86 – 1951 British GP



A series taken from the 162-page Motor Sport special 100 Greatest Grands Prix (other specials are available here).

Click here to buy the lead image.

From the editor Damien Smith

The Grand Prix motor races we can never forget…

Welcome to this special one-off magazine, dedicated to our love of Grand Prix racing and produced by the same team that brings you Motor Sport each month.

It seemed a good idea: whittle down 107 years of racing history to come up with 100 GPs that could be considered the ‘greatest’ – then rank them in meritocratic order. By week three, the old grey matter was beginning to ache…

Defining greatness was the first task. There were the obvious races – the wheel-to-wheel duels, the comeback classics. But there were also individual performances of supreme dominance, races that might not necessarily have been the most exciting to witness. Greatness goes way beyond thrill-a-minute, we decided.

Then there were those races of prominence, attached to a certain time or place that made them hugely significant. I’m thinking specifically of Belgrade, 1939. Only five entries took the start of a race that didn’t sound particularly scintillating. But as it happened to take place on the very day WWII broke out, we felt it worthy of inclusion. Meanwhile, Sebastian Vettel’s remarkable maiden GP win at Monza in 2008, for lowly Scuderia Toro Rosso, was left on the cutting room floor. Is that fair? You decide. We also opted to include a few races that weren’t Grands Prix, leastways in name, although the strength of entry was such that they might as well have been…

Choosing which races should make the list was hard enough; ranking the top 100 in some sort of order was even tougher, especially when it came to the crunch: which should be number one? We never did agree unanimously on the ‘greatest’, but if the magazine was to be finished a decision had to be taken. And that’s what I’m here for!

Will you agree with our choice and order? Probably not. But if steam begins to issue from your ears, take a deep breath. In any exercise such as this, there is no definitive list – because there can’t be. Our top 100 is based on opinion, nothing more, designed to be a bit of fun and to spark good-natured debate among fans of the world’s greatest sport.

So turn the page, delve in – and whatever you do, don’t take it too seriously.

1951 British GP
July 14, Silverstone

The world championship might have been in its infancy, but there was still a minor stir that – Indianapolis 500 apart – Alfa Romeo had been knocked from pole position for the first time.

The manner of execution caused a greater commotion: big numbers were something to treasure in the pre-digital age and José Froilán González’s quickest practice lap was the first to break the 100mph average around Silverstone. While he and compatriot Juan Manuel Fangio tussled for supremacy, BRM was racing simply to get its cars ready. In the end its V16-engined P15s skipped practice altogether and were delivered to the circuit on Saturday morning, in time to start from the back of the grid.

Stirling Moss won the curtain-raising 500cc F3 race in his new Kieft, after which the stage was set for the main event. All four front-row qualifiers made tyre-smoking getaways, which allowed Felice Bonetto to lead from row two for Alfa, but González and Fangio soon worked their way to the front to leave rivals trailing. The pair swapped places during the event’s first half, Fangio leading from laps 10-39, but for the afternoon’s greater part González remained in control.

And control is the word. His performance is often characterised for the way in which his ample frame dominated the Ferrari 375’s cockpit, González clipping oil drums and bales as he sought extra fractions of performance, but they were exaggerated details on a day when he had but one possible equal. And he dispatched Fangio fairly and squarely to record Ferrari’s maiden world championship victory (and Alfa’s first defeat, Indy again excepted). Ferrari had been quicker than Alfa with its refuelling, but not by a margin that explained the 51sec gap separating the two Argentines after 90 laps. González had been running Ferrari’s 12-plug engine, too, rather than the newer 24.

Luigi Villoresi took third for Ferrari, two laps behind the afternoon’s main protagonists, with Bonetto fourth.

Despite their unpromising start, both BRMs finished: Reg Parnell took fifth and Peter Walker seventh, albeit five and six laps shy of the full distance. Writing in Motor Sport at the time, Jenks noted: “By finishing they have fended off some of the bitter criticism to which they have been subjected since scratched from Reims. Their performance must have dismayed many of the national paper boys who have been busy severing connections with Bourne of late.

“Also, the BRM at its present level is a year out of date. Parnell averaged 90.5mph, which would have placed him third in the 1950 British GP, but BRM is now on the fringe of the racing map.”

And for those who believe the world was a better place back then, think on this – the sign-off to Jenks’s race intro: “The weather was fine and the organisation good, save for the threat of a strike by medical officers if their wives were not allowed on the circuit and further petty pilfering from the car parks, of which we have twice been victim at Silverstone. Let us hope this will not be the last time a classic race is held at this venue.”

It wasn’t… SA

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