There’s been a fair bit of talk about the possibility of the French Grand Prix returning to Paul Ricard, and so it seemed topical when I was contemplating an occasional series on Great Races of the 20th Century, to start with the land that gave us the name Grand Prix.
The 1953 race is one of those that lives almost only as legend, as very little footage of the race remains, and also deserves a place in history as it was the first World Championship Grand Prix to be won by a British driver.
Mike Hawthorn started the race from 7th on the grid, and the Reims circuit promised a fast race, being as it consisted essentially of two long straights and a fast sweeping section on connected public roads.
Strategy was not to be left out either, with the Pampas Bull, Froilian Gonzales, haring off at the start with a low fuel load. Gonzales led the race for the first 29 laps with a string of Ferraris chasing him, and when he pitted for fuel, Fangio, also in a Maserati , took the lead. Gonzales rejoined, but hadn’t made quite enough time to retain his lead.
It wasn’t long before Hawthorn was past Fangio though, commencing a thrilling battle for the lead. In all, the lead changed between Fangio and Hawthorn five times with Gonzales and Ascari always remaining in the hunt.
As the circuit featured two very tight hairpins it’s hard to imagine how the brakes, and the drivers coped with the continual stress. The race lasted nearly two and three-quarter hours (no stops for rain or safety cars here – the race was held over 500km, not 300km as they are now) and it was only in the last three laps that Hawthorn made his final pass.
At the flag, Hawthorn, Fangio and Gonzales were separated by only 1.4 seconds, with Ascari just three seconds behind Gonzales. When someone finally invents a Grand Prix time machine, this would definitely be one of the races I’d want to go back and see.
And if you are in the area, visting either the fine cathedral of Reims itself, or perhaps the local champagne houses, take a detour and go and look for the pit buildings and grandstands. Or better still, go along on May 27th to celebrate the 12 hours of Gueux: