Argentina's other hero

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Big, brawny and tough, José Froilán González beat compatriot Fangio to bag Ferrari’s first GP – and he’s still involved with cars
By Tony Watson

He’s one of Argentina’s living motor racing legends – well, sporting legends in general – but what always strikes one about José Froilán González is that he’s always been so approachable. No side to this man whatsoever; no wonder his friendship with Juan Manuel Fangio lasted over 50 years.

When I’m ushered into his office I notice he is signing an autograph for a fan in Europe who has sent him a picture taken at Silverstone in 1951. So I ask about that day, when the Alfettas suffered their first World Championship defeat.

“The Ferraris adapted better to Silverstone than the Alfa Romeos did, even if they had more powerful engines,” says González, recalling his first visit to the track. The week prior to the 1951 British Grand Prix, Scuderia Ferrari’s most recent recruit was driven round the track by his chum Fangio. When they returned to the pits, the man who would become five-time World Champion said quietly that he thought the Ferraris could beat the Alfettas that weekend. González proved Fangio right, breaking Ferrari’s World Championship duck in the process.

From the city of Arrecifes, 100 miles west of Buenos Aires and bang in the Pampas region, Gonzalez started racing in single-seater events on the dust-track layouts which began sprouting up in the vast country from the mid-1940s. “My first race was in 1946, and we managed to win,” he says about that Sunday afternoon, with his small team of helpers. He goes on to explain that, “the car had a four-cylinder Chevrolet engine in a self-built chassis,” adding that “in that race I had to use a pseudonym.” The reason was that his uncle had been killed in an open-road race six years earlier, and the 23-year-old did not want to worry his parents. However, by the time of his hometown’s event later that season he was using his real name, and there was no chance of keeping it quiet. “We won the first heat that day, and were leading the final until two laps from the finish when a connecting-rod broke.”

González Snr was not at all happy when he found out the truth that afternoon, but there was no stopping the burly youngster by that stage, and he began the next season with renewed machinery: “The following year [1947] I changed to a Ford ‘A’ engine with two camshafts, and we won about 15 or 16 times.” He continued his winning ways in single-seaters in 1948.

In 1949 Froilán took a major career step, buying the Maserati 4CL which Giuseppe Farina had brought out to race in Argentina. It was a costly transaction: “To buy that car I had to sell my single-seater, a Chevrolet coupé, two trucks and borrow some money.” The Maserati was then transported home to Arrecifes, on the streets of which – aided by the local police – he practiced it, much to the locals’ delight.

Later that year he used his new acquisition to good effect in the first of four rounds of the Temporada, on the Palermo street circuit in downtown Buenos Aires, coming home fifth behind the Ferraris of Alberto Ascari, Fangio, Luigi Villoresi and Benedicto Campos.

The result of the following round, again at Palermo, was a bit of a contrast, as while lying third the car went up in flames after the fuel tank split. “Luckily,” as he is quick to point out, “the Automóvil Club Argentino [ACA] then lent me one of its Maserati 4CLTs.” Aboard the newer Maserati he finished round three on the Mar del Plata street circuit in sixth behind Ascari, Villoresi, Farina, Piero Taruffi and Louis Chiron, and was seventh in the final round at Rosario. These last two outings as a member of the local outfit had been his first as team-mate to Fangio, and they led to much greater things, only weeks later. His face lights up when he recalls it: “Then came the offer from Fangio to join Equipo Argentino in Europe, for 1950.”

González’s European debut came at Marseilles in one of the Argentine team’s Gordinis, which he retired with magneto problems on a damp day. His first World Championship outing followed, when he qualified a 4CLT Maserati on the front row at Monaco, alongside the Alfettas of Fangio and Farina. Disaster struck on lap two, when a loose fuel cap led to a fire and burns to his back.

Having bounced back in time for the non-championship event at Angoulême three weeks later (finishing third), he then retired in his first outing at Le Mans, sharing a works T15S Gordini coupé with Fangio. In mid-July he was runner-up at Albi behind Louis Rosier, but the following weekend his Maserati again caught fire, this time during a pit stop at Zandvoort, though he managed to bring the flame-scarred car home seventh.

His long and lasting friendship with Enzo Ferrari had begun by that time. “During 1950 I already had a good understanding with the Ferrari factory, as we used to go there to fetch spares for Equipo Argentino’s Ferraris.”

Back in Argentina he assisted the organisers of the two Temporada rounds in February 1951 on Buenos Aires’ coast-front Costanera layout: “Those races attracted about 100,000 people,” recalls González. “Mercedes-Benz brought out three of its pre-war cars for Fangio, Karl Kling and Hermann Lang. I was driving a Ferrari [an Equipo Argentino 125] and Oscar Gálvez was in a similar car. It was such an agile car; with a short-ratio differential we used to get impressive wheel spin even in third gear.” In both events, using the team’s short-wheelbase example, González won as he pleased. Even if rumours had it that the Mercedes mechanics were unhappy with the fuel mixture. “Those races led to a congratulatory telegram from Mr Ferrari and, a few months later, a contract offer to drive for his team,” says González.

The weekend after again retiring at Le Mans (sharing a Talbot-Lago with Onofre Marimón), he first drove for Ferrari at the 1951 French GP, holding second place until being called in to hand over to Ascari. They finished in that spot.

Only a fortnight would elapse before his day of days arrived: starting from pole position at Silverstone aboard one of the team’s older 375s, he fought for the lead with Fangio’s Alfetta.

“At about the middle of the race, Fangio and I were quite a way ahead of the rest, and I knew he would have to stop for fuel before I did. My mechanics kept warning me take it easy because of the fuel, by waving a fuel funnel. But I had plenty left; I even had my reserve tank to fall back on. When I finally stopped they only threw in some 20 litres. From then on I took it easier.” He beat Fangio by nearly a minute.

He followed this with other good performances during the rest of the season, with front-row grid positions in the three remaining World Championship rounds of 1951 paving the way to one third and two runner-up finishes, and narrowly missing out on second place in the points, with only Fangio and Ascari ahead of him in the final standings.

The following season was far less productive, especially at World Championship level. “For 1952 I decided to follow Juan [Fangio], who was signing for Maserati, although Ferrari wanted me to continue in his team.” He used an ageing Equipo Argentino Ferrari 125 to good effect in events which took place in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina between January and March 1952, winning on Río de Janeiro’s unforgiving La Gavea street layout in Brazil, finishing second at Piriápolis (in Uruguay) and second again at the inaugural meeting at the Buenos Aires Autódromo. With the new 2-litre F2 Grand Prix technical rulebook having come into effect that season, delays led to his 1952 World Championship campaign consisting of just one event – the Italian GP – in which after leading until mid-race he finished second to Ascari, with whom he shared fastest lap. Also runner-up at Marseilles and Modena, he won two events at Goodwood: the Richmond Trophy aboard the Thinwall Special, and the Daily Graphic Trophy in a BRM V16, a car of which he is quick to point out “we had tested it a lot during 1950, but of all the cars I raced, that was by far the most difficult to drive.

“In 1953 I stayed with Juan at Maserati,” he continues. The season kicked off with Argentina’s first World Championship GP, in which he finished third. He was also third in the French GP, second in Holland and fourth in Britain. At non-championship level, he was second at Albi but again retired at Le Mans, where he shared a 3-litre Lancia with Clemente Biondetti, recording his third non-finish there and clearly remembering the coupé for its lack of straight-line speed: “That car was not very fast, despite having a compressor. I think we did not last very long.” Shortly after the World Championship round in England, at which point only Ascari and Hawthorn headed him in the standings, an accident at Monsanto aboard a Lancia D23 curtailed his season. At least the corner where he crashed was given his name thereafter.

He was back at Ferrari for 1954, which he considers “my best year – I won a lot of races”. It was a successful season for him, but with an sad ending for him and for Fangio, his Padrino (best man at his wedding). It got off to a good start with third in his home GP, this time aboard a Ferrari 625 the team had shipped out and painted in Argentina’s blue-and-yellow racing colours. He retired at Syracuse two months later, after parking his Squalo to help rescue team-mate Mike Hawthorn, whose car was on fire.

“What a difference with today’s safety measures!” he exclaims when recalling the fiery accident. “I stopped and ran to Mike, and grabbed a coat from a carabiniere to help put out the flames. We had a good friendship with Mike.” He retired again at Pau the following weekend aboard a 625, in which he won easily at Bordeaux two weeks later. That was the first of five victories on the trot, peaking with victory in Le Mans 24 Hours.

The second of that string of wins came in Silverstone’s Daily Express sports car race, an event in which he underlined his sublime car-control on a damp track aboard Ferrari’s crude and awesome 4.9-litre 375 Plus: “We watched that year’s Mille Miglia; even in the hands of Umberto Maglioli the big Ferrari looked difficult to drive in the rain. The car at Silverstone was for someone else to drive, and they could not get it to handle properly. I was at the track and they asked me to try it out. It was difficult to drive,” he concedes, “but when they offered it for the race and the other driver didn’t seem to mind, I took over the car. We used two sandbags at the back to help the handling.”

That day he also won the Silverstone meeting’s International Trophy F1 event after taking over team-mate Maurice Trintignant’s 625, and from there it was down to Bari, where seven days later he chalked up another win, again at the wheel of a 625. Then it was northwards to Le Mans, for that thrilling duel in the rain during the final hours of the race, between the 375 Plus in which he and Trintignant won and the Jaguar D-type of Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt.

“I could get away from the Jaguars in the curves and esses as we had more torque, but their cars braked better. We knew they would be difficult to beat. And they had such good drivers, like Duncan Hamilton, Stirling Moss and Tony Rolt. Also, the Cunninghams were very fast.” And there were worries about the Ferrari’s fading brakes: “All that rain helped to cool our brakes. Without that, I don’t know what would have happened”. It was a long event for González: “Trintignant would say, ‘Go on driving, you know the car better,’ and in the end I must have driven for about 15 hours. I hardly slept at all during the race and practically didn’t eat anything.”

The weekend after Le Mans, the engine of his Squalo gave up at Spa; he took over the car from an unwell Hawthorn and finished fourth. A week later it was back to sports car racing, sharing a 750 Monza with Le Mans partner Trintignant: they finished second behind the sister car of Hawthorn and Maglioli in the Monza 1000Km Supercortemaggiore cup.

At Reims, the Squalo’s engine again caused retirement, and a fortnight later came his second British Grand Prix win: this time he led all the way in a 625, one of the Ferraris he liked most. “The 625 was like a small 375,” he says, “nice to drift in the fast corners, but we had to give those thin tyres a lot of air pressure…”

Following further success the next weekend (at Monsanto, aboard a 750 Monza) it was then back to the F1 World Championship trail at the Nürburgring, where it all went terribly wrong for the closely-knit group of Argentinian drivers and fans, as the popular and ever-cheerful Marimón was killed during Saturday’s qualifying. González was very much affected by his younger countryman’s death and despite rushing into the lead when the flag fell the next day, he soon dropped down the order as his emotions played their part, finally stopping to hand over to Hawthorn.

Runner-up in Switzerland, and later third in Italy (with Maglioli’s car, after his Squalo’s gearbox broke) netted him the runner-up placing in the World Championship, behind Fangio. The Italian round marked the end of his season, as the following Friday, practicing for the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod, a circuit new to him, he spun his Ferrari 750 Monza at Tournagrough, was thrown out of the car and badly injured his back. This, added to Marimón’s death, and the growing apprehension of his family, brought an end to his career in Europe. Instead, from 1955 he took on his rivals almost exclusively on home turf.

Four months after the Dundrod crash he proved that he had lost none of his flair by grabbing pole for the 1955 Argentinian GP at the wheel of a works Ferrari 625. He led at one stage but had to stop, not like most of his rivals that day due to the 38degC temperature, but because “my back was still hurting very much after the accident in Ireland,” so Farina (who had stopped for a breather) and later Maglioli took turns to share the car with him, the trio finishing second behind Fangio’s Mercedes.

Maserati came up with two drives for the 1956 Temporada, in which he again led his home GP, albeit briefly, until a broken valve spelt retirement. Seven days later he and Jean Behra co-drove a Maserati 300S to third in the Buenos Aires 1000Km.

He maintained his decision not to return to European circuits until a few months later, when an unexpected call briefly tempted him back to Silverstone: “Mr Vandervell invited me to race one of his Vanwalls in the British Grand Prix. The offer was interesting, and I went to England.” Things looked promising after he qualified the car on row two alongside team-mate Harry Schell, but the race was his shortest-ever. “Right after the start, as I changed to second gear, one of the halfshafts broke.” There was even a possibility of him resuming his international career from there on: “They wanted to contract me to go on racing, but I packed my bags and returned home.”

However, F1 was not completely finished for him, as the 1957 Temporada meant stepping aboard yet another new car when he was offered one of the six Lancia-Ferraris the scuderia shipped out to Argentina for that season’s opening round. There were eight drivers for these six cars so González shared the one he started, handing over to Alfonso de Portago and finishing fifth in his country’s season-opening GP, first of the Ferrari team home. Two weeks later, in the non-championship Buenos Aires GP, he retired an old Ferrari 625 which had been included in the shipment: “That car was a gift from Mr Ferrari,” he fondly recalls, and it would give his career a new lease of life in Formula Libre events in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.

The rules allowed for local and foreign chassis and engine combinations, so he thought it a good idea to transplant a Chevrolet V8 into the Ferrari chassis, recalling: “That car was quite powerful – the Chevrolet engine was giving out about 350bhp.”

González and the Ferrari-Chevrolet achieved a good number of wins, of which the 1958 and ’59 editions of the prestigious Rafaela 500-mile race stand out, his renowned bull-like stamina proving a plus in that near-five-hour test He also claimed the 1959 and 1960 editions of the continent’s prestigious Formula Libre series.

The final call-up from Ferrari came a decade after his initial outing with the team, in the 1960 Argentinian Temporada. He and co-driver Ludovico Scarfiotti retired a Dino 246S in the 1000km event, and the following weekend he drove an old-version Dino 246 to 10th in the Argentinian GP, in what was to be his final World Championship outing (of 26). Later he announced his retirement, ending a 15-year career

Now 85, González (Pepe, as he is known) remains as active as ever, driving into downtown Buenos Aires each morning to oversee his garage business, while also attending many historic car meetings at home and abroad. Pretty good for the oldest championship GP winner alive.

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