Jose Froilan Gonzalez: Racing driver who gave Ferrari their first Grand Prix victory

 

Jose Froilan Gonzalez, the first man to win a world championship race for Ferrari, the 1951 British Grand Prix, has died days before the 62nd running of that event. His passing, at the age of 90, leaves Sir Jack Brabham at 87 as the oldest surviving grand prix winner.

Gonzalez was very much a product of his times, and looked anything but a racing driver with his large physique. Yet he was a very accomplished sportsman, playing football, cycling and swimming with high levels of skill as a youngster before his racing career began. His bulky stature and press-on style of driving earned him the nickname "The Pampas Bull" from British fans, but his close friends called him El Cabezon (literally, "Cowhead" or "Bullhead") or "Pepe".

He made a strong impression competing in his native Argentina in 1949 in a Maserati which his friend and compatriot Juan Manuel Fangio had sourced for him, then followed Fangio to Europe in 1950 to drive another private Maserati in the newly inaugurated world championship. He retired on both of his outings, in the Monaco and French grands prix, getting involved in a multiple accident in the former and suffering engine failure in the latter.

The year 1951 saw him break through, first in Argentina, where he vanquished the Mercedes works team in two Formula Libre races in Buenos Aires with a Ferrari 166. That led to the invitation to handle a works car from the emergent Scuderia in grand prix racing. He retired with oil pump failure in Switzerland and shared his car to second place with team leader Alberto Ascari in France.

He then stunned Alfa Romeo and the world by beating the swift straight-eight supercharged 1.5-litre cars with his 4.5-litre normally aspirated V12 Ferrari 375 in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. It was a technical turning point that sounded the death knell for the thirsty supercharged cars, and the first of the 221 grand prix wins that Ferrari had racked up by the recent Canadian race. The success prompted an otherwise jubilant Enzo Ferrari, who had previously run Alfa Romeo's racing efforts, to declare theatrically: "I have killed my mother!"

In a nice touch, Ferrari honoured Gonzalez at the British GP at Silverstone in July 2011, on the 60th anniversary of their historic first win. Fernando Alonso, who would go on to win that year's race, made a series of demonstration laps during the morning in the very car in which Gonzalez had triumphed.

The Argentinian followed that remarkable Silverstone win with third place in Germany and seconds in Italy and Spain to finish the season third overall behind champion Fangio and his team-mate Ascari and ahead of the former champion Giuseppe Farina. He also won a non-championship race at Pescara then signed for Maserati for the 1952 season. He only raced in one grand prix, however – in Italy, where again he shared his car to second place with Ascari, and he also manhandled the recalcitrant BRM V16 in non-title events.

He shadowed the great Fangio at Maserati in 1953, taking thirds in Argentina, the Netherlands and France and fourth in Britain, but then a bad accident in a sportscar race in Lisbon kept him out him for three months with vertebrae damage. He was back at Ferrari for 1954 for the new 2.5-litre Formula 1, winning brilliantly again at Silverstone, where he trounced the otherwise dominant Mercedes as they struggled with their wide bodywork on a fast course whose corners were lined by oil drums. He also took seconds in Germany and Switzerland, thirds in Argentina and Italy and fourth in Belgium to place second overall behind Fangio and half a point ahead of Mike Hawthorn.

He also won non-championship races in Bordeaux and Bari, and took four sportscar victories. One of these came at the prestigious Le Mans 24 Hours, in which he shared a 5-litre V12 375 Plus with Maurice Trintignant, but his season ended with an arm injury sustained in a crash during the Tourist Trophy sportscar race at Goodwood.

Thereafter his mainline career petered out as he chose to return home, with only sporadic appearances in the next three seasons with Ferrari and Maserati and, once at Silverstone, Vanwall, before his final outing for the Scuderia came in his homeland in 1960. But in 1955 he battled strongly for the lead in Argentina with Ascari's Lancia D50 before finishing second to Fangio's Mercedes.

After hanging up his helmet in Europe he was content to focus on racing back home in Argentina while also running a car dealership business.

Jose Froilan Gonzalez, racing driver: born Arrecifes, Argentina 5 October 1922; died Buenos Aires 15 June 2013.

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