Top Gear’s coolest racing cars: Maserati 250F
Meet one of the great early F1 beauties, raced by the likes of Moss and Fangio
Ask a kid to draw a racing car and the chances are it’ll end up looking something like a Maserati 250F. Simple in form, nudging caricature even, the 250F might also be the single most beautiful competition car ever – cigar tube chassis, long nose, squat tail, almost always rosso corso and, of course, Italian.
That it was raced in period by two of the all-time greats, British racing tyro Stirling Moss and the Argentinian maestro Juan Manuel Fangio, helps give the Maserati unbeatable provenance. Moss started his frontline F1 career in a privateer Maserati 250F, at the suggestion of Mercedes racing boss Alfred Neubauer; Fangio took his fifth and final driver’s title in his in 1957.Advertisement - Page continues below
“I bought a Maserati 250F, but the first I knew about it was coming back on the Queen Mary,” Moss told me a few years ago. "I spoke on the phone [to manager Ken Gregory]. We used my winnings to buy it. Now the chips were down. I’d only been driving moderate cars up until then. I hadn’t been in a car capable of winning. And now I had one.
“At the race in Bern, first day in practice, I managed to put my car on pole in the wet in front of Fangio and Ascari. That day Neubauer was sufficiently impressed to give me a test the following January. The 250F was very user-friendly, had a lovely balance to it, even in the wet.
“In a good car like the Maserati, in 20 laps in testing I wouldn’t expect my lap time to vary by any more than a fifth of a second during the whole lot. It’s actually a lot easier to do that than it is to go two seconds slower.”
We’ll take his word for that. Of Fangio, his praise knows no bounds. “He was a paternal figure. I had a great respect and love for him. He was a wonderful man, and an absolute gentleman. I couldn’t talk to him much – we could speak about cars, crumpet and food, and that was about it.”Advertisement - Page continues below
Oh to have been around to eavesdrop on those conversations.
The 250F’s career spanned a golden though often difficult and dangerous era of Grand Prix racing, debuting in 1954 and still battling hard in 1960. It was a car that the greats could make dance, in long, delirious full-throttle powerslides, but also one that the less gifted could still succeed with. The 250F wasn’t just super-cool, it flattered the driver too, not something you can say for every entry on TG’s list of the coolest racing cars.
Maserati returned to motor racing’s premier formula after a few years out when new rules introduced naturally aspirated 2.5-litre engines for the 1954 season. Former Ferrari engineering legend Gioacchino Colombo was lured from Maranello to Modena, while Valerio Colotti was conscripted to develop the chassis. This was a tubular spaceframe clothed in aluminium panels, with independent front suspension and a de Dion rear set-up, with its tube in front of the transaxle rather than behind it to benefit the car’s centre of gravity, which in turn reduced its propensity to spin. Although Jaguar had pioneered discs by this point, the Italians were still using drum brakes, of modest 13.4in diameter and fitted outboard on the front and rear. The power output was just 220bhp. Enough.
Viewed from a 62-year distance, the 250F was not without its quirks. Although the cockpit was fairly roomy, the driver had to straddle the transmission tunnel, and the throttle pedal was in the middle, with the brake on the right and the clutch on the left. The driver’s right hand hovered just above the stubby little lever operating a four-speed ’box, and the wheel was a huge wood-rimmed item. The tank, meanwhile, sat behind him (or her – Maria Teresa de Filippis has the honour of being the first woman to race in an F1 Grand Prix, finishing 10th in the 1958 Belgian GP in a 250F), filled with a terrifying mix of fuels and additives – only 35 per cent was petrol, the rest methanol, acetone, benzol and castor oil.
1954 was an epic F1 season. Not only did Mercedes unveil its magnificent W196 – whose eight-cylinder engine and eye-popping streamlined bodywork vaulted the entire sport forward – the team also pinched Fangio from Maserati. It was largely down to the superhuman talents of Moss that the 250F was still able to make its mark. At the Italian GP, in particular, the Briton eclipsed both Alberto Ascari’s Ferrari and Fangio’s Mercedes, until he suffered an engine failure, and he was left to push the stricken car across the finishing line.
Moss joined Fangio at Mercedes in ’55, though he kept a 250F to race privately (imagine a top F1 driver doing something like that these days), but when Mercedes withdrew from motorsport following the tragedy at the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours (Pierre Levegh’s car somersaulted into a crowd of spectators), Maserati was effectively battling Ferrari for F1 honours. Only now it was Fangio in the Ferrari, Moss in the Maserati.Advertisement - Page continues below
The 250F had fuel injection, better brakes and an enlarged cockpit by this stage, but despite celebrated wins at Monaco and in the Italian GP at Monza, Moss couldn’t outpoint Fangio. The great man returned to his old team in 1957 (Moss moved to Vanwall although he raced the 250F at the Argentinian GP), and won four races in the Maserati. For ’57, a V12 engine had been developed alongside the straight-six. Fangio’s tally included a colossal victory in the German Grand Prix, during which a bungled pit stop left him 50 seconds behind Mike Hawthorn, a gap he set about reducing in monumental style: he broke then set a new lap record round the ’Ring nine times, reeling in the urbane Brit by up to 15 seconds per lap. His win in the 250F is often cited as the greatest GP drive of all (perhaps the greatest drive full stop, although Moss’s 1955 Mille Miglia victory might edge it).
“When it was all over I was convinced I would never be able to drive like that again – never,” Fangio later observed. “I had reached the limit of my concentration and will to win.”
You could perhaps say the same thing about Maserati. Overwhelmed financially, and plunged into existential crisis along with the rest of Italy following Ferrari driver Alfonso de Portago’s fatal crash in the ’57 Mille Miglia, Maserati canned its racing effort. It sold off its 250Fs to various privateers, and no fewer than 11 different teams ran the car in 1958. In all, the 250F racked up 46 F1 world championship races, across a mammoth 277 entries, and eight victories. Other cars have been more successful, but few have ever done it with such style.
Let’s give the last word to the man who knew the 250F best – Sir Stirling Moss. “The nicest Formula One car to drive was probably the Maserati 250F. Obviously a rear-engined Cooper is going to beat it and will be much easier to throw around, but is it as gratifying? Probably not. If one is talking about getting in the car and getting the most out of it with that sense of exhilaration, then, Formula One-wise, I would say the Maser was it.”Advertisement - Page continues below
Designed by: Gioacchino Colombo, Valerio Colotti
Drivers: Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jean Behra, Hans Herrmann, Jo Bonnier, Masten Gregory, Maria Teresa de Filippis
Engine: 2.5-litre in-line six, 220-270bhp @ 8000rpm
Stand-out moment: Moss, sideways. Or Fangio in the 1957 German GP