NOW THAT WAS A CAR
The only 4WD F1 winner and a curio that intrigued Stirling Moss
The quirky 4WD Ferguson P99
Stirling Moss was curious. Up against the sleek ‘Sharknose’ Ferrari 156 in this, the first year of the new 1.5-litre F1, England’s hero needed a new edge – that unfair advantage desired by all racers. Rob Walker’s Lotus 18 had been enough to overpower the reds at Monaco, but over a season he was up against it. This front-engined Ferguson looked obsolete in the era of the mid-engined revolution. But with four-wheel drive, and on any wet track, just maybe… Harry Ferguson was an Irish engineer whose eponymous company was best known for its tractors. Having once lost $1million on a coin toss, he was clearly a man not averse to taking chances, and he liked to think big. Four-wheel drive had captured his imagination as early as 1948 when he backed racers Tony Rolt and Freddie Dixon in their all-steer, all-driving project called ‘The Crab’. But it was the traction benefits for safer road cars that really fired his motivation.
A prototype estate car featuring four-wheel drive, Dunlop anti-lock brakes and a hatchback predated Audi’s Vorsprung
Durch Technik by a good couple of decades in 1959 – except few seemed to notice. He needed a billboard for his technology: what better than F1?
Designed by Claude Hill of Aston Martin fame, the Ferguson P99 was conventional at a glance: standard tubeframe chassis, all-wishbone suspension, the same Coventry Climax four-pot used by Britain’s F1 establishment and planted in front of the driver, too. The lower suspension arms in line with the driveshafts that resulted in ungainly spring turrets and an offset driving position to make room for the propshaft linking both axles were visual indicators of its novelty. Four-wheel drive was hardly a new concept, but in F1 terms this was groundbreaking.
The Rob Walker connection came through Rolt, who was a partner in Harry Ferguson Research. The gentleman F1 privateer had used both Coopers and Lotuses for his loyal driver Moss, who loved racing for his friend. When Walker indicated his plan to run the P99 in 1961, he must have known that intuitive Moss curiosity would be piqued.
But Stirling had his doubts. At the British Empire Trophy at Silverstone, Moss practised in the car, but chose to race his Cooper T53. Jack Fairman raced the P99 instead, running with a 2.5-litre Coventry Climax for an event that ran to the new Intercontinental rules. Moss’s instincts, as usual, were on the money. Fairman struggled with the Colotti ‘dog box’, spun
off and retired, while Stirling won in the Cooper.
But at a rain-affected British GP at Aintree, the Fergy was back – and Moss sensed an opportunity. He was fastest in the P99 during practice blighted by a torrential downpour, Stirling revelling in its neutral handling and 50:50 torque split across its two axles (although he never did run with its novel ABS connected). He switched back to his Lotus for the race, but Moss wasn’t yet done with the car.
Having shot past the Ferraris of Richie Ginther and Phil Hill at the start, Moss was tracking the leading Sharknose of Wolfgang von Trips when a brake pipe burst. In a time when a driver could still take over a team-mate’s car, Stirling pulled rank on Fairman, who had been struggling with electrical woes in the P99, and stormed back into the race in the Fergy praying for more rain. Sadly, the comeback was thwarted by a black flag. An earlier pushstart for Fairman came back to bite and the car was not only disqualified from its single F1
World Championship start, but this was also the last time a front-engined car was seen in a points-scoring grand prix.
With such a meagre record, the large August crowd at
Oulton Park must have wondered what Moss was thinking when he turned out in the Ferguson one last time at the prestigious Gold Cup.
Although Ferrari and Porsche stayed away, this was one of the biggest F1 races of the UK season, in an era when the world championship was far from the be-all. Moss faced a grid packed full of talent: Jim
Clark, Jack Brabham, Bruce
Mclaren, John Surtees, Tony
Brooks, Graham Hill, Innes
Ireland. But inclemency in Cheshire led Stirling to sniff an opportunity to beat them all.
It didn’t start well. Second on the grid beside Mclaren’s Cooper, the Colotti once again proved the Achilles Heel as the flag dropped. Moss was forced to chug away in second as the pack swamped him. But once he was up to speed, nothing could stop the P99 on a damp track. By lap six, Stirling had taken the lead from Clark’s Lotus and was motoring up the road.
By the chequer, the Ferguson was a remarkable 46 seconds to the good over Brabham, after Clark had succumbed to suspension failure. Even on a drying track, the Ferguson P99 had delivered one of the most notable upsets in F1 history. Was this the future, the crowd must have pondered?
No. F1 teams would eventually experiment with 4WD at the other end of the decade, but the chase for a new god called downforce and improved tyre grip would bypass the weighty challenge of perfecting all-wheel drive. It was a diverting culde-sac rather than the highway to a grippier F1 future.
Poor Harry Ferguson didn’t even witness his creation’s day of days at Oulton. The founder died just months previously. Still, his oddity that shone so brilliantly in Moss’s hands can be said to have achieved its founder’s aim.
The car itself was raced by Graham Hill in the 1963 Tasman series, while Peter Westbury borrowed it to win the 1964 British Hillclimb Championship. Its influence then stretched to the US and Indianapolis. Andy Granatelli was so impressed, he commissioned a new car, the P104 – better known as the Indy Novi Ferguson. Four-wheel drive never quite conquered the Indy 500, but it came close. More importantly, Ferguson’s pioneering work with four-wheel drive and ABS would have a wider influence and become standard features for road cars – which was entirely the point in the first place.
“EVEN ON A DRYING TRACK, THE P99 HAD DELIVERED ONE OF THE MOST REMARKABLE UPSETS IN F1 HISTORY”
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