When Jose Froilan Gonzalez muscled his Ferrari past the chequered flag at Silverstone in 1951, no-one knew Enzo’s team would pass into legend. Andrew Frankel describes that first victory, and in the following pages we recall nine more of the Scuderia’s greatest Grand Prix wins
The idea of there even being a motor racing age when Ferrari had never won a grand prix seems odd. It’s like imagining the Mona Lisa when she was just a sketch: you know the time must have existed but it’s hard even conceiving it. But you must if you are fully to understand what Ferrari achieved on 14 July 1951. It was so much more than a maiden victory, more even than the defeat of the hitherto invincible Alfa Romeo team. It was both the dusk and dawn of an era, the coming of age of the greatest racing team in history and the destruction of one of the few capable even of standing comparison. And the perpetrator was an unknown and very gentle giant who, a mere two years earlier, was known only as Cabezon or Fat Head in his native Argentina and possessed aspirations no greater than winning races on local dirt tracks. His name was and is Jose Froilan Gonzalez, the surprise winner of the 1951 British GP.
His journey from South American obscurity to pole position at Silverstone was as dramatic as it was short. Back home, he had a mate called Juan Manuel Fangio who was to lead a team from the Argentine Automobile Club to race in Europe during 1950. President Don Francisco Borgonovo was persuaded to ask the 27-year-old Gonzalez to join the team.
He duly qualified his Maserati 4CLT third in Monaco, on his GP debut, only to become ensnared by the first-lap, multi-car shunt. At Reims, he lined up eighth, only to retire after just three laps with a blown engine.
By the time the grid reconvened at Reims the following year, Gonzalez had extended his championship grand prix experience by nine laps, which is how long his Talbot had lasted at Bremgarten. Then he met Nello Ugolini, Ferrari’s team manager, who enquired if the burly Argentine might be interested in swapping his Maserati for something bearing the Prancing Horse. Dorino Serafini, he explained, had been injured in the Mille Miglia and they were somewhat short-handed.
Gonzalez had trouble taking this on board.
He regarded himself as peasant stock and could scarcely believe the request had come from Don Enzo himself. But it had. “I was nervous, happy and afraid at the same time,” he recalls, “like a peasant who suddenly attains the love of a princess.” With the experience of just 12 laps racing in the drivers’ world championship to draw upon, Gonzalez led the race, led the finest drivers of the day, from Fangio to his own team-mate Ascari. It did not last.
At his pitstop, he was aghast to find Ascari waiting. Alberto’s Ferrari had retired, its gearbox broken and he needed another. Of course, it would not be the last time a Ferrari number two succumbed to team orders. Gonzalez was distressed and thought he had somehow let down Ferrari and was being punished. He wasn’t, as the contract Ferrari then offered him made clear: from now on Gonzalez would race on the same terms as Ascari and Luigi Villoresi. Froilan compared it with singing at La Scala.
The theatre for his talent was the Ferrari 375. It was Raymond Sommer’s epic drive in an antediluvian Talbot at Spa in 1950 which confirmed Ferrari’s extant suspicion that a 4.5-litre normally-aspirated engine was the answer to the blown 1.5-litre Alfa. If a Ferrari could even match the Alfa’s pace, it would stay out longer and have quicker pitstops. Aurelio Lampredi penned a one-camper-bank V12 power unit which not only brought Gonzalez victory at Silverstone in 1951 but also Le Mans in ’54.
Like all of Ferrari’s best engines, it was simple —just two valves per cylinder — strong and powerful. With twin-plug ignition, it developed around 370bhp at 7500rpm. Alfa’s 159B produced 400bhp at 9000rpm but suffered horrendous fuel consumption, which meant it needed to stop more often, and carry more fuel, creating a severe weight penalty.
At Silverstone, the writing appeared on the wall even before the race began, Gonzalez popping in the track’s first-ever 100mph lap to claim pole, over a second ahead of Fangio’s Alfa. Even without a heavy fuel load, the world’s greatest driver could not keep up with the Ferrari and its outsize occupant After the session was over, Gonzalez lead Fangio, Farina and Ascari on the four-car front row. The 90-lap race, however, would prove closer. At the flag, all four sat still, spinning their tyres into dust, Felice Bonetto’s Alfa storming through from seventh place to lead the field away. It was not to last long. Gonzalez brought the usually reserved crowd to its feet with a stunning display of opposite-locking and blasted into the lead. Fangio followed, stalking his compatriot At five laps, Gonzalez led Fangio by five seconds; at 10, it was an Alfa Romeo that came through Woodcote ahead. Meanwhile Ascari was already 26sec in arrears.
At 15 laps, Fangio ‘s lead was still just 0.4sec, the 375 glued to the back of the 159. Fangio did then break loose when Gonzalez flew off the track at Becketts, his race saved only by a blend of luck and talent as he first found and then steered through a gap in the hay bales.
By lap 25, Fangio led by a little less than six seconds, not nearly enough to take on the extra fuel he would need. And on lap 39 Gonzalez slithered back into the lead. It was all the future five times world champion could do to hang onto the exhausts of his friend. A mere three lengths behind, Fangio dived into his pit for fuel on lap 45, with precisely half the race run.
He knew it was all over, that Alfa Romeo’s run of 27 consecutive victories since 1946 had come to an end. Gonzalez knew nothing of the sort. Even if his car lasted and Ferrari won, there lurked a nagging doubt as to who would be behind its steering wheel.When he aimed the Ferrari into the pits on lap 61, the suspicion that he was to be denied the victory became a certainty. There, next to where the Ferrari would stop, stood Alberto Ascari. His gearbox had broken; this was Reims all over again. Heartbroken, humiliated and exhausted, Froilan hauled his bulk out of the Ferrari.
But this time Alberto did not move. The only movement was from Ferrari mechanics pushing Gonzalez back into the car, telling him this one was his. When Enzo Ferrari had told him after Reims that he would be treated the same as Ascari, he had meant it. Needing no further prompting, Gonzalez was back in the race, 23sec after presuming it was over; Fangio’s stop had been over twice as long and now the fat-headed peasant’ led the world’s greatest drivers with ease.
He appeared visibly to relax and, as he did, so his lead over Fangio grew. Gonzalez finally crossed the line 51sec or fully half a lap ahead of his compatriot, both of whom had lapped the entire field twice. In the cockpit, Gonzalez wept. “I drove my victory lap and, when I neared my pits, I saw my mechanics jumping, waving their arms. All around us was confusion and excitement ‘The Alfa Romeos are beaten,’ the mechanics were shouting.” They lifted him bodily from the car and took him to the podium where the pandemonium briefly subsided for the Argentine national anthem. The tears flowed freely once more. He was not the only one in tears. Ferrari, too, was taking the emotional toll. He had beaten the Alfas, the very team he had help build before the war. In his memoirs Le Mie Gioie Terribili, published in 1963, he said he felt he had killed his mother.
Fangio, however, was typically phlegmatic: after saying that his mechanics had put too much fuel in his Alfa at the stop, making it slow and heavy to drive, he nevertheless stated simply that Gonzalez “got the better of me”.
And he had. Here was an unknown Argentine driver with virtually zero grand prix experience, who had come to a land he had never visited, driven a car he hardly knew on a circuit he had never seen and yet had beaten all corners. Moreover, he had done it with just the smallest sliver of luck.
At the time, Motor Sport asked, ‘Has Fangio met his match in Gonzalez?’ but we know now it was not to be. Fangio would win five championships and achieve a start-to-win ratio unapproached by any driver to this day. Gonzalez would wait three years before he won his second, and final, grand prix (see panel below). The most interesting perspective on why this should be comes from Ferrari himself, probably the greatest judge of driving talent of all time and, with Don Borgonovo, one of just two men to have hired both drivers. “Whereas Fangio could be counted upon to keep going as regularly as clockwork, Gonzalez alternated bursts of furious speeds with spells in which he seemed to be taking his time. When leading, he would inexplicably slacken speed and let himself be overtaken; when he was in pursuit, he literally ate up his adversaries. I confess I was never able to understand why Gonzalez was so extraordinarily inconsistent Indeed, seeing the fatigued, worried and perspiring state he got himself into, I wondered why be ever raced at all.” It was as well for Ferrari that he did. After that season, Alfa Romeo shelved its flat-12 160 replacement for the 159B and withdrew, never to win another grand prix. Ferrari, by contrast, won all bar one race in the next two seasons to come.