Teams1951 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
To be successful in motor racing requires an attitude of 'I can do this, or make that, better'. Guy Anthony 'Tony' Vandervell had exactly that attitude, and it would lead to a number of innovations the world continues to use to this day. It also would lead to a very special and competitive car for the 1951 season.
Guy Anthony was the son of Charles Vandervell. Charles was the founder of electrical group CAV. Charles did not pass the company on to his son, and this fostered some ill feelings with Tony. Not too long after, Tony became aware of an American company creating a new type of bearing. Tony was immediately interested in backing the project as long as he would have sole rights to the product in Europe. Tony's father realized his son had come across an innovative design and agreed to financially back his son. Thus, Vandervell Products Ltd. was created. The innovative design was the Thin-Wall bearing and it would lead to Vandervall amassing a great deal of wealth because of the bearings.
Guy Anthony followed in his father's inquisitive passions, but also along other lines. In his younger years, Tony would race motorcycles and cars in a number of races. Then, after World War II, he acquired a Ferrari 125 and had it altered. This was the first Thinwall Special. Thinwall referred to the Thin-wall bearing, which was the source of his ability to branch into racing. The Ferrari 125 was initially to be used for the purpose of evaluation for the British Racing Motors team founded by Raymond Mays.
British Racing Motors (BRM) was an ambitious program originally conceived by Raymond Mays. In the days after World War II money for racing was hard to come by. In order to fund his patriotic vision, Mays sold the idea of the racing team to a number of individual companies. The companies would invest in the team financially and with parts, thus costs were divided up amongst partners. One of those investors was Tony's Vandervell Products Ltd. The Thin-wall bearing would be an integral part for the chassis.
To evaluate the bearing for the BRM Tony proposed purchasing a Ferrari 125 and revising the design to evaluate innovations and important changes to be used in the BRM. One of those revisions included the use of the Thinwall bearing. Very shortly, Vandervell grew tired of the bureaucratic nature of business surrounding BRM. Therefore, he went ahead with acquiring the chassis for his own purposes. This posed great costs and difficulties as the British government imposed large levies and other taxes for the import of such items. These costs would be dropped if it were to be used for the BRM project. However, Vandervell had grown tired of the bureaucracy and determined to use the car for his own purposes. Therefore, he would pay the costs so he could control what happened with the car and the changes.
In all, Vandervell Products would import and build three Ferrari chassis, including a 375. Initially, the changes imposed by Vandervell appeared to be successful, so much so that Vandervell was even bold enough to send a letter to Enzo Ferrari indicating what changes Ferrari should make to his cars. What started out as promising would, in time, become highly successful.
Since Vandervell abandoned BRM to race under his own control, he needed to find a driver with the ability and vision to help make the Thinwall all Tony believed possible. Earlier in his career, Parnell was prohibited from racing, but was really good at getting cars to other drivers. In time, he would found a business for himself whereby he would buy and sell race cars. After World War II, Parnell was able to go back to racing, and did so, with considerable success. This led to Parnell becoming involved with the calamitous BRM program. After his first couple of races in 1951, in which Parnell would win once, Vandervall approached Parnell about driving his Ferrari 375. Parnell agreed. The partnership's first race would truly be momentous and special.
The first race in which Vandervell Products Ltd. competed in 1951 was the 3rd BRDC International Trophy race, held at Silverstone in the early part of May. The International Trophy race consisted of two heat races followed by a final race.
The two heat races were 15 laps. The field of cars and drivers included a good number of the top drivers of the day. Though Scuderia Ferrari wasn't present, Alfa Romeo SpA was. Therefore, the field would include the likes of Giuseppe Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio. In all, Alfa Romeo SpA would enter four cars for the race.
In the first heat race Fangio struggled. However, he would take over Felice Bonetto's car and would set a new lap record at the track. Grid positions for the heat races and the final were based upon the best time set in the practice sessions leading up to the heat races, and they were dependent upon the car entered, not the driver. Therefore, Bonetto started the heat race from the pole due to Fangio's time in his car. Fangio would start in the second row. Both of these grid placements were better than Parnell, however. The best Parnell could do, in relation to Fangio's time in Bonetto's car, was a lap nine seconds slower. This meant Reg started the heat from 8th in the grid.
At the start of the race, Bonetto struggled to get off the line. This allowed Fangio to shoot by and take the lead. Parnell would start out in 3rd, but would soon get by Bonetto as well. The heat would end with Fangio winning and Parnell following in 2nd, three seconds behind.
In the second heat race, Alfa Romeo SpA teammate Consalva Sanesi had the pole. Alfa's other top driver, reigning World Champion Giuseppe Farina, struggled and would start the race 8th. The poor starting spot wouldn't hurt Farina, however. Giuseppe took over the lead and would hold onto it throughout the remainder of the 15 lap event. Sanesi would finish 2nd and Prince Bira 3rd.
Heading into the 35 lap final, the weather was terrible. Lightning, pouring rain, even hail was falling on the track even before the race began. Race organizers were undaunted (perhaps foolhardy) and started the race anyway.
Some areas of the track was buried under a half a foot of water. The spray made it almost impossible to see anything. In the case of many of the drivers, the cockpit temperatures were high enough to cause steam that further blinded the corners and other cars on the track from the view of the pilots. Fangio was one of those greatly affected by the walls of water falling from the heavens. For Reg Parnell, it was like a day on the beach…almost. With the exception of a single spin, Parnell dominated. The only other brave soul that could come close to the pace of Parnell in the Thinwall Ferrari 375 was Duncan Hamilton in a Talbot-Lago T26C.
Discretion being the better part of valor, the race organizers decided to stop the event after only six laps. In those few laps, Parnell had been able to lap the field up to and excluding Hamilton in 2nd place. Parnell's winning margin over Hamilton was twenty-one seconds. Graham Whitehead finished 3rd and Juan Manuel Fangio finished 4th.
After the BRDC carwash, Vandervell Products team next competed in the Festival of Britain Trophy race, held at the Goodwood Circuit in Chichester in the middle-part of May.
The Festival of Britain Trophy race was short. It was only 15 laps of the 2.38 mile road course. Parnell entered the race driving one of Vandervell's other Ferraris, the 125 Thinwall. Parnell would face off against a number of those he had faced at Silverstone, including Farina, Hamilton and Whitehead.
Different car, same result. Parnell took the Thinwall Ferrari 125 to the lead and never looked back. At the end of the 15 lap race, Parnell would win, followed by Farina and Emanuel de Graffenried, each driving Maserati 4CLT/48s.
This victory made it two in a row for Parnell and a 100 percent success rate for the Vandvervell Products team. This raised a question: 'Could the team keep the success going, or, was it just a flash in the pan?' The answer to the question came a little less than a month later at Dundrod, Northern Ireland.
On the 2nd of June, the 5th Ulster Trophy race was held on the 7.41 mile road course in Dundrod, Northern Ireland. The race was 27 laps and totaled 200 miles.
The race organizers sent out an invitation to the top teams and Giuseppe Farina arrived with an Alfa Romeo 159. In order to square-off against Farina's 159, Parnell arrived for the third race of Vandvervell Products' season driving the 375 once again. The majority of the rest of the field was comprised with more 'local' talent.
The expected battle between the 159 and the Thinwall 375 began in earnest during practice. Farina and Parnell appeared to be in a class amongst themselves and the times for the starting grid offered proof. Giuseppe Farina set the fastest time. Parnell set the second-fastest time, six second slower. The next closest qualifier was Brian Shawe-Taylor in an ERA B-Type. His best time was almost twenty seconds slower than Parnell's. The duel was on.
From the very start, the race was all about Farina and Parnell. Parnell would push Farina throughout. Their pace was furious. In fact, Farina would end up setting a fastest lap time of the race that was actually faster than his own qualifying time. By the end of the race, the battle was all but over. Farina would win the race with a winning margin of one minute and thirteen seconds over Parnell. 3rd place went to Brian Shawe-Taylor. He would finish the race one lap down.
Despite coming in 2nd, the Vandervell Products team was still enjoying a good deal of success, but it still had yet to enter a Formula One event. The team had skipped the first round, the Swiss Grand Prix. They would also go on to miss what was the third round of the championship, the Belgian Grand Prix. However, the team would not avoid Formula One for long. Their first real test would come on the 1st of July in 1951.
On the 1st of July the fourth round of the Formula One World Championship was held on the European continent at Reims, France. Vandervell Products entered their Thinwall Ferrari 375 for the fast 4.85 mile public road course in Reims. The race was the European Grand Prix and the field was full of Scuderia Ferraris and Alfa Romeos.
Two-thirds of the track was made up of straight-aways almost as straight as an arrow, and long. The other third was made up of mostly fast-sweeping curves. The only slow-speed portions on the track were essentially the hairpin turns that comprised the corners of what was virtually a triangular-shaped layout. Average speeds usually reached over 90 mph at the course. The high speeds played into the hands of the Alfas and Ferraris, and would play into Parnell's as well.
Qualifying times set in practice were especially close together. The first seven starting spots on the grid were separated by less than eight seconds. Juan Manuel Fangio took the pole with a time of two minutes and twenty-five seconds. Teammate Farina set the second-fastest time that was almost two seconds slower. Seven tenths slower than Farina, Alberto Ascari set the third-fastest time. Parnell's Thinwall 375 couldn't quite match the pace and set the ninth-fastest time that was a little over eighteen seconds slower than Fangio's time.
The 77 lap race started in hot and dry conditions. The conditions, and the average speed, would end up taking its toll amongst the top contenders. Both Juan Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari would end up struggling, but each would receive a re-birth. Their struggles, while ending up fine for them, also helped Parnell.
Ascari's car lasted ten laps until it suffered gearbox problems. Scuderia Ferrari decided Ascari should take over Jose Froilan Gonzalez's 375 in order to stay in the race. With that, Ascari was back on the charge. And because Ascari was back on the charge, Fangio wanted a change. Fangio was struggling with his car. Therefore, Alfa Romeo made the same call as Ferrari and called in Luigi Fagioli so that Fangio could take over his car. The switch proved the trick as Fangio was able to take over the lead and would hold it for a shared win. Ascari would finish the race 2nd, sharing the finish with Gonzalez. Luigi Villoresi had a drama-free run and would finish the race a quiet 3rd, some three laps down to Fangio and Ascari. Lost in all of the drama and confusion was Reg Parnell and Vandervell Products' first-ever Formula One race.
Though overshadowed by Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, Reg Parnell had a truly splendid European Grand Prix. The troubles Ascari suffered and the resulting booting of Gonzalez received, as well as, the lame duck drive Fagioli inherited from Fangio all enabled Parnell to quietly move up through the field. Parnell was also able to out-duel Farina in this race and would end up finishing the race 4th, four laps down. This netted Parnell three points toward the championship and earned Vandervell another good result. In its first-ever Formula One race, the Vandervell Products team managed to put together a car that was able to finish in the points!
Heading back across the channel for the fifth round of the championship, the British Grand Prix offered the team a source of frustration and disappointment. Reg Parnell had been able to put the car through its paces and, as a result, had been earning the team good results. However, Reg Parnell already had a contract with the embarrassing BRM project. Parnell was allowed to race on his own, and for others, precisely because the BRM cars were never ready to take part in any race. That changed when the Formula One season headed to Silverstone.
BRM finally entered a Formula One race, at Vandervell's expense. As a replacement, the team chose the competent Brit, Peter Whitehead, to take over behind the wheel.
Scuderia Ferrari finally came alive in Formula One at that year's British Grand Prix. In practice, Jose Froilan Gonzalez set the fastest time with a lap of the 2.88 mile road course in one minute and forty-three seconds. Fellow Argentinean, Juan Manuel Fangio, would start the race 2nd after setting a time exactly a second slower. Alfa Romeo driver, Giuseppe Farina rounded out the top three after recording a time a little over a second and a half slower than Gonzalez. Peter Whitehead was able to qualify his Vandervell Thinwall Ferrari 375 into the top-ten when he recorded a time eleven seconds slower, but good enough to start 8th.
The last time the team had been at Silverstone it had come out victorious amidst the rain storm. However, the race that took place on the 14th of July was warm and dry, Reg Parnell was with BRM and the field was littered with championship contending cars and drivers. Another such result would truly be an act of providence.
Sure enough, the race would go, more or less, according to expectation, with one surprise. Once the race started, it practically ended. Over the course of a couple of laps Gonzalez and Fangio were able to break away, and then, disappeared into the distance.
Whitehead couldn't keep up with the pace. In fact, he would even be passed by Peter Walker and Brian Shawe-Taylor, both of whom qualified further down in the order. By the end of the race, Ferrari had earned its first Formula One victory. Surprisingly, it came at the hands of Jose Froilan Gonzalez and not either Ascari or Villoresi. Gonzalez would end up beating Fangio by over fifty seconds. But then, the two Argentineans had a two lap advantage over 3rd place finisher Luigi Villoresi. While Reg Parnell was able to take BRM to a 5th place finish in its first Formula One race, Whitehead couldn't match the feat in his first race with Vandervell Products. Peter ended up finishing the 90 lap race seven laps down in a very quite 9th place, four places out of the points. This was the first time the team had not been able to earn a result characteristic of what the team had proven it was capable.
After Reg Parnell's departure to BRM, and the rather disappointing results at the home British Grand Prix, the Vandervell Products team did not take part in another event until September of that year. Vandervell had the driver he wanted, but couldn't get him because BRM had him. However, Parnell was available to take part in the 4th Goodwood Trophy race on the 29th of September.
Once again, the BRM cars could not get prepped in time to enter the race. This left a couple of drivers without a ride. In Reg Parnell's case, the ride-less situation didn't last long. Vandervell was happy to provide Parnell with a car so he could resume his battles with Giuseppe Farina, who also entered the event with his Alfa Romeo 159.
Once news circulated the two drivers were entered in the race, undoubtedly talk about them battling it out at the front emerged. Those looking for a hard contested battle between the drivers wouldn't be disappointed. Surprisingly, it didn't seem things were going to go that way, at least not at the very start.
While the two drivers would qualify right beside each other, it wasn't in the first couple of spots on the grid. Pole honors went to Tony Rolt. Neither Parnell nor Farina grabbed 2nd on the grid either. 2nd place on the grid went to Brian Shawe-Taylor. The best Parnell could do was a time fastest enough to start 3rd. Farina's time was good enough for the Italian to start beside Parnell in 4th. Despite not having the fastest times, both drivers would start the race from the first row of the grid in the 4-3-4 arranged grid.
Starting from the front row would prove to be advantageous for both Farina and Parnell. On the first lap of the race, Shawe-Taylor had a severe accident with Antonio Branca. Shawe-Taylor would be severely injured in the crash, but would escape with his life. The crash ended up promoting Farina and Parnell up toward the front of the field. Very quickly, the two would take over at the top and would pull away. The race distance was short; only 15 laps. However, in that short amount of time, the two drivers managed to lap the rest of the entire field. Once again, Farina would out-duel Parnell and took the win by over five seconds. Pole-sitter Tony Rolt would finish the race 3rd, one lap down. Though not a victory, the result would cap-off what was a mostly successful first season for Vandervell Products.
With Reg Parnell at the wheel, the Vandervell Products team never finished worse than 4th in any event it entered. It had finished in 2nd place twice and had even managed to win twice. Parnell even managed to garner three points toward the driver's championship with his drive at Reims. The worse result the team encountered the entire year was the 9th place finish Peter Whitehead earned at the British Grand Prix. Though frustrating, this was still a wonderful result for a team in its first year of existence. It was results like these that made Vandervell, and Thinwall, a well-respected name in Formula One and grand prix racing well into the 1960s.