Coventry’s Finest

Hot on the heels of noise about Alfa Romeo’s potential return to motor sport in the near future came word that Jaguar is teaming up with Williams to launch a full works Formula E effort.

This is a brave move, given the scorn that was poured upon then-owner Ford when it had the temerity to build a front-wheel-drive car with a Jaguar badge on it a few years ago. Now the purr of a six-cylinder is to be replaced by the whine of an electric motor, no doubt prompting much gnashing of teeth among gentlemen of a certain vintage that the ‘leaper’ is set to be seen on a glorified milk float.

Be that as it may, the automotive industry has some fairly major challenges ahead and these will only be solved by boldly going forth into new forms of powering its products. Electric vehicles are hideously inefficient, their production requires some horrendously toxic processes to take place and they are only ever likely to offer short-range inner-city transport solutions… but at least Jaguar is joining in the conversation.

Sadly the most obvious course of action for a brand like Jaguar, such as developing a hydrogen fuel cell Le Mans car, is a bit too much of a stretch at a time when its profitability is taking a bit of a beating. Jaguar Land Rover is temporarily on the back foot thanks to some poor luck in the Far East and investing half a billion dollars in new production centres, which presumably makes a relatively low cost/high visibility programme like Formula E more attractive.

But whatever the merits of Formula E, it is a positive thing that Jaguar is going to use motor sport to stake its place in the future of the industry. So to celebrate here is a gallery of loveliness to remind us all how much the big cat from Coventry has brought to the sport over the years.

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1956 and all that…

A lot is said and written about British leadership in motor sport. About its value. About its importance. We speak in terms intended to summon up the blood in a manner that would have delighted Henry V at Agincourt.

‘Twas not always thus. Brooklands may have been the world’s first permanent race track and a few pioneering marques such as Bentley, Napier and Sunbeam may have successfully raided the most prestigious races in Europe but, before World War 2, Britain was hardly smitten.

Racing cars not permitted: the SMMT shows its wares

Racing cars not permitted: the SMMT shows its wares

Indeed, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders was moved to prohibit the display of racing machinery within its annual Motor Show – stating that competition was ‘vulgar and irrelevant’.

All that was changed by the Second World War. In its wake a tide of bright young engineers and hard charging drivers was unleashed. That tide grew in depth, strength and experience until Britain became the motor racing capital of the world.

The year of British ascendance was 1956. If the primary measuring stick of motor sport is Formula One, then this was the first year when the number of British teams outnumbered those from Italy or France. It is also the first year in which British drivers won more grands prix than any other nationality – with Stirling Moss and Peter Collins claiming two victories apiece.

Young bucks Collins and Moss ran the old master Fangio close in 1956

Young bucks Collins and Moss ran the old master Fangio (right) close in 1956

Of course this was also the year in which Collins famously missed out on the world championship after handing his car to his title rival and team-mate, Juan Manuel Fangio, in the final race of the year. Clearly the British still had to develop the killer instinct in these situations!

Neither Moss or Collins were driving British cars, but there was plenty of success outside Formula 1 for British manufacturers. Leading the way was Jaguar, which maintained its dominance at the Le Mans 24 Hours with a fourth victory in six years – with Aston Martin and Lotus winning class honours.

Jaguar's fourth winner at Le Mans is crowned

Jaguar’s fourth winner at Le Mans is crowned

In rallying, Jaguar also the Monte Carlo Rally with its vast Mk.VII saloon and Aston Martin won the RAC Rally with its rather more obviously sporty DB2/4.

Meanwhile, back on the tracks, the Owen Maddock-designed Cooper T41 dominated in Formula 2, establishing the template for rear-engined simplicity that would carry the Kingston firm to world championship glory by the end of the decade.

Jaguar also claimed victory in the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally

Jaguar also claimed victory in the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally

If that wasn’t sufficient to set the seal on British dominance then Stirling Moss – that man again! – set new class speed records at Monza in a streamlined Lotus Eleven.

It was a year that would define so much for so many people: the year in which the remarkable community of engineers and adventurers showed exactly what they were capable of. The achievements of 1956 set in place the foundations for a huge and vibrant industry.

This week the great and the good of that same industry gather for their annual jamboree – the Autosport International show in Birmingham. Doubtless there will be much bullish talk about the state of the nation… but how much of it is justified?

One thing is clear – the age of British leadership in motor sport that arrived with such a tour de force in 1956 has, in fact, passed.

At the end of last year Britain lost 25% of its F1 production in the space of a fortnight. If a quarter of the Premier League teams vanished there would be rioting on the streets – but the disappearance of more than 400 jobs and hundreds of millions of pounds owing to suppliers has merited barely a raised eyebrow.

This misfortune is, however, just the tip of the iceberg. For example British Formula 3 – the series that was the making of virtually every F1 driver from Stirling Moss to Jenson Button, including the likes of Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna and Mika Häkkinen – has ceased to exist, after drawing only half a dozen entries in recent seasons.

The Le Mans 24 Hours and World Endurance Championship are currently contested by Audi, Porsche and Toyota… all based in Germany. Both of the full works teams entered in the World Rally Championship – Hyundai and Volkswagen – are also based in Germany.

In terms of manufacturing there are now only three viable options when it comes to single-seater chassis supply: Mygale from France (Formula Ford/Formula 4), Dallara (GP2, GP3, Formula 3, Indycar, World Series, Formula E) and its Italian compatriot Tatuus (Formula Renault).

Across virtually every discipline of the sport, from rallycross to hillclimbs and truck racing to dragsters, British influence is increasingly on the margins. As well as car production, traditional bastions of the industry such as Dunlop and Shell have also moved their motor sport arms (and associated Research & Development of customer products) away from Britain.

In 2001 the Motorsport Industry Association, the self-appointed lobbying group in the UK, valued the industry at £5bn a year – which was quite punchy. These days the MIA puts that figure at £10bn – which is frankly ludicrous.

In the years since 2001 such prestigious engineering firms as Cosworth, Reynard, Lola, Van Diemen, TWR and Ralliart have hurtled into oblivion. On the domestic front, the British Touring Car Championship lost its manufacturer entries and star drivers but has battled on – and at least survived where the British Rally Championship has been consigned to history.

One by one the lion’s teeth have been pulled.

What took Britain to the top of the world in 1956 and kept it there for roughly half a century was a fraternity imbued with talent and inventiveness as well as the willingness to challenge tradition. As a community we urgently need to revive this same spirit if we are to have any chance of halting the decline.

Britain needs to recapture the pioneering spirit it showed in 1956 - and fast

Britain needs to recapture the pioneering spirit it showed in 1956 – and fast

The S&G is a place to look backwards but, at the start of a new year, it might also be a good time to look forwards – and worry. Context is really what this blog is about, and if by looking back we can find a way to fan the embers then so much the better.

Behind the scenes at the 1956 Monaco GP

Moss was magnificent but Ferrari left a tale or two

Monaco 1956: Moss was magnificent but Ferrari left a tale or two

Life magazine has a treasure trove of images including the following selection from a series taken in the period leading up to the 1956 Monaco Grand Prix. They give an insight into the world inhabited by teams taking part in the Formula One World Championship that absolutely none of today’s teams would recognise, sadly.

Despite achieving unprecedented dominance in the 1952-53 world championship seasons for Formula 2 machinery, Scuderia Ferrari had dropped off a cliff in 1954-55. After the glorious little 4-cylinder F2 500 had carried all before it in the hands of Alberto Ascari and Mike Hawthorn, the subsequent 2.5-litre Formula One cars such as the 625, 553 Squalo and 555 Supersqualo were dismal failures and the team was on the brink of going under before Lancia went bust and it took over the promising D50 cars at the end of 1955.

After the International Trophy at Silverstone the cars are rebuilt for Monaco

After the International Trophy at Silverstone the cars are rebuilt for Monaco

Not only did Lancia’s departure grant a lifeline to Ferrari, but also the departure of Mercedes-Benz after its two years of dominance meant that the greatest driver of the era, Juan Manuel Fangio, was available and keen to drive the D50. There was little love lost between Fangio and Enzo Ferrari, but both knew that the other gave the best chance of success in 1956.

The season began with Fangio’s home race in Argentina, which saw the Ferrari-entered D50s dominate qualifying. Fangio’s own car broke its fuel pump but team-mate Luigi Musso was running strongly and so was called in to the pits to hand over his car to the Maestro, who duly won by 25 seconds from the Maserati of Jean Behra.

Then came the non-championship International Trophy at Silverstone, where the two cars entered for Fangio and Peter Collins both retired with clutch failure. After rushing back to Maranello to diagnose the ailment, a full squad of Fangio, Collins, Musso and Eugenio Castelotti was ready for the next world championship round in Monaco just a couple of days later.

The cars arrive in the Monaco pits ready to get practice underway

The cars arrive in the Monaco pits ready to get practice underway

Then as now, Monaco was an extremely crowded place for a Formula One event to take place, but the milling crowds were simply part of the ambiance. Today’s teams would run a mile at the prospect of living and working cheek-by-jowl with the ‘great unwashed’ – even if that meant well-heeled Monegasques. After all, they have social media campaigns for that sort of thing!

Fangio attempts to keep the fans happy - today teams use Twitter instead

Fangio keeps the fans happy – today teams use Twitter instead

Fangio stuck his car on pole position ahead of Moss’s works Maserati 250F. The young Englishman got the better start, however, and completed his first lap with a five second lead. Fangio was clearly rattled by the challenge to his authority and managed to spin his D50 at Ste. Devote, causing the sister car of Luigi Musso and the Vanwall of Harry Schell to crash out in avoidance.

Musso's D50 sits forlornly after avoiding Fangio's sister car

Musso’s D50 sits forlornly after avoiding Fangio’s sister car

Fangio set off unabashed, working his way back up to third place with some fairly lurid cornering before the remaining Ferrari of Peter Collins slowed up to let him past for second place. Fangio howled off after Moss but once again there was a lapse in concentration and he clobbered the nose of his car against a wall, allowing Collins to close up once more and sit dutifully on the Maestro’s tail rather than get past and press on after Moss.

By lap 40 this was becoming a bit of a farce and Fangio pulled in with his wounded machine and handed it over to Castelotti, whose own car had suffered a clutch failure. Now it was the turn of Peter Collins to get the summons to bring the last undamaged D50 in for Fangio to use. The young Englishman did what was expected of him and Fangio made his third bid to catch Moss, who had himself suffered a drama when lapping his team-mate Cesare Perdisa, getting a knock which loosened the engine cover and caused it to flap about.

Fangio's damaged D50 in the pits

Fangio’s damaged D50 in the pits

A nail-biting charge to the finish saw Fangio hauling in Moss’s advantage by two seconds per lap, but the Maserati team leader did not wilt under the pressure. He kept his head and took the flag six seconds clear of the charging Argentine star. So cool was Moss that he took time to wave to the crowds on the final lap as he savoured this, his first Monaco victory and the first time he had put one over the Maestro in a Grand Prix.

If Fangio was disappointed then doubly so was Peter Collins. The young star had driven faultlessly in the first half of the race and had been the only member of Scuderia Ferrari with a realistic shot at challenging Moss for the victory – only for the team to defer to Fangio’s wishes. Nevertheless, the cup was always half full for Collins, who could be relied upon to find something to enjoy – and someone to enjoy it with – in most situations.

Collins with his 'belle du jour' enjoys a glass of chilled refreshment

Collins in the pits with his ‘belle de jour’ and a glass of chilled refreshment

Life states that the lady photographed repeatedly in Collins’s company over the Monaco Grand Prix weekend was his future wife, Louise King. It’s not in fact the future Mrs. Collins – although the couple did both go to the same party that weekend without really noticing one another. Rather it is one of the many glamorous young ladies with whom the Ferrari ace enjoyed spending time before he tied the knot.

Almost 60 years later the world of Grand Prix racing looks rather different on many fronts…

Surtees and the dream machine

John Surtees sets off towards glory on the 1957 TT

John Surtees sets off towards glory on the 1957 TT

The 500cc M.V. Agusta stands as one of the most exotic motor cycles in the world when viewed in 2013. When viewed in its competitive heyday of the mid-1950s, it was quite simply one of the most thrilling machines in the world.

Count Vincenzo Agusta and his brother Domenico formed Meccanica Verghera Agusta in 1945 as a means to save the jobs of employees of the Agusta aviation works. Their plan was to produce cheap, efficient transportation that could withstand the demands of rural life and yet cut a dash on the streets of Rome.

Despite its utilitarian ideals, M.V. Agusta was soon operating just like its great contemporary Enzo Ferrari’s burgeoning sports car business: selling domesticated racing machines as a means to fund its on-track successes.

The design team of Arturo Magni and Piero Remor developed a range of bikes bristling with performance features and success arrived in 1948 when Franco Bertoni won the Italian Grand Prix. In 1956 the senior 500cc class was dominated by M.V. with its signature machine, this 4-cylinder inline thoroughbred ridden by the brilliant young Englishman, John Surtees.

With its quartet of exhausts broadcasting an ear-splitting howl and its standard-setting technology dressed in immaculate red and silver racing colours, the M.V. Agusta 500 GP bike embodied the thrill of motorcycle racing like no other machine.

With it Surtees notched up 22 world championship race wins in 1956-1960 and was crowned world champion in 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960. The records that he set with the 500cc M.V. Agusta include 32 wins out of 39 races entered in the 1958-60 seasons and a total of four Isle of Man TT victories, becoming the first man to win the Senior race three times in succession.