The Forgotten Races – 1950 Belgian Grand Prix
Who’d bet on a slow old Talbot against Alfa’s works GP team? Raymond Sommer, that’s who. Andrew Frankel reports
What can you remember form the 1050 Grand Prix season? That Alfa-Romeo’s indomitable 158 won every single race? The miserable failure of the BRM V16? That Dr Giuseppe Farina was the first to earn the right to call himself World Champion? To be brutally honest, there’s not much else. Ferrari was a new entity and still spooling up to full strength while the brightness of the pre-war stars was undeniably on the wane; not one was destined to win a World Championship Grand Prix.
However, buried deep inside this decidedly inauspicious start to what became a billion-dollar business lies the 1950 Belgian Grand Prix. But even if you have a reference book it will need to be unusually thorough in content to hint at it significance. Farina’s Alfa Romeo claimed pole for the race at Spa, Fangio’s Alfa won it with that of Fagioli coming home 14 seconds later and well over two minutes ahead of anyone else. A race, it would seem, you could survive without seeing.
Even at the time, the significance of the race was simply missed even by those you might expect to pick up on an extraordinary, performance. Motor Sport, for instance, bequeathed just 31/4 lines of its July 1950 edition to coverage of the race…
But a great race it was, an incredible one even, not simply for what happened during its 35 laps but also because it has been attributed with writing Alfa Romeo’s death warrant in Formula One, something only an incredibly astute observer could have foreseen at the time. Someone like Enzo Ferrari.
When stitching together the pieces of this race, the first thing that might strike you as strange is that the hero of the piece drove neither for Alfa nor Ferrari in that race though, since first climbing aboard a Grand Prix car some 19 years earlier, he had been no stranger to either marque. Our man is Raymond Sommer, who first hit the headlines when he won Le Mans in 1932 and, by the time he lined up on the grid at Spa was known, depending on whom you spoke to, either as an man with more money than talent or one of the most underrated of them all.
His car was a Talbot-Lago T26C, with an underpowered six cylinder, 4 1/2-litre pushrod engine in a ludicrously overweight chassis. The dead reliable design worked well as a sportscar, a fact it proved by Rosier’s example which plodded around to victory at Le Mans that year, but as a Grand Prix machine to take on the might of Alfa Romeo? Perhaps the best that can be said of it was its simplicity and strength made it a favourite with privateers in search of a machine likely to make it to the end of the race.
Sommer, however, had other ideas. The fact we know this at all is a matter of simple and extraordinary luck. Of the 14 drivers who took the start that June day in 1950, just one is still alive. His name is Geoffrey Crossley who was competing in the second and last Grand Prix of his career in a Grand Prix Alta. The night before the race he had dinner with Raymond Sommer.
“He was an amazing fellow,” he says today, “and really very underrated these days. I’d say he was the quickest driver in Europe at the time. If he’d had an Alfa, he’d have proved it too.” In fact he already had done, almost invariably outpacing 1950 World Champion Farina when they were team-mates at Ferrari in 1948.
But though Sommer was not unknown in works driving seats, he was a privateer at heart. His personal wealth was such that he could drive for himself in pretty much whatever he liked and, it would seem, that his view of motor-racing was more as a more full-time recreation than conventional career.
To understand fully what he was up against that day at Spa, a brief comparison of Alfa’s 158 and Sommer’s private Talbot-Lago T26 is perhaps instructive. The Talbot weighed about 845kgs and possessed perhaps 245bhp from its engine which failed even to approach the specification of the three works T26s on the grid – all of which, incidentally, Sommer outqualified. The Alfa engine produced over 100bhp more to propel a car weighing 700kgs. In simple terms, the Talbot had rather less than 300bhp per tonne, the Alfas at least 500bhp per tonne. On the Masta straight, the time-keepers alleged the Alfas were pulling 203mph, though this was later modified to 193mph. Official figures for Sommer’s Talbot do not exist, but educated guess-work suggests it would not be likely to top 165mph between Malmedy and Stavelot.
On the fastest street circuit in Europe, the only remarkable thing about the 10-sec gap separating pole man Farina from the fifth-placed Sommer was that it was not considerably bigger.
Sommer, however, was not in the least fussed by this. The great man had a plan. To this day Geoffrey Crossley remembers vividly sitting across the dinner table from the great man as he sketched it all out on the back of a menu.
“He had it all thought out and he showed me. He said, ‘this is what I will do tomorrow. The Alfa Romeos will drive away at the start but I will do my utmost to stay with them. They will all have to stop twice for fuel and I will keep going. If I can keep up early on in the race, maybe I can take the lead. Maybe I can keep it too.’ Talk about easier said than done, but he very nearly did it.”
Compared to the strategies of the 1998 Ferrari Grand Prix team this might not sound like rocket science, but back in 1950 it almost caused one of the biggest upsets in racing history.
Alfa Romeo should perhaps have seen it coming; this was not the first time Sommer had tweaked the nose of its works team. As long ago as 1933 he gave Nuvolari one of the loudest wake-up calls of his glorious career. For the Marseilles Grand Prix at Miramas that year, Sommer entered his private Alfa Monza, on paper no match at all for the new monoposto Alfa Tipo B, let alone one with Nuvolari at the wheel. Even so, once Tazio had dealt with the chief Maserati opposition and was settled into a seemingly comfortable lead, Sommer crept up on him, overtook and led the race. Nuvolari, being Nuvolari, got him back in time to take the flag but not before Sommer had served notice that he was not to be underestimated in any car.
If Alfa Romeo took notice then, 17 years later, it had forgotten. At the flag, Fangio and Farina swept into the lead with only the Ferraris of Villoresi and Ascari interfering with the usual Alfa 1-2-3 procession. Within a lap, however, Ascari was out of contention having clouted a wheel on a kerb and Fagioli’s Alfa was ahead of Villoresi. The season’s status quo had returned.
Yet even if you knew neither the man nor his race plan, it would have been hard to ignore Sommer whom, despite an almost ludicrous power advantage, Villoresi seemed quite unable to shake. In its race report The Autocar, not a magazine known for overstating the case, noted that Sommer was “driving with astonishing verve, pressing him [Villoresi] at every twist and turn of the circuit.” Then, after eight laps and into Burnenville, the most terrifying corner on this most terrifying track, Sommer neatly lined up his quarry and slipped past. The plan was working.
He charged after Fagioli knowing that he and his team-mates were due in the pits for fuel at any moment. Farina stopped on lap 11, followed by Fagioli a lap later and Fangio one after that. On lap 13, Raymond Sommer and his ancient, overweight, underpowered Talbot-Lago, took the lead. And as Crossley moved over to let his friend lap him, Sommer waved to let him know he led the race. The Autocar scribe described the atmosphere as being charged with “wild excitement”.
This could not be said of the Alfa pit. The Motor talked delightfully of “a certain anxiety” that could be detected, not least when a deputation was sent to suggest to the time-keepers that Sommer was, in fact, a lap down. They were sent away. The Alfa team knew the problem was not catching and passing Sommer but doing so again after the second stop for tyres and fuel.
We will never know whether Sommer’s plan would have borne fruit. On lap 20, the engine of his four-year-old Talbot let go and he coasted into the pits. But you don’t need long with the evidence to see why the Alfa team were so agitated. The fact is that, at half distance, Sommer led the race and could have driven flat out to the finish. The Alfa team was strung out behind him, every member of which would need to refuel and change tyres.
For those watching, there was a lesson to be learned here. If a lumbering old Talbot could challenge the might of Alfa Romeo by simply having a genius behind the wheel and not having to stop, then what would a brand new Grand Prix car do, if designed with the same in mind? If Spa proved anything other than the talent of Raymond Sommer it was that in the fabulous power of the supercharged 1 1/2-litre Alfa engine lay also its fatal flaw.
Enzo Ferrari saw this and abandoned his supercharged engine programme, charging engineer Aurelio Lampredi to produce a big, economical normally aspirated 4 1/2-litre unit. The following season saw its challenge to Alfa Romeo grow inexorably until, inevitably, Ferrari claimed its first World Championship Grand Prix victory. For Ferrari, it was the start of a Formula One career without equal; for Alfa Romeo it signalled an astonishingly abrupt end to its utter domination of Grand Prix racing since the war. By the time the sun had set on the 1951 season, Alfa Romeo, the marque that had claimed every single round of the championship just the year before, had won its last Formula One race.
Tragically, Raymond Sommer did not live to see it. Ever the enthusiast, he continued to race what and where he wanted. Fate called time as he led a minor race in an 1100cc Cooper near Toulouse on 10 September 1950. Had his engine survived at Spa, that race would have been remembered as one of the biggest upsets in Formula One history. But it didn’t, and now it is all but forgotten. Geoffrey Crossley, now 77 years old and living in Oxfordshire, remembers it. “It’s just one man’s opinion of course,” he says today, “but I would say Sommer was the quickest driver out there. I was there and I saw him. He wasn’t just quicker than Farina, he was quicker than Fangio too.”