The 1953 Argentine Grand Prix was the first of nine that made up that season’ World Championship, which, like 1952, was to be run under Formula Two regulations. The race was held in Buenos Aires on January 18, 1953 at the Autódromo Juan y Óscar Gálvez, (also known as the Autódromo 17 de Octubre) – it was the first official Formula One race in South America.
Following his inauguration as president of Argentina in 1946, Juan Perón had tasked the Automovil Club Argentino to bring Grand Prix racing to the country. Perón had swept to power on a wave of public support and he understood the value of motor racing in inspiring the masses.
As the year began, Perón’s fortunes had turned; his famous wife had died, the economy was in decline and the country was suffering a serious drought. But the Grand Prix cars were coming back and for the first time ever, the World Championship was coming to Argentina – something he hoped would give a much-needed boost to his standing among the population.
For the prestigious race the President had commissioned the building of a new circuit; The Autodromo Municipal 17 de Octubre, named after the day his supporters had rallied to demand his release from jail eight years earlier. It was celebrated every year as Loyalty Day.
Work had begun on the track after Fangio won the 1951 title and was built in just ten months. The circuit offered multiple configurations and promised to accommodate hundreds of thousands of spectators.
To ensure they appeared, the streets and junctions in Buenos Aires were plastered with posters of the upcoming race.
The ACA laid on a chartered flight to bring a dozen of the top drivers from Ferrari, Maserati, Gordini and Cooper across the Atlantic. Amongst those embarking on the then thirty six-hour journey was current champion Alberto Ascari.
Maserati had brought Juan Manuel Fangio, the former World Champion , who had not competed in the Championship since clinching the 1951 title in Spain. The first world championship race in Fangio’s home country would also mark his return to racing after suffering back injuries the previous June at Monza. Joining him at Maserati were his fellow Argentineans José Froilán González and Oscar Alfredo Gálvez, and the Italian driver Felice Bonetto.
Ferrari lined up the familiar trio of reigning World Champion Alberto Ascari, Nino Farina and Luigi Villoresi, as well as their new driver Mike Hawthorn, who had driven a privateer Cooper the year before.
The Cooper team entered the British pair of Alan Brown and John Barber alongside the local driver Adolfo Schwelm-Cruz.
Gordini kept three of their 1952 drivers; Manzon, Trintignant and Behra, who were joined by a pair of Argentineans—Carlos Menditeguy and Pablo Birger—the latter of which drove a Simca-Gordini.
In 1952 the lack of available Formula One cars meant most Grands Prix were run to Formula Two rules. The practice continued in 1953, and that played perfectly into Ferrari’s hands, as Ascari had dominated the 1952 season with his 500 F2. Arriving in Argentina he had won the last six world championship races in a row.
Ferrari was allowed to run in 2.5 litre Formula Libre specification and, despite it being 20kg heavier than the Maserati, Ascari was once again the fastest qualifier, taking his fourth consecutive World Championship pole position. His teammates Villoresi and Farini lined up third and fourth. Fangio prevented a Ferrari front row lockout by qualifying second in his Maserati, showing he still had what it took to compete in F1.
González, in the second Maserati, started from row two alongside Hawthorn for Ferrari and the Gordini of Trintignant. The remaining Gordinis of Manzon, Menditeguy and Behra made up the third row with Gálvez in his Maserati. Row four consisted of the Coopers of Brown and Schwelm-Cruz, and Birger in the sole Simca-Gordini. At the back of the grid was Bonetto for Maserati and Barber in the final Cooper.
With just sixteen participants, this was one of the smallest entries ever assembled for a Grand Prix.
Ascari took pole position, lapping the 2.4-mile circuit in one minute and fifty five point four seconds, though practice for the opening race of the season offered some hope that he might not have things all his own way this time as Fangio hustled his Maserati A6GCM machine around within seven-tenths of a second of the pole position time to take second on the grid.
Fangio had lost none of his speed. Following his accident the previous year, he now had a hunched stance at the wheel but the forty one year old was still over three seconds ahead of the next Maserati.
Due to President Juan Perón's decision to allow free access to the circuit, there were an excessive number of spectators - estimates of the number of people who turned up at the track on January 18th 1953 vary from 300,000 to 400,000 – some even suggest as many as half a million people were packed into the circuit. With still hours to go before the race began, the stands were full as the crowd baked in thirty seven degree heat while still more were trying to get in. Wire-cutters appeared and thousands poured through holes in the fences, sitting and standing by the dusty edge of the track.
President Juan Perón turned up for the race and as the 4pm start time drew near, the drivers became edgy. Some wanted to postpone or abandon the start, as the circuit now represented a rally stage, thick with people on either side of the track. The realisation dawned on the drivers that the alternative – not putting on a race – might provoke a riot. So they raced - it was a recipe for disaster.
Ascari led the cars away, pursued by Fangio, but as the race began the crowd pressed forward, encroaching onto the track. On lap twenty-one, a stub axle broke on Schwelm-Cruz’s Cooper and the wheel bounced away into the crowd – whatever injuries it caused were seemingly not officially recorded.
Then on lap thirty-two, a spectator wandered onto the track at the Curva Nor Este in front of the Ferrari of Nino Farina, who swerved to avoid them but, running onto the dusty edge of the track, spun off the road, toppling bodies as it sliced into the crowd. Aside from the ten who died (some say the actual figure was as high as thirty,) many more were injured. Farina escaped with leg injuries and the race continued.
News of the fatalities spread swiftly, inciting mass panic. Another boy ran in front of Brown’s Cooper and was also struck down and killed. Ambulances heading to the dead and injured were involved in further crashes.
Still the race continued, with Ascari and his pursuers passing the accident scenes every two minutes for the next two hours. Fangio retired with a transmission problem shortly after Farina’s crash and Perón quietly left the circuit.
Ascari, who started from pole, led the entirety of the race, after Fangio retired Manzon initially inherited his position but Villoresi ultimately took second place, a lap behind his teammate. Hawthorn had been running in third, although he was eventually overtaken by González, preventing a Ferrari 1-2-3. Hawthorn finished fourth, ahead of Gálvez, who took the final points in his first and only World Championship race.
The details of the race are, at best, sketchy, as are the official records from the race organisers. There is no way the race should have started under the conditions that it did - let alone continue when people started being killed. It's a side of the sport we thankfully don't see today and it's hard to imagine something like this happening in the first place.
The Argentinean Grand Prix was last run in 1960.
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