Teams1951 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
The real draw, or flavor, of any sport, even of life, is that individual or team that exists day-in and day-out with very little attention by the masses or other, more dominant, individuals or teams. Then, one day, they surprise everybody and do what nobody thought possible. And just like that, hope is passed on to those who witnessed it or heard about the feat. Formula One has and most-likely shall forever be comprised of those superstar teams, but also, those who's chances are rather slim for achieving a good result. But they are there. And if the opportunity presents itself…who knows what could happen?
Enrico Plate was one of those teams in Formula One history. It wasn't one of the major teams like Alfa Romeo or Ferrari, but it usually had the technology and the talent to take advantage if the situation presented itself. The Enrico Plate team had a colorful history. A couple of the more famous drivers in grand prix history had driven for the team. In fact, Plate gave Tazio Nuvolari his last victory. The team had been present almost from the moment racing resumed after the war, and, had secured a victory in less than a year after racing resumed. The team had won races at Albi, Reims, Pau and Goodwood. But when Formula One came into existence, and with it teams like Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, Enrico Plate was left hoping more for good results than victories. Though beginning to slip away into non-existence by 1951, Enrico Plate was still to be found at both official and non-official grand prix events, mixing it up with other top teams and drivers, looking and praying for good results.
The team's first race of the 1951 season was the non-championship race the Grand Prix of Siracusa held in March of that year. The race was an 80 lap race around the streets of Siracusa, Sicilia. The team brought two Maserati 4CLT/48 (see Maserati 4CLT article) chassis to the race, which were to be driven by the American driver Harry Schell and Prince Bira. The field wasn't without talent as Scuderia Ferrari, with its drivers Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi and Dorino Serafini, was present. In addition to Ferrari's drivers, other talented drivers like Louis Rosier and reigning Formula One champion Giuseppe Farina were also present driving cars under their own team names.
Ascari set the pole time with Farina starting alongside of him. Plate's drivers didn't fare all that bad in qualifying when considering the talent present. But when considering the number of drivers who qualified for the race, Enrico's drivers didn't fare that well after all. Prince Bira had posted a time good enough for him to start the race from the 8th starting spot on the grid. Schell didn't fare all that well as he would start the race from the 10th spot on the grid. Starting 10th wouldn't seem all that bad, but since there were only 12 starters for the race, Harry was definitely starting toward the tail-end of the field.
Compared to Alfa Romeo's 159, Plate's Maserati 4CLT/48s were newer. But when it came to the area of refinement and development to keep the Maserati competitive, the car design was lacking. Most teams and drivers would just switch to the up-and-coming Ferrari cars because their Maseratis could not keep pace. Enrico Plate, however, was loyal to the Maserati brand. The team would suffer for it in terms of performance.
As the race got underway, Ascari was in the lead with his Ferrari 375. Well over halfway into the 80 lap event Ascari's Ferrari began to develop engine problems and was forced to retire on lap 69. Farina wasn't able to capitalize as he too had already withdrawn back on lap 47 with engine troubles himself. With only five cars still running at the end of the race, there possibly had been a chance, at least perhaps for the Prince, to score a descent finish. However, this was not to be as neither one of the team's drivers were able to make it past halfway. On lap 38 of the 3.35 mile street course, Bira's race came to an end due to mechanical problems. Two laps later, Harry was forced to retire when his Maserati developed mechanical problems. An opportunity presented itself, but the team was unable to put itself in a position to be able to take advantage of it. Luigi Villoresi took the victory with an average speed of almost 91 mph. Fellow Ferrari teammate Serafini came in 2nd, over three laps down. Rudolf Fischer rounded off the podium finishing 3rd.
Two weeks after the race at Siracusa, the Enrico Plate team arrived in Pau, France to take part in the Grand Prix du Pau. Looking like a traveling caravan or play troupe, Plate arrived essentially with all of the same teams and drivers that had taken part in the race at Siracusa. About the only thing which did change was that Prince Bira was not going to be driving for the team in Pau. Instead, the team employed the talents of fellow Swiss driver Emanuel de Graffenried.
Even on the slower, 1.76 mile street course Ferrari dominated in qualifying. Ascari took the pole with teammate Villoresi alongside in 2nd. Serafini went out and made sure Ferrari swept the top-three spots on the grid. De Graffenried handled his Maserati 4CLT masterfully and gave the Enrico Plate a good chance at a good result by qualifying 5th for the 110 lap race. Harry Schell struggled once again and was only able to beat out Georges Grignard and his Talbot-Lago T26C to ensure he didn't start dead-last.
Schell's troubles ran much deeper, for when the race started, he was in trouble in very short order. After only 10 laps or so, Schell's 4CLT engine began to overheat. Then, on lap 14, Harry was forced to retire with radiator problems. Even-though he didn't start last, he would end last.
Emanuel's race was looking rather good. With the help of attrition, de Graffenried was looking to be in a good position to achieve a surprising result. Unlike the last race, de Graffenried managed to take his car past the halfway mark of the race and continued to drive a hard, but consistent race. Then, after 60-some laps, Emanuel's engine started to have oil pressure problems. Sure enough, on lap 66, de Graffenried had to pull his Maserati over. The Swiss was finally forced to retire due to the oil pressure problems.
Villoresi and Rosier dominated the race. Villoresi won the race, with Rosier not far behind. The two drivers had lapped the rest of the field three times. Giuseppe Farina was able to hold off Yves Giraud-Cabantous to finish 3rd.
The financial woes hitting the dominant Alfa Romeo team opened the doors for other teams to compete and have a chance at a good result; at least at the non-championship events. On April 22nd, the Grand Prix of San Remo was held near the town of Ospedaletti, Italy. Alfa Romeo was again absent, as this was a non-championship race. However, Ferrari again arrived with three of its own cars. Enrico Plate arrived still employing the talents of de Graffenried and Schell.
The road course for the San Remo Grand Prix was a rather short, 2.0 mile, rather tight and twisty road course that had only one long straight. This helped to level the performance gap a bit, as was demonstrated in qualifying. Ascari still took the pole in his Ferrari 375. Villoresi followed with the second-fastest time. However, it wasn't a clean Ferrari sweep. Emanuel put in an inspiring performance during qualifying and was able to put his Maserati 4CLT on the grid 3rd. Schell didn't fare all that bad either, especially considering how things had gone to that point in the season during qualifying. Seventeen starters would qualify for the race and Schell qualified solidly in the middle of the field in 8th.
The 90 lap race was another race of attrition, where the real competition was just keeping the car running to the finish. Only seven cars would finish the race. Not even thinking about any high-order finish, victory for Enrico Plate would have been just to see one of its cars actually make it to the end of a race. Despite the promise and hope inspired by Emanuel's qualifying performance, it would not come to fruition through him during the race. Sixty laps into the 90 lap event, de Graffenried's 4CLT developed suspension problems, which forced him to retire from the race. What hope died with Emanuel found new life in Schell. Though three laps down, and not in contention for the victory, Schell was still putting in a splendid performance, no doubt wrestling with and cursing at the car as he went through every corner. That was Schell's trademark. He was so good and so loud at it that other drivers could hear him over the engines out on the track. Harry cursed and wrestled his way to a 4th place finish. Enrico Plate finally had a car finish in 1951. The top-three finishers were Ascari, Serafini and Fischer respectively.
Almost every possible race Enrico Plate could have attended, they did. And one week after finally having a car finish, the team, feeling as though it was on a roll now, headed to Bordeaux, France for the 1st Grand Prix of Bordeaux.
The street course laid out in Bordeaux was a short one. It was only 1.5 miles in length. The race, however, would not be a short one. The race distance was 123 laps, or, a total of 188 miles covered.
Neither Ferrari nor Alfa Romeo brought cars to the race. So, this was going to be a golden opportunity for a good result. Harry looked poised to take advantage of the situation as he was able to qualify 3rd for the race. His Plate teammate wasn't as fortunate. Emanuel struggled in qualifying and was only capable of putting in a time that was 12th fastest. Only 15 drivers started the race, and so, it was another Enrico Plate driver positioned at the back of the grid. Louis Rosier set the fastest time in his own Talbot-Lago T26C. Maurice Trintignant was able to guide his small Simca-Gordini T15 to the second-fastest time.
At 123 laps in length, it was going to be important that the drivers settled into a rhythm and got comfortable rather quickly. However, for the Enrico Plate drivers, it almost wasn't even important for them to get into their cars. Four other drivers failed to start the race due to different mechanical problems, including Giuseppe Farina in his own Maserati 4CLT. Both of Plate's drivers saw the start of the race, but they could have pretty much quit as soon as the race started. Well, for de Graffenried, his race did actually come to an end right at the start. Some mechanical problem struck, and so, he didn't even complete one lap. And it was a good thing the cars of the day didn't have harnesses in them, because Schell didn't need them either. Four laps into the 123 lap race, Harry's 4CLT developed a problem which forced the colorful American to also have to retire from the race. The team would have gotten a head-start on packing had they not even started the race. Just like that, any momentum the team felt they had gained after San Remo was gone.
Undeterred by how the season had been going to that point, Enrico entered one car in the Grand Prix of Paris, which took place toward the end of May. The team prepared a single car for de Graffenried.
The race in Boulogne, France was another 100+ lap race. The street course used in 1951 was 1.55 miles in length. The organizers set the race distance as a total of 194 miles, or, 125 laps. Neither Ferrari nor Alfa Romeo were present, but, both Ecurie Rosier and Equipe Gordini brought a gaggle of cars. Equipe Gordini brought five cars altogether, of which one was driven by Juan Manuel Fangio.
Fourteen cars would qualify and start the race. Emanuel was able to put one of Plate's 4CLTs on the pole after recording a lap of 1:19. Farina and Etancelin were alongside on the front row. The best Fangio could do was 6th, which was on the inside behind de Graffenried in the 3-2-3 grid arrangement. Perhaps this was one of those moments whereby the Enrico Plate team could take full advantage and score a victory, albeit in a non-championship race?
From the very start of the race, Farina took control. He and Jose Froilan Gonzalez battled it out for the win. Emanuel slipped back in the pack and struggled throughout. Things were just not getting any better for de Graffenried, and so, Schell took over for him. Schell was able to guide the 4CLT to a 7th place finish, but it was a disappointing finish after the day had started out looking so very good for the team. Even though the team was looking for and hoping for more, to finish a race, and to come in 7th, was a good result for the team given how the season had been going.
One week later, the Swiss team was in Bremgarten for the Swiss Grand Prix; the first round of the 1951 Formula One championship. Emanuel de Graffenried had left to go drive for Alfa Romeo SpA in his home country's race. This left a seat in the second car. Louis Chiron agreed and stepped into the vacated seat.
Alfa Romeo and Ferrari were the class of the field in qualifying. Had it not been for Louis Rosier, Alfa Romeo and Ferrari would have swept the first-eight spots in qualifying. Harry qualified a disappointing 17th, and Chiron qualified an even worse 19th.
The Swiss Grand Prix was scheduled as 190 miles of the 4.5 mile road course, which equaled a 42 lap race. Race day started out overcast, but it would turn to rain. Weather is always an equalizer because it comes down to being more about the driver then just the car at that point. If a team has a quality driver, then no matter what kind of equipment it is around him or her, there will still be a chance. Schell's style, especially in the rain, was not all that great. However, Harry settled down and controlled his car much better and was able to wield his car to a 12th place finish. This wasn't too bad of a result given where he had started the race. Harry kept his head, drove much more cautiously than normal, and was able to stay out of trouble to finish another race. The driver the team had step into de Graffenried's place, the grand prix world knew, was a quality driver.
Chiron was still settling in and getting a feel for the car during the early stages of the race. However, he soon was on the pace and coming up through the field. When the rain began to fall, Chiron not merely came up through the field. He catapulted up through the field. Thanks to Louis, Enrico Plate took the honor of being the highest finishing car that wasn't with either Alfa Romeo or Ferrari. While the team wasn't able to score any points, Chiron drove such a splendid race that he was able to finish the race 7th. He had only missed the points by two places. Had there been more laps left, there existed the possibility he could have scored at least two points. He had Ascari not too far up the road and de Graffenried not too much further ahead of Ascari. De Graffenried's choice to drive for Alfa Romeo paid off as he was able to finish in the last points-paying position and was sitting 5th in the drivers' championship when it left his home nation.
The finish at Bremgarten was a morale victory for Enrico Plate. Not only did the team perform well in what was essentially a home event, it was the first time all season long that both cars actually finished a race distance. Chiron finished the race two laps down to race winner Fangio, while Schell finished 4 laps down.
The team didn't slow down after the Swiss Grand Prix. Plate brought its two car effort to Northern Ireland in the early part of June to take part in the 5th Ulster Trophy race held on the 7.4 mile road course in Dundrod. This time it was de Graffenried and Chiron behind the wheels of the team's 4CLTs.
The average speed on the 7.4 mile road course was rather high and this was demonstrated by the sole Alfa brought to the event, which was driven by the reigning world champion Farina. After racing alongside him in Switzerland, de Graffenried was back competing against Farina. Emanuel did a rather good job during qualifying to put himself in a place to take the fight to the 159 piloted by Farina. Emanuel qualified his 4CLT 5th. As in Bremgarten, Chiron still struggled with the Maserati during qualifying. He struggled mightily and was only capable of setting a time that was 19th fastest. There were only 20 qualifiers.
When lining up for the race, it became known that Chiron would actually be the tail-end. Peter Whitehead suffered from mechanical problems in his Ferrari 125 and did not actually start the race. There would be no inspired drive this time for Chiron. Three laps into the 27 lap race, Chiron made a mistake and suffered an accident that brought his race to an end.
Emanuel was away without too much trouble. He had settled in and was looking to move forward when it was noticed his car had developed an oil leak. Then, on lap11, the leak got bad enough that the race also became finished for de Graffenried. Immediately after both cars finished at the Formula One race, the team experiences a double failure at Dundrod. Farina ended up holding off Reg Parnell and took the victory in the Alfa 159.
The season continued to be a difficult, and expensive, one for Enrico Plate. Due to the need for repairs, the costs associated with the repairs and to go racing, and, just because of the sheer pace of the team's schedule, Enrico Plate skipped the next round of the Formula One championship at Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium in favor of resting and repairing their cars and team members. It wouldn't have been unlikely that the team didn't make the trip merely because of the track. The old 8.77 mile track was every bit a high-speed venue and it favored the Alfas and the Ferraris.
Anyway, Enrico Plate sat out from racing until the European Grand Prix, held in Reims, France. Enrico had tasted success at Reims before, and it held a special place in the team's heart. So, at the end of June, the team traveled to Reims to prepare for the race, which took place on July 1st of that year.
The European Grand Prix, as it was scheduled in 1951, was going to be a truly grueling affair. The race distance was only about 25 miles short of being a 400 mile endeavor. The area of Reims is primarily comprised of rolling terrain and, in July, was usually pretty hot. There was no exception to that general rule that year. Seventy-seven laps of the high-speed 4.85 mile triangle-shaped circuit was going to challenge the drivers and the equipment. The high-speed straights would easily tempt the drivers, but the hairpin turns at the end of a couple of these exceptionally long straights would test the nerve of the driver every lap, as well as, pound the equipment.
The lacking pace of the Maseratis was immediately apparent on a track that routinely had average speeds of over 100mph each and every lap. Emanuel de Graffenried was the best placed driver for the team after qualifying. He was only able to qualify 16th. Harry Schell was back driving for the Swiss team and he fared terribly in qualifying. He wouldn't start last. He would start 22nd.
Twenty-three drivers prepared to take the start of the race. As the field roared away, immediately de Graffenried was in trouble. The hot temperatures and the hard, long straights were taking a toll on his Maserati's engine and transmission. Conflicting explanations and information abound, but what is known is that for some reason, whether it was his engine let go, or, that he had transmission troubles, de Graffenried's race came to an end after only one lap. He wasn't alone. Peter Whitehead's and his Ferrari's day were also over due to engine problems resulting from the heat and the wear and tear.
Enrico Plate placed its hopes squarely on the shoulders of its remaining running car, piloted by Harry Schell, but those hopes too were dashed on lap 23 when he was forced to retire from the race due also to an overheating engine. The European Grand Prix was another event where both of Enrico Plate's cars failed to finish.
Enrico Plate, like Alfa Romeo, was struggling financially. As it is today, it was expensive to go grand prix racing back during the early days of Formula One. It was before the heavy commercialization so noticeable nowadays, and so, not as much a lucrative enterprise as it was a patriotic one. But, as is usually the case, to be patriotic costs a lot. Now, however, it was really starting to cost Enrico Plate too much. The team missed another Formula One race, the British Grand Prix, to focus on preparing the cars for the remainder of the team's schedule that year.
The next race on the team's calendar was the German Grand Prix, which was held on the entire 14 mile road course known as the 'Nordschleife'. Only one car was brought to the race and it was driven by de Graffenried. Somewhat oblivious to the bigger battle going on around themselves between Alfa and Ferrari, the Enrico Plate team had their own battle going on between themselves and failure. And failure had been winning 'hands-down'. It continued to maintain the upper-hand after the Nurburgring as well.
The best Emanuel could do during qualifying was to start the race from the 16th position. Only 23 cars started the race. So obviously, Emanuel was starting from near the back of the pack. He never had the chance to pull-off a Chiron-like climb up through the field during the race either. De Graffenried's race ended after only two laps. Of course two laps of a 14 mile track is obviously longer than some of the distances covered at other races before there was a failure with the team's cars, but nonetheless, it was another failure. Huge problems still existed within the team. The problems were such that it didn't even pay to be concerned with what was going on around them. The team's problems were so bad and so often they never got to even consider themselves in the picture of the Formula One championship, or, even the majority of every other race's outcome.
The team needed good results to help them get back on track, especially financially. But it is the great trap when the only hope is to keep racing, and yet, every race is met with more failure. The team didn't enter a car for the Grand Prix of l'Albi on August 5th. The team did enter two cars for the Circuit of Pescara race which took place ten days later in Pescara, Italy.
The course design for the race around Pescara was comprised of city streets and country roads. A single lap distance was a seemingly never-ending 15.89 miles. The race distance was only going to be 12 laps, but with the distance covered by a single lap, it translated into a race almost 200 miles in length. Only 15 started the race, and among the missing was Alfa Romeo. However, Ferrari was present in force. Scuderia Ferrari brought four cars to the race. Enrico's two cars were piloted by the year's two usual drivers, de Graffenried and Schell. De Graffenried qualified for the race in 9th place with a lap time of 13:31. Schell qualified for the race in 11th with a time of 13:31 as well. Ascari took the pole with a lap time of 10:43.6. In all, the gap of the times between the pole and the last to set a time was almost a gap of four minutes.
A good goal for the team would have been to have at least one of its cars finish the race, let alone worry about scoring a place on the podium. The team's chances took a hit by half when, after 4 laps into the race, de Graffenried's race came to an end due to gearbox related problems. While Gonzalez was out blowing away 2nd place Louis Rosier by a minute and a half, Harry Schell was fighting to keep the team's chances for a finish from being blown away. After de Graffenried's failure, Schell got into a comfortable rhythm for both himself and the car and he was able to wrestle the car around the course without breaking it. Harry brought the ever-fragile 4CLT home to a 7th place finish. Thankfully, for the team and Schell, he had a lap advantage over David Murray, and therefore, wasn't too pressed to wrangle more out of the car than the team hoped would be necessary to finish.
After another almost month, Enrico Plate entered two cars for the Grand Prix of Bari in Bari, Italy. The Grand Prix of Bari was a 65 lap contest over a 3.44 mile road course around Bari. Most teams were using this race as a final tune-up for the last two races on the Formula One calendar. Enrico Plate could forget about thinking of that and needed just to focus on having at least a car finish another race. If it could be done, it would be the first time all season Plate had at least one car finish in two successive races.
Neither of the team's drivers qualified well at all, but, in the grand scheme of things, that was not all that bad. What the team needed was finishes of whole race distances out of its cars. Whether it started those races from the pole, or, dead last didn't really matter in the big picture. When their cars were finishing races…then, the team could start thinking about going for wins or top-three finishes. If they happened…it was a blessing, but not the focus. Finishing was hard enough for the team at this point in the season. Emanuel qualified for the 224 mile race in 18th. Schell started the race about 10 feet away in the 19th spot on the grid.
The race got underway and the laps began to tick off. At least both of the cars had made it past five laps, ten laps and then…As soon as Harry ran out of fingers and toes to count the number of laps he had completed, an oil leak started to develop. It became worse and worse. Then, on lap 12, Harry was forced to pull off the track because of the oil leak. His Bari Grand Prix was over. The team's hopes rested on de Granffenried this time.
The laps kept ticking off, and no problems. Another lap, then another…no problems. Emanuel's pace was dramatically slower than the pace of Fangio and Gonzalez. Of course, Emanuel wasn't alone when it came to being unable to keep up with the two Argentineans. When it was obvious there would be no way to finish any higher before the actual race finished, de Graffenried pulled his Maserati in, finishing the race in the 'non-classified' classification. The short of it was the fact that one of Plate's cars finished the race. This made two races in a row. Though not classified, Emanuel finished the race 9th, quite remarkable after starting the race 18th. This would be the team's final race for 1951.
Despite their struggles to finish a race, being present at Formula One events with Alfa Romeo and Ferrari had almost the same effect given the fact that most likely it would be Alfa Romeo and Ferrari that would take all of the points paying positions at the finish. Such was the dominance of the two teams, that it was almost unheard of in 1951 to have another team finish in the points. With the exception of Belgium and the British Grand Prix, all of the points-paying positions at Formula One races had been swept by Alfa Romeo and Ferrari. In light of their dominance, it made it difficult for other smaller teams to justify participating in Formula One events. And, as a result of these facts, it is interesting to note that not one Enrico Plate car competed in any of the remaining Formula One events in 1951.
The Enrico Plate team entered cars in four of the seven rounds of the Formula One world championship. Out of the four events the team did enter its most impressive performance was that turned in by Louis Chiron at Bremgarten. Chiron qualified a very poor 19th, but he was able to come up through the field very impressively. He seemed right at home in the rain and was able to finish the race in 7th, only two places out of the points. Enrico Plate finished the 1951 Formula One season having led no laps nor scoring a single championship point.
As it is with Formula One today, if there was no support from television contracts and other profit sharing measures, the smaller teams would disappear from competitive grand prix racing. And they mostly already have, with the exception being Williams perhaps. As 1951 wore on, and performance-oriented rewards harder to come by with the dominant presence of Alfa Romeo and Ferrari, Enrico Plate began to really run into financial troubles.
All that the team had meant to grand prix racing, prior to Formula One, began to obviously fade away throughout the season's embarrassing failures. All of the history and color Enrico Plate offered the sport was on the verge of being lost due to the high costs of competing without any hope of seeing a return on investment. It was becoming too expensive to merely play. To win in Formula One was a cost incalculable for the team by the end of the year. 1951 was truly the year Formula One defeated Enrico Plate.