IMPRESSIVE DISPLAY IN FRENCH GRAND PRIX MAKES UP FOR SCARCITY OF RUNNERS
THAT the eagerly awaited Frenelt Grand Prix at Rheims did not develop into a complete fiasco was due to the sporting spit it of the Mercedes-Benz team. All serious opposition faded out on the very first lap, but the three German cars, instead of slowing to the speed of their only rivals, the two sports-type Talbot-Darraegs, gave the large crowd their money’s worth by keeping up a tremendous pace. Lap records were broken time and again, right up to the wry end of the race, while von Brauchitsch’s winning average speed of 101.07 m.p.h. -Whi CI i alone speaks for itself—was greater than the
previous lap record for the circuit I It seemed that the Mercedes drivers would scarcely have gone faster if the Furies themselves had been at their heels. They, and their manager, Neubauer, alone know what further speed they could have exhibited if a Rosenteyer had been harrying them.
The amazing stability of the new cars was no less striking than their speed. All round the course the trio of ace drivers –surely never matched as a combination in the history of racing—were raising dust on the very edges of the corners, and if the terrific power started even a little skid, it was under control in an instant.
Even more remarkable it is to relate that neither the Mercedes nor indeed the Talbots, which, though outclassed, were yet lapping at over 95 m.p.h., changed tyres at all throughout the event, the distance of which was 311 miles. One lap of the Rheims circuit measures
just under five miles. It is triangular in shape, in traditional Grand Prix style, with two practically straight legs, joined by a third section with a number of fast bends. Thus there are only three sharp corners on the course, one of which, where the two straights join, is an acute hairpin, the Virage de Thillois.
The first corner after the start, apart from a gentle, ” flat-out ” bend, is the Virage de Gueux, in the midst of the village of that name. Then the course rises to the curly section, passing through a dense wood, and at the Virage de la Garenne rejoins the other straight leg. This leads down to the Virage de Thillois, the hairpin, and so through nodding cornfields back to the start.
The circuit has been used ever since 1925 for the Grand Prix de la Manic, while in 1932 the French Grand Prix was held there for the first time. Thus, as one of France’s ” permanent ” circuits, it has a large, permanent grandstand and pits, these latter with a promenade on top, as at the Niirburg Ring and on the Brook
lands road circuit. Thousands of spectators lined the course many ranks deep as the cars were wheeled
out to the start. This traditional parade. with the drivers walking alongside, was, alas, not so impressive as usual, tor only nine cars appeared. There were the three Mercedes, two of the new 3-lit:e twelvecylinder Auto-Unions, making their first appearance, two French Talbots (or Talbot-Darracqs), a solitary Bugatti, and, at long last, the S.F,.F.A.C. This almost legendary French car, built in 1935 to conform to the old Formula, has been the
world’s champion non-starter ever since, but now at last it came to swell the thin ranks of the 1938 Grand Prix.
A shower of rain had fallen about an hour previous to the start, but it was not enough to -wet the road. Now the sun was shining again bravely, so that the yellow cornfields and the gay colours of the flags of France and Germany, with the silver and blue cars, and the ranks of spectators stretching into the distance, all did their best to help the spectacle.
Von Brauchitsch and Lang were in the front rank, and behind them Caracciola. It was already regarded as certain that one of these three, with the incredibly low, squat Mercedes, would be the winner, but it was hoped that the two new AutoUnions, driven by Hasse and Kautz, would make a fight of it. These two were in the next rank, but their comrade, Muller, had crashed in practice, sustaining injuries to his spine.
Carriere’s Talbot was thus behind the Auto-Unions, then came Etancelin with the other Talbot and Chabaud INith the S.E.F.A.C., and, last of all, Wimille with the 3-litre supercharged Bugatti, which had not appeared in practice at all. As usual, while the engines of the other cars roared, the three Mercedes lay silent in their stations till, exactly a minute before the start, Neubauer gave the signal, and the mechanics, with orderly precision, woke the German cars to life by means of the portable electric starters
Immediately the din appeared to be trebled, for the new Mercedes have an even more shattering exhaust note than the old cars, and acrid fumes, making the eyes water, began to drift past. The flag fell, and the low, silver cars went off like bullets, leaving the rest of the field yards behind. But Wimille, too, showed fine acceleration, and in a flash the Bugatti was up with the Auto-Unions, passing the other three French cars. A few minutes elapsed, and a murmur of astonishment went up. Across the cornfields, on the other leg of the course, three cam could be seen streaking along, with no one else in sight 1
Say ” One ! Two 1 Three ” sharply and as quick as you can. Imagine a sudden, shattering roar with each count, dying away abruptly. Picture three cars darting past the crowded grandstand at over 160 m.p.h., a few yards only separating them, three silver blurs on which one could hardly read the numbers !
That was the amazing first lap of the French Grand Prix, one terrific second which, many afterwards avowed, by itself made the journey to see the race worth while.
Long before any other car appeared, one had heard six sharp barks in the distance, as the three Mercedes drivers changed down twice for the Virage de Gueux.
Then the first blue car came in sight, Etancelin’s Talbot, followed by Carriere and, keeping up well, the S.E.P.A.C. The crowd was still stunned by the whirlwind passage of the Mercedes, but where was their favourite, Wimille ? A groan went up. The Bugatti appeared, making for its pit with oil streaming from the underneath of the engine.
Now, with the three Mercedes streaking into sight on their second lap, one began to realise that something was wrong. ” Aucun Auto-Unionl” Neither Hasse nor Kautz had come round at all !
Lang, von Brauchitsch and Caracciola went by in a crash of sound, but still no Auto-Unions. At last Kautz came in sight, with his off-side rear wheel wobbling sadly. He had hit the wall at Gueux, and the mechanics began to try to remove the wheel. But it would not budge, like Rosemeyer’s wheel in’ last year’s German Grand Prix—Rosemeyer, how one wished that he was there at Rheims. Kautz had to retire after only a short struggle, for the wheel was obviously immovable, even if the axle had not been damaged, as the Auto-Union camp were hoping. As for Hasse, he had come into the Virage de Thillois, at the end of the wood, much too fast, spun round three
times, and gone off the road. Worse still, Wimille also, trying to avoid him, had gone off the road, and damaged the underneath of his engine. Hasse was out, but the Frenchman, as we have seen, struggled to the pits, where he too had to retire.
During the second lap the unfortunate S.E.F.A.C., overcome by its first public appearance, gave up the ghost, also at the Virage de Thillois, and was parked alongside Hasse’s Auto-Union.
With only two of the sixty-four laps covered, the scanty field had been reduced to five, and the two Le Mans-type Talbots were left alone to face the might of the Mercedes trio. Taking no notice whatsoever of these untoward occurrences, the three at once began to break lap records. On the second lap Lang still led by a few yards, but von Brauchitsch and Caracciola both got round at an average of just over 100 m.p.h., and closed up behind, wheel to wheel. Lang, finding himself pursued, increased his pace even more, and on the third lap averaged 102.76 m.p.h., a record for the Rheims circuit, easily beating
Chiron’s 100.78 m.p.h. with an Alfa-Romeo in 1935.
Not content with this, on the next lap Lang went up to 103.22 m.p.h., while Caracciola, who had passed Brauchitsch, got ready to take a hand, and on the following lap averaged 104.21 m.p.h. Brauchitsch was not going to he left behind, and on the seventh lap he took his turn with 104.51 m.p.h., and closed up again. Meanwhile the two Talbots were going bravely round, lapping at between 90 and 95 m.p.h., with Etancelin leading Carriere by about 50 yards. At ten laps the Mercedes trio lapped them, and then Carriere put in one very fast lap because, as he said, he found he had no brakes, and thus had to take all the corners much faster than he intended! The brakes had certainly gone to such an extent that when he came into his pit,
and the car was jacked up, a mechanic could turn the wheels quite easily with Carriere pressing hard on the pedal. The trouble was cured, however, and Carriere went on.
Caracciola had taken the lead from Lang on the eighth lap, and held this position for some time. Brauchitsch was taking things easily for a space, but Neubauer flagged him to go faster. Brauchitsch grinned cheerfully, and on the thirteenth lap set another record at 104.63 m.p.h. Continuing this spurt, he went up to 105.14 m.p.h. on the sixteenth lap, and passed both Lang and Caracciola to take the lead.
This set the others going properly, and first Caracciola got the lead back and then Lang set about the record and pushed it up to 105.84 m.p.h. and regained the lead for one lap, only to lose it again immediately to Caracciola.
Thus between the three Mercedes drivers the lap record had been broken seven times in the first seventeen laps, and Caracciola was now leading at an average for the race of more than 103 m.p.h.
So far Neubauer had allowed his men full latitude, but Lang’s car, after his last record, did not sound quite so healthy as before. Caracciola refuelled at twentytwo laps, and a few laps later Lang stopped, and plugs were changed. Then the car refused to start, and an excited murmur went up. The plugs were changed again, and this time Lang got away, Neubauer shaking a scolding finger. Lang had lost just over a lap to his colleagues. After this mishap the Mercedes drivers were signalled to take things more easily, but Brauchitsch, now leading, maintained the average steady at 103 m.p.h. Caracciola took the lead again for a few laps, but from just before half distance, when Brauchitsch passed his
team mate, the order did not change.
Even when the latter stopped to refuel, and again for 23 secs. to point out to the pit that oil was leaking from somewhere—they indignantly sent him off again—Caracciola, who was driving comfortably about 1.-/ mins. behind, did not pass. At thirty-seven laps an unexpected disaster befell the consistent Talbots, for Etancelin failed to appear, and later walked in, cheered enthusiastically by the crowd. So there were only four cars left, and quite near the end Carriere came into his pit with the engine misfiring. It was found that a valve cotter had broken, and, setting methodically to work, the mechanics removed the rocker
gear, one of them compressed the valve spring by hand, and the trouble was rectified in about seven minutes.
Any undue delay would have robbed the Talbot of its well-earned fourth place, for the sixty-four laps were nearly up. As a final excitement, Lang had another go for the lap record, and on the fiftyeighth circuit left it at 105.97 m.p.h. Brauchitsch, covered with oil but still quite fresh, ran out an easy winner. Mercedes had given a wonderful display of high speed reliability. RESULT
1. M. von Brauchitsch (Mercedes-Benz), 101.07 m.p.h. 2. R. Caracciola (Mercedes-Benz), 2m. 40s. behind 3. It. Lan* (Hercedes-Benz), 1 lap behind 4. it. Camere (Talbot-Darracq), 10 laps behind