The Chance of a Lifetime...

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It must have been the dream of more than one schoolboy, surely, that a racing-car would come into the pits and, no driver being available to relieve the man who had just vacated its cockpit, he would be called upon to take it over and, of course, win the classic race in which it was competing? But dreams, by their very nature, are improbable, and this one could never become reality, because young boys are not encouraged to become instant racing drivers, and normally any change of declared driver can only be made at the discretion of the Stewards of the meeting, before a race starts; although, as we shall see, this latter requirement was not always adhered to.

But if such a schoolboy day-dream was impossible to realise, what of those who had never driven a Grand Prix car, but who, by the luck of unusual circumstances, suddenly, were able to do so? What you might call “the chance of lifetime”, or “opportunity knocks”. Many words could be written about littleknown drivers being signed-on to drive in important Grand Prix races in top-rank racing cars — to content myself with but one example, why was Torchy chosen by Louis Delage to line-up with the experienced drivers, Rene Thomas, Robert Benoist and Albert Divo, in his 2-litre V12 GP cars for the 1925 season? A short-lived choice, because unhappily Torchy was killed in the Spanish Grand Prix at San Sebastian. l am, however, concerned here, not of those hired before a race, but of where a person got his chance, more dramatically, without premeditation, while the race was actually in progress . . . How these opportunities came about also uncovers other matters of some interest. Louis Delage had commissioned M. Albert Lory to design for him the fabulous straight-eight supercharged GP cars to comply with the 1926 1 1/2-litre GP Formula, their complex engines able to produce a remarkable 110 bhp per litre at that stage of their development and by 1927 win the World Championship of Manufacturers.

This very fast team of beautifully-made Delage cars was not ready until the European Grand Prix of 1926, run at San Sebastian, their drivers nominated as Robert Benoist, Edmond Boulier and the former Amilcar exponent Morel. The veteran Louis Wagner was the reserve driver and the team was managed by Rene Thomas. Against a field of only six cars, the opponents being three Bugattis, it seemed certain that Delage would win, without much difficulty. Unfortunately, impressive as his new engine was, M. Lory had made a serious error of design in putting the exhaust pipe on the off-side and so close to the cockpit that this not only made conditions intolerably hot for the driver, but roasted his feet as well, and even tried to set fire to the dashboard. That the July day at San Sebastian when the race was run turned out to be very hot, with a scorching wind blowing, did nothing to alleviate this shortcoming…

When the race finally commenced, after trouble in starting the Hispano-Suiza pacecar, Jules Goux’s Bugatti went into the lead but by the second lap of this 45-lap road race Benoist had gone ahead, with his team-mates bringing up the rear of the field, Morel ahead of Boulier. But with only seven laps run, Benoist came into the pits. He took on petrol, oil and water and had some newspapers removed from the front of the radiator. But this was very early for replenishments and one wonders whether Benoist, in fact, had stopped to complain of the heat in the cockpit? Having resumed in fifth place, Benoist drove very fast, setting a lap record of 78.4mph for the difficult circuit, Morel now leading with Boulier third, behind Goux. It seemed all very satisfactory for the Delage team.

The picture soon changed, however. Morel, in the leading Delage, came to a stop at the pits, got out, and almost collapsed over the pit-counter. He was put on a stretcher and removed to hospital, with heat exhaustion and burnt feet. Reserve driver Wagner had presumably not expected to be called upon so soon, as he had to put on racing kit before he was ready to take over. While this was going on Benoist stopped as well, and having climbed out of the car, he supported himself against one of the pit uprights. He had driven a mere 150 miles of the 481 1/2-mile race . . . The gallant Robert returned to the car after a few minutes but was so exhausted that he got back into the pits and dropped down, and was given medical assistance. Goux’s Bugatti was now in the lead and Wagner had left in Morel’s Delage. The Spanish crowd, whose King had watched the start, looked on and the Frenchmen among them, it is said, began to call for Thomas. “Thomas, Thomas, Thomas”, was the cry, yet a French victory was a certainty in any case!

The middle-aged Rene Thomas, it was alleged, wasn’t anxious to take his place in the burning-hot cockpit and he took his time putting on a pair of white overalls, skull-cap and goggles, after which he examined the stationary car that a mechanic was working on, head down in the cockpit, legs in the air, presumably trying to see if the heat could somehow be released. (Thomas was to retire from the Delage team the following year to concentrate on increasing his considerable finances with his Rene Thomas spring steering wheel business). While he was delaying his baptism in this demanding and unpleasant new car he was unexpectedly relieved of the need to drive it, because over the pit-counter vaulted a young, bearded Frenchman, Robert Senechal. He ran to the car, begging Thomas to let him take it into the race, although he had never so much as sat in it, or, apparently, driven round the course in anything other than a touring-car. But opportunity had knocked and, permission granted, Senechal lost no time in realising what must have been the ambition of any enthusiast, to drive the latest Grand Prix car to a chance of victory in an important race . . .

Admittedly, Senechal was not a novice where racing was involved. He had driven cars of his own make in races for several years, was indeed due to do so again in five days’ time, in the 12-hour San Sebastian Touring Car Race (in which he was to come home third in the 1,100cc class in his Senechal, behind two of the tank-bodied Chenard-Walckers). But the opportunity to handle a car of more than four times the power he was used to, and a French one at that, must have seemed a wonderful experience to the patriotic President of the Motorcycle Club de France. So, wearing an ordinary khaki suit. Senechal departed in the Benoist Delage. Great chance that it most have seemed to him, Senechal was only able to stand the heat in the Delage cockpit for a distance of some 64 miles, after which he came in and received attention to his feet. Wagner didn’t do even that well, stopping after a lap for gloves (or to demand thicker ones?), slowing to wave to his pit the next time round and coming in again after a total of about 32 miles, to be doused with cold water and take “restoratives”, which in France can mean anything from medicine to champagne!

It is interesting that with Morel, Benoist, Wagner and Senechal in trouble, and needing to “get out of the kitchen”, Boulier was less affected, carrying on for some 250 miles, in a ding-dong battle with Goux. Even he, however, eventually had to lie down behind the pits, exposing his blistered feet. His Delage was taken over by Morel, who had returned from receiving first aid; and, it seems, by Senechal in the later stages. Otherwise, it appeared that the Delage team had abandoned the race, two of their three cars stationary in the pits for over an hour. However, just after 1pm the wind veered, blowing from the sea, the temperature dropped, there was even a threat of rain, and the spirit of the Delage drivers revived. Benoist resumed in Morel’s car, and after a mechanic had cut slits in the cockpit sides, Wagner continued in the other Delage; it is a reminder of the length of these races of the vintage years that, even after this long pause, the Delage team was still a danger to the Bugattis.

Indeed, Benoist got a move on, with a new lap record of 78.8mph, to which Costantini responded with 81mph, Benoist then going fractionally quicker, Wagner then pulling out a lap at 81.7mph. Costantini led for much of the time, until he had trouble, and the many driver changes confused everyone, so that although Goux was the winner, at 70.4mph, the other placings have been in doubt ever since. But Senechal had realised his ambition of driving a top-rank French GP car with the great drivers of his time . . .

The next engagement for the Delage team was the British Grand Prix at Brooklands in August. It might have been expected that Lory would by then have cured the cockpit overheating problem, and two weeks before the English race The Autocar said “. . . the Delage people should be able to effect certain necessary modifications, and the cars should, therefore, be in excellent condition… Certainly, there is not much likelihood of the drivers being overcome by heat, as was the case in Spain, and in any event it would not be difficult to keep the cockpit at a reasonable temperature”. How wrong this was! The fact was that, although it has been stated that the former 2-litre V12 Delage GP cars were built in a matter of only 120 days, the three weeks between the two races was insufficient time for Lory to reverse the cylinder block of his 1926 racing car, replace the two superchargers on the near-side with a single blower at the front of the engine, and enlarge the cockpit, which transformed it for the 1927 season, enabling Benoist to win four Grands Prix for Delage.

For this British GP over an artificial road-course on Brooklands Track the Delage drivers, entered by M. Martel of Automobiles Delage, were announced as Wagner, Benoist and Boulier, but at the last moment Boulier was replaced by Senechal, which, while it was excellent that the volunteer Frenchman had been given this high honour, seemed very unfair to Boulier, after his fine drive at San Sebastian.

I now come to the second of the men for whom opportunity was to knock, namely Andre Dubonnet, of the famous French aperitif family. Some reports say he had already been nominated as the reserve Delage driver but it seems more likely that Boulier would have assumed that position, unless he was offended by having to give up his place to Senechal and had refused to cross the Channel. In which case, I suspect that Dubonnet just hung about, hoping to get a drive. This extremely enthusiastic and wealthy Frenchman cannot, I admit, be classed as a novice getting his first chance in a proper race. He had been taken into the Duesenburg team for the 1921 French GP at Le Mans, after one of their drivers had been injured in practice, paying, it was said, £1,000 in 1921 money, a vast sum, for the privilege, after losing his chance of driving for the STD team when most of their entries were withdrawn. He proved his worth by finishing 4th, behind Murphy’s, winning Duesenberg and the two Ballots, in this very tough race. After that, Dubonnet did very well in long-distance sports car races in his Hispano-Suiza, and he even ran this unsuitable car in the 1924 Targa Florio, coming in 6th. The fact is that Dubonnet would have liked to have driven a real racing car of the same nationality as his own, and I think that he saw a possible chance of this, at Brooklands in 1926.

This RAC British GP has been dismissed by present-day writers as pathetic, with only nine starters. But at the time there was the excitement for most of the spectators of seeing for the first time the very latest Deluge and Talbot GP cars, at their famous, favourite Track; and was not Campbell’s Bugatti a likely winner in the closing laps, and the Halford Special third at half-distance? So I think I was justified in terming this “a great day”, in my Brooklands book — and remember, that year’s French Grand Prix was contested by three Bugattis only . . . .

Again, it looked as if the Delage team must win this one, with the new Talbots soon in dire trouble, Moriceau’s going out early with a broken front axle. Then the Deluge cockpits began to heat up, as before, the trouble now said to be intensified by the compulsory Brooklands’ silencers, and probably the longer periods when the cars were running at full speed on this circuit accentuated the problem. Anyway, although Divo’s Talbot led until it began to mis-fire, and then Segrave took up this position in the other remaining Talbot, Benoist sat close behind, biding his time. Wagner, though, had not only misfiring to contend with, but the Deluge’s exhaust-pipe was setting fire to the bodywork and sending flames into the cockpit, and his feet were being roasted. After four pit-stops in six laps, he wisely retired. When Segrave stopped for tyres Benoist took up the lead, and Senechal, in a typically French leather motorcycle helmet, driving wildly in his first full race in one of the fabulous Delage cars, was third.

As in today’s F1 races, brakes were playing an important part, the servo-braking of the Delage cars enabling their drivers to come later into the sand-bank turns and then take these less quickly than the Talbots. Segrave’s brakes were, in fact, fast becoming nearly useless, and Benoist had such a lead that a tyre change did not lose it, and before the Talbot retired Senechal was in second place. Then the flames from the burnt-through exhaust pipe began to play on the dashboard and controls of Benoist’s car, and the same was happening to Senechal’s Delage, and his accelerator had also burned holes in his shoe. Wagner took over, Senechal immersing his feet in a bath of water. Benoist tried to repair the exhaust-pipe, twice, coming in again two laps after his second stop.

Dubonnet now vaulted over the pit-counter and took the Benoist Delage away. He was wearing a blue lounge-suit and a beret, and the fact that he was not in overalls, and that it wasn’t until the 90th lap of this 110-lap, 285-mile race that he took over proves, it seems, that he was a volunteer driver. But at last he was now able to drive for France in a Grand Prix. He must have found the engine of the Delage, able to run up to over 8,900rnm (actually, they didn’t go beyond 6,000rpm at Brooklands) different from the 1921 Duesenberg power-unit that peaked at only 4,250rpm and drove through a three-speed instead of a five-speed gearbox. Incidentally, that Dubonnet had not done a single practice-lap surely goes to endorse my theory that he was not the Delage team’s nominated reserve driver.

Wagner stopped again to douse his sore feet but Dubonnet went eagerly about the task of trying to catch Campbell’s Bugatti, although he, too, was suffering like the rest of the Delage drivers in their “travelling ovens”. The winners were Senechal and Wagner, at 71.61mph, Campbell second, Benoist and Dubonnet third. At the end of the race the Delage drivers had to be lifted from the cars and Benoist declared that, unless they were altered, he would not drive one again.

It had been an important event for Delage, Louis Delage himself congratulating the winners as champagne was poured over the veteran Wagner’s head; which reminds one that nothing is really quite new! J. Smith & Co., the British Delage agents, had an advertisement on the temporary bridge over the Finishing straight proclaming the make’s victory at San Sebastian in 1925, tactfully ignoring the happenings there three weeks earlier . . .

Before these two 1926 races cars had never made so many pit-stops for such an unusual reason. It was this that caused the many driver changes, and that these were not approved of was seen when the A.I.A.C.R. disqualified Delage from the Spanish race for a time, while after the RAC Grand Prix Col. Lindsay Lloyd, Clerk of the Course at Brooklands, issued the following terse statement: “All betting in future will be on car numbers . . . the names of the drivers will in no way govern betting”!

So ended a chance for two drivers to appear in a GP race at very short notice, a happening which could never occur in today’s highly organised racing, but which provides a pleasing look-back to the vintage years. And it is nice to be able to record that after this 1926 Grand Prix Andre Dobonnet became a member of the Bugatti works team. WB