Bill Boddy recalls a time when Ferrari were the young upstarts. Their thrilling battle with the well-stablished and hugely successful Alfa Romeo team ensured that the just-launched Formula One World Championship got off to a flying start
When war ended Motor Racing in Europe in 1939, the Grand Prix Formula stipulated cars of up to 4.5 litres with atmospheric induction of the fuel mixture, and up to 3 litres if they were endowed with forced induction, ie supercharged. The German Mercedes-Benz and Auto Unions adopted the blower part of the regulations and dominated the GP scene. The old ruling was applied for 1946, but a change came in ’47 because the mighty German cars had proved so impressive with their supercharged 3-litre engines. The International Sports Commission decided to reduce the capacity of the supercharged cars to 1.5 litres, retaining the top limit of 4.5- litres, hoping this would reduce speed and increase safety. It produced some of the greatest post-war motor racing, in the opinion of many.
In ’46 the revised Gioacchino Colombo-designed Type 158 Alfa Romeos were dominant, driven by Achille Varzi, Felice Trossi, Giuseppe Farina, JeanPierre Wimille and the test driver Consalvo Sanesi.
The following year Alfa Romeos finished 1-2-3 in the European GP at Spa, and in Milan.
But the battles we are about to consider did not begin until the unsupercharged V12 Ferrari made its debut at the Geneva GP of 1950, where Alberto Ascari ran second to Juan Fangio’s Alfa Romeo until the engine lost its coolant, allowing an Alfa 1-2-3.
This new 4.1-litre Tipo 340, the work of Aurelio Lampredi, developed 319bhp. The Tipo 375 Ferrari was ready in time for the 1950 Italian GP, its oversquare 80 x 74.5mm, 4493cc engine giving an extra 20bhp. Two of these cars ran, driven by Ascari and the late Dorino Serafmi. Taking over his team-mate’s car when his had expired, Alberto finished second to Farina’s Alfa Romeo. The ‘David versus Goliath’ years had commenced.
With one overhead camshaft per cylinder bank, the V12 4.5-litre Ferrari engine was later given twinplug heads, increasing power to 380bhp at 7500ipm. Presumably troubled, Alfa Romeo did not contest the non-championship Penya Rhin GP at Barcelona. Ferrari entered Ascari and Serafmi in 4.5-litre cars and Piero Taruffi in a 4.1-litre car. They took the first three places. The drivers’ world championship was in its second season by 1951, and Ferrari won the nonchampionship races at Pau, Syracuse and San Remo with nearly the power of the Alfas, better torque, and less need for fuel stops.
At the first championship grand prix of the year, at Beme, Alfa Romeo resorted to additional fuel tanks to compensate to some degree. Ascari, in pain from his arm bum from Geneva, handed his Ferrari to Piero Taruffi who drove a magnificent race, beating Farina to finish second. But Fangio won for Alfa Romeo in the appallingly wet conditions.
At Spa for the Belgian GP, Farina won easily for Alfa Romeo, ahead of the Ferraris of Ascari and Luigi Villoresi. At Reims for the French GP, Fangio’s Alfa led Ascari’s Ferrari from the start, with Villoresi well up, but then Ascari’s gearbox gave out and Fangio’s engine began misfiring. There was drama when Fangio, having switched to Luigi Fagioli’s car, had to stop for fuel and tyres and Ascari went past, (now in Jose Froilan Gonzalez’s car). Then leader Farina overshot when coming in with a tread adrift, losing three minutes. Fangio had another pitstop but passed Ascari and won from the Ferraris of Gonzalez and Villoresi. So to Silverstone for the British GP. I remember the excitement as newcomer Gonzalez, the portly full-faced ‘Pampas Bull’, Fangio’s friend from Argentina, lapped so close to Fangio, who was absolutely on the limit at the corners and even hit the straw bales and marker barrels. It was said that Fangio was smoother and that Gonzalez threw his Ferrari at the turns with brute strength — but did it matter, if both were so fast? Great stuff!
The Alfa pitstops gave Gonzalez some 73sec advantage. Farina made fastest lap, at 100.004mph before the clutch appeared to bum out. Gonzalez, the remarkable newcomer, offered his Ferrari to Ascari, whose gearbox had broken, but was told to resume his fine drive. He won by 51sec from Fangio. Memorable, and rightly described as an epic display. Moreover, this impressive driver had a single-plug Ferrari, the other two the later twin-plug power units. Thus Ferrari, as the big battalion, on whose side God is said to be, had gained over the (mechanically) more highly-stressed Alfas. It was the first time the Alfas had been defeated in five years — a watershed, the beginning of the end of the supercharged era.
Would Ferrari do so well at the first post-war German GP at the Niirburgring? Only Ascari, Fangio and Gonzalez lapped in under 10 minutes in practice, over this very sinuous circuit, and on race day it lay between these three and Farina. Ascari overtook Fangio and the need for fuel lost further places for the Alfa Romeo. After Paul Pietsch had crashed and Bonetto had magneto failure, Fangio was on his own for the Milanese marque, and a further stop for more fuel and a stalled engine left Ascari to score another Ferrari victory.
It was becoming ever more fast and furious. At Monza for the 1951 Italian GP, Ferrari had satisfied themselves in practice that the 4.5-litre could lap easily at 122mph for the 313-mile race. The race can were brand new, with revised bodywork. Alfa Romeo had three new Tipo 159s with De Dion back axles, remoulded tails, twin exhaust pipes, an air scoop on the scuttle and larger brakes.
Fangio, Farina and Felice Bonetto had the new cars, Baron de Graffenried an earlier 159. Ferrari had Ascari, Gonzalez and Villoresi in re-streamlined cars, Taruffi in an older twin-plug De Dion car, and Chico Landi in a 12-plug De Dion model. In practice Fangio lapped Monza at over 200kph, a first. Fangio led away from pole and was leading the 80-lap race when his Alfa Romeo lost a tyre tread and Ascari, Gonzalez, Villoresi and Bonetto all went by. The pitstops then came, slick work helping Gonzalez and Ascari to keep their places. This a+ battle ended when Fangio’s Alfa broke a piston just before half-distance. Only Bonetto’s Alfa was left, which Farina took over, knocking 50sec off Gonzalez’s lead by lap 40. But he then needed new tyres and a wheel-change problem cost him over a minute, whereas the Argentinian was stopped for only 30sec. Then Farina’s fuel tank began to leak and he had to settle for third place and fastest lap, behind the Ferraris of Ascari and Gonzalez.
At this stage in the drivers’ world championship Fangio was just two points ahead of Ascari. So the Gran Premio de Espafia at Barcelona promised much excitement, over 70 laps of the 3.9-mile Circuit de Pedralbes, with spectators sitting virtually unprotected round this course of closed public roads.
In practice Ascari had made fastest lap, 1.68sec quicker than Fangio, so a Ferrari/Alfa Romeo battle was again anticipated. Bonetto and de Graffenried relied on track-type ribbed Pirelli front tyres, treaded ones on the other Alfas, of 5.50 x 18 front, 7.00 x 18 rear, and Ferrari had different colour nose cowls to distinguish the cars of Ascari, Villoresi and Gonzalez.
Amid great expectation, the field lined up and a cannon burst signified five minutes to the off. Farina, bottle in hand for a last drink, ran to his Alfa Romeo, the red-and-yellow flag of Spain flashed down and they were away.
Ascari led for the first three laps, after which Fangio was in front, and soon building up a cushion. Ferrari were plagued by tyre trouble, Taruffi in after only six laps. Villoresi was next to suffer, then Ascari and Gonzalez. The tyres fitted did not like heavy fuel loads or the very fast Franco straight.
This all left Fangio in a good situation, especially after Ascari had made an error, necessitating a pause for car inspection. By lap 29 the fuel stops began, Fangio and Farina off again in under 30sec. More tyre trouble caused Ferrari further delays and then Taruffi survived a wheel coming off his Ferrari. Gonzalez, as ever, responded splendidly and went past Farina as he made the needed fuel top-up for the Alfa. But Fangio the maestro was well in command and resumed, to win by 54.28sec and clinch his first world championship. Gonzalez finished second, Farina third and Ascari fourth.
Although the formula was to have continued to the end of 1953, Alfa Romeo retired from racing at the end of 1951, so Fl races from 1952 were run mostly to the 2-litre non-supercharged, 500cc supercharged ruling and, as I explained last month, no blown 500s took part. And so the ‘David vs Goliath’ era ended.
I remember well, however, the 1951 Silverstone Daily Express race, when although the hoped-for official Ferrari team did not turn up, the Alfas were there. Fangio won heat one by a mere three seconds from Britain’s dear old tenacious Reg Parnell driving Vandervell’s Thinwall’ Ferrari, and heat two saw Farina and Sanesi first and second in the 159 Alfas, with `Bira’s Osca third. A thunderstorm flooded the track during the final, and we cheered Parnell on to a skilled lead until the race was stopped after six laps, during which the equally brave Duncan Hamilton in a Talbot was next, with Fangio’s Alfa Romeo in third spot. Duncan was then 49sec in front of the great Fangio as they splashed around. (Parnell was paid 1,1000 a race by Tony Vandervell.)