Round 4 of the 1961 Formula 1 season took place on 2nd July at Reims, France. Scuderia Ferrari arrived off the back of totally dominated the previous round in Belgium, when it placed four of its 156 F1s in the top four. Phill Hill led the championship, one point ahead of Wolfgang Von Trips and seven in front of Moss.
In very hot conditions, the Scuderia ruled the roost in qualifying, with Hill on pole in 2’24”9, one and a half seconds quicker than Von Trips and also two ahead of Richie Ginther in the third Ferrari. A fourth 156 F1 was entered, running the number 50 by FISA, Federazione Italiana Scuderia Automobilistiche, for rookie Giancarlo Baghetti.
He was the son of a well to do Milanese family and had come to prominence in two non-championship Formula 1 races. In the FISA car Baghetti made his F1 debut in the Syracuse GP in Sicily, which featured all the stars of the racing world. He was surprising second in qualifying and won the race, beating Dan Gurney in a Porsche by 5 seconds. The American was the only one who could stay with the Italian, as in the other Porsche, Jo Bonnier was third, having been lapped. A few days later came the Naples GP on the streets of Posillipo. The field was not as strong, but from third on the grid, Baghetti routed his opponents, lapping the field to take a second F1 win from as many starts. This prompted Enzo Ferrari and FISA to try him out on the world stage.
The 8.3 km Reims circuit was not easy to master and Baghetti did not shine in qualifying, setting the 12th fastest time, five and half seconds behind Hill, after having survived a scare. With Bruce McLaren in his slipstream going down the straight to the final Thillois corner, he came across a black road car travelling in the opposite direction. The marshals waved frantically and only at the last moment did the hapless driver get off the road, thus avoiding what would have been a fatal head on crash.
At 2.15 pm on race day, the heat was suffocating the and the track was slippery as the asphalt was melting into a paste. The three Ferraris got off the line perfectly and only Moss in the Rob Walker Lotus could stay with them. The pack was a few hundred metres further back in a long train to get the slipstream. Baghetti got away well and was tenth but quickly moved up to sixth.
On lap 13, Hill and Von Trips followed team orders and swapped places, with Ginther third ahead of Jim Clark in the Lotus and Baghetti was followed by various English cars plus the Porsches of Gurney and Bonnier. On lap 18, Von Trips pitted with a water leak caused by the very hot conditions and had to retire. On lap 30, Hill lead Ginther, while Baghetti, Clark and Gurney fought over third place.
Then a stone hit Clark on the nose, breaking his goggles and the Scotsman took a while to switch to his spare pair and lost contact with Baghetti and Gurney. On lap 32, Hill spun after a mistake at Thillois and was hit by Moss. The Lotus drive rhad to retire while the American lost a lap firing up the Ferrari. On lap 42 Ginther parked with an engine failure, leaving Baghetti leading from Gurney and Bonnier.
Ferrari’s fate in the 47th French GP lay in the hands of the rookie Baghetti, who didn’t put a foot wrong, hitting every braking point and avoiding all the pitfalls the two more experienced Porsche drivers were trying to lure him into. Fighting off the effects of the incredible heat, the crowd realised there were now three cars in with a chance of winning and no more pit boards were being shown to the drivers as they would have served no purpose as the cars were neck and neck, so it was a fight down to the wire over the final 10 laps.
On lap 42, the Porsches were ahead of the Ferrari and two laps later Baghetti led again and the same thing happened two laps later. It was as if the red car was a planet circling two silver satellites. On lap 49 of 52, the cars banged wheels several times but only Gurney and Baghetti started the penultimate lap as Bonnier pitted with smoke coming from his car as his engine had given up.
Gurney passed Baghetti braking for Thillois and was first across the line as they started the last lap watched by the crowd that was by now on its feet watching the silhouette of the car disappearing past the first corner. Baghetti was back in the lead for the early part of the lap but once again at the final corner, Gurney attacked at the braking point to lead onto the final straight. With only a couple of hundred metres to go, Baghetti was not giving up and having come out of the Thillois corner better, with his rival ahead of him, pulled out of the slipstream with perfect timing to beat Gurney across the line by a tenth. Just a tenth after 52 laps of non-stop fighting. The rookie had won on his debut. Incredible. The news went all round Europe and was on the radio in Italy and on the front pages of its newspapers the following day, making a national hero of Giancarlo Baghetti.