XVth Grand Prix d'Albi

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Great B.R.M./Ferrari Battle

ALBI, FRANCE, May 31st.

The idea behind the Albi meeting this year was to try to incorporate all types of Grand Prix racing, past, present and future, represented by Formula I and Formula II, and to give the opportunity to try out 1954 Formula cars. Also, by running a heat for each of the existing formulae and a final combining both, there was the possibility of having a most instructive race. As it turned out, things went a little amiss as all the giants of the present car era concentrated on Formula I, leaving the Formula II field open to the also-rans. Further, both heats took on the role of battles to the death, few of the drivers having any interest in the final.

The Formula I event had Fangio, Gonzalez and Wharton in B.R.M.s, Ascari and Rosier in 4 1/2-litre Ferraris, Farina in the Thinwall Ferrari, Cabantous and Hamilton in Talbots. Trintignant with a Gordini Six enlarged over the 2-litre limit, nearly 2 1/2-litre it was claimed. and de Riu with a 4CLT Maserati. This meant that the Formula II list had only the remainder of present-day competitors, for although it was possible to enter a car in each event, only Rosier did so. Ferrari concentrated on the Formula I race and Maserati did not enter any cars. The first heat was for Formula II and it was Bayol with his six-cylinder Osca who had dominated the practice, beating Schell and Mieres with works Gordinis, Rosier with his four-cylinder Ferrari, and the rest of the field, which was made up of private owners. The Osca was showing an excellent turn of speed and on the fast triangular circuit at Albi it had come into its own in a rather pleasing manner. Whitehead and Cole, with Coopers, and Lyons with his Connaught, could not get anywhere near the Continental cars, nor could Claes (Connaught) or de Tornaco with the Ecurie Francorchamps yellow four-cylinder Ferrari.

Bayol got away well at the start and led for the first four laps with Rosier close behind, while the rest of the field soon dropped back, Schell developing a misfire very early on and retiring soon after. A shower fell during the third and fourth laps, but this did not stop the duel between the two Frenchmen and they stayed close together, Rosier taking the lead on lap five, only to lose it again on lap seven. As they came down to the double bend by the pits to begin the eighth lap, Bayol had a very slight lead but spun round and stopped right in front of his pit. Rosier, by a very quick avoiding action, missed the sliding Osca and was away into the lead with no fear of being beaten. Quickly pushing his car into the pit area Bayol was able to utilise his two mechanics to help him restart, thus avoiding a contravention of the International rules, as the local rules allowed push-starting within the pit area. He could not hope to catch Rosier in the remaining two laps and the race finished in a procession, Whitehead being third, ahead of Mieres and Cole, the latter handicapped by a broken gear-change.

While it lasted, the Rosier/Bayol scrap had proved quite exciting, but the race as a whole was really only an appetiser for what was to come. Evidence of this had been given on both practice days, for the Formula I cars had practised first and then the Formula II cars, and in comparison the latter appeared rather like clockwork models. From the beginning of practice it was clear that Ferraris were uncomfortable on two counts, they were not used to playing second fiddle, having been dominant for so long, and they were out of practice with really fast cars. Ascari was the sole works runner, with a 4 1/2-litre that looked as though it had been standing out in the backyard of the factory. It was basically the same as last year, except that the bodywork had been altered to conform with the lines of the 2-litre models, having no headrest and a long nose, while very large diameter exhaust pipes were used. On the first day they were not at all happy and could only reach 6,800 r.p.m., which was not enough to cope with the B.R.M.s, which were screaming round a lot faster. It is quite a long time since a works Ferrari has had to juggle with plugs and jets in the pit area, but it made no difference, it just was not fast enough. Meanwhile, in the B.R.M. pit the three cars were going exceptionally fast, Fangio being right back on form and Gonzalez driving with all his usual vigour. Wharton was his normal smooth self and made a worthy third member of the team. So fast did the B.R.M.s go that Gonzalez destroyed a rear tyre and came in with all the rubber stripped off, just as Mercedes and Auto-Unions used to do in pre-war days. The B.R.M.s were obviously developing enormous power and setting new limits for Grand Prix racing. The only opposition to these two camps was Farina in the Thinwall Ferrari, but its triple four-choke carburetters were not functioning properly and the gear-change was being bothersome and, altogether, Farina was going comparatively slowly and getting rather irritated. On the second practice day things began to hum, for Ascari had found his full 7,000 r.p.m., the Thinwall had reverted to twin-choke carburetters, and the B.R.M.s were still going great guns, not perfectly by any means but very fast. The whole practice period developed into an open battle for starting-grid honours, for the heat was over 10 laps, so that a front-row start was most important. No one seemed the slightest bit interested in playing a tactical game to win the final, the heat was the thing. The lap record was sent flying early on and Fangio and Ascari started a battle that was as exciting as any race. Gonzalez was not too happy, his engine not behaving itself properly, though Wharton was making up for it. When practice finally finished it was Fangio who was on top by a clear three seconds and Ferraris realised they had met their match. Fangio’s fastest lap was in 2 min. 52.3 sec. for the 8.901 kilometre circuit, which was a speed of 185.976 k.p.h., and even then he said he could not hold full throttle as the engine “puffed” back through the carburetters and he had to ease his foot back a little. Gonzalez had made a fast lap before his engine went off-colour and was third fastest, behind Ascari, with Wharton fourth and Farina a very bad tempered fifth. The second practice period had seen the Thinwall going a bit better, but then the bonnet flew off and the car ran out of fuel on the far side of the circuit.

The line-up for the start was to see the unusual sight of Ascari looking distinctly worried, and it was gratifying that it was a British car that was causing the worry. He was in the middle of the front row with Fangio on his right and Gonzalez on his left, and he was not his usual confident self. Behind were Wharton and Farina, and the rest of the field merely made up the number. There are certain things in motor racing that go down in history, and anyone who saw the start of the Formula I heat at Albi in 1953 will agree that it was one of them. The noise was unbelievable, the tension at a height never before attained, and Gonzalez began to creep forward. That was enough: Charles Faroux realised he had something in front of him that he could not control and released the world’s fastest drivers in the world’s fastest cars at least five seconds before they were due off, as it was quite impossible to restrain them any longer. The noise, the wheelspin, the smoke, the burning rubber and the acceleration set a new all-time high as the first five cars leapt towards the first corner in such a tight bunch that only those people directly opposite could be certain of the order. The yelling crowds had only just sat down when news came that Fangio was leading on the other side of the circuit, with Ascari following, then Farina, Wharton and Gonzalez. At the end of the first lap Fangio still led, with Ascari a mere two feet behind, and they had already outpaced the rest of the field. This was the sort of motor racing one dreams about; it was an open battle between the two biggest names in motor racing, with no holds barred, and Fangio was in a British car, which alone was history in itself. On the second lap Ascari was so close behind the B.R.M. as they braked for the corner by the pits that it looked as thought he must have been touching, and away they went to start the third lap, at the end of which Fangio set up a new lap record in 2 min. 52.3 sec. Again they appeared locked together, but then Ascari fell back and drew into his pit with oil pouring out of his gearbox; the untold pace was certain to break up one of the cars and it was the Italian one that had gone. On the same lap Farina came in with a broken oil pipe and the whole race fizzled out, but those first three laps more than compensated for the anti-climax. Fangio had nothing to do but to tour round and win, confident in the knowledge that he had won an open battle. It looked as though he was going to be followed by Gonzalez and Wharton in the other B.R.M.s to make a nice 1-2-3, but no sooner had the pace cracked than Gonzalez appeared with his near-side rear tyre in ribbons and by the time the wheel had been changed and the rather heavy car push-started by the mechanics and the driver, he was back to sixth place. The pace of the leaders had rather overshadowed the rest of the field, in which Trintignant was driving the race of his life, actually holding Rosier’s 4 1/2-litre Ferrari with the enlarged Gordini, and Gonzalez was unable to catch either of them. After his first stop Farina covered two more hesitant laps and then withdrew.

After such a heat it did not seem worth bothering to run the final as all three B.R.M.s had qualified and there was no opposition to worry about. However, the third race was planned, so the first four of heat 1 and the first four of heat 2 lined up, together with the next four fastest finishers. Rosier had qualified in both heats and elected to drive the 4 1/2-litre car. while Lyons thought he had not qualified and had packed his car away in the van, finding out too late. The final was over 18 laps and, due to his more manageable power, it was Rosier who got away first, but Fangio was soon past and they finished the first lap in the order Fangio, Rosier, Wharton, Trintignant, Mieres, Bayol, Gonzalez; due to having been hemmed in at the start by the Formula Il cars, Whitehead, Cole, Tornaco and Claes. Lap times were down by five or six seconds and it was pretty obvious that the B.R.M.s were going to make a procession of the event and by lap seven Gonzalez had made up for his slow start, passed Rosier and formed a B.R.M. 1-2-3, a sight both pleasant to see and to hear. Trintignant left all the Formula II cars far behind, they being led by Mieres. All was now set for a B.R.M. procession, secure in the knowledge that they had caused the demise of the works Ferrari and the Thinwall, but then the unknown factor stepped in and Wharton pulled in on lap eight with his near-side rear tyre completely devoid of rubber. A change was effected in 38 sec. and, helping his two mechanics to push the car before jumping in and cramming it in gear, he was back in the race, with only Rosier having passed. This excitement had only just died down when, on the tenth lap Fangio arrived with the same trouble. Another change was made but Fangio had already removed his helmet and goggles and walked away, and it was then discovered that bits of rubber had jammed in open operating gear of the Girling disc brakes and bent some of the parts, so the car stayed where it was. All this left Gonzalez in the lead, followed by Rosier running with clockwork-like regularity, Wharton and Trintignant, the Formula II boys naturally being right out of the picture. On the eleventh lap Wharton got round in 2 min. 58 sec., fastest of the final, and on the next lap did not appear. There was an ominous lack of information for a time and then it was learnt that he had crashed at very high speed, writing the B.R.M. off completely and escaping with only a shaking, being extremely lucky to be alive. While awaiting news of this spectacular crash Gonzalez arrived at his pit with the same tyre trouble as the others, expressing his fury by furious jabs on the throttle. This was all quite unbelievable and left Rosier with a commanding lead and only six laps to go. On lap fifteen Gonzalez made up 12 seconds, but he was still 42 seconds behind, and on lap sixteen he gave up hope and settled for second place. What had started as a gentle demonstration run had turned out a complete shambles and Rosier won his fourth Albi Grand Prix, followed by Gonzalez and Trintignant, whose driving was superb but overshadowed by the more powerful cars. The Formula II boys were a lap behind, led by Mieres with the Gordini, then Whitehead, who had made an excellent run. his Cooper-Alta going very well, Claes touring round in his Connaught and Cole spending most of his time trying to find gears and sailing into many corners in neutral, which kept him very occupied.

In many ways it was a pity the final had to be run, for it proved very little, apart from the fact that the B.R.M.s have more power than the chassis can cope with, and though the French were delighted to see Rosier win, as were most people, the victory was rather hollow, while the mixing of the two formulae was quite pointless; it may have been more exciting had Ferraris and Maseratis supported the Formula II event. The outcome of the final completely spoilt B.R.M.’s success in the heat as far as the general view was concerned, which was a pity for the Formula I race had been a gloves-off fight that had ended in an unqualified victory for the British car and the Argentine driver, only to have all the glory erased by the tyre-eating debacle of the final.

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