The 1.5 Litre Era
While the new season awaits with new tyres, new technology and new rules, 50 years ago, Formula One was going through even bigger changes. 1961 saw a new formula and it wasn’t without controversy. The 2.5 litre formula (along with the unused allowance for 750 cc supercharged engines) was gone to be replaced by smaller, less-powerful 1.5 litre power-plants. The drivers didn’t like it and the British establishment liked it even less, arguing against the changes throughout 1960. The cited reason for the rule changes was to reduce speeds, promote safety and induce manufacturers to sponsor teams by lowering costs (sound familiar?). It wasn’t the only change in the name of safety – roll-over bars and ignition cut-out switches were also introduced. Meanwhile, the drivers formed the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA) during the first weekend of the season in Monaco but, above all, it was the unpopular change in engine size that had everyone talking ahead of that opening race weekend.
The British objection appears to have stemmed largely out of the fact that they were now at the top of the pack and therefore had the most to lose. A new breed of entrepreneur who bought the best engines and components off the shelf had come along, people that Enzo Ferrari dismissed as mere ‘assemblatori‘. Once they started winning, the big companies pulled out – Alfa-Romeo, Mercedes-Benz, Maserati, Tablot and Lancia were no longer a part of Formula One. The FIA’s rule change was partly a response to that as they sought to attract the car manufacturers back to Formula One (again, sound familiar?) However, the objective never really worked. Porsche briefly entered the affray with Jo Bonnier and, most notably, Dan Gurney at the wheel of a decidedly outdated car (it was based on the company’s Formula 2 racer) but after just two seasons they pulled out, declaring the sport prohibitively expensive. Ultimately, the main reason that the decrease in power failed to change the stranglehold of the British establishment was that the new formula was essentially based on Formula 2, which was already dominated by the British. The hysterics had really been for nothing.
Not that that was immediately apparent. While the British suppliers had been voicing their objections, Ferrari had stole a march on developing an engine and 1961 was to be the year of the ‘Sharknose’ – the Ferrari 156. Climax and BRM were not even ready for the opening race of the season and had to rely on and interim engine putting out 150 bhp to Ferrari’s 185. The Scuderia didn’t have the year entirely their own way though. The year kicked off with a surprising victory for Stirling Moss in the Rob Walker Lotus, a feat repeated at the Nurburgring. Then there was the French Grand Prix at Reims. With the main Ferrari trio faltering it was left to Formula One débutant, Giancarlo Baghetti in a privateer Ferrari to fight it out with Dan Gurney’s Porsche. O.1 seconds separated them at the finish but Baghetti became the only man to win on his World Championship début, flattering Ferrari’s season in the process. The following year, Ferrari languished down in sixth and the British were back at the front.
There were also concerns that the cars were horribly underpowered and slow, therefore unspectacular successors to their ancestors. At the end of the 1961 season, Tony Brooks even walked away from the sport due to his lack of interest in the underpowered machines. Yet in reality, the 1.5 litre machines were not really as bad in comparison to the 2.5 litre machines as you may imagine. What teams lost in power they soon made up in improvements in the chassis, suspension, transmission and tyres – what they gave away on the straights they clawed back in the corners and soon cars were lapping faster than they had been in 1960. Indeed, after five years, average power had increased by nearly 50% at any rate.
The reduction in engine size, therefore, was not the disaster that many forecast, however, neither did it stand up against other forms of racing. Sportscar machinery was soon outperforming Formula One’s beasts and in 1966, 3.0 litres became the new standard – interestingly the changeover was equally problematic but entirely popular. However, it was westwards towards the United States that attention really drifted at this time – there, 4.2 litre Offenhausers producing well over 400 bhp were leading the way. There was also the pull of big prize money – a $400,000 purse for the Indy 500 in 1961. Indeed, Jack Brabham and Cooper barely made it to the opening race of the 1961 season in time, flying straight from Indianapolis qualifying. It was to start a trend that was to see Jim Clark and Graham Hill famously win the ‘500′.
For the most part, the British constructors never wanted the 1.5 litre formula but it became one that they would almost totally dominate – the 1.5 litre Coventry-Climax became the engine of the short-lived era. 1961, 1962 and 1964 were great seasons and while the era saw the career of Stirling Moss come to a premature end, it saw the rise to prominence of a new breed of British drivers in Jim Clark, Graham Hill and John Surtees.
Image credit: Lothar Spurzem
For more on the 1.5 litre era, see “1½ Litre Grand Prix Racing 1961 – 1965″ by Mark Whitelock. Published by Veloce Publishing (ISBN: 184584016X , ISBN-13: 9781845840167)