July 14, 2011 is the 60th anniversary of Scuderia Ferrari’s first Formula 1 World Championship victory. Against a background of absolute domination by Alfa Romeo, Enzo Ferrari’s eponymous team finally prevailed in an epic battle of attrition at Silverstone. As you can see in the picture below, taken from my book Real Racers, José Froilan Gonzalez had to drive the wheels off his car to break Alfa’s 26-race winning streak.
27-year-old Gonzalez was racing at Silverstone for the first time and very much a junior in his team’s pecking order. Two weeks earlier, at Reims, he had been permitted to drive the 4.5-litre V12 Ferrari 375 (albeit in a lower spec, with a single spark plug per cylinder), but in the race he had been prevailed upon to hand his car over to Alberto Ascari, the more senior driver, after Ascari’s gearbox failed. Such was the convention at the time.
Alfa Romeo’s all-conquering car, the 158, was rather long in the tooth – the design had first been commissioned by Enzo Ferrari when he worked for Alfa before World War II. Over the winter of 1950 the existing cars had been modified and redesignated 159. Giuseppe Farina, as world champion and team leader, had the pick of the machinery and drove the sole car which had De Dion tube rear suspension rather than swing axles. But by and large, Alfa’s solution to the car’s increasing age had been to add power. Like Ferrari, Alfa used Shell petrol, but whereas in modern F1 fuel suppliers operate trackside labs to create an optimum fuel mix for each circuit, in the early 1950s individual teams would add aviation fuel and whatever octane boosters they could lay their hands on.
Blown by twin superchargers and hopped up with all manner of fuel additives, the 159’s 1.5-litre straight-eight was good for over 400bhp at 9600rpm (and, foreshadowing the most recent technical controversy of 2011, each cylinder required a dose of unburned fuel on every unfired stroke in order to provide extra cooling). The concomitant disadvantages came in the form of an outrageous thirst – less than 2mpg – and a predisposition to shred its rear tyres. Mid-race pitstops became a necessity.
To cope with the 159’s thirst, Alfa added auxillary fuel tanks wherever they would fit – including under the exhaust manifold. But Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio usually raced without, figuring that they would have to stop anyway and that the extra weight would slow them down. The more frugal and less mechanically stressed Ferraris were seldom as quick as the Alfas, but they spent less time in the pits. The Alfa drivers therefore had to go flat out at every opportunity so as to build a gap.
The stage was set for a race that The Autocar would describe thus:
…the best motor race seen in this country since the palmy days of 1938 and the last struggle at Donington Park between the Mercedes and Auto-Union teams.
At Silverstone, Gonzalez drew first blood by putting his second-string Ferrari on pole from Fangio, with Farina and Ascari making up the rest of the four-car front row.
From the second row, Alfa’s Felice Bonetto was quickest away from the start and ran almost side-by-side with Gonzalez into the first corner, until Farina’s 159 spooled up and he shot between both of them, practically scraping their hubs.
Farina’s lead did not last long. Bonetto and Gonzalez came past on the first lap, then Gonzalez moved to the front as the extra weight of Bonetto’s auxiliary fuel tanks took its toll.
The Motor magazine describes the opening laps:
From the start the speed increased from 93mph average to nearly 97mph half way through the race. Fangio and Farina were driving like masters, demonstrating the famous slide technique of cornering with studied precision, Gonzalez out in front, rather more untidy, holding his car to the arc by main force but pressing on with utter determination.
Gonzalez stretched his lead out to six seconds but Fangio, mindful of the need to pass and establish enough of a lead to cushion his imminent pitstop, began to close in. On lap 10 he edged past and on lap 13 he shattered the existing lap record, edging close to the magic 100mph average speed mark. They had left the others far behind but still Gonzalez loomed in his mirrors, even after losing it at Becketts and bouncing off one of the straw bales marking the outside of the course.
In third place, Farina was almost a minute behind. Although he would reset the lap record with a 99.99mph average (1m44s), he ultimately fell out of contention with a lengthy pitstop.
Gonzalez may have briefly exceeded his limits but he was far from spent. As The Motor relates:
After the 25th lap Gonzalez, perhaps exhilarated by his excursion into the straw, began to close down on Fangio, cut down his six-second lead lap by lap and, on the 39th, slammed past him back into the lead, and from then on he never let it go.
On lap 45 Fangio broke for the pits and was stationary for the best part of a minute, for his car required new rear tyres – a lengthy and laborious operation in this era. By lap 50, when Farina made the time-consuming stop that dropped him off the lead lap, Gonzalez was 72.8s ahead of Fangio.
Gregor Grant takes up the tale in AUTOSPORT:
All Alfa hopes appeared to rest once again on Fangio. Never has such driving been seen in this country. On a circuit totally unsuited to the potential performance characteristics of the Type 159, Juan Manuel drove the race of his life. He couldn’t use the maximum power available. It was a case of virtuosity versus the inspired driving of Gonzalez in a car with seemingly better road-holding, and more usable acceleration out of bends.
Ferrari’s more fancied drivers, Ascari and team leader Luigi Villoresi, were third and fifth. Villoresi was not even on the same lap. Ascari ceded third place to the delayed Farina when he pitted on lap 54 for fuel and new rear tyres; roaring out of the pits, determined to make up the 10-second gap to Farina, he got no further than Becketts before his gearbox expired with a loud clang.
Gonzalez’s tyres were in good shape, but when he made his own stop for two churns of Shell fuel on lap 60 he knew he would be called upon to hand over his car. As the 375 came to a halt he jumped out, only for Ascari himself to wave him back into the driving seat. Gonzalez emerged still in the lead.
Fangio continued his assault, to the extent that his team manager ceased to give the ‘go faster’ signal from the pit wall and simply displayed the gap from the Ferrari to the Alfa. But the day belonged to Gonzalez, who took the chequered flag after 90 laps (that’s two and three quarter hours of racing) 52 seconds ahead. Villoresi inherited third after Farina retired, but was two laps down.
There was perhaps one small disappointment for the victorious Argentine, as The Autocar relates:
The vocal supporters from the Argentine were beside themselves with joy (but although they possessed a banner with Fangio on it, they had not got one for the winner!).
If you’d like to see more classic images like the ones above, visit the excellent Klemantaski Collection website – you’ll also find them in my critically acclaimed (ie not just by my mum) book Real Racers, which features first-person accounts from the likes of Jackie Stewart, Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham and John Surtees about what life was like in the F1 paddock in the 1950s and 1960s..