The British Racing Green: Giving Ferrari Headaches Since 1958
For single team domination, Ferrari is unquestionably the Formula One champion, with 16 Constructors titles to its impressive historical record. But if you look at the statistics by nationality, then the country with more than double the racing championships earned by Italy is…the United Kingdom.
It’s easy for contemporary Formula One fans to overlook the British teams in favor of the Italian Ferrari, German Mercedes, and Austrian Red Bull teams. A fair point, in fact, since the most recent British Constructor’s title went to Brawn in 2009, and, before that, McLaren in 1998.
Overall, the historical impact of British Formula One domination is also diluted by the fact that the British titles are spread out between 10 different teams. To put this in context—only five countries have ever won Constructor’s Titles in the history of Formula One Racing (France, 3; Austria, 4; Germany, 5; Italy, 16; U.K., 33). Italy, Germany, and Austria attribute all of their wins to a single team; France has had 2 winning teams. In other words, the U.K. has more winning teams than Germany, France, or Austria have had total wins.
So, who are all of these British speedsters?
The very first team to win a Formula One Constructor’s Title, Vanwall was founded by Tony Vandervell, the Thinwall ball bearings magnate. Vanwall was active in racing from the beginning of the 1950s, but the team started out by driving “Thinwall Specials” (which were really modified Ferraris) in non-championship races. It wasn’t until 1954 that Vanwall launched its own race car designs, the “Vanwall Specials;” and it wasn’t until 1957 that they took a Grand Prix (becoming the first British team to do so). 1958 was the team’s golden year. Drivers Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks won three races each, finishing second and third in the Driver’s Championship standings, and situating Vanwall to claim the first Constructor’s Championship. The win came at a high cost, however, when Vanwall driver Stuart Lewis-Evans was killed during the final race in Morocco.
By the end of the season, Tony Vandervell’s health was failing and his doctors advised complete rest; without his dedication, Vanwall soon dissolved. They never completed another full season, and last raced in 1961.
Bonus Factoid: In true British fashion, Stirling Moss lost out on the Driver’s Championship due to extreme good sportsmanship. During the Portuguese Grand Prix, rival Ferrari driver Mike Hawthorne stalled out on an uphill section. Moss called out to Hawthorn, telling him to steer downhill to bump-start the car. The racing stewards were going to penalize Hawthorn for reversing on the track, but Stirling defended him to the race officials, and Hawthorne was eventually awarded the six points for second place. At the end of the season, Hawthorne had scored just one point more than Stirling, edging him out for the Driver’s Championship.
Cooper (1959, 1960)
Even without Vandervell, the British weren’t out for the count. The next team to step up was launched by a father and son duo, Charles and John Cooper, who built race cars out of their garage in rural England. They started racing competitively in the 1940s, but their technological breakthrough came in 1959, when they perfected their rear-engine, single-seat car design and took the racing world by storm. Their design partner Jack Brabham (a New Zealand native) drove the Cooper-Climax to a Driver’s Championship and Constructor’s Championship in 1959 (pushing Moss and Stirling to second and third place, again). Cooper and Brabham repeated the feat in 1960 (where Brabham’s win was seconded by that of New Zealand teammate Bruce McLaren). In short, the concept was so decisively successful that, since 1959, every Formula One championship car has had a rear-engine design.
But once the other teams caught on to the design change, Cooper wasn’t able to compete with innovations in engine and brake systems. And, like Vanwall, Cooper owed its ephemeral success to a pair of decisive personalities. Cooper continued to race competitively for another four years, but after John Cooper was badly injured in a road accident, and Charles died in 1964, John decided to sell the team.
Yet, even though Cooper racing was relatively short-lived, champion Cooper drivers Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren would soon reappear with their own design innovations.
Bonus Factoid: The still-famous Mini Cooper (now manufactured by BMW) began its life on the race track, and dominated rally racing during this same period.
After briefly ceding the Constructor’s Championship to Ferrari in 1962, the British soon made a comeback via the British Racing Motors consortium. Between 1951 and 1977, BRM competed in 197 Grands Prix, and won 17 of them. BRM was by Raymond Mays and Peter Berthon, who were inspired to boost British nationalism in the wake of WWII by building an all-British champion racecar. They got off to a literal and metaphorical slow start, gradually building up momentum in the 1950s, but, ironically, the team didn’t achieve a major breakthrough until 1962, the year Mays and Berthon were sidelined, and full control of the team went to engineer Tony Rudd. Rudd had designed BRM’s first reverse-engine car in 1960 and he refined that design with the new P57, which handily won the Driver’s and Constructor’s Championship under driver Graham Hill in 1962. The company marketed their cutting-edge V8 engine design, and variations of it were seen for several years. But although, the company turned a profit selling racing engines, they dropped out of Formula One racing after the 1977 Italian Grand Prix.
Bonus Factoids: Hill famously didn’t pass his driver’s test until he was 24, and he was known to reminisce about his first vehicle: “A wreck. A budding racing driver should own such a car, as it teaches delicacy, poise and anticipation—mostly the latter, I think!” Graham Hill and his son Damon were also the first father and son pair to win Formula One World Championships.
Lotus (1963, 1965, 1968, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1978)
The next British team to pick up the racing baton turned out to be one of the most successful teams in racing history. Stirling Moss had brought the Lotus 18 to it’s first screaming victory at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1961, but Jim Clark’s Lotus 25 put the team on the map, when he clocked seven wins in a single season, taking the Driver’s Championship and Constructor’s championship in 1963. Engine trouble ceded the 1964 victory to Ferrari, but the team returned in 1965, netting Clark an additional six wins in the Lotus 33. However, the lightness and speed of the Lotus was in part a byproduct of its structural fragility, which cost numerous drivers their lives in the 1960s-70s. Alan Stacey lost control and crashed after being hit in the face by a bird. A tire fault caused spun Jim Clarke’s Lotus 48 off the track and into dense trees, and in the same year teammate Mike Spence misjudged a corner and spun into a concrete wall. Bobby Marshman died testing a new tire design, and Jochen Rindt was killed during the 1970 Italian Grand Prix, becoming the only driver to win the Driver’s Championship posthumously. Eight years later, the Italian Grand Prix also took the life of champion driver Ronnie Peterson.
While driving for Lotus, Graham Hill broke both of his legs; Stirling Moss and Mike Taylor were both temporarily paralyzed due to racing injuries and had to relearn how to walk.
New design requirements edged Lotus out of title position between 1978 and the team’s bankruptcy in 1994, but Team Lotus was briefly resurrected at Formula One in 2010-2011 and competed as Lotus F1 Team from 2012-2015.
Brabham (1966, 1967)
The Brabham name became famous after Cooper’s successes in 1959 and 1960, when Jack Brabham broke off to form his own racing team. When Jack Brabham won the 1966 championship, he became the only Formula One driver ever to win in a car and on a team named both named after himself.
During the 1960s, Brabham and his partner Ron Tauranac became the leading producer of customer racing cars in the world, and became so financially successful that Brabham retired in 1970, selling the Brabham Team to businessman Bernie Ecclestone and retiring to Australia, where he built Engine Developments and continued to innovate with in-race refueling, carbon brakes, and hydropneumatic suspension. In 1979, Jack Brabham became the first racecar driver ever to be knighted for services to British motorsports.
With Ecclestone’s leadership, Brabham Team won an additional two Driver’s Championships in 1981 and 1983 under Brazilian driver Nelson Piquet, who became the first to win Formula One with a turbocharged car.
Bonus Factoid: Jack Brabham lived to age 88, best known as the last surviving Formula One champion from the 1950s, until his death in 2014.
Founded by Ken Tyrrell in 1958, the team reached its greatest heights in the early ‘70s, when they won three Driver’s Championships and the 1971 Constructor’s Championship under the leadership of driver Jackie Stewart. The son of a car dealer, Stewart was kicked out of school at the age of 16, after being humiliated and dismissed by teachers who failed to recognize his dyslexia. He began working in his father’s garage, and became an international skeet shooting champion, and an Olympic medalist in trap shooting at the age of 21. A year later, Stewart began testing race cars, and started driving competitively in 1964. Soon known as the “Flying Scott,” Stewart placed first or second in five of the nine Formula One seasons that he raced between 1965-1973. Tyrell came close to winning the Constructor’s Championship in ’73, but withdrew when Stewart’s protegee and teammate François Cevert was killed in practice for the US Grand Prix.
Like Stirling Moss before him, Stewart was known for his incredible sportsmanship as well as his racing prowess. Even after his retirement, Stewart campaigned for improved safety measure, better medical facilities, and track improvements on the Grand Prix circuits. In 2001, Prince Charles knighted Stewart for services to British motorsports.
And although Tyrrell continued to compete, and instituted several chassis innovations, without Stewart, the team never matched the glory days of the early ‘70s and was eventually sold to British American Tobacco in 1997.
McLaren (1974, 1984, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1998)
One of the most decorated British teams in Formula One history was founded by former Cooper driver, Bruce McLaren. Born in New Zealand, McLaren contracted Perthes disease as a child, which impacted his bone growth, so that his left leg was always slightly shorter than his right, but that never slowed him down. He began racing at age 14 and never looked back. After becoming runner-up in the 1957-58 New Zealand championship series, he became the first recipient of the “Driver to Europe” award, and snagged the attention of Jack Brabham, who would invite McLaren to drive for Cooper in 1959, where McLaren promptly won the US Grand Prix at the age of 22. Although Brabham left in 1960, McLaren continued to drive for Cooper until 1965, when he founded McLaren Motor Racing Ltd. with the “Speedy Kiwi” logo standing in tribute to his homeland.
However, although McLaren’s engineering genius made several key breakthroughs, he wouldn’t survive to see the incredible success of his team. He was testing a new M8D car design in 1970, when the rear bodywork split, causing the car to spin into a flag station bunker. Six years before, McLaren had written an elegy for teammate Timmy Mayer, and sportswriter Eoin Young pointed out that it could stand as McLaren’s own epitaph: “The news that he had died instantly was a terrible shock to all of us, but who is to say that he had not seen more, done more in his few years than many people do in a lifetime? To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.”
After McLaren’s death, Teddy Mayer (Timmy Mayer’s brother) assumed control of the team, earning two Driver’s Championships and a Constructor’s Championship before merging the team with Ron Dennis’ Project Four Racing in 1981. Dennis eventually assumed control over the team, and promptly landed seven more Driver’s Championships and six Constructor’s Championships. Although the team was restructured in the early 2000s, the McLaren Drivers continued to place very well, and won an additional Driver’s Championship in 2008. Today, the team continues to be active in Formula One, but only time will tell whether their recent switch to Renault engines will bring them further Grand Prix glory.
Bonus Factoid: McLaren, Williams, and Ferrari are the only Formula One teams to have amassed more than 100 individual Grand Prix wins.
Williams (1980, 1981, 1986, 1987, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997)
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, McLaren’s biggest rival was another British racing team, Williams Grand Prix Engineering Ltd. The team was founded by owner Frank Williams and engineer Patrick Head, who have both since been knighted by the British crown.
The team’s first win was at the British Grand Prix in 1979, followed promptly by wins at Hockenheim, Osterreichring, Zandvoort, and Montreal. That promising start set Williams up for the next twenty years of consistent wins. Their successes have been attributed to Williams’ genius for aerodynamic innovation, and their eventual innovation with the turbocharged V6 engines. But the trek wasn’t easy. After the slump from 1982-85, Williams was gearing up for a championship year on the track, when he was involved in a fluke automobile accident that left him tetraplegic.
Although Williams himself was hospitalized for the better part of a year, the team pulled together for a 1986 Constructor’s Championship, and came within an ace of the Driver’s Championship when Nigel Mansell’s tire blew during the final round of the Australian Grand Prix. And after Williams returned to the pit (wheelchair and all), he turned all of his energy back to the team, which continued to build on its success, as former Brabham champion Nelson Piquet landed the 1987 Driver’s and Constructor’s Championships.
Through the 90s, their partnership with the engine-builder Renault led Williams to a new series of Constructor’s and Driver’s victories, which have built the team’s standing in Formula One legend. Today, Williams remains the president of the Williams Team, with his daughter Claire serving as deputy team principal, keeping the tradition in the family. Their Formula One team now employs more than 600 people, and even though they haven’t placed above Ferrari or Mercedes in decades, they remain a popular commercial and crowd favorite.
Bonus Factoid: None of the seven Williams drivers who landed a Formula One Driver’s Championship ever won further Driver’s Championship, for Williams or any other team.
Another astonishing flash-in-the-pan British racing team, Benetton Formula Ltd. was founded by the Benetton family (of the Benetton clothing stores), who had been dabbling in Formula One for several years as a sponsor for Tyrell, Alfa Romeo, and Toleman. They finally purchased the Toleman Team outright in 1985 and rebranded it as the Benetton Team. Plagued by high turnover in both leadership and engineering, the team reached its peak in the mid-‘90s, under the management of Flavio Briatore. Michael Schumacher brought home the Driver’s Championships in 1994 and 1995, and partnered with Johnny Herbert to land the Constructor’s Championship for 1995. In 1996, Schumacher and eleven other Benetton employees transferred to Ferrari, and after Briatore was fired in 1997, the team failed to secure further victories before the company was purchased by Renault in 2000. After a quick restructure (and a rehire of Briatorie) Renault went on to win two additional Constructor’s Championships under that name (and the French flag) in 2005 and 2006.
The Brawn Team is arguably the most successful short-lived racing team in Formula One history. They won more than half of the races that they entered, placed in all but two, and won the Driver’s Championship and Constructor’s Championship in their single year of operation.
In fairness, the team wasn’t built from scratch. It was purchased by Ross Brawn, after Honda announced their withdrawal from Formula One in 2008. In fact, the team was so successful that in 2009, it was snapped up by Mercedes-Benz, who purchased 75.1% of the company from Brawn, and renamed it Mercedes GP in 2010. (You may recognize the name from their victories in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018…)