Part 3 - The Rise of Ferrari, The 1951 Formula 1 Championship
Fangio was 10 points clear and looked set to wrap the title up in Italy, but anything can happen in motorsport, and it usually does.
The penultimate round of the season was at the high-speed Monza circuit for the Italian Grand Prix. All Fangio needed to do was finish ahead of Ascari to clinch the title. Peitsch was removed from the Alfa Romeo line-up for the race, with the team opting for de Graffenried again. Ferrari had the usual 4 car line-up, plus private entries for Brazil's Chico Landi in a 375, plus Fischers 212 and Whitehead's 125. Fischer wouldn't start after a practice crash. Gordini had three cars for Simon, Manzon, and "Trintignant". It was actually Jean Behra, who secretly replaced an ill Trintignant to avoid a starting fee cut. So secretive were Gordini that they even put a fake mustache on Behra to make him look like Trintignant, and somehow it worked, maybe the officials had one too many drinks of Italian wine. BRM was supposed to run but their engines blew up in practice, the start of a theme that would plague the British team for years. The final works entry was the small OSCA team. The first of only four races it qualified for, the 4500G was driven by Franco Rol in his only race of the season. The grid was rounded out by Talbots, of which there were six. Usuals Rosier, Chiron, Claes, and Cabantous were there, however, Etancelin decided not to run. Swaters was also there as was Levegh, in his last ever F1 race.
In qualifying it was Fangio on pole from Farina, but only just. Ascari came within two seconds of snatching pole, with Gonzalez, Villoresi, and Taruffi all within 5 seconds of Fangio too. Bonetto had to settle for seventh, coming within a tenth of Taruffi. Parnell qualified eighth in the BRM before its engine blew, and Ken Richardson tenth, meaning those grid slots were vacant. De Graffenried was ninth. The best Gordini was Simon in 11th, Cabantous was the best Talbot in 14th, and the OSCA of Rol was 18th.
The unusual-looking OSCA 4500G
The pack of 20 leaped off to what could be the deciding race of the championship. Fangio was the early leader from Ascari and Farina. Whitehead, Landi, and, crucially, de Graffenried were out on lap one. Alfa Romeo only had one backup car for their two drivers now. The race quickly developed into one of attrition, Claes was the next out, then Swaters. Then there was big news for the season, Farina had an engine failure and was out on lap 6. He took over Bonetto's car and Fangio now had nothing to fall back on if he retired. Levegh ended his F1 career in engine smoke, and Fangio pitted for more fuel, letting Ascari into the lead from Gonzalez and Villoresi. Chiron was next out, followed by Behra and Manzon. Then on lap 39, Fangio passed the pits belching smoke, his day was done, and with Ascari leading and no fastest lap, it seemed as though his lead would be obliterated. The attrition rate eased, and nine cars took the flag. Ascari winning a crucial race from Gonzalez and Bonetto/Farina. The Ferrari driver took 8 points, with Gonzalez taking 6 to keep him in the title race too. Farina had the fastest lap to give him 3 points to Bonetto's 2. Villoresi and Taruffi rounded out the points.
Ascari was only two points behind Fangio with a race to run, but with the rules of the time, only his top 4 results counted, meaning he needed to win or come second with Fangio behind to take the title. Gonzalez needed to win with both Ascari and Fangio out of the points to have any chance of the world title.
There were twists and turns throughout this 1951 championship, but the biggest of all happened off the track. The current regulations had been in place for nearly 20 years, and everyone knew there was a change on the way. The FIA announced that those new regulations would be coming in 1952, however, only Ferrari had the money and support to make a new car for the regulations. In the weeks preceding the Spanish Grand Prix, Alfa Romeo announced their retirement from Grand Prix racing. As a result, to avoid circuits pulling out due to lack of entries, Formula 1 made a switch to un-supercharged 2-litre Formula 2 regulations for the 1952 and '53 seasons.
There was still a title to decide though, and 20 cars made the trek to Pedralbes for the Spanish Grand Prix. The Pedralbes track was loved by drivers and fans alike for the challenge of fast sweeping corners, and the reasonably high safety standards considering the era, with expansive runoff thanks to the wide roads.
It was the last time we saw this car at a world championship race.
Both Ferrari and Alfa brought an unchanged lineup from Italy, and Gordini had three cars with Trintignant being there for real this time. Three Maserati's were privately entered for Prince Bira in his first appearance this season, Paco Godia in his first appearance ever, and Juan Jover, but his car expired before the race. It was the last time Talbot would be seen on a Formula 1 grid, and there were six cars, Etancelin was back, and Georges Grignard participated in his only race.
Alfa wanted to end their Formula 1 days on a high with a pole, but they missed out. Ascari took pole from Fangio and Gonzalez. Ferrari had fitted smaller wheels to get more acceleration and it seemed to work. Farina was fourth, followed by Villoresi and de Graffenried, with Taruffi and Bonetto seventh and eighth. The rest of the grid was fairly straightforward. Three Gordini's, headed by Manzon, followed by five Talbot's led by Chiron, then the three Maserati's. Rosier had a dismal session and would start last.
It was an end of term feel for the race, the last for Alfa and Talbot, and the 375 Ferrari and Maserati 4CLT. Could Alfa get a win in their swansong race, and could a Talbot steal a point before they leave for good?
The flag dropped and they were away. Bira's season ended after one lap with an engine failure, but it was Ascari who led early. It began to unravel very quickly though, the new small wheels weren't good over a race distance and Gonzalez had to pit with a flat tyre. Villoresi soon followed, as did Ascari. Fangio now led a tame, and nearly boring race. Bonetto was the only one giving action as he climbed and fell off the podium more than once. Taruffi underlined the Ferrari woes when his wheel parted company completely, leaving him out of the race. Villoresi had ignition troubles and had to retire too, but out in front, it was Juan Manuel Fangio who won by a minute to claim his first title. Jose Froilan Gonzalez was second to cap off a strong season, and Giuseppe Farina was in third. Ascari and Bonetto rounded out the points, while Louis Rosier rounded out Talbot's days with a seventh.
Talbot would never be seen in F1 again
The championship ended then, Fangio's 31 points gave him the title, 6 points clear of Ascari. Gonzalez was one point further back with 24, and the reigning champ Farina could be happy with fourth. only 10 points were scored by non-Ferrari or Alfa Romeo cars, thanks to Parnell's performances in the BRM and Vanwall, and Rosier and Cabantous scoring points in Talbots.
So, that was it. The end of the pre-war voiturette formula. Ferrari had the talent and funds to make a quick car in 1952, but they would have competition. Gordini and Maserati were building new cars to compete, British car makers, Cooper and HWM both planned a full season assault, and Connaught would attend some races too. Despite this, Ferrari with their new car looked strong to take wins in the Formula 2 era of Formula 1. It was the first season where no competitors died at the wheel of a race car, a stat that sadly wouldn't be repeated until 1963.
That's it for the 1951 Championship! I hope you enjoyed this, and the royal headache of 30 random slow cars called 1952 will be out shortly.