Remembering F1's first world championship race 70 years on

Adam Cooper

Silverstone had first made its mark in October 1948 when it hosted the RAC Grand Prix, and was immediately established as the country's premier motor sporting venue.

The man credited with touting the unused former WW2 airfield as a racing venue was Maurice Geoghegen, a local resident who had snuck in to test his Frazer Nash.

It was at a pub gathering of fellow petrolheads at the Shelsley Walsh hillclimb in late 1947 that he told his pals of his exploits. Over a few pints of bitter the idea of racing at Silverstone took hold, and the next day they conducted a very unofficial event.

At the time the RAC was looking for a suitable location to hold its Grand Prix. Prior to hostilities the UK had two leading venues, and both hosted forerunners to the modern event.

Brooklands held a British Grand Prix in 1926 and 1927, while Donington Park hosted a Grand Prix under its own name in 1937 and 1938. Both sites were subsequently used for the war effort, and thus neither was available when peace came.

Various venues were under consideration before word of mouth led to Silverstone emerged as a serious contender. In the summer of 1948 a temporary lease was signed.

Journalist Rodney Walkerley, also a BRDC and RAC Competitions Committee member, would recall his first sight of an airfield that was already showing the signs of post-war neglect.

"It was a dreary day when I went with a press party and the RAC to Silverstone for the first time," he wrote. "Grey and rainy and there was the usual cold wind that blows across airfields. The general impression that it was a desolate place, but better than nothing..."

Luigi Fagioli, Alfa Romeo 158, leads Giuseppe Farina, Alfa Romeo 158, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alfa Romeo 158,

Luigi Fagioli, Alfa Romeo 158, leads Giuseppe Farina, Alfa Romeo 158, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alfa Romeo 158, Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

Nevertheless preparations were under way for the first event. In its original guise the circuit was comprised mostly of perimeter roads, with two long dogleg runs into the infield on the old runways. Corner names such as Stowe, Club, Abbey, Becketts and Copse, still familiar today, were already established.

Facilities at the then temporary track were basic to say the least, but the promise of the first major post-war motor race in the country attracted a crowd of 100,000.

The 1948 field was comprised of pre-war cars of varying degrees of competitiveness, but the only ones that really mattered were the works Maseratis of Alberto Ascari and Luigi Villoresi. A mechanical problem for future World Champion Ascari allowed Villoresi to take victory as he pleased. It was not a great race, but it was the start of something big.

"I was just there as a punter," Murray Walker recalls. "I suspect I paid in those days! I remember first of all the euphoria of just having a Grand Prix, and secondly the even greater euphoria of having some foreign cars and superstars there, like Ascari and Villoresi.

"The rest of the entry was ERAs and pre-war stuff, so the fact that we'd got some modern continental cars there was magic. There was a great spirit of enthusiasm and excitement and apprehension."

The following year the race bore the official title of British GP. For this second race the runway layout was abandoned, and the familiar shape of "classic" Silverstone emerged. It consisted of eight corners, only one of which – Becketts – really interrupted the high-speed flow.

The 1949 event was a success, and when the Commission Sportive of the FIA announced the introduction of the World Championship for 1950, Silverstone was awarded the first round, along with the honorary title of Grand Prix d'Europe.

There were to be six traditional Grand Prix events in Europe, namely Britain, Monaco, Switzerland, Belgium, France and Italy, while the Indianapolis 500 would also count, at the behest of the FIA's US delegates. Argentina, Holland and Spain also pitched for inclusion, but seven rounds were considered sufficient for a first year. Points would be awarded to the top five on the basis 8-6-4-3-2, with a bonus for fastest lap.

British Grand Prix atmosphere

British Grand Prix atmosphere Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

Having been granted such an honour the RAC and BRDC knew they had to step up a gear, and the necessity of getting it right on the day was rendered more urgent when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth accepted an invitation to attend, and the event became "Royal Silverstone."

Just five years had passed since the end of hostilities, and the former airfield was still more than a little ragged around the edges.

"It was all very archaic then," says Walker. "With bits of barbed wire and concrete lying about the place, and disused buildings. I think the RAC was scouting around looking for circuits and settled on Silverstone. They certainly didn't regard it as the permanent attraction."

The RAC allocated £22,000 to upgrade the venue and run the event – gate receipts from the 1949 race had amounted to £17,667, so it was deemed to be a realistic budget, and the general idea was to make a modest profit.

The total included £4000 in starting money and expenses for continental competitors, plus a mere £600 for the Brits. There was also £1750 in prize money up for grabs, while £150 was spent on trophies. Most of the rest went on tarting the place up; a blue and gold hued royal box was constructed in the grandstand opposite the pits, then located between Abbey and Woodcote.

The start money was not enough to tempt Ferrari, and the Maranello team would not commence its campaign until the second race at Monaco, just one week later. That decision pretty much guaranteed that the race would be a walkover for Alfa Romeo.

Having taken a year out in 1949 the Milanese marque was back in force, and had engaged Juan Manuel Fangio, whose star was rising. However not everyone was in his camp.

Giuseppe Farina, Alfa Romeo 158

Giuseppe Farina, Alfa Romeo 158 Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

"The fact that I had been named for the Alfa Romeo team started a controversy in the Italian press," Fangio recalled in his official biography. "Some wanted an all-Italian team. They didn't like the idea that the top Italian car should be driven by an Argentine."

Alfa ran just one car for Fangio on its return in the non-championship San Remo GP, because scheduled second driver Giuseppe Farina had been injured in an accident in France. That led to some controversy as there was to be no Italian in the line-up, and fearing a PR own goal at one point Alfa even threatened to withdraw from the event.

Fangio, then still something of an unknown quantity, had to persuade the team to stay on. He duly won the rain-soaked race in some style – and somewhat belatedly formally signed a contract for the rest of the year, including the six European rounds of the new World Championship.

The team brought a fleet of four of its splendid 158s to Silverstone. The fully fit Farina, Fangio and veteran Luigi Fagioli were joined by guest driver Reg Parnell, who stood in for regular Consalvo Sanesi, injured on the recent Mille Miglia.

Alfa hadn't attended the 1948 and 1949 Silverstone events, so there was much to get used to – of the three regular drivers only Farina knew the track, having raced a Maserati to second place in the International Trophy in August 1949.

However it was no surprise when they filled the four-car front row, with Farina ahead of Fagioli and Fangio. Parnell held his own in fourth, lapping respectably fast despite a lack of time in the car.

'B Bira' was the closest challenger in his Maserati, but the rest, including the Lago-Talbots of Yves Giraud-Cabantous, Eugene Martin, Louis Rosier and Philippe Etancelin, were effectively in another race. Even the Maserati of '49 Silverstone winner Toulo de Graffenried was five seconds off Farina's pole.

Giuseppe Farina, Alfa Romeo 158, Luigi Fagioli, Alfa Romeo 158

Giuseppe Farina, Alfa Romeo 158, Luigi Fagioli, Alfa Romeo 158 Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

In those days the concept of a morning warm-up was rather different – the four Alfas were driven to the track from their base in Banbury, much to the delight of those queuing outside! In fact an estimated 150,000 people turned up.

The 500cc contenders kicked off the day's entertainment with two heats, and appropriately enough for a former RAF base the final saw a great victory for the Iota of Wing Commander Frank Aikens. His name may not be too familiar now, but he had to beat a field that included future British GP winners Stirling Moss (who had a late engine issue) and Peter Collins.

Moss had originally hoped to take part in the main event, but his HWM F2 outfit's entry had been rejected by the RAC, much to the frustration of his boss John Heath.

The team went instead to a street race in Mons, and after finishing his 500cc race at Silverstone, Moss flew straight to Belgium for the Sunday event – where the main opposition was the Ferrari team that had skipped the British GP. Stirling's World Championship debut would have to wait for 1951.

The other highlight of the preliminaries was a brief demonstration run by Raymond Mays with the much-vaunted new BRM, which had yet to make its race debut. The car was displayed in a pavilion behind the pits for curious onlookers. Journalist Gregor Grant, who would launch Autosport magazine that August, was one of many sceptics who had doubts about the BRM project.

Some years later he wrote that the BRM's appearance "mystified everyone and appeared to be a complete waste of time. Either a Grand Prix car is race-worthy or it isn't. In the case of the BRM, it obviously wasn't – so why show it in the presence of over 100,000 people, including their majesties, the King and Queen of England?"

Reg Parnell, Alfa Romeo 158

Reg Parnell, Alfa Romeo 158 Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

The royal visit, with the King and Queen accompanied by Princess Margaret, and the Mountbattens, lifted the whole event to another level. The Grenadier guards played, and the VIP visitors had lunch, toured the circuit and were introduced to all the drivers by the BRDC's Earl Howe, before being led to the new royal box.

Pole man Farina, a committed socialist who had commanded an Italian tank at El Alamein just a few years previously, was highly impressed on meeting their Royal Highnesses.

Finally at 3pm the action got underway. Farina held the advantage from the off, but the 'three Fs' ran close together, swapping places at their mid-race fuel stops.

Fangio led for a lap but he was back in second when he made a mistake and hit a straw bale at Stowe. Immediately afterwards his engine began to sound rough, thanks to a dislodged oil line, and he was soon forced to retire.

After that the 43-year-old Farina went on his merry way to score a comfortable victory having led some 63 of the 70 laps. He crossed the line 2.6s clear of Fagioli, claiming eight World Championship points for the win, plus the bonus point awarded for fastest lap.

Parnell survived a clash with a hare that dented his radiator grille, and finished a distant third. Giraud-Cabantous and Rosier were a couple of laps down in their Lago-Talbots, and thus took the final points. Bob Gerard was best of the British privateers in sixth, having held off the challenge of fellow ERA racer Cuth Harrison. The Maseratis of Bira and de Graffenried had both retired.

Alas King George VI wasn't present to award the trophies, as much to his frustration, he was told to leave before the chequered flag.

The chief constables of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire had insisted that he do so, as they couldn't guarantee that they could police the exit route if the royal departure was too late. Even in 1950 beating the Silverstone traffic was a priority…

Giuseppe Farina is congratulated

Giuseppe Farina is congratulated Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images