Revolutionary Technology in Formula One: The Mid-Engine Configuration

In 1950, when Grand Prix motor racing acquired the Drivers’ World Championship, run under the recently-formulated Formula One rules, the cars were distinctive for their long noses, grille-protected air intakes and decidedly rear-mounted driver position. By the start of the next decade, the cars of the leading teams had changed utterly, with sleek, cigar-like aerodynamic bodies, spaceframe chassis and mid-rear-mounted engines. Anybody who wasn’t willing to conform to the mid-engined revolution was left in the dust, and 1960 would see the last win for a front-engined car in Formula One.

Like forced induction, the history of mid-engine configuration in Grand Prix racing goes back before the Second World War. Germany’s Silver Arrows were easily the dominant Grand Prix cars of their time, using the technological might of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union to their advantage. These ferociously powerful cars would eventually produce almost 600 bhp at their peak, with which they managed to dominate every year of racing from 1935 to the breakout of the Second World War in 1939, only losing a single Grande Épreuve during these five years. While Mercedes-Benz used the traditional front-engined layout for their W25, W125 and W154 cars, Auto Union took a different strategy, placing their engines behind the driver. With a swing axle suspension system on the rear, the Auto Union cars acquired a reputation for evil handling even by the standards of the time, but the cars were powerful, fast and won many races.

Auto Union never ventured into the voiturette category that would form the basis of the post-war Formula One rules, and so the cars of 1950 stuck exclusively to the conventional front-engined layout that had been common among the other competitors in pre-war Grand Prix racing. However, with the success that Auto Union had attained with the mid-engine layout, it was only a matter of time before somebody attempted to make a car with the engine behind the driver again.

The party responsible for reviving the mid-engine design was the Cooper Car Company. This constructor of racing cars, founded by Charles and John Cooper in 1946, had started out with motorcycle-engined Formula Three cars in the early 1950s and worked their way up to Formula Two cars by 1957. According to John Cooper, matters of expediency led to their first Formula Three cars being developed with a mid-engined layout, as the motorcycle engine more effectively ran the rear wheels using a chain than a propeller shaft. Nevertheless, this proved to be a matter of serendipity.

With the exception of a few flirtations with four-wheel drive by various constructors, Formula One cars have always been driven exclusively through the rear wheels. The placing of the heavy metal block of the engine nearest the driving wheels of the car brings benefits regarding traction, which was useful in the low-compromises world of Formula One. The mid-engine design philosophy also allowed for better weight distribution, meaning less inertia and less inclination towards understeer, which was a problem for the front-engined cars that had taken over Formula One. By the time Cooper introduced their first rear engine model into Formula One, the cars were using considerably more sophisticated suspension than the Auto Unions of the 1930s, and the double wishbone suspension fitted to both front and rear went a long way in curing the snap oversteer apparently common to the Auto Unions.

Cooper introduced its first works Formula One car in 1957, the Cooper T43. A few cars were built for the works effort, and a few sold to privateer racers who ran them to Formula Two rules. The car’s first race was the 1957 Monaco Grand Prix, where the cars in the hands of Jack Brabham and Les Leston ran with 2-litre Coventry Climax engines which were 500cc smaller than the front-runners in the Maserati and Vanwall cars. Nevertheless, in this most attritional of races, Jack Brabham managed to finish in sixth place, just one place off a point in the 1950s scoring system. Later in the season, Roy Salvadori bettered this with a point at the 1957 British Grand Prix at Aintree, scoring the first ever point for the Cooper Car Company. It was to be the first of several.

1958 brought greater fortunes for the Cooper team. A considerably longer Championship season, coinciding with the introduction of the new International Cup for F1 Manufacturers, gave Cooper cars more opportunities to score, and with several privateer entries running the Cooper T43 and newer T45, both under the Formula One and Formula Two engine rules, there was some opportunity to compete against the more powerful Vanwall and Ferrari cars which would end up competing for the first International Cup for F1 Manufacturers.

The season started well for Cooper, not as a consequence of their works effort, but instead of the Cooper-running privateers, the R.R.C. Walker Racing Team. The first two races of the season were won by the privateer team, the first-ever wins for a rear-engined car in Formula One, one at the hands of Stirling Moss, and another win by Maurice Trintignant. Very quickly, Cooper had earned vindication for its peculiar design philosophy, and they would continue to compete for points and podiums throughout the rest of the season. The team finished third, even with a significant power deficit versus the top constructors.

The 1959 season was to prove more successful still. Cooper introduced its T51 model for its works effort and the Rob Walker Racing Team, now fitted with a full 2.5 litre Climax straight-four. With this engine fitted, Cooper cars managed to win five of the eight championship Formula One races that year, along with three of the five non-championship events. Jack Brabham took his first title after winning two races and scoring points in all of the races he finished. The only team that managed to compete with the superior Coopers with their more even weight distribution were the Ferraris, but their more powerful V6 engine only managed to win them the German Grand Prix, held for the first and last time at the simplistic AVUS circuit, which comprised two extremely long straights and a set of hairpin turns, and the French Grand Prix, held at the long, fast Reims-Gueux circuit.

It was interesting that it should be Scuderia Ferrari that was challenging Cooper in the 1959 season. The team had demonstrated a bit of a conservative streak, catalysed by Enzo Ferrari who only reluctantly pursued technological improvements that weren’t applicable to the engine. The Ferrari team therefore did produce some very powerful engines, but tended not to apply as much care to the chassis. In the battle between Italian power and British ingenuity, the British were proving that power wasn’t much good without control.

By the time the 1960 season rolled around, other teams had begun to take notice just how much potential there was in the mid-engine layout, and some of them had followed suit. Team Lotus, run by Colin Chapman, who would himself prove to be an innovative engineer later on, had adopted the layout for their Lotus 18 model, while BRM followed suit with their P48 model. Ferrari remained steadfast with their Ferrari 246, despite its increasing irrelevance. The 1960 season would show the error of their ways, as they slipped to third in the International Cup for F1 Manufacturers, far behind the victorious Cooper, who managed six victories out of nine events, and another Drivers’ World Championship for Jack Brabham.

Team Lotus also used their new mid-engined car to their advantage, taking two of the remaining wins in the season. In comparison, Ferrari managed one win, aptly at their home Grand Prix at Monza, but this was a rather assured victory after the leading British teams protested the event, which was run on the alarmingly quick ten-kilometre Monza layout incorporating the banked oval. Their other results during the year would prove to be disappointing, and Phil Hill’s victory at Monza would be the final championship race victory for a front-engined car. By 1961, even Ferrari had conceded; their dominant 1960 Formula Two car was a useful development tool for a Formula One series which had greatly decreased the maximum engine displacement. Amusingly, Ferrari would demonstrate greater success with 1961’s Ferrari 156 than they had during the last two years of running their obsolete front-engined car.

There was to be one more moment of glory for a front-engined car, a consequence of one of the flirtations with four-wheel drive alluded to above. The Ferguson P99 was a demonstration project using Harry Ferguson’s novel new four-wheel drive system, and was made front-engined by necessity. The 1961 International Gold Cup was a non-championship event held at Oulton Park, and while the P99 had not proved especially successful in the other races it had contended, with a significant weight disadvantage, the superior traction of the four-wheel drive system aided it in the wet conditions that prevailed that day, taking the victory at the hands of Stirling Moss.

Thus ended the era of front-engined Formula One cars. Every car on the grid was rear-engined by 1962. Cooper would not find much success in the 1.5 litre formula in Formula One, while two other British teams, Team Lotus and BRM, proved more suited to such rules. Team Lotus would go on to become a great innovator in its own right at the hands of Colin Chapman, while BRM would have its moment of glory in 1962, remaining competitive throughout the three following years, before disastrously introducing the overweight H16 engine which powered its cars in 1966 and 1967. Ferrari had mixed success during the early 1960s, easily taking the championship in 1961, but faltering for the next two years before taking another International Cup for F1 Manufacturers and a Drivers’ World Championship in 1964.

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