The only British victory in the French G.P.: Anthony S. Heal records Segrave’s win at Tours in 1923 with a 2-litre Supercharged Sunbeam.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the first and only occasion that an Englishman, driving an English car, won the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, the traditional blue riband of motor racing. On July 2nd, 1923, Major H.O.D. Segrave (as he then was) drove his 2-litre 6-cylinder Sunbeam to victory in the Grand Prix at Tours, scoring the solitary British success in that long series of classic races. And what a race it was! Full of thrills and shattered hopes, almost every lap was a hotly contested struggle for the lead. It was certainly no hollow victory that Sunbeams won that hot summer day on the winding, dusty, rather dangerous 14-mile Touraine circuit.
Apart, from the prestige which is deservedly earned by the winner of the Grand Prix, the English car’s success had too an unusual interest from the technical standpoint. Rarely had there been such a diversity of design among the competitors or such a galaxy of unorthodox ideas being tested for the first time in an International road race. The regulations imposed a cubic capacity limit of two litres, and a minimum weight of 630 kilogrammes. Apart from these two limitations the designers had a free hand to use whatever bore, stroke and cylinder arrangements they best fancied. Let us now have a look at the formidable opposition that the Sunbeam team – the sole English entries – had to face. All the grandes marques then engaging in international racing were represented – Sunbeam, Fiat, Deluge, Bugatti, Rolland-Pilain and Voisin.
The Fiats, dashingly handled by Bordini, Salamano and Giaccone, were undoubtedly the fastest cars in the race. The Italian firm were set on repeating Felice Nazarro’s 1922 victory at Strasbourg. Their svelte and workmanlike cars had straight-eight roller bearing engines fitted with superchargers – the first time that forced induction had been used in the Grand Prix. Delage had produced a 60 degree Vee twelve, with tiny cylinders, 51.4 mm. in bore, ball and roller bearings being used throughout the engine. Work on this very interesting design had only been started some four months earlier, and although the car was completed in time for Réné Thomas to start in the race, it was obviously not fully developed. Two of the Rolland-Pilain entries, driven by Guyot and Hémery, were the same straight-eight machines that had run at Strasbourg in1922. Certain improvements and modifications had been made meanwhile which had improved their performance and reliability. Hydraulic front wheel brakes and left-hand steering were noteworthy characteristics of these Tours-built racers. The third car, which should have been driven by Jules Goux, was fitted with a “cuff valve” engine built under S.R.O. patents with the collaboration of Ernest Henry, the well-known Peugeot and Ballot designer. Unfortunately, Goux was a non-starter owing to engine trouble which developed during the practising period. Gabriel Voisin, that eccentric personality, brought a team of three fiercely unorthodox cars, built more in accordance with aeronautical technique than automobile methods of construction.
In side elevation the low-hung “fuselage” which combined the functions of chassis frame and bodywork, was of semi-aerofoil profile with a dead flat under-shield only a few inches from the ground. The very narrow rear track (2 ft. 6 in.) brought the wheels within the body sides. Knight 6-cylinder sleeve-valve engines were fitted. Incidentally, this was the first appearance of this type of engine in the Grand Prix. Bugatti, who has never been afraid of being unconventional in his design, produced a team of narrow-track, short-wheelbase chassis with tank-like streamlined bodywork which enveloped all four wheels. The straight-eight 24-valve engines were very like those used in the previous year.
The Sunbeam cars, which had to face this array of advanced and unorthodox design, were straightforward 6-cylinder jobs with, engines of 67 x 94 mm., with roller-bearing mains and big-ends, and using servo brakes and 3 speed gearboxes. Bertarione had produced the design in collaboration with Louis Coatalen and at the pésagé it was found that they were the lightest cars in the race. With 7.4-to-1 compression ratios the engines developed 108 b.h.p. at 5,000 r.p.m. K. Lee Guinness, Major H.O.D. Segrave and Divo were the drivers.
During the practice period most of the cars were found to be uncomfortably fast and rather tricky to handle on the highly cambered, narrow circuit. To make matters worse the edges of the road began to crumble and passing became a very hazardous performance.
The Fiat équipe did their best to conceal details of their superchargers, but nevertheless Bordino put in the fastest practice lap at 85.6 m.p.h. Segrave lapped at 81 m.p.h. As previously recounted, the cuff valve Rolland-Pilain succumbed with internal troubles. Various people demolished parts of the palisading round the course, and on the eve of the race all the Bugatti team, except Friedrich, elected to change their pistons.
The night before the race found Tours crowded with visitors, motor-cars parked everywhere and all the noise and excitement that usually preceded this, the greatest Grand Prix. Early in the morning a never-ending procession of cars made its way to the tribunes. It was a gloriously fine day with a slight breeze to ruffle the gay tricolour flags that bedecked the grandstand. Some 200 yards up the course the 17 cars, blue, red and green, were drawn up in pairs: three British and three Italian challenging the products of the French motor industry. The band, which was such a characteristic part of all motor races in France, played the “Marseillaise”; engines were started and warmed up. Then a motor-cyclist led the pack up to the starting line, and as he drew to one side, M. Rene de Knyff, President of the A.C.F., dropped the starting flag; the race was on.
Réne Thomas (Delage), who was in the front row with K. Lee Guinness (Sunbeam) went ahead, but he was hard pressed by Bordini (Fiat), who soon managed to pass him. Thomas was on Bordino’s tail as they came down to the tricky hairpin bend at La Membrolle and behind them, in a cloud of dust, followed the rest of the field. De Vizcaya (Bugatti) arrived at the corner and, unable to see for dust, ran into the palisading, coming to rest against a tree. Bordino was the first to reach the tribunes but Guinness was second, the Delage third and then followed Giaccone’s and Salamano’s Fiats, and Seagrave’s and Divo’s Sunbeams. Bordino had done his first lap, from a rolling start, at 87.18 m.p.h. and had covered a 300-metre timed stretch at 122 m.p.h. On the second lap he had 1 minute 15 seconds lead from Guinness.
The race was fast and furious and the tricky condition of the course made the drivers’ job all the more difficult. Salamano slid across the road at Semblancay, knocking down some yards of fence and stopping his engine. Friedrich’s Bugatti, arriving round the corner rather rapidly narrowly missed piling into the stationary Fiat. By the fifth lap Bordino had increased his lead to 2 minutes 20 seconds.
Positions at 5th lap. – 1, Bordino (Fiat); 2, K. Lee Guinness (Sunbeam); 3, Giaccone (Fiat,); 4, Salamano (Fiat); 5, Divo (Sunbeam); 6, Guyot (Rolland-Pilain); 7, Segrave (Sunbeam).
The pace was already beginning to tell. Marco’s Bugatti stopped at the pits and retired. Duray, driving the leading Voisin, stopped for a while at La Membrolle but managed to get going again. The Fiat’s position looked unassailable with Bordino doing the “Seiler act” and Lee Guinness cast in the role of Georges Boillot. Anyone with a memory of the 1914 Grand Prix would have been forgiven had they discerned Mercédes tactics in the Fiat’s battle order. But suddenly the stopwatch experts show signs of restiveness: Bordino has not come round at his appointed time. The loud-speakers confirm that he stopped on the straight but soon got going again. Guinness has stepped up into first place; an English car is leading in the Grand Prix! Such a thing has never happened before. The loud-speakers announce that Bordino has stopped again and has retired with a hole in the crankcase, the official story being that it was made by a stone. Guinness has 3 minutes 31 seconds advantage over Giaccone on the second Fiat, and at ten laps the positions were K. Lee Guinness (Sunbeam); 2, Giaccone (Fiat); 3, Salamano (Fiat); 4, Guyot (Rolland-Pilain); 5, Divo (Sunbeam); 6, Segrave (Sunbeam).
Nine cars are still running, eight have retired: Vizcaya (Bugatti) crashed on the first lap, Thomas (Delage) had a stone puncture his petrol tank when lying fifth, Bordino (Fiat) had a hole in his crankcase, de Cysteria (Bugatti) ran into the sandbank at La Membrolle and after a delay got going again only to retire. Marco (Bugatti) is in trouble at the pits. Hemery has withdrawn after trouble with the lubricating system and Morel (Voisin) has also abandoned the struggle. The loose stones are causing a good deal of trouble and have added an additional danger for the faster cars as they overtake the slower. On his eleventh lap Divo’s mechanic is knocked out by a flying stone, and the car stops at the pits, Moriceau taking the injured man’s place. Guinness pulls in, according to schedule, and without any fuss he and Perkins fill up with petrol, oil and water in 3 minutes 13 seconds. As he gets away Giaccone and Salamano roar past to take the lead. Thomas (Delage), Bordino (Fiat), Guinness (Sunbeam) and Giaccone (Fiat) have each held the lead and the race is not yet one-third completed. Guinness is in trouble again on his twelfth lap. The spare magneto, carried in the cockpit, has come loose and charging across the floorboards has bruised the driver’s and mechanic’s legs and damaged the gear lever, so that Guinness has difficulty in changing gear. In addition the clutch has started to slip, and after jettisoning the errant magneto, Perkins fits a rope round the pedal so that he can exert a little extra pressure. Segrave’s clutch is slipping too, and he cannot go over 4,500 r.p.m. It is left to Divo to take up the chase of Giaccone’s and Salamano’s flying Fiats.
Positions at 15 laps: – 1, Giaccone (Fiat); 2, Salamano (Fiat); 3, Diva (Sunbeam); 4, Guyot (Rolland-Pilain); 5, Segrave (Sunbeam); 6, Guinness (Sunbeam).
The Voisin of Rougier has retired, which leaves only seven survivors, and the race has not yet run half distance. At 16 laps Giaccone makes his scheduled pit stop, quickly and methodically changing all the plugs and his rear wheels, and filling up with petrol and oil. Salamano therefore takes the lead until the next lap, when he, too, stops to change wheels and refuel amidst scenes of the wildest excitement and commotion; perhaps this is due to the Italian temperament. No sooner has he gone than Giaccone is back again. He works on the carburetter, closes the bonnet and the mechanic pushes the car to try to start it. The engine fires once or twice and then stops – Giaccone is out, the exhaust valves having been unable to stand up to the extra strain imposed on them by the supercharger. Divo (Sunbeam) is now in the lead (the sixth change so far), 51 seconds ahead of Salamano, with Segrave in third place 2 minutes behind the Fiat.
Positions at 20 laps: – 1, Divo (Sunbeam); 2, Salamano (Fiat); 3, Segrave (Sunbeam); 4, Guyot (Rolland-Pilain); 5, Guinness (Sunbeam); 6, Friedrich (Bugatti).
Only one Fiat left in the race and the Sunbeam team as yet complete. The “Mercédès tactics” have not brought the same reward as they did in 1914. On the 22nd lap Salamano passes Divo (making the seventh change of leadership) and by the 25th lap has built up an advantage of 2 minutes 20 seconds over the English car. The Italian is clearly a good deal faster and with only ten laps to go he has only to maintain his lead to win comfortably. Guinness’s car is misfiring and the damaged gear lever is causing difficulty in changing gear. By the 30th lap Salamano has increased his lead to 4 minutes 11 seconds. With only five laps to go it should be all over bar the shouting. Here are the positions at 30 laps: –
Positions at 30 laps: – 1, Salamano (Fiat); 2, Divo (Sunbeam); 3, Segrave (Sunbeam); 4, Guinness (Sunbeam); 5 Friedrich (Bugatti); 6, Lefebvre (Voisin). Guyot (Rolland-Pilain) stopped but got away again at the tail of the procession.
Divo comes in to make his scheduled replenishment stop. He cannot catch the Fiat and has only to keep going to be sure of second place. The mechanic has difficulty in unscrewing the filler cap. Divo has a try and finds it too stiff to move. Quick! a hammer, and cold chisel! In the excitement of the moment Divo hits his fingers hard with the hammer but appears not to notice it. The filler cap will not budge and precious minutes tick inexorably past while second place gradually and exasperatingly slips from Divo’s grasp. There is nothing for it but to run on the reserve tank and re-fuel every lap. After 15 minutes of heartbreaking delay Divo gets away only to return again, on the next lap, to fill up once more.
On the 32nd lap Salamano is suddenly overdue after having lapped regularly at 78 m.p.h. Over the brow of the hill beyond the pits an overall-clad figure is seen running. It is Ferretti, Salamano’s mechanic! He has sprinted 11 miles to fetch petrol for the Fiat which is stranded at the side of the course. He arrives panting and a fresh mechanic starts back carrying a bidon of much-needed essence. After he has covered 50 yards he is stopped by an official who has decided that it is against the rules to change mechanics. Great excitement is aroused by this action, which does not seem to be quite in accordance with precedent of other races. The crew of the Fiat have the sympathy of the crowd – Ferretti mounts a bicycle and is again stopped by the official amidst hisses and catcalls from the public enclosure. But the commissaire insists that the mechanic must proceed on foot, and away he staggers, carrying the bidon, only to find that something far more serious than an empty petrol tank is the cause of the Fiat’s stoppage. Salamano, the last remaining Fiat hope, is out of the race! Divo, still stopping to refuel each lap, is passed by Segrave, whose car is now in fine fettle, the slipping clutch having cured itself. So Segrave leads, with Divo second and Guinness, who continues regularly but with troublesome misfiring, in third place.
The green cars now occupy the first three positions. Segrave crosses the finishing line, having averaged 75.3 m.p.h. for nearly 500 miles, the winner of one of the most hotly-contested motor races ever known and the first Englishman ever to win the Grand Prix. Divo follows him into second place, but the unlucky Guinness misses his gear at Semblancay on his last lap and stalls his engine. Before he can get going again Friedrich’s Bugatti passes him and takes third place. Here are the times at the finish, after 35 laps: –
Hr. Min. Sec.
- Maj. H.O.D.Seagrave Sunbeam 6 35 19 3/5
- A. Divo Sunbeam 6 54 25 4/5
- Friedrich Bugatti 7 0 22 4/5
- K. Lee Guiness Sunbeam 7 2 3
- Lefebvre Voisin 7 50 29 3/5
Segrave pulls his car on to the grass beyond the pits and he and his mechanic Dutoit, walk back to the tribunes to be presented to the Minister for War and to receive the cheers of the multitude and congratulations of the officials. The band plays “God Save the King” and the little band of Englishmen in the Sunbeam pit stand stiffly and proudly to attention.
Since 1923 racing has changed a great deal, and Sunbeam is no longer among the starters. Other English marques have come and gone, and although some have achieved notable successes, none has succeeded in repeating Segrave’s victory in the French Grand Prix. In 1902 S.F. Edge brought home the Gordon Bennett Cup to this country; 21 years later Sunbeams won the Grand Prix de l’A.C.F., which had succeeded the G.B. races. Is it not time we produced another world beater?