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F1: The race that sent motorsport back to the future

Jim Clark (middle) with designer, engineer and Lotus founder Colin Chapman (right). Picture: Bob D'Olivo/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images - Credit: The Enthusiast Network via Getty

MICK O’HARE on a high-octane chapter in European and American motor racing history which changed the sport for good.

Action during the Indianapolis 500 USAC Indy Car race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Eventual winner Parnelli Jones (No. 98) leads Jim Hurtubise (No. 56), Bobby Marshman (No. 5), Jim McElreath (No. 8) and Rodger Ward (No. 1). Picture: ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images – Credit: ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group

Formula 1’s world championship roars off the grid in Melbourne with 21 drivers hoping they’ll topple champion Lewis Hamilton come November’s final race. And they’ll be propelled to victory, or otherwise, by howling V6 engines positioned mere inches behind their helmeted heads.

We all know what a racing car looks like: four oversized tyres, gaudy sponsorship, wealthy driver in the front, and that very expensive engine in the back… because that’s the way racing cars are built. And always have been, right? Well, no, actually. Sixty years ago a car with its engine in front of the driver was winning a Grand Prix. But it would be for the last time.

When Phil Hill’s Ferrari Dino 246 took the chequered flag at the 1960 Italian Grand Prix it was the swansong for front-engined Formula 1 cars. Even then it was an anomaly – the season had been dominated by the emergence of rear-engined cars. And while there had been one other front-engined success in that year’s championship, it was even more anomalous than Hill’s.

Jim Rathmann’s Watson-Offenhauser took victory in the Indianapolis 500-mile race in the United States, but the event itself was the anomaly. The 500 had been included in the world championship since its inception in 1950, despite it being neither a Grand Prix nor run to Formula 1 regulations, but this was the last year it counted. No Formula 1 team and hardly any of their drivers took part. It was essentially a local affair, competed for by American cars and drivers racing in that country’s United States Auto Club (USAC) series.

Indianapolis 500 in 1963. Picture: GP Library/Universal Images Group via Getty Images – Credit: Universal Images Group via Getty

But in 1960 this anomaly laid bare another fault line between Europe and North American motorsport: the gulf between the continents’ race cars. Ferrari apart, nearly every serious contender in that year’s Formula 1 world championship had their engines behind the driver, the Americans did not.

It had been a rapid revolution. In 1958 Stirling Moss in a Cooper T43 unexpectedly won the Argentinian Grand Prix. His car was small compared with the behemoths of the day: light, skittish and – of huge significance to the future of motorsport – its engine was behind the driver.

The grandees of Formula 1 construction such as Ferrari and Maserati who had been building racing cars for eons looked at it scornfully, regarding the British garagistas such as Cooper who were starting to enter Formula 1 with disdain. These small teams building cars in suburban garages and country barns were regarded as upstarts lacking the engineering and technical know-how (let alone the finance) to compete with the real factory outfits.

Yet despite the disdain, the British arrivistes were onto something. The reasons they began bolting their engines onto the back were varied but weight and cost were paramount. The cars were lighter, more aerodynamic and easier to control. They had fewer parts likely to break during a race – front-engined cars needed a long driveshaft to power the back wheels, a source of frequent breakdowns. And crucially, the absence of this longer driveshaft made the cars even lighter. Despite using smaller, cheaper engines they could achieve the same speeds as their bigger rivals.

Lotus driver Jim Clark stands by the pits. Clark will go on to finish the race in second place, and will also go to win his first Formula One World Championship later in the year in a Lotus. Picture: Bob D’Olivo/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images – Credit: The Enthusiast Network via Getty

The following year, 1959, they dominated. Australian Jack Brabham won the world championship for Cooper and again in 1960. Other British garagistas such as Lotus and BRM joined the fray. By the time Phil Hill gave the front-engined Ferrari its Italian Grand Prix coda in 1960 the die was cast. In two short years, the garagistas had turned Formula 1 on its head (or its tail…).

However, across the Atlantic, the Americans remained immune. When Rathmann took his 1960 Indy victory all 33 starting cars were front-engined. And the British garagistas sniffed an opportunity. Their gaze turned towards America, and specifically the world’s richest road race – the Indianapolis 500.

Indy had remained almost entirely the preserve of the Americans since the first race in 1911. Disparaging from the off, the old vets of USAC racing described the European arrivals as ‘funny cars’ – mice among the big rodent roadsters of ‘real American racing’.

These were grizzled drivers raised on dirt tracks, racing for a few dollars under lights at county fairgrounds before graduating to the huge tarmac ovals dotted around the US. Men like Rathmann, A.J. Foyt, and Eddie Sachs were the old guard, dragging their stout, front-engined roadsters around the tracks of the continent with scant regard for the emerging finesse of Formula 1.

They carved up the wins between them and were suspicious of change, as was the somewhat moribund USAC. They relied less on innovation and more on guts and wheel-to-wheel know-how, revelling in the danger of it all. And they knew no European had won the 500 since Italian Dario Resta in 1916.

But now the Europeans were up for the fight again. The first ‘funny car’ to race at Indy was Jack Brabham’s Cooper T54 in 1961. It incorporated the essentials Cooper had learnt from its Formula 1 successes and repackaged them for Indianapolis and its banked 2.5-mile oval.

Foyt said it looked like ‘a bunch of pipes lashed up with chicken wire’, adding he ‘wouldn’t drive one no matter what’. Brabham finished ninth behind the triumphant Foyt who won his first of four Indy 500 titles. Some of the old-timers believed – or hoped – ‘the British invasion’ would peter out.

Indeed, the following year there was no entry from Cooper but a young American Dan Gurney had been paying attention. He came from an urbane, opera-loving east coast family and had been racing Formula 1 in Europe, much to the contempt of the USAC old guard. He arrived at Indy in 1962 with an American-built rear-engined car, a Thompson-Buick. Gurney knew he had little chance of victory (he finished 20th) because the Americans lacked the funny-car know-how of the garagistas, but he had a plan.

Watching that day was Colin Chapman, founder of the Lotus Formula 1 team and garagista designer par excellence. Gurney invited him along knowing he needed his expertise. Chapman had already designed the successful Lotus 25 Formula 1 car which would win three Grands Prix in 1962.

Chapman realised beating the Americans wouldn’t be easy, but he possessed the knack of designing the lightest cars around (sometimes to the point of dangerous fragility) which he knew would be key to victory. He would return in 1963 having built a car for Gurney and, significantly, for his protégé the Scot Jim Clark who would later that year become Formula 1 World Champion.

These cars were the Lotus 29 based on the Lotus 25 and adapted for Indianapolis. The car’s sidewalls contained the fuel to save weight, but the car remained thin and slender and, of course, the engine was in the back. It also had independent suspension for all four wheels meaning that as it took the banked corners of Indianapolis each wheel constantly repositioned itself, unlike the roadsters which bumbled, slid and bounced their way around, their speed a result of their huge engines, not their agility. The Lotus weighed around 130 kilograms less than the average roadster. Lighter, of course, meant faster and fewer pitstops for fuel.

Parnelli Jones, who had led both the 1961 and 1962 races and was favourite for 1963, pronounced the Lotus unsafe. He insisted it was flimsy and wouldn’t ‘stand up to impact. The fuel tanks are more exposed. It’s like sitting in a bathtub of gasoline’, he announced.

And while the USAC sanctioned the car, they treated the experienced Clark like a kid racer, demanding that he take their ‘rookie test’ before entering. Gurney later suggested it was because ‘Jimmy was going to spank the pants off them’. Clark himself, somewhat introverted and indecisive (except in a racing car), didn’t particularly like America or the Indy 500. He disliked press intrusion into his personal life, the loud bonhomie of the people he met there and described the 500 as ‘something of a phoney race’, just driving round and round an oval. But Chapman knew that Clark, rather than Gurney, would bring success and so he was dragged across the Atlantic seemingly against his wishes. Clark’s modesty had its limits though and he announced that one day he would win Indy. It didn’t go down well with the locals.

Yet Clark, Chapman and Lotus were preying on minds. Parnelli Jones admitted as much when, after taking pole position that year in his Watson roadster, he said: ‘The last thing in the world I was going to see was a goddamn funny car take pole. Clark may go back to Scotland talking out of the other side of his mouth.’ The antagonism was mutual. Jones and his erstwhile rivals were not taking the arrival of the Europeans gracefully.

Not every American fan shared their patronising dislike of the interlopers, however. Albie Hirsch, now living in California, was 22 that year and remembers going to Indianapolis throughout the 1960s. ‘My dad thought the roadster guys were like Canute,’ he says. ‘He admired the innovation of the Europeans, and respected Jim Clark. And we weren’t the only ones,’ he insists.

In the pitlane too there were admirers. Thom Price-Simmons was a pit crew member for Eddie Johnson who would finish 10th in 1963. ‘We could see into the Lotus pit,’ the 72-year old, who now lives in Chicago, recalls. ‘And although their pitstops were slow they made up time because their car was so goddamn fast. Whatever A.J. Foyt and those guys were saying, I knew I’d seen the future.’

Clark qualified on the second row of the grid, Gurney further back after crashing in practice. Jones led from the start with Clark giving chase. Their cars were evenly matched but Jones knew his engine guzzled fuel and he would be making more pitstops. And that’s where controversy set in. While reports vary depending which side of the fence you are sitting, it has been argued that US race officials cut Jones a lot of slack to help preserve his lead.

Cars should slow to equal speed during periods when yellow flags are waved as marshals clear up crashes, but after Bobby Unser spun and struck the retaining wall, Jones simply carried on at racing speed, building up a big advantage.

Briefly the Lotuses led as the pitstops played out (the first time a rear-engined car had led at Indianapolis) but Jones again got lucky, making his remaining stops under yellow flags as the field slowed again. Nonetheless Clark was in hot pursuit and with 25 laps remaining he was only four seconds adrift. And then more controversy: Jones’s oil tank cracked and began leaking. Normally this would lead to officials showing the driver a black flag necessitating a mandatory pitstop for repairs because the oil was making the track dangerous. That they didn’t was down to Jones’s sponsor and team owner, J.C. Agajanian.

Agajanian was direct from central casting: an opinionated, Stetson-wearing hog rancher, who raced to the stewards’ office insisting the oil was now below the level of the crack so Jones should be allowed to race on. Chapman sprinted after him arguing the opposite. Clark himself said he hung back because it was too dangerous to get close to Jones. ‘I felt sure he wouldn’t finish,’ he said afterwards. ‘The track was slippery and I had a huge slide into the first corner.’ But Agajanian was an old friend of chief steward Harlan Fengler. He stared Fengler out and the black flag, already in the startline marshal’s hands, remained unfurled. Jones took victory.

Chapman, to no avail, insisted the stewards had been biased. Respected American motorsport journalist and historian Brock Yates agreed. ‘Had it been the British driver and car, the flag would have come out,’ he said. Ford, the American manufacturers of Lotus’s engines, persuaded Chapman not to appeal suggesting it would not be well received by the American racing public. That opinion is somewhat contradicted by the fact that many fans booed Jones on his victory lap, with the loudest ovation saved for Clark, arguably the moral victor. Eddie Sachs, who span on Jones’s oil, even raised it with him after the race. Jones responded by punching Sachs. ‘I think Ford were wrong to stop Lotus protesting,’ says Albie Hirsch. ‘And I don’t think fair-minded fans would have complained. We were transfixed by Jim Clark that day.’

And the argument, too, was won. Funny cars were the future. The following year would see 24 enter the 500. Clark took pole but after the Scot suffered tyre problems A.J. Foyt won in his Watson#1 Sheraton-Thompson roadster, the last 500 victory for a front-engined car.

In 1965 Clark would lead from start to finish, and his fellow Formula 1 champion Englishman Graham Hill repeated the feat in 1966 in a race also led by another future Scottish Formula 1 champion Jackie Stewart. The Brits had made Indy their own.

It’s no exaggeration to say their arrival turned American motorsport upside down. It was akin to the gambling scandal that beset baseball in the early 1920s or a black American golfer winning the Masters at Augusta. ‘It turned heads, even heads that didn’t want to be turned,’ said the late Gregor Grant, editor of Autosport magazine.

It had taken fewer than two years from the first victory by a rear-engined car, to winning the Formula 1 world championship, another six to conquer Indy. When, in 1967 A.J. Foyt, the man who so loathed the ‘stupid little cars from Europe’ and vowed never to sit in one, took his third Indianapolis 500 victory, it was in a Coyote-Ford. And, of course, the engine was behind him.

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