TeamsPeter Whitehead: 1951 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
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 to an end. Peter Whitehead's family wealth came from the rather quiet and pastoral setting of the wool industry. But Peter's true talent laid in nothing quiet and pastoral. Whitehead's talent behind the wheel of a race car was undeniable, especially given the fact that, as a privateer, the Englishman was able to score four points toward the 1950 Formula One season.
Prior to the start of Formula One, Whitehead raced on the side, in between business trips. Over time, Whitehead's talent began to show. He was even able to catch the eye of Enzo Ferrari. As a result, Peter became the first privateer to be able to buy one of Enzo's Formula One chassis. Enzo enabled Peter to purchase one of his 125s for racing. Peter used this 125 to score his four points toward the 1950 Formula One championship.
Despite the exorbitant costs of motor racing at the time, Whitehead's family wealth, and his successes as a driver, enabled him to continue to compete as a privateer entrant into the 1951 season. However, his reputation as a competitive racing driver would lead him to compete in a number of races throughout the season for other individuals and top teams like Scuderia Ferrari.
Peter's 1951 season began very early on in the year. The Englishman travelled to Ospedaletti, Italy toward the end of April to take part in the Grand Prix of San Remo. Scuderia Ferrari drivers like Alberto Ascari and Luigi Villoresi were present for the 90 lap, 187 mile race. However, the reigning world champion Farina, nor any Alfa Romeos, were present for the race. So the race was filled with incredible talent and competition, but yet, was still void of all of the major championship contenders of the day.
Despite the lacking presence of drivers like Fangio and Farina, qualifying was not to promise much for Whitehead. Peter could not do any better than 14th on the grid. Only 17 drivers started the race. So Whitehead would definitely start the race toward the tail-end. Ferrari teammates Alberto Ascari and Luigi Villoresi started one-two.
Only seven cars were still running at the end of the race. The 2 mile road course was tough on the competitors. Whitehead ran a consistent race, but he was not immune to the troubles that befell many of the other competitors. 56 laps into the 90 lap event Peter's race came to an end as he was forced to retire. This was not a promising start to the 1951 grand prix season. Scuderia Ferrari dominated the event. However, it wasn't Villoresi that followed Ascari home. Dorino Serafini, another Ferrari teammate, finished the race 2nd. Ascari and Serafini dominated to such a degree that they finished with a two lap advantage over 3rd place Rudolf Fischer, who drove for Ecurie Espadon.
Peter, obviously, wanted to turn the early part of the season around. And, he would take advantage at the very next event in which he would take part; only seven days later. For the Grand Prix of Bordeaux, Peter would drive under the ownership/team name of his half-brother Graham Whitehead. Fifteen drivers would qualify for the race. Among them were a few of the top drivers of the day, including Louis Rosier, Louis Chiron and Giuseppe Farina. Although many of these talented drivers were present for the 123 lap event on the 1.52 mile street course, Peter Whitehead was able to qualify quite well. Peter was able to qualify 5th in his V12 Ferrari 125. While qualifying went well for Whitehead, the race fared even better. Now, before the race even started, there would be four drivers that would not even take the green flag. Giuseppe Farina was unable to start the race due to problems with his engine's supercharger. Lance Macklin suffered from carburetor problems, Yves Giraud-Cabantous' Talbot-Lago had gearbox problems and Robert Manzon's Simca-Gordini T15 had head gasket problems. Each of these four drivers failed to start the race, but, two more would be out of the race even before having completed 5 of the 123 laps. Interestingly, both of them that fell out of the race before lap 5 were both teammates for Enrico Plate. After de Graffenried and Schell fell out of the race, things calmed down until later on in the race. What is interesting is that only one more entrant fell out of the race. But Whitehead's race was nothing but encouraging after his failure the week prior. Peter would end up finishing 3rd, some two laps down to race winner Louis Rosier and Rudolf Fischer.
Toward the end of May, the Swiss Grand Prix took place. This was the first round of the world championship in 1951. And, for the Swiss Grand Prix, Peter would arrive, yes still with a Ferrari 125, but, would drive under the banner of Scuderia Ferrari itself.
Since this was the first round of the world championship that year, not only Ferrari would be present. Alfa Romeo would show up on the scene. In fact, four Alfa Romeo SpA 159s would qualify for the race. What's more, the powerful 159s would end up qualifying 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th for the race on the 4.52 mile road course near Bremgarten, Switzerland.
With the presence of all of the top teams and drivers, it was difficult to qualify well for the race, but, Peter was driving with the support of Scuderia Ferrari. And, despite the fact his Ferrari 125 was more than a couple years old, Whitehead was able to place his car 9th on the starting grid. Peter was unable to make sure that there was a clean sweep by either Alfa Romeo or Ferrari for the first eight spots on the grid. Louis Rosier, in his Talbot-Lago T26C was able to break into the group to qualify 8th. Twenty-one cars would start the race and fourteen would still be running at the end of the 42 lap event. The race would start under a heavy overcast layer which would later turn to rain. Until the rain began to fall, Whitehead was running a rather good race. Although a native of a nation where rain and cloudy weather are synonymous with daily life, Peter found the rain to be rather tricky. Sure enough, on the 36th lap, Whitehead made a mistake and was out of the race. Despite the backing from Ferrari, Peter left the first round of the Formula One world championship without any points. Juan Manuel Fangio went on to score his first Formula One victory of the 1951 season; a season in which he would end up winning the first of his five world championships as a driver.
As with the first couple of races during the '51 season, Whitehead travelled to Dundrod, Northern Ireland, desperately looking for a good result. He had reason to be confident given the fact the last time he had been at Dundrod, which was in August of the previous year, he had been able to dominate and go home with a victory.
This was the 5th Ulster Trophy race and the race distance had been dramatically increased for 1951. The race took place on a 7.4 mile road circuit and had been 15 laps, or 111 miles, the previous year. But, in 1951, the race distance was increased to 27 laps, or an even 200 miles.
It wasn't going to be a repeat of the previous year for Peter. Right away, he struggled. During qualifying, he couldn't get things sorted with his Ferrari and was only able to qualify 18th. There were only 20 who would enter the race. The problems Peter faced throughout qualifying couldn't get sorted to any degree that would have allowed him to be competitive. And so, Peter never took the green flag and the start of the Ulster Trophy race. The defense of his win went up in smoke even before the race began.
The 24 hours of Le Mans took place the 23rd of June in 1951. Peter put his Ferrari grand prix car aside to pair up with Peter Walker in a Jaguar C-Type for the 24 hours race. Some 60 cars were entered for the race. Some of the most famous drivers were present for the race including, Jose Froilan Gonzalez, Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss.
The race got underway on Saturday with rain pouring down over the 8.37 mile public and private road course. With the rain and the nature of the 24 hour event, attrition was high; to the point that only half of the total field finished the entire race distance. Five laps into the race, the Frenchman Jean Larivière died at the wheel of a Ferrari 212 that was owned by Belgian Johnny Claes. Sunday broke to the rain relenting and the day remaining overcast, especially with the death of Lariviere the day before. Also, as Sunday emerged from the darkness, it became clear that the Peter-duo were the class of the field. And, by the time the 24 hour race drew to a close Whitehead had scored his most prestigious victory. Walker and Whitehead so dominated the race that, in the end, they had a nine lap lead on the second-place finishing car of Pierre Meyrat and Guy Mairesse.
After the high of the victory at Le Mans, it was back to some grand prix races. A month after the frustration of the failed attempt to defend his title at the Ulster Trophy race, Peter entered his Ferrari 125 once again, under his half-brother's name, for what was the 4th round of the Formula One world championship; the French Grand Prix. As with the first season of Formula One, the French Grand Prix was held on the public roads between Reims and Gueux. The course was 4.8 miles of public roads. Given the makeup of the course, the average speed was rather high. Therefore, the stress on the car, especially the engine, was extremely great. Sure enough, the stresses that caused Peter to fail to start the race at Dundrod the month prior began to reappear at Reims. 23 cars would end up qualifying for the 77 lap event, but, Whitehead couldn't really make much of an impression. The best time he could post was only good enough for 20th on the grid. The poor performance in qualifying was to be a sign of what was to come, or, what was not to come, during the race.
A month prior, Whitehead's race was over before the cars even took off for the first lap. At least for the 4th round of the world championship, on the first day of July, Peter was able to make it to the start of the race, but not much further. Peter was able to complete one lap of the race before the V12 Ferrari engine let go. Once again, Whitehead left a world championship race without having scored even a single point. By about the same time the year before Peter had been able to score three points in the Formula One championship, but, was without to this point in 1951.
After three-straight disappointing grand prix performances, Whitehead sorely needed a good result. His next opportunity to turn things around came two weeks later at Silverstone, England and the 4th British Grand Prix. This was home turf for Whitehead, and the desire to perform well in front of the home crowd was tangible.
Twenty drivers qualified for the 90 lap race on the 2.88 mile course on the former airbase. Peter's mount for the race was not his own Ferrari 125, but a Ferrari 375 owned by G. A. Vanderwell. This was the same model Ferrari that Scuderia Ferrari was fielding for its top drivers like Villoresi and Gonzalez. However, driving a 375 for Vanderwell compared to Scuderia Ferrari itself was quite a bit different and it showed during qualifying. Gonzalez took the pole in his Ferrari, and Ascari qualified 4th. The best Whitehead was able to do in his Ferrari was only good enough to start the race from 14th on the grid.
Although not all that impressive during qualifying, Whitehead's race on the mild and dry day in the middle-part of July ended up faring much better. A little less than half of the field failed to finish the race. A couple of those who did fail to finish the race were Alberto Ascari and Nino Farina. Despite their problems, Peter's race went almost according to plan except he just couldn't quite compete with the pace of the likes of Jose Froilan Gonzalez, Juan Manuel Fangio and others. Peter had the car, as was proven by the fact Gonzalez scored Ferrari's first ever victory in Formula One with the same model 375, but he just wasn't able to get the same pace out of it to mix it up with the top drivers. Peter would end up finishing the race. He would end up 9th overall, but was some 7 laps down to Gonzalez and Fangio. This would be the first time in three grand prix races that Whitehead even finished a race. However, once again, he would leave a Formula One event without having scored a single point toward the championship.
One month later, in the middle of August, Peter travelled to Pescara, Italy to take part in the Circuito di Pescara race. Jose Froilan Gonzalez scored Ferrari's first ever victory in a Formula One race at Silverstone the month prior and was still on a roll. For this race on the 15.9 mile road circuit Whitehead was back driving under the Scuderia Ferrari banner with his 125. He had sufficient time to repair and rebuild his 125's engine in order to get it ready for the long road course that wound through the Italian countryside. Fifteen drivers would qualify for the 12 lap race. The best Peter would be able to do was 14th; almost dead last.
As the race got underway, the distance of the race and the length of the circuit began to take its toll. By the end of the race, six drivers would fail to finish the race due to some kind of mechanical problem. Although he started from practically dead last, Peter made his way steadily up through the field in a spirited drive. Gonzalez kept his roll going as he ended up taking the victory for Ferrari; two in a row. Peter would end up finishing the race in 5th place in a Ferrari 125 that was more than a couple years old. Despite finishing the race in 5th, Whitehead would end up a lap down to the top-four finishers. This was truly Peter's best result in a grand prix since all the way back in April.
1951 had proven to be a very difficult year for Peter when it came to grand prix racing. He experienced the grand victory at the 24 hours of Le Mans, and yet, pretty much experienced nothing but difficulty throughout most of the grand prix season.
Two weeks after the race at Pescara; in the early part of September, Whitehead headed to Bari, Italy for the Grand Prix of Bari. This race was 65 laps of the 3.44 mile road course that ran through Bari. Nineteen drivers would start the Bari Grand Prix. Peter, however, would have a lot of work before him as he was only able to start the race from 17th on the grid. Out of the 19 that would start the race, only 9 would remain still running at the end. Peter, fortunately, was one of them. Though some five laps down to the race winner Fangio, Peter was able to climb his way up through the field, just as he had at Pescara, and would end up putting in an inspiring performance, good enough to finish the race 6th.
The last grand prix or endurance event Peter entered in 1951 was the second-to-last round of the Formula One season, the Grand Prix of Monza. The race took place on the 16th of September and once again boasted a large number of entrants. Twenty-two drivers qualified for the race, but not all of them were able to take part in the race. Reg Parnell was a non-starter, as was Ken Richardson. Richardson was unable to take part in the race due to the fact he had the wrong license needed in order to be legal to compete.
The race that year consisted of 80 laps of the 3.9 mile road course configuration. The configuration lent to a high average speed, and therefore, also a high attrition rate. Qualifying, once again, didn't go well for Peter, but as he had proven over the course of his last couple of grand prix races, where he started didn't matter all that much. Putting aside the two who were unable to start the race, another ten would fail to finish the race due to some kind of problem, whether it was an engine problem, overheating, ignition or whatever. Unfortunately for Peter, he would end up being one of the first of those who took the green flag at the start of the race who then ended up out of the race due to a mechanical problem. The day was hot and dry and this proved to be very detrimental to many teams and their cars. Chico Landi was forced out of the race without having even completed a lap due to transmission problems. Peter's last race of 1951 came to an end after just one lap had been completed. The problem Peter faced was with the magneto.
Once again, Peter wasn't able to repeat his performance of a year ago when he was able to sneak into the points paying position at a Formula One world championship event. In fact, for 1951, the Formula One races were mostly Whitehead's worst races. In the end, Peter finished 1951 without having scored even one championship point. However, Peter could relish in the victory he had achieved with Peter Walker at Le Mans back in June of that year.
Although the stats wouldn't really prove it, Peter Whitehead was still one of those drivers who was capable of stealing some points at any given race; if the conditions were right and favorable to him pulling it off. This child of the wool industry had the talent and the speed to achieve some very notable victories. And it was, ironically, in the noise and choreographed chaos of the racing world that Peter found the most calm and peace. Although not one of the most famous drivers in the world, he proved to have the talent to shed the wool of his family's business in order to forge his own career.