The 1950 British (European) Grand Prix

Today is the 60th anniversary of the first ever Formula One World Championship Grand Prix held at Silverstone on 13th May, 1950. FIA had decided to link races at Silverstone, Monte Carlo, Bregarten, Spa, Reims and Monza into the new World Championship. Also included was the Indianapolis 500 (to the annoyance of statisticians) in a cosmetic attempt to make the series more intercontinental.

(Whilst more recently the European Grand Prix has been a separate event used to name a second GP in a country already hosting one that season, back in the ‘fifties, “Grand Prix d’Europe”, was an appellation added to an existing event as an honour, which in 1950 was assigned to the British Grand Prix.)

Silverstone had been an airfield in the Second World War. This is a 1949 aerial shot of the site.

Below is the crazy configuration used in 1948 for the first post-war British GP. Note that cars would have been approaching head-on towards the centre at a combined speed of hundreds of miles per hour before turning off onto the other runway.

Sanity prevailed and the GP was run on the perimeter road as below in 1949 and 1950. The pits were simply at the edge of the track unprotected by a pitwall.

Apart from moving the start/finish and pits to the modern position, the track used for Silverstone GPs remained almost unchanged until the introduction of the Woodcote chicane for 1975. Below for reference is the 2000 to 2009 configuration.

Europe had been financially crushed by the war in a way that made today’s British national-debt problem look like small change. There was a shallow grandstand opposite the pits but around the rest of the track, the public stood many deep behind ropes. Apart from some leftover hangars and a rudimentary wooden structure for the pits, tents and motor-vans stood in for lack of permanent structures. Since the drivers could see where the tarmac ended and the grass began, the cement-filled oil-drums marking out the edges of the track, with straw-bales behind that, were presumably to protect the public from accidents. (I can not help thinking the oil-drums would quite likely break the fuel-tanks, with the straw behind to help any subsequent conflagration.) Looking at a magazine photograph I have, it seems the oil-drums on the start/finish had plants emerging from the top of them that look like geraniums with the flowers blown off, presumably by the passing cars.

The event was attended by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth (subsequently the Queen Mother), Princess Margaret, Earl Mountbatten and Lady Mountbatten. After meeting and greeting the drivers, they adjourned to an especially built ‘grandstand’ made of scaffolding, covered by a canvas awning, and barely big enough for the five of them to stand on through the two-hour plus race. No wonder they never came back.

None the less, it was an event of great jollity and celebration in austere post-war Britain, attended by somewhere between 100 and 200 thousand spectators, but humble beginnings for the modern World Championship.

Ferrari declined to attend the event considering the starting money insufficient. Alfa Romeo entered cars for Giuseppe ‘Nina’ Farina, Juan Manuel Fangio, Luigi Fagioli plus an extra car for British driver, Reg Parnell. Talbot-Lago entered Yves Giraud-Cabantous and Eugène Martin, with three privateer entries of that make. Maserati entered only one factory car for Louis Chiron with five other Maseratis including two entered by Scuderia Ambrosiana for Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh (aka B. Bira) of Siam and Baron Toulo de Graffenried. The rest of the 21-car field was made up with a ragtag of Altas and ERAs driven by British drivers*. The new BRM was on display for royal inspection but was not entered.

(*Joe Kelly was born and raised in Ireland before moving to Britain and info is sketchy as to if he raced with a British or Irish racing licence.)

Despite being essentially pre-war machinery, the Alfa Romeo 158s with supercharged 1·5 litre straight-8 engines were in a class of their own. Farina, Fagioli, Fangio and Parnell filled the front row of the grid with ‘B. Bira’ and the two factory Talbot-Lagos on the second row.

Once the flag dropped, the Alfa Romeo drivers showboated swapping the lead a few times with Farina leading Fagioli home, and Parnell 52 seconds back after hitting a hare (scoring his only F1 WC podium). Fangio retired with an oil leak, which in retrospect was critical as he lost that year’s title to Farina by three points. The fourth-placed car was Giraud-Cabantous’s Talbot-Lago two laps down. Farina finished the 70-lap race (of about half-a-lap over 200 miles), having netted pole and fastest lap, in 2hr 13m 23·6s at an average speed of 90·97 mph (146·38 kph).

Leslie Johnson in his ERA on lap two recorded the first ever retirement (after his supercharger failed), although Felice Bonetto, entered in a Maserati, failed even to turn up!

The Alfa Romeos won on Pirelli tyres with most of the rest of the field on Dunlops. Ignoring the Indy 500, Farina and Fangio won all six races in 1950 and won four races to Ferrari’s three in 1951, giving Fangio his first title. The World Championship switched to Formula Two in ’52 and ’53. Alfa Romeo did not return until 1979.

Silverstone has hosted forty-five British Grands Prix including the ’48 and ’49 events. Aintree held the race in ’55, ’57, ’59, ’61 and ’62. Brands Hatch held the race in all the even years 1964 to 1986 inclusive. All the others were at Silverstone.

It is realised much more today what a huge landmark the event was. A report in Autosport on the 1950 Italian Grand Prix included only one sentence mentioning that Farina’s win sealed the World Championship.

I recommend watching this report on the event:

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