17th European Grand Prix. Held on the now-forgotten motor racing track at Aintree
(which can still be seen within the Grand
National course to this day), the high-speed contest essentially was a battle between the formidable Ferrari team and a relatively new British racing car contender called Vanwall.
On the overcast Saturday afternoon of July 20, a Vanwall, painted British Racing Green, took the chequered flag to achieve a triple-decker success — the first British Grand Prix (or World Championship) victory by a British car with a British driver. In fact it had two British drivers, for remarkably, the No 20 Vanwall that crossed the line in front started the 90-lap race being driven by Tony Brooks, but he was replaced by his better-known team mate Stirling Moss, who had begun the race in the Vanwall No 18.
On lap 27, Moss, who had been comfortably in the lead, pulled into the pits with a mechanical fault. Brooks, in ninth place, was instructed to come in too and the drivers swapped cars. With a fabulous display of his trademark controlled ferocity (and some lucky mishaps that befell his rivals) Moss went from ninth place to first, leaving the Ferraris to follow him home in second, third and fourth places. Brooks, who courageously had started the race despite suffering painful injuries in a recent crash at Le Mans, dropped out of the GP when the No 18 Vanwall failed again.
(In another amazing incident, the third member of the Vanwall team, Stuart Lewis-Evans, crossed the line in seventh place in the No 22 Vanwall. Mid-race, he had fashioned a repair to a broken throttle cable with a bit of wire snapped from a bale of hay at trackside. He drove back to the pits for a more reliable repair, but left his car bonnet behind where he had stopped. For this infringement, he was disqualified. Imagine Sebastian Vettel patching up his Red Bull at the side of the track these days!)
In the No 20 Vanwall Moss completed the day’s fastest lap, covering the 3-mile Aintree circuit in 1:59.2 minutes, at an average speed of 90.61mph.
The 1996 F1 world champion Damon Hill has said of Moss’ achievement: «He won the British Grand Prix in a British car as a British driver and that was the first time that had happened and that subsequently led, I think, to inspiring other designers to believe that they could win in British cars.”
The previous British victories in a first-class motor race were way back in in 1923 and 1924 when Sir Henry Segrave, later better known as a world speed record holder on land and water, won the French Grand Prix at Tours and the San Sebastian Grand Prix in northern Spain in a Sunbeam.
More than 30 years later, the legendary 1957 battle of British technology versus European technology, of the young upstarts beating the aristocrats of Maranello, is regarded as a watershed in the story of British motor racing.
Apart from being an incredible afternoon’s drama, it confirmed the possibility that UK manufacturers could compete with the powerhouses of Italy, such as Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo, and with other dominant European marques, such as Germany’s Mercedes-Benz.
Vanwall was the vanguard that was followed by triumphant F1 British teams such as Cooper, BRM. Lotus, Brabham, Tyrrell, McLaren, Williams and Brawn.
The remarkable 1957 triumph also included — and this is poignant to consider in these more cynical, commercial times -a great British sporting gesture. Tony Brooks was described by Stirling Moss as «…a tremendous driver, the greatest — if he’ll forgive me saying this — ‘unknown’ racing driver there’s ever been. He was far better than several people who won the world championship.”
Of driving in the Vanwall team with Moss, Brooks commented: «I suppose it sounds terribly dated and naive to say this, but I’d been to public school where one learned that ‘the team was the thing’. ” Given Christopher Ward’s track record (no pun intended!) with motoring-inspired models, it is not surprising that the 1957 British Grand Prix is being celebrated in a chronometer version of the C70. It will be a limited edition of just 1,957 models. The Number 20 of the winning car occupies the 12 position on the new watch’s face, while the 18 of the second machine is highlighted in Vanwall’s trim colour of yellow on the bezel. Moss’s astonishing 90.61mph best lap speed is picked out in red.
«This episode particularly appealed to us because of the idea of a British engineering company like Vanwall taking on and bettering the European heavyweights in its field,” says Christopher Ward director Mike France. «That is exactly what we have tried to do with Christopher Ward London. For motor enthusiasts of a certain age, the Vanwall VW4 is a legendary, not to say, beautiful car. And there is a very nice connection with us because the Vanwall company was based in Maidenhead, as we are.”
Vanwall was the brainchild of Tony Vandervell, a former racing driver and a wealthy industrialist whose main product was the «Thin Wall” bearing that was used extensively in the international car and aircraft industries from the 1930s onwards. Part of his name and his product’s name were combined to form Vanwall.
«THIS EPISODE PARTICULARLY APPEALED TO US BECAUSE OF THE IDEA OF A BRITISH ENGINEERING COMPANY LIKE VANWALL TAKING ON AND BETTERING THE EUROPEAN HEAVYWEIGHTS IN ITS FIELD,»
SAYS CHRISTOPHER WARD DIRECTOR MIKE FRANCE.
Vandervell wanted to create a successful British racing car that, he said, would be able «to beat those bloody red cars”, a reference to the striking livery of Enzo Ferrari’s vehicles. In fact, his early efforts at developing a winning machine involved him buying a racing car from Ferrari in early 1949 and again in 1951 and modifying them. There followed several years in which the Vanwall team steadily improved their cars and caught the motor racing world’s attention with strong outings on international circuits.
Between 1951 and 1953 an adapted 4%-litre Ferrari Type 375 F1, which was known as the Thin Wall Special, was raced with some success. By 1954, the British entrepreneur’s team had produced a 2-litre engined car known as the Vanwall Special; changes to racing rules allowed it to be enlarged to 2%-litres during the season. By 1956 a young car designer called Colin Chapman, who was later to earn legendary status with Lotus cars, was brought in to improve the chassis design of the Vanwall.
Frank Costin, an expert in aerodynamics, dreamed up an impressive low-drag body that owed a lot to aircraft technology.
Although the early Vanwalls were notorious for mechanical unreliability, the Vanwall VW4 was a beautiful-looking car, a near-replica of which is available today (see pge 30). It was viewed as a masterpiece of engine design in a sturdy yet light chassis. What made the achievement of Moss and Brooks all the more laudable was that, despite its speed and power on the straight, it was difficult to steer. «A very heavy, ponderous, car to drive” is Moss’s assessment. In the rest of the 1957 season after Aintree, a Vanwall helmed by Moss also triumphed at a Grand Prix in Pescara, Italy and then, for a hugely satisfying hat-trick, at the Italians’ sacred circuit at Monza.
Alas, Vanwall, as it achieved great victories, was also to be touched by tragedy.
In the 1958 season Moss won Grand Prix races for Vanwall in Holland, Portugal and Morocco, while Brooks matched him with victories in Belgium, Germany and Italy.
Six wins from the series of nine races meant that Vanwall became the first team to win the Constructors’ Championship, which was inaugurated that year. Moss, however, lost out to his great rival Mike Hawthorn, a Ferrari driver, in the drivers’ competition by a single point. Even worse than this, however, was the death of Stuart Lewis-Evans, the third driver on the Vanwall team, from burns following a crash in the season’s final race, the Morocco GP. He was driving the Vanwall that had won at Aintree.
Vandervell’s failing health and his depression at Lewis-Evans’ demise led to a rather swift decline for Vanwall, which disappeared from the racetracks by the early 1960s. But three hours of frantic activity at Aintree on 20 July 1957 mean that the marque holds a unique place in the annals of British motor racing. Stirling Moss, the best driver never to have won the world championship, recalled: «It was something I had dreamed about for years; winning a Grand Prix in a British car. Then, to do it at home into the bargain, you know, Tony and I being the first British drivers to win a Grand Prix since Segrave and Sunbeam back in 1923. And also to be the first all-British winners of the British Grand Prix. Fantastic experience.»
This unforgettable achievement is proudly celebrated in Christopher Ward’s limited-edition C70 VW4 Chronometer.
A modern road-going interpretation of the GP-winning Vanwalls of 1957 and 1958 is available from the modern Vanwall company. The handcrafted aluminium bodywork is dimensionally the same and is painted in the exact colour of the original racing cars.
It uses modern components and is powered by a reconditioned Lotus 2.2 litre 4-cylinder engine and transmission. Lights and wings can be fitted to the car to making it road legal. The price range is £135,000 to £150,000 (plus VAT).