The race of the century?

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Hawthorn’s first GP win set the superlatives flowing. No wonder, says Shaun Campbell, it was one of the great drives

For the tens of thousands of spectators who lined the public roads around the French town of Reims on 5 July, 1953, there was nothing to suggest that they were about to witness what one contemporary account would headline ‘the race of the century’. On the contrary, the French Grand Prix looked an entirely predictable affair. Alberto Ascari, on pole in his Ferrari 500, would surely run away with the race, as he had in the previous three rounds of the ’53 World Championship, and every round he entered the year before… Ascari was on a winning streak the like of which Grand Prix racing has not seen before or since. Nine wins on the trot.

Even the most ardent French fans conceded there was no chance of an upset by the little Gordini team. It was at Reims the year before that Jean Behra had driven a Gordini to a surprise win over the Ferraris. But that had been a non-championship event, and today the Gordinis were plagued with problems and off the pace. The blue cars would start at the back of the grid, behind even the green Coopers, HWMs and Connaughts of the British teams.

The British contingent in the crowd were more cheerful. Many had been there all night to watch the 12-hour sportscar race, and cheered on the winning Jaguar C-type of Moss and Whitehead. Though there was no chance of a British car challenging for victory in the Grand Prix the quickest qualifier was Bira’s Connaught, 12sec behind Ascari at least they had a driver to cheer. Mike Hawthorn, ‘the Farnham Flyer’, just 24, was driving a works Ferrari, one of five which, with five Maseratis, filled the first 10 places on the grid in a flood of Italian red.

Ascari’s race tactics if such they can be called were simple. Get into the lead and stay there. Never happier than when in the front, his rare mistakes generally came when he had to scrap for places. It was knowing this, coupled with the fact that his Maserati A6SSG was marginal on fuel for the 311-mile race, that perhaps prompted Argentine Froilan Gonzalez to start on half tanks. Throughout practice the Ferraris had proved marginally better than the Maseratis, both in braking into Reims’ two hairpins and accelerating out of them, though the A6SSG had the edge down the long straights. Now, in the race, Gonzalez’ lighter load cancelled out the Ferrari advantage. Elbows protruding from the cock pit, head ducked down out of the airstream, Gonzalez rocketed his Maserati through from the second row to take an immediate lead.

With no worries about conserving his fuel or rear tyres he was able to brake deep into the Muizon and Thillois hairpins and smoke the rubber out of them. He had broken clear of slipstreaming attempts by the end of the first lap. Now it was just a question of whether he could open up a big enough lead to see him through a stop for fuel and rear tyres.

Behind Gonzalez, a gaggle of seven cars were jostling wheel to wheel Ascari, Hawthorn, Luigi Villoresi and Giuseppe Farina in Ferraris, Felice Bonetto, Onofre Marimon and Juan Manuel Fangio in Maseratis. Fangio was at the back of the group, typically biding his time and saving his car, moving up the leader board slowly as the seven car slipstreaming string began to break up. The 50-year-old veteran Bonetto, overdid it at Thillois, and dropped back. Marimon was also finding the pace too fast.

Fangio made his move just before half distance, turning up the wick to pass Farina, Villoresi, Ascari and Hawthorn and move smoothly into second place. Gonzalez was more than half a minute in the lead, but on lap 29 he screamed down the pit lane. The Maserati pit crew kept him stationary for 28sec, a quick time for the day, but not quick enough. The burly Argentine rejoined just behind the leading five. He was up to fourth within a couple of laps as Villoresi came unstuck at Thillois and Farina started to lose ground, but, at the front, a remarkable thing had happened. Ascari had failed to hang on to Fangio’s slipstream and lost contact. The only Ferrari left on the pace was that driven by Hawthorn.

It didn’t look like a fair fight. Fangio was a veteran, one of the greats, already a World Champion; Hawthorn was a new boy, a junior at Ferrari, driving only his fourth Grand Prix for the team. But Hawthorn was no respecter of reputations and the race was there to be won.

For the next 30 laps they raced rarely more than feet apart, swapping positions into the sharp turns contrived from highway junctions and down the arrow-straight roads of Reims. They passed the startfinish line on the pit straight dead abreast, according to some reports, on 10 occasions. But few accounts of this race concur on the details. Gregor Grant’s account in Autosport gives some indication why. “Hard-headed journalists, veterans of dozens of Grandes Epreuves threw nonchalance to the winds and became madly excited onlookers. One gentle man even went so far as to tear up his notes, stand on his hat and finally fall over his desk.”

If the excitement had reached that level in the press room, it’s hard to imagine what it must have felt like from the cockpits of the two leading cars. As the race approached its end, their struggle grew in intensity. Before, they had been grinning at each other as they drew abreast, acknowledging each other’s moves with a wave. Hawthorn said later that they had been so close he could clearly see the rev counter in Fangio’s cockpit. But now it was getting serious, with the slightest mistake likely to cost victory. They had to watch behind them, too the incredible Gonzalez had fought his way past Ascari and was almost within striking distance.

Hawthorn had the Ferrari’s nose inches ahead as they started that final lap, and by then he was aware that Fangio had a problem. The clutch on the Maserati was shot and he was struggling to hook first gear out of the hairpins. As they screamed down towards Illinois for the last time, the Englishman declined to get involved into a ‘last of the late brakers’ battle, concentrating instead on a smooth entrance and a clean getaway. He was past and away, right foot buried, ducking low into the cockpit as he strained to get every last ounce of speed out of the Ferrari. He flashed past three seconds later. After two and three-quarter hours of racing, the first four finishers were separated by 4.6sec.

“Race of the Century” might have been a somewhat hyperbolic title for the 1953 French Grand Prix. But you can see what they mean.

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