There was something about José Froilán González which seemed indestructible… making the announcement of his passing this weekend, even at the ripe age of 90, something of a shock. Known as the ‘Pampas Bull’ by the British press and ‘El Cabezón’ (fathead), by his countrymen, he was the Argentine star who claimed Enzo Ferrari’s first Grand Prix victory as a constructor enjoyed tremendous affection from fans both in his prime and in his latter years.
Rotund and ready-smiling, González was born in the city of Arrecifes and was a keen athlete in his youth – whose competitiveness was somewhat at odds with his naturally chunky frame. At 10 years of age he got himself behind the wheel of a car and this produced an even bigger thrill, so he contrived to find ways to drive vehicles of all shapes and sizes from that moment on.
Racing duly followed, at the age of 24, when he embarked on some of the great cross-country events of the era. He took a typically South American approach by using a pseudonym to avoid his family finding out about his antics – although they did, despite his best efforts. His father then helped González establish a trucking business – no doubt hoping that this would occupy him too fully to go racing – but although it was successful, the whole operation was duly sold after a couple of years in order to pay for a Maserati 4CL with which to make his international debut in Buenos Aires.
González clearly had talent and this earned him sponsorship from the Argentine government of Juan Peron – just like his older rival from national road races, Juan Manuel Fangio – which took him to Europe in 1950. Once again his talent was clear and he was signed up by Enzo Ferrari – although with some reservations from the Old Man about the state of high anxiety that González would work himself into before a race.
On July 14th 1951, fate decreed that it was González who would enter the record books as the first man to drive a Ferrari to victory in a Grand Prix, when he mastered a race-long battle with Fangio’s Alfa Romeo 158 to win the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. He drove out of his skin that day, hurling the big unblown V12 around with all his might to hold the waspish supercharged Alfetta at bay in what was undoubtedly his finest Grand Prix performance.
There was no onward momentum from that first victory, however, in what fast became the ‘Fangio era’. He would win at Silverstone with Ferrari once again in 1954, the year when he also anchored the Scuderia’s victory at Le Mans with Maurice Trintignant, but spent the majority of his European racing days as a journeyman. González not only drove for Ferrari but also Maserati, BRM and Tony Vandervell’s Thinwall operation – the British teams usually in non-championship events such as Goodwood meetings.
González returned to live in Argentina before the start of the 1955 season, establishing a successful car dealership business. He did not often choose to hark back to his racing days, but when he did he was always cheerful and grateful – if somewhat bemused – by the affection in which he was held by fans of the sport from thousands of miles away. He will be missed.