The 2019 Chinese GP was one for the history books as it was officially the 1000th Formula One race. Pretty much every car, driver and aspect of the sport's entire history was talked about. From great drivers such as Senna and Schumacher to unforgettable cars like the Brawn BGP 001 and Lotus 72. Lots of F1 firsts were discussed as well. First race, first world champion, first car with wings, etc...
There's one very significant first missing however. What was the first F1 car? I've scoured the internet for this relatively simple question with zero answers as a result. It's almost baffling to find no conclusive pioneer when it comes to F1 cars. Once you start digging around it becomes clear why the topic hasn't been brought up all the much. The first F1 race ever was the 1950 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. But that doesn't mean the grid consisted of new cars especially made for this new era in motorsport. In fact, I'd go as far to say none of the cars on the grid that day were F1 cars.
1950 British Grand Prix
To know why these cars aren't technically F1 cars we must go back to the beginnings of car racing. The AIACR or Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus, the precursor to the FIA we know today, was founded in 1904 with the purpose of organizing the growing popularity of car racing including the biggest one of all: Grand Prix racing.
Throughout the years this "International Formula" , as it was officially known, was changed and updated to keep the field competitive as the German manufacturers Auto Union and Mercedes were dominating the Italians and French cars in just about any race they entered. The cars that didn't follow the International Formula and conformed to a different, slower set of regulations were known as Voiturettes. This class was extremely competitive as every car was limited to having an engine size of 1.5L
It is this 1.5L class that continued running after WWII ended and became the new top class. Voiturettes had essentially been promoted into Grand Prix cars. Nobody in their right mind thought forcing people to make brand new cars after such a dark period in history was a good idea. Instead, surviving Voiturettes were brought back into running order and ventured out to race once more.
1946 Turin Grand Prix
The 1946 Turin Grand Prix was one of the first major races to be held after the war using the pre-existing International Formula. It took till 1950 for the FIA to set up an official drivers world championship. Now the cars originally known as Voiturettes got a third name change. As of 1950 they would be called Formula One cars.
Formula One, as it was now called, was still going through a transitional period. The cars that entered the 1950 British Grand Prix were essentially still Voiturettes. Over half the grid including the Maseratis and Alfa Romeos were almost 20 years old. F1 finally evolved into its own unique entity in 1954 with the arrival of a brand new set of regulations. All cars were to be powered by naturally aspirated 2.5L engines or supercharged 0.75L engines. Voiturettes were now a thing of the past. Instead, the gates were opened for the creation of true, modern, purpose built F1 cars.
Before we come to the final criteria there are a few things to mention. First there is the quite ridiculous 750 cc supercharged engines or rather the lack thereof. Not a single manufacturer attempted to create such a small and complicated engine. Naturally aspirated engines were clearly the most obvious choice.
The Ferrari 553 "squalo" was one of many F2 cars posing as an F1 car.
It should also be made clear that 2.5L was the just the maximum allowed engine size. Running a 2.0L engine would have been a peculiar choice because of the lack of power but it was perfectly legal. This made it possible for anyone with an F2 car, wich ran 2.0L engines, to sign up for an F1 race. Some imposters showed up as well in the form of 2.5L engine swapped F2 cars.
So for a car to qualify as the first F1 car ever made it has to have made its competition debut in the 1954 F1 season and have an engine and chassis specifically designed for F1. It can not be associated with an F2 car in any way shape or form.
We start our search for eligible cars at the first race of this new formula, the 1954 Argentina Grand Prix. Only 3 different cars were present here, the Italian Maserati 250F and Ferrari 625 and the French Gordini T16. All 3 of these cars ran 2.5L engines. So far so good then. However, the Gordini T16 was nothing more than a slightly modified T15 with a stroked engine. This means the French are out of the running. This is coincidentally exactly the same thing Ferrari did with their 625. It too was just a slightly tuned up Ferrari 500. Their F2 car.
This means the only car left is the Maserati 250F thus earning itself the title of first F1 car ever made, or is it?
The chassis is undoubtedly unique and built with F1 in mind. It shares nothing with its F2 predecessor, the 2.0L straight 6 A6GCM. It's when we get to the engine where things start to get complicated. Maserati decided to keep using a straight 6 since they were so used to designing cars around them. Whether or not the 250F's engine is a heavily modified A6GCM unit or rather an entirely new block is uncertain. After a hefty dose of research I can neither confirm or deny the legitimacy of the 250F engine.
Either the 250F is indeed the first F1 car ever made according to my set of rules or the honor goes to a different car. If so, what car would the title go to? None other than perhaps the most dominant manufacturer in the history of F1: Mercedes.
The Mercedes W196 does make a pretty good case for itself. It can't possibly be in the same sort of grey area the Maserati 250F is because Mercedes never competed in F2. The W196 was their first race car after the war. Since they couldn't use their supercharging expertise anymore, Mercedes chose to use innovative and ground breaking direct fuel injection. A piece of technology borrowed from the fierce Messerschmitt Bf 109e fighter plane.
The all new chassis and high tech engine made for one hell of a car. It easily won its debut race, the French GP, and went on to dominate the rest of the season. Partly because the car was so good but also because Juan Manuel Fangio was behind the wheel after deserting from the Maserati team.
We've reached a bit of a stalemate. I can't decide whether or not the honor should go to the Maserati that raced first but has a questionable engine or the Mercedes that debuted later in the season but has a crystal clear origin story. So i'm gonna let you decide. Think hard about your choice now, this one's for the history books.