Part 1 - A New decade, a Historic Era - The 1950 Formula 1 Season Review
It's well-known, Alfa and "the three Fa's", however, the title fight was almost as legendary as the team itself, and this is Part 1 of that story.
Motor racing had been around for quite some time before 1950, the first race being Paris-Rouen in 1894. However, a string of conflicts, notably World Wars I and II, had prevented any formalisation of motor racing and it was very grassroots compared to today. All that changed in 1950 however, as the governing body of motorsport, the FIA, announced a formalised championship for European Grand Prix deemed the most important. The rules were based on the Formula 2 regulations from before WWII, with 1.5 Litre supercharged or 4.5 Litre un-supercharged engines. The design around the rest of the car was very free, but most cars were front-engine, rear-wheel drive with the fuel tank behind the driver.
The season was contested over six European rounds and the Indianapolis 500, however very few count the Indy 500 as a race nowadays as it was run under completely different regulations and none of the European drivers competed. As such this article will only detail the six European rounds.
As the season start drew closer, it became known which drivers would compete in all rounds, as in 1950 one could turn up with an eligible car and theoretically be granted permission to race, however, most full-season entrants and factory teams announced their intentions before season start.
A duo of French factory teams entered for the season, the first of which was Talbot-Lago, a struggling French car manufacturer, who would use their pre-war T26C. Their driver choice looked promising, as their main cars were driven by pre-war stars Philippe Etancelin and Louis Rosier, the former a Le Mans winner. The team also employed Yves Giraud-Cabantous for their third car, and Eugene Martin, the youngest of the four by over a decade, as a part-time driver in the fourth. The only full season privateer used a Talbot too, jazz musician Johnny Claes in an older model painted in the Belgian national colour of bright yellow, it wasn’t hard to spot his car on the track.
A Talbot-Lago T26C.
The second French works team was Gordini, who sported their small and underpowered T15 cars on a part-time basis. A duo of Frenchmen drove for the team - Robert Manzon was entered for three rounds while Maurice Trintignant was entered for two.
The rest of the full-time grid was composed of Italian cars. Stalwart team Maserati would campaign their successful pre-war car, the 4CLT, with Louis Chiron for all rounds, and Franco Rol for three. Although this car was over 15 years old, it took many Grand Prix wins in 1949, and it was a sound and reliable design. It also supported the semi-private team run by Swiss businessman Enrico Plate, who ran a high-profile line-up of Barron Emmanuel de Graffenried and Prince Bira of Siam, both for four rounds.
A Maserati 4CLT.
The newest company on the grid was Ferrari, who used their year old 125 cars at the start of the season. They only entered sporadic races, with their main driver Alberto Ascari being entered for four rounds while Luigi Villoresi was entered for three.
Most hopes of team competition were quickly dashed, however, when powerhouse Alfa Romeo announced their intention to re-enter Grand Prix racing with their dominant 158 car. They took a year off after both their drivers died in 1948, but they would return with pre-war champions Giuseppe Farina and Luigi Fagioli, alongside a relative newcomer, the incredibly gifted Juan Manuel Fangio. The known power of the 158, using a 1.5 Litre V8 with dual-stage supercharging, made them a jet down the straights in an era where it mattered most.
The first race was the British Grand Prix at Silverstone
This race was also dubbed the honorary Grand Prix d’Europe, the first time this accolade was handed to a race outside of Italy or France. Alfa was there in force with four cars, Reg Parnell lining up alongside the three regulars. Also there in force was Maserati, with a staggering seven cars lined up, the factory one plus the two Plate cars, privateer team Scuderia Ambrosiana with two current models, and two solo privateers in older 4CL cars. Ferrari and Gordini did not run, Ferrari was unhappy with the starting money provided and Gordini did not have the funds to transport their cars across the English Channel. All five Talbots lined up as did a host of British private entries, notably privately entered outdated ERA cars and the tiny Alta team, hopelessly underfunded, and with only a few personnel, they folded in 1952. 25 cars were entered, however, four would not start, most notably pre-war ace Raymond Mays as he was concentrating on the all-British BRM project.
In qualifying, Alfa Romeo did what was expected and dominated. Their four cars were the top four on the grid, Farina set a time of 1.50.8 to take pole from Fagioli, Fangio. and Parnell. Bira was the best of the rest in the Maserati with the Talbots of Cabantous and Martin next. The Maserati’s and Talbot’s seemed relatively equal, as de Graffenried was next in the other Plate Maserati followed by Rosier in the third Talbot, with the first ERA of Peter Walker rounding out the top 10. Chirons’ factory Maserati was 11th and the best of the Altas’ 17th.
Alfa Romeo prepares for the 1950 British Grand Prix
Sunday, May 13 the British flag waved to start the first ever Formula 1 championship race, which was attended by the Royal Family and Lord and Lady Mountbatten. The new BRM was demonstrated earlier in the day but that was in the back of the crowd’s mind as the flag dropped and the cars were away. Farina was the early leader from Fagioli, Fangio, and Parnell, with Bira the best of the rest. The first retirement was Leslie Johnson in an ERA on lap 2, with Walkers’ retiring only a few laps later. The early battle of note was that of Martin and de Graffenried, though that was cut short as the former also retired. De Graffenried was then passed by Cabantous while Fagioli took the lead from Farina. Fangio then led for a lap as Fagioli dropped to third, but Farina took the lead back on lap 16 as Chiron retired. Joe Fry, who had been nowhere in qualifying suddenly found a pile of pace and rocketed into the top 10 by one-third distance. At the halfway mark, the race had settled down, but cars kept failing, and de Graffenried was the next to go, out on lap 36 followed swiftly by teammate Bira only a few laps later. Then a battle erupted for the lead, as Farina, Fangio, and Fagioli engaged in inter-team warfare for the race win. The scrap went on for lap after lap until bad luck struck for Fangio as his Alfa coughed, lost pace and the Argentine was out of the British Grand Prix.
So, it wound down, and Farina won the inaugural Formula 1 race by just under three seconds from Fagioli, with Parnell in third a minute behind. The Talbots of Cabantous and Rosier rounded out the points positions while only 11 cars finished the race.
Points were allocated to the top five on an 8-6-4-3-2 basis with an extra point for the fastest racing lap, which Farina earned. This meant he led the title race by three points from Fagioli and Parnell, while Fangio had a comeback to make with a pointless weekend.
Away they go for the British Grand Prix.
NOTE: I (the fool who thought of this series) didn't realise how big this article was going to be, so I've decided to split this season review up into small parts. Part 2 will explore the Monaco and Swiss Grands Prix, including the first-ever crash in Formula 1, and ponder how many bridges Juan Manuel Fangio walked under in 1950 as his Afa Romeo blows up for the second of four times this season. I want to make my DriveTribe profile all about historic motorsports reviews and analysis, so you guys can all nerd out about old racing cars in the comments 😁