The ‘Race of the Century’ began in controversy and ended with 24-year old Englishman Mike Hawthorn winning his first Grand Prix, in a Ferrari. The 1953 French GP featured a race-long duel between the precocious Hawthorn and the veteran Juan-Manuel Fangio – greatest driver of the ’50s – driving a Maserati.
They swapped the lead for much of the race, often swapping at every corner, and also diced with a train of other drivers. At the chequered flag, after 500 km and two-and-three-quarter hours of frantic wheel-to-wheel action, the first three cars were separated by only 1.4 seconds.
The race was incredibly close, with Hawthorn and Fangio head to head during the closing stages
The GP was held on the Reims circuit, famed for its long straights and big speeds. Astonishingly that year’s race started just three hours after the finish of a 12-hour sports car race in which some of the GP drivers competed, including Ferrari’s Luigi Villoresi and the up-and-coming Stirling Moss, who won.
The leading Ferrari 375 MM was disqualified in the 12-hour race for an alleged push start and for extinguishing its lights too early. The Scuderia protested and many spectators booed their disgust. Ferrari threatened to boycott the GP. After frantic calls between Maranello and Reims, Ferrari agreed to race – and then entertained us with one of the closest races in GP history.
Alberto Ascari, seen here at his F1 debut a few years earlier had won all three previous GPs as Ferrari headed to France in 1953
The 1953 world championship season, as with 1952, saw cars running to Formula 2 not Formula 1 regulations. GP organisers were concerned that only Ferrari had a truly competitive F1 car, so changed the rules to attract more teams and, it was hoped, make for closer racing.
Ferrari’s entry for 1952 and 1953 was the Tipo 500 powered by an Aurelio Lampredi-designed four-cylinder engine of 2.0 litres, the maximum capacity allowed. The Scuderia’s major rival was Maserati, based just down the road in Modena. Sadly for the organisers, the move to F2 regulations did not prevent the feared Ferrari dominance. During the two years that championship GPs were held to F2 regulations, Ferrari won 14 of the 15 races.
Defending World Champion Alberto Ascari had won all three previous GPs before the teams headed to France. For Reims, the Scuderia entered four cars for Ascari, Villoresi, former World Champion Nino Farina and the young Hawthorn. Lined against them were four Maseratis, their drivers including Fangio and former Ferrari star José Froilán González. There were also English Connaughts, Coopers and HWMs, and French Gordinis – but none had much chance against the might of the two Italian teams.
The famous Ferrari pilot and perhaps the greatest driver of the '50s, Juan-Manuel Fangio was driving a Maserati when Hawthorn beat him across the finish line
Hawthorn started from seventh on the grid. Overtaking was straightforward at Reims with its long straights and so the race order changed continually. For much of the race, there was a seven-car battle for the lead, before Hawthorn and Fangio drew away, with Ascari and González battling for third close behind. Two laps from the end, Hawthorn and Fangio dead heated across the start-finish line. When the chequered flag dropped, the order was Hawthorn, Fangio, González and Ascari, as quick as that.
It was Ferrari’s second triumph at the world’s oldest Grand Prix. Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz will this year hope to raise that to 18 (easily the highest for any manufacturer). For Hawthorn, it was the beginning of a successful career at Ferrari, culminating in winning the 1958 World Championship. However, the Englishman, famous for racing in his bow tie, was profoundly affected by the death of his friend and teammate Peter Collins at that year’s German GP. He stopped racing at the end of the season. Having survived the dangers of Grand Prix racing, he was killed in a road accident in England three months after retiring, aged just 29.