The Mother of All F1 Cars

the mother of all f1 cars

Upon first inspection, GP cars seem to be the automotive embodiment of modern thinking. Extreme aerodynamic development, lightweight materials of almost unimaginable strength, mind-boggling precision in both design and manufacture — they’re an astounding technological showcase on every level. But like all highly evolved organisms, the four-wheeled missile you see today is merely the way-point on a journey from the past to the future. In the most fundamental way, today’s F1 cars’ trace their lineage back to the very first GP cars.

Though crude compared to today’s machines, the first GP cars were not what you’d call underpowered. Consider the power-to-weight ration of the 1954 Maserati 250F. The Maser weighed in at around 630 kg (1389 lbs.). It holstered a 2.5-liter in-line six cylinder engine with three carburetors and an alloy block. The powerplant produced roughly 240 horsepower @ 6500 rpm. Conceptually, the 250F was kin to the cars that had been raced since the turn of the century: front engine, rear-wheel drive with narrow tires and a basic (leaf) suspension. The cars’ dynamics necessitated a drastically different driving technique than that used by today F1 pilots. In this era, drifting was king.

Because of the high polar moment of inertia inherent in a car with a significant portion of its weight located near its ends, maintaining momentum was the key to speed, rather than stopping and accelerating. To that end drivers used power-induced oversteer to swiftly navigate the sweeping turns of the race courses of the day, such as Monza and AVUS. Though the Maser was extremely successful, carrying many drivers to wins across several years, it was to be the last, best GP car of its type.

As racing bloomed across post-war Europe, the sport was ripe for mechanical innovation. Mercedes showed the way forward. In 1954, the German automaker introduced the W196, which incorporated several innovations taken directly from the aircraft industry. The car had a slippery, wind-tunnel tested all-inclusive shell; an aerodynamic design unlike anything GP had ever seen. To keep the frontal area low, the car’s straight eight engine was tilted on its side– a set-up made possible by the introduction of fuel injection (also borrowed from airplane technology). And if that wasn’t enough to bury the competition (it was), the W196 also ditched racing’s traditional ladder frame chassis for a stronger yet lighter space frame.

But it was the British Cooper team who created the sport’s greatest leap forward. The team had its roots in the insignificant 500cc Formula Three junior series. To facilitate relatively cheap racing, F3 cars were powered by motorcycle engines. Because motorcycle engines deliver their power via chain drive, it’s natural to position the engine as close to the driven axle as possible (in this case, the rear). By positioning the powerplant ahead of the rear axle (but behind the driver), the resulting car had an optimum weight distribution for changing direction: 50 – 50. And there you have it: the mid/rear-engine layout.

When Cooper began to understand the inherent advantages provided by the mid-engine layout, it was only a matter of time until bigger engines and more money thrust John Cooper and his revolutionary design into the limelight. That said, the idea wasn’t initially popular. Enzo Ferrari famously derided the mid-engined layout, saying that the “horse should pull the cart, not the other way around.” Cooper scored their first victory in the 1958 Argentinean Grand Prix with a T43 driven by Stirling Moss. With this surprise success– a privateer team besting the [admittedly small] field of six snarling, front-engine Ferraris and three Maseratis with a relatively inexpensive mid-engined race car– the way forward had become clear.

The Cooper T43 and T51 produced similar power levels to the front-engine beasts of the previous generation: about 240 hp. But the Coopers weighed almost 170 kilos less, and their drastically superior dynamics provided a quantum leap in performance. In fact, the Cooper cars provided the basic foundation of the modern F1 car: mid-engine layout and light-weight design with fully independent front and rear suspension; complete with hydraulic disc brakes.

The Coopers were the blue print for the next generation and their DNA permeates modern GP cars. Excluding the space frame chassis, which was soon to be replaced with monocoque construction, these cars are fundamentally the same as the ultra-modern cars that fill today’s F1 grid. The Cooper can be called the first F1 car of the modern sort – all of the designs that have followed have been extensions of the lowly Cooper F3.

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  • Terry Parkhurst Terry Parkhurst on Oct 17, 2006

    Spelling correction to last post: Belgium.

  • Nino Nino on Oct 22, 2006
    Yes, but they haven’t been pretty since the 60s. Oh, I don't know. Modern F1 cars have a certain, brutal, "form is function" beauty about them. Is a dirty, grimy, sledge hammer any less beautiful because of the job it does?

  • DenverMike When was it ever a mystery? The Fairmont maybe, but only the 4-door "Futura" trim, that was distinctively upscale. The Citation and Volare didn't have competing trims, nor was there a base stripper Maxima at the time, if ever, crank windows, vinyl seats, 2-doors, etc. So it wasn't a "massacre", not even in spirit, just different market segments. It could be that the Maxima was intended to compete with those, but everything coming from Japan at the time had to take it up a notch, if not two.Thanks to the Japanese "voluntary" trade restriction, everything had extra options, if not hard loaded. The restriction limited how many vehicles were shipped, not what they retailed at. So Japanese automakers naturally raised the "price" (or stakes) without raising MSRP. What the dealers charged (gouged) was a different story.Realistically, the Maxima was going up against entry luxury sedans (except Cimarron lol), especially Euro/German, same as the Cressida. It definitely worked in Japanese automaker's favor, not to mention inspiring Lexus, Acura and Infiniti.
  • Ronnie Schreiber Hydrocarbon based fuels have become unreliable? More expensive at the moment but I haven't seen any lines gathering around gas stations lately, have you? I'm old enough to remember actual gasoline shortages in 1973 and 1979 (of course, since then there have been many recoverable oil deposits discovered around the world plus the introduction of fracking). Consumers Power is still supplying me with natural gas. I recently went camping and had no problem buying propane.Texas had grid problems last winter because they replaced fossil fueled power plants with wind and solar, which didn't work in the cold weather. That's the definition of unreliable.I'm an "all of the above" guy when it comes to energy: fossil fuels, hydro, wind (where it makes sense), nuclear (including funding for fusion research), and possibly solar.Environmental activists, it seems to me, have no interest in energy diversity. Based on what's happened in Sri Lanka and the push against agriculture in Europe and Canada, I think it's safe to say that some folks want most of us to live like medieval peasants to save the planet for their own private jets.
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  • Car65688392 Thankyou for your valuable information
  • MaintenanceCosts There's no mystery anymore about how the Japanese took over the prestige spot in the US mass market (especially on the west coast) when you realize that this thing was up against the likes of the Fairmont, Citation, and Volaré. A massacre.