For this week’s list, we’re compiling our 12 most desirable Formula One cars. There is no cap on which years like we often have on other lists. The only requirement is than they have to be Formula One World Championship-era cars - Not just Grand Prix car. So that means 1950 is our starting point.
The point of contention will be in defining what is ‘desirable’. Is it straight-up performance? Historical significance? Appearance only? Some other charismatic feature? You can decide for yourself. This is the list that made the cut amongst the editors here, but we expect you may have differing opinions. Please share your thoughts in the comments.
The 1950 Alfa Romeo 158/159 Alfetta
This is Genesis. The first World Championship car. Driven to a resounding championship in that first year by Juan Manuel Fangio and Giuseppe Farina, the Alfa 159 won every race but Indianapolis. To show how much Formula One has changed, today the cars are largely purpose-built year after year, even with dramatic changes mid-year, whereas the 159 was largely derivative of the Alfa 158 - a car designed and built 12 years earlier in 1938. If nothing else, it amplifies how seriously ahead of the curve Alfa's race car development was in this era.
The 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196
The Mercedes-Benz W196 was produced for the 1954 and 1955 F1 seasons. Successor to the W194, in the hands of Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, it won 9 of 12 races entered and captured the only two world championships in which it competed. It’s firsts include the use of desmodromic valves in a car and a Daimler-Benz developed mechanical direct fuel injection adapted from the DB 601 high-performance V12 used on the Messerschmitt Bf 109E fighter during World War II. Furthermore, the car was developed in such a way that it was extensible. It was able to be fitted with a closed-fendered bodywork for high-speed courses like Monza, as well as to be made legal for campaigning it in the World Sports Car Racing season. It was a great last stand for Mercedes in F1 until they returned in 2010.
The 1957 Cooper T43
The Cooper T43 was a game changer in Formula One and Formula Two. It was, quite simply, the first rear-engined Formula One car. Designed and built by Cooper Car Company for the 1957 Formula One season, it first appeared at the 1957 Monaco Grand Prix driven by Jack Brabham. The T43 earned a significant place in motor racing history when Stirling Moss drove a T43 to win the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix, the first World Drivers' Championship win for a mid-engined car. Despite this achievement, the car was replaced almost immediately by the T45, then the T51. The T51 earned a significant place in motor racing history when Jack Brabham drove the car to become the first driver to win the championship with a rear-engined car, in 1959. That was it for the front-engined Formula car.
The 1961 Ferrari 156
The Ferrari 156 was Ferrari’s response to comply with then-new Formula One regulations of 1961 that reduced engine displacement from 2.5 to 1.5 liters. But it was much more than just a new engine. It was the first time Ferrari fielded a Formula One car with a rear-mounted engine - a move they'd resisted for years. It’s a shame they were so reluctant. In their first year at it, Phil Hill won the 1961 World Championship of Drivers, and Ferrari secured the 1961 International Cup for F1 Manufacturers.
After starting with a Dino V6 engine, they designed a new 120 degree V12 designed by Carlo Chiti. This increased the power to a claimed 190 hp at 9,500 rpm. Not bad for 1.5 liters in 1961.
The 1961 version was affectionately dubbed "sharknose" due to its characteristic air intake "nostrils". These cars are now exceedingly rare, because of the then-Ferrari factory policy that saw all the remaining sharknose 156s scrapped by the end of the 1963 season. They are beautiful cars, and are at the foundation of an official change in the mindset of Ferrari.
The 1962 Lotus 25
The Lotus 25 was the epitome of the Colin Chapman philosophy of ‘simplify and add lightness’. It was built for the 1962 Formula One season, and was quite a revolutionary design. It was the first fully stressed monocoque chassis to appear in F1. The monocoque made the car more rigid and structurally stronger than typical F1 cars of the day. The 25 was three times stiffer than the previous Lotus chassis, while weighing only half as much. The car also was extremely low and narrow, with a frontal area 15% smaller than the previous model. To help further reduce frontal section, the driver position was reclined much more aggressively behind the wheel.
In the hands of Jim Clark it took 14 World Championship Grand Prix wins and propelled him to his 1963 World Championship title.
The 1966 Gurney Eagle T1G
The Eagle T1G, also known as the Mk1, was Gurney’s first attempt at a Formula One car. It was designed by Len Terry for Dan Gurney's All American Racers team. The Eagle made it’s first appearance at the start of the 1966 Formula One season, initially appearing with a 2.7 liter Coventry Climax inline 4-cylinder engine. But the car was designed around the 3.0 liter Gurney-Weslake V12, which was introduced after its first four races. In the hands of team boss Dan Gurney, the Eagle-Weslake won the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, making Dan Gurney only the second driver at the time, and one of only three to date to win a Formula One Grand Prix in a car of their own construction. Furthermore, the win in Belgium still stands as the only Formula One victory for an American-built car. As if those reasons aren’t enough to make the cut, just look at the car. It’s no wonder this car is often regarded as being one of the most beautiful Grand Prix cars ever raced.
The 1967 Lotus 49
As we covered here, the Lotus 49 was designed around the Cosworth DFV engine that would power most of the Formula One grid through the 1970s. But the 49 was different than the other Formula One cars using the engine because of its chassis configuration. The specially-designed version of the engine for Lotus became a stress-bearing structural member bolted to the monocoque at one end and the suspension and gearbox at the other. Since then virtually all Formula 1 cars have been built this way.
As if that alone wasn’t significant enough, the 49 was also a testbed for aerofoil wings, which appeared partway through 1968. Originally these wings were bolted directly to the suspension and were supported by thin struts. The wings were mounted several feet above the body of the car for more effective use in clean air (inspired by the Chapparal), however after several broken elements, which led to near fatal accidents, the high wings were banned. Lotus was forced to mount the wings directly to the bodywork.
Jim Clark won on the car's debut in 1967, and it would also provide him with the last win of his career in 1968. Graham Hill went on to win that year's title and the car continued winning races until 1970. Overall, of the 42 races it campaigned, the Lotus 49 won 12.
The 1968 Matra MS11
In the first fifty years of racing cars, France was always near the top of the pack, represented by legendary manufacturers like Ballot, Delage and Bugatti. None of those groups survived the first years after the Second World War and France's new age of car makers showed little interest in formula racing. By the 1960s Formula 1, was largely a battle between the Italians and the British. Matra, a producer of aviation products and rockets, was determined to bring France back into international racing.
They utilized aerospace expertise in the creation of an aluminum monocoque for the 1965 F3 season. Powered by a Cosworth engine, it was immediately successful. Matra clinched the French F3 title in its debut year. For 1966, Matra Sport was joined by British team manager Ken Tyrrell, who brought along the talented young driver Jackie Stewart. Together they entered F2, but the Honda-powered Brabhams were unbeatable. but Matra nevertheless managed to win their first F2 race at the Nürburgring. The following year the Matra was the car to beat and Jacky Ickx won the F2 Championship.
Matra decided to focus on Formula 1. The ultimate goal was to become competitive with a completely French car. They started with an engine. The engineers decided to develop a quad-cam, 60 degree V12 engine, largely mimicking Ferrari’s design. Even though the engine was announced early in 1967, it was quickly obvious that it would not be ready for the opening race of 1968. Matra debuted their V12 engine in the MS11 chassis in Monaco. The MS11 featured a monocoque with pontoon extensions for its V12. It produced a claimed 390 hp, but it’s believed that was a tad optimistic. The best Matra season finish was when they ran a Cosworth engine in the MS10 chassis the previous year.
So with less-than desired output, and no real track record to speak of, why is it on the list? Because it makes the sound all cars should make. It is perhaps one of the best sounding cars in motorsports, and that makes it so very desirable.
The 1975 Ferrari 312T
The Ferrari 312T was largely based on the 312B3 from 1974. The car was powered by the powerful and ultra reliable 3.0 liter flat-12 engine, which produced around 510 hp. The T in the name stood for 'transverse', referencing the gearbox. Positioning it this way dramatically improved the car's handling characteristics, which had been the downfall of its predecessor. In various versions, the 312T was used from 1975 until 1980. The 312T, in it’s various sub-models, won 27 races, four Constructors' and three Drivers’ Championships. It had 27 wins in 90 races, due in no small part to being placed in the highly competent hands of Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter.
But winning record aside, it’s on this list because — well, just look at it. It’s a borderline cartoon that a kid would have drawn on the back of his notebook. It’s surreal proportions, and comically large air intake scream for your attention. and then there’s the tires. Some of the largest F1 would ever see. It’s like a child’s dream realized.
The 1976 Tyrrell P34
We’ve written about this car. It’s desirable because it embodies all that was right about Formula One. Experimentation. Creativity. Breaking down the paradigms. One need only look at this car to know that’s what it was all about.
The 1977 Lotus 78
The Lotus 78 'wing car' was campaigned in the 1977 and 1978 seasons. It was designed by Peter Wright, Colin Chapman, Martin Ogilvie and Tony Rudd. It is the car that started the ground effect revolution in Formula One.
Peter Wright was experimenting with car body shapes using a wind tunnel and a rolling road, when he accidentally began to get remarkable results in one of the models. Closer inspection found that as the road's speed increased, the formed underbody was being drawn closer to the surface of the road. Wright experimented by adding pieces of cardboard to the side of the model car body, and the level of downforce produced was significant. The results were presented to Colin Chapman, who charged the team to come up with an F1 chassis design based on this discovery.
After further work in the wind tunnel the car was put into production. Five examples were built, codenamed John Player Special Mk. III, otherwise known as the Lotus 78. The 78 was introduced at the first race of 1977, and proved to be all they imagined, winning five races. The car proved relatively easy to set up and modify, once they realized they needed stiffer suspension. Formula One hasn’t looked back since.
The 1988 McLaren MP4/4
The McLaren MP4/4 was arguably the most successful Formula 1 car ever campaigned. It competed at the hands of two legends - Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna - in the 1988 season. The car was designed by American engineer Steve Nichols, with assistance from the team's Technical Director Gordon Murray. They based the design on the lowline Brabham BT55, as was discussed here. The MP4/4 won all but one race and claimed all but one pole position in the 1988 season. That’s pretty legendary.