Fangio's hero

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Fiercely patriotic and destined to be killed before the world truly appreciated his abilities, Jean-Pierre Wimille’s was a talent even Fangio looked up to. William Mearns recalls a great man

His father was a journalist and his son would, in time, be a poet. The motor racing fan can only rue the fact that Jean-Pierre Wimille was not allowed the time also to wield the pen: an autobiography would not only have shed light on one of the finest racing drivers who ever lived, but on a man whose interests and escapades were by no means confined simply to motorsport.

Wimille was born in Paris on 26 February 1908. His father, Auguste, was motoring correspondent for Le Petit Parisien, and racing luminaries were no stranger to the Wimille household. Jean-Pierre grew up with a love of cars (“I adore the song of the engine,” as he put it), but no real interest in racing; his dreams were full of sailing the world in the Merchant Navy.

National Service put paid to such childhood aspirations. He was sent to Morocco at the tail end of the Rif War and selected to be a staff driver. “For 14 months,” he said, “I was at liberty to practice on the desert tracks… driving flat out while I raced the powerful cars of the Sultan’s fleet.” Family friend WF Bradley noted that the previously wayward youngster returned from Africa, “quiet, calm, reserved, with a lot of hidden fire.” That fire raged strongest when he was at the wheel of a car, and he immediately immersed himself in organised racing.

His first ever race was the 1930 French Grand Prix, at Pau. Although he was forced to retire on the second lap after the supercharger blew on his Bugatti Type 37A voiturette, his audacity at making his debut at what was then considered the most prestigious event on the calendar is astonishing.

He next entered the Monte Carlo Rally with friend Marcel Lesurque, in a second-hand Lorraine Dietrich. Setting out from icy Stavanger (as did most other serious competitors), the duo completed the test of reliability and consistency only to find that the decider would be an obstacle course on the seafront. They were narrowly beaten into second place by one Donald Healey, but the previously unknown 21-year-old had made his mark, an opportunity his journalist father could not fail to seize upon.

The remainder of 1931 was spent contesting the European Grand Prix season, each race of ten hours duration, sharing a Type 51 Bugatti with fellow Parisian Jean Gaupillat.

For 1932, Gaupillat retained the Type 51 while Wimille acquired one of the new Type 54s. He achieved FTD with it at the La Turbie hillclimb at the end of March, before it failed him the following month in Tunisia. It was returned to Molsheim and he borrowed another Type 51 almost certainly from lady racer Madame Mareuse for the Oran GP in Algeria. It would be his first Grand Prix victory.

Despite Wimille’s desire to race and win in a French car, he appreciated the limitations of the superannuated Bugatti design and looked for the first, but by no means last, time towards Italy. In his new Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 Monza, he won first time out, at Nancy. Despite his initial successes, though, 1932 showed his driving to be fast but erratic. A series of lurid accidents prompted him to curb his excesses and refine his driving style, taking the great Achille Varzi as his role model.

Although 1933 brought no wins, his emergent maturity began to impress works teams and he was contracted by Bugatti for the 1934 season. This was, of course, the first season of the 750kg Formula, and the established teams were swept aside by the Mercedes and Auto Unions from Nazi Germany. Bugatti’s star drivers fled to other marques in pursuit of success, leaving Le Patron to rely on veteran Robert Benoist and his acolyte, Wimille.

The golden days may have been over for Bugatti, but the combined efforts of designer Jean Bugatti, driver Jean-Pierre Wimille and mechanic Robert Aumautre (all of a similar age, and great friends as well as dedicated team-workers) succeeded in spinning out the magic just a little longer than they had any right to expect. From parts still extant at Molsheim, Jean Bugatti created some astonishing specials. These he would drape with one of his economical and stylish body shells, creating stunning cars. Then they were handed to Wimille in the expectation that he would win races.

Wins came at the 1936 ACE Grand Prix came at (partnered by Sommer), and twice at Le Mans (with Benoist in 1937 and Veyron in 1939), in cars loosely related to the Type 57 road car. And the single-seat Type 59/50B won at Montlhery, and came a respectable second at the hillclimbs of La Turbie and Prescott. But all this would soon be turned on its head. In August 1939, Jean Bugatti died. The next month the world was at war.

Wimille, an experienced pilot who had flown to East London to take part in the 1936 South African GP, immediately signed up for the Armee de l’Air. But early French capitulation meant he did not see any action, returning to civvy boulevard in Paris.

It was under the occupation that he married the French ski champion Christiane ‘Cric’ de la Fressange.

Confined to Paris, deprived even of a driving permit, he found some freedom to begin work on plans for a revolutionary road-going saloon car. Among many innovations were a rear engine, all-round independent suspension and three seats abreast with the driver located centrally, a mere 50 years before the McLaren F1… Simultaneously, he was being touted as a potential Minister for Sport, and planned an abortive Bugatti assault on Indianapolis with Raymond Sommer.

As has already been documented in these pages, Bugatti teammate ‘Williams’ had formed an SOE network in Paris. After his capture by the Gestapo a new group, CLERGYMAN, rose from the ashes, headed by Robert Benoist. At Benoist’s request, Wimille and his wife were recruited by Bugatti secretary Stella Tayssedre, and in the months leading up to the Normandy landings the group collected weapons and ammunition dropped by the RAF so as to arm the volunteers of the Forces Francaises de l’Interieur.

Hours after D-Day, Benoist was captured in Paris and the remainder of the group were ambushed at the farmhouse meeting-spot. At the first sign that something was amiss, Wimille grabbed Cric and made to dive through the ground-floor window. He fled under gunfire while the petrified Cric remained rooted to the spot. The entire group, save Jean-Pierre who was by now hiding in a stream, were rounded up. Several — Benoist included — would die at the hands of the Nazis.

Wimille linked up with a column of Americans making their way to Paris. Cric, meanwhile, was imprisoned at Fresnes before being put on a train for Germany and a fate at best uncertain. Just out of Paris she escaped, and ultimately made her way to the house of friends, where she and her husband were reunited.

Wimille was back in the Armee de l’Air when the war ended, and was only granted permission for leave at the last minute so that he might take part in the first post-war Grand Prix. This was in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne on 9 September 1945. His late arrival meant his starting from the back of the grid, but the 4.7-litre Bugatti monoplace (the old Type 59/50B) was easily the most powerful car in the field, and he won convincingly.

The only works team to intimate a return to racing in 1946 was Alfa Corse, and Wimille was keen to capitalise on his brief pre-war flirtation with Portello. He would be the only foreign driver in a team of Italians. At St Cloud he failed to finish owing to atypical mechanical problems. Next, at Geneva, Wimille was unceremoniously punted off the track by (of all people) Tazio Nuvolari, while leading; he still managed to trail home in third.

Then came the Turin race, where Wimille set a blistering pace. He was leading team-mate Varzi by a country mile (and had notched up the fastest lap in the process) when his pits ordered him to let the Italian by. Legend has it that he came to a halt 200 metres before the line, and calmly waited for Varzi to come by before he took the flag. Afterwards, Wimille just shrugged and suggested that, “If you are not willing to respect team orders, you might as well remain independent.” Sadly, the opinion of Signor Angelo Daffonchio, of Tortona, has not been recorded: the Italian national lottery was linked to this race, and Signor Daffonchio had drawn the ticket corresponding to Wimille’s car. Although the second place earned him 5 million lire, the team orders had cost him another 20 million lire.

Over the next two years, Wimille drove six more races for Alfa Corse. The Alfa Romeo 158 was by far the best car of its epoch, and perhaps this superiority has conspired with the Fates to deny Wimille the fame he deserves: having spent the Thirties racing substandard Grand Prix cars, it is ironic that the majority of fine drivers after the war did not have suitable machinery to compete with him. An indication of his ability can be seen, however, in his performances against team-mates Varzi, Farina, Trossi and Sanesi. Of these six races for the team, he won five and ceded another certain victory to Count Trossi in the other.

With Alfa choosing to enter only the most prestigious races, Wimille was free to choose his mount for others. For 1946 this meant driving the 8-year-old Alfa 308 for the whimsically-named Ecurie Naphtra Course: he swept the board in national Formule Libre races for the team run by Argentine-born ‘Raph.’ In subsequent years he was lured to Amedee Gordini’s bijou and perennially underfunded Equipe, no doubt hoping to raise the profile of a French marque to pre-war levels.

Wimille invariably led races in the Gordini and, when the engine held, won a of races in 1947. In 1948 he won at the Rosario Grand Prix, part of the Argentine Temporada.

This series was inaugurated by the Automobil Club Argentino in order to introduce European-style racing to South America. The European stars were only too keen to winter in the New World, and local drivers appreciated the opportunity to drive against them. It was during these races that national hero Juan Manuel Fangio got his first opportunity to test a full-blooded Grand Prix car: in a Naphtra Course Maserati, under the tutelage of Wimille. The Frenchman recognised Fangio’s ability, and for many years the Argentine cited Wimille as his paragon.

Wimille returned to Argentina the following year, with every confidence that he could repeat his win at Rosario. Before that came the Palermo Grand Prix in Buenos Aires.

Practice started at 5.30 in the morning of 28 January 1949. Wimille drove some laps before stopping at the pits and, for the first time in his life, donned a crash helmet. The sight of the unruly crowds encroaching onto the track had disquieted him.

He did not complete his first fast lap. Approaching the Curva des Ombues, the Gordini spun and touched a straw bale. It launched into the air and smashed against a tree before falling to the ground. Wimille, unconscious, was rushed to the nearby Hospital Fernandez. Such were his injuries — a cracked skull and crushed chest — that he succumbed within minutes of admission.

Many possible causes of the accident have been suggested. The two most plausible are that he was momentarily blinded by the rising sun or (and this latter is the tenet held by his widow) that he was forced to take a wider line into the corner to avoid spectators who had spilled onto the track, and had skidded on the dusty surface.

In the months before his untimely death, Wimille’s thoughts had been turning towards retirement. What is certain is that it would not have been quiet: his road car was on the verge of entering mass production, he had discussed with `Raph’ the formation of an airfreight company, and there were still rumours persisting of an entrance into politics.

At his funeral, Jean-Pierre Wimille was posthumously awarded the Legion d’Honneur. The citation concludes, “his numerous victories and international reputation have immeasurably increased the prestige of France.” He would have wished no other epitaph.