Gordon Bennett! It’s Zalonso!

The S&G has infinite enthusiasm for the Indianapolis 500 and its admiration for Fernando Alonso is similarly effusive – your scribe interviewed him in Minardi overalls a lifetime ago, and he was later very helpful on a book project – so perhaps a few more S&G stories might have been expected during the past month.

In fact, the whole circus that sprang up around Alonso’s mission to Indy rather precluded writing about it. The spirits of Jimmy Murphy, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and all the other transatlantic travellers have been endlessly summoned, so it was better to watch the rodeo and provide something from the S&G’s perspective when the dust settled: so here it is.

Of all the apparitions from motor sport’s past who may have appeared around the Alonso 500 it was James Gordon Bennett Jr. who most often sprang to mind. For it was he, as the owner of the New York Herald, who lavished funds upon a race from Paris to Lyon for the cream of motor manufacturers from Europe and the USA.

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James Gordon Bennett Jr. – the first promoter of global motor racing for profit

Starting in 1900, the three fastest cars from each competing nation would be entered for the Gordon Bennett Cup – with Gordon Bennett’s newspaper getting all the exclusives throughout the build-up and raceday.

This was enormous news – a circulation blockbuster.

For nearly a decade, motor racing had whipped the public’s imagination into a frenzy of daredevils breaking new technological boundaries. By insisting that the Gordon Bennett Cup cars were painted in national racing colours, the press magnate’s race also tapped in to the zeal and fervour which would ultimately fuel World War 1.

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The zeal which greeted motor racing was given a nationalistic fervour by Gordon Bennett

This was no longer a contest between athletes or even motor cars, but rather a measure of the virility and might of the world’s proudest nations. The 1900 race saw competing cars line up painted blue for France, yellow for Belgium, white for Germany, and red for the USA. Fernand Charon crossed the line in Lyon first on a Panhard, to a volcanic roar of approval across la République.

In 1901 the French had the race to themselves and a Panhard headed the charge from Paris to Rouen. In 1902 the Gordon Bennett Cup moved from France to Austria and the British challenged the French with some lightweight, less powerful cars from Wolselely and Napier – with Selwyn Edge taking the honours for Napier.

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On that occasion the British cars had been painted red, but with the return of all nations for the 1903 race this meant that a permanent colour needed to be ascribed to British motor racing. In the end green was chosen, as a tribute to the race’s hosts in Ireland (then a part of the United Kingdom). It was a white Mercedes driven by Camille Jenatzy that won, however.

French honour was restored by victory on German soil in 1904. As a result the 1905 race moved back to France where, with more motor manufacturers than anyone else, the hosts chafed at being pegged back to only three manufacturers. Having failed to win concessions to enter more cars, the French celebrated one final triumph before they pulled up the stumps and planned to stage their own race instead for 1906 – it would be called the Grand Prix.

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French national interests ended the Gordon Bennett Cup races – and created the Grand Prix

So what was it about Fernando Alonso’s enterprise in 2017 that reminded the S&G of that enterprising old rogue Gordon Bennett? Well, much has been made of the media hoo-ha that has accompanied Alonso’s month of May in the USA and, most of all, in the UK.

We have been treated to daily, hourly and minute-by-minute reportage from the moment that the project was announced until Alonso’s pitch-perfect acceptance speech for his Rookie of the Year award. Access all areas – and then some. Technical diagrams, race histories, videos – all the fun of the fair.

And all of it has done a fine job of blotting news from elsewhere in the motor sport world – particularly McLaren-Honda’s ongoing woes. Well, right up to the moment when Alonso’s Indy engine went ‘pop’ at least.

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What many observers have forgotten is who now owns the news. Because, in a move of which his countryman James Gordon Bennett Jr would wholeheartedly approve, it is none other than Zak Brown, the Executive Director of McLaren, who sits as CEO of the Motorsport Network, which owns pretty well everything these days.

Zak’s media empire, funded by Miami-based Russian billionaire Mike Zoi, embraces the Motorsport.com global portal, the former Haymarket publications Autosport, Motorsport News and F1 Racing together with Motors TV (rebranded as Motorsport TV), as the only non-subscription channel for motor sport. It also picked up the Amalgam brand of high end scale model racing cars.

So, with his McLaren hat on, Zak was confronted with the problem of a slow and unreliable car together with Alonso, still widely regarded as the finest racing driver on Earth today. In other words: a potential PR disaster, given Fernando’s habit of speaking his mind and playing up to the camera when things go awry.

But when one owns the news, PR disasters can much more easily be avoided. Thus sticking Fernando in an Indycar was strategically very sound. It also must have done the ratings across Zak’s network a power of good, with American racing fans trying to find out more about Alonso and F1 fans trying to find out more about Indy.

Zak had a one-stop shop for all and he worked it well. Having placed a number of stories to McLaren’s benefit since buying the media outlets, the Alonso-to-Indy showstopper has broken all previous boundaries between news and PR.

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The ‘Zalonso’ show starring Fernando Alonso and Zak Brown has enjoyed a successful run on both sides of the Pond

Of course the difference between the past month’s mania for ‘Zalonso’ and the days of James Gordon Bennett Jr is that the Gordon Bennett Cup was effectively owned and administrated by the mogul himself. That might be an investment too far for Zak – in the immediate future at least – but he might not be too far off.

With the sea of New Zealand racing orange across the motor sport coverage this last month, James Gordon Bennett Jr would doubtless be chuckling. If in the back of his mind Zak Brown had wanted to serve notice upon the sport’s owners, he picked the hell of a way to do it.

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Brooklands Reunion – A Racing Anniversary

Brooklands hosted a celebration of pre-war motoring enjoyment to mark 75 years since its last race

The air around Weybridge was ripe with the scent of Castrol R this weekend as Brooklands marked the 75th anniversary of its last competitive race meeting (albeit a little early – the last meeting was held in August 1939). With the aid of some fabulous weather, a bumper crowd turned out and many of them brought some delightful vintage motor cars along to play.

With only pre-war cars permitted within the grounds of the Brooklands Museum – the occasional Jaguar XK120 and kit car notwithstanding! – and with visitors invited to wear period clothing if possible or practical, the aim was to bring to life the lost days of motor racing in front of the right crowd for which it was renowned in the 1920s and 1930s. Certainly the addition of a little light ukelele in the paddock helped with the ambience…

There was much to see aside from the regular attractions of the Brooklands Museum and its incredible collection of artefacts and cars housed in the original buildings of the world’s first purpose-built racetrack. Mostly it was the selection of pre-war cars that had been driven to the event, of which a small selection can be seen here:

There were Bentleys aplenty

If you’re not a Bentley person…

There were quite a few Rollers…

…of many shapes and sizes

MGs by the horde…

A rare beauty of a K3 among them

Baby Austins almost outnumbered the MSG

Every corner was crammed with pre-war beauties

Plenty of ACs at their spiritual home

Aerial view of the paddock

Of course the principal stars of the show were always going to be the gigantic aero-engined Outer Circuit cars – and the event produced a memorable collection. As always, the Museum’s own 24-litre Napier-Railton took everyone’s breath away. As the outright lap record holder in perpetuity, John Cobb’s silver machine deserves such awe but it was given a close run for its money by the Leyland Thomas Special and 350hp Sunbeam – better known as Bluebird.

Outer Circuit cars drew the biggest crowd – quite rightly so

The day really took off when the organisers set about staging the ‘race starts’ to bring at least a little of the original Brooklands spirit back to life. Although the wartime Wellington Hangar continues to block the museum’s section of the start/finish straight until its lottery-funded relocation to the infield, there is still a good few hundred yards available before the Members’ Banking.

A modern day ‘Ebby’ Ebblewhite was on hand with the Union Flag to usher the runners and riders away. For most part this was at a fairly sedate pace, with cautious owners of cars and motorbikes now well into their eighth decade at least, but made for many wonderful moments. For each ‘race’ the starters would bound away to the foot of the banking, turn sharp right as though heading onto the Mountain Circuit, and disappear from view… only to return shortly afterwards, lest they thunder into Gallaghers’ car park!

The track surface is incredibly rough, but then it was hardly much better 75 years ago. Brooklands was made out of concrete – a relatively new invention in 1907 and one of which there was precious little understanding at the time. The concrete was simply set upon earth with virtually no coursing beneath, and thus regularly needed to be patched up from weather damage and racing wear and tear. This resulted in the famous film and photos of cars with all four wheels off the ground at 120mph and upwards.

Speeds were much more modest for this celebration event, but certainly produced a crowd-pleasing spectacle.

Some starts were livelier than others!

And then finally the Big Bangers of the Outer Circuit came and had a go. Given that it has taken 12 years and many, many man hours to get the Sunbeam running again, it is hardly surprising that a cautious approach was taken to its run:

Nevertheless, the sight, sound and smell of these evocative racing machines – coupled with an enthusiastic crowd and still more enthusiastic drivers – meant that the runs began to resemble motor races before long. This was the second attempt at running the big cars, resulting in the big Napier-Railton smoking its tyres in fine style to settle the hash of an impudent Voiturette!

It was a remarkable day carried out with all the dedication, good humour and style that sets the Brooklands Museum apart. Hopefully it has sown the seeds of an annual event worthy of sitting alongside the Revival. A few more ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls in pre-war attire are required to achieve this – but one imagines that all who came away from Brooklands this weekend did so looking forward to the next such event. Well done to all involved and many thanks to the volunteers who, as always, bring the place to life for visitors, be they regular or new arrivals.

Get Ready for the Brooklands Reunion

This Sunday (July 13) sees Brooklands commemorating the 75th anniversary of its last race meeting with an event aimed at attracting the Goodwood Revival crowd as well as Museum regulars. Period feel is to be expected and period dress is preferred as the world’s oldest motor racing circuit marks its place in history.

Period cars line up on the old Brooklands start/finish straight

Period cars line up on the old Brooklands start/finish straight

The final meeting at Brooklands was actually held on the August Bank Holiday of 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War – but given that the summer is a particularly crowded time in the vintage transport calendar, it was deemed necessary to bring the commemoration forward a touch.

The aim of the Reunion is to conjure up the atmosphere of Club meetings in the 1930s for both members and visitors. The site will be filled with visiting cars, motorcycles and bicycles that raced at the world’s first purpose-built track from 1907-1939. Other pre-War vehicles will also be parked up in their own enclosures, just as spectators’ vehicles would have been on race days.

Many and varied were the races staged at Brooklands in period

Many and varied were the races staged at Brooklands in period

 

There will be Test Hill demonstrations, with sessions for cars, motorcycles and cycles. Over on the Finishing Straight, the pre-War racing cars will form up in ‘grids’, which will be sent off up the Finishing Straight towards the Members’ Banking.

For many visitors, the awesome power and thunderous bravery inspired by Brooklands in period will be the highlight. Look forward to demonstrations from the star of the Brooklands Museum, the mighty 24-litre Napier-Railton with which John Cobb set the all-time Outer Circuit record of 143.44mph in 1935. The big Napier-Railton will be joined for a special guest appearance by the 350hp Sunbeam – itself a former record-holder at Brooklands, clocking 123.30 mph in 1922 before being made famous by Sir Malcolm Campbell as his Blue Bird record breaker.

At lunchtime there will also be a cavalcade on the Mercedes-Benz World track. The timetable for the day is as follows:

10.00   Museum open to the public
10.30   Race Grids briefing (Education Centre)
11.00   Race Grids on the Finishing Straight behind the Wellington Hangar
12.00   Cavalcade briefing (Education Centre)
13.00   Cavalcade at Mercedes-Benz World
14.15   Aero engine runs
14.30   Test Hill briefing (Education Centre)
15.15   Test Hill
16.00   Napier/Sunbeam demonstration
17.00   Museum closers

The S&G will, of course, be there to cover the action – and hopes that this is the start of big things to come for a long-overdue event…

Dorothy Levitt – The Fastest Girl on Water

As the 19th Century drew to a close the Levi family, members of London’s Sephardi Jewish community, enjoyed a prosperous lifestyle. The head of family, Jacob, ran a thriving tea merchant’s business and, together with his wife Julia, he raised two beautiful daughters to enjoy the finer things in life and to take part in active pursuits.

The face of Napier: Miss Dorothy Levitt

The face of Napier’s success: Miss Dorothy Levitt

The elder and more adventurous of the girls, Dorothy, was born in Hackney in 1882 and became a noted horsewoman. By the time she was 18 her father, who was known as Jack to most anyway, chose to Anglicize the family name to Levitt and soon afterwards Miss Dorothy Levitt began the most exciting chapter of her life.

Dorothy became a secretary at the engineering firm Napier & Son, which had recently begun to forge a reputation in the new and exciting world of internal combustion engines. Ever unconventional, Dorothy was known about town to be an independent, privileged, “bachelor girl”, living with friends in the West End of London and waited on by two servants.

This elegant and confident young woman stood out a mile from the rest of the secretaries, even at a company as extraordinary as Napier. Before long Dorothy caught the attention of Montagu Napier’s swashbuckling partner in the engine building business, Selwyn Edge.

The burly Australian self-publicist Edge, with his magnificent cad-like moustache and larger-than-life persona, decided that this exotic young beauty was wasted behind a typewriter and would better serve Napier’s fortunes as the public face of the company. Thus he devoted himself to making her a walking, talking advert for Napier products – apprenticing her in car production and maintenance while teaching her to drive with the same verve that he applied to his own motor racing career.

While Dorothy got to grips with driving motor cars, Edge was taking Napier & Son onto the high seas. Motor boats were a new phenomenon and Edge desperately wanted to be a part of it – all the more so when Sir Alfred Harmsworth’s Daily Mail newspaper inaugurated a new race for motor boats, the Harmsworth Trophy, as a means of encouraging the development of a new motorised torpedo craft for the Royal Navy.

Officiated by the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland and the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, the Harmsworth Trophy took place at the Royal Cork Yacht Club at Queenstown (now Cobh) on Sunday 12 July 1903. The rules were very simple: competitors were to build craft specified to be of a maximum 40 ft waterline length and using any appropriate form of power.

In these the crews would race on an eight-and-a-half mile course from the Club down to the Marina. The magnificent trophy depicted a relief of how Harmsworth believed the victorious boat would look – but more important still were the kudos and the military contracts that seemed assured to the winning entry.

In the end only three boats were lined up at the start, among which all the pre-race talk was focused on the ebullient Mr. Selwyn Edge and his Napier craft. This was a 40ft steel-hulled, speedboat fitted with a 3-blade propeller that was driven by a derivative of Napier’s brilliant automobile engine – but it was the crew which captured most attention.

Edge was named as entrant and skipper, and alongside him was listed Mr. Campbell Muir but it was the third crew member around whom the interest was focused: Miss Dorothy Levitt. Very little of this interest was made official, because women were not recognised as competitors, but Edge made damned sure that his girl took centre stage throughout the three days of the event and milked her presence as hard as he could.

Dorothy Levitt aboard the Napier racing boat in 1903

Dorothy Levitt aboard the Napier racing boat in 1903

The Cork Constitution made for breathless reading on 13 July, when it reported: “A large number of spectators viewed the first mile from the promenade of the Yacht Club, and at Cork several thousand people collected at both side of the river to see the finishes.

“Owing to the starters and the judges not being in communication by telephonic or any other means, people at either end of the course could only conjecture the result.” The result was victory for Napier, which attained the fantastical speed of 19.3mph after the company’s 50hp motor was suitably upgraded to 75hp in racing trim.

The name S.F. Edge was duly engraved as the inaugural winner on the Harmsworth Trophy, although it was officially recorded that Campbell Muir had done the driving. What the many thousands of onlookers saw, however, was the raven-haired young girl standing at the tiller as she guided the brilliant white-painted boat to victory.

Napier’s marine credentials were duly established, while the race itself passed into legend, courtesy of Dorothy Levitt. Four weeks later another race for powered craft was staged at Cowes during the annual sailing regatta, and once again it was the Napier boat which scythed to victory with its glamorous helmswoman soaking up the attention.

This time Dorothy achieved all the official recognition that she could hope for – and then some. After crossing the line for victory, she was commanded to board the Royal yacht Victoria & Albert III for an audience with King Edward VII where it was recorded that his majesty congratulated her on her pluck and skill before they discussed the performance of the boat and its potential for British government despatch work.

Capitalising on the phenomenon that he had created, Edge entered his Napier boat in the French answer to the Harmsworth Trophy – the five-mile Gaston Menier Cup at Trouville – later in August. Of course Dorothy Levitt was on board and, once again, the Napier claimed the honours – and with it a ₤1000 purse – while France fell under Miss Levitt’s spell.

Dorothy was to make one more appearance on behalf of Napier’s marine business when the team returned to Trouville that October for the Championship of the Seas race. Napier triumphed once again and, while Dorothy soaked up the adulation, the French government bought the boat from Edge for £1,000.

It was a case of ‘Mission: Accomplished’ for this remarkable young woman – although her career was only just getting started. See you for Part 2 in due course!