The Green Comet: the Brief History of the Vanwall
- Don Capps
- 8W Special, March 16, 2000
- 1957 British GP - Vanwall's breakthrough win, by Felix Muelas/David Fox
- Tony Brooks - The flying dentist, by Felix Muelas/Mattijs Diepraam
- Ferrari 375 "Thinwall Special" - The first car that rattled the Alfetta's cage, by Felix Muelas/Greg England
- Vanwall - Vanwall's inconspicuous entry to the GP world, by Felix Muelas/Don Capps
- Vanwalls - A year-by-year look at the Vandervell racing machines, by Don Capps
1957 British GP
The breakthrough win. This time, fate worked in Vanwall's favour and Stirling's fine comeback run through the pack was helped by the misfortunes of others, notably Behra's, whose Maserati was controlling the race from the front. Other more dominant performances were to follow, however. The pace of the green machines was never in doubt, as Vanwall drivers notched up one pole after another to overhaul BRM as the outfit leading the way for Britain.
While the Vanwall was a player upon the Grand Prix stage for only a relatively brief time, it certainly made people sit and notice. Indeed, it is surprising to realize just how brief it was that the green Vanwall cars actually did spend on the stage. They spent only four seasons campaigning with the Grand Prix circus. However, they quit while on top and will always be first when the Constructor Champions are listed. True, there were several appearances in later years, but they really don't count… We all prefer to think about the days when the Vanwall was the bright Green Comet burning across the sky - or more accurately, along the track.
From the Thinwall Special to the Vanwall Special
When the BRM project was first broached by Raymond Mays, Guy Anthony "Tony" Vandervell was among its earliest supports. As the head of Vandervell Products Ltd., Vandervell was the European producer of the Thin-Wall bearing that had literally been a revolution in bearing design, so Vandervell was in a position to be of great benefit to the BRM Trust. That early support was soon eroded by the manner in which Raymond Mays ran the project. While Vandervell appreciated the difficulties that governmental red tape created - as an industrialist he was all too aware of these frustrations - the BRM team seemed to never get any closer to fielding a racing car than the last time Mays issued a plea for help. Vandervell made the suggestion that BRM acquire an Italian racing car and see what the opposition was up to. Vandervell was convinced that Mays was paying far too much attention to theory and not enough to practice.
Although the desire was to obtain an Alfa Romeo 158, one was simply not available. The Maserati design available was simply a pre-war design retained for post-war use and not exactly what was needed. That left the new Italian marque, Ferrari, as the obvious choice. Automobili Ferrari and the Vandervell concern were already acquainted, the Acton firm assisting the new Italian company on the crankshaft bearing for the new supercharged 1.5-litre V-12 that Ferrari was building. After the usual bureaucratic battle that marked life in post-war Britain - only the assistance of the Ministry of Supply saved the day - a Ferrari was imported in early 1949 for evaluation. Vandervell made the 125 GPC car available to BRM for evaluation.
The stated purpose for obtaining the 125 GPC was to assist BRM in its work on the bearings to be used in their V-16. The Ferrari was the first high-performance engine to use the bearing in Europe. Since it was a racing car, it was thought to be a good idea to race it to gain some idea of its capabilities. The Ferrari, now painted green, was entered in the 1949 British Grand Prix at Silverstone with Raymond Mays nominated as the driver and Vandervell as the reserve. It was entered by Vandervell as the "Thinwall Special". The RAC did raise an eyebrow and made a discrete inquiry as to the name of the car on the entry list, but accepted it as nominated by Vandervell.
The 125 had a very short wheelbase and Mays, used to the ERA, found it a handful and towards the end of the race brought it into the pits to hand over to Ken Richardson, one of the BRM mechanics. Richardson had absolutely no racing experience and lost control of the car at Abbey Curve and spun into the spectator area injuring several people, but none seriously.
After the race, the Ferrari was analyzed and a report duly written by Peter Berthon, the BRM chief designer. It was obvious that this Ferrari was not exactly what they thought it was: the overall workmanship was rather shoddy, the engine in particular coming in from pointed comments from Vandervell himself. A deal was struck with Ferrari for another car, a new two-stage supercharged edition.
In the meantime, Aurelio Lampredi - chief engineer for Ferrari - was looking at using a large unsupercharged engine as a means to attack the Alfa Romeo team. In August 1950, with Alberto Ascari at the wheel, the new Thinwall Special, chassis 125C-02, took the gird to compete in the International Trophy at Silverstone. After several misadventures, the car was retired with the engine making some very unhealthy sounds.
After tearing down the engine, Vandervell was livid. The bearings - the bearings! - had been the cause of the ugly noises because they had been out of alignment. And the crank appeared to have never been nitrated and the crankshaft also had foreign matter embedded in it, the pistons… Well, you get the idea. Vandervell was not very happy with what he had spent a considerable amount of money on and let Giberti, the current racing director at the Scuderia, know exactly how he felt. Enzo Ferrari was not used to having customers give him what for and then not only provide a detailed technical analysis of the faults, but pictures as well! It was clear to Ferrari that this was not someone easily brushed aside. In the end, it was agreed that the chassis would be returned to the factory, fitted with a 4.5-ltre V-12 and returned to the Vandervell team.
Meanwhile, the BRM was staggering from disaster to calamity to humiliation. By 1951, the car was actually showing up for races, but the results to expenditure ratio was enough to make even the most loyal supporters flinch. Vandervell had received his newly revised Ferrari and proceeded to campaign it effectively. In the International Trophy meeting in May, essentially a glorified British club meeting at Silverstone with all the top teams of the day just happening to be there, the Vandervell team became the first to knock off the Alfa team since 1946. True, it was aided by a horrific storm that led the race to being terminated after only six laps, but Reg Parnell and the Vandervell Thinwall Special Ferrari did the job. The car was later campaigned until 1954 in Formula 1 and various Formula Libre events. Its best outing in a championship event was a fourth at Reims in the 1951 French Grand Prix.
By the time the 1951 season was over, Vandervell had already decided to go his on way and sever his ties with BRM and Ferrari. He was going to build his own car for the new 2.5-litre formula which was to come into being with the 1954 season.
A Green Comet Appears in the Sky…
In 1952, Vandervell was now seriously engaged in the production of a racing engine and the fundamentals of a racing car. He had started a program that saw both Norton and Rolls Royce join with him to produce an engine, plus Goodyear was now in the midst of a program to develop disc brakes - using the Thinwall Special as a testbed - for the new car.
The team remained very quiet about its engine effort during the 1952 and 1953 seasons. It deflected questions by stating that Vandervell made bearings not engines. However, it was an open secret that Norton was leading the effort to produce a Formula 1 engine. It was, however, slow going and even with the assistance of Rolls Royce, a bit more difficult than expected. Part of this was due to the problems that the Norton firm was experiencing at the time. With its attention focused primarily on racing, the Norton production facilities and the customer bikes were now outdated. The firm was eventually bought out and although Vandervell continued to use their engine expertise, the Vandervell family was no longer financially involved in the company for the first time in decades.
While the effort on the engine was going on, there was also the minor problem of a chassis in which to place the engine. The Cooper was the weapon of choice in the very popular Formula 3 class. In 1952, the company had produced a very popular and relatively successful car for Formula 2, the Bristol-powered Cooper Type 20. At one point it was hoped to produce a 2-litre version of the Vandervell engine for Formula 2 racing and to that end, Cooper designer Owen Maddock had done the drawings for the car as early as the beginning of 1953. With some modifications, this would form the basis of the car when it finally emerged in the Spring of 1954.
The Type 30, as the Vandervell car was known (albeit retrospectively) to the Cooper company, was a one-off and delivered to Vandervell in early 1954. The engine had finally come together and was running. It is a simplification to call it a bottom end based on a Rolls Royce design married to a top end that was essentially a series of four water-cooled Norton motorcycle engines, but that is close to reality. The Vandervell staff managed to marry the two together and make the design work, although not without some problems. The chassis was designed from the start to incorporate disc brakes which were now in a high state of development thanks to the work carried out using the Thinwall Special. The suspension of the new car was also developed from the Thinwall Special.
In early 1954, the Vandervell car gained a name: it was now the "Vanwall Special". At the 1954 International Trophy held at Silverstone on 15 May, "Vanwall Special No. 1" made its first appearance with Alan Brown at the wheel. Brown had gotten the nod because all the leading lights were under contract and John Cooper had suggested Brown as a capable, reliable driver, especially with a new car. The car was entered with a 2-litre version of the new engine in a 2-litre category the organizers had laid on to allow those with cars from the 2-litre F2 to continue to fill up the grids. On the second day of practice in wet conditions, Brown headed the time sheet. In a wet race meeting, Brown was sixth in the first heat and first of the 2-litre cars home. In the final, Brown was in fifth place when the oil pressure dropped due to a broken oil pipe and that was that. The car used a rather interesting cooling system, which featured an exposed radiator and ducting system.
In July, Vandervell entered the Vanwall Special with Peter Collins as the driver for the British Grand Prix. This time it was entered using a 2.3-litre version of the engine. Although the car retired from the race, Collins had qualified on the third row of the grid and had been in the midst of some very competitive cars when the engine failed. By Monza in September, three engines had been built. The first, the 2.0-litre engine, had been destroyed when it destroyed itself during testing. The second was the 2.3-ltre engine, and a third was now almost ready, being a full 2.5-litre engine. For the Italian Grand Prix, the 2.3-litre engine was used as well as a standard radiator system. The 2.5-litre engine did some ghastly things to itself when it failed during tests prior to the race. The Vanwall Special proved competitive and finished seventh after pitting when a gauge failed and Collins played it safe and came in to see about the engine.
At Barcelona during the first practice for the 1954 Spanish Grand Prix, Collins comprehensively bashed the chassis when he overdid it on a corner and collected a tree. The car was now fitted with the 2.5-litre engine. Collins escaped without injury, but the same could not be said for the car or the tree. When it became obvious that the car could not be repaired and readied for the race, the team packed its gear and departed from the paddock. The winner of the race was Mike Hawthorn. That very same driver will play a role in what follows.
After returning to its base at Acton, the car was stripped down and found to be beyond repair. The frame was severely bent and would have to be scrapped. In addition, the de Dion tube assembly was ruined by the impact with the tree - Collins hit it tail-first. Three of the alloy rim Borrani wire wheels were destroyed as well. The bodywork, naturally, was a mess and merely scrap. One of the side-mounted fuel tanks was destroyed as was the rear fuel tank, which took most of the impact. The rear suspension was merely junk. All in all, Collins well and truly wrote off the car. However, the Pearl Assurance Company had insured the car and presented a check for £1,473 8s 6d to the team for the damages after one of its inspectors looked the car over.
Meanwhile, there were now enough parts available by November for the team to build up two chassis in its own shop. And there would be soon spares enough that could assemble a third chassis if necessary. Tony Vandervell, "The Guv", and one of his technical directors visited Count Orsi in Modena and discussed terms for the purchase of some machine tools for the Vandervell racing operation. It has to be kept in mind that at this time outside of the United States, the place for purchasing machine tools was Italy, with Maserati being among those in the first rank. After some discussion, the Guv managed to get Count Orsi to part company with two milling machines, a vertical milling machine, and a universal milling machine for a mere £10,000. In addition, Vandervell also purchased a rolling chassis from Maserati so his racing staff could examine a state-of-the-art Italian racing machine and transfer information to the Vandervell machines. The chassis, chassis 2513, was to be delivered without an engine or any bodywork. All Vandervell was interested in was the suspension and chassis components. There was no need for an engine or bodywork since there was never any intent to race the machine in competition. Besides, the Vandervell team was very familiar with the engine in the 250F having assisted Maserati with the bottom end design, especially the bearings. Vandervell picked up 2513 for a bargain-basement price of only £2,346.
A quick note on the nomenclature of the Vanwall project. The design office assigned "254" to the engine program. The engines were given serials starting with "V" and technically were V1/254, V2/254, and so on, but usually are referred to only by the "V" serial. The chassis were given serials starting with "VW" such as VW1. The Cooper car was never given a "VW" serial by the way.
In late 1954, Vandervell was looking for a driver and there was a driver looking for a ride in his native land. The team intended to run two cars for the 1955 racing season and wanted to line up two drivers for the upcoming season, hopefully both British. Although there were some minor problems, it was assumed by all concerned that Peter Collins was one of them. The other was where the victor of the 1954 Spanish Grand Prix entered the picture.
At the end of the 1954 season, Scuderia Ferrari was in disarray despite two victories that season. However, they were acknowledged to be lucky wins, even within the team. The usual chaos and confusion at Scuderia Ferrari was even worse than ever, if that was possible. There was a near complete lack of focus in the team and the strain was huge on all concerned. At this juncture, Hawthorn began to weigh the advantages of being in England and driving for a British team as opposed to remaining on the Continent and driving for Ferrari. Having a pint at the local pub and tending to the family business at the Tourist Trophy Garage in Farnham was looking better and better, especially in light of his father's recent death and the fact that his mother was running things on a daily basis. Hawthorn and Vandervell started negotiations in late 1954 and soon were in agreement on the terms. Vandervell, ever the one to have an eye on the money that the Inland Revenue would appropriate as its share, suggested to Hawthorn that he incorporate to avoid the surcharge that would be siphoned off to the Revenue people if he engaged in the contract as an individual. Hence, the contract was with the "TT Garage Ltd., of East Street, Farnham, Surrey," the "company" for the services of "John Michael Hawthorn, the driver."
The contract was for the services of Hawthorn from 1 April 1955 to 31 October 1955, with a provision for his services beyond the latter date if there were any races from 1 November onward that Vandervell wished to enter. This was done since the sporting calendar did seem to be in pencil at times with events being added and dropped almost at whim. There were roughly eight races planned during this period. The retainer was for £3,000 plus Hawthorn was to receive 50% of all starting and prize monies as well as 50% of any bonus money from suppliers. The contract was announced and signed on 5 January 1955. Hawthorn was now a driver on the Vandervell team.
Meanwhile, getting Peter Collins under contract was another story. As it would turn out, the team would not get Collins for the season. After a litany of excuses and problems, it was apparent that Collins would not be a driver for Vandervell in 1955 when it was revealed from the Esso representative, Reg Tanner, that Collins had signed a contract with Esso for the 1955 season. Since Vandervell had signed on with Shell Mex and BP for the use of their products, that was the end of that. The entire scene played out for many months past when it should have been resolved, but Vandervell merely shrugged it off such being the charisma of said Collins as both a driver and an individual. It was also revealed later that Collins was under contract to Castrol for 1955 as well!
While all this was going on, the team was working on converting the engine to fuel injection. This was facilitated once the pumps ordered from Bosch finally arrived in early 1955. In addition, the team now had a manager. With the team now poised to begin playing in the major leagues, it was necessary to get things organized and operating in a matter to ensure success. The team manager for Peter Whitehead was given the opportunity to accept the position and did so with the full support of Whitehead. With David Yorke on board, the elements for success were starting to fall into place.
The problems of getting the fuel injection system running meant the team had to pass on the Pau, Napoli, and the Easter Goodwood races. With the situation with Collins finally resolved, Ken Wharton was signed to be the number two driver to Mike Hawthorn. The first race for the 1955 season was the International Trophy at Silverstone on 7 May. The cars were eagerly awaited by the organizers as well as the public. They were rolled out of the paddock into the pits looking very smart in their green livery. Given race numbers 1 and 2, many also noticed a small, but significant change on the bonnets of the cars: where the white lettering on the bonnet once spelled out "Vanwall Special", it now simply read "Vanwall". Both cars were plagued by problems throughout the meeting. It was not a good outing for the team and made worse by the fact that Ken Wharton crashed heavily when forced off his line by a back-marker. Wharton suffered injuries which put him on the sidelines for a while and the Pearl Assurance Company had to fork over a check for £4,472 17s 4d to the Vandervell team. Needless to say, they were not amused since the total premiums from the team were nowhere near this amount. Worse yet was that Peter Collins won the race in the Owen Organisation Maserati 250F!
Although discouraged, the team pressed on since it needed to get ready for Monaco. Hawthorn in particular was very unhappy and had dark frowns on his usually cheery face. The potential seemed to be there, but it was just an endless list of little things that seemed to go wrong. With Wharton injured and all the problems that the team was experiencing, it was decided to only enter one car for the race at Monte Carlo. With the season at full song, the team stepped into the middle of the major league battle being contested by Mercedes, Lancia, Maserati, and Ferrari. The team did well to qualify in the middle of the grid despite some setup problems. The engine seemed to run well and the fuel injection didn't seem to be too far off the mark, even if it became apparent the horsepower was further off the mark than they had anticipated. On the slow Monte Carlo circuit it was not as bad as it would be on some circuits, but the next few races after Monaco were best not thought about since it was now obvious the Vanwall was giving some serious horsepower. In the race, Hawthorn only completed 23 laps due to a ball joint on the fuel injection pump shattered. This put Hawthorn on the sidelines and allowed him to watch Maurice Trintignant win the race when the Mercedes and Lancia teams dropped out. That he could have been at the wheel of the Ferrari and taking the checkered flag surely crossed his mind since he was in a very dark mood after the race. The cause of the failure was never determined and one never failed in a similar fashion again. Even the Guv was in a darker mood than usual. He was never one to take defeat well in the first place, and this was not much to show for a great deal of effort. Although his displeasure was not pointed at any particular person, rather at things in general, this did not make life any easier for the team as it prepared for the next race on the schedule, the Belgian race at Spa-Francorchamps.
Once again the team entered only a single car, VW1, for the race since Wharton was still on the sidelines due to his injuries from Silverstone. As was the norm in those days, the team would find space in a garage or auto agency somewhere in the area of the circuit in a village or town since there were really no facilities at the circuit for any extensive work on the cars. This meant the cars were usually driven by the mechanics from where the team was staying to the paddock or the pit area. This served to both give the mechanics an opportunity to check out the car and to give the race some free publicity. For the first practice session, Vandervell decided to drive the car to the circuit. It being his money and his car, no one objected - or at least within his earshot. The Guv eased himself into the cockpit and the mechanics push-started the car. After a lap around the square, Vandervell headed for the pit area. Normally, these jaunts were uneventful and rarely saw any problems occur. Besides the cars usually could get there quickly since few interfered with them on their way to the circuit. Needless to say this was not to be. With a group of mechanics in the Vandervell Bentley following him, the Guv was batting down the road and despite some initial problems with the uphill sections, doing okay. Then he started to get mixed up with the spectator traffic. As he neared the pits the traffic got worse. Vandervell was subjecting the clutch to more and more abuse as he slipped the clutch more and more since he was on an uphill section. By the time he reached the pits, the clutch was in pretty poor shape. Vandervell hopped out and walked off. The mechanics immediately set to work and hoped for the best. Hawthorn set off to lap the circuit and he barely cleared the pits when the clutch completely packed up. It must be said that Hawthorn was notorious for abusing clutches, but for once he was not at fault. Hawthorn was furious. He stormed back to the pits on foot and left the circuit. That evening, as he stayed with friends in Spa, he was expressing his displeasure with the way the team was performing.
In the race, he was forced to retire when the gearbox began to leak oil and then packed up. Later that evening when drinking at the Pierre le Grand restaurant, Hawthorn was drinking with friends when David Yorke came over and tried to make conversation. Hawthorn erupted, yelled at Yorke exactly what and where Vandervell could do with the car and his team, and then stormed out, jumped into his Jaguar and sped off into the night at a very rapid rate of speed.
It was now clearly obvious to even the untrained eye that Hawthorn and the Vanwall team had parted ways. Vandervell considered the rift permanent and made no further efforts to entice Hawthorn to return as had been after Monaco and Silverstone. Vandervell also figured that with the retainer covering eight races, Hawthorn owed him back five races worth or £1,875 at £375 per race, with the haggling over the starting monies to be deferred until later. Messages were sent to the TT Garage and to Hawthorn via the Jaguar team since the next race on the Hawthorn calendar was Le Mans. Mrs. Hawthorn was very distressed to open the letter and see its contents. Knowing nothing of what had transpired, she was naturally distraught and called Vandervell for explanation. Hawthorn in the meanwhile received the message while at Le Mans and quickly cabled back his acceptance of the terms. On the Monday after Le Mans, Hawthorn sent a check for £1,875 to Vandervell to settle the account of the retainer.
After being frustrated by the antics of both Collins and Hawthorn - and with Wharton in the hospital - Vandervell gave up on the idea of an all-British driving line-up and started looking for any Continental drivers that might help the cause. Although the number of drivers offering their services was considerable, Vandervell was looking at Maurice Trintignant and Harry Schell, the latter joining for the remainder of the 1955 season. Wharton returned after his injuries mended and Desmond Titterington got a one-off at Oulton Park.
At Crystal Palace in July, Schell gave the Vanwall its first victory. Needless to say, the "Guv" was delighted and shelved his plan to drop one of his engines into the Maserati chassis he had obtained. Although it was not actually carried out, the plans were developed and needed only the nod from Vandervell to be done. It is one of those interesting "what if" situations since the results could have been pretty dynamic. The engine was coming on song, but it was evident that the chassis left much to be desired.
At the end of the 1955 season, Mercedes retired from the scene to focus its efforts on its production cars. That left one Stirling Crauford Moss, Racer Extraordinaire, shopping for a ride for the 1956 season. Vandervell had planned to field a three-car team if he could find the right drivers and Moss definitely fit the category of a "right" driver. In late November 1955, Moss tried the Connaught, the BRM, and the Vanwall (chassis VW1). He was quickest in the Vanwall and then left for Nassau to ponder his choices. Moss ended up going to Maserati. Vandervell made an effort to sign Fangio, but Fangio had decided to hold his nose and drive for Scuderia Ferrari. It was scarcely a marriage made in heaven, but Fangio had been impressed by the Lancia when Ascari had driven it and knew a winner when he saw one.
Harry Schell was re-signed and Maurice Trintignant finally brought on board. However, Ken Wharton was released, something that Vandervell regretted, but without a front-line driver such as Moss or Fangio he was prepared to field only two cars for the 1956 season.
In the meanwhile, the problem of the chassis was being dealt with over the winter of 1955/1956. Team manager David Yorke was conducting what was essentially a hit-or-miss program with improving the 1955 chassis when a team member suggested that a school chum of his might be of some help. The name of the classmate was Colin Chapman.
Chapman used bits of the basic design used during 1955, but doing a fundamental overhaul of the car. There were significant changes in the chassis arrangement - now a spaceframe layout, with Chapman using what he had evolved in his own cars as far as the suspension and drivetrain were concerned. He also had Frank Costin design new bodywork for the car, which was far more efficient than the old bodywork and very striking to look at besides. In addition to the chassis and bodywork, the transmission, fuel system, transmission - a five-speed synchromesh gearbox built by Porsche, and other components were all incorporated into the new car. All in all, the work transformed the Vanwall. It was now a completely different machine. The new machines were given chassis serials starting with VW1/56 in honor of this complete overhaul. The "56" would be dropped from the serial after the 1956 season, although all subsequent cars for the following two seasons were to this design.
Needless to say, when Schell and Trintignant saw the new car they were amazed at the transformation. Schell thought the car looked "fantastic", and Trintignant - never one for conversation, actually commented, "Ça alors, c'est une bombe," as he looked at the car for the first time, his eyebrows raised significantly in appreciation of what he saw.
Now only did the team redo the chassis, Harry Weslake was retained to look at the engine and coax some more horsepower and flexibility from it. Weslake was to continue to work on the engines up until the very end. With Vandervell always looking for "more," Weslake was rarely not at work on finding that little edge here and there to make a good engine better.
The Green Comet Races Across the Skies…
The new car made its baptism of fire at Silverstone in the May 1956 International Trophy. Moss was persuaded to try the new car in the race since Officine Alfieri Maserati was not entering the race. Moss and Schell were the stars of the show, making the Lancia D50 cars of Scuderia Ferrari look outclassed. Moss won convincingly from the Lancia of Fangio. Schell was also sparkling, but had to retire after running into some engine problems. The victory of the new car on its maiden event certainly got many tongues wagging. And it got Moss to thinking as well. Although he was committed to Maserati, whenever his services were not needed, he agreed to drive for the Vandervell team.
Although the cars did not match this level of performance in subsequent events in 1956, they definitely served notice that they had to be taken seriously. At the French race at Reims, Schell took over the car of Hawthorn (the Prodigal Son) and put the car among the leaders even after pitting to switch cars. He was reaching speeds of almost 300 km/h down the hill to Thillois, a fantastic rate for that time. Fangio, Collins, and Castellotti teamed up on Schell and despite their tricks hung with them, although he dropped back just a tad when it got a bit rough - he was handled particularly roughly by Castellotti who edged him out on the grass several times and balked and blocked him very badly at other times. All was for naught when the throttle mechanism failed and he was forced to pit. Although there was not as much as a "thank you" or a pat on the back for Schell by Vandervell after the race, Schell did find himself the recipient of the entire amount of the starting money (£550) rather than the usual 50%. Notice was served.
There were almost three entries for this race. As a reward for services rendered as well as recognition for his driving skills, Colin Chapman was entered as the third driver for the team. However, he managed to not only damage his car when he missed his braking point, but hit that of Hawthorn as well. Although the Hawthorn car was able to be repaired in time for the race, the Chapman car was beyond repair so far from home and did not start the race. Vandervell was not amused in the least with this and Chapman was never given another opportunity with the team.
At Silverstone, Vandervell asked Omar Orsi of Maserati if he could possibly use Moss for the British Grand Prix, but was politely turned down. Instead of Moss, Jose Froilan Gonzalez was in the cockpit of a Vanwall. He was accorded the honor of being given starting money equal to that of his countryman Fangio. However, Gonzalez never came to grips with the car and his race was measured only in meters versus kilometers when a universal joint failed as he left the line. Both Schell and Trintignant suffered from what were apparently fuel starvation problems. Both had the team puzzled and they wanted some answers. The latter was traced to the use of sodium silicate to seal the tanks during manufacture. The former was attributed to the part being overstressed and it was beefed up to prevent future recurrences of the failure.
The team made one more race in 1956, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Although all three cars retired - Schell and Piero Taruffi with gearbox oil loss and Trintignant with a broken shock absorber, their speed was readily apparent and the car was now very respected among the other competitors for that reason.
The 1956 season saw the foundation for the 1957 and 1958 seasons laid out. The team kept making subtle adjustments to the package and although the reliability for 1956 was not very good, it was also a learning experience since the time was now building "the book" for the forthcoming seasons. As the mechanical side of the team was coming together, it was the driver side that saw Vandervell make some significant moves. Trintignant and Schell were both released. Vandervell thoroughly enjoyed the company of Schell, but business dictated that new blood be brought into the team.
It came in the form of Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks. These were among the best drivers in the business and they had the additional benefit of being British. With came a long list of "suggestions" about the chassis. These included larger brakes, particularly at the rear, improved suspension - the transverse leaf spring system at the rear was replaced by coil spring suspension and an improved layout for the de Dion tube at the rear.
One minor glitch emerged over the winter which was notable due to the very absence of such glitches: Pirelli initially stated it would be unable to provide tires for the team, but eventually a deal with them was struck. It meant, however, that the discount was now 30% versus the previous 50%. The team looked at the possibility of using Dunlop tires, the R4 in particular, but stayed with Pirelli although keeping Dunlop in mind for the future. Shell Mex & BP continued to provide the racing fuel for the team as before.
The racing department now employed 18 mechanics, a very large contingent for those days. And they were kept busy by the preparations for the new season. While the engines available ran only to the V7 serial, the cylinder heads now numbered into the 40's.
The Championship held its first round in Buenos Aires, but Vanwall did not enter the race and Moss drove once again for Maserati. In the Spring of 1957, Britain (along with its invasion partner - France) was still suffering from the fallout from the Suez Canal intervention in the waning weeks of 1956. The team found itself on the sidelines until early April when they raced at Siracusa on Sicily. Moss took third and set the fastest lap. At Goodwood Brooks was sixth while Moss retired. At Monaco Moss tangled with Hawthorn and Collins at the chicane and retired while Brooks kept it going despite the temperatures in the cockpit being enough to bake him to finish second to Fangio.
There was a big gap in the racing schedule in 1957 between the GP at Monaco on 19 May and the GP de l'ACF on 7 July at Rouen. The Vandervell team found itself with a driver problem during this interval. Tony Brooks suffered serious injuries to his legs when his Aston Martin crashed at Le Mans and was subsequently out of action for several weeks. Then Moss managed to damage his sinuses while on vacation in the south of France when he inhaled too much saltwater while water-skiing. He was trying a trick move and the spray was directed straight into his nostrils. Stuart Lewis-Evans and Roy Salvadori were pressed into service as drivers.
The Reims GP was one of the "big money" races for back in those days. Both the starting and prize monies were extremely "generous" and Vandervell wanted to do well. Hence the Streamliner. It was laid out to cover a new chassis, VW6. The body design was supervised by Mike Costin and the work done by Abbey Panels of Coventry. The team mechanic who supervised this work was Cyril Atkins. The Streamliner was flown out to France the Tuesday after Rouen. The Rouen cars, VW1 and VW4, were loaded on the plane at Calais and returned to Southend. The Streamliner proceeded to Reims where VW7 and VW8 were already waiting.
Stuart Lewis-Evans was the first to try VW6 in practice and found it badly overgeared. This was worked on overnight and the next day both drivers tried VW6, but the lack of experience by both drivers with cars at speed on the Reims circuit -- or in Vanwalls at any speed for that matter -- meant that both were never comfortable with it. They then concentrated on the "regular" cars for the race. Sadly, the Streamliner was returned to its transporter and not raced that weekend. However, VW6 did reappear that season, albeit with the Streamliner panels being removed and replaced with normal bodywork.
In the race, Lewis-Evans nearly pulled off a win and impressed all with his speed. He was receding into the distance - he had a lead of over 100 meters at the end of the first lap! - when an oil leak began to throw oil all over the car. Lewis-Evans kept his wits and eased off and settled for third. It was a first rate performance and showed a very mature decision by the young driver. The long held desire of Vandervell to field a third car was now a reality. Lewis-Evans was offered and then accepted the role of the third driver on the team.
The Grand Prix de l'Europe incorporating the R.A.C. British Grand Prix, 20 July 1957. That was actually the official title according to the literature distributed by the RAC! Usually it is just referred to as the XII R.A.C. British Grand Prix. The Grand Prix de l'Europe title was essentially meaningless. It was to be the Vanwall rendezvous with destiny.
With the British Grand Prix being still held on Saturday back then, it was a short six days after the Grand Prix de Reims until the next race. The race was at Aintree for the second time, now in a rotation with Silverstone. After coming very close to winning the race at Reims, the team now had the third team driver it had been seeking. Stuart Lewis-Evans had been in the lead and drawing the lead when an oil leak forced him to back off and eventually cross the line in third place. Aintree would see Lewis-Evans join a full strength Vanwall team, the A Team of Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks both returning to the fray. Brooks was returning after an accident at Le Mans where his most serious injury was to a leg and even now his was far from being completely well. Moss was returning after having damaged his sinuses while water skiing when he blasted water up his nose while attempting a trick move. It was a painful and embarrassing injury and one that did not amuse the Guv, Tony Vandervell, one bit.
The team rushed its mechanics back to Acton from the Continent, dropped off the cars used at Reims and loaded up the cars that were prepared for Aintree. The cars were taken on Wednesday to the main Ford agency in Liverpool where they were would be serviced when away from the track. The team was headquartered at the Adelphi Hotel. Having all the attributes that would make it fit into tracks being used 40 years later - too many corners and too few straights, the circuit was highly unpopular with the Continental drivers who generally detested it. The surroundings did little improve things since it was surrounded by industrial sites and generally gray and grimy on the best of days.
Vanwall brought four chassis and two spare engines to the race. The chassis and engines were allocated this way: VW1 with engine V3 for Moss; VW4 with engine V4 for Brooks; VW5 with engine V2 for Lewis-Evans; and, VW7 served as the spare along with engine V1 as one of the two spares brought along. After some problems during practice, the mechanics pulled V4 and replaced it with V1 for the race. When the dust and grime settled, Moss was on the pole, Brooks third, and Lewis-Evans sixth on the grid. In the race, Behra in his Maserati 250F got an absolutely demon start - one which would have even made Don Garlits envious - and grabbed the immediate lead. Moss being Moss he was soon past Jean Behra and building a comfortable lead. Brooks started to fall back after several laps and was passed by Hawthorn and Collins in their Ferraris. However, the Moss Vanwall started to misfire and Moss dashed into the pits on the 22nd lap to have a loose plug lead put back on. The stop took over 30 seconds and after roaring off to rejoin the race, Moss was back in the next lap to have the plugs changed.
Brooks had been circulating in fifth place and not having a good time of it since his leg was giving him problems. With Moss in the pits, Brooks was waved in to hand over Moss. Brooks was only too happy to oblige with the request. The car was barely stopped in the pits and it seemed that Brooks was being yanked out of the cockpit before Moss was behind the wheel and accelerating away in pursuit of leader Behra. When Moss rejoined the race, he was in ninth position and had lots of ground to make up.
Brooks finally returned VW1 to the fray after it was in the pits for nearly 11 minutes. The car had dropped all the way back to 16th place and was clearly sounding sickly despite the plug change. After 51 laps, both VW1 and Brooks were put out of their misery and Brooks was waved into the pits to retire the car. Brooks was happy to call it a day.
Meanwhile, Moss was flying through the field, but it was obvious that he would need a miracle to win this race. Behra had built up a substantial lead and although Moss was soon in fourth place behind Behra, Hawthorn and Lewis-Evans, he was making little to no dent on the leader. Behra was driving a wonderful race and had the field covered. He could pace himself and seemingly draw out a bit more when needed with ease. Moss was creeping up on Lewis-Evans and Hawthorn, but Behra was in another race from the rest of the field. Perhaps this was to be his day finally.
Then it all went crazy. When lap 69 was scored, Moss was fourth just behind Lewis-Evans. On lap 70 the lap chart had Moss in the lead barely ahead of teammate Lewis-Evans, they were almost dead even as they crossed the line. In one lap, Behra had his clutch fail, Hawthorn had his left rear tire start to deflate, and Moss catch his teammate. Vanwall was now running 1-2 in its home Grand Prix. When the Maserati rolled to a stop in the pits, Behra received an ovation from the crowd for having driven a wonderful race - although his retirement may have also been a relief to many.
The usual Vanwall luck hit Lewis-Evans this time instead of Moss. Lewis-Evans was running a strong second when the throttle linkage managed to derange itself and he was forced to pit to have it wired together. He did manage to rejoin the race and finish seventh in spite of this.
Moss, once in the lead, found that although he had a comfortable lead - nearly half a minute, but Luigi Musso in his Ferrari was pouring it on and carving off time from that lead. Fears that the Vanwall would suffer its usual disaster and conk out in the final laps were on many minds as Musso tore around the track and Moss reeled off the remaining laps. Amazing enough, the car hung together and Moss took the flag to hand the British their first win in a Championship Grand Prix.
At the next race, the German Grand Prix, Moss and the rest of the team were merely bit players in the drama between Fangio and the youngsters of Scuderia Ferrari: Collins and Hawthorn. Moss wound up fifth and Brooks ninth with Lewis-Evans retiring.
Due to the problems from the economic crunch that Suez brought about, Italy was allowed two events in the Championship. And Vanwall won them both! At the Pescara circuit, Moss not only won, he set the fastest lap in doing so. And at Monza, Moss won yet again with Brooks setting the fastest lap and Lewis-Evans sitting on the pole. The Vanwall team was rolling. The final event of the season was the non-championship round in Morocco in which Lewis-Evans was second.
The Brightness of Green Light as the Comet Fills the Sky…
In 1958, the team competed only in the rounds counting towards the World Championship. This was in part due to the introduction of a championship for manufacturers and Vandervell was determined to be the first to win it. All else was subordinated to this goal. Although the team missed the first round in Buenos Aires - again - the team leader, Moss, won the event. Although it had been announced in the Spring of 1957, the new regulations stipulating gasoline - albeit it actually being aviation grade gasoline and not remotely like that at the local gas station - proved a more difficult nut to crack than anticipated. Work on the conversion was one of the major reasons for missing the opening round.
The tire problem was also addressed during the off-season. During 1957 Pirelli had finally - as threatened, ceased making racing tires. Stocks of the tires were dwindling rapidly and it was clearly obviously that the number of tires that the Vanwall team had was simply not enough for a full season. In the breach stepped Dunlop with the new arrangement being announced at the Earl's Court Motor Show.
Also, Vandervell demanded that team manager Yorke get for Vanwall the same amount of starting money from the race organizers as Ferrari and Maserati: £1,000 per car. And he got it. They had now learned that it was easier to give in rather than fight Vandervell.
At Monaco, all the cars retired due to various ailments and Vandervell was not very happy as a result. And worse yet, the team lost an engine - V3 - when the aircraft rushing it to Nice crashed. The engine was completely destroyed.
At Zandvoort for the Dutch Grand Prix, Moss won the first of his three wins for the team that season. He led from start to finish and simply dominated the field. Lewis-Evans sat on the pole and the front row was completely green: all Vanwalls. The race also introduced what was to become the standard arrangement for wheels during the season. The front wheels were the usual wire-spokes while the rear wheels were an alloy "wave web" design.
A long wait on the grid at Spa-Francorchamps saw many overheat - their tempers as well as their engines - and Brooks win the race although it was only because it was shortened from previous seasons. The gearbox was on the verge of seizing when the checkered flag dropped, the Hawthorn Ferrari Dino in second place blew its engine literally to pieces just as he crossed the line, and third place Lewis-Evans limped across the line when a wishbone broke on the last lap.
At Reims, Moss finished second to Hawthorn who was simply on task and won handily. At Silverstone, Collins won with the Vanwall team not a factor at the end. At the German Grand Prix, Moss was easily pulling away from the field when the magneto failed. Brooks won and set the fastest lap as well.
Moss went from flag to flag in Oporto to win the Portuguese Grand Prix. Brooks captured the race at Monza when Moss retired with a gearbox failure. And at Ain Diab, outside Casablanca, Moss both won the race and set the fastest lap, but Hawthorn was second and pipped Moss by a single point. However, the real concern was for Lewis-Evans who was badly burned when he crashed on lap 42.
Lewis-Evans was flown back to England on the aircraft Vandervell had chartered. He was whisked off to the Burns Unit at the East Grinstead Hospital. Despite all their efforts, Lewis-Evans died on 25 October.
And the Green Comet Meets the Horizon…
Vandervell never quite recovered from the death of Lewis-Evans. Although many feel that this is overplaying the issue, in reality it was a serious blow to Vandervell. It was simply one blow too many. His doctors were now very concerned about his health. Their previous warnings had gone unheeded, but now even Vandervell could sense that they were right. His health was in serious decline and something had to give. On 12 January 1959, a news release from Vandervell Products Ltd., of Western Avenue, Acton, announced that the Vanwall team was withdrawing from competition.
When Tony Vandervell died on 10 March 1967, the sport was radically different from the one he had first entered with the Thinwall Specials. The dominant color was now green, not red, on the grid…
Vanwall's F1 record
A year-by-year look at the Vandervell racing machines, including the Thinwall Specials