Grand Prix-- History

There are a lot of people who seem to think that Grand Prix racing began in 1950, whereas the first Grand Prix was held in 1906. It was the present points-chasing World Championship for Drivers that began in 1950 but there were Grand Prix races all over Europe and in North Africa in profusion before that date, especially in the late nineteen-twenties and the nineteen-thirties. You only have to look through the programmes of today’s events to see the list of results going back to 1922 for the Italian GP, 1925 for the Belgian GP and 1926 for the German GP for example, while Grand Prix races were held in conjunction with towns or districts in almost every country. Only last month the town of Nice on the French Cote d’Azur included a retrospective for the Nice GP, held in 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935 and 1946 and 1947, in its Centenary celebrations.

Rummaging through some Grand Prix photographs the other day I came across the accompanying one of cars lined up on the grid for the start of the 1934 Spanish Grand Prix. The Spanish GP is one of those that comes and goes, dependent on political and financial vicissitudes. It was well set in the mid-thirties when the Spanish Civil War put a stop to everything. Then it revived again in the early nineteen-fifties and joined the World Championship ranks, but fizzled out due to circuit and financial problems, to arise again on the Jarama circuit near Madrid. But under it went again after the organisers sided with the wrong people in the FISA / FOCA war of recent memory. This year it is due to arise again on a street circuit in the south of Spain near the end of the season.

To return to the photograph that sparked off these thoughts, the entry looked intriguing and of particular interest was the Maserati number 20 in the fourth row, for it was clearly the 8CM of Whitney Straight, the wide-bodied car with the heart-shaped radiator cowl that was so distinctive. I had not realised that Straight had driven in the Spanish Grand Prix, so I turned up MOTOR SPORT for November 1934 to see what the report said about the race. The first thing I discovered was that Whitney Straight was not in the entry list, but he had lent his car to the Algerian driver Marcel Lehoux, so that was my first query solved. Then I noticed that the cars were lined up in descending order of race numbers, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 etc. so that obviously the grid was not decided on practice times, especially as the report said that Dreyfus (Bugatti) had set fastest practice lap, and Nuvolari (Bugatti) had equalled it. On the grid they are both in row three. The organisers would appear to have drawn up the entry list in order of the known quality of the combination of driver and car. Thus Rudolf Caracciola was number two in a W25 Mercedes-Benz, Jean-Pierre Wimille in a works Type 59 Bugatti was number four and Hans Stuck in an Auto Union was number six, all on the front row. Then came Achille Varzi in a Scuderia Ferrari monoposto Alfa Romeo, with Gigi Soffietti alongside him in a similar car according to the report, but the photograph shows quite clearly that he is in an 8CM Maserati. In row three are the aforementioned Bugattis of Nuvolari and Dreyfus, both 3.3-litre Type 59 models, with Louis Chiron completing the row with another Scuderia Ferrari monoposto Alfa Romeo like Varzi’s. In the fourth row are Luigi Fagioli in the second works W25 Mercedes-Benz and Marcel Lehoux in Straight’s 8CM Maserati, and behind them are Prinz von Leiningen in the second Auto Union, Robert Brunet in an 8CM Maserati and Benoit Falchetto in a similar car. These two Maseratis were from the Ecurie Braillard, a private team run by Madame Braillard. Alone in the back row was Conte Antonio Brivio and there was one non-starter, for what today would be a very strange reason. The 1934 Grand Prix rules stipulated that cars could not weigh more than 750 kilogrammes, this maximum weight being taken with all the lubricants drained out and without tyres, though the wheels had to be in place. Eugen Bjornstadt, the Norwegian driver, took along an early Monza Alfa Romeo and this was found to be over the weight limit, so he was not allowed to start!

The scene on the grid was an interesting one, for it was very near to the end of the first season of the new Formula, which had attracted Mercedes-Benz back into racing and had seen the appearance of the new Auto Union team from the consortium of the four German firms, Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer, and these two teams from Germany with their advanced silver cars were setting new Grand Prix standards. They had each sent two cars to San Sebastian, as had the Scuderia Ferrari but the Bugatti factory had sent a full three-car works team of blue type 59 models, backed up by Nuvolari in a fourth car painted Italian red. Although the Type 59 was to be Bugatti’s last serious Grand Prix car it was a fine swan-song. Alfa Romeo, under the Scuderia Ferrari banner and the Maserati factory were to continue the battle against the Germans until the end of the Formula in 1937.

This race was being run over 30 laps of the 17.315 kilometre Lasarte circuit on the outskirts of San Sebastian in northern Spain, a total distance of 519.5 kilometres and it would run for nearly 3 1/2 hours. The start was a bit of a shambles, for Stuck jumped the start and nothing was done about it and Nuvolari stalled and got left behind. Stuck led for four laps before a broken oil pipe put him out, and after only two laps Nuvolari was up in fourth place after his bad start. Caracciola took over the lead but he had Wimille hanging on magnificently, the Type 59 Bugatti being very nearly as fast as the German car. Nuvolari and Dreyfus were in fourth and fifth places, leading the Scuderia Ferrari monoposto Alfa Romeos, and Fagioli in the second Mercedes-Benz had sliced his way through the field into third place behind Wimille. In the early part of the season the monoposto Alfa Romeos had been fairly dominant but by now they were outclassed, not only by the German cars but also by the Bugattis. Around half-distance cars came into the pits to refuel, some also changing tyres. Fagioli had taken second place from Wimille, so the order was Mercedes-Benz 1-2 and Bugatti 3-4-5. Caracciola refuelled and had the oil and water checked in 1 min 2 secs and Fagioli’s mechanics did the same operation in 58 secs, and on lap 18 the Italian overtook his German team-mate and began to pull away to a commanding lead. Wimille’s impressive run in third place was interrupted by a long pit stop to mend a fractured carburettor union and this let Nuvolari up into third place. Rene Dreyfus was also delayed at the pits with a carburettor problem so that Varzi went by. Chiron had withdrawn, feeling unwell and had handed his monoposto over to Gianfranco Comotti, and Prinz von Leiningen had handed over to Stuck. The Austro-German, father of today’s Hans Stuck, now went like the wind and set up new lap records and pulled up from eighth place to fourth by the end of the race. It was a virtual walkover for the two Mercedes-Benz, but the Bugattis had been very impressive, while the Alfa Romeos were outclassed and the following season was to see them replaced by the 3.8-litre Tipo 8C / 35. While the German teams went on from strength to strength Bugatti faded away after this promising first season of the new Formula. The Maseratis, in private hands, could only hope to be also-rans as Grand Prix racing took on a very serious aspect from the technical standpoint. In the years 1935-36-37 the German teams raised the standard of technology to one of the highest pinnacles in the history of Grand Prix racing, honours being shared fairly evenly between Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, though the former always had a stronger driver line-up.

The end of the 1984 season might well see the present day giants of industry, Renault, Porsche, BMW, Honda, Alfa Romeo and Ferrari raise the technical standards of Grand Prix racing to a similar high point in the overall history of Grand Prix racing. The demise of the home-built “kit-car” in the seventies and the growth of real power in the eighties give every indication that we are still on a steep upward slope and the technicalities of Grand Prix racing in which there is little place for anyone without the availability of a large Research & Development department and the backing of industry. Ever since the first Grand Prix in 1906 the real name of the game has been R & D, with occasional troughs or doldrums. It has been the high points that have held interest and at the moment we are well up the ladder to a very high point.