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MASERATI 250F—A CLASSIC RACE CAR OF A CLASSIC ERA

JUAN MANUEL FANGIO’S drive of a Maserati 250F in the 1957 German Grand Prix is one of the greatest motor racing victories. It’s a story oft told, but well worth the recounting. What’s more, there are other wonderful vignettes about this classic race car.

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The 1957 Maserati 250F Grand Prix car in which Juan Manuel Fangio won the 1957 German Grand Prix. This and other images from The Maserati 250F Grand Prix Car, by Denis Jenkinson, Classic Cars in Profile Volume 4, Profile Publications, 1967.

Denis Jenkinson, English motor racing journalist, wrote in 1967, “the 250F is undoubtedly a classic car in the annals of Grand Prix design history.” And, looking back almost 50 years, I observe that the era of 250F was a classic one in Formula 1.

Beginning in 1954, Formula 1 cars had normally aspirated engines displacing 2.5 liters (in contrast to today’s complex, hybrid turbocharged 1.6 liters). Maserati’s 250F had an inline-6 developed from its previous 2.0-liter Formula 2 powerplant. The engine was state of the art, with three twin-throat Weber carburetors, double overhead camshafts and twin sparkplugs per cylinder.

A factory team wasn’t originally in Maserati’s plans for 1954. Instead, it intended to supply cars for privateers like Thai Prince B. Bira, young English star Stirling Moss and American expat Harry Schell.  However, when Juan Manuel Fangio won, driving a 250F in its inaugural race, the 1954 Argentine Grand Prix, Maserati changed its mind.

Fangio and the 250F also won the Belgian Grand Prix. And, in the next race, the French Grand Prix, Fangio continued his winning ways—in a Mercedes-Benz W-196. (Driver commitments were rather different in those days.)

Fangio’s swapping Modena for Stuttgart gave Stirling Moss a factory ride with Maserati for the rest of the 1954 season (before he too joined Mercedes in 1955). And, in fact, two favorite 250F stories arose from this Moss/Maserati pairing.

Both tales are in dramatic contrast to today’s F1 Sporting Regulations, so a bit of history is appropriate. In those days, Grand Prix racing was a real team sport, with drivers moved from car to car during the race if it improved matters. At times, this was carried out with the greatest of sportsmanship; but not always.

At the season-ending 1956 Italian Grand Prix, for example, Fangio needed a good finish in his Ferrari to clinch his fourth World Drivers’ Championship. But then his car broke. Teammate Luigi Musso was told to relinquish his car, but he refused. Teammate Peter Collins (who was also in the running for the drivers’ title) offerred his car to Fangio, who split the points and won the 1956 title.

A variation of this theme was played at Maserati that year. Team drivers were Moss, Jean Behra and Cesare Perdisa. Like many other race cars, the 250F had a central accelerator pedal (thought optimal by some for the heel-and-toe braking employed in double-clutch downshifting). However, being the team’s no. 1 driver, Moss insisted that his accelerator pedal be more conventionally mounted to the right.

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Maserati 250F cockpit. The clutch resided to the left of the driveshaft tunnel, brake/accelerator (or accelerator/brake!) to the right.

Frenchman Behra, who disliked acknowledging Moss’s driving superiority, said he could drive only with a central accelerator, thus precluding his ever having to relinquish his ride. Italian Perdisa was a team player and learned how to drive the 250F with either pedal orientation.

In yet another variation of team driving, even a privateer came to contribute. In the 1956 Italian Grand Prix, Moss was running first when his 250F started to misfire from fuel shortage on the far side of the Monza circuit. He motioned fellow 250F pilot Luigi Piotti to give his car a push that enabled him to coast to the pits, refuel and go on to win.

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Fangio follows Moss, both in power slides, Argentine G.P., 1957.

The 1957 Grand Prix season was Maserati’s most successful. A 250F piloted by Fangio, who had returned after Mercedes and Ferrari drives, won four of the eight Grands Prix. At the Argentine opener, Maserati 250Fs finish 1-2-3-4.

Vanwall was the only other marque with Grand Prix wins in 1957. Trivia nugget: How does an Offenhauser figure into the World Drivers’ Championship? Answer: At the Indy 500, part of the World Drivers’ Championship between 1950 and 1960.

On August 4, 1957, the German Grand Prix was held at the Nürburgring circuit. From the onset, it was a race between Maserati’s Fangio, then an old guy at age 46, and Ferrari’s young lions, Englishmen (and good mates) Mike Hawthorne and Peter Collins (renowned for his sportsman effort the year before).

The Ferraris were expected to run the 312 miles (22 laps of Nürburgring’s 14.17-mile circuit) without pitting. By contrast, Fangio started with a half-tank, the plan being to build up sufficient lead for a single refueling and rear-tire change.

He came in with a 28-second lead at lap 11, but then chaos ensued. Mechanics spent 53 seconds searching for an errant rear-wheel wingnut before Fangio resumed racing.

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Fangio, Nürburgring, 1957. Image from The Shell Book of Epic Motor Races. by Peter Roberts, Arco, 1965.

Then came the most heroic (and oft-recounted) of Fangio’s drives. Over the next 10 laps, he reset the lap record nine times (seven of these on consecutive laps). Early in the penultimate lap, he caught Collins. Later, he passed Hawthorne to victory with the 250F’s left tires on the grass.

Said Fangio, who was to announce his retirement later that year, “I have never driven that quickly before in my life and I don’t think I will ever be able to do it again.”

It’s no wonder he was known as Il Maestro. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

2 comments on “MASERATI 250F—A CLASSIC RACE CAR OF A CLASSIC ERA

  1. Victor Ceicys
    March 25, 2015

    Truly an epic era of epic cars and drivers. F1 seems so antiseptic, so corporate, with boring drivers now.

  2. carmacarcounselor
    March 28, 2015

    I’ve read the opinion (which I do not dispute) that the 250F was the most beautiful grand prix car of the front-engine era. I was at the Gooding & Co. Auction in Monterey last summer when the 1956 example in which Moss won Monza sold for $4.2 million plus commission. I thought it was a bargain.

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This entry was posted on March 24, 2015 by in Classic Bits and tagged , , , , .
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