“‘The Eternal Second.’ I wonder in how many races Giradot finished second! He certainly won Paris-Boulogne and the Gordon-Bennett race in 1899, but he finished second in so many more races that he was dubbed ‘The Eternal Second.’ Giradot always interested me by reason of this particular peculiarity in his career. . . In the great Paris-Berlin race he was Fournier’s terror. Only a few minutes to the bad, he chased Fournier all the way through, but the few minutes sufficed, and Giradot finished in his usual place, namely, second.”
Thus Charles Jarrott, writing, as will have been gathered, about “The Eternal Second,” alias Girardot (I prefer to spell his name that way and so, I think, did he); and, like Charles Jarrott, I too have often wondered several things about his reputation in this respect. In the first place I have speculated why, if Charles Jarrott really wondered in how many races Girardot had finished second, he did not count up and see. And in the second place, I have wondered whether, if Jarrott had counted up, he would have found that the facts really justified the soubriquet. Thus wondering, I resolved to count up myself.
Of course, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of the answer, because I do not know for certain in how many races Girardot started, but if we trace his performance in every race recorded by Gerald Rose in his “Record of Motor Racing,” the possibility of error should not be large. From this, then, it seems that in 1897 he started in Paris-Dieppe on a 6-h.p. Panhard and finished sixth in his class, sixteenth in the general classification. In 1898 he started in Paris-Bordeaux and did not finish, and in Paris-Amsterdam-Paris scored his first “second,” on an 8-h.p. Panhard, the first type fitted with wheel steering. In 1899 he was again second in Nice-Castellane-Nice, in Paris-Bordeaux he was, most irregularly, third, and in the Tour de France, most properly, second. He did win Paris-Boulogne that year, as Jarrott records, and his was also the first of the cars in Paris-Ostend, although on that occasion his 12-h.p. Panhard was, rather indecently, beaten by a couple of De Dion tricycles.
In 1900 he was fifth in the Circuit du Sud Ouest and seventh in Nice-Marseilles, he was second in the first Gordon-Bennett race from Paris to Lyons, and did not finish in the big race of the year, Paris-Toulouse-Paris. In 1901 he was second in the Grand Prix de Pau, and although he won the Gordon-Bennett Trophy in the course of Paris-Bordeaux, he was no higher than eighth in his class and tenth in the general classification. In Paris-Berlin he was second again, in spite, as Jarrott remarks, of being “the terror,” with his 40-h.p. Panhard, of Fournier and his 60-h.p. Mors. In 1902 for the first time he deserted Panhard and started in Paris-Vienna on 60-h.p. C.G.V., made by himself in conjunction with Charron and Voigt, which, however, failed to finish, although he ran fifth with it in the Circuit des Ardennes later in the season. The next year he again failed to finish in Paris-Madrid, but just to show that his hand had not altogether lost its cunning, was second in the Circuit des Ardennes. And his last appearance was in the French Eliminating Trials for the Gordon-Bennett race in 1905, when his car had a difference of opinion with a telegraph pole, threw Girardot out and tore off its front axle as well as several other pieces. Girardot survived this alarming experience, but he seems to have given up racing after that.
Analysed, all this adds up to the fact that, according to Mr. Rose’s Record, Girardot started in 20 major races, and, as far as the general classification is concerned, he won two of them, or 10 per cent. In no less than seven of them, or 35 per cent., he was second; in one (5 per cent.) he was third; in five, or 25 per cent., he was unplaced; and in an equal number he failed to finish. Merely arithmetically this is, in my opinion, a very remarkable result; and when one adds to the mere arithmetic the fact that in the three years 1898, 1899 and 1901 he was second in the great race of the year — Paris-Amsterdam-Paris, the Tour de France and Paris-Berlin — one is, I think, forced to the conclusion that Girardot’s soubriquet of “The Eternal Second” was well earned. The record of another driver who just overlapped in point of time with Girardot, however, was, it seems to me, even more remarkable. Writing in 1906 of the Gordon-Bennett race in Germany in 1904, Mr. H. Massae Buist remarked: “The day was notable also for the first appearance of a really important character of [sic] Victor Lancia, the Italian destined to make the most lasting and striking impression of any racing motorcar driver.” Returning to the subject on the same occasion, but in connection, this time, with the 1905 race in the Auvergne, Mr. Buist elaborated this character sketch as follows:
“But there was one figure that attracted more attention than any other throughout that day — the figure of a big, burly Italian, with bright eyes and a dashing manner, mounted on a superb black car that was capable of leaving anything else on the road ‘standing.’ This was Lancia, who gained so rapidly on those in front of him, that at one period his car was running 13 minutes ahead of Théry. As he swept past the various points of the course time after time, it was plain that France had no driver to put in the field comparable with him, nor perhaps a car that could stand such handling. In taking curves or corners Lancia scarcely drew out his clutch, yet in entering controls the manner in which he brought his car to a standstill on the very line without abusing his tyres was a lesson that Baron de Caters and others would do well to take to heart. So astonishing was his performance that the usual remarks, ‘I knew he would be killed,’ were of course made when he failed to turn up on the third lap, owing to nothing more serious than a stone having started a leak in his cooler, and the engine having seized before he could reach a spot where a spare radiator was in waiting. True, Lancia does not allow any margin for accidents, if one may use the term, but his skill is so extraordinary that there is no need for him to do so. . . Lancia has all Théry’s fine feeling in the handling of his car in addition to Jenatzy’s dash. The only lesson he has to learn is that when he is leading by half-an-hour or so it is scarcely worth while to take every risk, but to reduce the proportion of chances taken in relation to the extent of the lead that has been obtained.”
A more glowing description of a driver could hardly have been given even of “the great little man,” Tazio Nuvolari in his heyday, and Nuvolari has had his share of successes. Without attempting an exhaustive catalogue, he won the French Grand Prix in 1932, the Italian Grand Prix in 1931 and 1938, the German Grand Prix in 1935, the Targa Florio in 1931 and 1932, the Monaco Grand Prix in 1932, the Grand Prix d’Endurance in 1933, the Mille Miglia in 1930 and 1983, and the Tourist Trophy in 1930 and 1938. With this record in mind, let us look at that of Vincenzo Lancia, the man who, in 1906, had made, “the most lasting and striking impression of any racing motorcar driver.”
His first appearance in a big race, as far as I know, was in Paris-Madrid, when he failed to reach Bordeaux. Still, there was nothing particularly remarkable in that; his 24-h.p. F.I.A.T. light car was a comparatively untried type, and many more experienced drivers were eliminated in the first stage of Paris-Madrid. At his next appearance, in the 1904 Gordon Bennett race in Germany, there was again nothing very spectacular about his performance. The 75-h.p. F.I.A.T.s in that race, which were curious-looking cars, with the radiator set so far back that it was about half-way between the hub and the back of the front wheel, were nothing like so fast as the 80-h.p. Richard-Brasier, the 90-h.p. Mercédès or the 100-h.p. Turcat-Méry. Cagno, who alternated between driving, with considerable verve, in races, and acting as chauffeur to the Queen Mother of Italy, surely an unsurpassed feat of versatility, was fourth for two laps before tyre troubles set him back, but Lancia never got higher than eighth, and finished in that position.
At the end of the season there came his one and only win, in the Florio Cup race over the Brescia circuit. But this was at the time a relatively unimportant race, and Lancia’s victory was not an altogether satisfactory one, as Teste, on a 90-h.p. Panhard et Levassor, actually made fastest time, and only lost the race, by a few seconds, by being penalised three minutes for taking on petrol in the control at Mantua. However, it was in 1905 that the real tragedy of Lancia as a racing driver began. The 110-h.p. F.I.A.T. of that year was a very different car from the 75-h.p. of 1904, fully able to compete with anything that could be set against it. We have already seen the sort of impression that Lancia as a driver made on Mr. Massac Buist during the Gordon Bennett race in the Auvergne. In sober fact, he covered the first lap of the difficult mountainous circuit in 1 hour 34 minutes 47 seconds, at 52.6 m.p.h.; throughout the race nobody else was able to get as low as 1 hour 40 minutes, and at half distance Lancia was leading by 13 minutes all but four seconds. But on the penultimate lap he went out with a stone through his “cooler,” Thery went on to win the race on his Richard-Brasier, and Nazzaro and Cagno, the other two F.I.A.T. drivers, as if to show the reliability of their cars when the Lancia hoodoo was not on them, finished second and third within just over a couple of minutes of each other.
In the Florio Cup race in September, the Italas were definitely faster than the F.I.A.T.s; either Fabry or Ceirano on one of them made the fastest lap, and Lancia finished third, having never been higher than that position. But the Vanderbilt Cup Race in October was a typical example of Lancia’s misfortunes. The race was over 10 laps of a circuit on Long Island, Lancia was easily fastest over the first lap, in 28 minutes 49 seconds; cut this time down on the second to 28 m. 81 s., on the third to 23 m. 25s.; and on the fourth lap set up the lap record in 23 m. 18 s., at 72.8 m.p.h. At the end of the seventh lap, he had established a lead of twenty minutes over Heath, who was running second on a Panhard. And at this point disaster stepped in, in typical Lancia manner. “During the eighth round,” says Gerald Rose, “he was run into from behind by Christie, and his back axle was so much damaged that he lost three quarters of an hour in repairs. This accident, much discussed after the race, seems to have been due to an error of judgment on Lancia’s part. Christie’s engine had been misfiring during most of the race, and his car was going slowly. Lancia was refilling at a supply station at Willets Avenue, and was just ready to start on when he heard the distinctive exhaust of the Christie car in the distance. Wishing to get off before Christie passed him — the American car was not easy to pass, as it swung considerably from side to side — he pulled out into the road and started away; but on this lap it happened that Christie had his engine running properly; and was going faster than in the earlier part of the race. Before the Italian had realised how fast his rival was travelling, the latter had reached him and failed to get clear; the Christie front hub cap hit Lancia’s back tyre, and the American car shot into the air, breaking both back wheels in the fall. The blow damaged Lancia’s car and for the second time he lost a race which was in his hands.”
The 1906 season opened with the Targa Florio for “stock cars,” and in it Lancia started alone on a F.I.A.T., which does not appear to have been as fast as the Italas. Nevertheless he was second at the end of the first lap, fell back on the second with a leaking petrol tank, and went out on the third with a cracked cylinder. His ill-fortune to date did not prevent his starting favourite in the first Grand Prix at Le Mans in June, but on this occasion he made one of his least typical performances. Although the F.I.A.T.s were obviously fast, and Nazzaro eventually finished second, Lancia was much less in the limelight than usual. On the first day of this two-day contest, Weillschott, the amateur driver of the third F.I.A.T., was faster than either Lancia or Nazzaro, and on the last lap, when he ran off the road, he was running third, while Lancia was no higher than ninth. It seems that he may not have been feeling his best, for on the second day he considered handing his car over to his mechanic. In the end he decided to carry on himself, and after a sound but unspectacular drive, finished fifth, which was the highest place he had ever occupied in the race. In the Vanderbilt Cup Race at the end of the season, too, nothing so spectacular happened as in 1905; Wagner on a Darracq led from start to finish, the fastest lap was put in by Tracy on a Locomobile, and Lancia finished second, having been in that position since the fourth of the ten laps.
Of the three big races in 1907, the Targa Florio was for cars with a maximum cylinder bore of 130 mm., the Kaiserpreis in Germany required a maximum engine capacity of 8 litres, and the Grand Prix was run on a fuel consumption basis; and under each of these several conditions, F.I.A.T. produced unquestionably the best car in its class. Here, surely, were conditions in which the brilliant Lancia must at last score a resounding victory. In the Targa Florio he started off by setting up a lap record, which remained unbroken, at 84 m.p.h., but on the second lap he lost ten minutes through some unspecified delay, and had to be content with second place behind Nazzaro. The Kaiserpreis was run in two eliminating races and a final, Lancia’s F.I.A.T. being alone in the first heat, with Nazzaro’s and Wagner’s in the second. Lancia won his heat quite comfortably, while Nazzaro and Wagner were first and second in theirs, but, rather unusually, although Lancia recorded the fastest lap in his heat, in 1 hour 26 minutes 17 seconds, Nazzaro was faster in his, with 1 h. 24 m. 10s. In the final, however, Lancia started off badly, being no higher than twenty-eighth at the end of the first round, and although after that he went faster and faster, until on his last lap he beat the lap record in 1 h. 21 m. 55 s., at 58.5 m.p.h., he was only able to finish sixth, while Nazzaro won as usual and Wagner was fifth.
In the Grand Prix, Lancia’s misfortunes are not so immediately apparent from the figures; he never held the lead, and he did not establish the lap record. And yet I believe that it was in this race that he experienced the keenest disappointment of his career. In those days of spaced starts and long courses, a driver might throughout a race see next to nothing of his closest rivals, but on this occasion it so happened that Duray on the Lorraine-Dietrich and Lancia on the F.I.A.T., while they were first and second on time respectively, were actually neck and neck on the circuit. The Lorraine, perhaps, was slightly the faster of the two, at least it was Duray who established the lap record, but for 200 miles the two cars raced round the Dieppe circuit wheel to wheel, while the crowd practically forgot that there were any other cars in the race. And then Lancia dropped back with an engine that was misfiring, Duray went out with transmission trouble, and Lancia broke his clutch. On this occasion, it is recorded, poor Lancia wept.
But Fate had not done with him yet. In the 1908 Targa Florio, rather surprisingly, he let Nazzaro make the fastest lap, at 86.2 m.p.h.., but at the end of the second round Lancia was leading, and then on the last lap he had tyre trouble, so that the race went to Trucco on the Isotta-Fraschini and Lancia was second. In the Grand Prix, the F.I.A.T. engines, which were of a new type, built to the 155 mm. bore limit, were suffering from teething troubles. Lancia retired at the end of the first lap, and his two team-mates quickly followed him. But by September, when the Florio Cup race was run, these troubles had been overcome, and Lancia started off in tremendous style, covering the second lap of 82.8 miles at the prodigious speed of 82.8 m.p.h., a record which remained unbroken throughout the race. For the first four of the ten laps he held the lead, and then he ran into trouble and finished fifth, leaving victory, as usual, to Nazzaro.
As far as I know, this was the last big race in which Lancia took part. Looking back over his career since that day in 1905 when he created such a tremendous impression in the Auvergne, we find that in four years he started in twelve major events. In five of these he put up the lap record, and in five he was at one time leading the race. Yet not once did he win. Moreover, there is no evidence that his driving methods were such that his car had no chance of going the full distance. As subsequent events were to prove, Lancia was an engineer as well as a driver, and engineers usually spare their cars too much rather than too little. Besides, in only four out of the twelve races did he fail to finish, and of these four, his failure in the 1905 Gordon-Bennett race was due to the mere misfortune of a holed radiator, while in the 1908 Grand Prix all three F.I.A.T.s fell out in the early stages. Nor is there any evidence that as a driver he could not stay the pace: in the Kaiserpreis, for example, his record lap was his last. One is left with the conclusion that Vincenzo Lancia was the most unlucky, as well as one of the most brilliant, drivers that motor racing has ever produced. But at least his career had its compensations. A good many racing drivers have turned manufacturer, but few have been as successful in this role as was Lancia, or as successful in such a satisfactory way, producing, from first to last, cars for the connoisseur. He was certainly much more successful than was Nazzaro, so lucky always as a driver, who gave up making cars in the end and went back to racing, whereupon he won the French Grand Prix for the second time, fifteen years after he had first done so. Much more successful, too, than Girardot, whose C.G.V. soon changed its name to Charron, whereupon even Charron sold his interest in it. One thing, however. Lancia, the manufacturer, was determined about throughout his career: he would never have anything to do with motor racing.