GRR

Thank Frankel it’s Friday: Remembering the first British Grand Prix at Silverstone

11th July 2019
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

It should be a matter of national celebration that the British Grand Prix is to stay at Silverstone for at least another five years. It occurs to me that we have in the past had these ‘will it, won’t it’ moments when it comes to contract renewal time and somehow the BGP always survives. Even so, if its future is ever even slightly in the balance it discomfits me.

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The Silverstone British Grand Prix of 1950 was the first of what will shortly become 1007 F1 World Championship races to date. Britain and Italy are the only countries to have held championship Grands Prix every single year since and Silverstone offers up as good a chance of great racing as any other track with the possible exception of Spa.

So what can we hope for this weekend? Only that Ferrari does to Mercedes-Benz what it did to Alfa-Romeo back in 1951 at this very circuit. And I say that not as a rabid Ferrari fan (though, where F1 is concerned, I undoubtedly am) but because now as then we are looking at a team that has had a stranglehold on the sport for so many years something is needed to relieve the monotony. And, of course, Verstappen did exactly that at the last race sparing us the very real possibility of Mercedes winning every single race this year, but one swallow does not a summer make.

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So join me in the Silverstone paddock of 68 years ago. It is a very different place but the essentials – that Ferrari has promised much but delivered little – are the same. Saving the technical inclusion of the Indy 500, Alfa Romeo has already won every single round of the 1950 championship and with its new 1.5-litre, supercharged 425bhp 159, complete with a De Dion rear axle eliminating the old traction-limited 158’s only real dynamic weakness it has already won in Switzerland and at both Spa and Reims.

Ferrari’s gamble, that a normally aspirated and more economical 4.5-litre V12 motor would make up in fewer pit stops what it lost to the Alfas in raw power (about 50bhp) appeared to be failing. But at Reims a new driver, unkindly described by MotorSport magazine as ‘a fat, dark little man’ had joined the Ferrari line up. He was called Froilán Gonzalez and had acquitted himself well in France, keeping his car sufficiently in touch with the Alfas that when Ascari retired and took it over he was close enough to come second.

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But if that race served as his apprenticeship, at Silverstone ‘Pepito’ was ready for the big time. In qualifying he not only took Ferrari’s first pole, he shattered Dr Giuseppe Farina’s lap record and became the first person to circulate Silverstone at over 100mph.

To say he was nervous at the start is putting it mildly. Sitting on the grid with less than five minutes to go he was overwhelmed by a call of nature and had to exit the car and sprint to the loo. But come flag fall, all his nerves evaporated.

Felipe Bonetto made a ridiculously good start from seventh to lead into the first corner but soon Gonzalez was past and held the lead for ten laps. When Fangio’s Alfa finally found a way around him many would have thought an old script was to be replayed once more, but not Gonzalez: he knew if he could just stay with the maestro, pit-stops would take care of the rest.

My father, as it happens, was there, a 12-year-old watching in the Woodcote grandstand, hearing the crowd gasp every lap as the Gonzalez Ferrari powered through this then ultra-quick corner at ever more improbable angles of attack. He was back in the lead when Fangio pitted on the 38th of 90 laps and while he lost it again after his one and only stop on lap 48, it hardly mattered. Even making a complete dog’s breakfast of the stop (he stalled the car) could not turn the tide back in Alfa Romeo’s favour. Fangio had to stop again, he did not and that was that. Despite slowing down in the final laps to preserve the hard-pressed motor of his Ferrari 375, Gonzalez won both his and Ferrari’s first World Championship Grand Prix.

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He was lifted bodily from the car and this humble man brought up on Argentine dirt track racing was taken to meet the Queen of England, soon to become the Queen Mother. On the podium when he heard his country’s anthem, he cried.

Gonzalez never really delivered on his potential, though he would win again at Silverstone for Ferrari in 1954 and in the same year drive a Ferrari 375 Plus through horrid conditions to win Le Mans. But he was inconsistent elsewhere and retired from racing in 1960 with those two wins remaining alone on his F1 record.

Will Ferrari once more upset the apple-cart this weekend? Will Leclerc be cast as Gonzalez, take his first victory and bring the Mercedes-Benz juggernaut shuddering to a halt? I hope so even though I doubt it. For a team that has shown itself to be so adept at grasping defeat from the jaws of victory this season, it would be nice for a reversal of fortune. And, given everything, where better for that to take place than Silverstone?

Photography courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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