Peter Whitehead

by Jeremy McMullen
 Herding sheep and shearing wool doesn't exactly evoke images of being a training ground for motor racing drivers, but it does help to fund one. On opposing ends of the spectrum, the simple, pastoral life of sheep farming and the wool industry helped to fund the exciting, on the edge, racing career of Peter Whitehead.

Born in Menston, England in 1914, Peter started racing locally at the young age of 19 years old in 1934. In 1936, with the aid of his parents wealth in wool, Peter bought and ERA B chassis (see ERA article).

Whitehead's first race of 1936 was the Junior Car Club 200 mile race at Donington Park in England. Competing against, soon-to-be, Mercedes-Benz driver Richard Seaman, Whitehead qualified his ERA B 2nd. Things looked promising early on in the race as Peter took the lead right from the start. After a few laps Seaman took over the lead. Peter's race came to an end after 10 laps when a piston failed.

The next race Peter competed was the Donington Grand Prix in October of 1936. Whitehead drew the 13th starting spot on the grid. This time, however, Peter's ERA worked well and the 21 year-old finished the race 3rd. An interesting note about this race was the fact Peter shared the drive with Peter Walker. This pairing would prove to be rather successful in future years.

1937, for Whitehead, started off with the Coronation Trophy voiturette race. The race, held outside London, consisted of two heat races and a final. Peter was in the 2nd heat and finished 3rd. In the final, Peter started 3rd. While he was the last car running on the track, Peter finished the race 5th.

Peter followed the Coronation Trophy race with another 5th place at the RAC International Light Car race, held on the Isle of Man. Sparing against the likes of Luigi Villoresi, Mays and Bira, Whitehead had his hands full. His hands became even more full battling these drivers in the torrential rain that fell during the race. Peter started from the 3rd row in 5th. Whitehead again paired with Walker for this race.

After a couple of 8th place finishes at the Florence Grand Prix and the voiturette Milan Grand Prix, Peter failed to finish at Picardie, but overcame that setback at his next race.

Peter once again drove in the Junior Car Club 200 mile race at Donington. This race was run at the same time as a voiturette race. Starting in the middle of the 2nd row, Whitehead drove a consistent, steady race. Almost half of the field suffered from some kind of terminal problem, but not Peter. At the end of the race, Peter drove his ERA B to a 3rd place finish, though some five and a half minutes behind winner Dobson.

Whitehead raced later that day as well. In the following race Peter drove his ERA B within the voiturette category against larger, more powerful cars. Attrition was high and there were only five cars still running at the end of the race. Peter was one of them. Whitehead ran third most the race until Earl Howe almost had an accident. This handed second to Peter and he never looked back. Despite not being able to challenge Dobson for the win, Peter finished solidly in second with almost a one minute gap on Wakefield who finished 3rd.

1937 didn't finish well for Peter unfortunately. Peter suffered DNFs at the Dublin voiturette race and the Donington Grand Prix. These late failures didn't hamper Whitehead's momentum going into 1938. In 1938 Peter would take part in only one race, but he would make the most of it.

Travelling to Australia on business, Whitehead took a rather unusual business partner with him, but the two were successful when paired together. Whitehead's business partner was his ERA B that he took with him. In April of '38, Peter took part in the Australian Grand Prix handicap race at Bathurst. It is unknown whether the business venture aspect of the trip was successful or not, but the one race Whitehead would compete sure was. Peter ended up winning the race and then ceased from any major races the rest of the year. Whitehead was the first to win a motor race at the circuit.

Germany's invasion of Europe toward the end of 1939 severely hampered many drivers from taking part in races. Those with means, like Whitehead, would even travel to other continents to be able to race. Peter travelled to South Africa and took part in two races while there; the South African Grand Prix voiturette race and the Grosvenor voiturette race. Unfortunately, Whitehead was not rewarded for his travels. Peter suffered DNFs at both races.

Upon returning to England, and the familiar Donington Park, Peter also returned to successful form. The race organizers tried to lure Mercedes-Benz to bring their new voiturette chassis but to no avail. In fact, no German or Italian team accepted the invitation for the race. Competing with his ERA B in the Nuffield Trophy race, Whitehead started the race 3rd Bira crushed the field in his ERA. Whitehead followed Mays home in 3rd after a hard fought race. Peter finished the 64 lap race one lap down and over two minutes behind Bira's C Type ERA.

Heading into World War II, Whitehead put his desire and passion for living on the edge to good use becoming a pilot during the war. Due to the years and destruction of World War II, many people were looking to get back to some idea of normalcy, even if that was driving a dangerous grand prix car to its limits. Whitehead couldn't wait to get back to competitive racing. As grand prix racing resumed, Peter was there with his ERA ready to compete.

Finally, in June of 1946, Whitehead got the opportunity to get back to what he loved to do. A grand prix race was held on the Royal Air Force's Gransden airfield. Reg Parnell and Bob Gerard were some of those to be found at the race. It should have been considered more of a sprint race or exhibition as it was only 3 laps around the 2 mile temporary road course. Reg Parnell ended up winning the event in his Maserati 4CL. Whitehead did not finish the race and was classified dead last after spinning before completing even the very first lap. However, Peter was back to racing and he didn't waste any time before he set off away from home in search of competitive racing.

Whitehead would find his next competitive venture in Torino, Italy in September at the end of 1946. The Gran Premio del Valentino was a 60 lap race on a 2.8 mile road course. Both the great drivers and cars reemerged from the mothballs. Varzi, Wimille and Trossi reappeared with the Alfa Romeo 158. Peter emerged at the race with his new ERA E-type chassis. Unfortunately, the new car did not prove to provide a good result as Peter's race came to an end after 32 laps due to gearbox problems.

1947 was a rather busy year for Whitehead. In all, he would compete in five grand prix races and with an ERA E or ERA R10B chassis. The early part of the year did not prove to be too successful, but things changed by the end of the summer and into the fall.

In August of 1947, Peter took part in the British Empire Trophy race on the Isle of Man. This event was 40 laps of the 3.8 mile street course that would cover a total of 155 miles. As its name indicates, this was a battle between the British empire's top drivers like Gerard, Bira, Harrison and Whitehead. Driving his ERA R10B, Peter finished the race in 2nd behind the ERA R14B of Bob Gerard.

Whitehead's other good result of 1947 came at the Grand Prix of Lausanne in Switzerland. This was a 90 lap affair on the 2.0 mile road course. Ascari took pole in his Maserati 4CL. Though not having the same pace as the Maseratis and Talbot-Lagos, Peter drove a smart race and ended the event 6th, some 7 laps behind the winner Villoresi in his Maserati 4CL.

Whitehead's career almost came to an early end in 1948 when he was involved in a plane crash at London's Croydon Aerodrome. The seriousness of his injuries, however, did prevent him from competing in any races during the '48 season, but he was surely blessed just to be alive. He overcame his injuries rather quickly though and was ready to go back to racing in the early part of '49. In addition to obviously being blessed by being able to be rescued from death in the plane crash, Peter also showed he was blessed in one other big way, which was to prove a difference-maker going into 1949 and beyond. Somehow Peter was able to convince Enzo Ferrari to sell him a grand prix car, which was a Ferrari 125. This was no small achievement since this was to be the only grand prix car sold by Enzo to anybody.

Recovered from the accident, Peter travelled to Ospedaletti, Italy to take part in his first race since 1947. Driving his Ferrari 125, Peter had a battle on his hands given the presence of Fangio in his Maserati 4CLT/48, Louis Rosier in his Talbot-Lago T26C and Raymond Sommer in another Ferrari 125. Unfortunately, Whitehead didn't quite have a fairytale comeback. The Grand Prix of San Remo competed on a 2.0 mile street course for 90 laps and took its toll on many runners including Whitehead. Peter's race ended up coming to an end on lap 50.

From the end of the San Remo Grand Prix, until the Grand Prix of Italy in September of that year, Peter was able to put together a string of good results where he would not finish worse than 10th over the span of seven races. And the good results started right away.

At the 1st Richmond Trophy race at the Goodwood circuit, Peter competed for 10 laps on the 2.38 mile circuit. Many top British drivers were present. Whitehead brought his ERA R10B for the race and put together an impressive performance. Battling against the superior Maserati 4CLT/48 of Reg Parnell, Peter was able to battle his way to finish 2nd behind Parnell and in front of T.C. Harrison.

Peter then followed with a 7th place finish at the Junior Car Club Jersey Road Race, driving his own Ferrari 125. He then scored an 8th place finish at the 1949 British Grand Prix, again driving the Ferrari.

Peter then travelled to the long and fast Spa-Francorchamps road circuit in Belgium in June. This enabled the Ferrari 125 to really stretch its legs and it proved to work the best. The event was attended by some of the best drivers of the day, including Rosier, Villoresi, Ascari, Etancelin, Farina, Parnell and Fangio. Villoresi, Fangio and Etancelin occupied the front row. Of course, Spa was a difficult circuit on the cars and this race proved that fact all the more. Out of the 14 starters at the start of the race, only seven would see the finish. Fangio was out after the first lap. Farina was out after eight laps. Etancelin could not get to lap 20 of the scheduled 35 laps of the 9 mile circuit. Whitehead let his 'prancing horse' run and it ran all the way to a 4th place finish.

Whitehead scored a 9th place finish at the Swiss Grand Prix at Bremgarten in July and then travelled to Reims, France for the Grand Prix of France. Some of the same people Peter had to face at Spa were present at Reims. Once again, the 4 mile Reims-Gueux circuit seemed to suit Whitehead's Ferrari and his driving style as he was able to overcome the competition and came home in 3rd place behind race winner Chiron and Prince Bira in 2nd place.

Peter ended the Grand Prix of Lausanne, in August, in 10th. Whitehead would then suffer from magneto problems two weeks later at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

Being from a family of wealth, Whitehead was able to travel to rather far, out-of-the-way places to compete in grand prix races. Case in point was Peter's attendance at the Automotodrom Brno in Brno, Czech Republic towards the end of September. Peter wasn't the only 'regular' however. Prince Bira, Reg Parnell, Louis Chiron, Guiseppe Farina, Louis Rosier, Philippe Etancelin and others made the trip to compete on the 11 mile street course. Despite the strong competition, Peter was able to guide his Ferrari 125 to victory at the completion of the 20 lap affair.

Whitehead stretched his legs even further, following other big name teams and drivers to Argentina. The Peron's hosted a couple of grand prix races that straddled the New Year, and that many used as preparation for the up-coming racing season.

At the first race, which took place in December of 1949, the Grand Prix of General Juan Peron, Whitehead drove his Ferrari 125C to a 10th place finish. Then, in January, at the Grand Prix of Eva Duarte Peron, Peter finished in 10th once again in his Ferrari.

As 1950 really got underway, Whitehead's Ferrari was struggling to get underway. Mechanical after mechanical problem seemed to surface in Peter's Ferrari and prevented him from either finishing or even starting races.

Peter was to start the 2nd Richmond Trophy race at Goodwood from 2nd on the grid but was unable to make it to the start. Peter then would suffer from head gasket problems at his next race, the Grand Prix of San Remo. This seemingly sidelined him for the first Formula One event, the British Grand Prix. Peter tried at the next round of the championship, the Grand Prix of Monaco.

Peter did not set a time in qualifying for the race, but they did give him the last spot on the grid. Unfortunately, mechanical demons again surfaced. Whitehead's engine in his Ferrari could not be repaired and up to any kind of speed in time for the race, so Peter was not able to start the first official Monaco Grand Prix.

The problems would continue for Peter as he just could not get up to speed and avoid problems with his Ferrari 125. After Indianapolis, Whitehead would be present when the championship arrived at Bremgarten for the Swiss Grand Prix. However, Peter could not get the speed necessary and he failed to qualify for the race.

Whatever the problems were, Peter was able to overcome them, and in a big way. Over the next five events in which Peter would enter, he would not suffer a finish worse than 4th.
The first Formula One event Whitehead would actually have the opportunity to compete would be the French Grand Prix held on the 4.9 mile Reims-Gueux road course, Whitehead would battle hard and would be rewarded for his effort with a 3rd place behind the dominant Alfa Romeo SpA teammates of Fangio and Farina in their Alfa Romeo 158s. Despite finishing 3 laps behind Fangio and Farina, Peter was able to earn 4 points toward the championship. This was truly amazing giving the struggles he faced with his car just weeks prior.

Confidence was riding high as Peter took part in his next race, the 4th Junior Car Club Jersey Road Race. Whitehead, driving his Ferrari 125 once again, ended up lapping the field, cruising to victory over Scuderia Ambrosiana driver Reg Parnell.

Obviously, things were going well for Peter at this point in the season, compared to the early part of 1950. And it kept going well when he travelled to Ireland and the Dundrod circuit for the Ulster Trophy race. While the competition was more of the local variety, Peter still had to square off against the likes of Bob Gerard and T.C. Harrison. Brian Shawe-Taylor started the event on pole with his ERA B-type R9B. Peter started alongside in 2nd in his Ferrari 125. The race was 15 laps of the 7+ mile circuit. Whitehead took the lead and never looked back. Peter won the race with Gerard coming in 2nd and T.C. Harrison 3rd.

Whitehead kept the momentum rolling as he headed to Silverstone to take part in the 2nd BRDC International Trophy race. Driving in his model 125 Ferrari that was over two years old at the time of the race, Peter finished 3rd behind the dominant Alfa Romeo SpA team once again. It was expected that Farina and Fangio would dominate but the award for the truly impressive drive had to be given to Whitehead that day. Peter started 6th on the grid, and yet, was able to come up through the field and practically keep pace with the 158s of the Alfa SpA team.

The performance Whitehead was able to put together over the span of five races was truly remarkable. They were a testament to his ability as a driver. Peter wasn't merely a racer because he had the means to do so. He proved he belonged among the world's best, and were he to have had the support of a factory team it is worthy to ponder what might have been.
Although Peter was rolling, the next round of the inaugural Formula One season in which he took part was going to prove to be a truly tough battle. Twenty-seven entrants took part in the last race of the championship, the Italian Grand Prix. By the time of the grand prix at Monza, Whitehead's Ferrari 125 was truly outdated. Scuderia Ferrari came to the race with their 375 GP50s. Peter, however, had been on a roll, and when things are going well it sometimes doesn't matter whether a person has the latest equipment or not. The Italian Grand Prix was a race of attrition. Only seven cars were running at the checkered flag. The way the first part of the year was going for Peter it would not have been much of a stretch to assume he was one of those who suffered a DNF, but it was not to be. Peter stayed out of trouble and took care of his car. In the end, Peter made his way up the field from starting 18th to finish the race in 7th; a well earned result.
After a long but successful year, Peter took part in one more race in 1950. Whitehead gave his Ferrari a rest for this race, and instead, pulled his ERA B out of the garage. The switch didn't prove to be successful though as Peter's Goodwood Trophy race came to an end three laps from the finish.

Whitehead finished Formula One's first season having competed in two races and having amassed a total of 4 points toward the championship. Those 4 points Whitehead scored meant Peter finished the first 'official' world championship 9th in the standings. Whitehead beat out three other drivers for 9th because, though they too scored 4 points, Peter's 7th place finish at Monza was better than any of the other drivers' results. It is unfortunate that Peter had the struggles he had at the beginning part of the season for he may well have ended the season with more than just 4 points.

Peter Whitehead's racing career would extend beyond just the reach of grand prix racing. In 1951, Peter would pair with Peter Walker once again to drive in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Driving a Jaguar, the pair would have an average speed of just over 93mph and would go on to take the victory.

Then, in 1953, driving with Stirling Moss in a Jaguar again, Whitehead won the 12-hour endurance race held at Reims. Peter followed that win by winning at Reims again the next year in the new 'D' type Jaguar with co-driver Ken Wharton.

Peter Whitehead's best performance in the last couple of years of his life had to be the 2nd place he scored at the 1958 24 Hours of Le Mans with his half-brother Graham driving in an Aston Martin. This result happened only a couple of months before Peter's death while competing in the Tour de France.

At the Tour de France, Graham was at the wheel of their Jaguar when the car left the road off a bridge, plunging to the ground 30 feet below. The Jaguar rolled twice severely injuring Graham. Peter, however, was killed instantly. Peter was only 43 at the time of his death.

The strength of organized racing teams became more and more apparent throughout the end of the 1930s and 1940s. By the time Formula One came into existence it was considered a must to have the support of a factory team to achieve any long-term success. Peter Whitehead, though from a wool background, proved to have the talent to compete against these top teams. Peter helped to keep the privateer spirit alive in grand prix racing. Anyone who had the passion and the talent could compete and succeed in the highest forms of motor racing. Many modern teams of grand prix racing owe a debt of gratitude for the man who took the wool industry to the limit of speed and endurance.

'Drivers: Peter Whitehead', (http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/drv-whipet.html) Grandprix.com, http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/drv-whipet.html. Retrieved 7 June 2010.

'The Golden Era-Drivers: Peter Whitehead', (http://www.kolumbus.fi/leif.snellman/dw.htm) The Golden Era of GP Racing 1934-40, http://www.kolumbus.fi/leif.snellman/dw.htm. Retrieved 7 June 2010.

'Drivers: Peter Whitehead', (http://www.ultimateracinghistory.com/racelist2.php?uniqid=1894) Ultimateracinghistory.com, http://www.ultimateracinghistory.com/drivers.php. Retrieved 7 June 2010.

Wikipedia contributors, '1950 Formula One season', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 June 2010, 09:25 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=1950_Formula_One_season&oldid=366336840 accessed 7 June 2010

Wikipedia contributors, 'Peter Whitehead (racing driver)', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 June 2010, 21:17 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Peter_Whitehead_(racing_driver)&oldid=365508644 accessed 7 June 2010
Races12
Podiums1
Career Points4
TeamsScuderia Ferrari
Alta  
Cooper  
Ferrari  (privateer)
Racing SeriesFormula One
Years1950-1954

Peter Whitehead: 1951 Formula One Season
For some, to take on the family business is the ultimate of privileges and desire. For others, the family business, while maybe very rational, is nothing desirable at all. Instead, it is only a means .....

Peter Whitehead: 1952 Formula One Season
There is the euphemism 'living in high cotton'. This literally means to live prosperously, or, to feel happy. In the case of the British racing driver Peter Whitehead, not much cotton grows in England.....

Peter Whitehead: 1954 Formula One Season
By the start of the 1954 season, Peter Whitehead had already been grand prix racing for nineteen years. However, after his near miss at victory in the World Championship at the French Grand Prix in 19.....

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