Simanaitis Says

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THE CONTROLLED FURY of Grand Prix racing has always been laced with team shenanigans. Here’s an example that occurred in the 1953 Swiss Grand Prix, with striking contrasts as well as similarities to today’s Formula 1 scene. Details come from Road and Track, January 1954, (the “&” didn’t appear for another two months) and from my usual Internet sleuthing. 

International Grands Prix in Switzerland? The first Swiss Grand Prix was held at the Bremgarten circuit in 1934, with Hans Stuck winning in his Third Reich-supported Auto Union. Other GPs were held there in 1935–1939 and 1947-1954. 

After the 1955 Le Mans disaster, Switzerland banned circuit motor racing, though pragmatically named Swiss Grands Prix were held on the French Dijon-Prenois circuit in 1975 and 1982.

In 2007, the lower house of the Swiss parliament proposed removing the circuit racing ban, 97 in favor, 77 opposed. The amendment was eventually withdrawn in 2009 after having been twice rejected by the Swiss upper house.

Bern’s Bremgarten Circuit. Bern/Bärn/Berne/Berna is the de facto capital of Switzerland. The Bremgarten circuit, in the north of Bern, was composed of public roads through the Bremgartenwald. 

The 4.5-mile Bremgarten circuit, Bern, Switzerland.

Bremgarten was a collection of high-speed corners, largely free of straights. As noted in Road and Track, January 1954, “The Bremgarten circuit is not considered the safest by any means and had had many fatalities in the past, especially on the Eymatt corner where, after many downhill curves in bright sunlight, you enter a shady wooded section, and this severe and sudden change in light can easily cause misjudgement.”

Fangio Versus Ascari. The 1953 Swiss Grand Prix was seen as a contest between Juan Manual Fangio’s Maserati and Alberto Ascari’s Ferrari, with other Ferraris piloted by Giuseppe Farina (who won the first Drivers World Championship in 1950) and Mike Hawthorn (to be 1958 World Champion) also in contention. Maurice Trintignant and Jean Behra drove Gordini team cars. The rest of the 20-car field was made up of privately owned Ferraris, Maseratis, and English cars. R&T journalist-to-be Paul Frère drove an English HWM.

Starting grid for the 1953 Swiss Grand Prix. This and following images from Road and Track, January 1954. Duke Video has an interesting YouTube of the event.

The magazine wrote, “It was noted during practice that on the rough uphill bend after the Eymatt corner the ‘Campionissimo’ Ascari demonstrated once more that he really has not just ‘the fastest car, old boy’ but is the champion if ever there was one….” Ascari won the World Championship in 1952, destined to repeat in 1953.

Fangio in his original Maserati followed by Ascari on number 46 Ferrari coming out of the Eymatt corner early in the race.

Fangio’s Original Maserati?? Back in those days, a GP team was permitted to swap drivers from car to car, primarily to improve the star driver’s performance in the Drivers World Championship. 

Lap chart, 1953 Swiss Grand Prix.

On Fangio’s ninth lap, his Maserati lost its third gear. He pitted for a car swap with teammate Felice Bonetto’s car.

Pit action with the Maserati swap of Fangio and Bonetto.

Road and Track described the swap: “Fangio pulls into the pits to take over Bonetto’s car, leaps out of his Maserati while a mechanic pushes someone out of the way. Bonetto is directed by mechanic at left to take other car. Head mechanic blips engine to keep it going for Fangio. Fangio tries the controls and adjusts his goggles while a mechanic starts Bonetto’s new car with an electric starter. Bonetto climbing in. Fangio is already back in the race while Bonetto’s engine is now running and he is preparing to start again. Bonetto finished fourth.” 

Fangio’s Second Mount. Road and Track described, “Fangio tried desperately to catch the leading Ferraris of Ascari and Farina, only to blow up his engine in a most spectacular manner, breaking a piston and trailing a cloud of white smoke all around the circuit. The rev counter needle recorded 9700 rpm!” 

Fangio’s blown-up car laid a smoke screen over the circuit producing this unusual effect of sunlight filtering through the trees.

Meanwhile, in the Lead…. It was lap 47 (of the 293.5-mile 65-lap race). The Ferraris of Farina, Hawthorn, and Ascari were confidently running 1-2-3. Road and Track wrote, “… the Ferrari pit holds up the light blue and yellow ‘Prancing Horse’ flag for them to hold position as they were all a lap ahead of Bonetto’s Maserati. The setting sun was full in their eyes as they came out of the turn approaching the start, causing them to drive with one hand shielding their eyes, so either they didn’t see the signal or chose to ignore it as they continued their private scrap.”

Hawthorn passing pits driving one-handed and shading his eyes from the rays of the sun.

“Ascari actually speeded up,” Road and Track reported, “and set fastest lap of the day to pass his teammate Hawthorn and a few laps later passes Farina to go on and win. Farina is said to have expressed his dissatisfaction in no uncertain manner.”

Swapping cars is out these days, but some things never change, do they? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020 

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