- Jose Froilan Gonzalez 1922-2013
The silencing of the BullMartin Williamson June 17, 2013
The death of Jose Froilan Gonzalez at the age of 90 almost severs the link between today's multi-billion dollar business which is Formula One and the first season of the sport 63 years ago. Now the only driver still alive who took part in the inaugural 1950 championship is 96-year-old Frenchman Robert Manzon.
A quick study of a picture of Gonzalez in his car serves to underline the difference between then and now. Thick set verging on podgy with the build of a rugged farmer, Gonzalez almost seems to ooze over the side of his vehicles as he wrestles them from start to finish. He was almost the antithesis of the modern driver who at times seems to spend more time in a gym or taking part in triathlons than he does behind the wheel.
Gonzalez was not unfit - in fact, he was a very good all-round athlete. But he belonged to an era when strength and stamina to handle cars which had to be manhandled round primitive circuits were sometimes almost as important as driving ability. Like many of his contemporaries, he also had to endure constant changes of cars as drivers switched teams and manufacturers with rapid regularity.
British fans nicknamed him the Pampas Bull as soon as they saw him. Fellow drivers preferred the affectionate sobriquet El Cabezon - Fat Head. Neither really does justice to his skill. Of those who took part in ten or more grands prix, only Fangio and 1950 champion Nino Farina can better his record of achieving a podium finish in 55.56% of races he entered (15 out of 27).
It was Gonzalez's lot that his achievements were largely overshadowed by fellow countryman and five-times world champion Juan Manuel Fangio. But his finest moment came at Silverstone in 1951 when he won a gripping battle with Fangio to take the British Grand Prix and in so doing provided Ferrari with its first F1 victory. "His driving," reported the Times, "was of a kind attained only by absolute masters."
His career was checked by crashes in 1952 and 1953, but he bounced back with another win at Silverstone, again for Ferrari, in 1954; in the same year he showed his stamina and versatility with a win in the Le Mans 24-Hour. Another accident at the end of that season signalled the end of him as a regular competitor.
To keep bouncing back showed his fortitude. His crash in 1953 left him with broken vertebrae but, as he said, "you didn't have a helmet, you raced with something that kept your hair in place but did not protect you at all". Even though he was nervous before races there was no place for fear.
Had it not been for Fangio then Gonzalez would almost certainly have been world champion in 1954 when he finished second in the championship with a win and four podiums from his six starts (his other finish was a fourth).
Martin Williamson is managing editor of digital media ESPN EMEA