1952 Belgian Grand Prix
: 1952 Belgian Grand Prix: Youth Reigned Down By Jeremy McMullen
On a rain-soaked Spa-Francorchamps Circuit a tall, blonde-haired Brit by the name of Mike Hawthorn would stun the crowd and would make many within grand prix racing take notice of the 23 year old.
Mike Hawthorn had started out racing motorbikes. In his first-ever event in a BSA trial bike, Hawthorn would take the victory. Michael's father, Leslie, recognized his son's skills as a racer and would invest in his talent by using his Tourist Trophy garage to help prepare racing cars for his son.
Leslie's garage would help to prepare Hawthorn's Riley's, an Ulster Imp and Sprite TT. With these cars Hawthorn would continue to earn great success. But the ultimate for a motor racing driver was sportscar and grand prix racing. And the success Hawthorn had garnered with the Riley, Imp and Sprite would lead him to begin driving a Cooper-Bristol in Formula 2 in 1951. This would be a very important step in Hawthorn's racing career as events would make it so that Michael would begin his World Championship grand prix career a bit earlier than either he or others likely would have expected.
At the end of the 1951 Formula One World Championship season, the same year that Hawthorn first started competing in Formula 2, the organizers and governing-body had some very important decisions to make.
The governing-body for the World Championship had some real problems on their hands. Alfa Romeo was pulling out of the World Championship at the end of the 1951 season leaving just Ferrari as the main contender. The World Championship was growing in costs and was short in competition. Some changes needed to be made but the governing-body didn't have the time to implement sweeping changes. Therefore, there would be the need to implement some simple changes in order to give the governing-body time to come up with new regulations that would lower costs and increase competition.
It would be found that Formula 2 had all of the elements needed to fill the gap and provide the necessary time the governing-body needed. Therefore, for the next two seasons (1952 and 1953) the World Championship would be conducted according to Formula 2 guidelines. This would open up a door to a number of competitors that neither had the type of money the major manufacturers had for Formula One. That meant the starting grids would be filled with manufacturers like Scuderia Ferrari, but also many privateer teams. This provided a great opportunity for the then 23 year old Hawthorn to demonstrate his abilities in single-seaters to some of the best teams in motor racing at the time.
John Cooper and his company had been developing a car for Formula 2. It was less powerful than the Ferrari 500 and the Maserati A6GCM that would come online a little later, but it would be available in large number and would enabled a number of aspiring competitors to write their names in the annuls of grand prix racing history.
Robert Chase was involved in the automobile industry and was interested in motor racing. He recognized the talents of Hawthorn and would end up investing in that talent by purchasing a Cooper-Bristol T20 for him to use during the 1952 World Championship. Helped out by Leslie's garage and mechanics, CB-4-52 would be readied for its debut in the World Championship.
Hawthorn would first take part in a non-championship race with the Cooper-Bristol in the Richmond Trophy race held at Goodwood. In that race, Hawthorn would show his prowess finishing in 2nd place behind Jose Froilan Gonzalez, the very same man, the year before, that had given Ferrari its first-ever World Championship victory.
Then in late June, Hawthorn and the Cooper-Bristol would leave the English shores and would head to the European continent for their debut in the World Championship. The small band would make its way to Francorchamps, Belgium in order to take part in the second round of the World Championship, the Belgian Grand Prix.
In 1921, a circuit utilizing public roads would be laid out for use for motorcycle races. Then, in 1925, the 8.77 mile circuit would be used for the Belgian Grand Prix for the first time. Full of dramatic elevation changes, blindingly fast straights and curves, the Spa-Francorchamps circuit was certainly fast and enjoyed by drivers and spectators alike. However, it was also a circuit to be greatly respected, especially given its location within the Ardennes Forest where unusual and unexpected weather could always be counted upon.
Even despite the move to use Formula 2 regulations, Ferrari would still be the most potent of all the teams throughout the season. This wouldn't be any better demonstrated than during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix. Enjoying the power offered by the Ferrari 500, Alberto Ascari would turn in the fastest lap time during practice to take the pole for the 36 lap race. Ascari's best time of 4:37.0 would end up being three seconds faster than Giuseppe Farina in another Ferrari. Six seconds would be the difference between 2nd and 3rd place on the grid, but it would be a clean sweep of the front row by Ferrari when Piero Taruffi ended up nine seconds slower than Ascari.
Entered under his father's name, Hawthorn would also look incredibly impressive in the under-powered Cooper-Bristol T20. Around the ultra-fast 8.77 mile circuit, Michael would push hard and would surprise many with a third row starting position on the grid. Hawthorn's 6th place starting position would be very impressive considering the young Brit's age.
The race was to start at 2pm on Sunday, the 22nd of June. Even before the start of the race rain was falling all over the circuit. Soaking wet, the 8.77 mile ultra-fast circuit would be treacherous and incredibly dangerous. In such conditions, the bravest, perhaps even the craziest, would be fastest.
The field roared away toward the fast uphill bend known as Eau Rouge. Taruffi would make a poor start and this would open a great door of opportunity for Equipe Gordini's Jean Behra. Behra would brave the elements and would force his way past Farina and Ascari. This was incredible given the clear advantage the Ferrari 500 had over the rest of the field. Behra would actually lead the first lap of the race. But his lead wouldn't last very long.
Hawthorn would also make a great start in his first World Championship race. He would remain right around the top five throughout the first few laps of the race. Piero Taruffi would battle with Behra and would actually take over the Frenchman's position. Then, on the 13th lap of the race, Taruffi would spin on the wet circuit. Behra would have no time to react and would end up hitting Taruffi knocking both of them out of the race. This would only promote Hawthorn amongst the rest of the front runners.
Ascari had taken over the lead of the race on the 2nd lap after Behra had his moment in the lead of the race. From the moment he took over the lead of the race, Ascari would check out from the rest of the field, even Farina in 2nd place. Ascari's performance in the wet would be truly remarkable, but Hawthorn would be just as remarkable in the wet stuff.
At the moment that Taruffi and Behra had their run-in, Hawthorn would be promoted to 3rd position. This was an incredible sight: the underpowered Cooper-Bristol being wielded around the fast Spa circuit as if it belonged up with the Ferraris. And it was Hawthorn that was doing the wielding, and in his first-ever World Championship race too.
The fairytale ending looked to be on but Robert Manzon would have to ruin it. He would end up passing Hawthorn in a Gordini taking over the 3rd position, the final place on the podium. Nonetheless, Hawthorn was still impressing just about everyone.
In spite of his impressive performance, Hawthorn just could not match the pace of the Ferraris. And heading into the final few laps of the race he was coming under threat of going a lap down. There was really very little he could do about it, Ascari was in a league all his own, as he would be throughout the rest of the season. Though Hawthorn would eventually go a lap down, he would have a lap in hand over Paul Frere, his next-closest competitor. The Brit could calmly focus on the task at hand, which was to complete this most remarkable of performances.
Ascari would win the race having set the fastest lap and averaging nearly 103 mph on a wet surface. By the time Farina came through to finish the race 2nd, the advantage Ascari had was almost two minutes. He would have four and a half minutes in hand over Manzon at the end though.
Hawthorn would drive a truly incredible race. Not only would he start the race from a very impressive 6th, but he would turn that starting position into a 4th place result. And though he would be a lap down in the end, his performance with the underpowered Cooper-Bristol, on a sheer high speed circuit like Spa-Francorchamps, would be simply remarkable.
The 4th place result at the Belgian Grand Prix would be just the start of a string of stellar World Championship performances. In just three races, Hawthorn would stand on the podium for the first time in a World Championship race. That would come at the British Grand Prix toward the end of July. Then, of course, would be his thrilling victory at Reims in the French Grand Prix after a most incredible duel with Juan Manuel Fangio; one of the greatest grand prix of all time. But it would be the Belgian Grand Prix that Hawthorn would give the public his first demonstration of his abilities behind the wheel of a grand prix car.
Although Alberto Ascari would be on everyone's minds after the race at Belgium, and throughout the incredible 1952 season, Hawthorn's performance in the race undoubtedly made many take notice. There were many there that day that likely believed they were witnessing a future World Champion, and they would be right.