Formula 1 motor racing was first established in 1946, immediately after the end of World War 2, but did not receive full World Championship status until 1950. The 1st F1 World Championship consisted of 7 races held in Great Britain, Monaco, Switzerland, the United States of America, Belgium, France and Italy, although the United States race was not a true F1 race, it was really just the Indianapolis 500 which was included as a stand-alone event. This tradition would continue until 1960.
The 1st World Championship Grand Prix was held on 13 May 1950 at Silverstone, consisting of 21 starters, and was won by Italian driver Giuseppe Farina in an Alfa Romeo. Farina would claim 2 further victories during season, with the other 3 going to his team-mate Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina, but it was Farina who ultimately became the 1st F1 World Champion.
Alfa Romeo continued to reign supreme in 1951, but this time, it was Fangio who came out on top. Alfa Romeo had some stiff competition from fellow Italian outfit Ferrari, and their Italian lead driver Alberto Ascari, but could not match the consistency of Fangio. The British Grand Prix was notable for the following reasons, Ferrari’s 1st win thanks to Argentinian driver Jose Froilan Gonzalez, and the debut of future British F1 star Stirling Moss in an HWM.
1952 saw the arrival of Formula 2 rules, for which Alfa Romeo were not prepared, so they pulled out. Another absentee would be defending champion Juan Manuel Fangio, injured in a crash pre-season and confined to the sidelines. Consequently, Ferrari were left to dominate preceedings and they did, with Alberto Ascari winning all 6 races he competed in to become Ferrari’s 1st World Champion, the only race he didn’t win was the opening in Switzerland where fellow Italian Piero Taruffi won for Ferrari in his absence. Ascari also raced unsuccessfully in the Indy 500.
Ascari picked up where he left off in 1953, winning 5 races to make it 2 titles in a row, but the return of Fangio, driving for Maserati and Ferrari’s upcoming British driver Mike Hawthorn almost gave the Italian a run for his money. By the end of the season, Ascari had won 9 consecutive races, an all-time record, and Hawthorn had become the 1st British driver to win in F1, winning the French Grand Prix.
It was all change for 1954, F2 rules were out, and Mercedes and Lancia made their F1 bows. Mercedes had previously dominated motor racing pre-war, and their return was no exception. Fangio joined Mercedes as lead driver and dominated in their wonderful W196 ‘Silver Arrow’, winning his 2nd World Title at a canter. There was no such luck for Ascari though. After 2 World Titles, Ascari had to persevere with Ferrari and Maserati, as Lancia’s radical new car was late getting ready. By the time the Lancia had arrived, there was just 1 race left, the Spanish Grand Prix, and Ascari led only to retire as he did in all the other races that year. F1 suffered its 1st tragedy in 1954, as Fangio’s Argentinian protege Onofre Marimon, driving for Maserati, was killed during practice for the German Grand Prix, and was not to be the last.
Mercedes were once again unstoppable in 1955, with Fangio and new signing Stirling Moss fighting long and hard for the title, but the season was marred by the terrible crash that killed Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh and over 80 spectators at the Le Mans 24 Hour race. In the immediate aftermath, Mercedes pulled out of motor racing completely and several races on the calendar were cancelled. One of those races was the Swiss Grand Prix, which would never take place again, as Switzerland banned motor racing with immediate effect. Mercedes bowed out on a high though, filling the 1st 4 positions at that year’s British Grand Prix, where Moss became the 1st British driver to win his home Grand Prix by a nose from Fangio, who went on to claim title number 3. There was further tragedy when Alberto Ascari crashed and died in a testing accident at Monza in Italy, just a few days after falling into the harbour at Monaco, prompting the immediate withdrawal of Lancia.
With Mercedes gone, Fangio and Moss had to look for pastures new, and they did. Fangio settling in at Ferrari, who had taken over the assets of Lancia, and Moss at Maserati, and they continued to fight each other for the title. It wasn’t all about Fangio and Moss in 1956 though, British driver Peter Collins, also driving for Ferrari, was an outside contender. But it was Fangio who triumphed once more after Collins handed his car over to the Argentinian during the final round in Italy, with Fangio finishing 2nd to Moss.
The 2 best drivers of the past 2 seasons changed teams again in 1957, this time Fangio returned to Maserati and Moss joined British outfit Vanwall. This did not stop them from finishing 1st and 2nd overall for the 3rd year in a row, and once again, it was Fangio who triumphed, his 5th World Title in all. The Vanwall team ran him very close with their patriotic line-up of Moss, Tony Brooks and newcomer Stuart Lewis-Evans, and they became the 1st British team to win their home Grand Prix, where Moss and Brooks shared the honours, after Moss took over Brooks’ car because his own had broken down.
After 4 straight titles, Fangio only raced twice in 1958, as he retired from F1. This set the scene for an amazing battle for supremacy amongst the British drivers. It was Moss and Brooks in the Vanwalls against Hawthorn and Collins in the Ferraris. In the end, it was Hawthorn who became Britain’s 1st World Champion, thanks to his consistency having taken just 1 win all season. Moss was runner-up for the 4th year running, denied the title by just a solitary point. It was a highly tragic season as Ferrari lost Collins and Italian driver Luigi Musso, and Vanwall lost Lewis-Evans. These tragedies were enough to prompt the immediate withdrawal of Vanwall and the retirement of Hawthorn, who was eventually to die himself in a road accident in January 1959.
The face of F1 was changed forever in 1959, with the British Cooper team leading the way with their revolutionary rear-engined T51. Cooper had taken their 1st win at Monaco the previous year thanks to Stirling Moss, but it was Australian driver Jack Brabham who masterminded Cooper’s challenge in 1959, and it was Jack Brabham who claimed the 1st World Title for a rear-engined car. Despite their best efforts, the front-engined Ferraris led by Tony Brooks, and Stirling Moss in a privateer Cooper, were powerless to stop the revolution. The front-engined cars were obsolete and the rear-engined cars were here to stay.