Lancia’s first and last F1 car was a race-winner: only they never won a round of the championship with it.
The Italian manufacturer pulled out of Formula 1 shortly after the death of driver Alberto Ascari in 1955.
Ferrari purchased the cars – and won the world championship with them the following year.
Designer Vittorio Jano had begun work on the D50 in 1953. Time and again throughout 1954 Lancia promised to bring the car to the next round of the championship, only to withdraw. Speculation mounted that the car had some radical new technology that was proving difficult to perfect.
When the car finally made its appearance at Pedralbes in Spain for the final round of the 1954 season, Ascari put it on pole position by a full second from Juan Manuel Fangio’s Mercedes – the car which had qualified first for four of the previous five races.
The most distinctive feature of the D50 were its fuel tanks, mounted between the front and rear wheels. This allowed Jano to increase the proportion of the car’s weight within its wheelbase, improving the handling and reducing its total weight.
It was an aerodynamically effective solution, as the tall, thin tanks filled the turbulent space behind the front wheels.
At around 620kg, it was some 70kg lighter than Fangio’s W196. Its 2.5-litre V8 engine produced around 260hp and was mounted at an angle of 12 degrees in order to position the driver lower and reduce the frontal area of the car.
At Pedralbes, Ascari was leading and pulling away rapidly when the car failed just ten laps into its world championship debut, but the team had served notice of their competitiveness for 1955.
Sadly, it was never realised. The first race of the year at Buenos Aires was run in fierce heat, temperatures reaching a staggering 50C, and a fatigued Ascari spun out while leading.
At Monaco he was running second by Stirling Moss when the Mercedes came to a halt in a cloud of smoke. Ascari was poised to inherit the lead.
But had been hotly pursued by Cesare Perdisa for several laps as the Maserati driver tried to unlap himself. On lap 81 Ascari braked too late for the chicane on the harbour front and the D50 plunged off the road and into the water.
Fortunately, Ascari surfaced with little more than cuts to his nose. But two weeks later, testing a Ferrari 750S sports car at Monza, he wasn’t so lucky: the car speared off the track at Vialone and Ascari was killed.
Vincenzo Lancia abandoned his F1 project soon afterwards, though not before Eugenio Castelloti (whose car Ascari had borrowed on that fateful day) had persuaded him to race to D50 one last time at Spa-Francorchamps. Castelloti put the car on pole position, but retired at half-distance while running third.
Having won the championship with Ascari in 1952 and 1953, Ferrari had endured a largely barren couple of years. But Lancai’s downfall was Enzo Ferrari’s gain. He persuaded Fiat to put up the money for Ferrari to take over Lancia’s cars.
Lancia’s six D50s, plus drivers Castelloti and Mike Hawthorn, plus designer Jano, made their way to Maranello.
Ferrari hedged their bets initially. At the 1956 season opener in Argentina they brought a regular D50, an earlier 555 ‘Super Squalo’, a 555 fitted with a D50 engine and a D50 with revised rear suspension.
The result? A win for Fangio and Luigi Musso, sharing a D50.
Ferrari won five of that year’s eight races (and did not contest the Indianapolis 500) using the D50, now adorned with the Prancing Horse motif, but widely referred to as a ‘Lancia-Ferrari’.
Ferrari continued to tweak the design, faring in the distinctive sidepods with the rest of the car’s bodywork. But some of their revisions were less successful.
At the last race of the year in Monza, Fangio pitted with a broken steering arm – it had been drilled with holes to make it lighter.
The world championship threatened to slip away from him – until his team mate, and closest title rival, Peter Collins, came into the pits. Seeing Fangio out of the car he immediately surrendered his own, effectively handing the championship to his team mate.
Fangio brought the car home in second place and won the title along with it.
Lancia D50 at the 2011 Goodwood Festival of Speed
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