Fearless Farina the Silverstone pioneer

Norman Fox recalls how an old airfield joined the jet set 50 years ago
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Imagine that some of the cars had arrived for today's race not in their huge transporters but driven to the circuit along public roads. Fifty years ago, before the inaugural race in the new world championship, the four red Alfa Romeos which were to dominate were motored by their mechanics from a temporary British base in Banbury to Silverstone.

For the first time the European Grand Prix, as the British Grand Prix was designated in 1950, turned a motor-racing event into one of the social occasions of the year, and no local bobby in the villages en route to the circuit dared stop the Alfa cars on their way to the old airfield by royal appointment: the chief guests were King George VI and Queen Elizabeth(now the Queen Mother).

Yet in spite of all the attempts to spruce up the airfield, that was exactly what it remained. Much of the circuit was simply roped off from the spectators, and where today there are gravel traps, then there were straw bales.

Entirely predictably, the race was won by one of the much-improved pre-war super-charged 1.5-litre Alfa 158 cars. The winning driver was Giuseppe "Nino" Farina, aged 43. A doctor of political eco-nomy, he did not start serious racing until his late twenties. Earlier, his first hill climb had seen him crash, injuring himself in the process. That became a familiar pattern, yet he was one of motor sport's trend-setting stylists.

His position in the driving seat would be copied for years. Most drivers sat hunched over the wheel. Farina sat back with his arms stretched. If his physical style was distinctive, so too was his temperament. He never sought popularity or publicity, and would regularly abandon races midway simply because he thought he had no chance of winning.

It was only at the start of 1950 that he rejoined Alfa Romeo after appearing in Ferraris and Maseratis, but he won the Italian as well as the British Grands Prix that season, finally taking the first world drivers' championship by finishing fourth in Belgium, edging out Juan Manuel Fangio.

Since Farina rarely gave interviews or spoke much about his career, we are left with Fangio's recollections of that year at Silverstone. He said that the Princess Elizabeth "showed a lively curiosity about the motor-racing world, so different from the horse-racing world which was her favourite". Actually it was Princess Margaret.

The Alfa team finished in the first three places, Farina first, Luigi Fagioli second and Reg Parnell third, but Fangio, also driving an Alfa, was forced out with engine trouble. Farina's average speed of 90.95mph was over 13mph faster than the previous record.

The rivalry between the Ferrari and Alfa teams was intense only in the minds of the Italian press. The Alfas were so superior that they continually exchanged the lead in a vain attempt to entertain the crowds. Fangio admitted that Farina was in "great form", taking the eight championship points and another for achieving the fastest lap at 94.04mph.

Farina, who had been taught by the great Alfa driver Tazio Nuvolari, was a hard man. He had no time for the younger generation who spoke of safety while he only talked of winning. He spent most of his time lovingly designing and building cars (his uncle was Pinin Farina, probably the finest of all Italian coachbuilders) but on the track he was ruthless in his demands on those cars, which was one reason he so often failed to finish.

After 1950 he never again won the world championship. Nevertheless, he continued to race until almost 50, often when he was still recovering from injuries. In 1955 he drove in the Argentine Grand Prix only after taking morphine to relieve the pain from an earlier accident. The irony was that he survived all of his crashes on the track but was killed in his Lotus Cortina while on his way to watch the French Grand Prix of 1966.

Apart from in Italy, the motoring press criticised him for being aloof and gave him little credit for the British victory, pointing out the superiority of the Alfa cars. Neither were they happy about Silverstone itself, complaining that it took up to four hours to get out of the car parks. Some things never change.