Over the last six decades, it has borne witness to several memorable moments in motorsport history since it hosted it’s very first Grand Prix in 1948.
From being chosen to play host to the first ever Formula One World Championship race in 1950, with that stonking home win for Nigel Mansell in 1987 on home soil, to that race in 1998 when Michael Schumacher took the win in the pitlane, Silverstone has seen it all over the years.
But probably the most significant moment Silverstone has witnessed, mainly because of what it means in the broader context of Formula One’s history, came along on a summer’s day in 1951.
History was made on that sunny day in July, when Argentine Jose Froilan Gonzalez scored the first-ever win for a certain Italian team that would go on to become the sport’s oldest and most successful, a team whose exploits on track would spawn a legend, a name still held sacred and whispered with reverence by legions of motor-racing fans –Scuderia Ferrari.
Alfa Romeo had dominated post-war Grand Prix racing and had won the first ever Formula One world championship in 1950, after having claimed victory at every race that year, barring the Indy 500. Their dominance had continued into the 1951 season with the Italian outfit winning the opening three rounds of the year.
But Alfa Romeo’s stranglehold on Formula One was about to be broken as the circus set up shop at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix.
In qualifying on Saturday, Gonzalez — who had driven just the one race for Ferrari having been slotted into the team in place of the unwell Piero Taruffi at the last race in France – beat the Alfas to pole, setting a time a second quicker than compatriot Fangio and nearly two seconds faster than Fangio’s Alfa Romeo team-mate and reigning world champion Nino Farina.
At the start, both Gonzalez and Fangio got away together, but Gonzalez wasn’t able to hold onto the lead, with the Alfa Romeo of Felice Bonetto, who had qualified seventh, exiting turn 1 in first place.
Gonzalez had held on to second, however, and managed to retake the lead on the following lap.
But then Fangio, who had also found his way past Bonetto, began to reel his compatriot in before eventually taking the lead on the sixth lap.
However, the thickset and bulky ‘Pampas Bull’, who was driving ferociously, never let Fangio out of his sights and retook first place from the Alfa Romeo on lap 39, moving into a lead he would never concede.
“On one lap he almost met his Waterloo when the Ferrari slid and hit a tub,” journalist Sammy Davis wrote in The Autocar, an extract reproduced in Formula One: The Autobiography, edited by Gerald Donaldson.
“The front of the car rose in the air, and Gonzalez just succeeded in holding it as it came down. Yet he did not seem to slow, rejoining the course and losing only about sixty yards to Fangio.”
In the end, Gonzalez crossed the line 51 seconds ahead of his compatriot, who was the only driver on the lead lap, with Ferrari team-mate Villoresi claiming the final podium spot a further two laps adrift.
And though the margin of Gonzalez’s win reflects the fact that the petrol-guzzling Alfa of Fangio had to make two stops to the Ferrari’s one, there is nothing anyone can take away from Gonzalez’s display behind the wheel that day.
Indeed it left team patriarch Enzo Ferrari in tears even if his emotions were a little conflicted: “I had left Alfa Romeo to show the people there what I was made of – an ambitious idea that might have ruined me!” Ferrari — who had worked with Alfa in the 1920s – said in his memoirs, with the quote reproduced in Formula One: The Autobiography.
“When for the first time in the history of our direct rivalry Gonzalez in his Ferrari showed his heels to the whole Alfa team, I wept with joy. But my tears of happiness were blended, too, with tears of sadness, for I thought that day – ‘I have killed my mother!’”