A controversial racing analysis by WA Taylor
In February 1949, there appeared in Motor Sport a most excellent article on the 61/2-litre Bentley, which is without question one of the finest sports cars ever produced by any country in the world. Towards the end of the article, after a summary of the first racing successes, these words appear :—
“Such was the way of closing of the greatest chapter which any single marque has ever added to the annals of British motor-racing history.”
This sentence very neatly summarises a widely-held opinion which has been expressed dozens of times in many different ways by all sorts of people. I am an enthusiastic Bentley owner myself, and am extremely proud of the Bentley record at Le Mans, and yet I am going to be rash enough to risk being expelled from the Bentley Drivers’ Club by saying that I simply do not agree.
Periods of history, like people, have a curious habit of only acquiring fame and glamour posthumously. I was born in the year of the first French Grand Prix, a year which belongs to an era which stirs the modern imagination perhaps as much as any other in motoring history—the great age of that romantic creature, the Giant Racer : an era peopled by supermen such as Duray and Hemery and “Happy” Nazzaro. And yet Gerald Rose, writing in 1908, says : ” . . . 1906 . . . ended as unpleasantly as it had begun. It is a year which stands out above all the others for lack of sport and a recrudescense of every unpleasant feeling connected with motor-racing. The cars were almost without exception . . . big, heavy, and over-engined.”
While Charles Jarrott, writing in 1906. .says : “A race of the present today would offer none of the charm which a race of five years ago afforded.” And later in the same book—”The sporting side, of motor-racing is now practically nonexistent.”
I am not suggesting that my quite incidental birth did anything to alleviate this prevailing gloom ; I merely mention the fact to prove that I am old enough to be able to remember at first hand the great Bentley era of 1927/30, and I remember it quite distinctly as a particularly dull and uninteresting period when motor-racing—real motor-racing—was, to all intents and purposes, as dead as mutton. Not only were the new Talbot Darracqs so disappointing that they might well have been called E-type Talbots, but Grand Prix racing itself had, after the change of formula in 1926, degenerated into a series of processions by either Delage or Bugatti, and the old glory had departed. What is more, I was not alone in my opinions—they were shared by Motor Sport, for in April, 1927, you published a leader headed “Is Motoring Sport on the Decline ?” while in October, 1927, the leader was entitled “Wake Up, England” and contained such passages as : “Another racing season is drawing to its doleful close. In the last International race, counting for the World Championship, England has made one of her most feeble exhibitions. What is wrong with British cars ? Surely we can run a team of cars adequately representative of the industry in this country.”
Not a word, mark you, about, “Old Number Seven’s” victory three months previously. The truth is that we did not take sports-car racing very seriously. We considered it a very poor consolation prize for the eclipse of Grand Prix racing in general, and for the demise of Sunbeams in particular. In February, 1950, Motor Sport published a very complete article by AS Heal on the Sunbeam racing history up to 1916, yet even now I doubt whether many people realise how Sunbeams really did in the French Grand Prix. Everybody knows they won in 1923, and most people know they won the voiturette class in 1912, but they did much more than that. During the period 1912 to 1925 inclusive, a total of eight racing years, their record is as follows:-
1912: 3rd, 4th, 5th.
1913: 3rd, 6th.
1921: Entered, but scratched.
1922: No finishers
1923: 1st, 2nd, 4th.
1924 : 5th.
It was a time of most intense competition–far more intense than the Bentleys had to face at Le Mans. During the period no less than 34 makes entered at one time or another; of which only Peugeot scored more than one win. Every race was as open as the Grand National : it was not a question of Alfa v Ferrari or Mercedes v Autu Union.
In each year any one of half a dozen or more makes might have provided the winner; and in six of these eight tremendous races Sunbeam finished not lower than fifth. If anyone wishes to capture the spirit of the times, let him read the Autocar’s accounts of the race and practice periods in 1922. I remember them very well, for they were my first introduction to motor racing. [As they were mine, at all events from-1924–Ed.] Now I believe I am right in saying that the international drivers’ championship of the present day is worked out on the basis of eight points for a win, six for a second place; four for a third, three for a fourth, and two for a fifth, and I thought it might be interesting to apply this method of scoring to every make of car that made a fifth place or better -in the period under review. The result was so astonishing that I think it deserves to be put on record :—
(I may say that this does not include. fourth place in 1921, which I have been unable to trace, and I am a little doubtful about Bugatti’s fifth place in 1925, but in any case the main issue is not affected.)
The extremely open nature of the races is very apparent. Of the ten placed makes only three failed to gain a win, and only one won twice. Sunbeam take the lead, of course, on consistency, they get 10 places to Delage’s 6, Bugatti’s 5, Peugeot’s 4, and Mercedes’ 3, Fiat, Alfa, and Ballot each get 2, Duesenberg and Darracq 1. It is interesting to note that Delage, widely used to be known in the ‘twenties as the “French Sunbeam,”, come second, also on consistency.
Of course, the choice of the period favours Sunbeam : they were the only make to enter every year (although they did not start in 1921) : but then surely they deserve some credit for being such regular competitors ? However, to be quite fair, I thought I would extend the table to include 1906-7-8, thus covering the whole classic period of the French Grand Prix.
We now have 11 races with a total of 51 competing makes at one time or another, of which three gained 4 double wins, and five gained one win ; I repeat, extremely open and competitive. Here are the wires of the fifteen place-winners . . .
So there you have it. The same system of marking that made Fangio champion driver in 1951 makes Sunbeam champion car for the greatest race in the world during its greatest period–and by a good margin too.
I submit, that the practically unopposed Bentley superiority in mere sports-car racing in the late ‘twenties, meritorious though it was, cannot bear comparison with the Sunbeam contribution. Incidentally, the scoring for the present British Hill-climb Championship is 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 points for the first five places, respectively is even kinder to Sunbeam, who get 75 to Delage’s 49, with Fiat a mere 14 for the whole period.
In Motor Sport for July 1950, you will find (pages 147 and 348) a letter from a Mr Eric EB Vereker. Near the bottom of page 347 you will see the following : “Right from the earliest days our motor-racing record is pretty terrible. Have we ever produced a car or driver to compare with the best of the Continentals ?” I am sorry Mr Vereker has had to wait so long for his answer. I am even sorrier but he evidently did not see the driver in action, as I was privileged to do in 1924 and 1925 ! The foregoing reflections have been partly inspired by the news that Formula 1 racing seems to be already defunct, and the exciting Alfa/Ferrari duels of last year are not apparently to be repeated. I take comfort from the thought that if Formula II is to predominate, then England will once again, after 27 years, have suitable cars. In 1950 there were 19 Formula II races, in which HWM achieved one win, two seconds, and three thirds. Last year, in 15 races, they got four seconds and four thirds. Personally, I think this compares not unfavourably with Sunbeam’s first two seasons. I am looking forward to the coming season with intense pleasure. We may well be living in stirring times, and one day our grandsons will look back to the middle nineteen-fifties and exclaim nostalgically–“Those were the days!”