There have arguably been more words written about who is the greatest driver of all time than any other subject of opinion in Formula One. Likewise, manufacturers past and present have been the focus of the nib of many a statistic-obsessed scribe. But what of those at the genesis of a driver’s career at the pinnacle of the sport, the catalysts for a manufacturer’s period in the spotlight? I’m speaking of the designers, the engineers whose embryotic pencil sweep over a pristine sheet of paper has been the first step to a great driver being carried in a great car to the greatest prize in world motorsport. The pipe-puffing boffins huddled over a drawing board in a draughty shed in Oxfordshire, the gifted visionaries who approached design as something living, breathing, organic, and the computer-like engineers whose scientific approach to building a race car was married perfectly to highly disciplined, well-equipped and well-funded manufacturers.
In this series I’ll be taking a look at each full decade of Formula One from the inaugural driver’s championship season of 1950 onwards and focussing on the designers and their ideas, culminating in that idea reaching the chequered flag first. In the final instalment, I’ll attempt to summarise and provide a definitive answer to who is Formula One’s greatest designer of all time.
Part One: 1950s
‘Formula One’ criteria was first ran by the FIA at the Turin Grand Prix of 1946, however, it was the beginning of the following decade and the advent of the World Drivers’ Championship in 1950 that many observers and commentators pinpoint as the true beginning of Formula One as we know it.
That first ever Formula One race was won by Italy’s Achille Varzi, driving an Alfa Romeo 158. Gioacchino Colombo, who had previously been an apprentice at the Italian marque to Vittorio Jano, designed the 158 engine in 1937 and it was fitted to the Alfetta or , ‘Little Alfa’ in 1938. Jano himself had already made his name through penning the P2 and P3 Alfa Romeo grand prix cars of 1924 and 1932. The P2 propelled a certain Enzo Ferrari to nine grand prix wins between 1924 and 1931 whilst the P3 became the fledgling Scuderia Ferrari Team’s weapon of choice from 1933 to 1935 following the Great Man’s retirement from racing and his first forays into team ownership.
Despite debuting in pre-war grand prix racing in 1938, the Alfa 158, in 159 guise was still winning Formula One races in 1951. In fact, as well as completely dominating the field in 1950 and beating down the Ferrari 375s in 1951, Colombo’s 158s took forty seven victories out of the fifty four grand prix they were entered in, a win percentage of 87% which is bettered by only two other cars in Formula One history.
Fangio takes the flag in the Alfa Romeo 158, one of forty-seven enjoyed by the Italian marque with this car in a win ratio that would not be bettered for thirty-seven years
While his cars were zipping around the world’s tracks, more often than not at the front, Colombo was engaged by Enzo Ferrari to design a V12 engine that could be fitted to both his race and road cars. The result was the ‘Ferrari Colombo Engine’ which was used to great effect in 1.5 litre guise in the 125S of 1947 (Ferrari’s first ever ground-up build), 1.9 litre format in the 159S and 2.0 litre in the 1949 Le Mans winning 166S. Colombo’s design, which was manufactured in various displacements up to 4.8 litres, was so highly regarded by Ferrari that it was still being bolted to his road cars over forty years after its debut, the last being in 1989’s 412i.
For all the sports car success and effectiveness in Ferrari’s road cars, Colombo’s V12 did not achieve similar success in Formula One. With the arrival at Ferrari of competing designer, Aurelio Lampredi, Colombo took his slide rule back to Alfa Romeo in 1950 to oversee Giuseppe Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio blowing away the competition for two seasons before heading to Modena with Maserati in 1953.
Despite various attempts to get the Colombo engine to perform at the top level, including experimenting with a number of different superchargers, Ferrari turned to Lampredi to act as technical director for the Scuderia and produce for him a V12 engine starting at 3.3 litre displacement. The ‘Lampredi V12’ was first fitted to two Ferrari 275S for entry into the 1950 Mille Miglia but the transmission units were unable to handle the power of the engine with both cars retiring from the event. However, despite this and other sportscar disappointments, it was clear that the Lampredi V12 had the potential to be successful in Formula One.
Aurelio Lampredi (l) and Gioacchino Colombo (r), Enzo Ferrari's golden boys of the 1950s
With Alfa Romeo bowing out of Formula One before the beginning of the 1952 season and the championship consequently being ran to Formula Two regulations, the field was wide open for a new challenger and the Lampredi designed Ferrari 500 proved to be the car to beat. Being the only car specifically designed for use in Formula Two was undoubtedly an advantage, and Alberto Ascari piloted the 500 to eleven wins with teammates Giuseppe Farina and Piero Taruffi contributing a victory each over the 1952 and ’53 seasons. Along the way, Ascari also set a record of seven consecutive World Championship wins that stood for sixty years until being broken by Sebastian Vettel in 2013.
Whilst the Italians had enjoyed almost unchallenged Formula One success up to this point, an Anglo-German engineer by the name Rudolf Uhlenhaut had other ideas. Joining Mercedes-Benz in 1931 before assuming the role as head of the company’s race-car department in 1936, Uhlenhaut had aspirations himself as a driver and although it was at the drawing board where he truly excelled, his skills behind the wheel offered him first hand, expert knowledge of the strengths and drawbacks of any car he drove. The previously competitive W25 was beginning to show its age and its successor, the W125 which had Uhlenhaut among its designers took the breath away from 1936’s dominant team, Auto Union, cruising to four out of five European Championship victories plus a further four wins in non-championship races of the 1937 season. With an engine displacement of 5.6 litres, achieving 595 horsepower in race trim and being clocked at over 190 mph (300 km/h) at the fastest circuits, the W125 was regarded as the most powerful race car ever built until the mid-1960s when the large capacity V8 engines being raced in the U.S. began to reach similar outputs. Indeed, it would not be until the turbo-era of the 1980s that Formula One cars would achieve such asphalt churning power. One variation of the vehicle, the appropriately named ‘Rekordwagen’ hit a top speed of 268 mph (432.7 km/h) on the Reichs-Autobahn A5 outside of Frankfurt in 1938, a record for a timed speed on a public road that stood for seventy-nine years.
At the outbreak of World War II, Uhlenhaut was sent to work at the Daimler-Benz aircraft factory, designing aircraft engines and components. His dual nationality brought him to the attention of the Gestapo and he found himself under constant surveillance for the duration of the hostilities. Returning to Mercedes-Benz in 1948, Uhlenhaut designed the W194 (also known as the 300SL) of 1952 which achieved success at the hands of Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio among others at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Bern-Bremgarten rally and Carrera Panamericana and led ultimately to 1954’s iconic 300SL ‘gullwing’ coupe road car.
Uhlenhaut's (right with Stirling Moss, left) skills behind the wheel offered him invaluable insight into how the cars he designed handled out on the track
In 1954, Formula One came calling to the German marque and Uhlenhaut duly obliged with the sublime Mercedes-Benz W196. Featuring revolutionary design ideas such as desmodromic (or unsprung) engine valves and mechanical fuel injection, the W196 made those that went before it and even some of its contemporaries look almost mediaeval by comparison. In the hands of Juan Manuel Fangio, the car scored four victories in both 1954 and 1955 seasons with Stirling Moss contributing with one of his own in 1955. Such was Uhlenhaut’s dedication to his design that he insisted on testing the vehicle alongside Fangio during its development and was, on occasion, faster than the Argentinian, much to the five-times world champion’s overt amusement and no doubt, secret annoyance.
1955 would see the Le Mans disaster of 11th June in which eighty-three spectators and Mercedes-Benz driver, Pierre Levegh lost their lives after the latter’s 300 SLR was caught up in a racing incident involving Jaguar’s Mike Hawthorn and the Austin-Healey of Lance Macklin. As a result, Mercedes-Benz withdrew from all motorsport activities with immediate effect until 1989, the same year as the passing of Uhlenhaut who, it is claimed, never actually owned a car of his own.
The absence of Alfa Romeo and now Mercedes-Benz heralded a return for Ferrari to the top step of the podium, though it was in a badge engineered car that began life as a Lancia and it wasn’t to be a long visit. The Vittorio Jano designed D50 had made its debut in 1954, driven by Alberto Ascari and featuring innovations such as the engine being used as a stressed chassis member and pannier fuel cells to aid aerodynamics and weight distribution. It was further developed by Ferrari following their acquisition of the Scuderia Lancia assets and Jano himself from the Lancia family and was piloted in 1956 by Juan Manuel Fangio on his way to his fourth world title. That same year, Jano was tasked with developing a new V12 engine for Ferrari’s sportscars and his 'Jano V12' shovelled the scarlet cars along to two World Sportscar Championship titles. However, Maserati had taken two victories from under Ferrari's nose in 1956 and two gentlemen in cardigans from a bearings factory in Acton in the United Kingdom were beginning to gain some attention.
Is it a Ferrari? Is it a Lancia? Who knows, but in the hands of Juan Manuel Fangio, Vittorio Jano's D50 was bloody quick
For the 1957 season, Fangio made the short trip up the road from Maranello to Modena and slipped effortlessly into the Colombo/Colotti designed Maserati 250F. Valerio Colotti, predominantly a transmission man had been engaged with designing the tubular frame of the 250F to which Colombo’s A6, straight-six engine would be bolted. The neat package, many commentators noted, bore an uncanny resemblance to the Mercedes-Benz W196 of 1954 but the 250F was actually an updated version of the A6GCM which had made its debut at the last race of the 1953 season, thereby predating the W196. Whilst an Argentinian/Italian dream team reaped another four victories and a fifth world crown for Fangio, the Vanwall VW5, designed by Great Britain's Colin Chapman and Mike Costin scored three victories and thus brought to the sport two men who would soon leave an indelible mark on Formula One and motorsport as a whole.
In 1958, the British foothold in Formula One was strengthened with the Chapman/Costin designed Vanwall VW5 taking the inaugural Constructor’s Championship with six victories and being joined as race winners by the Cooper Climax T43/T45 from the pen of Owen Maddock, the T43 having the distinction of being the first mid-engine Formula One winner. Maddock was to go one better the following year, his T51 taking both the Constructor’s Championship and handing Jack Brabham his first Driver’s crown.
Colin Chapman (sitting in a Lotus 11) and Mike Costin (l) discuss progress during a Formula Two race. The two young designers would each change the face of Formula One in the following decade and beyond
The decade that began with Italian dominance and featured the best in German engineering at its midpoint ended with British-led design making its mark. Vittorio Jano proved that by usurping both Colombo and Lampredi at Scuderia Ferrari he was still the master to his apprentice. Lampredi moved onto Fiat, designing their famous Twin-Cam and SOHC engines before eventually becoming factory manager of the marque’s Abarth racing arm. Rudolf Uhlenhaut’s skills not only in engine design but also in the fundamental understanding of how a racing car should ‘feel’ made him unique among his peers and Valerio Colotti's engineering versatility made him an integral part to the success of the outstanding Maserati 250F.
However, the undoubted great of Formula One design in the 1950s in my opinion was Gioacchino Colombo and the three World Drivers’ Championships that his cars were piloted to, one of which being the Alfa 158, almost unbeatable for a staggering thirteen years. Later in his career, Colombo would go on to work for Bugatti on the 251 which is to date, the company's last race car, before moving to Italian motorcycle manufacturer MV Augusta until his retirement in 1970.
If the 1950s saw simplicity, ingenuity and reliability triumph with many crossovers between different racing disciplines, the following decade would feature designers and engineers of an entirely different variety. With innovation and creativity being pitted against the limits of the technology of the day, bespoke machinery would be developed that was leaps and bounds ahead of what had gone before in terms of speed but sometimes coming at great cost as tolerances were breached.