On this week #20: Back to the beginning | Pirelli

On this week #20: Back to the beginning


On this week, 74 years and more than 1000 races ago, it all started. And by all, we mean Formula 1 as we know it. Because Saturday 13 May 1950 hosted the very first race of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship – and appropriately enough, it was won by a car that used Pirelli tyres.

Europe was still emerging from the horrors of war, so it was no surprise that the very first Formula 1 race was held on an old military airfield, close to the village of Silverstone in England. The venue would go on to become a symbol of motorsport, still hosting the British Grand Prix today.

On the grid for the inaugural championship race at Silverstone were the gladiators of the day: legendary personalities like Juan Manuel Fangio, Nino Farina, Prince Bira, and Louis Chiron. All were actually far more famous than the home-grown British drivers of the time, whose best-known representative was Reg Parnell.

In the grandstands, however, there were some even bigger names. The King of England, for example and his daughter Elizabeth, who had just turned 24. They watched from the hastily-assembled royal box, facing the pits, There was another young man in the crowd, who was just 18 at the time and racing in Formula 3: his name was Bernard Ecclestone. Probably neither of them would have guessed back then just how long their respective yet very diverse reigns would turn out to last.

As for Silverstone, it's still the king of speed today, despite the inevitable changes over the years that have altered a few elements of its intrinsically rapid character.

Back when Formula 1 was born there, Silverstone wasn't even a proper circuit. Instead, it was still basically a former RAF base that was largely used for amateur weekend racing, with hay bales marking the track limits. There were six straights in total, four of which were extremely long. This meant that the cars hit top speed six times, interspersed with an equal number of corners: some of which were truly fearsome.

In those days, driving truly quickly at Silverstone (along with most other circuits of the era) meant ‘letting the car go' through corners. In other words, leaning on it as hard as possible, right up to the point where there was no grip left – lifting off would be a disaster anyway – then piling on as much opposite lock as quickly as possible, with the front wheels pointing away from the corner, in order to drift like a rally driver.

It was full gas and no heavy braking: all the control being relegated to the steering wheel and each driver's wits; a courageous ballet that walked the tightrope between the limits of adhesion and bravery.

On that Saturday in 1950 (in England all grands prix took place on Saturdays rather than Sundays, right up to the 1970s) Farina – who would go on to become Formula 1's first world champion at the end of the season ­– emerged triumphant in his Alfa Romeo. He was running on Pirelli tyres, with the Alfa mechanics in blue Pirelli overalls, making it an all-Milan success. Even the Alfa Romeo trucks had “Alfa Romeo, Gomme Pirelli” written on the side.

There was  an all-Alfa front row on the grid, and they got away cleanly. After five laps the order was Farina, with Fangio 0.6 seconds behind him, then Fagioli and Parnell.

Fangio then managed to get ahead, but after 30 laps it was Farina back in front – with Fangio's pursuit ending after a rare mistake when he drove his car into a hay bale. By the time the flag fell after 70 laps, Fagioli was runner-up, just three seconds behind Farina, while the local hero Parnell was a more distant third, despite a collision with a hare.

Farina also claimed the race lap record that year (1m50.6s), at an average speed of just over 151kph. A replica of the Pirelli Stella Bianca tyre that he used to win the British Grand Prix is currently on display in the Silverstone museum – which is well worth a visit for anyone coming to the race in July. But the whole story started on this very week back in 1950.