Ardennes' night

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One round-the-clock race in France has garnered all the attention, but it is not the only such event. Bill Boddy recalls those other continental 24-hour races, at Spa-Francorchamps

The Le Mans 24-hour race is one of the most important dates in the motorsport calendar. From the inaugural event in 1923 it was intended to display and test not only the stamina of road-equipped cars and their starting, lighting and tyres, but even their all-weather equipment, for hoods had to be erected for the opening laps.

When John Duff’s Bentley won outright in 1924, leading to those great Bentley years of ’27 to ’30, interest here soared. Since those far-distant days, this ambitious and punishing event has become a race not to miss. But while it is the leader of its kind, it is by no means the only significant 24-hour event.

There had been round-the-clock racing prior to this, starting in 1904 on dirt or board tracks in America, but these had little impact here. There was, however, a French 24-hour contest before Le Mans, the Bol d’Or, which ran from 1922; but it was for those odd cyclecars and early light cars to which the French were particularly partial. It was Belgium which was prompt to follow the Le Mans type of sportscar marathons.

The first Spa 24-hour event was held a month after the second Le Mans race, in July 1924. It was not exactly a copy of the French contest but it was to become almost as interesting. However, it was some time before it attracted much attention from race followers here, nor was it so well reported.

Called the Belgian Grand Prix although a sportscar affair, it was run over the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, which was to become well-liked by most drivers even though it was difficult and dangerous. This was particularly true when rain fell over one part of it but the road was dry elsewhere, which caused Dick Seaman’s sad accident in the (real) Belgian GP of 1939, in a W154 Mercedes-Benz.

Back to the more sober Spa occasion of 1924. The winning car was a 2-litre Bignan driven by Springuel and Becquet, which averaged 48.7mph, and covered a distance of 1168 miles. The British press was pleased to point out that this was 5mph slower and 112 miles below that which the 3-litre Bentley had achieved at Le Mans that year. But they had more experience perhaps than the Spa-race drivers and their car a litre more poke.

Second place went to the Chenard et Walcker of Lagache and Pisart. Another Bignan was doing better but ran off the road and, having been pushed back thereon, was disqualified. The 3-litre class win went to a Model T Ford Speedsport, the 1.5-litre division to Colomb and Balard (Cone La Licome), from a Chenard et Walcker and another La Licome. The 1100cc class went to an Amilcar, with a Salmson second, another Amilcar third, and the Team Prize, the King’s Cup, went to a trio of little Citroens.

By 1925, the Spa 24 was becoming established, with 45 starters, against 49 at Le Mans. However, there was some raising of eyebrows at its title of the Belgian Grand Prix, as suggesting it was for real racing cars. However, when a true Belgian GP was introduced in ’25, using the same Francorchamps circuit (winner Antonio Ascari in a P2 Alfa Romeo, 74.56mph for 503 miles), the supporting event was renamed the Belgian Touring Car Grand Prix. No British cars competed, but there was a rare piece of history — John Duff shared a Belgian Imperia with Bruyere.

The race was faster now, with 750cc and over-3-litre classes. It was won by a Chenard et Walcker, conducted by Lagache and Leonard, at 56.6mph. Second were de Courcelles and Rossignol in a Lorraine Dietrich, an Excelsior third. Two Nagents were first and second in the 3-litre class and the 2-litre class was won by a Bignan, that beat a Ballot. FNs had a 1-2-3 finish in the 1.5-litre category. Imperias were first and second in the 1100cc class, Senechal third on a solo drive in a car of his own make, Dore third in the 750cc class (car unnamed) and Duff’s Imperia was fourth. A Ballot might have won had it not refused to restart after a fuel stop 37 miles from possible victory. Retirements included a Chenard et Walcker when a stone damaged its oil tank, and a Georges Irat was forced off the road into a tree. The Amilcar Sixes had plug problems and an over-excited mechanic poured water into the fuel tank of a Bignan.

In 1926, there were 29 starters, compared to 41 at Le Mans; some Le Mans contenders, such as Rigal, Lagache, Leonard, de Zuniga, Rost and Laly, had discovered this other 24-hour race. As before, this Belgian enduro was a class contest, with the top one now for cars of over three litres. On the famous circuit, through Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot, more testing even than Le Mans, the best performance was that of the 4-litre Peugeot handled by Andre Boillot and Louis Rigal, which covered 1425.5 miles, some 47 more than the winner had accomplished in ’25, at an average speed of 59.4mph. The sleeve-valve Peugeot they drove had competed at Le Mans. It was now challenged by the big six-cylinder Excelsior of Dils and Caere’s, attempting to uphold national honour but failing to do so by a mere 14.3 miles.

Another car which was ‘fresh’ from Le Mans was the four-cylinder Chenard et Walcker of Lagache and Leonard, which won the 1100cc class with a distance of 1388.7 miles, regarded as perhaps the best performance of all. In the 1.5-litre class, Georges and de Grady, sharing a Belgian FN, did only 8.2 miles less and, with two more of their kind, FN took the King’s Cup. The 2-litre class went to Rost and Burie in a Georges hat in spite of water pump problems, this being another car direct from that year’s Le Mans race. Another George Irat was second, a Theophile-Schneider third.

Experience probably helped, as Laly, with Flohot, took an Aries to first place in the 3-litre class, ahead of a Buick. Lighting problems held back Derny and Rossi, but they got their Georges Irat its class second place. In the class for small cars, a Chenard et Walcker and a Salmson filled second and third positions.

So Andre Boillot, brother of the great Georges who had gained Peugeot such convincing victories in the French GPs of 1912-13 and in the 1913 Coupe de L’Auto, had beaten a hard-driven Ballot — that later overturned.

During the night there were 10 retirements: a Locomobile, La Licorne, Senechal, a couple of Ceiranos, a Mathis and a Salmson driven by veteran Wagner, and Serre. The second Peugeot had for a long time been almost alongside the winning one, an exhibition of French supremacy, but it stopped for good on Sunday morning with mechanical ailments. Previously, Englebert tyres had been favoured, but in 1926 Dunlops were used on the winning Peugeot, the Aries and the Georges Irats.

The 1927 race was rather disappointing for those interested mainly in the faster cars, because there was only one finisher among them, namely the Excelsior of Robert Senechal and the capable Caerels. A triumph for Belgium but a hollow one, at an average speed of 57.12mph, 2.38mph slower than the convincing victory of the far smaller-engined Peugeot the previous year.

Fortunately for the race’s reputation, all was normal in 1928. This time 30 cars lined up for the classic Le Mans start, with the drivers sprinting across the road to get the engines going on the starter motors. All, that is, except an Auburn which collided with a Chrysler as they started to move, both having to cease until their damaged mudguards and headlamps had been repaired, to comply with the regulations. As before, the grandstand overlooking all this was brilliantly lit and powerful lamps outlined the pits. Those Britishers who made the journey to Spa must have been disappointed that Sir Henry Birkin’s 4.5-litre Bentley had been withdrawn, as it was being prepared for Nurburg where it was the only unsupercharged car to finish, and one of the Alfa Romeos had also defaulted.

Italy was making an impressive bid for an outright win, to make up for the French having banned the supercharged 1.5-litre Alfa Romeos from running at Le Mans as their bodywork was found not quite to comply with the required measurements. It worked. The Russian driver Ivanowski and the Italian Marinoni came home first, in spite of their car’s modest engine capacity, 145 miles ahead of the first of two American Chryslers, setting a new record of 1532 miles, at an impressive 63.80mph. They had broken the previous record distance by 105 miles, and had obviously won also the 1.5-litre class, from a Bugatti and a Chenard et Walcker. The Chryslers, five in all, two of them 1927 Le Mans runners, had dominated the 3-litre class, a Georges Irat took the 2-litre section, and an 1100cc Aries did splendidly to finish a place ahead of another 2-litre Georges Irat, and a 750cc Senechal, little known in England, was last of the 15 placed finishers, with 867.3 miles completed.

It had been an eventful and thus interesting struggle, calling for more skill than at Le Mans. Quite early the BNC broke a valve. Both drivers were permitted to work on it at Spa, but in the end they gave up; a supercharger had been added since it ran in the French race, which may have exacerbated the trouble. One Bugatti went out, but after four hours a s/c Bugatti had the lead, Ivanowski’s Alfa Romeo in hot pursuit. As darkness began to close in the Alfa took the lead, never to lose it. The challenging Bugatti wore its tyres out, and a different make was hastily found and fitted — shades of the current tyre war! The second Alfa succumbed to what was quoted as broken piston rings.

The next excitement was a fire which commenced after the tyre-consuming Bugatti was refuelled, possibly from a leaking tank — odd that 2.3 Bugattis had been burnt out in the TT and at Phoenix Park and now this. Was the back axle too close to the tank and the reversed quarter-elliptic springs difficult to damp, leading to contact? — no doubt the BOC will tell me. The Spa Bugatti was, like Campbell’s at Ulster, completely destroyed, and soon afterwards another Bugatti was likewise burnt out, in the Spa race. Another Bugatti retired when its cylinder-block bolts broke, leaving only a slow 1.5-litre one circulating.

Daylight having returned, this did not prevent Duboid’s Auburn ramming a Georges Irat which was wrecked (shades of today’s F1), the American car’s driver however being badly injured, as the car hit a tree. (No trees anymore!) The fourth-placed Georges Irat lost second place to a Chrysler when a thrown tyre tread set up so much vibration that it had to come into the pits with a broken water connection. Marinoni was frequently given the ‘Slow’ signal but ignored it. Alfa enthusiasts may care to know that the winning car had no tyre (Dunlop) or brake trouble and only once was its bonnet opened for a very brief inspection.

After the fine show by Alfa Romeo in 1928, the following year’s race was dominated by the Italian cars, the first three places taken by the cars from Milan. It was not entirely a victory for the 1750cc cars because the private entry of a 1.5-litre version by recordman George Eyston and Ivanowski came home in second place, a notable achievement against such opposition.

Further interest was lent by the appearance of a team of well-contrived Minervas from Antwerp, with Knight double-sleeve-valve engines, a hopeful sign for a Belgian victory. Indeed, they split the Alfa team, de Lettenherve’s behind Marinoni’s Alfa Romeo, co-driven by the great Robert Benoist. Then came rain, and this Minerva rolled into a ditch, killing a gendarme.

It was a wet night and a race of many disasters. Typical of the Spa circuit, rain fell only in parts and the tarred, cambered road became very slippery. Charlier’s Bugatti hit a tree and he was killed. Then the leading Minerva crashed, killing another gendarme, yet it continued until it had a second accident. Another Minerva ditched, then another, and a Bugatti did likewise, also one of the Chryslers. An Amilcar and a Licorne were soon out, as was one of the SCAPs for taking over an hour at the pits, and one of the Lancias left the road when in fourth place. Eyston was faster than Marinoni in the winning Alfa, so led until Benoist took over. Thus this testing race resulted in the Benoist/Marinoni Alfa winning at 63.02mph from Eyston’s smaller-engined one, 17 miles behind that of the 1927 winner, the team Alfa of Rigal and Zehender in third place, 95 miles in arrears. Next came two 3-litre Lancias and two 5-litre Chryslers, with 19 finishers, a BNC taking the 1100cc class.

Alfa Romeos repeated the 1929 triumph in ’30, when the factory team was 1-2-3, Marinoni making up for his slower driving than Benoist’s in ’29 by winning at 68.50mph, in spite of doing a stint of six hours after his partner Pietro Ghersi, the motorcycle racer, hurt a knee falling in the pits. Ivanowski/Cortese were second, Canavesi/Zehender third.

My preference is for the era up to 1930, the end of the ‘vintage’ period. But the Spa 24 Hours continued — this year it was won by a Porsche 911— and in ’31, a Mercedes beat the Alfa Romeos, followed by another Alfa 1-2-3 in ’32, Howe/Birkin finishing third, and again in ’33. And in the first post-war race, 1948, Horsfall/Johnson gave Aston Martin a very famous victory.