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MODERN FORMULA One cars fit the technical term “hybrid” because of their complex interactive gasoline/electric powerplants. But hybrid also describes the corporate characteristics of an innovative mid-1950s Grand Prix car, the Lancia D50. Its tale has a resonance with today’s F1 news of teams failing financially, and also offers a huge contrast in Grand Prix racing of the two eras.
Vincenzo Lancia built his first automobile in Turin, Italy, in 1906. (See http://wp.me/p2ETap-1CM for an example of the company’s early technical prowess.) By the 1950s, his son Gianni was in charge, with a goal of elevating Lancia to the likes of Italian giants Alfa Romeo (in racing) and Fiat (in production capacity).
Lancia the younger certainly had the right Chief Engineer, Vittorio Jano, who had already achieved fame by designing the immensely successful P2 Monza and Monoposto Alfas.
Jano’s D50 Grand Prix car was replete with innovation. Its engine contributed stiffness to the chassis by serving as a stressed member (as is universal today in F1). The D50 engine was yawed to permit a low seating position that aided aerodynamics.
Its fuel tanks were mounted in side panniers offering dual benefits. As they emptied, the car’s weight distribution and thus its handling were less disrupted than with traditional tail-mounted tanks. Also, the panniers improved aerodynamics by cleaning up the high-turbulence region between front and rear tires.
The D50 wasn’t alone in the era with innovation. Initially, the 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 had enclosed fenders in its streamlined bodywork. The W196 engine was inclined, as opposed to canted, to reduce the car’s overall profile. See http://wp.me/p2ETap-1ug for details of this all-conquering 1954 – 1955 Grand Prix car.
Not that innovation always triumphed. The 1956 Bugatti Type 251 Grand Prix car’s engine was at the rear (almost all F1 cars of the era were front-engine) and its aerodynamics paid homage to the side-pannier concept. Technically fascinating, the Type 251 was a disaster. See http://wp.me/p2ETap-10r for details.
By contrast, in the Lancia D50’s debut at the Spanish Grand Prix in 1954, Alberto Ascari was a full second faster than Juan Manuel Fangio and his Mercedes. Teething troubles for a year precluded disrupting Mercedes’ dominance (the latter won nine of the 12 Grands Prix held in 1954 – 1955). However, Mercedes conceded that the Lancia D50 was the only competitor it feared.
At the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix, Ascari and his D50 equaled the practice time of Fangio and his Mercedes. It was a duel of titans: Ascari was World Drivers’ Champion in 1952 and 1953; Fangio won his first championship in 1951, his second in 1954 and was destined to win his third (of five) in 1955.
In Monaco, Fangio retired with a bad gearbox; Mercedes teammate Stirling Moss inherited the lead and Ascari moved up to second. Ascari responded to a “faster” signal, not knowing that Moss was about to retire through engine trouble. The brakes on Ascari’s car acted up (almost all F1 cars had drums brakes in those days); the D50 got sideways; it—and he—plunged into the harbor. Ascari was rescued by a nearby boat. (He was to die four days later while testing a Ferrari sports car at Monza.)
Lancia had been sinking financially, and Ascari’s death crystalized a decision to quit racing. In a July 1955 deal encouraged by the head of the Italian Automobile Club, Lancia gave its Grand Prix cars, spares and other equipment to Ferrari, Fiat guaranteeing Ferrari an annual subsidy for five years of development.
The 1956 season was the D50’s best. Mercedes’ withdrawal from racing left Fangio free to accept a Lancia-Ferrari seat, and he profited more than once from the Grand Prix practice back then of teammates swapping cars during a race.
An F1 team of the era contracted with race organizers as to the number of cars in its entry. What’s more, drivers competing in the World Drivers’ Championship could—and, under team orders, often would—swap seats if it improved an entrant or driver standing.
Ferrari fielded its D50s in a variety of forms in 1956, sometimes pure Lancia, at other times with a bewildering combination of Ferrari-developed changes.
Anthony Pritchard’s Competition Cars of Europe is an excellent source of all these goings-on. Pritchard sums up the D50’s development at Ferrari as “a classic example of progressing backwards.”
At the Argentine Grand Prix, Fangio’s Lancia-Ferrari retired with engine trouble. Then he took over teammate Luigi Musso’s purely Lancia car and drove it to a win. At Monaco, Fangio spun his Ferrari-modified car, took over another Lancia-Ferrari of a teammate and finished second. There’s a marvelous video of Fangio lapping Monaco in a D50 at http://goo.gl/A7qWm.
Fangio won the British Grand Prix, his up-and-coming teammate Peter Collins finishing second after swapping seats with Spanish sportsman Alfonso de Portago.
The final Grand Prix of 1956 was at Monza, with six Lancia-Ferraris on the grid. Fangio’s D50 suffered steering failure, which precipitated driver swaps galore. In particular, at half distance, teammate Collins turned over his car to Fangio, who finished second, thus clinching his fourth World Drivers’ Championship.
Imagine the brouhaha if something similar happened today. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014