The Mother of All F1 Cars

Mitchell Yelverton
by Mitchell Yelverton
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?
  • SCE to AUX Good summary, Matt.I like EVs, but not bans, subsidies, or carbon credits. Let them find their own level.PM Sunak has done a good thing, but I'm surprised at how sensibly early he made the call. Hopefully they'll ban the ban altogether.
  • SCE to AUX "Having spoken to plenty of suppliers over the years, many have told me they tried to adapt to EV production only to be confronted with inconsistent orders."Lofty sales predictions followed by reality.I once worked (very briefly) for a key supplier to Segway, back when "Ginger" was going to change the world. Many suppliers like us tooled up to support sales in the millions, only to sell thousands - and then went bankrupt.
  • SCE to AUX "all-electric vehicles, resulting in a scenario where automakers need fewer traditional suppliers"Is that really true? Fewer traditional suppliers, but they'll be replaced with other suppliers. You won't have the myriad of parts for an internal combustion engine and its accessories (exhaust, sensors), but you still have gear reducers (sometimes two or three), electric motors with lots of internal components, motor mounts, cooling systems, and switchgear.Battery packs aren't so simple, either, and the fire recalls show that quality control is paramount.The rest of the vehicle is pretty much the same - suspension, brakes, body, etc.
  • Theflyersfan As crazy as the NE/Mid-Atlantic I-95 corridor drivers can be, for the most part they pay attention and there aren't too many stupid games. I think at times it's just too crowded for that stuff. I've lived all over the US and the worst drivers are in parts of the Midwest. As I've mentioned before, Ohio drivers have ZERO lane discipline when it comes to cruising, merging, and exiting. And I've just seen it in this area (Louisville) where many drivers have literally no idea how to merge. I've never seen an area where drivers have no problems merging onto an interstate at 30 mph right in front of you. There are some gruesome wrecks at these merge points because it looks like drivers are just too timid to merge and speed up correctly. And the weaving and merging at cloverleaf exits (which in this day and age need to all go away) borders on comical in that no one has a bloody clue of let car merge in, you merge right to exit, and then someone repeats behind you. That way traffic moves. Not a chance here.And for all of the ragging LA drivers get, I found them just fine. It's actually kind of funny watching them rearrange themselves like after a NASCAR caution flag once traffic eases up and they line up, speed up to 80 mph for a few miles, only to come to a dead halt again. I think they are just so used to the mess of freeways and drivers that it's kind of a "we'll get there when we get there..." kind of attitude.
  • Analoggrotto I refuse to comment until Tassos comments.