Britain’s first Grand Prix

At the highest level of the sport, Grand Prix racing remained largely a French affair from its inception in 1906, with only the American Grand Prize achieving anything like similar status internationally. In the aftermath of World War 1, however, Italy and Spain both inaugurated their own Grands Prix and in October 1923 the possibility of a future world championship for Grand Prix racing was discussed at the annual conference of the sport’s governing body, the Association Internationale des Automobiles Clubs Reconnus (AIACR), in Paris.

Alfa Corse won the inaugural world championship with its brilliant P2

Alfa Corse won the inaugural world championship with its brilliant P2

In January 1925 a world championship format was duly agreed between the sanctioning bodies of the sport in France, Belgium, Great Britain, Austria, Italy and the USA. It would be contested by manufacturers for cars of 2.0-litre engine capacity weighing no less than 650kg. These cars must be two-seaters but riding mechanics were banned, while the championship they entered would be staged over four rounds of a minimum 500 miles each, these being the Indianapolis 500, the European Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, the Grand Prix itself at L’Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry near Paris and the Gran Premio d’Italia at Monza.

The Royal Automobile Club in Britain had initially signed up to organise a 500-mile race on the Isle of Man, but the rigours of the 50-mile circuit were felt to be too great by the AIACR. A secondary plan to race at Brooklands circuit was thwarted by noise regulations and Britain was thus absent from the inaugural world championship season when Alfa Romeo powered to an emphatic victory in the inaugural points standings.

For the 1926 season Alfa had withdrawn from Grand Prix racing but the British had got themselves organised and the English Grand Prix at Brooklands was duly added to the calendar with a race date of August 2nd. The large kidney-shaped oval at Brooklands was nevertheless felt to be unsuitable for the overseas cars, designed to race on twisting public roads, and so two chicanes were made at vast expense on the home straight, made from a huge amount of bright red sand, which effectively cut off the right-handed fork bend outside the Vickers aircraft shed and most of the steeply-raked Members’ Banking.

Further development of Brooklands in readiness to host a Grand Prix included installing more sand banks to protect the crowd from errant machinery, the construction of covered race pits on the Home Straight and both a scoreboard and footbridge, the latter being sponsored by J. Smith & Co. the London-based import agents for Delage cars.

Henry Segrave tries out the newly-installed chicanes in practice

Henry Segrave tries out the newly-installed chicanes during practice

Although there was considerable interest surrounding the 110-lap race, the Brooklands motto of ‘the right crowd and no crowding’ was enforced by setting the ticket price at five shillings per person and a further ten shillings to bring a car through the gate. Entry to the paddock meanwhile was subject to an astonishing levy of £1 per person – fees which, in the context of the day, even Bernie Ecclestone would blush at demanding!

A total of 15 entries arrived for the big event, led by the trio of works Talbots for Albert Divo, Jean Moriceau and British hero Henry Segrave. Three more entries came from the works Delage team for the bright new French talent Robert Benoist and the old stagers Louis Wagner and Robert Senechal. Bugatti did not send any works entries but their British importer – and land speed record breaking hero – Malcolm Campbell privately entered a Type 35.

Segrave (seated in car) in a pre-race photo opportunity

Segrave (seated in car) enjoys a pre-race photo opp with ‘the right crowd’

Elsewhere six of the British entries did not arrive, leaving only the Major Frank Halford’s ‘special’ with a 6-cylinder engine of his own design mounted in an old Aston Martin, and Captain George Eyston in another Aston Martin, this time fitted with an Anzani side-valve motor. So it was that nine cars took starters’ orders from ‘Ebby’ Ebblewhite and as his celebrated red flag fell Divo’s Talbot got away cleanest to lead Cambell, Moriceau and Eyston into the first lap.

One unexpected effect of adding the chicanes to the circuit was however the toll taken on brakes and suspension as the cars, flat-out for most of the 2.6-mile lap as they screamed down Railway Straight and round the long, low loop of the Byfleet Banking, were slowed to almost walking pace. At the end of the first lap the front wheels of Moriceau’s Talbot collapsed under the strain but his team-mates Divo and Segrave powered on at the head of the field, with the Delages in pursuit.

And they're off: the 1926 RAC Grand Prix d'Angleterre

And they’re off: the 1926 RAC Grand Prix d’Angleterre

It soon became clear that if the Talbots suffered from worrisome frailty, the Delages presented their drivers with a rather more pressing problem: burnt feet. Heat from the engine was turning the firewall and pedals incandescent, forcing the drivers to stop and bathe their feet in ice water and wrap wet rags around their shoes.

Eventually Wagner’s car picked up a misfire and retired, but after he had cooled his roasted soles suitably the grand old man was called up to replace Senechal at the wheel of his car, as he could no longer sustain the agony. The youthful Benoist had also reached breaking point and it was fortunate that Delage had brought another ‘ace’ – Andre Dubonnet – along to entertain its corporate guests. Resplendent in a pristine lounge suit, Dubonnet abandoned his post in the hospitality tent and hopped gamely into the car to complete the race.

While all this drama unfolded for the Delages, the Talbots were also coming unstuck as their superchargers gave out and both Segrave and Divo were forced to retire – although a barnstorming performance by the British star did at least secure the fastest lap in consolation. Both of the homespun efforts of Halford and Eyston also failed, leaving Campbell’s Bugatti as the lone challenger to the Delages and their long-suffering drivers.

After four hours the result was victory to the Delage of Senechal/Wagner with Campbell Second and the second Delage of Benoist/Dubonnet the only other finisher. It had been a remarkable event in so many ways, and one which unknowingly set the tone for world championship Grands Prix in a distant future that none of those in August 1926 could possibly have foreseen. Britain, meanwhile, was at long last on the Grand Prix racing map.

Here’s a video of the event, please feel free to turn the volume right down, though!

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2 thoughts on “Britain’s first Grand Prix

  1. Pingback: Finding your way around Brooklands | The Scarf & Goggles Social Club

  2. Pingback: Beyond the British Grand Prix | The Scarf & Goggles Social Club

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