Sunday 17 November 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XVII - Sebring International Raceway, United States Grand Prix

Jack Brabham pushing his Cooper Climax to the finish line enroute to claiming his first world championship

This year Austin will be hosting its second championship race since it made its debut last year. The Circuit of Americas thereby became the tenth venue in United States to host a F1 race; most by one country when you consider F1 is not really a commercial winner in this part of the world. Barring Glen Watkins, Long Beach or Indianapolis - the rest of the circuits came with a lot of promise which were to be short lived. How long will the current track survive?

In this edition of Lost Track, we go back a little over fifty years to the 50's when F1 in its world championship embodiment first raced in North America.

On 13th September 1959 - Stirling Moss scored an emphatic victory in his privately entered Cooper-Climax courtesy of R.R.C Walker racing team. This was his second straight win for the Rob Walker's team and crucially the victory put Stirling Moss along with Tony Brooks on a mathematical chance to win the championship - which at that point the resilient Jack Brabham was leading. Moss was geared up - but he had to wait for three months for the final round of the championship to begin.

Since its inception, the F1 World championships always had a round held in United States of America in the form of Indianapolis 500. Though the points counted towards the championships, rarely did any of non-US drivers took part. In fact there was none from outside the states who took part for the first nine years running.

The 1959 title contenders - Jack Brabham, Tony Brooks and Stirling Moss had three months to plan and prepare for this momentous occasion. Sebring Raceway, located in Florida was chosen to be the venue hosting the F1 drivers and teams from across the globe.

That year was significant for many other reasons too. The most relevant and important was the introduction of rear-engine chassis designed F1 cars. This idea was that of the visionary John Cooper; a innovation which made him an auto racing legend instantly which changed the way modern cars were built at the top level. Jack Brabham benefitted immensely from this revolutionary design; though it was not a dominating performance, it still gave him a lead of 5.5 points going in to the final round.

Sebring is well-known even today for its endurance races. Remember 12 hours of Sebring? The track included a part of former military base which was used to train the World War II US Army Air forces.

The track saw its racing avatar courtesy of Alec Ulmann, who brought his love for automobiles to United States when he emigrated from Russia. When the local racers were looking for a place to race he organized the airbase at Sebring, Florida to be the race track. The inaugural 12 Hours of Sebring was held in 1952 which became quite popular and was one of the considerations taken into account when Sebring was later chosen to host the first Formula One Grand Prix event in United States. The race was initially lined up a day after the endurance event in March - however with logistical issues, the F1 event was postponed to December to be the final round of the season.

Stirling Moss, the driver in form took the pole position ahead of Jack Brabham and Tony Brooks. Brooks was later pushed to 4th after it was discovered quite late that American Harry Schnell had the third fastest time. Despite caustic protests, mainly by Ferrari there was no change in the order and Brooks was to start from the second row in 4th place.

The race was also significant as for the first time, most of the European cars were to showcase in a F1 competition held in United States. This wasn't any ordinary car shows or exhibitions. F1 was the world's premier racing event and comparisons were made between the European machinery to the American style of racing.
A man with a mission Moss, having finished second in the past few years of the championship was hoping for a victory and Brabham to finish outside of second place. It was a daunting task considering both raced with similar configured Cooper-Climax cars, though for different teams. Moss was out of his blocks quickly at the start of the race and his dream of becoming a world champion came to an halt on lap 6 when he retired due to a transmission failure.

Unless Brooks was to win and Brabham to finish third or lower, the title was very much for Brabham's to lose. Brabham took over the lead from Moss after the latter's retirement and led the race till about 500 yards before the finish. His car halted and he got out of the car - started pushing his Cooper Climax which was permitted in those times, managed to cross the finish line in fourth. 

His team-mate, the young Kiwi Bruce McLaren was the winner and became the youngest F1 race winner (if you exclude Tony Ruttman's Indy 500 victory which counted towards the championships). 
First time winner Bruce McLaren greeted by one of the models 
The 2nd place was taken by Moss's team mate Maurice Trintignant and Tony Brooks crucially came in third. He finished as the runner-up of the 1959 championships overtaking Moss in the overall standings.

His fourth place finish was enough to give Jack Brabham his first crown. Cooper-Climax also became the first non-manufacturer to win the Constructor's championship which was significant considering it gave rise to the 'Garagistes' mainly from Britain, who were to play a prominent role in the evolution of this sport.

The race was exciting - but it was a financial disaster for the organiser and promoter Alec Ulmann. Going by the audience who were to witness the endurance races held previously on the same track, the total count was appalling. In addition, there was a small problem few teams faced post race. The cheques issued to the winners bounced. To save the name and face of American racing, Charles Moran and Briggs Cunningham, two big names in America racing circles personally covered the expenses to the tune of $15,000 and make amends.

Sebring turned out to be a one-off event for F1. In 1960, the same promoter moved the race to Riverside Raceway in California.

In today's scenario, the costs of hosting an F1 event is high and unless Americans accept F1 alongside the other forms of motorsports - I am afraid Circuit of Americas will be abandoned just like its predecessors. United States need F1 or is it the other way around? 
Track Photo Courtesy - allf1.info

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