Feature F1 Unlocked
F1 IN AMERICA: The curious case of the first United States Grand Prix
It might surprise some to learn that the United States’ current love affair with Formula 1 – with a record three races to be held there in 2023 – is no recent development but more a rekindling of an old flame.
From 1904 industrialist William Kissam Vanderbilt Jr ran Grand Prix-style Vanderbilt Cup races for international teams on Long Island which attracted crowds of 250,000. The racing attraction moved to Savannah with the Grand Prize road races in 1908, 1910 and 1911 which drew international machines, and went thence to Milwaukee in 1912, Santa Monica in 1914 and ‘16, and San Francisco in 1915.
Later the Vanderbilt Cup was revived on New York’s Roosevelt Raceway in 1936 and ’37, attracting the major European teams. Legends won both: Tazio Nuvolari the first for Alfa Romeo, Bernd Rosemeyer the second for Auto Union.
From 1950 to 1960 the Indianapolis 500 counted as America’s round of the official World Championship, somewhat skewing the historical statistics as there was minimal crossover of drivers.
When the Champcar roadsters ventured to the banked track at Monza for the Indianapolis-style 500-mile Race of Two Worlds in 1957, and again in 1958, the American teams had dominated their European brethren.
The first US Grand Prix was held at Riverside in California in 1958, but was actually a round of the USAC Road Racing Championship for the sportscars that were hugely popular in West Coast racing in the fifties.
But it wasn’t until 1959 that the first pukka US Grand Prix for Formula 1 cars was run at Sebring International Raceway in Florida by Russian-born promoter Alec Ulmann, who had initiated the 12-hour sportscar race there in 1952. It was held on December 12, no fewer than three months after the season’s penultimate race at Monza.
But fittingly it would decide that year’s world championship, which had boiled down to a straight fight between Cooper’s Jack Brabham on 31 points, Stirling Moss in Rob Walker’s private Cooper on 25.5 and Ferrari’s Tony Brooks on 23.
Back then points were scored on the basis of 8-6-4-3-2 for first to fifth, with an extra point for fastest lap.
Moss took pole from Brabham, with Harry Schell a surprise third in a similar car. Much later – too late to change the grid – it transpired that the popular, fun-loving Franco-American had cut out a chunk of the track.
Next up were Brooks’ Ferrari, Maurice Trintignant in a second Rob Walker Cooper, the other Ferraris of Phil Hill, Cliff Allison and Wolfgang von Trips, Innes Ireland’s Lotus and Brabham’s young team-mate Bruce McLaren.
The New Zealander was already the rookie of the year but initially went along as a spectator as Charles and John Cooper preferred to save money by running only two cars for Brabham and Kansas racer Masten Gregory. But the organisers rejected the latter’s claim that he was fit after a previous accident so, fortuitously as it would prove, McLaren took his seat.
Bruce left his fourth row-starring slot like a rocket to go into Turn 1 side-by-side with Moss for the lead, but wisely ceded to the established superstar. He then also let his team leader through, happy to run third.
Had Schell been put back to his correct qualifying place the outcome of the championship might have been very different as Brooks’ fate was sealed early on when he made a precautionary pit stop at the end of the opening lap having been rear-ended on the grid by team-mate von Trips.
Moss had things under control until he stopped with a gearbox problem after only five laps, and suddenly the works Coopers looked set for a one-two finish. But in the final stages things began to go awry for Brabham, leaving McLaren unsure whether to pass him.
With two laps to go the advantage over Trintignant was down to six seconds and frantic pit signals encouraged Brabham to pull over and wave McLaren into the lead.
The French veteran passed the ailing Australian, who ran out of fuel a mile from the finish. He shoved the gearlever into neutral and coasted as far as the second to last corner, then began the arduous task of pushing his car to the line (which was still legal at that time).
Up front, McLaren just beat ‘Trint’ by six-tenths of a second, and thus the New Zealand rookie sealed his debut season by scoring a memorable first Grand Prix win.
“It was staggering,” he wrote. “I couldn’t believe it. I was amazed, excited, and the victory lap after taking the flag must have been one of the most pleasant I have ever done. I stopped at the pits and was mobbed by pressmen and photographers, while Jack slowly pushed his car across the line to an heroic finish, nearly collapsing in the heat.”
Brabham, however, had already done sufficient to clinch his first of his three World Championships, without the gallant fourth place that he took that day.
But what if Brooks had not stopped early on? He would likely have won the race as things turned out, and since drivers could at that time only count their best five results, Brabham’s fourth would not have been allowed to add to his 31 points.
Victory for Brooks would only have been his fourth best result and therefore countable, and would have drawn him level with Brabham’s tally; but with three wins to the Australian’s two, Tony would have taken the title.
However, Brooks, an honourable man of deep-held religious beliefs, had survived two serious crashes in his career and had vowed never again to take unnecessary risks in a potentially damaged car.
“I’d had those two accidents when it could have been curtains through stupidity, not what I would call driving errors of judgement,” he told this author. “I’d been very lucky, and I thought that in future I would not try to drive at competitive speeds in a substandard car. I made this solemn promise to myself.
“But, believe me, those must have been the most difficult minutes of my life,” he confessed. “If I stopped, the World Championship would be gone. On the other hand, if I didn’t, I would have betrayed that solemn promise…
“So the main thing was that, without being dramatic about it, I had got away with my life twice and therefore I made that promise to myself that I would not drive a substandard car again, and if I did, could I deserve anything else but pushing up the daisies?”
Views varied as to why Brabham ran short of fuel. He wrote that his car had initially run on only three cylinders at the start and suspected an overflow had cost him fuel.
McLaren mentioned that Jack had opted at the last minute for a slightly smaller choke tube size which made his engine run a little richer. But in his autobiography John Cooper suggested that while he himself had wanted Brabham to start with a full tank, Jack had overruled him, preferring to gain a weight advantage…
Historically, it was a significant race for several reasons. It would be the last time a point was given for fastest lap – which fell to Trintignant – until the Australian GP in 2019, and the last time until Monaco in 1994 when there was not a world champion in the field.
It also saw McLaren become the youngest F1 winner at the tender age of 22 years, 3 months and 12 days, beating Mike Hawthorn’s previous mark of 24 years 2 months and 25 days from the 1953 French GP.
Remarkably, McLaren’s record would not be beaten until Fernando Alonso won in Hungary in 2003 (22 years and 26 days), which itself was bettered at Monza in 2008 by Sebastian Vettel (21 years, 2 months and 11 days) and subsequently smashed by Max Verstappen in Spain in 2016 (18 years, 7 months and 15 days).