Even the most ardent F1 fan, when asked to name Constructors’ Championship winners, would struggle to remember Vanwall. That is not to say, however, that they weren’t important to the sport. Vanwall was the plucky British team that broke the monopoly of Ferrari, Mercedes and Maserati in the late fifties. It was also the winner of the inaugural Constuctors’ World Championship in 1958.
The man behind Vanwall was industrialist, Tony Vandervell. In his early days as a race team owner, he renamed a Ferrari 125 a “Thin Wall”, and ran the car from 1949 to 1951 until Formula One moved to a new 2.5-litre formula in 1954. That new formula encouraged Vandervell to try his hand in the premier motorsport.
In response to the new formula, Vandervell commissioned John Cooper, (who we will mention in a future article) to construct a chassis for a four-cylinder engine produced by Vandervell himself. The cars became known as Vanwalls, an amalgamation of Vandervell’s name and the name of his previous car, the Thin Wall.
1954 and 1955 were dominated by Mercedes and saw little to write home about for the for the new team, but they were learning all the time.
1956 was a better season for Vanwall. With the cars now designed, in part, by Colin Champman (another man who will get a mention in a different article), they were a little more competitive. In the French Grand Prix at Reims, American, Harry Schell, gave the mighty Ferrari’s a scare by overtaking Peter Collins and Eugenio Castellotti, before running alongside Juan Manuel Fangio for a time, before falling to tenth. Even though there was obvious potential in the car, only Schell managed any points that season, finishing a respectable fourth in Belgium.
For the 1957 season, Stirling Moss joined the team full-time, having run a Vanwall in a few non-championship races. He joined fellow Brit’s, Tony Brooks and Stuart Lewis-Evans.
Moss would make history in that season’s British Grand Prix.
Moss, having qualified on pole, initially led the Grand Prix before suffering from a misfire that forced him into the pits. At that point, Tony Brooks was called into the pits to hand over his car. Moss, in Brook’s car, quickly made his way from ninth to fourth, just behind Lewis-Evans, Mike Hawthorn and Jean Behra. Moss quickly passed his teammate, and just after, Behra’s flywheel shattered and, incredibly, Hawthorn suffered a puncture from the debris. The chaos just in front of him allowed Moss to saunter to the victory. This was the first win for a British car in a major Grand Prix for 34 years, and the first time a British driver had won the British Grand Prix in a British Car. Unfortunately for Moss, he couldn’t match Fangio and his Maserati across the season, so he had to settle for second in the championship.
1958 saw triumph, tragedy and sportsmanship. Brooks and Moss traded wins all season, with both entering the final race with three wins apiece. However, Mike Hawthorn, in his Ferrari, had amassed a number of points thanks to his consistency, finishing second five times. To all intents and purposes, the final race was a shootout between Moss and Hawthorn, with Brooks as a backup. Moss won the final race in Morocco with ease, but with Brooks blowing an engine, Hawthorn gained second place which was enough to give him the Championship. During the race, though, Hawthorn had an off and was forced to push start his car against the flow of traffic. This was illegal, and Hawthorn was disqualified. However, in an act of pure sportsmanship, Moss said he saw Hawthorn pushing his car on the pavement, which was allowed. As a result, Hawthorn kept the Championship and Vanwall had to make do with the inaugural Constructors’ title.
Unfortunately, tragedy had struck during the race. Lewis-Evans’ engine had violently blown, causing him severe burns. He succumbed to his injuries days later. Vandervell never came to terms with the death of such an important and beloved member of the team. He gave up the sport in 1959, and though the team raced through 1960, they had been overtaken mechanically by mid-engined Coopers and withdrew soon after.
Regarding success, Vanwall doesn’t hold a candle to other British teams. In terms of importance to the sport, though, Vanwall started a chain of events that led to British teams dominating the sport for years to come. Over the next 20 years, 12 Constructors’ Championships would be won by five different British teams. To put that into perspective, the next closest nation was Italy, won exclusively by Ferrari, with five.
They may not have been the most successful, but Vanwall started a revolution that dominated the next phase of Formula One.