Fangio in Fine Form for Maserati
Spa. June 20th.
With the cancellation of the Dutch Grand Prix the first round of the World Championship in Europe was the Belgian race on the very fast circuit at Francorchamps in the South-East corner of Belgium. The entry list for the Belgian Grand Prix in past years has never been very large, but invariably contains the cream of Grand Prix racing and this year was no exception. Although the Lancia team made a tentative entry they withdrew it before practice began as tests at Monza had shown the new Formula I cars still needed further development if they were going to challenge the Ferraris and Maseratis. Being very choosy the Belgian organisers accepted only top-flight entries with the result that there were only fifteen runners, but they were all of Grand Prix category. Ferrari once more had their full team back in the field, as Farina was fit again after his Mille Miglia crash and Hawthorn was making his first appearance since his Syracuse accident. Accompanied by the recent Le Mans winners, Gonzalez and Trintignant, the Ferrari foursome was into its stride again and on the first evening of practice on the Thursday preceding the race, they were the only cars to put in an appearance. There were three 1954 models and two 1953 ones; Hawthorn and Trintignant being on last year’s cars and Farina and Gonzalez on the new ones. Since it last raced, at Silverstone, the 1954 Ferrari had undergone some changes and though the original car was brought along, two later models were used. Outwardly they were not radically altered, but the engine was moved farther forward, redistributing the weight, and the inside of the cockpit was cleaned up, with panelling covering the side tanks and frame tubes. The two new cars were greatly improved in handling and Gonzalez was particularly satisfied now, but Farina still could not see eye-to-eye with the necessity for developing a new driving technique to suit the short stumpy cars. Hawthorn’s car was fitted with a new gear-lever gate, mounted at an angle to the chassis in order to provide a better lever position and an improved selector-arm movement, while Trintignant’s car was unchanged. During the first evening no very fast laps were attempted, and when a drizzle of rain came on Ferraris packed up for the day. However, on Friday evening practice started in earnest, for everyone turned out, and the presence of one man in particular put a new light on this year’s Grand Prix racing; this was Juan Manuel Fangio, making his first European appearance of 1954 at the wheel of the new de Dion Maserati and normally one would expect a driver to take some while to settle back into the pace, not having driven since January, but not Fangio, he was straightaway in with the Ferraris and the practice battle for the front row of the grid really got under way, just as last year’s Grand Prix events were always enlivened by the efforts in practice.
The record for the Francorchamps circuit stood at 4min. 23 sec., set up by Fangio with a 159 Alfa-Romeo in 1951, and Gonzalez began to wind the new Ferrari right up and recorded 4 min. 25 sec. Fangio went out and equalled this and then there was a lull, during which time the rest of the runners recorded times anywhere up to 5 minutes. As the evening drew on, and the air became cooler, conditions were perfect and Gonzalez went out again and put in a lap at 4 min. 23.6 sec. actually catching and passing Farina in the process. Although the new car was reasonably unstrained at that pace, the oil was still getting a bit too warm and the wire-mesh grille in front of the radiator was removed, but no more very fast laps were done, the time recorded being considered good enough. Farina tried Hawthorn’s 1953 car and made no secret of the fact that he thought it better than the new one, while Gonzalez was perfectly satisfied and having mastered the technique of a car with all its weight concentrated about the centre of the wheelbase, proclaimed it beautiful. The main difference between the two models was that with the new one the driver’s reflexes have less time to react when driving on the limit, for road-holding is such that when the car does break away it does so very quickly and without the warning that the old cars gave, so that a driver must now anticipate the car’s moves, rather than wait for them, as personal reflex times cannot be speeded up. With a lap time so close to the old record Ferraris were satisfied and went home, but Maseratis stayed on and a few minutes before the end of practice Fangio went out again and this time, trying so hard that the effect on the onlookers was electrifying, he recorded 4 mm. 22.1 sec., not only fastest of the practice session but he beat his own record set up with the 159 Alfa-Romeo.
During this fantastic lap he had strained the Maserati to its absolute limit, going to 8,100 r.p.m., which is 700 r.p.m. more than the factory recommend to private owners, and the car really looked as though it had suffered, oil leaking everywhere, brakes sizzling, the engine a vast heat haze and in fact it had the appearance of not being able to stand another lap like that, whereas the Ferrari had not been unduly stressed after being thrashed by Gonzalez. However, a new lap-record was the thing and Friday practice finished with Maserati on top, the presence of Fangio having put new life into the Trident. AII this rather overshadowed the other drivers’ efforts, but Farina had recorded 4 min. 26 sec. and Marimon, with the second factory Maserati, 4 min. 27.8 sec. Hawthorn was obviously back in form but taking no risks and Moss was not happy with his Maserati, there being rather too much oil flying about the place. Mantovani was driving the third works Maserati, but still a bit out of element on a pure Grand Prix circuit and Mieres with his 1953/54 car was, also feeling his way cautiously on his first occasion at Francorchamps. Bira had a brand new de Dion car, with a new type of gear change and improved gearbox, in place of his earlier model and was quietly settling, things in and accustoming himself to the new technique, for the de Dion long-chassis cars handle very differently from the old cars. Three Gordinis were running, two works cars driven by Behra and Frere, and though both were going well they could not hope to challenge the red cars on such a fast course, especially with so many high-speed bends. The third car was the Belgian one driven by Pilette and finally the Belgian 1953/54 Ferrari was circulating slowly, driven by Swaters, as it was still rather new after a rebuild.
There remained one more practice period, on Saturday afternoon, during which there was a much calmer atmosphere though some of the slower cars improved their times. Hawthorn got down to 4 min. 29.4 sec. and Moss to 4 min. 40.8 sec., while Trintignant did some laps in the spare 1954 Ferrari in order to prepare himself for the time when the whole team would be on the new cars.
On race day the field lined up on the grid for the start which was given at 3 p.m., and in perfect weather conditions the 14 cars got away to a tremendous start. Fangio, Gonzalez and Farina were on the front, with the two up-and-coming youngsters, Hawthorn and Marimon, in row two, while right at the back was a fifteenth car, not really in the race, but getting away at the signal. This was a 1953/54 Maserati, driven by de Graffenried, and it had a movie camera mounted in the nose in order to record genuine racing scenes-for the forthcoming film “The Racer.” As the cars streamed down to the bridge of the Eau Rouge and up the steep climb beyond it was Gonzalez in the lead for Fangio had made a slight muff of his take-off and was then hemmed in by the rush of those behind. Away up the hill into the woods of Burneville the order was Gonzalez, Farina, Hawthorn, and meanwhile the rest of the field were spaced out up the, steep curve after the Eau Rouge bridge. Suddenly, in the midst of the field the Maserati of Mieres became a sheet of flame and by sheer chance the others avoided him as he braked heavily and jumped off the moving car. A mechanic had not shut the tank cap properly and as he braked going into the first bend it had flown open, splashing him with fuel; then on the right-hand uphill swerve the fuel had spilled onto the exhaust pipe and that was that. Mieres was very lucky to escape with nothing more than some burns on his back and soon returned to the pits on foot. Meanwhile the Ferrari/ Maserati battle was on and the end of the lap saw Farina leading Hawthorn and Fangio, with Marimon fourth, but stopping at his pit. There was no sign of Gonzalez and it was not until some time after the rest of the field had passed that he arrived and stopped at his pit to retire, the Ferrari having broken down within a few kilometres of the start. Swaters also came in with the yellow Ferrari and retired with a broken engine, while Marimon restarted after changing plugs. On lap two Fangio passed Hawthorn and as they passed the pits he was on Farina’s tail, passing him at Malmedy corner on the next lap; already these three had outpaced the rest of the field which was being headed by Trintignant, with Behra right on his heels. Once in the lead Fangio drew steadily away and Farina could do nothing about it, while Hawthorn lay a comfortable third, and it was interesting to reflect that of the first three drivers, the leader was in his first race since January and the other two were in their first race since leaving hospital. On lap 10 Farina suddenly closed on Fangio and on the next lap he regained the lead, but it was seen that Fangio’s visor strap had broken and at the end of the lap he slowed down at his pit and cast it away, putting on the goggles he had round his neck. Meanwhile Hawthorn was in trouble with a split in his exhaust pipe, the fumes entering the cockpit and making him feel dizzy. Farther back Behra had scrabbled past Trintignant only to have a rear axle mounting break so that he had to retire on lap 12. It took Fangio only 2 1/2 laps to catch Farina, and though the latter tried all he knew to hang onto the Maserati, Fangio eventually got away as the cars left Stavelot to begin the uphill climb back to the start. Just before completing the 15th lap Farina’s car burst and he coasted into the side of the road leaving Fangio to continue quite unchallenged, for Hawthorn was over one minute behind, with Trintignant even farther back. During the next few laps Hawthorn began to slow and it was clear that he was far from well, so, thinking he was not fully recovered from his previous accident, and that his injured leg was giving him trouble. Ferraris prepared Gonzalez to take over his car, flagging Hawthorn in as he started lap 19; it was only willpower that got him round that lap and he came into the pits and collapsed over the wheel. He was quickly lifted out and Gonzalez got in and was away, but already Trintignant had gone by into second place. While Hawthorn was revived Gonzalez was discovering the reason for the English driver’s collapse, which was the broken exhaust pipe allowing fumes into the cockpit and at the end of one lap he stopped to have it repaired, for apart front the fumes the flames were burning the driver’s arm. The pipe being on the opposite side of the car to the pits this break had gone unnoticed in the change of drivers as Hawthorn was unable to tell anyone until it was too late. This all happened after Fangio had completed 21 of the 36 laps over which the race was being run, and while the pipe was repaired Gonzalez lost nearly a whole lap so that the race, as such, was now over and of the 14 starters only seven were still running. Moss had been driving very steadily in mid-field and with all the retirements and delays he moved up into third place, about half a lap behind Trintignant, while for a similar reason Pilette with the yellow Gordini moved up to fourth place, followed by Bira and Mantovani, the latter having stopped three times for changing plugs: Paul Frere had retired with a broken rear axle, after two pit stops to remove water from the plug recesses, due to spray from the radiator, a common Gordini trouble.
Fangio could now ease right up and he dropped his lap times down to 4 min. 40 sec., so that Trintignant began to close up on him, but not dangerously so, and providing the Maserati did not break the Argentinian was a certain winner. Gonzalez restarted in sixth place, caught Bira and then a few laps later he caught Pilette, but Moss was too far away and the Ferrari settled down to finish the race. Unknown to the Italians Moss had lost all his oil pressure and was driving with his fingers crossed hoping the car would complete the course if it was not strained too much. Seven laps before the end Trintignant lapped Moss, Fangio having already done so; thus only the first two cars were on the same lap and in that order the seven remaining cars finished the Belgian Grand Prix, with Fangio in a well deserved first place having made a fantastic re-entry into European racing. He made the fastest lap and finished the day well and truly in the lead for the World Championship, while his race speed was a new record, being faster than that recorded by Farina with the 159 Alfa-Romeo in 1951, so that clearly the new Formula I cars are showing great progress. His driving throughout the race, and practice as well, had been remarkable and having put the Maserati trident back on the map it will be interesting to see what he can do for the Mercédèz-Benz star, for he was only on loan for the Belgian race.
Most unfortunate man at the Belgian Grand Prix must surely have been Mieres for apart from his car catching fire just after the start, it had split an oil pipe at the start of both practice periods, and he had little opportunity to learn the circuit. Fortunately, the fire did not do very much damage.
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Johnny Claes, who had no car for this year’s race, had the consolation of taking the winner and his wife back to Spa after the race in a Gran Turismo Aurelia.
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On the long curve at Stavelot Fangio was able to gain over one second over most drivers, on driving alone. Hand timing showed Moss and Behra to be amongst the fastest of the general run of the field.
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Bira was well satisfied with his new Maserati, having a non-stop run, but neither he nor Moss dare use 8,000 r.p.m. as Marimon and Fangio were doing, for they did not have spare engines to hand.
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The exhaust fumes that caused Hawthorn to collapse were seeping under his visor so slowly that he was unaware of the effect until he suddenly found himself motoring on the grass at one point.