The world titles time forgot

Silverstone hosted the first world championship motor race and Vanwall became the inaugural world champion constructor in 1958, right? Wrong. One of those ‘facts’ is 4000 miles wide of the mark and the other is out by 33 years…  | writer Paul Fearnley

The oversight is understandable and stems from back in the day. It’s debatable whether Philadelphia’s Pete DePaolo, Duesenberg’s 100mph winner of that landmark Indy 500, knew or cared about the world championship, and though the title carried more weight – and a 100,000F prize fund – in Europe, it failed roundly for reasons both in and out of its control. Scheduled to run until 1930, it was moribund by 1928 – no awards were made thereafter – and ‘replaced’ in 1931 by a European championship – for drivers. 

Yet its premise held promise when debated in October 1923. Grand Prix racing was consolidating. Increasingly ambitious and financially secure manufacturers were attracted by its improving-the-breed image and consistency of regulation: the 2-litre formula had just completed its second season and was set to continue. By August 1924, Alfa Romeo’s trio – fourth man Enzo Ferrari wimped out – was joined at Lyon for the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France by multi-car teams from Bugatti, Delage, Fiat, Rolland-Pilain and Sunbeam, plus a privateer Miller from America. The race was a thriller – and a high point. 

The world championship arrived a year too late. Its organisers were soon meddling unwisely with GP racing’s regulations. And then the global economy collapsed.

The idea had been pushed through by the Italian delegation of the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR) – Paris-based forerunner of the FIA – and announced, in a low-key and muddled fashion, early in 1925. The new series was to be for manufacturers only and consist of four races of no less than 800km: America, Belgium – via the European GP at Spa-Francorchamps – France and Italy were in; Spain and Britain – a 500-mile race at Brooklands was mooted – were out. 

America’s inclusion was deemed sufficiently important for rules to be bent. Its in-bred oval-racing thoroughbreds conformed neither to the demand for two seats – made despite Europe’s recent ban on riding mechanics – within an 80cm-wide cockpit, nor the 650kg unladen minimum. That the cars were 2-litres – and had been since 1923 – was enough.

That was insufficient, however, to persuade European racers to cross the Atlantic. Indy’s general manager ‘Pop’ Myers did, in an attempt to rouse support, only to be politely rebuffed. Italy’s Pietro Bordino was the 500’s lone European starter in May. With extended help from French relief driver Antoine Mourre, the Turinese finished 10th in the privateer single-seater Fiat that he’d campaigned in America towards the end of 1924.

The Commission Sportive Internationale, the AIACR’s sporting arm founded in 1922, had anticipated this inertia by allowing one score to be dropped. Attendance at the Monza world finale in September was compulsory, however, as was a manufacturer’s participation at its home GP… Only Alfa Romeo and Delage arrived at Spa in June; the Sunbeams, arguably the fastest cars of 1924, weren’t yet ready, and several other marques scratched.

Indy had been exciting, DePaolo making a late charge from fifth place after having blistered hands bandaged and resuming from relief driver Norm Batten. Had fatigued veteran rival Dave Lewis not overshot his pit,
a bleary and brake-less blunder that caused him another slow lap before handing over to Bennett Hill, victory might have gone to Miller’s ‘Junior 8’, the first front-wheel-drive car to contest the race. Hill unlapped himself after a dice with an apparently briefly rattled DePaolo but had to settle for second place.

Spa was a bust. Three of the complex V12 Delage 2LCVs, now featuring twin superchargers, retired within six (of 54) laps: a leaking fuel tank, failed ignition and fiery crash the reasons for their demise. The fourth was sidelined by valve trouble just beyond half-distance. Though Alfa Romeo’s enjoyment of a picnic at a subsequent pitstop was an exaggeration, it was indicative of a 1-2 result so overwhelming that there wasn’t a 3. Updated by designer Vittorio Jano to benefit from larger drum brakes and increased power, thanks to improved carburetion from its supercharged straight-eight, Alfa’s P2 was superior to its French rival in all respects bar outright power, and feisty Antonio Ascari, forerunner to Tazio Nuvolari, beat team-mate Giuseppe Campari
by almost 22 minutes.

More was expected of the GP de l’ACF in July. Held for the first time at the purpose-built Montlhéry circuit near Paris, its entry was boosted to 14 by three Sunbeams and five nimble but unsupercharged and therefore underpowered Bugatti Type 35s. The P2, however, was still the car to beat. Hence the strained atmosphere when Campari was given preference by Alfa Romeo. Some reports indicate that he benefited from its lightest car, others that he was awarded its best grid position, an honour usually reserved for the number one driver. 

With a point to prove, Ascari roared into a commanding lead and ignored entreaties to slow, even when rain began to fall. He lost control on lap 23 (of 80) and became fatally entangled in the paling fence that lined the circuit and about which he had complained to the organisers. The championship had lost its form racer. Though Delage’s 1-2 – led by the car shared by Robert Benoist and Albert Divo – rang hollow in the aftermath of Alfa Romeo’s withdrawal, it set up a thrilling finale. 

The scoring system caused confusion then as it does today. Awarded only to the first car from each manufacturer to finish, points were dished out as follows: one for a win, two for second, three for third, four for completing a full distance, five for a retirement, six for a no-show. Alfa Romeo and Delage were tied on six. At which point the latter dropped its bombshell: it would be contesting – and no doubt dominating – Spain’s non-championship San Sebastián GP rather than the world championship finale. Politics!

Would Duesenberg – one point adrift – save the day? Unlikely. Not only had its disappointed hosts treated it unforgivably badly in the aftermath of a surprise but well-deserved victory in the 1921 French GP at Le Mans, but also founding brothers Fred and Augie had lost financial control of the family firm in 1924. What’s more, the American Automobile Association had until now banned drivers contesting its national championship from competing in Europe, for no reason other than its patrician rival, the Automobile Club of America, holding sway within the AIACR. Yet the rumour that DePaolo would be on the grid at Monza refused to fade.

Two centre-seat Duesenbergs, cockpits widened to ‘comply’, were shipped to Europe, but DePaolo’s was not among them; he had no wish to risk damaging it with the AAA title within his grasp. Driven by Tommy Milton, a two-time Indy winner with one working eye, and AJ ‘Peter’ Kreis, they would join a motley grid that included a couple of cars from Diatto, forerunner to Maserati, and the sleeve-valve Guyot Speciale that, in truth, was hardly special. Eight voiturettes – five Bugattis, two Chiribiri and Englishman Ernest Elridge’s Anzani-engined, ahem, Special – had been invited also, ostensibly to prepare for the 1.5-litre GP formula of 1926 but in reality to bolster the field. Clear favourite Alfa Romeo entered three P2s – one of which was to be driven by DePaolo. Ascari’s ‘replacement’ might have been Bianchi motorbike ace Nuvolari had he not crashed in testing at Monza and landed himself in hospital.

The GP was held over 80 laps of the 6.2-mile layout that combined Monza’s road circuit with its gently banked speed-bowl. The latter was familiar territory – albeit attacked clockwise – to the Americans, who put up a good show in front of an increasingly concerned 140,000 crowd, an expectant Benito Mussolini among them. Should Duesenberg win and Alfa Romeo finish second, a 200km tie-breaker was scheduled for two days later. Kreis got carried away, however, and crashed on the third lap while battling Campari for the lead, but Milton, equally fierce and more calculating, proved a formidable and doughty opponent. He led, ahead of DePaolo, for a time from lap 30 before losing positions while a fractured oil pipe was repaired. He’d also been stuck in top gear from almost the start of the race and yet soldiered on to finish fourth. 

Thirty-two minutes up the road was the victorious P2 of Tuscan nobleman Count Gastone Brilli-Peri, a former bicycle and motorbike dicer with a permanently scarred face to prove it. Campari was second, ‘Meo’ Costantini’s Bugatti Type 39 an impressive third and DePaolo, slowed by a carburetion problem, fifth. Alfa Romeo promptly and proudly added an encircling laurel wreath to its badge. This survived in simplified form after World War II before being removed in the 1980s, its meaning lost long ago in the mists.

The world championship struggled on in straitened circumstances for two more seasons. Belgium was dropped, Spain included, and Britain received its first GP. Indy continued to bend the rules – bar adopting the 1.5-litre formula – and fail to attract Europe’s big names. At least its 500 had a healthy grid of 28. The French GP of 1926 ‘boasted’ a field of three, all Bugattis. The European GP in Spain featured six cars – three Bugs versus three Delages – as did the Italian GP, where both Maseratis were sidelined within five laps. Bugatti took the title. No big deal.

The small-grids theme continued in 1927 – to the verge of unsustainability – but at least Delage produced a truly great GP car, albeit at deleterious financial cost. With its cylinder head turned through 180 degrees so that its exhausts no longer fried the drivers’ feet, the Type 15-S-8 won all four rounds in Europe, with Benoist at its wheel each time. In modified form, this design would still be winning important international races long after the world championship had folded.

The AIACR remained protective of its baby, however, and announced a new, cheaper formula – unrestricted engine capacity and a sliding weight scale – for an ambitious seven-round championship in 1928. No cars were built specifically for it and only two races complied. There was more tinkering for 1929: a fuel consumption formula of 14kg per 100km for cars of at least 900kg. Again only two races complied. Following another regulation tweak, just one bothered to do so in 1930. 

Ignored by race organisers desperate to stay out of the red, the governing body was losing its grip. Eventually it capitulated – or caught the free-and-easy Formule Libre mood, depending on your viewpoint – and threw the doors wide: the major GPs of 1931 were to last 10 hours and accept two-seater cars of any capacity. For 1932, race duration and the number of seats were halved. America, meanwhile, adopted the ‘Junk Formula’. Conceived before the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and designed to encourage manufacturers back to the sport, it flunked the latter ambition but its cost-cutting allowed Indy to sail through the Great Depression with grids of 40-plus. 

Some races continued to possess more kudos than others but generally the sport needed to cast itself wide. Alfa Romeo felt sufficiently encouraged to join Bugatti in building suitable machinery using platform engineering methods, and a long line of wealthy wannabes queued to buy and race their cars. 

No longer improving the breed, necessarily – or even feeling the need to be seen to be doing so – racing had become an escape, pure and simple, its top drivers the heroes of the hour, upon whose success and popularity manufacturers based cheaper and increasingly effective marketing strategies. 

These were the roots and networks that would allow a world championship – for drivers initially – to flourish when finally it
was relaunched in May 1950: at an ex-WWII bomber base in Northants.