|Date December 12, 1959||Course length 8.36 km (5.2 mi)|
|Official name II United States Grand Prix|
Location Sebring International Raceway Sebring, Florida
Course Former Military Airbase
Distance 42 laps, 351 km (218 mi)
The 1959 United States Grand Prix was a Formula One motor race held on December 12, 1959, at Sebring International Raceway. It was the ninth and final round of the 1959 Formula One season. It was the second United States Grand Prix (ninth including the American Grand Prize races of the 1908–16). It was the first and only occasion the race was held at the home of the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance sports car race, the Sebring International Raceway in Florida. The race was held over 42 laps of the 8.36-kilometre circuit for a total race distance of 351 kilometres.
The race was won by New Zealander Bruce McLaren driving a Cooper T51 for the works Cooper team, the first win for a New Zealand-born driver. McLaren won by six tenths of a second over French driver Maurice Trintignant driving a Rob Walker Racing Team-entered Cooper T51. British driver Tony Brooks finished third in his Ferrari Dino 246. Championship points leader Australian Jack Brabham ran out of fuel on the last lap and had to push his Cooper T51 across the line to finish fourth. Brooks' third-place finish clinched the title for Brabham. It was the first of three world championships for Brabham, and the first for an Australian, for Cooper and for a rear-engined car.
It was widely reported by the European press at the time that McLaren's win at 22 years, 3 months and 12 days saw him became the youngest-ever Grand Prix winner, a record that would stand for over 40 years. However, the record was in fact held by American driver Troy Ruttman who had won the 1952 Indianapolis 500 when aged 22 years, 2 months and 19 days, meaning that at the time of their respective wins, Ruttman was three weeks younger than McLaren (the Indianapolis 500, while not the usual type of Grand Prix and was ignored by most of the Formula One drivers, was included as a round of the World Championship between 1950 and 1960).
This was the last race until the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix that no former world champions were in the field.
For the first time since the inaugural World Championship in 1950, three drivers were in contention for the title going into the final race. A win would seal it for Brabham, or just finishing in front of Stirling Moss and Brooks. Moss needed to finish first or second and ahead of Brabham, while for Brooks winning would not necessarily be enough.
Russian-born Alec Ulmann's dream of an American Grand Prix was realized in December, 1959 when 19 entries, including six American drivers, arrived in Florida for the final World Championship event of the season. Originally scheduled as the year's opening round, the now season-concluding Sebring race saw the Championship down to Cooper versus Ferrari. Australian Jack Brabham led for Cooper with 31 points to 25.5 for Stirling Moss, also in a Cooper, and 23 for Ferrari driver Tony Brooks.
The field featured works Coopers for Brabham and 22-year-old Bruce McLaren of New Zealand; blue Rob Walker-entered Coopers for Moss and Frenchman Maurice Trintignant; four Ferraris — three in Italian red for Englishmen Brooks and Cliff Allison, and German Wolfgang von Trips; one in American white and blue for Phil Hill; front-engined Lotuses for Innes Ireland and Alan Stacey; and, incomprehensibly for the European road-racing elite, the number 1 Kurtis-Offy Midget of USAC National Champion Rodger Ward, the only American-built and American-driven entry.
Ward's car had an underpowered engine (1.7 liters to 2.5 for the F1 cars), separate gear-change levers for the two-speed gearbox and two-speed rear end, and an outboard handbrake. Ward explained how his participation in the race came about by saying, "Ullman called me up and invited me to race in the Grand Prix. He offered me some money, and I was in the habit of accepting money, so I told him I'd bring the midget."
The night before practice began, Cooper Team Manager John Cooper, and his drivers Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren, came across Ward at the hotel in Sebring. Ward, who had won the Indy 500 that year and would win it again in 1962, told the Cooper team members he was in Sebring to drive a dirt track car.
"In the Grand Prix?," Brabham asked, astonished.
"Sure. And have you guys got a surprise waiting for you! Why, on every turn I'll blow you right off the road!" Ward gushed.
The Cooper team soon realized they could not explain things to Ward. He insisted, "I know what a Midget can do and I know it can take a corner faster than any of those sports cars you have in Europe. You might be faster on the straights, but when it comes to turns you just won't have a chance. Sebring's a lot of turns, isn't it?"
Well, to the Europeans' amazement, Ward's car made it through the technical scrutineering, perhaps a tribute to his Indianapolis reputation, but during the first practice lap, Bruce McLaren and Jack Brabham arrived at the first turn in their Coopers about the same time as Ward. The rear-engined cars sped through the turn, while Ward seemed to almost come to a stop. Afterward, Ward shook his head and said, "I've got to hand it to you. Those European buggies sure take corners fast!"
Qualifying ended with Moss, Brabham and Brooks on the front row, but, overnight, American Harry Schell was given third position, next to Moss and Brabham. The 3:05.2 lap that got Schell on the front row apparently had come at the tail end of the session, and had gone unnoticed by almost everyone; his best time previously had been 3:11.2, good enough for 11th.
Protests ensued from nearly every other team, most vociferously Ferrari, whose man, Brooks, was displaced on the front row. The shouting match raged even as "The Star-Spangled Banner" was being sung, but when it was through, Schell started from third place.
What had really happened with Schell did not come out until after the race. At Sebring, just beyond the MG bridge and before the esses was a sharp right turn that apparently led nowhere. Schell found, however, that it connected with the end of the Warehouse Straight, bypassing the entire straight and the Warehouse Hairpin. He had secretly cut across and come back on the course during a lull in the traffic--and cut six seconds off his time! Alas, it didn't help him in the race; he was eighth after the first lap and retired after only six.
Moss led the race from the start and built a gap of ten seconds over Brabham, but after only five laps he retired with a broken gearbox. Already out of the running for the title was Brooks, who had been bumped off the front row by Schell's qualifying ruse. Brooks was rammed from behind by teammate von Trips in the first turn, and pitted to examine the damage. The stop cost him two minutes, and proved to be unnecessary. Though he rejoined to drive a sensational race and finish third, he never had a realistic shot at Brabham.
Brabham took the lead from Moss while his teammate McLaren followed in second for most of the race. Midway through, with half the field out due to mechanical problems, Brabham slowed to allow McLaren to close up to him, and Trintignant's Rob Walker Cooper began taking huge bites off their lead, as his pit crew kept him informed of his position.
As the last lap began, Trintignant was only four seconds behind the two leaders. On the long airport straight, two turns from the finish, Brabham's car began to sputter, and it rolled to a halt 400 yards from the line on the uphill front straight, out of gas. He had refused to follow Team Manager Cooper's exhortations to start the race on full tanks, hoping instead to find more speed from a lighter car. McLaren, surprised to see Brabham slowing, lifted his foot and slowed as well. Brabham waved him on frantically, and McLaren resumed speed just soon enough to hold his lead through the last turn and cross the line less than a second ahead of Trintignant, who had set the race's fastest lap only three laps from the end.
Brabham was also passed by Brooks for third place, but the final three cars still running were several laps behind. The rules required that he finish without assistance, so he got out and pushed his car up the hill to finish fourth and earn his first World Driver's Championship, the first for an Australian driver. Cooper also claimed its first Constructor's Championship, the first for a rear-engined car. Brooks' third place gave Ferrari second place in the Constructor's Championship; Innes Ireland was fifth, three laps down in his Lotus, and Wolfgang von Trips ended up sixth after his Ferrari's engine gave way with four laps to go. With his victory, McLaren became the youngest ever Grand Prix winner at age 22 years, 104 days. In addition to his prize money, he also won several acres of land adjoining Sebring Lake!
Despite the exciting finish of the race and the Championship, however, the United States Grand Prix at Sebring was a financial disaster. The crowd was half the size of that year's 12 Hours of Sebring sports car race, and after distributing the $15,000 purse, including a huge $6,000 winner's share, Alec Ulmann just about broke even. The next year, he would try again, on the opposite coast, in Riverside, California.