TeamsArthur Legat: 1953 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
By the time the World Championship entered its fourth season of existence, Arthur Legat was already 54 years old. The man had been an ambassador for Belgian motor racing for nearly for nearly thirty years and it seemed there was no reason for it not to continue.
Born in Haine-Saint-Paul, Belgium in 1898, Legat had begun his motor racing in the mid-1920s. He would become a fixture at Chimay and the Grand Prix des Frontieres racing in nearly every single one of the races.
Although he was known to be something of a 'local' racer, Legat would take part in a number of races and would be involved or witness many important moments in motor racing history, especially before the outbreak of World War II.
After the war, the zest for racing was still there. Approaching 50 years of age, there was really nothing else he would look to do. Looking for every opportunity to go and race, the World Championship threw him the biggest opportunity in 1952 when it decided to compete according to Formula 2 regulations. This decision would open the door to a number of small teams and privateers like Legat to take part in a World Championship race. He would do just that. He would take part in the Belgian Grand Prix and would finish the race but unfortunately 'Not Classified' in the results.
Since the World Championship would compete according to Formula 2 regulations for one more year, Legat figured he had just one more opportunity to race on the elite level.
Before Legat would take another chance at a round of the World Championship he would need to make his customary appearance in Chimay and the Grand Prix des Frontieres which took place on the 24th of May.
Just an hour south of Legat's hometown, Chimay was well known for another reason besides its 6.75 mile road course. Chimay was also home to one of only seven breweries in the world that produced Trappist beer. The Chimay Brewery was certainly one of the attractions in the small town. The quaint ultra-fast circuit just to the west was certainly a draw in its own right.
Filled with fast sweeping esses, a tight hairpin turn and some incredibly long straights pushing the absolute top limits of the cars, Chimay was a true road course. The circuit wound through the countryside and would feature some very technically challenging and incredibly fast and brave bends. All of this would be capped off by some truly picturesque settings and features.
In practice leading up to the race, Maurice Trintignant would be the fastest. He would take his Equipe Gordini T16 and would turn a lap of four minutes and eleven minutes. The former Belgian jazz musician would end up being the second-fastest and would complete the front row of the grid. Arthur Legat, competing with an old and outclassed Veritas Meteor, would end up qualifying much further down in the field. This man that had managed to win the race a couple of times during the 1930s would certainly have his worked cut out for him, and it wasn't likely that he would pull it out against such strong, and younger, competition.
The 20 lap race would get underway with Trintignant leading the way, as expected, with Claes and Roger Laurent giving chase. Laurent had made a good start from the second row of the grid and was threatening Bira and Claes, as well as, Trintignant.
There would be three entries that wouldn't make it much further than their starting positions on the grid as mechanical failures and other broken components would end their races before even one lap could be completed. This helped Legat's chances at yet another good result.
Five cars had fallen out of the race before reaching the completion of the 3rd lap. Then, on the 3rd lap of the race, another strong competitor would fall by the wayside. Prince Bira would crash his Maserati and would be out of the race. By the time there were five laps remaining in the race some ten entries had retired from the race and Trintignant was looking stronger than ever.
Trintignant had had the lead from the very start and had looked strong throughout the early going. Aided by a fastest lap time equal to his qualifying effort, Trintignant would gradually pull away from the rest of the field.
Legat had been running well and was certainly looking good for a decent finish. However, just four laps from the end, mechanical troubles would visit his Meteor and he too would be another casualty in the race.
As the end of the race neared, there were only six cars still running out on the road course. However, of those six, two would be so far behind that they would end up 'Not Classified' in the end. Therefore, the race had come down to just four cars.
All of the attrition favored Trintignant who continued to turn in fast laps and seemed free of any mechanical maladies. Coming to the finish line, Trintignant remained in the lead. He would cross the line to take the victory after just one hour, twenty-five minutes and fifty-nine seconds. He averaged more than 93 mph en route to the victory and would finish more than a minute ahead of Roger Laurent in 2nd place. Fred Wacker would be the sole remaining car on the lead lap and he would cross the line in 3rd place some two and a half minutes behind.
Never one to miss the Grand Prix des Frontieres, Legat would again be in the field. He had looked to be en route to a good finish, but as with his age, the endurance of the Veritas was suspect and would cause him to fall out short of his goal. Although he had come up short he had still performed well. He would be appreciated by the crowd and would depart to go and prepare for his next race.
Legat's next race would be just a month later. As for the Grand Prix des Frontieres, he wouldn't have to travel to far for his next race either. Just an hour and a half to the west lies the small town of Francorchamps. Literally feet to the south rested the temporary road course, the blindingly-quick Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Measuring 8.77 miles of sheer speed, the Spa-Francorchamps circuit was the site of the Belgian Grand Prix and the fourth round of the World Championship in 1953.
The Belgian Grand Prix had been part of the World Championship every year since the series' inception. Every year it had been held on the ever-popular Spa-Francorchamps circuit. And in 1953, the circuit would be the site of Legat's second attempt at a round of the World Championship. Never one to stray too far away from home, the Belgian Grand Prix the previous year had given Legat his first foray into the World Championship. And while he would finish the race, he would do so 'Not Classified'. Therefore, in likely what would be his last attempt at the World Championship, Legat arrived looking to fare much better.
Like Chimay, Spa-Francorchamps was yet another pure road course and the most famous in Belgium. A favorite with fans and drivers alike, the circuit was anything but flat and boring. Immediately the competitors were handed a steep uphill climb at Eau Rouge that featured a quick flick to the left followed by an immediate long right-hand bend. This corner was the first on the circuit and the first opportunity to mess up a lap. And in the wet, Eau Rouge was certainly breathtaking to watch and actually do. From then on the circuit just got faster and faster. Long straights challenged focus and concentration, which was very dangerous as the they would be immediately followed by fast sweeping bends and tricky corners like Malmedy, Masta Kink and Stavelot. And after numerous more sweeping fast bends and straights the lap would end with a very tight hairpin turn called La Source. If a competitor was to make it through a lap he would just have to go out and do it all over again.
Featuring a number of elevation changes and all kinds of corners and bends, if Spa-Francorchamps didn't throw enough at a driver, then, the usually unpredictable weather would certainly make up any difference. All-in-all, the circuit was fast and a certain favorite, but it was also incredibly unforgiving, and therefore, very dangerous.
Coming into the race, Alberto Ascari had won the first couple of rounds of the World Championship (not counting the Indianapolis 500). If he could come through and take the victory in the Belgian Grand Prix then he would be well on his way to earning the title back-to-back. However, it wasn't as if he wasn't without any competition.
Besides his own teammates, Ascari was also coming under fire from a resurgent Maserati factory team that included Argentinean drivers Juan Manuel Fangio and Jose Froilan Gonzalez. And during practice, the resurgence of Maserati would be full song. Lapping the 8.77 miles of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, Fangio would end up being the fastest. He would put together a record lap with an average speed of more than 117 mph. The lap time of four minutes and thirty seconds would be two seconds faster than Ascari's best time and would easily earn his the pole. Ascari would feel quite alone on the front row as he would be flanked on his right by Gonzalez in another Maserati.
Legat would be far from worried about what was going on at the front of the field. He knew he couldn't match their pace. His focus was solidly making it into the field and preparing for the 36 lap event. Legat would make it into the field for his second World Championship race. However, he would be firmly planted on the last row. His fastest lap around the circuit would be a time of five minutes and forty-one seconds. Not only was this a minute and eleven seconds slower than Fangio's effort, but it was also the second-slowest time in the field. Therefore, Legat would start the race 19th and from the eighth, and final, row of the grid.
The previous year's Belgian Grand Prix had been a rain-soaked event. Yet, despite some early threats, Ascari would come through the victor. One year later, rain would not be a problem. However, the heat would be.
As the field roared away at the start of the race, Fangio and Gonzalez were running side by side toward Eau Rouge. This wasn't the time to come together with your teammate and bring an end, possibly, to both of your races. On top of it all, Fangio knew they had speed in hand over the Ferraris. Therefore, heading into the uphill climb, Fangio would motion to Gonzalez and he would take the lead streaking up the hill and down the first long straight. The lead group would disappear around Les Combes and Gonzalez would begin to pull away, even from Fangio.
Legat had been looking forward to what was likely his last World Championship race. While Fangio and Gonzalez were deciding who would lead going up the hill, Legat was just getting off the starting line. Unfortunately, he wouldn't even have to worry about making it up the hill and completing a single lap as his transmission would break right then and there bringing to an end the Belgian Grand Prix for the veteran Legat. This was not the way he wanted to end the race. However, it was a good sign that his time had come.
Halfway through the first lap, Gonzalez continued to hold onto the lead and was really beginning to pull out an advantage over the rest of the field. Fangio had settled into a pace and was even gradually pulling away from Ascari running behind him.
At the end of the first lap the pace Gonzalez was running was incredible. From a standing start he had managed to average 110 mph around the circuit. From that moment on the pace would just get faster.
At the end of the second lap, Gonzalez would turn what would be the fastest lap of the race with a time of four minutes and thirty-four seconds. He would then match that time on the 3rd, 9th and 11th laps of the race. By the end of the 11th lap, Gonzalez was enjoying a lead of nearly a minute over Fangio. But little did anyone really know just how scared he was as he matched the fastest lap time on the 11th lap of the race. The accelerator pedal was giving him fits and would cause him to retire from the race after one incredible display of speed and skill.
The race really seemed to be over with as the 1951 World Champion took over the lead of the race, and enjoyed a lead himself of about thirty seconds over Ascari and the rest of the field. However, this would be even more short-lived than Gonzalez's lead. Fangio's confidence would be shattered after just 13 laps as his engine would expire as a result of the combination of the pace and the extreme heat. All of a sudden, the lead of the race would be thrown to Ascari.
Ascari took over the lead of the race with a comfortable gap already accumulated over his friend and teammate Luigi Villoresi, but he really wouldn't have too much time to get comfortable. Lacking any sense of national pride, the Maserati team would order the Belgian Johnny Claes to come in and give his car to Fangio for the remainder of the race. Fangio would then take the car and would push hard in an effort to give himself a chance at stealing the victory back from Ascari.
By the time there were only ten laps left in the race there were only twelve cars still running out on the circuit. And of those twelve, only ten would still be considered in the running. Belgians Paul Frere and Andre Pilette were still running out on the circuit but were more than too far away to be classified in the final results.
Also still running was Fangio. He continued to climb his way back up through the running order. And as the final lap of the race got underway, he was running in 3rd place behind Villoresi and Ascari. It seemed there would be a chance for him. But on that final lap it would all come apart.
The steering in the Maserati would break on Fangio in the midst of the lap. Without the aid of steering, Fangio would end up crashing the Maserati, and again, would be out of the race. This sealed it for Ascari.
All Ascari needed to do was keep the car on the circuit and he would take the win. He would not slow by any means but he would keep his car on the road. Averaging 112 mph, Ascari would complete the 36 laps in two hours and forty-eight minutes and thirty seconds. He would end up taking the victory by some two minutes and fifty seconds over Villoresi. The gap would be larger than that back to Onofre Marimon in 3rd place. Although it would be the first podium finish for Marimon he would end the race having just been passed and put a lap down by Ascari.
The Belgian Grand Prix had been a wonderful surprise victory for Ascari. However, for Legat, it would be a bitter disappointment. The aged veteran certainly had been looking to do better than to break on the starting grid. Nonetheless, it didn't happen. Over the course of the decades of Legat's racing career he had had to deal with bitter disappointment. He had done it before and could do it again. However, this would be different.
It was known the new Formula One regulations would take effect starting with the 1954 season. Therefore, the 1953 Belgian Grand Prix would be Legat's final attempt at the World Championship. And while this would be truly disappointing, not all would be lost. Despite pushing 55 years of age, Legat would return to take part in the Formula 1 non-championship Grand Prix des Frontieres the following year.
Legat would continue to take part in races sporadically and only around his native Belgium. Then, in February of 1960, at the age of 61 and nearly thirty years of racing, Legat would die not all that far away from where he had come into the world and took his first steps as a racing driver.