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Who'll play follow the liter?
John Lovesey
November 17, 1958
Not us, say three large nations, who will counter a Grand Prix engine cut with big cars
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November 17, 1958

Who'll Play Follow The Liter?

Not us, say three large nations, who will counter a Grand Prix engine cut with big cars

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The men who control international auto racing met privately the other day to choose the rules that builders of the world's most important road racing cars must follow in two years' time. For two days they debated the question heatedly behind the imposing Pall Mall facade of London's Royal Automobile Club. When they announced their decision, there was unprecedented tumult in the RAC's august halls, for the ruling meant, in effect, that the new cars would be decidedly puny ones. If a similar step were taken in boxing, it would mean that all classes above the lightweight level, say, would be disqualified, that the lightweight champion would be declared the world's best boxer by an all-powerful committee. Floyd Patterson, Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilio would be outlawed; Joe Brown would perforce be the best boxer in the world. The adage about a good big one is as true of racing engines as it is of boxers.

In road racing the heavyweight cars (in the sense that they are of the highest caliber and thus provide the best sport) are those built to a set of rules called Formula I. They are commonly known as Grand Prix cars. For more than 50 years they have been the Thoroughbred racers of the international sport. They have given the great drivers—Nuvolari, Caracciola, Ascari, Fangio, to name some of the most eminent—their supreme tests. The formula governing engine size has been changed frequently over the years, but usually the cars have had such power that they have exacted the utmost in driving skill. Racing's oldtimers speak of the sensationally powerful and fabulously fast prewar Mercedes and Auto Union Grand Prix cars (and the champions who drove them) with the awe and affection that boxing's oldtimers reserve for Jack Dempsey. Only a handful of drivers could do those cars justice.

Now the rulers of road racing—members of the Commission Sportive Internationale of the F�d�ration Internationale de l'Automobile—have chosen a formula that threatens to make Grand Prix racing a second-rate sport. The current rule limiting maximum piston displacement to 2,500 cubic centimeters (2� liters) has already permitted some distinctly underpowered racers (because of their extreme lightness) to challenge and even surpass the full-scale English Vanwalls and Italian Ferraris on some twisty courses. Under the new formula voted in at London, engines must be a full 1,000 cc. smaller than today's maximum—the size of current Formula II engines. Formula II racing is today chiefly in secondary events run off with the major Grand Prix races.

The men in London also decreed that the new cars must have reserve braking systems, should the primary systems fail; safer fuel tanks; anti-roll bars; and self-starters. Of more importance, they ruled that the cars must weigh at least 500 kilograms—approximately half a ton—including lubricants and coolants, but not counting fuel.

Eight nations were represented at the meeting: the U.S., Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Monaco. The new formula was voted over the strong opposition of Britain and Italy, which are the only nations building Grand Prix cars today, and the U.S. This powerful minority immediately got permission to form a subcommittee to work out a special intercontinental formula with a much larger engine size—a move with far-reaching implications for the U.S., and the sport, as we shall see.


Britain, enjoying its greatest Grand Prix successes in history, sent its best drivers and foremost builders to plead for an extension of the current formula, which has been in force for five years. Mike Hawthorn, who won the world driver championship (in Ferraris), and Stirling Moss, the driver he defeated by one point; Tony Vandervell, builder of the Vanwalls, which won six races, and Charles Cooper, builder of the little Coopers, which won two—all testified to no avail. Italy's No. 1 builder, Enzo Ferrari, sent his views in writing. It is known that he advocated an intercontinental 3-liter formula for races between European and American cars and, as a compromise, a 2-liter car with a minimum weight limit of 1,320 pounds as a secondary class. Charles Moran Jr., chairman of the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States ( America's voice in the CSI), joined the British and Italian delegates in the futile attempt to convince the opposition that a smaller-engined and thus slower car would not necessarily make the sport safer.

Government pressures at home to do something about safety undoubtedly led to the ganging up on the British, Italians and Americans—and not just because Grand Prix racing has had one of its rare bad years for driver fatalities (with Britain's Peter Collins and Stuart Lewis-Evans and Italy's Luigi Musso killed).

Memories of the Le Mans holocaust of 1955 and the Mille Miglia disasters of 1957 are still vivid in Europe. The fact that they were caused by sports cars, not Grand Prix cars, seems to have made little difference in London. Paradoxically, the championship sports cars, at 3 liters, have even bigger and more powerful engines than current Grand Prix cars.

Nevertheless, France's Augustin Perouse, president of the CSI and a member for 30 years, made it clear before the meeting that he was seeking a drastic reduction in engine size. After the decision was announced he said Grand Prix racing would not have been allowed in France next year and possibly would have been stopped in Germany later, if a major change had not been voted.

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