The Editor offers an inadequate appreciation of some very brave men
Having in recent months run an imaginary overall World Drivers’ Championship and a similar one tor the top racing cars, along the years, an appreciation of the mechanics who rode in the cars until 1925 in Grand Prix-tyre races is surely due? I am not the best person to write one, maybe, and I concede to Doug Nye that this is recorded history, as I was too young to have seen all the riding mechanics I shall mention in action personally… Nevertheless, as a boy I used to day-dream about being a passenger in a Bentley, or Bugatti, or Mercedes-Benz that was being driven, at enormous and ever-increasing speed, round the Ards TT circuit, watched from the pits by admiring girl-friends. Later, when I was old enough to have a driving-licence, these day-dreams changed little, except that then I was the driver, and some other intrepid soul my mechanic…
The real riding-mechanics were clearly very dedicated people, to whom motor racing meant much, otherwise they would have remained on the factory floor or in other safe jobs. Occasionally, I suppose, one or two were commanded to ride beside a racing driver against their better judgement, and were not in a position to refuse, as with Fiat mechanics in 1923. But the majority were no doubt proud to be able to take such a prominent part in big races, beside drivers whom they respected and admired — I have told already of how Aristides refused to go with anyone else, after his driver, the great Chevallier Rene de Knyff had retired from racing the early Panhard-Levassors.
In this context, we are concerned mainly with those riding mechanics who accompanied their drivers in the great road-races. There were other brave folk who liked motor-racing sufficiently to take considerable risks riding in, or on, racing cars. One thinks in this respect of the intrepid passenger in Ernest Eldridge’s primitive aero-engined 21.7-Ittre chain-drive Fiat, when it broke the Land Speed Record on a (closed) public road for the last time in history, at over 146 mph, or when that same driver-and-car combination raced against Parry Thomas’ Leyland-Thomas in the famous Brooklands Match Race of 1925. Would you have cared to have sat beside the wild Ernest Eldridge as that aged monster Fiat thundered along the narrow, cambered, tree-lined road at Arpajon, they say on tyres almost through to the canvas, or again when it was hurtling round Brooklands at well over 120 mph, trying (unsuccessfully) to stave off Parry Thomas, hardened spectators refusing to watch, retiring to the bar convinced that one or both drivers would be killed, as the Fiat skidded sideways on the Byfleet banking and again at the Fork, both cars flinging oft tyre treads before the race was over?
But perhaps the dedication of riding-mechanics was never better illustrated than when Leo Villa insisted on making up an outrigged “cockpit” on the side of Donald Campbell’s Water Speed Record motor boat “Bluebird”, in order to ride with the skipper, or when, at an earlier time, Michael Wilcocks and Vic Halliwell, of Rolls-Royce, went with Sir Henry Segrave in the motor boat “Miss England II”, both Segrave and Halliwell being killed when it sank during an attack on the WSR.
People used to “mechanic” at Brooklands for the fun of it, undeterred by the terrible accident that befell Lane’s Mercedes in the 1908 Montagu Cup race, when it went out of control and crashed so forcefully that its mangled chassis was found on one side of the river-Wey, its engine on the opposite bank. William Burke the mechanic being killed. But it is the mechanics who went on the great road races with whom I am mainly concerned, men who remained staunch to their drivers beyond the call of duty. In the early races they often rode, not up beside the driver, but sitting on the car’s floor, or step. Many theories have been advanced as to why this was, by those not there at the time. Was it to give the driver more room when wrestling with the steering wheel on its long unsupported column? To lower the car’s centre-of-gravity? To protect the man from the worst of the dust and flying stones? Or to get him off more quickly when a tyre had to be changed or the car refuelled? I think it was simply to enable the mechanic to keep a closer eye on the oil drip-feeds on which most early engines relied tor their lubrication than could be observed easily from a lofty seat…. I once rode “on the step” myself, but only for a lap or so of Brooklands Track, on the Blakes’ 1903 Gordon Bennett Napier, a car now in America.
So in those heroic town-to-town and early closed-circuit contests up to the outbreak of the 1914/18 war these racing mechanics rode courageously beside their drivers, helping them all they could and enduring much discomfort and danger, with little, if any, of the acclaim. The conditions they had to endure, in races often for two long days and for enormous distances, up to nearly 1.000 miles in one instance, over atrocious road surtaces cannot be visualised by those who watch racing at today’s dust-free, billiard-table circuits. They certainly had a very hard time!
Charles Jarrott for instance, has told of how he took with him an ex-bicycle racer called Smits as his riding-mechanic on the 40 hp 28 cwt Panhard that he drove in the 1901 Paris-Berlin race, a little jaunt of 691 1/4 miles. Smits had never been in a motor-race before, but was prepared to entrust his life to Jarrott, who was also in his first big race. Some 78 kilometres from the start he took a right-angle bend so fast that Smits was flung off the Panhard’s step, missing a stone wall by a hairsbreadth. At the overnight stop at Aix-la-Chapelle the luckless mechanic was told he had best fend for himself, although the hotels were full, he was unable to speak German, and had to wake his driver by 2.30 am… At Cologne on the second day there were many punctures to repair, as there were to be all along the route, together with mechanical repairs. But after Jarrot had finished 8th on arrival in Berlin, there is no further mention of this intrepid mechanic.
In the Paris-Vienna race of 1902 Jarrott’s mechanic on a 70 hp Panhard had been George du Cross, but he had such a desperate time, including having to lie along the bonnet holding a towel round one of the leaking water-pipes, that he decided not to go again — acting as an amateur mechanician on a racing car was very poor sport and very hard work, he said. Jarrott was in full agreement, knowing that little glory comes to the second man on a racing car, whether it wins or not, and that he has more than his share of hard work to perform. Thus, on the Circuit of Ardennes that year Jarrott took Mr A McCormack, Manager of the Panhard repair works in London, who again had never previously been on a racing car. “It cured hint once and for all”, his driver said later!
In the ill-fated Paris-Madrid race, stopped at Bordeaux by Government decree because of the carnage, the cars being towed to the railway station behind horses. Jarrott had another first-timer, Cecil Bianchi, riding with him on the de Dietrich. He was lucky not to have been killed, as other mechanics were, and in the 1903 Gordon Bennett race he was badly hurt when Jarrott’s Napier broke its steering gear on the long straight towards Stradbally and left the road, Jarrott somehow managing to lift the car off his mechanic, who was pinned beneath it with the hot exhaust-pipe pressing on his chest. But Bianchi stuck with Jarrott and in the 1904 GB race on the Wolseley was not only struck a violent blow on his left arm when a driving-chain flew off, but had to help his driver by switching-off the ignition at the corners to enable Jarrott to go round them with the clutch out, and again every time he changed gear, as the governor had expired, causing the engine to race in neutral — an interesting reflection on how racing-cars were driven in those times, Bianchi now having not only to work the ignition switch but also pump-up fuel pressure continuously, when he needed all his attention for attending to the lubrication and other important matters.
Many such stories could be told, and clearly the task of the ridingmechanic in those early races was no sinecure, especially before the advent of detachable rims and wheels, so that when a tyre burst or punctured the hot cover had to be cut oft the rim with a knife… (They had to wait until 1908 for detachable rims, until 1913 for detachable wheels, with knock off caps in 1913, but only on some of the GP runners.) These strong and brave men came to respect their drivers, and some of them became racing drivers themselves. For instance, Pietro Bordino, who at 14 was mechanic to drivers of the calibre of Vincenzo Lancia, Felice Nazzaro and Ralph de Palma, became a Fiat racing-driver in 1908 and after the war was one of the greatest road-racing exponents of all winning the 1922 Italian GP and Voiturette race at Monza, and the 1927 GP of Milan in a Tipo 806 Fiat (He was drowned when his Type 35 Bugatti hit a dog and ran into the river during practice at Alessandria in 1928.) Peter DePaolo first rode as mechanic to his uncle, Ralph de Palma. K Lee Guinness acted as mechanic on his brother’s 200 hp Darracq before becoming a famous driver, Lautenschlager, who was to win the 1908 and 1914 French Grands Prix for Mercedes, taking Hans Sieger as his mechanic in the latter dramatic race, rode first as Salzer’s riding-mechanicien in 1906, Otto Metz was mechanic to Poege until he became the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria’s chauffeur in 1912, and later raced for Mercedes. Francois Szisz, who won the 1906 Grand Prix for Renault had been Louis Renault’s racing-mechanic, Guilio Ramponi had ridden with Antonio Ascari before racing Alfa Romeos himself, and Sammy Davis obtained his first taste of road racing at Lyons in 1924, crammed in beside Count Zborowski in the unsuitable track-racing 2-litre straight-eight Miller Jules Moriceau, who rode so many times as Segrave, staunch mechanic, became a driver of the later Talbot cars. Foresti was mechanic to Moriondo’s Itala that overturned in the 1913 Grand Prix. And so on . . .
In the days before WW1 many racing drivers had very little knowledge of the mechanical aspects of the cars they drove, so the presence of a knowledgeable mechanic was all the more essential. If this was less so after the war, the riding-mechanic continued to serve those he rode beside, warning of cars wanting to overtake, keeping an eye on the instruments, cleaning his master’s goggles if need be, watching for pit-signals, working the lap-scorer, and maintaining fuel pressure with the hand air-pump if a mechanical pump wasn’t fitted. Although now having the protection of a seat in the cockpit, his job was still a stern one, because the cars were lighter and faster, so that accidents were a distinct possibility, and road surfaces were often strewn with stones.
In this latter respect, Segrave’s mechanic Moriceau was hit on the forehead by a flying stone during the 1921 French GP at Le Mans and is said to have been unconscious for some five laps before Segrave realised his condition, Monceau recovered and pluckily elected to continue. But even if they were not knocked about by stones, the heat in the cockpits and the rough ride could prove exhausting, during the 1923 Grand Prix at Tours two mechanics became so battered about that Divo had to stop and replace them, and in Segrave’s winning Sunbeam Dutoit’s right shoulder blade is said to have been cut to the bone by a projection in the cockpit. It was in this race that Perkins tried to reduce the clutch slip from which Guinness’ Sunbeam was suffering, by first passing wire round the pedal and hauling on it and, after this cut into his hand, using his tie, until the physical effort and the effect of leaning forward into the slipstream rendered him almost senseless with cramp and Guinness had to stop and put Smith into the Sunbeam. And when Salamano’s Fiat ran out of petrol in that same French GP, to the winning Sunbeam’s advantage, it was the mechanic Feretti who had to run to the pits for more and was then made by the officials to run all the way back to the car carrying a full bidon, even a bicycle being refused him, in spite of the protests from the sympathetic spectators… Back in 1913, at Amiens, Guyot’s riding-mechanic, Semos, jumped from the Delage at some 30 mph, thinking it had stopped, and had to be driven slowly round to the pits for medical attention after Guyot had changed a tyre himself and then lifted him into the cockpit, there was a similar incident at Brooklands in a long-distance sports-car race, when the mechanic in a 30/98 Vauxhall coupe got out while it was still going quite fast, speed being difficult to judge after many laps of it. All told, it might be said that the racing mechanic’s life, like the proverbial policeman’s, was not always a happy one!
Mechanics have sometimes helped drivers in other ways, such as by changing gear on command, if the driver had suffered an injured arm — it is said that it had been De Palma’s intention to have his nephew do the gear-shifting for him throughout the 1921 Grand Prix at Le Mans and that he had had the Ballot’s gear lever moved, for this reason, to the centre of the car, only to incur the wrath of Ernest Ballot. (True or false?) Sir Malcolm Campbell used to have Villa haul hard on the hand-brake of his 38/250 hp Mercedes-Benz as it sped fast down to the Fork hairpin in a Brooklands’ Mountain race, to augment the rather poor brakes of these cars: this in sharp contrast to the time when he took the 14-year-old Rivers-Fletcher as his mechanic in the 1 1/2-litre GP Delage when winning the 1928 JCC Junior Grand Prix, as so entertainingly told in Rivers’ latest book…
As for accidents, it is a moot point who was the worse off, driver or mechanic, should their car crash. The driver had the steering-wheel to hang on to, but it could crush him. Sometimes both occupants would be flung clear as when Chassagne and Dutoit went over the Brooklands banking in the Talbot-Darracq during the 1922 JCC 200 Mile Race, or when K. Lee Guinness had his accident with the Sunbeam in the 1913 GP, the car killing an innocent bystander but not its crew. But in 1924, when Guinness crashed the supercharged Sunbeam at San Sebastian, he was so badly injured that his racing career was virtually ended, and his mechanic, Barrett was killed. So was Meregalli’s mechanic when his Diatto crashed in the 1922 Coppa Florin. Although little Frank Bill and Perkins escaped death in other Sunbeam crashes, in both of which the drivers lost their lives, the former was badly crippled and I believe the latter walked with a stick ever after. When a 1914 GP Vauxhall overturned at Brooklands in 1922 it was again the driver who died, but his mechanic was very badly injured, calling out repeatedly in delirium “Get back over the line”, which he must have shouted when he realised the car was wrongly positioned for the Fork curve: C.G. Brocklebank was more fortunate, inasmuch as when he went out to the start of a race in which Toop was to drive his 1913 GP Peugeot, intending to go as mechanic in his own car, he got out at the last minute. saying it would give Toop a better chance; the car went over the Byfleet banking and Toop was killed. (Did Brocklebank have a last minute premonition of disaster?)
In races, short and long the mechanics had a tough time and sometimes paid the ultimate price. Yet racing-car passengers were ever willing to take the risk, like May Cunliffe’s father, who died when her 1924 GP Sunbeam rolled on Southport sands — mechanics were even carried in hill-climbs, where one would have thought weight really counted, presumably because even for such a short time fuel pressure had to be maintained, or it was believed they helped the trim of a car.
However so far as Grand Prix racing was concerned, all that came to an end by 1925, the FIA having legislated against cars continuing to carry riding-mechanics, although bodies of two-seater-width were specified. The latter may seem illogical but the reasons are easily explained. There were fears being expressed that racing-cars had become too fast and might become still faster and even more unmanageable under the pending 1 1/2-litre ruling (valid from 1926) with a minimum weight -limit of 600 kg. One suggestion for combating this was to increase wind-resistance and it was apparent that low-drag single-seater bodies would increase, not decrease, maximum speed. It may also have been felt that entries would be lost if manufacturers had to build new monoposto chassis for the 1925 season.
How did drivers and racing-car makers react to the “no mechanics” ruling? Generally, the new rule found favour, when it was openly discussed late in 1924. S. CavaIli, Fiat’s Assistant Chief Engineer, thought the mechanic’s place was in the pits, saying it was difficult to find riding-mechanics, because they knew they were unknown actors, getting none of the glory, or recommpense, yet sharing the risks with the drivers. Paul Bablot, then running the new Miramas Speedway, said he would not be a race mechanic “for millions”, saying the riding-mechanic was now just a bundle carried as a concession to an old-fashioned practice. When there was time to change a valve and still win, he had his place, but in modern races there wasn’t, and the mechanic’s place was at the pits. They knew about driving, so suffered from anxieties if their drivers took risks or made mistakes, while being powerless to do anything about it.
Rene Thomas went further. A mechanic in the car could be positively dangerous, he maintained, quoting Diva’s man who had had to be lifted from the Sunbeam halfway through the 1924 GP, with his replacement not much better off when the race ended. What if a mechanic collapsed and slid down onto the pedals, he queried? Then, in a two-seater, the occupants were subjected to the possibility of a flung tyre-tread, which could stun a man (as happened to Segrave ‘s mechanic in the 1924 GP) or break his arm. The only use Thomas saw for a riding-mechanic was to warn the driver of an overtaking car, and that could be done using a drivingmirror… Louis Wagner, the well-known racing driver, was of the same opinion, saying a mechanic had never helped him to win in recent years, after the start, and had often been a handicap, so he advocated single-seater GP cars.
Segrave disagreed with all these views. He said that a riding-mechanic had more roles to play than warning of cars coming up behind and helping rectify mechanical troubles. The modern 2-litre supercharged roller-bearing racing engine, Segrave pointed out, responded so quickly to the throttle opening that you might be up to a destructive 7,000 to 8,000 rpm in 4/5ths of a second, so that to have the mechanic tap your leg when the 5.000 rpm safety-limit was reached, was essential, as no driver could watch his tachometer all the time he was racing. He said that the Sunbeam mechanics “had the most explicit instructions” to do this and that (which is new to rne) the GP Sunbeams had two revolution-counters, one before the driver, the other in front of the mechanic. Practically all the other instruments on the racing Sunbeams were placed on the mechanic’s side of the dashboard, also the air-pump and the lap-scorer. “So the riding-mechanic has plenty to do”, said the celebrated winner of the 1923 French Grand Prix. As for the double risk of two persons on a GP car, Segrave said the solution was to reduce the high speeds of the 1924 2-litre cars, which, weighing 14 to 15 cwt, were difficult to control flat-out, and he favoured the 1 1/2-litre ruling. But the mechanic was essential for lobking behind, the great driver averred; a mirror would be useless, due to vibration….
Among manufacturers, Ettore Bugatti did not like the idea of single-seaters, because he felt they would not sell, as his racing two-seaters did, and Louis Coatalen of Sunbeam’s was also against them, as they would increase speed due to reduced drag; he felt that tails on racing-cars also had this effect and would welcome their abolition.
Bordino disagreed with Segrave, saying a mechanic was often too exhausted to be much use for several minutes if repairs were necessary away from the pits, that his presence increased the risk by 50% (Parry Thomas was reported to have said ”One is enough at one time”, when asked why he didn’t carry a mechanic in “Babs”), and he said that the two-seater Fiat he was taking to America he would race alone, being quite capable of reading its instruments for himself! But he felt that the 1 1/2–litre cars, weighing only about 11 cwt, would be more dangerous than the existing GP cars. Andre Boillot, Head of Peugeot’s Racing Department, was completely against the riding-mechanic being retained, and also the new rules in general — “the utmost folly”. If a driver couldn’t read his rev-counter he should fit a governor, said Boillot, and if a mirror was useless, use a Klaxon horn, as was done in touring-car races when a driver wanted to overtake. Jack Scales, who had won at Montlhery with a Talbot, agreed about the driver being unable, in a road race, to read off 300 rpm on his tachometer, which might mean the engine blowing up. The great Albert Divo also wanted mechanics retained, because he thought fewer drivers would enter if getting a car to the finish depended on their knowledge alone, of the machinery, and he said that in spite of the risks involved, mechanics were volunteers, and there were, he believed, plenty of applicants. Pierre de Vizcaya followed Bugatti’s dictate, that two-seater bodies be retained, but with only the driver aboard. “as modern racing cars ought to run 500 miles without attention, so there was no need to risk the life of another man”. Louis Delage and Rene Thomas were dead against the proposed 1,500 cc 11 cwt 120 mph GP cars . . .
Arthur Waite, the Austin 7 racing driver, felt the mechanic was absolutely essential, as the driver should never have to take his eyes off the road to watch a multitude of instruments. He disliked single-seaters because a driver would have to sit high over the prop-shaft, or, if the body were offset, the car’s balance would be impaired, as he had found — admittedly with very light A7s. S.C.H. Davis was another who was strongly in favour of retaining the riding-mechanic. He used the arguments already quoted, plus the ability of the mechanic to watch for tyre wear (which a driver of a single-seater could not do easily in respect of the back tyres) clean goggles, etc. Sammy said that the monetary inducement to ride in a car was small, but a number went, he said, because they liked the experience and would go for no money at all. He even thought about a driver working alone on a car away from the pits and getting grease on his hands (what, no rag in the overall pockets?!). Paul Detoit, not unnaturally, was in favour of keeping the mechanic, and mentioned that, apart from the other arguments, it sometimes helped a driver to receive a few cheery words at the corners…! Another view in favour was that a driver was often too exhausted to restart a recalcitrant engine at the pits — remembering the trouble Lee Guinness had in the 1923 GP after stalling his Sunbeam at Membrolle, where he was stationary for over two minutes even with his mechanic’s help, and Rarnponi lying exhausted beside Ascari’s P2 Alfa Romeo at Lyon in 1924, after trying in vain to push-start it.
In spite of these arguments the rule held and the glory of the race mechanic faded from GP-type events after 1924. Segrave and others were soon driving unconcernedly the virtually single-seat cars. However, mechanics continued to be carried in sports-car races, which enabled Denis Jenkinson to write his superlative account of navigating Stirling Moss to victory at record speed in the MercedesBenz 300SLR they shared in the 1955 Mille Miglia, and for Louis Klemantaski to take his cameras in a later race in this series, in Parnell’s Aston Martin. But in GP racing the riding-mechanic had gone after 1924: and in the present-day F1 car there would be no room for him! – W.B.