Part 1 - The Rise of Ferrari, the 1951 Formula 1 Championship
In 1950, Alfa Romeo dominated to take the inaugural World Drivers title with Giuseppe Farina, but times were changing, and a new challenger emerged.
The current rules had been in place since the mid-1930s, and few brands were willing to make new cars as everyone knew a rule change was on the horizon. Indeed, the number of competitors significantly decreased since 1950, and this season had one of the smallest pre-1981 average grid sizes, with just a 20 car average.
The calendar had gone through changes in 1951, the number of championship races had increased to seven, not including the Indy 500. The Monaco Grand Prix was canceled, and in its place, the first post-war German Grand Prix was held on the fearsome Nordschleife circuit. Joining Germany on the calendar was the inaugural Spanish Grand Prix, held at the Pedralbes street circuit as the season finale.
There were three full-time works teams in 1951. Gordini was there at most of the races this year, missing only the Swiss, Belgian, and British Grands Prix, but they were an also-ran, squabbling for scraps with the privateers. The other two teams were the heavyweights. Reigning champions Alfa Romeo wanted to back up their 1950 dominance, increasing the engine size of their old 158 to make the heavy, outdated, but fast 159. They were pinning their hopes on being too quick to catch in a straight line and gradually taking a lead, but their fuel mileage was dismal, with the car guzzling 31 liters per 100 kilometers. Their main two cars were driven by reigning drivers champion Guiseppe Farina, and Juan Manuel Fangio, with a third and occasionally fourth car driven by various drivers. They were joined by the new kids on the block, Ferrari. After debuting the 375 at the 1950 Italian Grand Prix, the car was completely ready for a full season assault with drivers Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi, and Piero Taruffi.
Various other teams made sporadic appearances, but they will be covered on a race by race basis.
A privateer Talbot leads an Alfa Romeo and a Ferrari in Switzerland. Photo Credit: Unknown
The first round of the championship was held in Switzerland at the dangerous and difficult 8km Bermgarten circuit. The tree-lined cobblestone track with power lines aplenty was also wet, like the drivers ever needed more challenge at this track.
Alfa Romeo brought 4 cars, for main drivers Farina and Fangio, with the home-boy Toulo de Graffenried in the third and Consalvo Sanesi in the fourth. Scuderia Ferrari brought three 375 cars for their full-season line up of Ascari, Villoresi, and Taruffi, with a private 125 spec Ferrari for Brit Peter Whitehead and a Formula 2 spec entry driven by local driver Rudi Fischer. The heavy hitters were there, but the rest of the grid existed too. Small team HWM entered their first championship race with the HWM type 51, and this was an important debut too. Owner and driver George Abecassis employed a young 22-year-old Brit by the name of Stirling Moss to drive the second car. Moss would be a driver we'd hear about a lot more in the coming years, but this was his sole race in 1951. Businessman Enrico Plate was back with his cars for a part-time season, using old Maserati's with Louis Chiron and Harry Schell. Most of the rest of the grid were private run Talbots, seven of which were in the field. Former works drivers Louis Rosier, Philippe Etancelin, and Yves Giraud-Canabtous all drove privately, as did perennial backmarker Johnny Claes, Argentine Jose Froilan Gonzelez, and French duo Guy Mariesse and Henri Loveau, the latter in his final race. The last entrant was Swiss Peter Hirt in an old and slow Veritas.
Qualifying was dry and the speed gains from 1950 were there to see. Poleman Fangio was a full six seconds quicker than Farina's pole time from 1950. Farina himself was second on the grid, but Villoresi prevented an Alfa Romeo front row lockout by putting his Ferrari in third. The other Alfas of Sanesi and de Graffenried were next before the final works Ferrari's of Taruffi and Ascari. The top 10 were completed by Rosier in the Talbot, then the private Ferrari's of Whitehead and Fischer. Moss was the best HWM in 14th, the sole Veritas 16th and the best Maserati was Schell in 17th.
The race day conditions were appalling.
The conditions were among some of the most dangerous seen in Formula 1, however, the Swiss flag fell on Sunday afternoon for 42 laps around a soaking wet Bremgarten circuit in 100mph coffins, and Fangio led away. He seemed at home in the rain, and only gave up the lead for five laps when he needed to refuel. Another driver at home was Stirling Moss. In arguably the slowest car on pace, he spent the entire race in the top 10, even challenging for points at one stage. In the end, nobody pushed too hard in the conditions and the race was tame. Fangio won by a minute from Taruffi in the Ferrari and Farina in the other Alfa. The points positions were completed by Sanesi and de Graffenried in the other Alfa's, while an unlucky Ascari was just outside the points in sixth. Moss showed every ounce of his talent, running seventh until the last lap when Chiron in the more powerful Maserati passed him, but eighth was a grand debut in such a slow car. The top ten were completed by the Talbots of Rosier and Etancelin, but the biggest retirement of the race was Villoresi in the works Ferrari crashing out on lap 12.
The points were awarded to the top five on an 8-6-4-3-2 basis, with a point for fastest lap. Fangio clean swept the points board, taking the nine available, meaning he was three points ahead of Taruffi with Farina third.
The second round of the championship was the Belgian Grand Prix, at the equally dangerous Spa-Francorchamps track. As was normal for Spa, there were few entries, as not many people were keen to trek into the Ardennes Forest to race there. Alfa Romeo brought an update to Fangio's 159 with a redesigned suspension to help the drum brakes work more efficiently. The problem with this, however, is the tyres would need to be forced off, meaning Fangio would need to run the race without a tyre stop to win.
Only three Alfa's were there, de Graffenried not running. The works Ferrari team had an unchanged lineup and the rest of the grid were Talbots. Usual suspects Rosier, Etancelin, Cabantous, Chiron, and home man Claes were there, with the grid completed by Pierre Levegh and debutant Andre Pilette, in his home race.
Two Ferrari's side by side
In qualifying, the speeds were startlingly fast, Fangio was on pole again, setting a lap time 12 seconds quicker than in 1950. Farina was second, beating his 1950 pole time by 9 seconds, and Villoresi the best of the Ferrari's in third. The second row was Ascari, Taruffi, and Sanesi and the rest of the grid were solely Talbot, headed by Rosier and Cabantous.
Away they went, and it was Farina who seemed untouchable in the Ardennes, leading all but three of the 36 laps. Fangio tried to make a bid for the lead but the new suspension halted all progress as Fangio needed to change tyres. The pit stop was a predictable disaster, the Argentine losing over 15 minutes in the pits. That was the race, not much could be expected with only 13 entrants, most of whom uncompetitive. Farina won convincingly by three minutes over Ascari, with Villoresi third. Rosier was fourth in his happy hunting ground, and Cabantous completed the points in fifth. Fangio, though ninth and last of the finishers, did get the fastest lap point as a consolation on a dismal weekend. Taruffi and Sanesi in the third Ferrari and Alfa respectively, both failed to finish.
Farina now led the championship, with 12 points to Fangio's 10, with Ascari and Taruffi tied third on 6 points each.
That's it for part 1 of this season, Part 2 and 3 will be out shortly!