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Unsung Heroes: José Froilán González

The fourth part of our Unsung Heroes goes back to 1951 and the beginning of the Scuderia’s success, with the first ever winner of a Formula 1 World Championship race for Ferrari
Words – Gavin Green

José Froilán González is not the most famous or successful of Ferrari Formula 1 drivers.

Yet he steered his Ferrari 375 to probably the sweetest and most important victory in the team’s 71-year F1 history.
On 14 July 1951 at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, the burly Argentinian gave Enzo Ferrari’s young team its first-ever F1 World Championship win. González started from pole – his and Ferrari’s first. With his own distinctive driving style – arms flailing and considerable physical bulk hanging from the sides of the car – he famously fought and beat the defending champion Nino Farina and the man who would win the 1951 title, Juan-Manuel Fangio, both driving for Alfa Romeo. He won the race by more than 50 seconds.

José Froilán González (right) was Ferrari's first winner of a Formula 1 Championship race, the British Grand Prix on 14 July 1951

The race was a watershed for Formula 1, and for Ferrari. It was the first F1 race since the World Championship was inaugurated in 1950 not won by Alfa. For the remainder of that 1951 season, Ferrari would dominate. (González’s teammate Alberto Ascari won at both the Nürburgring and at Monza). The following season, Ascari was crowned World Champion, with Ferrari winning every race. Ferrari would go on to become the world’s most successful F1 team.

The Wednesday after that first Grand Prix triumph, González was invited to see Enzo Ferrari in Maranello. The Argentinian was surprised how much the win meant to the Old Man. He signed a photograph commemorating his victory, duly placed behind Enzo Ferrari’s desk. He was given a gold watch with a Prancing Horse on its face. González would later recall how the Old Man wanted to know, ‘every last detail about the race’.

His stocky build immediately discernible, José Froilán González (aka ‘The Pampas Bull’) hustles his Ferrari 375 to victory at the 1951 British Grand Prix

Born in Buenos Aires, González was spotted by his fellow Argentinian Fangio and was soon racing in Europe with support from the Argentine Automobile Club. He made his F1 debut at the 1950 Monaco GP, qualifying third in a Maserati. Enzo Ferrari was impressed and signed the chunky 29-year old for 1951. Known as ‘The Pampas Bull’, both for his hard-charging driving style and his bull-like physique – and also affectionately as ‘El Cabezón’ (fat head) by his fellow drivers – González quickly impressed in a Ferrari. He came second in his first race for the Scuderia (the French GP), won his second race (the British GP) and finished on the podium for the final three races of the season, including second at Monza behind teammate Ascari. He was third in the 1951 World Drivers’ Championship.

His other great year for Ferrari was 1954. He won the British Grand Prix again and came second in that year’s World Drivers’ Championship behind his fellow countryman Fangio. The same year he won Le Mans, at the wheel of a Ferrari 375 Plus. His last GP, also for Ferrari, was the 1960 Argentine GP. Afterwards, he retired from racing and ran a car sales business in Argentina.

Alongside Eddie Irvine (left) and Michael Schumacher (right), José Froilán González is pictured in 1998 at the inauguration of a Ferrari dealership in Argentina. On 4 March 1999, González and a group of owners and enthusiasts founded the Ferrari Club Argentino

In 2011, Fernando Alonso drove González’s 1951-winning car at Silverstone to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Ferrari’s maiden victory. Later that day, Alonso won the British GP for the Scuderia – Ferrari’s 216th World Championship GP win. (At the beginning of the 2021 season, the total stood at 238).

González was 88 at the time of Alonso’s Silverstone drive and one the few survivors of 1950s F1, the most dangerous decade in motor racing history. He died peacefully two years later, in 2013, aged 90.

As Ferrari’s success grew, so did González’s pride in winning its first GP. No-one could possibly have known it, but at Silverstone in 1951 the unassuming Argentinian had written the first chapter in the most successful story in F1 racing history.