The Story of F1 Begins: 1950 British Grand Prix

Formula 1, retold.

May 13, 1950.  As race days go, this date is only a spec among the scores of Formula 1 grand prix races.  However, this day represents the beginning of a sixty year quest based on one simple question:

Who is ultimately quickest?

What began as the interia of finally establishing a “universal” championship, would only pick up speed.  In its fury, it would absorb blood, sweat, tears, and–of course–vast sums of money.

When you really thing about it, the actual events of the race pale in consideration to the

The original post-war layout of the British Grand Prix Circuit

Map of Silverstone race circuit, circa 1950

significance it will always hold simply for being the first race of the first season of the Formula 1 Championship.  Was it all a foregone conclusion–the history of it all?  Did inevitability and progress predetermine a series with the sheer heroicness of F1; or, was there a magic created that day at that abandoned airfield thirty minutes east of Milton Keynes?

I tend to believe that these men reached out and grabbed something special that day.  They gave themselves a challenge of never-ending complexity: it would require craftmanship, ingenuity, and the driver.  To complete the challenge, they were required to build a machine whose sole goal was to race all out of a film.

With their bare hands they would need to fabricate sheet-metal, not with computer automated design and multi-axis rapid prototyping, but with pencils, calipers, trial, and error.  Today, and I can only speak for my generation, we take for granted how much we know about aerodynamics, not to mention how long it took for that knowledge to be learned.  Without air tunnels these men hammered shapes that intuition alone told them would slip through the air.  On the track, the mechanics used only hand-tools to repair the car after an off during practice.

Even then, the development pace was frenzied as the 1.5 two-stage supercharging efficiency improved and as the 4.5 liter naturally  aspirated engines increased their fuel efficiency.  The truly amazing thing is, the sheer inertia of the first world championship did not fizzle; but rather, it turned into steady acceleration.  And race by race, the cars improved.  Even today, the cars in the final third of the season are consistently better than the cars in the first few races.  I find myself amazed that the challenge of ultimate quickness under the constraints of the formula, “One.”

As I eluded to earlier, and this may only be in my mind, but the race seems to be an afterthought.  It was dominated by the Italians.  Not the Ferrari’s (Ferrari was not even present at the race), but the Alfa Romeo‘s swept the podium.  From a viewer borne into the corporate era of F1, team structure of the fifties is almost comically unclear.  Teams appeared to have been permitted up to four cars.  However, some of the four were frequently owned by privateers.  Even still, the cars would be swapped between the races to give the better driver a chance to come back.  Being called in to give up your drive for a teammate makes Massa look like a turncoat? wtf?

Fangio‘s first pit stop took about twenty-five seconds.  To be sure, this is quicker than I expected, but still eons away from the consistently sub-four seconds of twenty-twelve.  Just a week later, the medium sized busses that would eventually become tractor-trailer delivered media-centers arrived to Monaco, east of Cannes, for the second grand prix of the inaugural championship season.