Long circuit of the Nurburgring, one of the most dangerous tracks in history. In 1956, especially in that place, life is at stake in every corner. The vehicles of Sports car world cup They are tough beasts to tame, with progressive mechanical improvements but almost stagnant safety conditions. There are the most daring pilots: Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Louis Chiron, Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins.
Due to the dispute between the official teams of Ferrari AND maserati, the suspense is cut with a knife. But the appearance of a car interrupts the gloomy gesture. First they laugh; then they protest. And even if that car doesn’t make the news, it will go down in history: it’s the first race car with a spoiler.
The man behind the machine is a 22-year-old engineer, Michael May. Born in Stuttgart, he grew up amidst cars and racing drivers, luxuries of a father who boosted the post-war automotive industry in his native country. His son, on the other hand, chose Swiss nationality as his mother. Another relative was present that day in May 1956: it was his cousin Pierre, a companion at the Nürburgring, who gave him a Porsche 550 Spyders to the pilot engineer.
It was a firm favorite with amateur enthusiasts, although Michael gave it his signature twist: he adopted an almost flat wing. It was an extraordinary technical advance, but to mortal eyes it looked like a kitchen table. The laughter turned to fury and murmurs for a performance that made even the five-time championship champion look ridiculous. Formula 1the one who in those years also competed among the Sports.
May and his Porsche were ahead of their time. That ledge who surprised in practices in Germany held hours of study. As often happens with what is beyond his time, he was rejected: he was unable to participate in the main test. “The race director and the Porsche team director asked me to remove the wing. They didn’t even ask me anything, I could have helped them,” he recalled with a tinge of resentment and disbelief nearly 60 years later.
The controversial spoiler: How May arrived at an unprecedented solution
The Porsche Spyder 550 was a model built by the German factory between 1953 and 1956, with a markedly competitive profile. It was a two-door with a mid-rear engine and rear-wheel drive. From the factory, the 4-cylinder engine delivered 110 hp and the speedometer reached 220 km/h. He chained victories at the Nürburgring and in the Pan-American race. It is the same tragic legend of Little Bastard, the cursed Porsche that killed James Dean.
The specimen with chassis number 0031 arrived in the hands of May, who gave it to him from his cousin, who would accompany him on the gloomy German circuit. Although brand new, the car already had its history. The first owner was the Swiss Walter Ringgenberg, a sports car test driver born in 1912 in Bern.
He made his debut in a race in the south of France, where he suffered a minor accident that left scratches on the nose of the car. Then he took it to Sarthe for the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans. The appointment, which brought Fangio and Moss together in the same car, was fixed in memory by the tragedy. After 3 hours of testing, a sudden maneuver by Hawthorn in his contest with the Argentine for the lead unleashed disaster, with the death of French competitor Pierre Levegh and 83 spectators.
The number 38 Porsche driven by Ringgenberg, assisted by his compatriot Hans-Jörg Gilomen, avoided the accident. However, engine problems caused him to start after 8 hours of racing. Crossed by drama, the owner decided to get rid of it.
Pierre already knew that his cousin he was working on a theory that would allow him to win the 1,000km Nürburgring. When he saw the 550 Spyder he didn’t hesitate: it was cheap, almost standard, and would have made it possible to measure the contribution that the innovation he was working on would have made: that sort of roof that made people laugh in the pits but was leaned on for hours of research.
“It was clear that to be faster I needed more grip to enter corners faster. There are no mysteries! It’s easy, almost primitive. If you push an object down without increasing its mass, it has to be faster,” he told Porsche355 magazine in 2014.
The physics behind the tool is simple. If the wings of an airplane create a vacuum in the upper sector to lift the airplane into the sky, in automobiles the desired effect is the opposite: that the high pressure sector is the upper one, so that the vehicle undergoes a downward force which improves adherence to the ground.
“But then no one understood it. They thought the spoiler was a diffuser that propelled the car. All nonsense…”, May resigned.
The day they said no
On May 27, the 1,000-kilometre Nürburgring defined much of the sports car championship’s fortune of the FIA, with two main contenders: Ferrari (precisely the season that Fangio raced in the shadow of Don Enzo) and Maserati (Moss was the star, after Mercedes abandoned motor racing due to the Le Mans disaster). In the preparations, however, a stony guest was surprised.
Upon arrival, the Spyder attracted condescending glances. “This guy must be crazy,” experts and paratroopers commented softly, almost indistinctly. Sly laughter abounded. The only thing missing was for the gossipy pilots to put their elbows on the table to make themselves at home. May only had to snort: “Fools.”
Rehearsal day arrived rainy. The water fell hard on the asphalt. Car 34 surprised everyone: it finished fourth, four seconds faster than the best Porsche works car and even ahead of Fangio. After the test, the scene repeated itself: the pilots hovered around the extravagance, but instead of laughter there were suspicious looks and snide remarks. They believed this attached house pushed like a rocket, when in fact it was a device the engineer had ordered made at a metal factory in their neighborhood.
Huschke von Hanstein, the head of Porsche, has called for the intruder to be removed. He assured that the wing endangered all participants. The Swiss attempted an appeal, but authorities pointed to the fine print of the regulation and set it aside. They gave no further explanation. They didn’t ask for them. If they had, they might have learned that it was important to locate her in the center of gravity. And that in reality the key to success were the winglets, those fins that reinforced the ends of the wing.
“They doubled strength without increasing endurance. It was as if he had mounted a much bigger wing,’ the Swiss who seemed crazy could have told him, but he wasn’t. They may also have discovered the mechanism which, from the cockpit, modified the inclination of the wing: the prehistory of the DRS which is now applied in Formula 1.
Dissatisfied but pragmatic, under the Sunday sun the May cousins managed to do a few laps, enough to get the registration money back.
The sign of rejection fell with full force. Because on June 24 the Porsche enthusiast went to Italy to take part in the Supercortemaggiore, on the old Monza circuit with a banked bend. There they also demanded that he remove the wing. Without him they went off 18th, in a race won by Brits Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorne (Ferrari) and in which Fangio crashed to last place with mechanical problems and recovered to finish third on his 45th birthday. The third Porsche experience of May occurred at the earthier Solitude Rennen the following July. It was held in Stuttgart, the hometown of Porsche and May. He finished tenth. The German Hans Herrmann won, who between ’53 and ’69 was present in 20 F1 Grands Prix. Spoiler no trace.
Joke and revenge for the Swiss who invented the racing wing
Scarred by bankruptcy, the Mays put their Porsche 550 Spyder up for sale in Düsseldorf. While one made a career in banking, the other dedicated himself to furthering his knowledge at the University of Zurich. He specialized in the fuel injection mechanism. He quickly found a job at Mercedes, assisting Porsche in building an eight-cylinder engine. The Stuttgart brand was spiteful, the bosses distrusted May, so he had to work almost blindly, without customer assistance. Despite this difficulty, the result was successful: collaborated for the arrival of Porsche in Formula 1. In performance as a driver, however, things remained elusive.
He had already returned to the track, even with the crown of the brand new Formula Jr. in 1959. His debut in F1 took place in Monaco, in May 1961: he retired due to oil problems with his Scuderia Colonia Lotus. Two months later he managed to complete the Reims Grand Prix in 11th place. In August he returned to the Nürburgring but a practice crash left him without a start.
History has reserved another crossing with the German company. For his contribution to the development of the new car, Ferry Porsche himself promised him that he could race in the Pau Grand Prix, which he did not count towards the official competition. He traveled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, near the Spanish border, but his car never arrived. Another game he recovered from. Angry, he went to the Ferrari garage and signed the contract in Maranello the following Monday. Porsche resigned from the street, with a two-sentence telegram.
The spoiler is lost in a corner of time. They rebuilt it for a classic test in 1998, and recently restored it in Padua, where it ended up after various changes of hands. As a concept, however, it is intact. F1 put this into practice in the late 1960s. Later, NASA and Boeing also adopted advanced versions of that first gadget, born from an idea of Michael May, the misunderstood Swiss who embarrassed Fangio and put up with Porsche’s indifference.
Ben Stock is a journalist working for News Rebeat, where he covers the automobile section. With a passion for cars and the industry, Ben brings insightful and in-depth reporting to his readers.