Bill Boddy

Did stealth tactics bring Segrave a ‘200’ victory?

Motor racing has produced many curious happenings. But none more so than how Segrave won the 1921 200 Mile Race at Brooklands. That is, if you agree with the account in that excellent biography of this great driver by the late Cyril Posthumous (Sir Henry Segrave, Batsford, 1961), who was a conscientious historian and who, I believe, had the help of Segrave’s family.

His story is that having been deprived of a promised win by devious Rene Thomas in a previous race when he was driving for the STD Sunbeam/Talbot team, Kenelm Lee Guinness was promised by Louis Coatalen that, if all went to plan, he should win the 1921 JCC 200, in one of the three non-s/c 1.5-litre ‘Invincible’ Talbot-Darracqs, which Segrave and Malcolm Campbell were also driving. But Segrave, as the ‘new boy’, was anxious to gain attention, and did so, apparently, by stealth. The story has it that Segrave got to Brooklands at 6am on race-day, took his wife Doris up the Members’ Hill beside the banking, and left her in their car, with coffee and sandwiches, and his blue handkerchief. She was to wave this when he had outpaced KLG by almost a lap, thus leading but with KLG’s T-D ahead of his, so that Guinness would think he was in first place.

The race started at noon, the cars in four rows, their positions decided by ballot, Segrave in the second row, Campbell in the third, Lee Guinness in the last. With many much slower cars to overtake, it is possible that KLG did not see anything of Segrave for some time, if the latter raced away, regardless of cold engine oil, which reduced maximum revs by 400rpm for a lap. Segrave said he saw KLC once and Campbell not at all.

If this was so throughout the race, the order would be Segrave first, but with Lee Guinness eventually appearing to be first on the Track. This must have confused those studying the scoreboards!

One has to allow also that Lee Guinness might have been surprised not to have seen Segrave’s sister car, which to win he had to overtake. But he may have thought that, with both cars lapping at about 90mph, Segrave would be told to ease up before the race ended to give KLG his promised first place.

But only towards the closing stages of this 200 did KLG’s pit speed him up, too late to catch Segrave but still ensuring an impressive Talbot-Darracq 1-2-3 finish, which was achieved even though Campbell had lost a tyre at 90mph, delaying him by nearly 4min while steering skilfully to his pit and stopping for a replacement, and so losing second place. Could the pit staff have been siding with the newer driver? All very dramatic.

Segrave won by 5.8sec from KLG, and then did four extra, faster laps, perhaps to avoid a confrontation with KLG, who was said to have been telling Mrs Segrave that he thought he had won. She who had willingly waited for well over six hours on the hill alone, because otherwise the plot would have been blown – I wonder she kept awake waving her husband’s hanky, which he presumably managed to see while driving a fast light car at some 100mph on a crowded track…

Those extra laps cannot have pleased Segrave’s riding mechanic Moriceau who, a few laps before the finish proper, had suffered a castor-oil bath when a pipe broke.

All the race reports I have read say nothing of Lee Guinness being ahead of Segrave; in fact, they give the impression that all three Talbot-Darracqs were running close together after six laps. Segrave drove T-D I, Campbell T-D II, KLG T-D III, which might suggest that no particular finish-order was planned.

Interviewed soon afterwards, and at a dinner at the Criterion later that evening, there is no mention of Lee Guinness making any reference to not winning.

For mathematically proficient readers, after 18 of the 73 laps, Segrave was 2min 14sec ahead of KLG; by 37 laps, KLG was second, 47sec in arrears; at 54 laps, the gap was 44sec. Segrave averaged 88.82mph.

So what really happened?

It’s a mystery to me…