A white and silver anniversary

Everyone loves an anniversary. And a landmark achievement. F1 people are usually rather good at this sort of thing, as all the sponsors love a bit of Victoria Sponge cake with their logos on it and there are any number of websites that will run a photo.

If you’re lucky a crew from Sky F1 will come over and film each other dribbling jam on their shirts and doing emotive pieces to camera about your heritage. All the fun of the fair.

This year, Monaco has become Finland-on-Sea at Grand Prix time: the 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg being shoehorned back into his title-winning Williams FW08 with his 2016 world championship-winning son Nico (officially German but…), rolling out alongside him in his victorious Mercedes.

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The Rosbergs, père et fils (Dickie Stanford)

Meanwhile Finn du jour Valtteri Bottas has chosen to wear a replica Mika Häkkinen crash helmet, to mark something or other we expect.

Perhaps this is all a bid by Formula 1’s new American owners to pave the way for a highly lucrative Finnish Grand Prix deal. That would be a popular move, if rather hard going on the kidneys.

Yet some anniversaries really are special. Last year, Ferrari marked 70 years as a constructor of racing cars – and perhaps more importantly as a constructor of the myths about racing cars. Here at the S&G we shall be cutting the cake next year on the 90th anniversary of Scuderia Ferrari’s founding, but there were some nice moments in 2017 too.

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One anniversary appears to have happened without great celebration, however. It seems remarkable in this day and age that anything in motor sport can happen without a plinth being erected outside Lord March’s conservatory, a tribute crash helmet design or a commemorative piece of regalia – but here it is: in Spain, Mercedes achieved 110 race wins for its Grand Prix cars in 110 years of competition.

Now, S&G regulars will of course remember that Mercedes took itself away from Grand Prix racing as a constructor for 55 years on account of the Le Mans disaster, so it can hardly be called a continuous history in Grand Prix racing. Its attendance was also a bit patchy in the 1920-30s on account of many things (not least Germany’s international standing after World War 1), and was similarly banned after World War 2 until the 1951 season.

But take all of that aside – 110 years is a thumping period across which to have been winning Grands Prix. And an average of one per year for more than a century is a good story… two per year if you discount 1955-2010… and roughly three per year across the 40 season of Grand Prix racing that have actually been undertaken by Mercedes.

No mean feat.

Surely Monaco, the blue riband race of the year, should be playing host to the great snorting white beasts from the rough-hewn roads of Dieppe and Lyon, Caracciola’s SSK and the awe-inspiring Silver Arrows of the Thirties? Mika Häkkinen should be there in person, wearing his own helmet and tramping round in Fangio’s W196 (and complaining about its brakes again), rather than a bunch of beloved Scandiwegians.

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Why so shy? What have the patisseries of the Côte d’Azur done to deserve such a massive loss of potential earnings for silver-iced tartes tatin? What is going on here?

Perhaps Mercedes is fighting shy of claiming the 1937 AVUS-Rennen as a win for its Grand Prix cars because it is where they were dressed in extraordinary all-enveloping bodywork and hit more than 220mph. Perhaps victories like the Eifelrennen, Coppa Acerbo and Coppa Ciano are omitted from the total because, while they were for Grand Prix cars, they weren’t actual Grands Prix.

If that’s the case, then Mercedes has at least bought itself some time to actually put an anniversary party together. They are unlikely to win in Monaco but Canada is Lewis Hamilton’s fiefdom and that means – oh yes! – next up is France. So if Mercedes drops the mad 1937 race from its tally, it can claim 110 wins in 110 years in time for its return to the nation where it all began: France.

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Now wouldn’t that be an idea?

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Alfa’s Story: Part 2

In Part 1 of Alfa Romeo’s story, its factory was built in Milan with British money on a road named after a Roman emperor… but named after a Frenchman’s favourite restaurant. It went bust more than once and was taken over during World War 1 by a Neapolitan with a sense of adventure and a large military contract.

After almost 15 years of high drama, Alfa Romeo had set course for glory when its racing team won the 1920 Circuit of Mugello… but there were still plenty of banana skins underfoot. The next setback came in 1921, when the Banco Italiana di Sconto, Alfa Romeo’s main creditor, was wiped out in a cataclysmic plunge for the Italian economy.

Immediately the assets of all debtor companies were seized by the central Banca Nazionale di Credito – including those of Alfa Romeo. Amid this great political and financial storm, Benito Mussolini emerged from the chaos and marched on Rome demanding power for the Fascists. Rome was powerless to refuse and among the many assets to fall into il Duce’s lap were the Banca Nazionale di Credito and, as a result, Alfa Romeo.

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Mussolini assumed authority in Rome and nationalised the motor industry

When the dust had settled, Alfa Romeo’s chairman Nicola Romeo and his right-hand man Giorgio Rimini decided that Alfa Romeo needed modernising. This was a great buzzword in Fascist circles but it was also true in the sense that chief designer Giuseppe Merosi’s products were close to becoming antiques.

The most forward-looking automotive engineer in Italy at that time was Vittorio Jano, who had brought grand prix racing success to Fiat. Giorgio Rimini dispatched Enzo Ferrari to Turin as emissary to open negotiations with Jano about joining Alfa Romeo.

Ferrari went first to Jano’s wife to sound her out about a possible move to Milan. Having got the lie of the land, and presumably convinced Signora Jano of the attractions in Milan, Ferrari then approached the great designer himself. Jano said that he might consider moving from Fiat but would need to talk ‘to the organ grinder and not the monkey’.

This would not have been an easy pill for Enzo Ferrari to swallow, but he duly made his report. Alfa Romeo’s finance director then followed up with an offer to double whatever Jano was being paid by Fiat… and the deal was swiftly concluded.

The highest priority was given to creating a world-class motor racing programme. Giuseppe Merosi had produced a new, sleek racing car called the P1 but its engine was prehistoric. Into this car Jano slotted a variation on the engine designs that he had created at Fiat: a supercharged twin-cam straight-eight of just under 2 litres in capacity that boasted 140 horsepower and could reach 9,000 rpm.

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Vittorio Jano’s engine  created the dominant Alfa Romeo P2

Thus was created the Alfa Romeo P2. In 1924 it won the Circuit of Cremona in the hands of Antonio Ascari, then Giuseppe Campari won the Grand Prix de l’ACF on the historic Lyon road circuit. The year ended with victory at home in Milan’s royal park at Monza for the Gran Premio d’Italia, taken by Ascari, to prove that the P2 was absolutely the class of the field.

Its rise was timely because the sport’s governing body, the AIACR, declared that there would be a world championship title for Grand Prix cars in 1925.

The four points-scoring races were the Indianapolis 500, which was won by Duesenberg, the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, the Grand Prix de l’ACF at Montlhéry and the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

The Belgian Grand Prix at Spa saw three Alfa P2s line up against a quartet of Delages. Two of the Delages were out before the end of the third lap and the other two weren’t all that far behind them. One of the Alfas went down with broken suspension, which left two surviving P2s circulating contentedly.

Quite how much truth there is to the story of Vittorio Jano having a table laid in the pit lane and inviting his drivers to dine with him when they stopped is largely a matter of conjecture. Something must have gone on, although doubtless the story has spent many years getting better with each telling.

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Antonio Ascari and riding mechanic Giulio Ramponi celebrate their win at Spa – the last time that riding mechanics would be seen

Antonio Ascari won in Belgium and was the form man when the circus arrived at the new purpose-built circuit at Montlhéry in France for the Grand Prix de l’ACF.  The venue was intended to maximise crowd safety both within the bowl of the autodrome and on the closed public roads of the rest of the circuit. Pale fencing made of chestnut wood was erected around the course to hold back the more enthusiastic spectators but Ascari was one of several drivers who feared that the fencing could potentially cause a disaster.

Sure enough, as rain started to fall on race day, Ascari ran wide on the flat-out kink halfway down the return straight and his wheel snagged the pale fence. He fought for a few seconds to control the lurid slide before the car tipped, throwing him out and then rolling over his prone body. Alfa’s fastest driver died in the ambulance on his way to hospital.

If there was one positive to be drawn, it was that this was the first Grand Prix to be run without the need for riding mechanics – sparing the life of Ascari’s mechanic, Giulio Ramponi. As it was, the surviving Alfas of Gastone Brilli-Peri and Giuseppe Campari were withdrawn and Delage won the race unopposed – Robert Benoist and Albert Divo sharing the winning car.

A promising young motorcycle racer, Tazio Nuvolari, was brought to Monza for the deciding race to fill in for Ascari, but he crashed in practice and ended up in hospital with broken ribs so American-Sicilian driver Pete de Paolo took the third car instead. In the end Gastone Brilli-Peri claimed victory with Campari finishing second and de Paolo fifth. It was more than enough for Alfa Romeo to claim the first ever World Championship title for Grand Prix racing.

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Vittorio Jano and Tazio Nuvolari would come to define Alfa’s fortunes in the 1930s

The scarlet cars had brought glory to Italy against the best that France and Britain had to offer. This success meant that there were many who wanted to claim a little of that caché for their own ends… as we will see in Part 3.

Alfa’s Story – Part 1

The return of Alfa Romeo to grand prix racing seems to have passed almost unnoticed in the hubbub around this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix and the start of the 2018 Formula 1 season. Perhaps it is because everyone knows that it’s ultimately just a Ferrari engine deal but the cloverleaf and the prancing horse have happily shared the paddock for nearly 90 years.

Alfa Romeo is a hallowed name in motoring. From the blood red Grand Prix cars driven by Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi through to the most beautiful car ever built and on to the achingly cool hatchbacks of recent years, like TV detective Aurelio Zen’s black 147, the artisans of Italy’s oldest performance car maker have forged and beaten metal into the stuff of dreams. Yet the company was something of an accidental hero that was inadvertently founded by a Frenchman and overcame some towering obstacles before crossing the threshold into motoring myth.

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When the BBC wanted a cool new detective they gave him an Alfa.

Alexandre Darracq entered the booming French car making industry during the 1890s and, like so many others, chose motor racing to advertise his wares. It took him almost a decade to crack race engineering, but in the dying days of the city-to-city events on the public highway, Darracq’s ‘light cars’ became a force to be reckoned with.

Employing the celebrated French cyclist Henri Farman to drive his ‘light cars’, Darracq presided over victory in the voiturette class of the 1901 Pau-Peyrehorade and Nice-Salon-Nice races. This brought considerable interest from a London investor, who also introduced Farman to what would be a long and fruitful relationship with British industry. Farman soon left mother earth to become a celebrated aviator, while Darracq and his backers went in another direction.

They soon realised that slaving away to produce small numbers of bespoke cars and motor cycles would never be as profitable as volume production. Thus Darracq’s light cars grew even lighter as he made them cheaper and their performance became even more polished. It’s worth noting that the 1904 12hp Darracq that was immortalised in the movie Genevieve was the Golf GTI of its day.

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Movie icon ‘Genevieve’ was one of Darracq’s sporty voiturettes

At a shareholders’ meeting in London during 1906, the decision was made to commit to building a new and bigger factory to increase production still further. It was decided that northern Italy was cheap enough, well connected to the rest of Europe and with a well-educated workforce.

Darracq himself chose the location beside Via M.U. Traiano near Milan. The road was named after the Roman emperor Trajan but the factory was rather less grandly named after a nearby trattoria that Darracq had taken a shine to: he called it Portello.

It was unfortunate, then, that in 1907 the bottom fell out of the European car market amid a series of economic tsunamis just the last of Portello’s brick work was being finished off. Darracq decided to cut costs even further and skimped on parts but this only served to make the Italian-built cars fiendishly unreliable. Customers took their trade elsewhere

Darracq very publicly fired the British factory manager at Portello and brought in some local talent to help restore the factory’s reputation. The new man was called Ugo Stella and his solution was a drastic rebranding exercise. He took on a loan of half a million lire from the Banca Agricola Milanese and offered to buy the factory, renaming the company as Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili – or ALFA for short.

Not much was changed in the company structure, however. The British investors were still part of the package and Alexandre Darracq was listed as a director of ALFA. The cars that they began to produce were also to Darracq’s designs… at least until the appointment of new chief designer Giuseppe Merosi in 1909.

The first of Merosi’s cars was the ALFA 12/15, a large but rather sporty model, which debuted in 1910. Throughout 1911 interest in the new car picked up, particularly among enthusiastic drivers and amateur racers. This led the ALFA factory itself to try a few forays into the racing world, which grew all the more serious when Merosi’s new 40/60 model appeared. This car would provide the basis of a full-house Grand Prix challenger in 1914, although it would not compete in anger.

Another designer had also joined ALFA to work alongside Merosi on engine development. This was Antonio Santoni, who wanted to enter the burgeoning aviation market by building the first aeroplane to fly across the Alps. His engine was revolutionary because it featured a supercharger that he himself had patented – one of the first forced induction units ever recorded. Sadly, Santoni was beaten across the Alps by one of Louis Blériot’s monoplanes.

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Giuseppe Merosi’s ALFA 40/60 competed before and after WW1. Here, Merosi sits at the wheel of the 1914 GP car.

Then came World War 1 and Italy was forced into battle alongside the British and the French. With nobody buying cars and without any military contracts to sustain its workforce, ALFA went bust very quickly. The Banco Italiana di Sconto, which had become ALFA’s main source of funding, sent in an administrator to take over the failing factory: his name was Nicola Romeo.

Romeo had come from a relatively humble background in Naples, trained in engineering and had set about making himself a fortune. He had begun to realise his ambitions of wealth by importing cheap American farming equipment in kit form, knocking it together and selling it on at a profit.

Romeo networked and made alliances with banks and officials. And he made a lot of money. When Romeo arrived in Portello, he did so with a contract for the provision of 10,000 artillery shells per day and set about rehabilitating ALFA under a new guise: Alfa Romeo.

This was a process that Romeo forced through despite some misgivings from within Portello. The north/south divide in Italy is sharply drawn and there was a considerable clash of cultures between the mannered metropolitans of Milan and the swashbuckling brigand from Naples. Giuseppe Merosi and a number of other senior ALFA men flat-out refused to work with Romeo, but were eventually convinced to remain at their posts. The company survived the war from within Romeo’s engineering empire.

In 1918 the guns fell silent but Italy was in chaos and there was a surge of popular support among factory workers for a Russian-style revolution. To counter this worrying threat, and funded by allied powers such as Britain, the Fascists under Benito Mussolini would take brutal action to quell any Communist activity.

It was a protection racket on an industrial scale, and in hindsight Italian industry was often at the mercy of both parties. Alfa Romeo’s factory in Portello was brought to a standstill by an uprising… which Mussolini’s men quickly countered.

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Big fires and big sticks were part and parcel of Italian industrial relations in the 1920s

The factory went back to building Giuseppe Merosi’s cars and to promote them it returned to competition. The war had inspired a good number of young men towards adventure and risk taking of the kind that motor racing could offer them, and a nucleus of drivers was built up in 1919-20 including the aspiring opera singer Giuseppe Campari, engineers Antonio Ascari and Ugo Sivocci plus a precocious 22 year-old called Enzo Ferrari.

Together they and their cars were managed under the Alfa Corse banner by Giorgio Rimini – an imposing (many would say terrifying) Neapolitan who had long sat at Romeo’s right hand. In 1920, Giuseppe Campari scored the first victory for Alfa Corse when he took the chequered flag at the Circuit of Mugello, driving one of Merosi’s pre-war 40/60 models. It would lead towards a succession of ever-more important race wins and ever-greater honours for the team.

Of which there will be more in Part 2…

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Nicola Romeo (centre) visits the Alfa Corse pit garage, to the delight of Enzo Ferrari (right)

Advertisement feature: S&G’s book

Did you know that Ronnie Peterson agreed terms with Ferrari to fill Niki Lauda’s seat after the Austrian’s fiery crash in 1976?

Or that Lauda himself fully expected the whole field to pull into the pits behind him at Fuji?

Or that James Hunt’s deal to drive for Ferrari was scuppered by Vauxhall?

Or that one of Ferrari’s senior designers was kidnapped and, sadly, murdered in a story that could have been ripped from the pages of an Inspector Montalbano mystery?

Not for the first time, the S&G has written a book. It is the latest in the series of Haynes Manuals for enthusiasts of the most iconic cars in motor sport history – in this instance, the Ferrari 312T series. So if you like pretty red things and are looking for something to leaf through on holiday this summer, here’s the sales pitch:

This manual contains a guide to owning, restoring and enjoying one of these iconic 1970s Formula 1 cars.

If you happen to have a spare couple of million dollars that you don’t know what to do with, there is guidance on owning a 312T, T2, T3, T4 or T5. Even a T6, if you will… although not the fictional T8. There is also expert advice how to tackle an auction from the chaps at Bonhams and insights into ownership and maintainance from Hall & Hall.

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If you want to get under the skin of this little beast, there’s now a book for you

This book won’t follow Haynes tradition and give you a step-by-step guide to replacing the wiring loom but then we are talking about a Formula 1 car and not a Morris Ital. If you can afford a 312T then you’ve doubtless got a man in a mews garage with grubby fingernails who can handle that sort of thing.

Alternatively, you might want to give it back to Ferrari, where Gilles Villeneuve’s former crew chief, Pietro Corradini, will tend to its needs in the Corse Clienti workshops. He is also a prominent contributor to the book.

But for those who want to revel in the history of the 312T there is, we hope, plenty to enjoy. Lots of pictures. Quite a few words. Many of those words came from the mouth of Mauro Forghieri, designer of the breed and of pretty well all things Ferrari from 1962-82. That interview, ladies and gentlemen, was a good day’s work.

Forghieri also had plenty to say about the storied summer of 1976 and the epic battle for the Formula 1 world championship between Niki Lauda and James Hunt. And if Forghieri had plenty to say then the team manager from that fateful season, Daniele Audetto, was a positive Vesuvius of information that had been bubbling away unseen by anyone for decades.

Certainly unseen by anyone in the English speaking world. The story of that summer of ’76 is often told but much of Audetto’s version of events was news to your humble scribe as it will be to any of you in the English speaking world because, let’s face it, the coverage at the time was rather patriotic in tone.

Unsurprisingly the Italian version of events is significantly different to the ‘official story’ as told by the Anglo-Saxon contingent and benefits from a whole host of scandals and intrigues never before mentioned in polite society.

This was all somewhat exciting to be told, but then it was rather an exciting project to be given. The 312T belongs to an age of unalloyed heroism exemplified by Lauda’s return from the Nürburgring, the likes of Hunt, Scheckter and Reutemann wrestling with their considerable fears about surviving each and every race weekend and Gilles Villeneuve’s devastating speed. Revisiting those days with such expert guides was a joy.

The making of the movie Rush and the cars that starred in it is also a feature. So too are those vital ingredients to the true story of 1976 that Rush missed out like the British Grand Prix riots – as reported by someone who was there lobbing beer cans onto the track.

The Ferrari 312T Owners’ Manual marks the second time that Haynes has offered the S&G an opportunity to write about the red cars. Almost 14 years ago your scribe was allowed into the inner sanctum at Maranello to document Ferrari’s resurgence under Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher. This resulted in the book Cavallino Rampante, which was one of the few times when life offers the chance to create something that will last a good deal longer than you will.

It’s been a pleasure to revisit that sort of territory again and one hopes that some of that enjoyment is passed on to the reader. So if all that tickles your fancy, please do dive in with both feet.

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There are a few handy hints for those awkward plumbing and wiring jobs

The four-wheeled ambassadors

Today, the good folk of the motor racing fraternity get a little green about the gills when the grey tendrils of politics are seen to encroach upon the virgin purity of their vocation. Mind you, trying to keep up with Damon Hill’s many back-flips over whether or not he believes a particular race should happen on political grounds would make anyone a touch queasy…

The fact remains, however, that in the days of Scarf & Goggles motor sport was quite simply an extension of foreign policy for most participating nations – be they hosts or participants. After all, once internal combustion had proven itself to be far superior to electricity, steam and any other form of motivation in the great races of the 1890s, there had to be a point to competition.

That point was granted by James Gordon Bennett Jr, the millionaire owner of the New York Herald. In 1899 Gordon Bennett inaugurated a trophy to be raced for annually by the automobile clubs of the various countries. Manufacturers would build cars that would be painted in the uniform colour of their nation: blue for France, white for Germany, red for Italy and green for Great Britain.

Racing for Britain: Napier shows off its Gordon Bennett entries

Racing for Britain: Napier shows off its green fleet of Gordon Bennett entries

The early 1900s were a time of fierce nationalism, sabre-rattling and military expansion which ultimately ended in World War 1. The whole of Europe was in a state of fervour, and motor racing provided a white hot crucible in which the technology of the arms race and the national status of the military powers could be trumpeted. Gordon Bennett was on to a winner from the outset.

The Gordon Bennett races were succeeded in 1906 by Grand Prix racing, but the nationalistic fervour which surrounded these races was no different – nor indeed were the racing colours. While the 1914 Grand Prix contest between the vast, organised might of Mercedes and the quixotic local hero Georges Boillot’s Peugeot was certainly spectacular in itself, it was undoubtedly given piquancy to the hundreds of thousands of French fans in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and the mustering of arms that would soon be locked in battle.

Boillot (5) and the Peugeot team carry French hopes into battle

Boillot (5) and the Peugeot team carry French hopes into battle in 1914

After World War 1 motor racing had a short break from political life but it bounced back with a vengeance with the rise to power of Benito Mussolini. Il Duce wanted more than just the trains to run on time, he wanted to rebuild the Roman empire and to do that would mean making the whole of the Mediterranean aware that their neighbours could take on and beat the world in matters of might and technology.

Mussolini’s patronage of, and benefits from, the great racing programme at Alfa Romeo were a match made in heaven, in his view. The scarlet cars from Portello would howl their way to victory in Grand Prix and sports car races across the whole of Europe, only to be greeted by a beatifically smiling Duce upon their return home.

Mussolini in the hotseat as he greets Tazio Nuvoleri (centre) and the Alfa team

Mussolini in the hotseat to greet Tazio Nuvolari (centre) and the Alfa team

While Italy triumphed, a certain Austrian politician was busy making all sorts of promises about funding racing cars if he was to get into power in Germany. Adolf Hitler was wooed by the motor manufacturers and wooed them back in return, forming a triumvirate with Deutsche Bank that effectively created the mechanical power of the regime and sold it to the masses via motor racing.

Millions of Reichmarks were poured in to the racing funds of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union by Hitler’s chancellery through the era of the ‘silver arrows’. The formidable German technology on show not only chewed up and spat out the competition across Europe, Africa and North America but also bred technology that was soon to be put to work in the latest weapons of war.

Ernst von Delius prepares for the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup in New York

Ernst von Delius prepares for the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup in New York

But it wasn’t only Grand Prix racing. Motorcycle racing and sports cars were equally important to the NSKK (Nationalsozialistische Kraftfahrkorps, responsible for all automotive matters in the Reich) as the means to show German supremacy.

As for the races themselves, Germany and Italy turned their major race meetings into idealogical pageants, with flags a-flutter and uniformed stormtroops aplenty… the crowds at the Nürburgring were also treated to such pre-race entertainment as a display by the prototype Stuka dive-bomber.

BMW ace Huschke von Hanstein made his sponsorship clear

BMW ace Huschke von Hanstein made his sponsorship clear

Both the German and Italian teams also had to be selective in their driver line-ups. For the German teams in particular, hiring non-German drivers was only ever done in line with national priorities. Occasionally the teams were then ‘requested’ by NSKK officials to deploy team orders, such as when Auto Union was required to allow Hans Stuck to surrender certain victory in the 1935 Tripoli Grand Prix to his Italian team-mate Achille Varzi.

You might be forgiven for thinking that, in the wake of World War 2, such political engineering would be consigned to history – but such was not the case. The cars retained their national racing colours, and when Tony Vandervell set out to create his world championship-winning Vanwall team in the mid-1950s, he did so with the sole objective of beating ‘those bloody red cars’.

Flying the flag: Hawthorn keeps a corner of Maranello forever England

Flying the flag: Hawthorn keeps a corner of Maranello forever England

Among the drivers, too, there was strong feeling. Stirling Moss always wished for a competitive British car, and when none was available made certain that his mount would at least carry British colours. Mike Hawthorn raced a green Ferrari in his first races of 1953 as a tribute from Enzo Ferrari himself, and later added a green windcheater to his racing uniform to ensure that, even when the cars were red, a flash of green was on show.

Of course Stirling also benefited from the pre-war ethos of team orders when at Mercedes-Benz, being handed his victory at Aintree in 1955 by his team-mate Fangio as a handy bit of PR for the Stuttgart marque.

Moss beats Fangio at home to Mercedes' great relief

Moss beats Fangio at Aintree – to Mercedes’ great relief

Today the modern version of Grand Prix racing takes the sport to nations which pay for the spectacle from public funds and seek to gain something back in terms of status, tourism, business and PR. The Caterham team, meanwhile, is owned by 1Malaysia, a government organization intended to promote racial harmony among its discordant Chinese, Indian and Malay population.

So it’s clear that, today, the sport is still carrying on at least some of the traditions that have kept it in rude health for more than a century. Politics are part of the fabric of life in all walks – although motor sport still has a long way to go to catch up with the Olympics!

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!

Sites we like #3: Lief Snellman’s Golden Era of Grand Prix Racing

The chronicle of great races by Lief

The chronicle of great races by Lief

Dear old Lief has been chronicling the pre-war Grands Prix with skill and detail for more than a dozen years. If ever you need a reference for the ‘Silver Arrows’ in particular, then look no further.

The Golden Era of Grand Prix Racing