Between the wars, when auto racing in Britain was a gentleman's pastime, a race weekend without champagne was unthinkable. An English car that finished higher in Grand Prix events than an Italian, French or German auto was unthinkable, too. But the English became serious a few years ago. Four of the five Grand Prix world championships (there has been an official title only since 1958) have been won by their cars, and Britain should win again in 1963. The rivalry between U.K. firms, in fact, has grown intense. If there is any serious opposition to British makes, it will come only from Italy, where a revitalized Ferrari and the new, promising ATS (Automobili Turismo Sport) team will be at each other's throats—as well as at the Briton's.
A tour of today's racing Britain logically starts at Bourne, a three-hour drive north from London. There, in a cluster of small drafty old structures, is built the BRM (British Racing Motors), the world-champion car for 1962 and the equipage of the Champion Driver Graham Hill. At Bourne, BRM's chief engineer and racing manager, Tony Rudd, wanted mostly to talk about 1962, but promised a much-improved BRM for 1963. Not so fast last season as the smaller, lighter British Lotus, BRM won on greater reliability.
"We had a new, lighter chassis with a more powerful engine for the last race," Rudd said. "We were confident that it was as fast as the Lotus. Unfortunately for us, the engine blew in practice. Unfortunately for Lotus, their best car failed while leading the race.
"Our 1963 cars will be still lighter, mainly due to a new, smaller gearbox, and we have a still more powerful engine." With Graham Hill and the fine American, Richie Ginther, driving, BRM is the conservative man's best bet for 1963.
There is nothing conservative about Lotus. Lotus racing cars, built in a hectic, brick-fronted works in Hertfordshire, an hour from Piccadilly Circus, express the restless brilliance of their designer, Colin Chapman. A blue-eyed, mustached man of only 34, Chapman possesses a certain brisk charm, but he is also capable of major rudeness. Certainly he is the most daring of the Grand Prix builders. His cars are invariably the lowest and lightest around. In 1962 they were easily the fastest. They were also, however, very brittle.
Chapman's novel one-unit chassis (the British call it "monocoque") was the sensation of 1962. It was a sort of shallow bathtub to which the engine and gearbox were attached at the rear. All other builders turned out what has become the orthodox Grand Prix design, based on a tubular space frame, but of course with rear-mounted engines.
Of the major builders, Chapman probably will have the only monocoque car again in 1963. He says his 1963 model will be little changed, except for modifications to the suspension system. Jimmy Clark, the Scottish farmer who came close to winning the 1962 championship for Lotus, will again be No. 1 driver and Trevor Taylor again No. 2.
Like all other British builders except BRM, Lotus employs the Coventry-Climax V-8. There was dismay last fall when Coventry-Climax announced that it would stop building the engine. After frantic appeals the firm relented but will sharply reduce production—and double the price to about $15,000.
At his tiny, frigid shop in Surbiton, a suburb south of London, solid John Cooper was ecstatic about the new Climax engines in his Grand Prix cars.
"The best we had from the Climax last year was 175 hp," said Cooper. "Now we have a new short-stroke fuel-injected Climax that should develop at least 200 hp. Later on the engine will be fitted with four valves per cylinder instead of two and will put out additional power.
"Like everybody else, we'll have a smaller and lighter car. Not so light though that we'll sacrifice reliability. The No. 1 job in a race is to finish it."
The 1962 Cooper was reliable—but on the heavy side and usually outpaced. Cooper may spring the novelty of the new season: a hydraulic suspension system based on the Hydrolastic arrangement of the new BMC 1,100 passenger cars. All depends on whether tryouts prove the system worthwhile.
The returning chief Cooper driver, Bruce McLaren of New Zealand, is steady. Second Driver Tony Maggs of South Africa is said to be improving so swiftly that he may prove one of the truly exciting drivers of 1963.
Drivers are the trumps in Jack Brabham's hands. The Australia-born former world champion has signed America's Dan Gurney for one of the cars he has built and probably will drive the second himself. There is no stronger two-man team in racing. Generally considered, along with Clark, one of the two best racing drivers in the world today, Gurney was aboard an outclassed German Porsche in 1962. Porsche has all but decided not to enter Grand Prix racing seriously this year. In Brabham's car, Gurney may get a chance to show his true worth. Last year was Brabham's first as a builder. Slowed at first by birth pangs, his car was performing commendably at the season's end.
The new Italian look
That then is the British look. But there are heady developments in Italy. The building of Italian racers is concentrated at Bologna and nearby Modena in the fertile orchard country of the north. There are in Bologna two famous brick towers—one lofty and straight, the other short and tilted at a vertiginous angle. It is said that they were begun simultaneously by two young men seeking the hand of the same girl. To the builder of the higher tower would go the girl. One youth built too hastily—his was the unfinished tower that leans. The other built slowly but securely and won the damsel.
The question in Italy today is whether the new Bolognese ATS group, which has pushed ahead rapidly, can build wisely enough to overcome the already towering reputation and resources of Enzo Ferrari, who, at 65, is robust, earthy, tough and the outstanding personality in road racing. It was his car, with America's Phil Hill driving, which in 1961 interrupted Britain's victorious Grand Prix march. Last year, however, the Ferrari was outmatched and the Ferrari plant was in ferment. But now Ferrari is building afresh for 1963 at his Maranello factory near Modena. What he describes as a "collegium" of engineers is experimenting with not one but three new Grand Prix engines—of six, eight and 12 cylinders. A new chassis is under construction. John Surtees of Britain and Willy Mairesse of Belgium have been hired as drivers.
"Surtees is the son of the wind," Ferrari said last week, making rapid gestures to indicate speed. "Mairesse is the king of close-quarter fighting."
If Ferrari dominates his enterprise absolutely, ATS is a smoothly meshed team effort. It is financed by Giorgio Billi of Bologna, a slim, handsomely groomed manufacturer of hosiery-making machinery and sundry other things, and young Jaime Ortiz Patino of the tin-rich Bolivian clan.
"I am in racing," said Billi, "because I developed a passion for driving—in Ferrari cars. Now that I am a competitor, Ferrari will not sell his cars to me."
On Ferrari's side, the relationship has cooled to loathing, and there will be a jolly old feud between the two men if ATS excels. The reason is not simply the racing rivalry as such. Billi and Patino hired six Ferrari technicians who quit the great man last year. They also plan to build touring cars of much refinement that must necessarily compete with Ferrari's tourers.
The most important of the Ferrari defectors is ATS chief engineer Carlo Chiti. He was Ferrari's engine engineer during the 1961 championship season. He has completely designed the ATS Grand Prix car and its V-8 engine, which he says yields close to 200 hp. There is already a finished ATS racer ready for testing. A rear-engined Grand Touring car of 2.5 liters, with suspension almost identical to that of the quite conventional racer, will be ready in prototype form for the Geneva Auto Show in March.
"It has taken us no longer to design and build the Grand Prix car," says Chiti, a rotund and respected Tuscan, "than it takes a woman to make a bambino."
It looked like a very rapid baby as it stood, torpedolike, in the two-story house at Pontecchio Marconi, outside Bologna, which serves as ATS' factory until an ambitious structure near by can be completed.
Racing men doubt that ATS in its first season can win even one championship race. It traditionally takes at least a year to eradicate new-car bugs. But ATS may surprise people. As first driver the firm has the ex-Ferrari world champion Phil Hill, a fast, courageous and experienced professional. Notoriously unhappy at Ferrari, he is a pleasantly pleased man at ATS. It is conceivable that Chiti's know-how plus Hill's seasoned foot will produce a victory sooner than anyone had believed possible.
Logic, however, favors the British, and at this moment the race for the championship seems again to be between BRM and Lotus, with BRM the slight favorite.
COLIN CHAPMAN TESTS FORMULA JUNIOR LOTUS, CHIEF BRM RIVAL, FEATURING BATHTUB COCKPIT OF BIGGER GRAND PRIX CAR