|Vanwall VW Grand Prix|
Formula 1 has been the premier racing class for over fifty years and many enthusiasts would have little trouble naming a dozen past and present constructors, but very few would come up with Vanwall. This quite remarkable as the small team brought Grand Prix racing success back to Britain and won the very first constructor's world championship. Most important of all they did this in great style with a completely in-house designed and manufactured machine that was well ahead of its time. The success was the fruition of a decade of hard work of the team led by industrialist Tony Vandervell.
Shortly after WW2, a plan arose to take on the dominant Italians on in Grand Prix racing with a completely British built car. It had been almost 25 years since a British car last won a Grand Prix and there were more than a few (rich) enthusiasts who liked to end the drought. Among them was Vandervell, who had made a fortune with the production of Thin Wall bearings, which were used in many applications, including bright red racing cars. The group formed British Racing Motors and Vandervell even offered his vast premises to construct the cars. His enthusiasm rapidly decreased as things progressed very slowly because there was not a single strong leader, but a committee heading the operation. He left BRM in 1950.
Fortunately, Vandervell did not close the door on racing and instead entered a variety of Ferrari built single seaters. Painted green and fitted with a variety of upgrades like disc brakes, they were raced as 'Thin Wall Specials'. Especially the last of these, a Ferrari 375 F1, proved very successful in Formula Libre events. The desire to build an all-British car was still very strong and in 1952 work was started on a replacement for the successful Ferraris. Although his team had learned a lot from racing the Ferraris, they were not confident enough to design a new chassis from the ground up and instead had Cooper design and build them one. They did develop a new four cylinder engine, but more about that later.
When the design process started, the world championship was run under Formula 2 regulations, which meant a maximum displacement of 2 litres. By the time the first 'Vanwall' was ready to race, the rules had changed once again with the displacement limit stretched to 2.5 litres. Facing strong competition from Lancia, Maserati and above all Mercedes-Benz, and teething problems with the new engine, the Vanwall team did not leave a lasting impression in 1954. Before the season was over the Cooper based machine was crashed beyond repair. For the next season four more chassis were constructed along the same lines, but again there was little the Brits could do to challenge the Germans and Italians.
By chance, a very young Colin Chapman visited the Vanwall factory and after taking a good look at the chassis, he suggested so many changes to Vandervell that he was hired to design a new chassis from the ground up. It was a great opportunity for the young engineer, who had previously only designed small sports cars for his own company Lotus. He came up with a very rigid and lightweight spaceframe, which was quite a departure from the Italian tubular ladder type frames that were prone to flex. Due to the rigidity of the frame, the suspension could be set up with softer springs, greatly increasing the predictability of the handling. Suspension was by double wishbones and coil springs at the front and a DeDion axle at the rear with a transverse leaf spring. For 1957, the leaf spring was replaced by 'Chapman struts' with coil springs. While the conservative Italians still used drums, the Vanwalls were already fitted with in-house developed vented disc brakes.
Vandervell was also a director at Norton and he was so impressed by the motorcycle manufacturer's 500 cc single cylinder that he had his Formula 2 engine based on it. As mentioned earlier, by the time the engine was needed, its initial displacement of 2 litres was not sufficient. Norton engineer Leo Kusmicki carefully enlarged the engine, and its debut season, it was raced in 2, 2.3 and 2.5 litre form. The beautiful four cylinder engine of course featured Thin Wall bearings and hairpin valve springs, which were very popular at the time, but were difficult to get reliable. A big turn-around for the Vanwall four cylinder engine was the addition of Fuel Injection, received from Mercedes-Benz and Bosch after the former withdrew from motor racing at the end of 1955. At full size and with the Fuel Injection installed the engine produced a very competitive 285 bhp.
Chapman also brought along aerodynamics expert Frank Costin, who sculpted a very efficient body for the 1956 Vanwall. Air was fed to the four intake trumpets by a 'Naca duct' in the body, which produced far less drag than the conventional ram intake. Leaving little to chance Vandervell frequently hired high profile drivers like Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks. The cars showed considerable potential, but teething problems frequently let the cars down. Nevertheless, Moss was able to score Vanwall's first major victory in the Silverstone International Trophy. Slowly, but gradually the pieces fell into place and at the start of the 1957 season the cars were almost as reliable as they were fast. The all-star team of drivers was now hired full-time and talented young-gun Stuart Lewis-Evans was hired as the third driver.
With the revised rear suspension and the bugs ironed out, a glorious period for Vanwall started. At Aintree Moss took Vanwall's maiden Grand Prix victory, and the first for an all British entry for 34 years. Moss went on to score two more wins that season, including one at Monza, embarrassing the local Ferrari and Maserati teams. After Maserati's retirement, the 1958 season was very much a Ferrari vs. Vanwall battle. Ferrari's newly developed 246 Dino was very fast in a straight line, but it was beaten by the Vanwall on twistier tracks. Moss repeated his 1957 feat and won three Grands Prix, and Brooks added another three to Vanwall's tally. Sadly Moss came one point short of Ferrari's Mike Hawthorn for the driver's title, but Vanwall did comfortably win the very first constructor's cup.
It was not all good news for Vanwall in 1958 though. Vandervell was struggling with his health and the doctors strongly advised against his active involvement in the hectic world of motorsport. The final blow was the fatal crash of Lewis-Evans in the last race of the season at Casablanca; a blown engine had locked up his rear wheels. The Vanwall team withdrew at the end of the season, but not before paving the way for the many other successful British manufacturers that followed. Tony Brooks entered an updated Vanwall once in 1959 and 1960, but like its Ferrari nemesis, it was not able to keep up with the mid-engined Coopers. A Lotus 18 based mid-engined machine was also developed, but never raced.
Although there were never more than four cars assembled at any time, there were ten chassis numbers assigned to the various Vanwall frames. The others were used as spares. At the end of the 1958 season there were three complete racing cars and sufficient spares for several more cars. Two different cars are pictured above. The first six shots show 'VW11', which was based of the multiple Grand Prix winning 'VW5' and used by Brooks in his unsuccessful 1959 and 1960 outings. The chassis and engine are still original, but the body was constructed later using VW9 and VW10 as a model. The second bears s/n 'VW7' and has been more recently reconstructed using the many spares available with drawings made available by the Donnington Collection who bought all of the Vanwall assets in the early 1980s. VW11 is seen here driven by Brian Redman at the 2006 Goodwood Revival and VW7 seen on the Speedmaster stand at Retromobile earlier that same year.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on November 27, 2006
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