1951 British Grand Prix – Froilán González’s Greatest Race
By José Froilán González
More than twenty years have passed since that British Grand Prix and yet it seems to me as if it was yesterday. It needs only a casual word at a party, a friend or perhaps a journalist asking me, “How was it all in the beginning, Pepito?” for memories to flood into my mind; memories of a raw, inexperienced lad from Argentina. Since then I have received praise and congratulations from kings, princes, and statesmen in many countries. I have forgotten many races. But always fresh in my mind is 14 July 1951.
It really began earlier when I was, for my local countrymen, still Cabezon (Big Head!) Gonzalez, a driver who was content to win on local dirt circuits, thinking of no more exalted arenas.
Then Don Francisco Borgonovo, President of the Racing Board of the Argentine Automobile Club, telephoned me at the beginning of 1950, asking if I would join the team which the Club were sending to Europe, under the leadership of my great friend and countryman, Juan Manuel Fangio. I accepted of course, but was very unlucky that year and did nothing spectacular. The Club were patient with me and selected me for 1951, however.
I was at Reims, ready to race in the 1951 Grand Prix de France in a Maserati owned by the Argentine Automobile Club, when something happened which changed my destiny. Nello Ugolini, then director of the Ferrari team, asked me if I could drive one of the team cars because their driver Dorino Serafini had been injured in the Mille Miglia. The request, I learned later, came from Don Enzo Ferrari himself. I was astonished that a “peasant” of very little experience would have attracted the notice of the great Ferrari. We all held him in awe and I can recall, even now, my stumbling excitement as I agreed. I had few illusions about my chances but from that moment I seemed to be living a dream and even when they took me to the workshop to be measured for the seat and for the pedals I still could not believe I was to be the driver of Ferrari’s mechanical jewel. I was nervous, happy and afraid at the same time, like a peasant who suddenly attains the love of a princess.
The dream was to be very brief. I was utterly determined to make my mark at Reims in the Grand Prix de France and after a tough battle I managed to lead the race. But when I stopped at the pits to refuel Ugolini told me to hand over my jewel to Alberto Ascari who had walked back to the Ferrari pits after his own car had broken down.
Recalling it now I suppose it was understandable. Ascari was more experienced in the Grand Prix arena than I, and since he was now available, it was obviously more sensible to let him take over. But at the time I was mystified and wounded. I assumed I had in some way failed one of Ferrari’s mysterious tests. Yet nobody would tell me where I had failed.
I was just as puzzled when Enzo Ferrari sent for me. Puzzled and timid, for Ferrari was a powerful experienced man of the world while I had only recently arrived in Europe. I had no idea how to address the “sacred monster” of the motoring world when I was led into his office. I managed to say “Good morning” in Spanish and then stood there speechless, wondering why I was there and what to do next. Don Enzo, realizing my embarrassment, helped me out by smiling and shaking my hand. And to my utter amazement he – the greatest figure in world motor racing – actually congratulated me for what I had done at Reims. I was even more astounded when he suddenly asked me: “Would you like to sign a contract to drive for the Ferrari team?” I can feel even now the almost painful thumping of my heart. This just isn’t true, I told myself.
Plainly Ferrari was aware that he had confused me for he continued by saying that the terms of my contract would be the same as those for Villoresi and Ascari, his official drivers. But this did not matter to me. I was hardly listening to the details. I think I was already holding a pen – ready to sign anything. I only wanted to race, to become part of the powerful Italian team which seemed to me like attaining the highest rung of the ladder. After a very short career in motor racing I had attained the equivalent of singing at La Scala, Milan.
Ferrari had the gift of instilling confidence in its drivers. Although I was still very inexperienced I arrived at Silverstone for the 1951 British Grand Prix feeling that I really belonged in the Scuderia Ferrari, feeling eager also to pit my car’s power against the almost unbeatable Alfa Romeos – and my own skill against the world’s greatest racing drivers. Silverstone was the meeting place for international statesmen, industrialists, and millionaires, all looking for excitement.
During practice I had broken Farina’s lap record so I shared pride of place on the front row of the starting grid beside Fangio and Farina in Alfa Romeos and Ascari, my team-mate in a Ferrari. I felt very much that we were in the public eye – just as I had in Reims – but this time I knew that nobody would take my car away from me.
The “jewel” was at the starting grid while I kept pacing back and forth under tremendous nervous tension. I wandered aimlessly in a daze while a handful of my countrymen – just a few of my own people in this crowded and very foreign arena – were talking to me, trying to calm me. I could not listen to them. My mind would not concentrate on anything but the race. It was my obsession. I even carried on a conversation with myself: “Pepito! You, a peasant, have entered a high society party.” I tried to relieve tension by asking myself: “Pepito! What are you doing among so many Field Marshals? What will they all say in Argentina, in Arrecifes; what will your parents think?” And finally, when these questions did nothing to calm my nerves, I muttered aloud in a panic: “Pepito! How will you get out of this!”
It was the strident note of the horn announcing 5 minutes to race time which brought me abruptly to my senses. I had to rush to the toilet! And each time that devilish horn sounded again it increased my tension and anxiety. But at last we were in our cars. I stared at the starter, very careful not to move my car a fraction of an inch forward, since an early start meant a one-minute penalty. All the engines were revving impatiently while the crowd stood motionless watching us all on the grid. To me the grid was Hades and the engines were instruments in a hellish concert. My heart felt as if it would burst. Breathing was difficult. Then, just before I felt I must pass out, the starter’s flag came down. We were away. And what a start it was. The four of us in the front row, trying to lead the pack, accelerated so suddenly that our wheels spun while the cars moved forward in slow motion, leaving behind a cloud of rubber smoke through which the other cars roared, overtaking us like arrows! When our tyres got a grip on the track we found that instead of being pursued we were pursuing, trying desperately to find a gap in the crush of vehicles to catch up the leaders who were of course, increasing their speed.
As we passed the pits for the first time I noticed that both the Alfa and Ferrari team managers were signaling the same instructions, which were in effect that we should drive our own race. The alarming start meant that team tactics must be abandoned. “Go for the lead,” came the urgent message and soon as I saw that I went flat-out. By the next lap I was leading.
I could not hear them but I had the feeling that the British crowd had forgotten their usual restraint. They were jumping and waving and, it seemed to me, yelling like mad. “Pepito. You are ahead of the Field Marshals,” I thought, and kept my foot hard down on the accelerator pedal. Then suddenly my rear-view mirror showed a red car, growing bigger and bigger. A signal from my pit as I shot past told me it was Fangio’s Alfa Romeo. “Pepito. Don’t do anything foolish. Don’t panic. Even Fangio will have to do a re-fuel.”
When Fangio caught me in the 10th lap I let him overtake, placing myself directly on his tail. We traveled in tandem, our two cars seeming to be roped together. Even when he increased speed we remained like this, driving like men pursued by the Devil himself. There was a moment of danger around the 25th lap when I took Becketts Corner too fast and hit the straw bales. But this made me keener than ever and I set off again after Fangio. I began to close on him, having been perhaps 5 or 6 seconds behind him with both of us averaging about 97 mph until, on the 39th lap, I eventually took him. Towards the end of the race I was more than a minute ahead of him. I knew that he could not possibly make up 10 seconds per lap, although I thought he was trying. I even looked over my shoulder as I eased up a little. Within a few laps after that I saw the checquered flag waving for me. I had won my first Grand Prix.
I drove the winner’s lap and then, nearing my pit, I saw my mechanics jumping, waving their arms. The spectators were standing. When I stopped I was lifted bodily from the car. My wife, Amalia, hugged me and then friends rushed forward to embrace me: Corner, Fernando, Guzzi, the Argentine Ambassador Hogan; all their faces were blurred as they surrounded me, encircling me in such a strong embrace that I still feel their warmth and the moisture of their tears mingling with mine. All around us was confusion and excitement. “The Alfa Romeos are beaten”, the mechanics were shouting as they handed me a drink and solicitously cleaned my face.
After a few minutes they led me forward, a compact little group, to the presence of the Queen of England who congratulated me. I was crowned myself – with a wreath of laurels. From all sides I heard cries I did not understand. I saw hands trying to reach me and heard words in many languages, but none in my own tongue. It was strange music, but very pleasing to my spirit.
Then I was carried to the winner’s podium. All became quiet. People were still as they faced towards me. The deep silence was broken by the first chords of the Argentine National Anthem. It was the first time that I had been the centre of such a touching ceremony; and I started crying when I saw my country’s flag being hoisted to the top of the winner’s standard.
I was young, a country boy. And now more than twenty years have gone by. But still I remember July 1951 and often find myself again in that turmoil of hands, voices, and cries which, if I close my eyes, I can still see and hear around me …