Farewell to a fast lady

It’s not really the place of the S&G to comment upon every personality who passes away.  Sadly, from the perspective of 2016, any interest in the first half of the 20th century means reflecting upon lives and achievements that reach their end on a regular basis. Obituaries for S&G luminaries such as John Coombs, Sir Jack Brabham and Les Munro have been well written and doubtless read by regulars here; there is no point repeating for the sake of it.

But the recent passing of Maria Teresa de Filippis has robbed our generation of a unique link with that rather wonderful world of Formula One in the 1950s. She was glamorous, she was brave and she could certainly drive a bit. Maserati encouraged her and she joined the glittering set alongside Fangio, Moss, Hawthorn, Collins, Brooks ,Musso and all the rest: the right girl in the right place at the right time.

She didn’t set the world on fire but she will remain forever associated with an unrepeatable era, as this rather nice recent advert by Maserati attests:

A splendid enterprise

Christmas shopping need be a chore no longer, thanks to Marlon Foakes. Well known in the model car racing world for his exquisite scratch built Grand Prix machinery, Marlon is now letting people share in his glory by producing a range of kits and ready-to-race slot cars representing some of the finest cars of the 1920s and early 1930s under the name Shadowfax.

For those not versed in Tolkien, Shadowfax was Gandalf’s chosen steed: the Lord of all horses from the race of the Mearas, the greatest horses of Middle-earth, who was said to run faster than the wind. So there you go.

The bare bones: a Shadowbox Alfa Romeo P2 in kit form

First out of the blocks are a trio of Portello’s finest offerings: the Alfa Romeo P2 in both 1929 and 1930 guise and, for fans of the Thirties, there is the 1938 Alfa Romeo 308 – sleek, streamlined and the best non-German car of the 3-litre era.

Not only has Marlon carved and cast the bodies, details and drivers but he has also developed an adjustable chassis that can allow the models to sit correctly and steer with the front wheels turning in harmony with the guide. As a result, your miniature Varzis and Nuvolaris will be able to drift correctly around the track.

The Shadowbox chassis can be adjusted to fit various cars

A raft of new types is expected to follow shortly – these include Bugattis, Delages and Maseratis of the kind that graced grids from Brooklands to Buenos Aires. For further information, contact Shadowfax here.

The finished product! Achille Varzi’s 1929 Alfa Romeo P2

The real thing to compare with its new replica

Ferrari and Alfa Romeo – 80 years on

Today saw the launch of Ferrari’s 2015 Formula One contender, the SF15-T. At this stage in its life it simply looks like a prettier version of last year’s car, but what’s this on its flanks? Why! It’s the Alfa Romeo badge!

The 2015 Ferrari - complete with Alfa Romeo badge

The 2015 Ferrari – complete with Alfa Romeo badge

While of little overall consequence, the badge does offer some hope that the Scuderia might embrace a little more of its pre-war past. For too many years the boys and girls in red have been keen to impress upon us all that the world began in 1947, when Enzo first set about building cars in his own name.

Yet by doing so, they have cast aside the many triumphs achieved through the 1930s, when Scuderia Ferrari was first a customer team for Alfa Romeo and later the effective works squad.

Each year around the world there is undoubtedly more excitement surrounding the birth of a new Ferrari than can be whipped up by any of the other teams. Perhaps in 2015 this is because they remain scarlet in a sea of grey colour schemes (perhaps ‘Fifty Shades’ should be the new tagline for F1), but more often it is because of heritage and tradition, the pageantry and sheer Italian theatre that surrounds the team.

The twin-engined 1935 Alfa Bimotore was designed and built by Ferrari

The twin-engined 1935 Alfa Bimotore was designed and built by Ferrari

Well, the Scuderia provided bucket loads of the latter throughout the 1930s. This year, for example, marks the 80th anniversary of Tazio Nuvolari’s victory at the Nürburgring. That race – when the Maestro wrung the neck of his underpowered Alfa P3 to beat the Germans on home soil – is about as big a chunk of Grand Prix folklore as you’ll find and an anniversary that is well worth Ferrari’s time to celebrate…

…particularly when the Germans are stomping all over the sport now as they did then.

So, with this in mind, here’s a lovely little film of Nuvolari winning the 1935 Pau Grand Prix. The event, in February of that year, was Nuvolari’s first after returning to the fold at Ferrari, having previously believed that he would be better off in privately-entered Bugattis and Maseratis.

The race doesn’t look particularly well-attended, but at the front of the field the two Ferrari-entered Alfa Romeos of Nuvolari and René Dreyfus put on a show. Ferrari’s all-stars traded the lead throughout 75 of the 80 laps before the ‘Flying Mantuan’ asserted his authority to lead Dreyfus home nearly four minutes clear of the competition.

Such was the stuff of the 750 kg Grand Prix formula – until the Germans arrived and rewrote the rulebook for the glory of the Reich. So enjoy the clip and let’s hope that the good people in Maranello break open the archives on this earlier partnership with Alfa Romeo.

 

The remarkable Whitney Straight – Part 1: racing driver

It is undoubted that wealth and privilege could get you a long way in the age of adventure – but not without talent. One man who enjoyed more talent and privilege than most was Whitney Willard Straight.

Whitney Straight flies the mighty Duesenberg at Brooklands

Whitney Straight flies the mighty Duesenberg at Brooklands in 1934

Born in New York in 1912, Straight’s mother Dorothy was the beautiful heiress of prominent American politician and banker William Collins Whitney; a man who was credited with founding the modern US Navy in the 1880s.

His father, Willard Dickerman Straight, was an aspiring politician and financier who also involved himself in journalism and publishing – launching The New Republic magazine in 1914. This glamorous young couple married in Switzerland and moved to Beijing until Dorothy became pregnant with Whitney, having two more children – Beatrice and Michael – two years apart.

During the early years of World War 1, Willard Straight did considerable campaigning in America to support Britain and France against Germany. When the United States finally entered the conflict in 1917, Straight joined up and became a pivotal member of the US staff but succumbed to the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 on the eve of the peace negotiations, leaving Dorothy to carry on philanthropic work in his name.

In 1920, Dorothy met and fell in love with Leonard Knight Elmhirst, an Englishman studying at the Cornell University. The university was one of the major causes of her and Willard’s life, and after Elmhirst had completed his studies and carried out philanthropic missions in India, Africa, Southern Asia and South America, he and Dorothy were married in 1925.

Dartington Hall, where Whitney Straight arrived age 13

Dartington Hall, where Whitney Straight arrived age 13

The couple moved to England, together with the three children, where they settled upon Dartington Hall in Devon as a new family home. While his mother and stepfather involved themselves in plans to revive traditional rural life among the population, young Whitney developed an abiding passion for speed and mechanization.

By the time he was 16 (long before he was allowed to hold a licence), Straight had accumulated 60 hours of flying time. He duly went up to Trinity College at Cambridge where, in 1931, he decided to become an international racing racing driver. It was clear that there was talent which he demonstrated at the wheel of a Brooklands Riley – often piloting his own aircraft to different events while keeping a weather-eye on his studies!

It was not long before Straight met a kindred spirit at Trinity – a younger student called Dick Seaman, who was being groomed for a life in the diplomatic corps but who, like Straight, also wanted to be a racing driver. Straight encouraged Seaman to follow his passions – which he did, but only after convincing his parents that a Bugatti Type 35 was the ideal student runabout!

Straight's contemporaries: Dick Seaman, Prince Bira of Siam and Count Felice Trossi

Straight’s contemporaries: Dick Seaman, Prince Bira of Siam and Count Felice Trossi

Straight, meanwhile, spent the 1933 season attacking a full schedule of both national and international events with his supercharged MG Magnette and a 2.5-litre Maserati that he bought from Sir Henry Birkin. Star performances took him to victory in the Brooklands mountain championship, Mont Ventoux Hillclimb, Brighton Speed Trials and the Coppa Acerbo Junior, putting the precocious American firmly on the map.

His talent and speed were evident and Straight himself even felt confident that he could take on the Maestro, Tazio Nuvolari, without fear – particularly if it was raining. Such was his confidence at the end of the 1933 season that Straight decided to drop out of Cambridge altogether and set about building a team with operations in Italy and Britain.

Straight ordered three of the new three-litre 8CM Maseratis direct from the factory and took delivery of two for the start of the season – together with three racing transporters, all of which being painted in the American racing colours of blue and white. These two 8CMs were passed over to Reid Railton for custom modifying at Thomson & Taylor. The modifications included different fuel tanks, different cockpit arrangements and the installation of a Wilson preselector gearbox.

The Wilson gearbox worked well enough but it sapped power and added weight. Frustratingly for Straight, the one time it failed cost him a certain victory in the Casablanca Grand Prix. The cars were certainly a talking point in the sport, and the most striking external feature of the Straight Maseratis was the replacement of the slab-fronted Italian radiator grille with a stylish heart-shaped cowl which was to become a Straight trademark.

Whitney Straight on his way to seventh at the 1934 Monaco GP

Whitney Straight on his way to seventh at the 1934 Monaco GP

To drive with him, Straight signed Hugh Hamilton, Marcel Lehoux and Buddy Featherstonehaugh. Among the key figures involved with the team were future Jaguar giant “Lofty” England, Reid Railton and Bill Rockell.

Fortune also smiled upon Straight’s ambitions when it became clear that Alfa Romeo’s celebrated chief engineer, Giulio Ramponi, had resigned his position with Enzo Ferrari’s team. A deal was quickly struck and the Adrian Newey of his era came into the employ of this young American star.

Nevertheless, while there was racing genius behind the experimental developments being carried on his cars, even the might of Whitney Straight’s wallet met its match with the arrival of the government-backed giants from Germany. The works teams of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, with the full backing of their factories and the government, meant that even the indomitable Straight’s ambitions faltered beneath this technological blitzkrieg.

A 1935 Auto Union streamliner - Whitney Straight declined it

A 1935 Auto Union streamliner – Whitney Straight declined it

The 1934 season ended with a trip to South Africa. To make it a memorable occasion, Straight decided to fly his own aircraft, a de Havilland Dragon, down to East London for the race accompanied by Ramponi, his younger brother Michael and Dick Seaman.

Michael Straight had never raced a car before, but was entered in a four-litre Railton sports car developed by Jack Shuttleworth. Seaman was to drive Straight’s old MG, while Straight himself had the Maserati 8CM. Overloaded with fuel and racing spares, the plane ran out of runway while taking off in Rhodesia and landed in a ditch – but the party managed to effect repairs and carry on to reach their destination.

The six-lap handicap event is today considered to have been South Africa’s first Grand Prix – and Straight won it with panache. Nevertheless, this was to be his last competitive performance, for it was clear that conventional Grand Prix machines such as the Maserati were hopelessly outclassed by the Germans.

Straight (leading) knew that a privateer car couldn't beat the Third Reich's racers

Straight (leading) knew that a privateer car couldn’t beat the Third Reich

Initially, Straight decided to buy one of the German cars. Mercedes dismissed his advances out of hand but Auto Union did seriously consider selling him one of its 1934-specification V16s. Ultimately the team chose – or was quite possibly ordered – not to allow a foreign team to enter a German car, but instead invited Straight to join the works Auto Union team for 1935.

Having spent much of 1933 and 1934 travelling through Europe, Straight was only too keenly aware of the ways in which the ‘silver arrows’ were a propaganda tool for the Third Reich – and that taking up such an offer could only be an endorsement of Nazism.  While he had no interest in pursuing the pastoral, philanthropic ideals of his mother, father and stepfather, there was also no way that Straight could conscionably support Hitler.

Without a German car, Straight had no means of winning at the top level. So it was that after just one promising season the talented and determined young man abandoned his motor racing career. He made sure that Ramponi had a profitable business to run in Britain and also ensured that his services were available to Dick Seaman, who had completed a strong season in the MG through 1934 and, having reached his majority and inherited sufficient funds, was about to make the step to international racing in an ERA voiturette.

The ex-Straight 8CM in historic racing action

The ex-Straight 8CM in historic racing action

Straight, meanwhile, began to investigate the means of turning his passion for aviation into a profitable business. It became his new mission to ensure that, in the face of an increasingly bellicose and militaristic Germany, a culture of air-mindedness was fostered in Britain.

A new chapter was beginning in the life of Whitney Straight, of which more in Part 2…

Behind the scenes at the 1956 Monaco GP

Moss was magnificent but Ferrari left a tale or two

Monaco 1956: Moss was magnificent but Ferrari left a tale or two

Life magazine has a treasure trove of images including the following selection from a series taken in the period leading up to the 1956 Monaco Grand Prix. They give an insight into the world inhabited by teams taking part in the Formula One World Championship that absolutely none of today’s teams would recognise, sadly.

Despite achieving unprecedented dominance in the 1952-53 world championship seasons for Formula 2 machinery, Scuderia Ferrari had dropped off a cliff in 1954-55. After the glorious little 4-cylinder F2 500 had carried all before it in the hands of Alberto Ascari and Mike Hawthorn, the subsequent 2.5-litre Formula One cars such as the 625, 553 Squalo and 555 Supersqualo were dismal failures and the team was on the brink of going under before Lancia went bust and it took over the promising D50 cars at the end of 1955.

After the International Trophy at Silverstone the cars are rebuilt for Monaco

After the International Trophy at Silverstone the cars are rebuilt for Monaco

Not only did Lancia’s departure grant a lifeline to Ferrari, but also the departure of Mercedes-Benz after its two years of dominance meant that the greatest driver of the era, Juan Manuel Fangio, was available and keen to drive the D50. There was little love lost between Fangio and Enzo Ferrari, but both knew that the other gave the best chance of success in 1956.

The season began with Fangio’s home race in Argentina, which saw the Ferrari-entered D50s dominate qualifying. Fangio’s own car broke its fuel pump but team-mate Luigi Musso was running strongly and so was called in to the pits to hand over his car to the Maestro, who duly won by 25 seconds from the Maserati of Jean Behra.

Then came the non-championship International Trophy at Silverstone, where the two cars entered for Fangio and Peter Collins both retired with clutch failure. After rushing back to Maranello to diagnose the ailment, a full squad of Fangio, Collins, Musso and Eugenio Castelotti was ready for the next world championship round in Monaco just a couple of days later.

The cars arrive in the Monaco pits ready to get practice underway

The cars arrive in the Monaco pits ready to get practice underway

Then as now, Monaco was an extremely crowded place for a Formula One event to take place, but the milling crowds were simply part of the ambiance. Today’s teams would run a mile at the prospect of living and working cheek-by-jowl with the ‘great unwashed’ – even if that meant well-heeled Monegasques. After all, they have social media campaigns for that sort of thing!

Fangio attempts to keep the fans happy - today teams use Twitter instead

Fangio keeps the fans happy – today teams use Twitter instead

Fangio stuck his car on pole position ahead of Moss’s works Maserati 250F. The young Englishman got the better start, however, and completed his first lap with a five second lead. Fangio was clearly rattled by the challenge to his authority and managed to spin his D50 at Ste. Devote, causing the sister car of Luigi Musso and the Vanwall of Harry Schell to crash out in avoidance.

Musso's D50 sits forlornly after avoiding Fangio's sister car

Musso’s D50 sits forlornly after avoiding Fangio’s sister car

Fangio set off unabashed, working his way back up to third place with some fairly lurid cornering before the remaining Ferrari of Peter Collins slowed up to let him past for second place. Fangio howled off after Moss but once again there was a lapse in concentration and he clobbered the nose of his car against a wall, allowing Collins to close up once more and sit dutifully on the Maestro’s tail rather than get past and press on after Moss.

By lap 40 this was becoming a bit of a farce and Fangio pulled in with his wounded machine and handed it over to Castelotti, whose own car had suffered a clutch failure. Now it was the turn of Peter Collins to get the summons to bring the last undamaged D50 in for Fangio to use. The young Englishman did what was expected of him and Fangio made his third bid to catch Moss, who had himself suffered a drama when lapping his team-mate Cesare Perdisa, getting a knock which loosened the engine cover and caused it to flap about.

Fangio's damaged D50 in the pits

Fangio’s damaged D50 in the pits

A nail-biting charge to the finish saw Fangio hauling in Moss’s advantage by two seconds per lap, but the Maserati team leader did not wilt under the pressure. He kept his head and took the flag six seconds clear of the charging Argentine star. So cool was Moss that he took time to wave to the crowds on the final lap as he savoured this, his first Monaco victory and the first time he had put one over the Maestro in a Grand Prix.

If Fangio was disappointed then doubly so was Peter Collins. The young star had driven faultlessly in the first half of the race and had been the only member of Scuderia Ferrari with a realistic shot at challenging Moss for the victory – only for the team to defer to Fangio’s wishes. Nevertheless, the cup was always half full for Collins, who could be relied upon to find something to enjoy – and someone to enjoy it with – in most situations.

Collins with his 'belle du jour' enjoys a glass of chilled refreshment

Collins in the pits with his ‘belle de jour’ and a glass of chilled refreshment

Life states that the lady photographed repeatedly in Collins’s company over the Monaco Grand Prix weekend was his future wife, Louise King. It’s not in fact the future Mrs. Collins – although the couple did both go to the same party that weekend without really noticing one another. Rather it is one of the many glamorous young ladies with whom the Ferrari ace enjoyed spending time before he tied the knot.

Almost 60 years later the world of Grand Prix racing looks rather different on many fronts…

A dark and distant start to the season

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…

Today's distant races are 'flyaways' but they were 'sailaways' in 1938

Today’s distant races are ‘flyaways’ but they were ‘sailaways’ in 1938

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.

Fat chance!

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:

Hartmann's grave in Rákoskeresztúr Cemetery

Hartmann’s grave in Rákoskeresztúr Cemetery