As beautiful as it was fast, the Ferrari 156 F1’s 1961 racing legacy was both short and successful. In just one season, the light rear-engine car would dominate the competition in almost every race, winning five of its eight outings and in the process produce America’s first Driver’s Champion in Phil Hill while giving Ferrari its first Constructor’s Championship.
It would also be part of the last ever 1-2-3-4 work team finishes (at Spa, Belgium, the third race in the series) and take its place in racing’s sadder history, when the German driver, Wolfgang von Trips, died in a tragic accident at Monza.
Clear roads behind and in front: In just one season the light Sharknose would dominate the competition in almost every race
Designed by Carlo Chiti and Mauro Forghieri, the 156 F1’s streamlined aesthetics and unique radiator scoops made it an immediate fan favourite. Dubbed ‘The Sharknose’, the car’s popularity continued to soar once it became clear to everyone, from the grandstands to the grid, that not only did it look good, the rear engine five-speed 120° V6 was also completely uncatchable.
The car itself was born from the new 1961 racing regulations that stated that the maximum engine size for all F1 cars was to be 1.5 litres, rather the existing 2.5 litre requirement.
While teams struggled to adapt to such a dramatic change, Ferrari looked past their existing 2.4 litre rear engine V6 Ferrari 256 F1 to Formula Two and their 156 F2, essentially the same car with a 1.5 litre Dino V6 – the same size now required for the 1961 Formula One season.
Watch 'The Year of The Sharknose: A short history of the 156 F1'
A car of its time, 156 F1 was narrow, with thin wheels and a steering wheel so large it took up almost the entire view through the tiny windscreen it sat behind. It also very fast, helped by a 5-speed transmission, Dunlop disc brakes on all four wheels, independent wheel suspension and telescopic shock absorbers.
Clever wind tunnel-derived aerodynamics coupled with the rear, longitudinal 120° V6 meant the light, torpedo shaped chassis was at times almost 20 kms/hr faster than anything else on the grid and at the Belgian Grand Prix, the third race in the season, Phil Hill’s 156 F1 took pole by six seconds.
By the time the season had progressed to the penultimate race at Monza, the 156’s legacy was assured. With a few notable exceptions (including one against Stirling Moss’s astonishing Lotus win at Monaco) Ferrari had swept the competition aside, with the Driver’s Championship becoming a simple one-two affair between Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips.
Wind tunnel-derived aerodynamics coupled with the rear mounted ensured the 156 F1 was 20kms/hr faster than anything else on the grid
Tragically, von Trips would not complete the race, crashing on the second lap, killing both himself and fifteen spectators. As a mark of respect, Ferrari withdrew from the final American Grand and the dominating run of the 156 F1 was over. It competed the following season but proved less competitive and in 1963 Enzo Ferrari ordered all cars scrapped to make way for the Ferrari 158, bringing to an end a chapter on one of the most dominant F1 cars of all time.