71 years ago, 21 drivers lined up to start the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. It was the inaugural Formula 1 Championship race, and 1038 rounds later, its legacy still stands.
It was a sunny weekend at Silverstone, just outside Milton Keynes and Brackley near the border of Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire in England, as organizers prepared for the 1950 British Grand Prix. It was a special event for two reasons, it was the first time the UK hosted the Grand Prix d’Europe, and it was the inaugural Formula 1 Championship race. Oh, and the Royal Family, accompanied by Lord and Lady Mountbatten would be attending, the first time a sitting monarch had ever attended a British motor race.
The concept was effectively a continuation of AIACR’s European Championship season from before World War II, but this new championship was sanctioned by the FIA. This existed on and off throughout the interwar period, with the 1939 edition cut short thanks to the outbreak of WWII. Cars didn’t really develop from 1939 to 1950, largely due to the financial strain on everyone and everything thanks to the war.
In the post-war rounds that were held, the frontrunners were generally either Maserati or Alfa Romeo. Both had similar car designs, and superchargers attached, but Alfa Romeo had a year off in 1949 which allowed them to develop their old 158 concept from 1939. There had been four non-championship events in the weeks leading up to the British Grand Prix, two of which were won by Maserati, one by Alfa Romeo, and one by Talbot-Lago. The Talbot win could be taken with a pinch of salt though, as neither Alfa nor Maserati competed.
The Silverstone Circuit ran around the exterior of a WWII airfield. It was 4.649km long with 8 turns. The drivers would lap this course 70 times on Sunday, to total 325km of racing.
The entry list included 24 drivers, 21 would start, two didn’t arrive, and one was a substitute driver. There were four Alfa Romeo’s to start the list off, driven by four talents from three countries. Italian pre-war ace and 1948 Monaco Grand Prix winner Giuseppe Farina would drive the first 158, with the second one driven by two-time Turismo Carretera champion and Pau Grand Prix winner Juan Manuel Fangio. The third and fourth cars were basically spares, driven by 1935 AIACR runner-up Luigi Fagioli, and local driver Reg Parnell.
Alfa Romeo was the only team to make a serious works effort. Outside of them, there were only four works entries. The slow, unsupercharged Talbot had two of those. The car wasn’t winning this race as they were heavier, with less power than Alfa, and fighting for scraps in the midfield. They entered with two relatively unknown Frenchmen, Yves-Giraud Cabantous, and Eugene Martin. Maserati and ERA both had one factory car. Maserati had chosen wisdom and experience, with Louis Chiron manning the 4CLT, the Monegasque had won races dating back to 1926, and at 50, was one of the oldest in the field. ERA had Britain’s hopes pinned on them, they hired local touring car specialist Leslie Johnson. The Brit knew the ERA car inside out and was the best Britain had before the time of Moss and Hawthorn.
Alongside these eight works cars, there were a number of unsponsored teams and private entries. Scuderia Ambrosiana entered two Maserati’s, both for local British drivers, namely David Murray and David Hampshire. Swiss businessman Enrico Plate also entered two Maserati’s. One for 1949 British Grand Prix winner Emmanuel de Graffenried, and one for Siamese royal Prince Bira, who was also a competent racer.
The remaining nine entries were private, or self-owned teams. Frenchman Louis Rosier raced a Talbot, as did pre-war veteran Philippe Etancelin and Belgian saxophonist Johnny Claes. Briton Joe Fry drove the only private Maserati, with the help of Brian Shawe-Taylor. ERA’s were raced by Cuth Harrison, Bob Gerard, and a shared entry of Tony Rolt and Peter Walker, with the Alta marque represented by Joe Kelly and Geoff Crossley. The Milano team was entered but didn’t arrive, and Raymond Mays chose not to race.
Qualifying all but solidified everyone’s fears of an Alfa Romeo domination display. The top four were the four 158’s. Farina took pole position with a 1.50.8, 0.2 seconds ahead of Fagioli. Even though Alfa was dominant, at least there looked to be inter-team fighting, as Fangio was only 0.4sec off pole. Parnell was fourth, a further second back. The second row was headed by Bira’s Maserati, 1.8sec off the pole, with the Talbots of Cabantous and Martin alongside. The third row had three makes on it, de Graffenried heading it, 5 seconds off Farina, with Rosier’s Talbot, Walker’s ERA, and the works Maserati of Chiron alongside. Row four features the ERA’s of Johnson and Gerard, with the Talbot of Etancelin 14th. The fifth row featured the fastest Alta, with Crossley 17th behind Harrison’s ERA and Hampshire’s Maserati, but ahead of the Maserati of Murray. The final row had the Alta of Kelly, Maserati of Fry, and Talbot of Claes, 18 seconds off pole.
The crowd on race day was packed, with over 200 000 spectators lining the track to see what promised to be a great race between the Alfa’s, and the midfield behind. The royal family made their way into the royal box as the cars readied themselves for the dropping of the flag and beginning of the race.
The British flag dropped, and 21 drivers were off for 70 laps of the Silverstone circuit in the inaugural Formula 1 Championship race. Farina led away from pole, with Fagioli second and Fangio third. Cabantous went backward, losing four spots from a bad start, while Claes went the other way, moving from 21st to 16th on lap one. Walker had a dismal start, moving from 10th to last. The first retirement was Johnson when his supercharger threw a tantrum and lit the car on fire. He was followed by Walker, who had a gearbox failure, with Martin out on lap 8.
Out the front, it was as you were. Farina in front from Fagioli and Fangio. Parnell was fourth but a little way behind, with the midfield charge led by Bira, with de Graffenried and Cabantous arguing for sixth. This continued throughout the early stages of the race. Fagioli took the lead on lap 10, with Fangio taking it briefly on lap 15 before Farina took it back. Chiron retired on lap 24 with a dead clutch, as Bira developed a problem and lost fifth.
Reliability was beginning to take its toll by the halfway stage. De Graffenried was out with a connecting rod issue on lap 36, then Murray and Crossley both retired on lap 44 with engine issues. Fagioli briefly led again on lap 38, before Farina took it back. Bira retired on lap 50 with fuel injection troubles, leaving only two Maserati’s out there.
The Alfa’s were running close, battling even. Then, on lap 63, only seven from the finish, Fangio was out. His oil line broke and he retired from second position. Farina then ran away with the win in a 1-2-3 finish for Alfa. Fagioli was second, with Parnell third. Best of the rest went to Cabantous in the Talbot, two laps down, who battled with Rosier. Gerard was the best British car in sixth for ERA, followed by Harrison, both of whom completed 67 laps. Etancelin was P8 on 65 laps, with Hampshire, Fry, and Claes on 64. The final finisher was Kelly in the Alta, though he was too far behind to be classified.
That was the story of the first-ever Formula 1 Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950. 71 years later, the names of Farina and Fangio still inspire many, and the Silverstone track still holds the British Grand Prix. Formula 1 has evolved a lot since then, but the 1950 British Grand Prix began the legend that is the FIA Formula 1 World Championship.