On this day in 1951: Gonzalez scores Ferrari’s first F1 win

Grand Prix Flashback

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On 14 July 1951, Jose Froilan Gonzalez drove his 375 F1 to take the first victory for Ferrari in the Formula 1 World Championship.

It was the first chapter of a long story that would include more than 200 wins 16 constructors’ championship titles so far.

Gonzalez had become known as El Cabezon, ‘the Wild One’, in his home country of Argentina. In Europe he was dubbed the Pampas Bull.

Speaking about the race in The British Grand Prix by Maurice Hamilton, he said: “I have forgotten many races. But always fresh in my mind is 14 July 1951; the British Grand Prix.”

The 1951 season

At the beginning of the 1951 season, there was only one kind of success that interested Enzo Ferrari. Victories at Le Mans, in the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio had helped raise the team’s profile and the momentum had been gathering force since Monza the previous September. He was ready to take on his team’s great rival and the company that had employed him for 20 years.

The supercharged Alfa Romeos were now developing around 410bhp from 1.5-litre engines, while Ferrari had been working on a twin-plug version of the 4.5-litre V12. It wasn’t as powerful as the Alfa but it was more efficient.

As usual Alfa ignored the springtime non-championship races, allowing Ferrari to profit with morale-boosting wins for Luigi Villoresi at Syracuse and Pau and for Alberto Ascari at San Remo.

The first race of the season was at Berne for the Swiss Grand Prix. Ascari was suffering with a nasty burn to the arm received during a Formula 2 race and Villoresi slid off the road in wet conditions. But Taruffi did gain a small victory, by splitting the Alfas of Juan Manuel Fangio and Giuseppe Farina to finish second.

Then at Spa, a jammed wheel at a pit stop cost Fangio his second win in succession, and Farina took the honours for Alfa Romeo.

The French Grand Prix turned out to be a furious battle which, after a change of cars for both Ascari and Fangio, was settled in favour of the Alfa Romeo. Ascari’s car had broken down and Gonzalez, who had led the race briefly and had pitted to refuel, was asked to hand his car over. This he did without question.

This was Gonzalez’s first race for Ferrari. Just before the French Grand Prix, Enzo Ferrari had approached him. He was told that Piero Taruffi, who himself was standing in for the injured Serafini, was unwell – would he step in?

Soon after, Ferrari asked him if he would like to sign a contract with the team and by the British Grand Prix he was a Ferrari driver.

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The 100mph lap

The programme for the British Grand Prix didn’t contain a portrait of Jose Froilan Gonzalez. It didn’t even mention his name on the entry list.

Alfa Romeo had brought four cars, for Fangio, Farina, Sanesi and Bonetto. Ferrari brought along three of the type 375s for Ascari, Villoresi and Gonzalez, while Peter Whitehead was in the Thinwall Ferrari.

Talbot returned with three of their 4.5-litre cars. Maserati were relying on the ageing 4CLTs for David Murray and John James, while Philip Fotheringham-Parker was battling in an even older 4CL. ERA had Bob Gerard and Brian Shawe-Taylor and Joe Kelly was in his Alta. BRM turned up on the morning of the race having missed practice, meaning Reg Parnell and Peter Walker would start from the back of the grid.

During Thursday practice, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo came out fighting. John Bolster of Autosport said at the time: “Thursday found me walking round the circuit, trying to work out how on earth these boys get round the corners the way they do.

“My stopwatch was busy in my hand, and I had a conversion table, so it was with immense excitement that I observed that Froilan Gonzalez had lapped at 99mph. His next tour looked even faster and, yes, the magic 100mph had been topped at last!

“The interesting thing is that he brakes later than anybody else, actually enters the corner faster, and gets through in an immensely long drift. He has none of the ease in the cockpit that Farina exhibits, and certainly does not follow the same path every time.

“Unlike all the other drivers, he changes down without gunning his motor, and yet there is no clash of gears and the box stands up to the treatment. John Wyer and I listened to this for lap after lap at Woodcote, and were fair amazed. A phenomenon, this Froilan!”

Gonzalez had lapped Silverstone in 1 minute 43.4 seconds – a full second quicker than Fangio. On Friday the track was damp and those times remained. For good measure, Ascari knew that Gonzalez didn’t even have the benefit of the latest twin-plug engine.

Silverstone was the first time an Alfa Romeo had not been on pole position since the world championship had begun (the Indianapolis 500 notwithstanding).

In the meantime, Stirling Moss had a runaway victory in the 500cc support race, with Bernie Ecclestone snatching tenth place in a Cooper-Norton.

1951 British Grand Prix grid

The cars lined up in four-three-four-three formation, headed by Gonzalez:

Row 1 1. Jose Froilan Gonzalez
2. Juan Manuel Fangio
Alfa Romeo
3. Nino Farina
Alfa Romeo
4. Alberto Ascari
Row 2 5. Luigi Villoresi
6. Consalvo Sanesi
Alfa Romeo
7. Felice Bonetto
Alfa Romeo
Row 3 8. Peter Whitehead
Thinwall Ferrari
9. Louis Rosier
10. Bob Gerard
11. Duncan Hamilton
Row 4 12. Brian Shawe Taylor
13. Louis Chiron
14. Johnny Claes
15. David Murray
Row 5 16. Philip Fotheringham-Parker
17. John James
18. Joe Kelly
Row 6 19. Peter Walker
20. Reg Parnell

Race day

Around 50,000 spectators arrived on the Saturday. Gonzalez summed up the mood in his book, My Greatest Race: “I was very tense, very anxious. I had to rush to the toilet about five minutes before the start and I remember I was talking to myself all the time!

“There were some people there from Argentina trying to calm me, but I couldn’t talk to them. I was thinking about nothing but this race and I didn’t even hear what they were saying. Of course, I didn’t speak English, so I didn’t understand anything else that was going on all round me. I seem to have been in a trance.”

As the race began the front row were all so anxious to reach Woodcote first that all four drivers spun their wheels excessively and were engulfed. Gonzalez pushed through and took the lead on the next lap. He said: “I knew it was important not to do anything stupid. I also knew, of course, that the Alfa Romeo would need to take on extra fuel. So I let Fangio overtake me.”

Within 15 laps, Fangio was five seconds ahead of Gonzalez. In turn, they were 44 seconds ahead of third-place Farina who was tussling with Ascari, with Bonetto and Villoresi behind. It was Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari. The fuel stops would settle the issue.

Gonzalez was living up to the image of “the Pampas Bull’, and seemed to be trying to tear the steering wheel from its roots. A straw-bale bashing moment at Becketts caused a slight delay but he gradually closed on Fangio to retake the lead on lap 39.

At the end of lap 48, Fangio pitted and Gonzalez came in 13 laps later. Ascari had retired with gearbox trouble, and Gonzalez climbed from his car and offered it to his team-mate – Ascari refused and urged Gonzalez to continue. The stop took 23 seconds, to Fangio’s 49 – the latter had his rear wheels changed and a full load of fuel added. The gap between the leaders was now 1 minute 19.2 seconds.

The report published in Motorsport in August 1951 describes the events as follows: “Try as Fangio could and did, it was over. Gonzalez came round, crash hat and visor in his left hand, waving them to the crowd.

“Ferrari with the unblown 4.5-litre had at last broken the might of the two-stage 159 Alfa Romeo, as they have been threatening to do since Monza last year. Froilan Gonzalez had driven impeccably and is now in the front rank.

“Fangio drove like the master he is, but couldn’t catch the Ferrari, nor could his longer pit-stop explain the 51 second gap and he was the meat in the Ferrari sandwich. And how these Argentinians drive!”

Villoresi took third place after Farina had retired at Abbey Curve, with smoke billowing from the engine. Bonetto was a further lap behind the Ferrari in fourth. There was a rousing cheer for Reg Parnell as he brought the BRM home in fifth ahead of Sanesi, with Walker finishing seventh.

The BRM drivers completed the race burned by their exhausts and dazed by fuel vapours. In the hurry to complete the cars for the race, the exhaust pipes hadn’t been properly insulated and the drivers had been roasted.

During their pit stops their legs were wrapped in cotton wool soaked in burn dressings, but despite this they were still badly burned.

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1951 British Grand Prix result

Pos Car Driver Team Laps Difference
1 12 Jose Froilan Gonzalez Ferrari 90 2:42:18.2
2 2 Juan Manuel Fangio Alfa Romeo 90 51
3 10 Luigi Villoresi Ferrari 88 2 laps
4 4 Felice Bonetto Alfa Romeo 87 3 laps
5 6 Reg Parnell BRM 85 5 laps
6 3 Consalvo Sanesi Alfa Romeo 84 6 laps
7 7 Peter Walker BRM 84 6 laps
8 9 Brian Shawe Taylor ERA 84 6 laps
9 14 Peter Whitehead Ferrari 83 7 laps
10 22 Louis Rosier Lago-Talbot 83 7 laps
11 8 Bob Gerard ERA 82 8 laps
12 18 Duncan Hamilton Lago-Talbot 81 9 laps
13 25 Johnny Claes Lago-Talbot 80 10 laps
Ret 1 Nino Farina Alfa Romeo 75 Clutch
NC 23 Joe Kelly Alta 75 Not classified
Ret 11 Alberto Ascari Ferrari 56 Gearbox
Ret 17 Philip Fotheringham-Parker Maserati 46 Oil leak
Ret 15 David Murray Maserati 45 Engine
Ret 23 Louis Chiron Lago-Talbot 41 Brakes
Ret 16 John James Maserati 23 Radiator

The peak of a 13-year battle

“It was very confusing,” said Gonzalez aftewards, “but very exciting.

“Everyone was shouting and talking; the mechanics saying over and over again that the Alfa Romeos had been beaten. Then I was taken to meet the queen and I was given a laurel wreath. Of course, I understood little of what was said but it was a very nice feeling to have all those people congratulating me.

“On the winner’s podium I was embraced warmly by Fangio. That meant a lot to me. Then they played the Argentine National Anthem. I had never experienced anything like this before. When I saw my country’s flag being hoisted, it was just too much for me and I cried. That moment will live with me for ever.”

This had been the peak of a 13-year battle with Alfa Romeo, with Enzo Ferrari’s persistence paying off against his former employer. It was the first time the Alfas had been beaten since the inaugural post-war French Grand Prix in 1946.

At the end of the season, Alfa Romeo applied for a five-fold increase in their government grant. It was refused, and the team withdrew from Grand Prix racing.

In his biography by Richard Williams, Enzo Ferrari is quoted as saying of his team’s first victory: “I cried for joy. But my tears of enthusiasm were mixed with those of sorrow because I thought, today I have killed my mother.”

Were you at this race? Do you remember it? Tell us about it in the comments.

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55 comments on “On this day in 1951: Gonzalez scores Ferrari’s first F1 win”

  1. And the Formula 1 legend began.

    Considering how the long the race was it’s great that only 6 cars retired with problems.

    1. EDIT: “Considering how long”

      I really need to stop posting comments as soon as I wake up…

  2. “I cried for joy. But my tears of enthusiasm were mixed with those of sorrow because I thought, today I have killed my mother.”

    I love this quote. Even though Ferrari and Alfa Romeo parted in a less than amicable manner, it still shows the respect Enzo had for the company that had given him so much.

    I also love reading about these old races simply because of how ridiculous they sound by today’s standards. That said the BRM drivers racing burned initially shocked me, until I realised that it still happens today. Racing drivers never change!

    Gonzalez was an interesting driver as well. There are great snippets of him in ‘Fangio’ by Gerry Donaldson and the aforementioned Enzo Ferrari biography by Richard Williams. I’d enjoy reading a book about José – and considering he’s still alive as Formula One’s oldest race winner, I do hope someone does so whilst he’s still around.

    1. That’s my favorite Enzo quote, apart from “I don’t smoke, and neither do my cars.”

      1. My favourite would have to be:

        Aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines.

    2. I second that. You stole the words from my mouth.

    3. But what deos he mean in saying

      today I have killed my mother


      1. Alfa Romeo was Enzo’s “mother” as that’s where he learned to build cars and by beating them he was taking away their reason to live.

        Enzo worked for Alfa Romeo in the 1920s and theirs were the first cars he raced.

  3. When Scuderia was a small Italian team…

    1. I love how all these teams look like being on a professional level between HRT and STR at best!

      Really nice to read about it, thank for putting that great article together Cari! Must have been a real treat to look at those materials and do the research for that.

      I hope you enjoyed seeing Alonso go round in that car as much as the rest of us (or still working on the writing?)

  4. 4 cars per row? It would be interesting to try that in modern F1 :)

    1. for sure it would help weakening Red Bull dominance :D

    2. I know, I thought it was a 3-2-3 grid system back then.

      1. It varied from track to track. On wider tracks 4-3-4 was used (Silverstone, Monza), while on narrower starting straights 3-2-3 was generally preferred.

        1. I wonder how many cars they could stack side-by-side on a track like Bahrain or Shanghai, what with their super-wide pit straights.

          1. In Malaysia you could probably get a Hispania on the second row!

          2. @Enigma Dooooo itttttt :D

  5. The BRM drivers completed the race burned by their exhausts and dazed by fuel vapours. In the hurry to complete the cars for the race, the exhaust pipes hadn’t been properly insulated and the drivers had been roasted.

    During their pit stops their legs were wrapped in cotton wool soaked in burn dressings, but despite this they were still badly burned.

    now that’s dedication!

  6. When and why did the grid change to only 2 cars alongside each other?

    1. I guess its because the cars got wider over time. And to prevent accidents at the start.

  7. Were you at this race? Do you remember it? Tell us about it in the comments.

    You hoping Bernie leaves a comment for you? :D

    A great read. I wonder what F1 will be like in another 60years from now?

    1. or Enzo lol

    2. Whatever happens, Ecclestone will still be in charge.

  8. What a brilliant article. The writing really emphasizes the human element in F1 racing of those days. Beautiful!

    But it seems from the other comments that this article is infact a copy-paste. Keith, Cari – Can you please credit the original author too. It leaves a poor taste otherwise.

    1. Who is?

  9. Great to hear from the beginning of a success story for Ferrari and F1. I think its really great that Alonso drove that old Ferrari around and had a lot of fun, so it seems.

    And then went on to win the GP with his own Ferrari. These are the kind of things that make for Legend. And good sports

    1. Yes. Gonzalez should have been there, and even better if he had given the trophy to the winner!

      1. He was invited but he couldn’t attend the GP, as his doctos told him to stay home.

        Source: media in Argentina

      2. Really a shame he couldn’t be there (health reasons?).

  10. An amazing article!

  11. excellent article.

    here’s Alonso’s lap of silverstone in the 1951 car and afterwards running to catch th edriver’s parade!

  12. I love this article. Thank you Cari! I’m a huge Ferrari fan, a bit of an F1 history geek and I’ve got a soft spot for Gonzalez not only for getting Ferrari’s first F1 win but from what I’ve read I quite like his driving style.

    I love the way you’ve written the article too. I can picture everything. Beautifully done and it has really made my day. I really wanted the BBC to make a bit of a fuss of it last weekend but I think it was only mentioned in passing so thank you very much!

    1. I’ll second that Steph !

      This is a great article and really gives a great feeling for what F1 used to be like in the old days.

      I love reading about the history of F1 and the history of Ferrari so this is pretty much a perfect article as far as I’m concerned.

      Thanks Cari !

    2. Considering this race was 60 years ago and the review is as detailed as the 2011 British GP review, it’s very good.

    3. Thanks Steph – I loved researching this feature, there are so many great quotes and some truly iconic photography. It’s so easy to lose hours/days reading about this era of F1. Kudos to the BRM guys for their dedication too – they were all blistered by the end of the race!

  13. Keith, FANTASTIC reading. I read this article and feels like watching a film. Thanks a lot for sharing it with us.

    To me, this paragraph makes the story:

    At the end of lap 48, Fangio pitted and González came in 13 laps later. Ascari had retired with gearbox trouble, and González climbed from his car and offered it to his team-mate – Ascari refused and urged González to continue.

    Gosh, compare that with Alonso’s “this is ridiculous”, or even “Fernando is faster than you” or the infamous RBR’s “maintain the gap”…

    1. Both drivers were gentlemen. Gonzalez offered his race-leading car to his more experienced and team leader team mate, knowing he could lose a potential win, and Ascari refused to do so to give all the credit of the win to Gonzalez. This is missing from modern F1, maybe because you can’t lend cars, but as you said there are other bad examples.

  14. About his nickname, “El Cabezón” means literally “Fat Head” but it’s also used as a synonym of unyielding. Therefore, I would say that the most appropiate translation would be the “The Stubborn”.

    1. Yep, but in this very particular case, the nickname was because José Froilán indeed had a big bald head.

        1. seems it doesn’t work.

          1. Holy Colin Kolles, time travellers DO exist.

          2. Wait a minute, Doc. Ah… Are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of an HRT??


  15. And how these Argentinians drive!

    And to think they were like 4 “Fangios” racing here, not interested in F1 !!!!!!

    What an era for Argentinean motorsport.

  16. A great story, thanks Keith and Cari.

    1. Good to read a clarification. Trolls are everywhere these days.
      Definitely beautifully written.

    2. Sorry if I doubted you for a second.

    3. Very sad someone tried to tarnish this great site like that.

  17. An excellent article Keith as always, a credit to both Cari and the site.

  18. Great read Keith, thanks for the post.

    “The supercharged Alfa Romeos were now developing around 410bhp from 1.5-litre engines”

    Are you sure that is 1.5??? and still the Ferrari stood 13 more laps before refueling??

  19. Here is an account written by Froilan himself. It’s in Spanish of course. But it contains quite a number of terrific nuggets. His description of the Ferrari works, for one. Their test track, which they used daily, was just the village streets and Ferrari used to sound a siren before the cars came out, to warn pedestrians. Or the lesson he got from Fangio before the race. A meeting with Jackie Stewart in 1972, who had seen Froilan win at Silverstone when he was 12 and still carried an autographed photo in his pocket. It’s a really fascinating read.


    1. Alec, thank you so much for that link.

      It is the most charming and touching story, beautifully written.

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