1951 French Grand Prix race report: Fangio/Fagioli take joint win in dramatic race

Shared Alfa Romeo of Fangio and Fagioli wins eventful French Grand Prix

IF you have never seep a Continental motor race, a Formula I Grand Prix in France, Italy, Belgium, hasten to do so. There is nothing else quite like it outside Europe. Consider this year's GP d'Europe for instance.

An Alfa Romeo mechanic shows his drivers the pit board.

Photo: Motorsport Images

The 4.86 mile Circuit Mintier Permanent de Reints-Gueux has concrete stands and pits that wouldn't disgrace the largest football ground or horse racecourse in England. The long straights, normally open to monsieur's and madame's voitures and voiturettes, are perfectly surfaced, not very wide, with a white line down the centre. Colourful French police assist a straw-bale wall to keep spectators off the course—until the race starts, when the sight and sound of modern Grand Prix cars doing all but 200 mph is amply sufficient. This is a course where, last month, Fangio from the Argentine set a practice lap-record of 119.999 mph, and a race lap-record of 118.29 m.h in a 159 Alfa-Romeo —2.4 mph faster than even Lang's 3-litre Mercedes-Benz went in practice in 1939, but not quite as fast as Farina went at Francorchamps. It was a hard-fought race, this 375, mile, 77-lap Grand Prix over this very fast circuit, with continual change of fortune.

Fangio, Farina, Fagioli and Sanesi on Alfa-Romeos, Ascari, Villoresi, Gonzales and Parnell on Ferraris, veteran Louis Chiron, Cabantous, Rosier, Mairesse and Etancelin on Talbots, were amongst those billed to do battle. It is the day of the year for Rheims, the race of the year to followers of motor racing. No wonder the roads leading to the course, one-way for the occasion, are blocked with cars and all France seems to be wending its way to Thillois and down to the Tribunes, from grandmamma in her all-black Sunday best in the cab of an aged Renault van to debonair sportsmen and their ladies in eye-opening Delahayes, Lago-Talbots and Alfa-Romeos.

For our part we took off from Croydon in a 1947 Transair Airspeed Consul and well under two hours later we were circling the circuit, prior to landing in the small field of the local aero-club where the grass, like that of my lawns at home, badly needs the mower. Two single-engined British private aircraft have already put down here, and we bumpily follow suit.

Champagne airfield has refused us because no customs facilities exist there— let us say that we fare little better where we have been instructed to drop in, and then change the subject!

951 French Grand Prix. Reims-Gueux, France. 1 July 1951. Juan Manuel Fangio (Alfa Romeo 159, number 4), Giuseppe Farina (Alfa Romeo 159, number 2) and Alberto Ascari (Ferrari 375, number 12) on the front row. Luigi Villoresi (number 10), Consalvo Sanesi (6), Jose Froilan Gonzalez (14), Luigi Fagioli (8), Louis Chiron (42), Reg Parnell, Philippe Etancelin line up behind.

A strong field pulls away from the start-line Photo: Motorsport Images

BAR in big letters over the club house entrance sounds promising and the hooting from fast ears as they roar along the adjacent road to the circuit is inspiring. Our pilot, who once had an Alta and made a point of seeing all the Grandes Epreuves pre-war, is like a boy let out of school and hastily 'phones for it taxi.

Taxis are some of the best fun on these trips. When we flew per Anson to the IOM (and had to put up a golf umbrella to keep the rain out, when an escape hatch blew away!) we were met by a 1937 Type 120 Packard. Now it was a Scruffy 601 Peugeot, of inordinately long wheelbase, that trundled us towards Rheims.

In that fine city the atmosphere built up, although we were out of it in ten minutes or so. A GP Bugatti was spotted standing nonchalantly in a service Station, sans mudguards, and I caught a glimpse in a shop window of a very stark, vintage three-wheeler in French blue, no doubt a Sandford, perhaps with a history. What do the tourists of the Morgan Three-Wheeler Club know about that?

The traffic now stiffened and soon we were crawling, three abreast, along a country road flanked by wide fields, bound for the motor race. An enterprising Frenchman in a Simea blew a musical horn, under braked, and sailed into the back of' the 1,100 Fiat Wean in front. Everyone laughed. Some drivers had taken to the fields to avoid the queue, calmly driving over ditches to get there, which in England no doctor racing to a maternity case would so much as attempt. An American saloon is progressing with its vast bonnet propped up and the passenger, head out of window, navigating for the "blind" driver. Lots of Citroens seem to be overheating.

A Morris Minor on English plates draws up, then a 3-litre Bentley, of whom we lean from our Peugeot and enquire in French, "Where, Monsieur, is the RRM?" Later, when our taxi is halted and we are forced to walk in the boiling sun the Bentley driver gets his own back, refusing us a lift on his ample running boards with the excuse that steam is just showing from his equally ample radiator.

Ever on the qui vine for vintage machinery, I delight in two elderly "11.4" Citroens, the aged Renaults and the many 301 Peugeots that jostle with the elegant automobiles of La Belle France.

1951 French Grand Prix Reims, France. 1 July 1951 Giuseppe Farina (Alfa Romeo 159), 5th position, leads Johnny Claes (Lago-Talbot T26C-DA).

Farina leads Claes out of the hairpin Photo: Motorsport Images

Have you, dear reader, sat in the draughty scaffolding that passes for grandstands at Silverstone, your umbrella at the ready, as the cars are manhandled in confusion on the grid? Imagine, then, the scene at the Circuit Emdier Permanent Reims-Gueux, where each racing car is pushed to its place, its driver walking beside it, while the National Anthem of his country booms out and the gendarmes stand stiffly to attention. And where 70,000 knowledgable spectators line the fields and pack the stands under an almost tropical sun tempered with a cool breeze.


Ascari's Ferrari shares front row on the neat grid with Fangio's and Farina's Alfa-Romeo.

The great Charles Faroux lifts his fingers to tick off the minutes. Before he lowers his last two, Villoresi and Sanesi (the latter with the de Dion axle Alfa) creep forward, hastily the Tricolour goes up, the pack snarls forward, Farina's back tyres almost on fire, and the 1951 Grand Prix d'Europe, greatest of the Formula 1 motor races, is on.

In the vast, two-tier, glass fronted Press box charts are at the ready, and kept throughout the race, radio commentaries are yelled into microphones in half-a-dozen languages and as that ace-chronicler Rodney Walkerly stubs out his 100th cigarette and Ascari, not Rosier, leads the field.

The rumours are over—those about the BRM and why it did not arrive, and how Brian Shawe-Taylor, following an argument as to the lack of efficiency of the brakes of the Thinwall Special Ferrari, was asked to stand down by Tony Vandervill. Brian flew home, leaving Reg Parnell to take over the Thinwall. Now the race is on, and a 4 1/2-litre Ferrari is in front of the all-conquering Alfa-Romeos! Alas, already Peter Whitehead's Ferrari is out with a gasket gone.

"The cars, little coloured blobs against the cornfields in the background, are exceeding 170 mph down the straight and somehow contriving to slow for the crawlpace corner at the end of it"

The message box comes up on its wires to the press box and rattles up and down to draw attention to itself, but no one heeds it. The cars, little coloured blobs against the cornfields in the background, are exceeding 170 mph downhill along the Gurrenne-Thillois straight and somehow contriving to slow for the crawlpace corner at the end of it. And still Ascari is 2 seconds ahead of Farina, lapping at - yes! -116 mph. For nine laps the Alfa pit saw Ferrari lead them, then, amid intense excitement, Ascari pulled in for 14 seconds troubled about his gearbox and his fading brakes. A lap later he climbed out, his race temporarily finished, one Ferrari wheeled away and sheeted over, eschewing the dead-car park, however, for the 'privacy behind the vast Ferrari vans.

SO Farina led for Alfa, but Fagioli had left the road momentarily and Fangio was in dire trouble with his ignition system and lost 11 minutes. Sanesi was delayed by the same trouble.

The veteran Fagioli was going well, passing Villoresi in last year's "Monza" Alfa-Romeo with the small extra cockpit fuel tank but he stopped early for fuel and tyres, Fangio taking over. Meanwhile Fagioli waited for mechanics to fit a fresh magneto to the Fangio car, so that he could resume in that. All rather confusing but, rightly we think, a race of this sort is won by a car rather than an individual driver.

Fangio driving Fagioli's Alfa-Romeo to victory

Fangio took over Fangio's Alfa-Romeo and drove it to victory Photo: Motorsport Images

Farina got his pit stop over before Gonzalez's. Ferrari could pass him, and Villoresi was then third, Fangio in Fagioli's Alfa-Romeo fourth, Reg Parnell in Vandervell's Ferrari fifth and in the Alfa pit consternation.

Fangio broke his 1950 lap-record by 5.94 mph and went into third place. Ferrari saw a big chance yet and, to boos from Argentinians, put Ascari into Gonzales' car when it refuelled.

"Claes and Rosier walked in from wallsmacking and transmission-bursting episodes respectively, to clapping from the crowd, which missed nothing"

The excitement of this great race was unabated. Villoresi's Ferrari caused anxiety by flinging oil and exploding smoke. Then drama, as Farina, leading Fangio but only 1 min 36.8 sec ahead of Ascari, threw the off-side front tyre tread and overshot its pit by some 50 yards! Mechanics rushed wheel and big jack down to the car but calmly it was ordered back, and 3 min 15 sec were lost, letting Ascari in the Gonzales Ferrari lead Fangio, Farina back to third position. Standing right out in the centre of the road where the cars came by at some 160mph the Alfa pit controlman displayed his board with ASCA, FANG, 'FAR, VILL, PAR inscribed vertically on it. Incidentally, the Alfa in which Fangio had started had the horizontal mud-shields, in place behind its front wheels but these had been removed from the other Alfas just, before flag-fall.

Claes and Rosier walked in from wallsmacking and transmission-bursting episodes respectively, to clapping from the crowd, which missed nothing. Then Ascari came in, taking 33 seconds to have his brakes adjusted, so that Fangio established a minute lead—dramatic all right. Chiron's Talbot refuelled but went on with the same Dunlops.

So here was an Alfa in the lead, but with Farina's car now falling victim of the magneto trouble which the heat and 9,000 rpm had produced, so that two Ferraris sat behind Fangio, and Parnell's was rapidly catching Farina's sick Alfa. Moreover, Fangio's Alfa had only the cockpit extra tank and would need more fuel, whereas Ferrari, now second, third and fourth, for Reg had passed Farina, would not. The pace had fallen a shade but the cars, seen as little dots as they rounded Thillois hairpin before, growing in size, they screamed past the animated pit area at the speed of a 1927 Land Speed Record car, were still a magnificent sight, especially when an Alfa was baulked by a Talbot and swung first right then left, to go by partly on the grass verge!

Consalvo Sanesi (Alfa Romeo 159) pushes his car across the finish line at 1951 French Grand Prix, Reims.

Sanesi manages to push his car over the finishing-line after it breaks down Photo: Motorsport Images

Now down this long straight another dot was spotted, sometimes stationary, sometimes crawling, as Sanesi pushed in his Alfa Romeo, chocking its back wheel with a stone as he rested awhile from this up-hill task. His magneto made no sparks at all. As he came nearer photographers crowded round and a gentleman in an immaculate lounge suit came in haste from the Alfa pit to prevent anyone touching, and so disqualifying, the car. And Sanesi got it over the line as Faroux, in his tight knickerbocker trousers, flagged the winner home, the French spectators cheering Consalvo more than they did Fangio! Fangio had won, for his fuel atop had occupied. Only 35 seconds, drink included and Ascari hadn't passed. So ended a magnificent race, ably organised by l'Automobile Club de Champagne for the ACF the like of which we never see in England. The Fangio/Fagioli Alfa-Romeo had averaged 110.6 mph and beaten Villoresi's Ferrari by 58.2 sec. No wonder the Argentinians present were calling for their hero.

Very soon the traction avant Citroens of the Corps Diplomatique were driving onto the circuit, joined by Earl and Countess Howe in their VI2 Lagonda (the Countess had a fine collection of hats on the back seat). A veteran Renault (larger than another we had espied in Rheims) went by, followed later by a big Peugeot tourer of the immediate preor post-1914/18 period, with twin rear tyres and casting its oil smoke behind it. We sought our Peugeot amongst the press of Citroens, from Six to 4CV, Renaults, Dyna-Panhards, Fiats, and more Peugeots, glanced at Lago-Talbots, Rosengarts and a Georges Irat, spotted a Norton motor-cycle and a modern sports Alvis and drove to the aero club through a Rheims spending its Sunday evening at the open-air cafe tables.

While we waited for two members of our party whose parents were on tour (they duly arrived in the Hillman Minx which Silver City Airways had flown over the Channel and which, after much mileage to Norway, Germany, etc, looked as if it had left Devonshire Rouse only yesterday) our pilot remarked that as the field was small for a Consul he would drink citronade but that we would be advised to take champagne. We did, and French beer as well, and England appeared in no time at all (1 hours, actually). It remained only to watch one of our party depart in his smart DB II Aston-Martin with its chromiumed wire wheels, climb into the Morris Oxford and drive home, trying not to hoot, as the French do, at English Sunday motorists doing 20 mph in the middle of the road, and keeping a continual watch in the mirror for gendarmerie in big black Wolseleys.

The 1951 Grand Prix d'Europe was over. Alfa-Romeo had won again, in spite of the prophetic cover of the programme, which showed an unmistakable Talbot in the lead—but then it also depicted a BRM in second or third place! Ferraris, however, had harried the 159B Alfas throughout, as they had started to do at Monza last year and our own Parnell a splendid fourth. Chiron had the best of the Talbots. Now for Silverstone, we thought. . . .—W. B.

1951 French Grand Prix Race Results

1. Luigi Fagioli/Juan Manuel Fangio (Alfa-Romeo) 3:22:11.0

2. Jose Froilan Gonzalez/Alberto Ascari (Ferrari) + 58.2

3. Luigi Villoresi (Ferrari) + 3 laps

4. Reg Parnell (Ferrari) + 4 laps

5. Guiseppe Farina (Alfa Romeo) + 4 laps

6. Louis Chiron (Talbot) + 6 laps

7. Yves Giraud-Cabantous (Talbot) + 6 laps

8. Eugene Chaboud (Talbot) + 8 laps

9. Guy Mairesse (Talbot) + 11 laps

10. Conaslvo Sanesi (Alfa-Romeo) + 19 laps

10. Juan Manuel Fangio/Luigi Fagioli (Alfa-Romeo) + 22 laps

11. Johnny Claes (Talbot) Retired - Accident

12. Louis Rosier (Talbot) Retired - Transmission

13. Philippe Etancelin (Talbot) Retired - Engine

14. Aldo Gordini (Gordini) Retired - Engine

15. Harry Schell (Maserati) Retired - Overheating

16. Maurice Trintignant (Gordini) Retired - Engine

17. Alberto Ascari (Ferrari) Retired - Gearbox

18. Andre Simon (Gordini) Retired - Engine

19. Robert Manzon (Gordini) Retired - Engine

20. Onofre Marimon (Maserati) Retired - Engine

21. Toulo de Graffenried (Maserati) Retired - Transmission

22. Peter Whitehead (Ferrari) Retired - Engine

Championship Standings

1. Juan Manuel Fangio - 15

2. Nino Farina - 14

3. Lee Wallard - 9

4. Alberto Ascari - 9

5. Luigi Villoresi - 8


5011 C.,!. FORMULA III, JrIRAT 1 (5 LAPS): 1'. .1. i•ollins. (498m.c. J.B.S.), at 79.97 m.p.h.; 2nd •. B. Beelestone (499-e.e. Cooper); 3rd : It. M. Dryden (499-ex. .7.14.8.).

500 C.0. FORMULA III, Ilswr 2 (5 LAPS): 1st., A. Brown (500-c.e. Cooper) at 79.16 m.p.h.; 2nd, K. Watkins (497-ex. Bineryson); 3rd, B. W. Wise (497-e.e. Cooper).

500 0.13, Fottuci,A III, FINAL 05 LAPS): 1st, B. Brandon (500-e.e. Cooper), at 80.76 m.p.h. ; 2nd, A. Brown (500-ex. Cooper); 3rd, B. Ecelestone (499-c.e. Cooper).

SPORTS CARS SUicATull RAOR, 850 0.e. 8/e., 1,500 ex. U/S. (10 LAPS): 1st, 1. M. Hawthorn (1,496-e.e. Riley), at 78.26 m.p.h. ; 2nd, .7. Mayers (1,467-e.e. Lester-M.G.); 3rd, G. Ruddoek (ILR.G.).

SPORTS CARS SCRATCH ItAmt, 851 ex. TO 1,5(8) Sic. and 1,501 C.C. To 2,500 0.0. U/S. (to. la.rs): Mt, T. A. D. Crook (1,971-e.e. Frazer-Nash), at 77.66 m.p.h.; 2nd, A. Stokes (2,443-e.e. Itealey) ; 3rd, H. Kemp-Place 12,443-c.e. Healey).

SPORTS CARS SCRATCH RACE, OVER 1,501-c.e. S/e. AND 2.501-c.o. lila. 00 LAPS): 1st. T. A. 0. Crook (1,971-e,e. Frazer-Nash) at 82.99 m.p.h. ; 211d, F. Ruworth (3,442-e.e. Jaguar); 3rd, T. L.

Allard (3,0 1 7-e.e. ).

RACING CARS SCRAM( RACY., vi. TO 1,100-0.0. Sic. AND 2,000-c.c. U/S. (15 LAPS): 1st, R. Merrick (1,132-e,e. Cooper), at 85.03 m.p.h.; 20, K. McAlpine (1,767-ex. Connaught); 3rd, 0. Moore (1,980-e.e. Ii.W.M.).

RAMO CARS SCRATCH RAVE, 1,101 0.C. AND OVER, S/e., AND 2.001 ex. AND OVER WS. (15 LAPS): 1st, A. 1'. R. Bolt (1,4$6-e.e. Wage). at 87.34 m.p.h. ; 2nd, A. J, Butterworth (4,425-e.e. A .J.)3.); 3rd, F. lioworth (3,442-e.c..Jagnar).