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|
|3. Nino Farina|
|4. Alberto Ascari|
|Row 2||5. Luigi Villoresi|
|6. Consalvo Sanesi|
|7. Felice Bonetto|
|Row 3||8. Peter Whitehead|
|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|
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
|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||17||Philip Fotheringham-Parker||Maserati||46||Oil leak|
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.”
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