#45 1955 Belgian Grand Prix

2021-04-20 01:00

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#1955, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Nicola Carriero, Translated by Laura Mangiaracina, Luca Saitta,

#45 1955 Belgian Grand Prix

Immediately after the tragic end of Alberto Ascari on the Monza track, the question had been raised in Italian motorsports circles: could Lancia enter


Immediately after the tragic end of Alberto Ascari on the Monza track, a question was raised in Italian motorsports circles: will Lancia still join the next Formula 1 competitions? The demise of the former World Champion deprived the Turin-based company of its best driver, and also had a backlash on Villoresi as a consequence. Luigi could not help but feel a deep moral shock at the loss of his friend, and already last Sunday in the Supercortemaggiore Grand Prix (in which he entered with a sports car from another House), Villoresi did not start. Castellotti alone, as skilful as he was, was evidently not enough to form a team. The renunciation of the Turin brand in Formula 1 racing was in the air. In fact, on Monday, May 30, 1955, the following official announcement was issued:


"Scuderia Lancia, following the death of the great team leader Alberto Ascari, has arranged to suspend its racing activities. The driver Castellotti has asked to participate in a personal capacity in the next race at Spa, and engineer Gianni Lancia, before embarking today for America, has granted him car and assistance".


This is the official statement. The decision is logical and sportsmanlike at the same time, as it does not prevent Eugenio Castellotti from lining up at the start in the fourth round of the World Championship. It does, however, arouse much bitterness. The red Turin racing cars, in the city where everything related to motoring finds such immediate and ready response, had been greeted at their appearance with a general, one might say affectionate, sympathy. Now Lancia, according to what the statement suggests, is retiring, but remains in touch with racing. Castellotti, who has unofficial assistance from the house, will bring a garnet-coloured race car to the race; after the Belgian race at Spa (June 5, 1955), the world championship will make a stop in the Netherlands (June 19, 1955), France (July 3, 1955) and England (July 16, 1955). For each date there is a chance (remote or close?) of a return to the scene. In short, the question about abstaining from racing may be followed by a less pessimistic question: is the surprise hit of a welcome return possible? Meanwhile, the standard bearers of the competing manufacturers head for Spa. Fangio, immediately after the Nürburgring, where he won the Eifel Cup (Sportscar category) last Sunday, went to Belgium with the Mercedes team. The Argentine raced bravely, but he too was profoundly shaken by Ascari's death. Even General Peron had telephoned him from Argentina for news. It is almost romantic how Giuseppe Farina learned of the loss of his friend and former teammate. The Turin native was headed by car, along with Ferrari executive Amorotti, to Nürburgring, where he placed well. In the night of May 26, 1955, while driving along a highway near Frankfurt, Giuseppe turned on the radio of the 1100 in which he was traveling. Ascari died, he heard.


"There and then I thought of consequences of the Monte-Carlo misadventure. Instead, the radio announcer went on to narrate the Monza tragedy. I then stopped the car. My legs were shaking. I did not know what to do. I cried for a long time, my head resting on the steering wheel. I remembered Ascari debuting in the Tripoli Grand Prix, where I remembered Alberto as a friend, rival, dear, brave. I wanted to return immediately to Italy, I wanted to be close to his bereaved friends and, I confess, I needed to feel close to the friends. But duty is duty. I went on to Adenau, I raced to the Nürburgring. With which spirit it is easy to imagine, but I raced, placing fifth".


Returning, again by car, from Germany, Giuseppe Farina will depart later that evening or the next day, again by car, for Belgium. The predictions made in some automotive circles about the possible withdrawal of Lancia from sporting competition following the tragic end of its champion Alberto Ascari have unfortunately come true. Indeed, in a statement, the Turin-based manufacturer announced its decision to suspend its racing activities. The loss of Ascari was not only irreparable for motorsports, but it also had serious repercussions in the technical sector that is closely related to that sport. It is enough to think of the enormous effort made by Lancia to align itself in little more than a year with manufacturers specialized in racing constructions and strong with many years of experience to easily realize, that all the studies, research, the long work of realization, preparation and fine-tuning, the commitment of means and men are, if not nullified, certainly made vain by the tragedy of Monza. For these considerations, perhaps not everyone who follows motorsports will find themselves in agreement with the serious decision faced by Lancia. Yet, realistically considering the situation, without indulging in sentimentality, it is difficult not to be convinced that there are very valid reasons for approving such a course of action. 


Alberto Ascari was not only the team leader of the young Turin formation, he was also a driver who, with the resources of very high gifts of ability, heart, and enthusiasm, knew how to perfectly summarize the mechanical possibilities of the vehicle entrusted to him. A good car without the driver who knows how to exploit its qualities is like a Stradivarius in the hands of a mediocre violinist: the difference being that racing is not an end in itself, it has a technical value and propaganda importance that transcends mere sporting fact. If a car manufacturer devotes itself to racing - especially when it is not a workshop of an artisanal nature - it not only repurposes useful experiences from it for the company's technical heritage, but also plays a big stake in the publicity reflections - beneficial or negative - that racing results bring as a consequence to the factory's own normal production. It is logical, therefore, that once the road to racing has been taken, the industry that has decided to devote itself to it throws as much weight as it can in that direction, either by the employment of the means and capacities suited to the purpose, or by recourse to the skill of valuable drivers. But while the coordination and enhancement of the House's resources can be dosed by simple internal decision, it is precisely the question of drivers that ultimately acquires decisive value, that overshadows the company's own possibilities. All this appears in clear light today, with the disappearance of a champion of Ascari's value and the consequent immediate crisis of the racing sector of a House which, like Lancia, had in recent times concretely proven that it was capable of facing, on the technical-constructive plane, the offensive of the German Mercedes-Benz. It is painful to be faced with this bitter realization. But it must be considered that of the other two Lancia drivers, Villoresi is now in the inevitable downward parabola, after twenty years of generous, brilliant, but wearisome activity (not to mention the consequences of the psychic shock that hit the Milanese racer from the death of his fraternal friend), and as for Castellotti, he is a very promising young driver, but still in need of some apprenticeship to acquire authority and craft. In other words, the continuation of the sports program by Lancia would be too big of an unknown that could even have unfavourable consequences. On the other hand, the statement from the House of Via Monginevro speaks of suspension, not termination. It is a nuance that leaves the door open for a possible program review.


When and in what form, it is not easy to imagine; however, one car will participate on Sunday in Spa at the Belgian Grand Prix, the fourth round of the World Championship, with only Eugenio Castellotti (who, according to certain sources, has been approached by Ferrari to join the Scuderia). Will it be a goodbye or a farewell? One cannot help observing, however, that in the second hypothesis there would be a risk of losing precious time: even by continuing studies and laboratory and workshop work, the valuable practical experience that only direct comparisons allow would be lost. Let us therefore hope that Lancia's resolution is reduced to an albeit necessary period of recollection and updating of programs of competitive activity. Meanwhile, Scuderia Ferrari announces that it will officially participate in the Belgian Grand Prix, valid for the World Championship, scheduled for next Sunday. The official team will be headed by Giuseppe Farina. The names of the other drivers will be designated in the days leading up to the Grand Prix, that is, when Trintignant's condition will be known. After racing on the Nürburgring circuit the day before the Indianapolis 500, Fangio arrives at Spa with the Mercedes team, while Farina returns to Italy, and arrives in Belgium later. On the first weekend in June, Formula 1 pays a visit to the quiet hills of the Ardennes and is ready, despite everything, to disrupt the rural life of the local people. In spite of everything, because it is Formula 1 itself that is in shock at the very recent news events: on Saturday, May 28, 1955, there was a final farewell to Italian ace and World Champion Alberto Ascari, while on Monday, May 30, 1955, Bill Vukovich passed away during the Indianapolis Grand Prix. Spa-Francorchamps has always been considered a circuit for real drivers being very fast and demanding, thus capable of making a real selection of talent. The length exceeds fourteen kilometres and one hundred and twenty meters, the track is triangular in shape formed mainly by state roads connecting the small towns of Malmedy, Stavelot and Francorchamps. Ferrari lines up five 555s, driven by Farina, Frère, Trintignant, Taruffi and Schell, while four Maserati 250Fs attempt to qualify for the Grand Prix, driven by Behra, Musso, Perdisa and Mieres. Curious is the dual role of Stirling Moss, who, in addition to being an official Mercedes driver, serves as the owner of a team fielding a Maserati driven by Claes. 


Local idol Jacques Swaters climbs aboard a Gordini from Ecurie Filipinetti, but will fail to qualify, while Hawthorn and Rosier drive a Vanwall and a private Maserati, respectively. In the practice sessions, Castellotti pulverizes the track record by turning in 4'18"1, averaging 196.947 km/h. A time worth the pole position, ahead of Fangio, Moss and Farina.


"And afterwards, he was ten minutes shivering in the pit".


Writes Paul Frère, a journalist and Formula 1 driver, referring to Castellotti. From the start Fangio sets the pace and the three Mercedes-Benz drivers and the engineer arranges the changes on the different models throughout the evening, finally deciding that the car that they have brought along as spare is actually the best suited to the circuit, all of them preferring the handling of the long-chassis car. Not having been to the Spa circuit since 1939, the team are finding out what the requirements are by hit-or-miss methods. The existing lap record for this high-speed circuit belongs to Fangio with an Alfa Romeo in 4'22"1, and Fangio has little difficulty in improving on this with the 2.5-litre Mercedes-Benz, finally getting down to 4'18"7, a speed of 196.490 km/h. Moss achieves 4'24"4 and the only other driver to approach these two is Farina, who does 4'27"1 with the new Ferrari, these cars now having long protruding nose cowlings with a very small air-entry. Castellotti is feeling his way round the circuit for the first time, for the Belgian circuit is one full of very fast corners, the downhill ones being extremely difficult to take on the limit. Hawthorn is beginning to go well with the Vanwall when a pigeon gets in his way and is scooped up into the radiator, fortunately without doing any serious damage, but shortly after, the water header-tank splits and puts a finish to his practice. This first period is more of a question of suiting the car to the circuit than serious starting-grid times, but on Friday evening, things are different. With the exception of Claes, who is to drive Moss’s Maserati, the whole entry is out for practice and things begin to heat a little. Fangio now has a normal long-chassis Mercedes-Benz, Kling has a similar car, and Moss the medium-length car with inboard brakes, and once again the German team begins to set the pace, but very soon it is clear that Castellotti has really learnt his way round the circuit and Lancia’s laps begin to be rapidly faster. Farina is also getting back into his real stride and is making his 555 Ferrari go as never before, while Behra and Musso are leading Maserati’s attack very effectively. Using first one of the Lancia and then the other, Castellotti runs very nearly the equivalent of a whole Grand Prix race during the evening, getting progressively faster and faster and finally recording 4'18"1. 


This causes a stir in the German team, for earlier Fangio has done 4'18"6, and Moss has done 4'19"2 and they are resting content with that. It is now too late for them to have another go, so practice finishes with Castellotti on top. Farina has got down to 4'20"9 and these four are way ahead of all the other drivers, the circuit showing where the real differences between car/driver combinations lies. Behra is not really at home on such a fast circuit, neither is Musso, while poor Mieres falls off a pit counter and twisted his ankle before he really gets going at all. The new driver Perdisa, who has shone so well round the houses at Monte-Carlo, is quietly finding out what real Grand Prix racing is all about and keeping company with Rosier at the end of the list of times. The Vanwall is in trouble again, this time with its gear-selecting mechanism, but before this happens, Hawthorn has got down to 4'33"0. Having a car to spare, the Mercedes-Benz team are using it for endurance testing and it is continuously driven by the various team drivers, and in addition John Fitch is given the opportunity to drive it for a lap or two. These two practice periods are held under perfect summer conditions and the Saturday afternoon practice is looked forward to with great excitement, for it is expected that Moss and Fangio will try to challenge the Castellotti’s lap. However, it is not meant to be, for Saturday is a day of continuous rain and there is no hope of anyone improving on their previous times. In the practice, Mercedes-Benz is still thrashed round by all the team drivers and Uhlenhaut, while, on their own cars, Moss and Fangio soon prove to be the fastest, until once again Castellotti gets into his stride and sets a time between the two Mercedes-Benz. The respective times of Fangio, Castellotti and Moss are, 4'53"1, 4'53"4 and 4'55"2, with Kling next best in 4'57"3, and these are the only ones to get under 5 minutes in the pouring rain, which is some achievement, though Frère does an excellent 5'02"1 and Behra 5'02"9. 


Farina makes no attempt to go fast, doing only a few laps just to get the feel of the course in the rain, while Vanwall is still in trouble. Before practice, Vanwall’s owner has been driving it around the town of Spa and by the time Hawthorn gets it to start serious practice, the clutch falls apart. By Saturday evening, everything is very wet and gloomy and the prospects for the race do not seem too good, but, as so often happens in Spa, race day is dry and warm, with some clouds keeping off the intense heat of the sun, so that conditions are pretty well perfect. As the cars are placed on the downhill starting grid, it is the lone Lancia that has the pole position on the left of the front row, with Fangio and Moss alongside. Behind are Farina and Behra, then come Kling, Musso and Frère, followed by Hawthorn and Trintignant and in the back row, Perdisa, Rosier and Mieres, the latter driving in spite of his twisted ankle. Claes is a non-starter as he breaks the engine of the green Maserati while he is supposed to be running in some new bearings before the final practice. On Sunday, June 5, 1955, the scenery is reversed and a beautiful sunshine provides the backdrop for the event. Around noon, three hours before the start, the transfer to the circuit obliges the thirteen starting drivers to cross the streets of the town of Francorchamps, forming a fascinating procession and enlivening Sunday morning traffic. The drivers will have to tackle the 14,120-meter track thirty-six times, completing a total of just over 508 kilometres. As the flag is raised, mechanics are still trying to push-start Musso’s Maserati but it is proving obstinate and, as everyone begins to creep forward, he is wheeled to the back of the grid. The flag goes down and in a cloud of dust and smoke the 13 cars shoot down towards the river bridge before the climbing turns up into the Burnenville Forest. Fangio neatly flicks his car sideways as he goes into the left-hand corner over the bridge, thus effectively stopping Castellotti cutting through on the inside, and the order going up the hill is Fangio, Castellotti, Moss and Kling, the German driver having made a terrific getaway. Moss nips past the Lancia before the end of the first kilometre and the two Mercedes-Benz set off on what becomes soon a mere demonstration run. Around the 14.12 kilometres of the opening lap, the experienced Argentine really presses on and Moss found that there are places where Fangio goes through on full throttle but he has to ease off just a little, and the result is that, at the end of the lap, Fangio is leading by nearly 3 seconds. 


Castellotti just cannot cope with this sort of driving, for doing a quick practice lap with a few gallons of fuel on board is very different from driving with full tanks, but nevertheless he is leading Kling and all the Maserati and Ferrari quite comfortably. For fourth place, a fierce battle begins to develop between Kling, Behra, Farina and Frère, but the Italian Ferrari driver is really in form and he soon gets away from the others and begins to close up on Castellotti. After three laps, Hawthorn is just holding on to the leading group, being in ninth place, while Mieres, Perdisa and Rosier are already well behind and Trintignant stops at his pit to replace a plug that has literally split in two. Fangio is now nearly 6 sec ahead of his team-mate and driving hard, while Moss is leading Castellotti by a comfortable 20 sec gap and Farina is in the Lancia’s slipstream. Going into the left-hand curve before the final hairpin at the end of lap four, Behra loses his Maserati and spins, bounces from one bank to the other and stops in the right-hand ditch, very battered and bent, but with no damage at all to the driver. He quickly walks down to the pits, and the next time round Mieres stops and hands his car over to his team-leader, who re-joins the race in ninth place, a long way behind the leaders. The two Mercedes-Benz take the lead, the gap between them growing each lap, but equally the gap between Moss and Castellotti also grows steadily. On lap nine, the Vanwall begins to blow oil out of its gearbox and Hawthorn stops at the pits and withdraws, while Kling, Musso and Frère are battling furiously for fifth place, Trintignant following just behind, though a lap in arrears. At 12 laps, or a third of the total distance, Fangio settles down 11 sec in front of Moss, and Castellotti is still third, 31 sec behind, fending off the attack by Farina, who is now a little way back, but firmly in fourth place. Frère has eased off a little, but Musso and Kling are fighting hard, continually changing positions. Behra is obviously somewhat shaken by his high-speed spin and is making very little headway in his second Maserati, being nearly a lap behind the leaders, while Trintignant, Perdisa and Rosier are already lapped. On lap 15, Fangio is 14 sec in front of Moss and he sets up a new lap record in 4'20"8, though his young teammate is lapping only fractionally slower, for the gap between them does not vary by more than a second, and with the exception of the duel between Musso and Kling, the race has become a high-speed procession. 


On the next lap, Castellotti fails to appear and he is reported having stopped at Malmedy corner in trouble. As though to consolidate his position once and for all, Fangio sets up another new lap record just two-tenths of a second quicker than his previous one, at a speed of 195.057 km/h (121 mph), and still Moss is only 13 sec behind. With Castellotti out, Farina now takes third place, but nearly a minute behind Moss, and the duel between Musso and Kling is now for fourth place, while Frère drops back and is settled in sixth position, still on the same lap as Fangio, whereas Behra is lapped by the two Mercedes-Benz cars shortly after this. After 20 laps, Fangio begins to decrease his pace and Moss closes up to within 5 sec and, barring mechanical trouble, they have merely to tour around and win, for Farina is too far away to be a threat. The Musso vs Kling battle ends in them both overstressing their engines and the Maserati goes woolly, which a change of plugs does not cure, and the Mercedes-Benz has an oil leak and retires. The race as such is now over, and it is just a matter of watching some very good drivers show just how to take fast corners in a modern Grand Prix car. On lap 28, both the Mercedes-Benz and the Ferrari pits signals their drivers to ease right up and tour in to finish, and the order is Fangio, Moss, Farina and Frère, these four all being on the same lap, while behind came Behra, Musso, Trintignant and Perdisa with Rosier bringing up the rear. Although by Grand Prix standards the leading four cars are touring, they are still lapping in under 4'30"0 (over 116mph). The race ends without any twists and turns, and Fangio completes the predetermined distance in two hours, thirty-nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, followed by Stirling Moss, who arrives at the finish line only eight seconds behind the winner, greeted by a warm applause from the 50.000 spectators and former King Leopold, who is accompanied by Princess Liliana de Béthy and Prince Albert of Liège. Then, the abyss: Farina, third on Ferrari, is one minute and forty seconds behind, while Frère is fourth but more than three minutes behind the Argentine. Behra is fifth, wins two points to share with Mieres but arrives one lap behind, while all the other participants suffer larger gaps. A Grand Prix that was never in dispute, with the German single-seaters being clearly superior, where Mercedes once again demonstrated its technical qualities, combined with the skill of its main drivers. Fangio is simply flawless and Moss, a great squire, reaffirmed that the struggle for the World Championship would be an internal affair; however, the Argentine ace's class seems unrivalled. The farewell of Lancia, the only manufacturer that seemed able to counter this dominance, is an added bonus for the Silver Arrows. In Ferrari, Farina is a guarantee of talent and tenacity, while Frère amazes everyone and brings home precious points, but the bitterness remains for a single-seater, the 555, still too far behind in the competition. Giuseppe Farina, at the end of the race, telephoned his wife from Brussels, saying that he was satisfied with his own race:


“Against the wild Mercedes, there was nothing to do".


After that, the driver from Turin rests for a few days, a guest of former king Leopold, to whom he is bound by a long-standing friendship. For Maserati, the Belgian stage is simply disastrous and has to be forgotten as soon as possible. The season schedule calls for the French Grand Prix in early July, so the two Modena companies will have time to get organized and sort out the issues that arose in this Grand Prix. However, another big event is just around the corner, such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a big goal for the Stuttgart brand and Ferrari, which will be staged on June 11 and 12. Precisely for this reason, Farina is waiting for instructions from Modena on Ferrari's participation - not yet certain - in the race, where another big battle is expected between Sportscars from the Mercedes, Maserati, Jaguar and Cunningham manufacturers. Even if nothing will be the same as before.


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