2012 Kuwait Concours Spotlight: 1959 Cooper T51 Coventry-Climax, the Car that Revolutionised Formula 1
Formula 1 history was made when Jack Brabham pushed his Cooper T51 Climax across the line in the 1959 United States Grand Prix at Sebring. For the first time a mid-engined car was used to win the driver’s and constructor’s World Championships. It was not just the location but also the type of engine that would have a lasting effect on the sport. Cooper had proven that a customer engine could do the job, which opened the door for teams like Lotus and later Brabham and McLaren to success in a once manufacturer dominated sport. Moments before Brabham’s epic effort, Bruce McLaren had become the youngest ever driver to win a Formula 1 race in a sister T51. This record stood for nearly five decades.
Well over a year earlier, Stirling Moss had already revealed the potential of the ‘horse behind the carriage’ layout when he drove a Rob Walker entered Formula 2 Cooper T43 to victory at Buenos Aires against full bore Grand Prix cars. The superior handling characteristics enabled Moss to bridge the 50+ bhp power deficit over the more conventional Ferraris. A few months after Moss’ groundbreaking victory, French veteran Maurice Trintignant scored a win on Monaco’s tight streets in Walker’s latest Cooper T45. On faster circuits like Reims and Monza, the small Coopers were still comfortably outpaced by the larger engined rivals. For a serious assault on the titles, Cooper needed a full 2.5 litre engine, which was duly provided by Coventry Climax in 1959.
The 2.5 litre Climax FPF was the latest development of a four cylinder engine that was originally developed in the early 1950s to power fire-pumps. Although obviously not intended for racing, it was designed by Walter Hassan and Harry Mundy to be light and powerful. These two men were no strangers to cars and it did not take long before the all-aluminium ‘four’ made its debut in a racing car. During the following years, it gradually grew in size and received a twin-overhead camshaft cylinder head. In its full Formula 1 guise, the Climax FPF displaced 2495cc, which was just shy of the 2.5 litre limit. Breathing through two twin-choke Webers, it produced around 240 bhp. This was an obvious improvement over its smaller predecessors but still well short of the leading Ferrari and BRM engines.
Cooper’s earliest, motorcycle engined, racing cars used mid mounted engines but that was more for practical reasons than an actual design choice. With the imminent arrival of a new 1.5 litre, Formula 2 class in 1957, the Cooper brothers John and Charles did make the choice to replace their existing front-engined single seaters with the revolutionary T41, which sported a mid-mounted Climax four cylinder and reversed Citroen gearbox.
Apart from its layout, the T41′s tubular steel chassis was still very conventional with typical Cooper suspension of lower wishbones and transverse leaf springs all-round. The chassis was gradually developed and received double wishbones and coil springs at the front to form the T45 used in 1958. For the T51 the crude rear suspension was replaced with double wishbones as well, which ironed out the final handling bugs.
Cooper’s works drivers for 1959 were Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren while a T51 was also made available for Rob Walker’s Stirling Moss. It was Moss, who scored the new Cooper’s first major victory during the non-championship Glover Trophy at Goodwood in March. Little over a month later Brabham scored his first win with the T51 during the International Trophy at Silverstone. For the World Championship’s first round, the Monaco Grand Prix, no fewer than five T51s were entered. Moss placed his Cooper on pole with Brabham a close second. Moss was forced to retire with gearbox problems, which would continue to dog the Coopers throughout the year. Australian Brabham went through to score his first Grand Prix victory. Tony Brooks in a front-engined Ferrari was second ahead of 1958 winner Trintignant in a Walker entered T51.
In the subsequent Grands Prix, it became increasingly clear that the race for the championship would be between Brabham, Moss and Brooks. With reportedly 290 bhp on tap, Brooks managed to win at Reims and Avus, which were both high speed tracks. Brabham won Cooper’s home race at Silverstone and Moss added two more wins to the T51′s tally in Portugal and Italy. This left Brabham leading the championship from Moss and Brooks going into the final round at Sebring. Young Bruce McLaren won the race, Moss retired, again with transmission problems and Brooks finished third. Cooper’s fabulous season almost ended in bitter disappointment as Brabham’s car ran out of fuel on the final lap. A momentous effort saw Brabham push his stricken T51 over 400 metres, up the hill across the finish where he collapsed. He was placed fourth in the race and scored enough points to claim both titles.
Ahead of the introduction of the more sophisticated, spaceframe T53, the Cooper team traveled to the season opening Argentine Grand Prix with the old T51s. McLaren showed there was still life in the 1959 World Championship winning machine by taking victory ahead of Cliff Allison in a Ferrari. In the new T53, Brabham confirmed his and Cooper’s dominance by winning five of the next nine Grands Prix on his way to back-to-back Championships. All other manufacturers followed Cooper’s lead and in September of 1960, Phil Hill scored the last ever Grand Prix victory with a front-engined car. Within two years of the Cooper T51 Climax’s introduction, the mid-engined revolution was complete. Few other Formula 1 cars have revolutionised the sport like the little Coopers did.
|The excitement is building in the collector car and auto enthusiast world with the upcoming Kuwait Concours d’Elegance taking place February 15th – 18th, 2012.
Learn more about the Kuwait Concours: http://www.kuwait-concours.com
Source: Kuwait Concours