This weekend a new season of Formula One blasts off many miles from home in Melbourne’s Albert Park. Seventy-five years ago the Grand Prix crowd also ventured a long way to commence battle… to the Italian protectorate of Libya for the Tunis GP and what would prove to be another titanic outing for the silver cars of Germany…
After the ‘anything goes’ years of 1934-37 when pretty well any car weighing less than 750kg was eligible to compete in top flight grands prix, the 1938 season saw a limit of 3.0-litre engines for supercharged cars and 4.5 litres for unblown machinery in an attempt to curb the excesses of the German teams.
Auto Union, still rocked by the death of Bernd Rosemeyer in the impromptu record attempts made at the start of the year, didn’t have its new V12 cars ready in time to catch the boat to North Africa, but Mercedes-Benz had four of its new low-slung W154 machines available for Rudolf Caracciola, Manfred von Brauchitsch, Hermann Lang and Dick Seaman.
The Italians took one look at the potent silver cars and, fearing a whitewash, promptly capped teams to a maximum of three entries. The offer was made to paint Seaman’s car British racing green and enter him as a ‘privateer’ but this was turned down flat by the race officials. Hence German dudgeon ran pretty high when Alfa Romeo was allowed to enter its fourth car as a ‘privateer’ entry for Raymond Sommer!
Alfa Corse had been reinstated to prepare and enter the scarlet cars from Portello after five unsuccessful seasons with Scuderia Ferrari in charge. A somewhat mutinous Enzo Ferrari was initially retained as team manager but that relationship was doomed to failure and he had already abandoned the team which arrived in Tripoli with Sommer, Giuseppe Farina and Eugenio Siena in the new V12 cars and Clemente Biondetti who, during practice, tried out a remarkable V16 that was made from two 158 Alfetta engines lashed together. He reverted to a humble 308 for the race.
Elsewhere there was a Bugatti for Jean-Pierre Wimille, a trio of Delahayes for Laury Schell, Gianfranco Comotti and René Dreyfus plus a pair of new Maserati 8CTFs for Count Trossi and the returning Achille Varzi, who was a shadow of his former self in the depths of his addiction to morphia.
The Tripoli Grand Prix required 30 starters in order for the celebrated lottery to take place, based on the race numbers of the cars and the order in which they crossed the finish line. As a result a raft of 1.5-litre Maseratis was brought in to make up the numbers.
In the end it was this decision which gave the race its mark in history. The Alfa Romeos were frustrated in all their attempts to hold back the Mercedes and Latin tempers ran high in the African sun. Siena thundered up behind the little Maserati of Franco Cortese, who hadn’t seen him coming and held his line into the next corner, forcing his compatriot to swerve. The Alfa hit one of the sand banks that lined the course, took off and hit the side of a house – against which Siena was killed instantly.
Cortese drove on, unaware of the disaster in his wake. Later in the race a similar situation arose when Farina found his progress hampered by the Maserati of Hungarian driver László Hartmann and began lunging impatiently at him with the long nose of the Alfa. Eyewitnesses said that the contact between the cars looked deliberate, from which Hartmann’s car skidded and flipped over. The Hungarian was thrown out and broke his back, dying in hospital the next day.
Meanwhile the Mercedes team swept home to an unopposed 1-2-3 finish with Lang heading home four minutes clear of Brauchitsch and Caracciola for the second of his hat-trick of victories in Tripoli. Marshal Balbo, the patron of the event, forwent the opulent post-race celebrations that usually accompanied the completion of his Grand Prix, with Farina said to be ‘inconsolable with grief’ in Lang’s recollection of the day.
László Hartmann’s grave in Budapest is somewhere that a handful of contemporary F1 folk have sought out over the years. In an era when so many drivers escaped from the very real dangers of the sport, the pride shown in Hungary’s first and only Grand Prix driver of the 20th Century remains touching. My photos were a bit grainy and fuzzy, taken on a cheap old camera very late one day, so here is a better one: