s withdrawal from the sport, it became necessary to throw the championship open to Formula 2 cars before the new F1 formula for 2.5-litre normally aspirated and 750cc supercharged engines began in 1954.
Maserati spotted a gap in the market and filled it with the 250F, a development of their F2 car that even used the same suspension for a while. Legendary engineer Gioacchino Colombo had a hand in both this and the straight-six engine, before departing for Bugatti. The tube-frame chassis, clothed in bodywork built by Medardo Fantuzzi, relied on drum brakes all around, as was conventional at the time.
The plumbing for the oil system on early cars was not quite up to the harsh rigours of racing, but even so the 250F quickly found customers – so much so, that at the first grand prix of 1954, which Juan Manuel Fangio won in a 250F, their customers had to make do with F2 chassis hastily adapted to accommodate the F1 engine and transmission.
Fangio soon received a better offer from Mercedes and jumped ship once their all-conquering W196 was ready. Lancia, too, pitched in with a better car than the 250F, but quickly ran out of money, while Mercedes withdrew from motorsport in the aftermath of the 1955 Le Mans disaster in which one of their cars struck an embankment, killing 84 people. Fangio demonstrated his knack for finding the best car by moving to Ferrari for 1956 while they ran the ex-Lancia D50s, then on to Maserati when Ferrari’s development faltered.
For 1957, Maserati redesigned the 250F’s chassis to make it lighter and stiffer, and liberated another 30bhp from the straight-six engine. Fangio won four races – including the German GP in which he staged an epic comeback after a slow pitstop, clawing back a one-minute deficit to the leaders to claim his fifth world championship. But Maserati, like Lancia before them, had run out of money.
The remaining 250Fs were sold to privateers and continued to help fill F1 grids until the new generation of rear-engined machines rendered them obsolete.