The World's Leading Grand Prix Drivers
As the 1954 Racing Season Commences Motor Sport Sums Up the Capabilities of the Select Few who are Masters of the Art of Present-day Road Racing
During a lull in the exciting, but by contrast with modern Grand Prix racing tame, happenings of the recent R.A.C. Rally, I found myself discussing, with one who has ample oportunity to form opinions, how many truly outstanding Grand Prix drivers there are in the world today, and how they can be rated after considered and unbiased contemplation.
The findings may seem somewhat startling For we decided that only three really great masters of the art of winning present-day road races exist and that the total of drivers who can seriously be considered as of Grand Prix standard is the modest one of twenty-five.
Of these twenty-five — it is possible that we have overlooked someone but I do not think so — as I have said, my informant named only three “masters”; of the remainder he put eight firmly down as “second-class,” eight as “third-class,” with six wavering somewhere between these two or only just coming into the last category of genuine Grand Prix drivers.
The three absolute masters? Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio and Dr. Giuseppe Farina. There will, I feel, he little dispute over this selection, although I hasten to remark that I am not. “taking sides”!
Ascari secured for himself the World Championship for 1952 as well as for 1953. Driving solely for Ferrari, last year he won the Argentine Grand Prix, Pau G.P., Bordeaux, Dutch G.P., Belgian G.P., British G.P., Swiss GP., and, with Farina, the 1,000-km. sports-car race at Nurburgring. He set new lap records at Le Mans, Naples, Nurburg, Pau and Silverstone, and made fastest lap in the Argentine race, Swiss G.P. and Syracuse.
That is a record deserving of the proud title Campione del Mondo. Ascari’ s failures have been due to troublesome cars, and even then be has shown sheer common sense in dealing with situations as they arose, such as when his Ferrari shed a wheel at Nurburg and he let it roll far beyond the pit-area before attempting to stop, and his well-calculated refuelling stops at times when lesser drivers would have inevitably pressed on and probably have broken their cars. Ascari lost the Italian Grand Prix through spinning at the last corner, but who can say that Marimon’s Maserati did not assist the Ferrari in this unprecedented manoeuvre? In the French G.P. he was third behind Hawthorn and Fangio’s Maserati after one of those close-fought, very dangerous duels which have characterised certain recent Grands Prix. He had put up the fastest practice-lap, and you can surmise whether he preferred not to be right at the front of the break-neck battle which developed in the race or whether his Ferrari was now lacking the “steam” of Hawthorn’s, which it had beaten by 2.3 sec. in practice.
However you look at it, the modest, calm, comfortably-built Ascari is the classical G.P. driver in action. He adheres to the sensible dictum that his job with Ferrari is to win motor races. He does not indulge in fits of temperament or make his car resemble a firework. Thirty-six-year-old Alberto lives the life of a happily married man, spending as much time as he can with Mietta Ascari and their two children, eleven-year-old Tonino and eight-year-old Patrizia. They live in a compartment next door to the Hotel Miramare at Santa Margherita on the Ligurian Riviera. Ascari, besides being a very wealthy professional racing driver, has a Fiat agency in Milan and uses a 1,400 Fiat to drive to the scenes of his professional engagements. His relaxation is sea-bathing and sailing his boat in the bay at Tigullio. He went to Indianapolis in 1952 and met the general fate of Europeans at this difficult circuit — but again his calmness in emergency probably saved his life when his Ferrari shed a wheel at high speed. At the post-race reception Ascari, in dignified lounge suit amidst the lurid sports coats and dazzling ties, looked, even in defeat, what he was to become — Campiane del Mondo.
Fangio was runner-up to Ascari for last year’s World Championship, which be lost by seven points, although having cars which were, at all-events until well through the season, hardly a match for the works Ferraris. With this Maserati material he nevertheless contrived to score victories at Monza and Modena, and to finish second at Naples, Reims, Silverstone (twice) and Nurburg, besides setting a new lap record at Albi with the treacherous B.R.M. Fangio, from the Argentine, is reputed to have been a taxi or ‘bus driver back home, but I think that is exaggerated, for he shows keenness and intelligence. Certainly he learnt his motor racing with some very improbable cars in the rough-and-tumble of Argentinian racing, yet emerged as World Champion in 1951— Proof that Juan Manuel is a “natural,” for his training period was certainly shorter than that of Ascari, who-started on Sertuin, Gilera and Bianchi motor-cycles and was coached by the great Luigi Villoresi in Maserati and Ferrari cars.
The only other driver who qualified as a true front-rank G.P. pilot during our discussion was Giuseppe Farina, the elderly Italian Doctor of Engineering. There will be those who quarrel with this decision, but remember that Farina, wise in long experience, was World Champion in 1950 and third, 1 1/2 points behind Fangio, last year. Driving for Ferrari, he won at Buenos Aires and Naples, where he set a record race average speed, at Rouen, Silverstone Formula Libre, in the German G.P., and, with Ascari in the 1,000-km. Nurburgring sports-car race. He holds the Silverstone lap record with the 4 1/2-litre Thinwall Ferrari and was placed second at Zandvoort, Berne, and Monza, where he made fastest lap.
Inclined to be truculent, certainly a showman, Farina is still a very great driver in spite of his advancing years. It may take a certain amount of encouragement (as when Ascari retires) or an incident to arouse his ire, before he really goes motoring but when he does Farina knows all the right answers.
We come then to our “second-string” drivers. The “definites” I was given as Trintignant, Hawthorn, Gonzalés, Moss, Manzon, Marimon, Schell and Wharton. In this case results count for less than observation of form.
Maurice Trintignant, typical of the younger French drivers, did prodigious things with the not-easy Gordinis and earned his place in a Maserati at the close of last season, although in actual wins he could chalk up only those at Frontières and Cadours. But he has style, verve and fearlessness.
Hawthorn is another “natural” and, if the nonsense about National Service does not play on his nerves or remove him from the Grand Prix scene, he should emerge into “category one” when he has recovered from his unfortunate accident at Syracuse. With only a short apprenticeship with sports Riley and Cooper-Bristol cars, Mike has become a full-time Grand Prix driver for Ferrari, and his victory over Fangio in the French Grand Prix, no holds barred, when if both drivers had not driven “with their tops as well as their bottoms” they probably wouldn’t be here today, set seal to his fame and emphasised his real ability. Rugged, tall, manly and good-looking (ask les girls!), Hawthorn won the Pescara 12-hour sports-car race with Maglioli, was second at Rouen, where he made fastest lap, and at home — he hails from Farnham, Surrey — he won twice at Silverstone, won the Ulster Trophy Race, the Goodwood Trophy, setting a new lap record with the Thinwall Ferrari, and the Woodcote Cup, also at Goodwood, making fastest lap. Somewhat the English play-boy off duty, Hawthorn takes matters in deadly earnest while racing and was deservedly winner of the 1953 B.R.D.C. Road Racing Gold Star.
Froilan Gonzales, apart from scaring all the timid girls when they first come face to face with him — he has been nicknamed the “Pampas Bull” — has come along with Fangio, if not exactly side by side with him. He has fire, muscle, is very brave, which has motored him very rapidly in Maserati and B.R.M. cars — he has also closed an eye to flag-signals on occasion. He hasn’t the finesse to be placed in “category one,” but last season set a lap record during the British Grand Prix, the lap record at Spa and was second in the B.R.M., after troubles, at Albi.
Stirling Moss has had an unlucky 1953 season, with two nasty accidents and slow or unreliable cars. But he is young, keen, exceedingly popular and not fit enough for National Service. He has, if anything, better style than Hawthorn and looks far more relaxed in a 140-m.p.h. cockpit. Only his lack of experience in a Grand Prix team, indeed, in G.P. races, prevents me from putting Stirling into “category one.” The move may well be made at the end of this season, if his new Maserati goes properly and likes its English mods. Last season Moss won the Reims 12-hour sports-car race for Jaguar with Peter Whitehead, the Silverstone touring-car race and a small race at the Crystal Palace, and was second at Le Mans, after a useful drive sorting out the opposition, with Peter Walker.
Robert Manson and Onofré Marimon come into “category two” on form and Continental flair, having gained no outright victories last year.
Barry Schell, the amusing and vivacious American, has shown enormous improvement recently, driving Gordinis. Ken Wharton comes in by reason of his inimitable versatility, and virtuosity in taming the B.R.M.
There we have the eleven leading and next-best drivers on my pad. Note that three are Argentinian, three British, two French, two Italian and one American.
There will be drivers you may think should be included, such as the Mercédès-Benz Kling, Klenk, Lang and Herrmann, but until we see how they shape in modern Grand Prix racing they cannot be fairly considered. For the same reason Tony Rolt is a borderline case and not, I feel, quite on a par with Hawthorn and Moss, although his style is excellent and he is nearer “category two” than “category three.” There are several drivers, like Roberto Mieres, Eugenio Castellotti, the young Italian in the Lancia team, Paul Frere and John Fitch who are “on the brink” of “category three” and may make the grade of inclusion this season.
Luigi Villoresi, after a splendid career, suffered from a bad crash and, having taught Alberto Ascari the line a champion should take, is today content to drive less rapidly, which, I am afraid, relegates him to a dubious place in “category two.” His charm, that ready smile and a wealth of motor-racing experience are quite undimmed by his diminished fire, and he won last season at Monza and was second in the Argentine, at Buenos Aires, Bordeaux and Spa, for Ferrari. Simon is another “borderliner” but perhaps merits a place a little below Manzon and Marimon as “category-two” new boy.
Are there any other drivers of truly Grand Prix status? Precious few. Umberto Maglioli (in sports cars, though), Baron de Graffenried (rumoured to be retiring), Roy Salvadori (who has put up some excellent drives on airfield circuits but lacks extensive road-racing experience), Jean Behra, Prince Bira (who has tailed off a lot since the war, but is very neat in style), Lance Macklin, Peter Collins and Reg Parnell just get in, but, before you are rude about this, do ask yourself how much experience they have had, how we are able to judge them, as drivers of modern, winning Grand Prix motor cars. Parnell talks of retiring, but then so has Chiron at intervals during the past twenty years. But neither of these drivers gets any younger and were it not for his second places in an Osca at Syracuse and Sables d’Olonne the debonair, charming Louis, winner of this year’s Monte Carlo Rally and exceedingly polished conductor of Bugattis in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, would scarcely qualify at all. Louis Rosier, popular and legendary Frenchman, gets in on account of experience rather than recent performances, although he won at Aibi after the B.R.M. demise and at Sables d’Olonne, and, rightly so, no Frenchman will hear a word against him. Bayol is a man who is coming along well and almost merits his place in our “category two.”
For what it is worth, those are Motor Sport’s start-of-the-season findings, set out below in tabular form. Twenty-five G.P. drivers in all the world, gentlemen — eight British, seven French, four Italian, three Argentinian, one American, one Swiss, one Siamese. Scope for future talent, to be sure ! — W. B.
N.B. — It cannot he too strongly emphasised that this table and the article which precedes it is concerned with Grand Prix racing. Where sports-car racing is concerned the findings would be different, even to the extent of down-grading some of the G.P. aces and bringing to the forefront of the list certain “category three” drivers and others outside this category.