Mike whips the cream

1953 French Grand Prix Mike Hawthorn (Ferrari 500)

The 1953 French GP earned a place in the history books, not just as one of Ferrari’s most memorable victories, but as one of the greatest races of all time.

At 23, Mike Hawthorn was a still an unknown quantity when he joined the Scuderia, hoping to learn from veteran teammates Alberto Ascari, Giuseppe Farina, and Luigi Villoresi. Mike opened his Ferrari account with two fourths and a sixth in the first three GPs, and was thus proving himself a steady supporting act.

At Reims, Ascari was going for his 10th consecutive World Championship victory. The man considered most likely to stop his run of success was Maserati’s Juan Manuel Fangio, the Argentine ace ably backed up by Jose Froilan Gonzalez and Felice Bonetto. But on this sunny day in July, the Latin heroes were beaten by the fresh-faced Englishman.

Mike continued his form by qualifying seventh. But the race proved a different story. From the off he joined the established stars in a thrilling slipstreaming battle, the like of which had rarely been seen before. Hawthorn described the action in his autobiography, Challenge Me the Race: “Atone point I passed Ascari and he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, Take it away; I can’t go any faster!’ Positions were changing several times a lap. I had the lead and then Villoresi came past, and sometimes we would be hurtling along three abreast at 160mph, down an ordinary French main road.

It was a bit frightening to see the nose of one of the other cars come alongside, then drop back again as the driver decided he could not make it past before the next corner.” From trackside it was even more dramatic, as indicated by Gregor Grant in his Autosport report: “Hard-headed journalists, veterans of dozens of grandes epreuves, threw nonchalance to the wind and became madly excited onlookers. One gentleman even went so far as to tear up his notes, stand on his hat and finally fall over his desk. Charles Faroux unfurled his flag. Two laps to go. Surely this couldn’t go on?” The race drew to a close with Fangio and Hawthorn thoroughly engrossed in a wheel-to-wheel contest.

The 1951 World Champion lost first gear right at the end, costing him crucial momentum out of Thillois hairpin. Hawthorn pounced, and duly crossed the line ahead of Fangio and Gonzalez. Ascari was fourth, albeit just a few seconds behind. But he had been beaten at last.

“None will ever forget that finish,” wrote Grant. “At Thillois, Hawthorn edged ahead of his rival, and the Ferrari held its slender lead all down the straight, with Fangio crouching down in his car to get every ounce of speed out of the Maserati. But Hawthorn’s getaway at Thillois gave him that little bit of advantage. Down went the flag, with the Ferrari about 40 yards in front of the Maserati.” Grant dubbed it the ‘Race of the Century.’ Ferrari and Britain had found anew star, and the victory set the scene for the golden era of Moss, Brooks and Collins that followed.

Adam Cooper