The number of motor races being held in Europe increases every year and at Whitsuntide this year things reached a complete impasse, for there were five events of equal importance due to be held on Whit Sunday. These were the Eifel Races at Nurburgring in North-west Germany, the Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay, in Belgium, the Grand Prix Supercortemaggiore at Monza, the 12 Hours of Hyeres, on the south coast of France, and the Grand Prix of Albi in the south-west of France. The first four events were all for sports cars, and Albi was for Formula 1, and the problem was to decide which meeting to attend as Motor Sport reporter, for while at times it is possible to lead a double life, a five-sided one was out of the question. As Whitsun-time is one of holiday, I finally decided to have a holiday instead of working and, my hobby being motoring and motor racing, I settled on visiting three out of the five events over the weekend. Preferring sunshine to rain, I chose the three southern races, that is, Albi Grand Prix, the 12 Hours at Hyeres and the Supercortemaggiore race at Monza, near Milan. As they were all being held on Sunday, May 29th, it was not going to be possible to see all three, but it was possible to watch practice for two of them and the actual race at the third.
Leaving Monte Carlo on Thursday afternoon, I headed westwards along the winding coast road to Hyeres, just near Toulon, the small Porsche being the ideal car for putting up a good average amongst holiday traffic. Practice at this meeting was not due until Saturday but, passing by, I took the opportunity of having a look round the circuit, seeing where it had been widened and resurfaced. Continuing on through Aix-en-Provence, along the poplar-lined straight from Salon, where Fournier tested the Mors during the dark ages of motor-racing, I stopped the night at Sete, the little fishing village on the Mediterranean coast. Next morning a cross-country run through the lower end of the Massif Central brought me to Albi before lunch, well in time for the afternoon practice. The entry for this race was not large, and consisted mostly of the “also-rans” who normally form the tail-end of a Grande Epreuve, and being the first afternoon of practice the drivers did not make any very great attempts to go fast.
Since the last Grand Prix at Albi the circuit has been shortened considerably, the two long legs of the triangular shape being eliminated and a new road joining across the middle. Viewing the old circuit as a large A with the crossbar dropped to the base of the legs, it has been re-formed with the crossbar, in the form of a new road, being back in its normal place and the ends of the legs removed. This has left the pits and grandstands as before, but has reduced the lap times down to less than 1 ½ minutes. One of the major reasons for shortening the circuit was that the long straights were lined with enormous trees whose roots spread out under the road, making it impossible to keep a 170-m.p.h. surface in place for long. Rather than remove all the trees the Albi Club decided to shorten the circuit. Of the twelve entries for the race only eight turned out for the first practice, and it was Rosier, with his Maserati, who recorded the fastest time, with Macklin driving Moss’ Maserati, a fraction of a second behind. Moss was competing at Nurburgring for Mercédès-Benz, so he had loaned his complete Maserati outfit to Macklin. The Maserati of Bira was also present, but the Prince was feeling unwell and decided not to drive, so the car was loaned to Simon to do some laps with, as his own car was late in arriving from Italy. Levegh was driving Rosier’s old 2 ½-litre Ferrari four-cylinder, and in addition there was Whiteaway with his H.W.M.-Alta and Young with his Formula II Connaught, now fitted with a 1954. H.W.M. 2 ½-litre engine. Just before the end of practice the Gordini team arrived, with the same three cars and drivers as they used at Monaco, and Bayol began to lap quite fast with the 1955 model. Manzon, on last year’s car fitted with the new engine and disc brakes, did only a few laps before the engine made a “funny noise” and that was that, while Pollet in the earlier car was not very fast.
Practice ended with little prospect of any exciting racing taking place, and the overcast skies did nothing to invite one to stay and witness the actual race. With most of the factory drivers and fast independents at Monza or Nurburgring, the Albi meeting was suffering badly from both quality and quantity.
On the way to the meeting I heard the tragic news of the death of Alberto Ascari on the Italian radio, and altogether the Albi meeting was not the happy heat-wave of motor racing it had been in the past. Before leaving the town, however, I was given a short demonstration “dice” in a special Gran Turismo coupé built by the owner of the B.P. Energic petrol station, where some of the racing cars were being kept. This car used a box-like frame built up from welded steel sheet, on the front of which was grafted a Citroën suspension, complete with front-wheel-drive, and the bottom suspension-arm was stiffened by an extra member forming a wishbone bracket. A Light Fifteen Citroën engine, with raised compression and double Weber carburetters, supplied the power, driving through a Citroën gearbox fitted with four speeds. Anchored to rear of the box-frame two large A-brackets suspended the rear wheels independently, the springing medium being short torsion-bars, while the brakes were Citroën . The whole car, including the body trimmings, was made by the owner in his own private workshop, and the one tested was the sixth of a range of prototypes, three more “production” models being under way, but no doubt by the time the third one is completed more modifications will have been added, as with all “home-brewed” “specials.” Although the four-cylinder engine was rather rough and noisy in its manner of going, the car went up to an easy 90 m.p.h. and the general roadholding and ride was very good, giving no indication of f.w.d. The cornering, with the power “on,” gave good results, aided and abetted by Michelin “X” tyres, running at very low pressure, as the whole car weighed a bare 16 cwt. For such a “one-off” type of car the general finish was remarkably good and the manner of going was distinctly Italian in its Gran Turismo harshness, but satisfying nevertheless.
Leaving Albi and its rather uninspiring Grand Prix race, a return was made over the 170 miles, back to Sete for another night’s rest, and the next morning a quick 150 miles got me to Hyeres well in time for the practice for the 12-hour sports-car race. The 7.269-kilometre circuit is situated on the peninsula that runs out to sea from Hyeres and is known as the Golden Isle, being surrounded by bathing beaches. There was a distinct air of a super “club meeting” at this race and the entry ran from tiny D.B. Panhards to Monza Ferraris, but all were truly amateur and full of enthusiasm. Throughout the practice period a cross-wind was blowing dust and sand about but, in spite of this, everyone was getting down to some serious motor-racing practice and there was a marked contrast with the lethargic air of the racers at Albi. Naturally, with such a wide variety of sports cars competing, the event was to include a calculated handicap as well as the normal category of the farthest distance in 12 hours for the outright winner, while there were also the usual capacity classes. The battle for the outright win was going to lie between Ferraris and Aston Martins, and these two marques were putting in the fastest practice laps. The Monza 3-litre Ferraris were being driven by the French pair Sparken/Picard and the Swiss/Italian pair Canonica/Munaron, while new production Aston Martin DB3S models were being driven by Gaze/Mackay, Sulman/Brabham, Cosh/Cobden, these three cars forming an all-Australian team, and a fourth car was in the hands of the Whitehead brothers. Then there was the modified DB3 of Mann/ Goodall and two very fast 2-litre Gordinis shared by Bourelly/Rinen and Milhoux/BIouin. Another English car was the Cooper-Jaguar of Bradnack, with Truman as co-driver, while French-owned 2-litre Maseratis and Porsche 550 models kept the interest going in the lower classes. Making its first appearance was a new 2-litre six-cylinder Osca driven by Chiron/Delpech.
Most drivers were practising hard, for the circuit was very fast and contained numerous high-speed corners which took a lot of learning, while the varied entry of fast and slow cars called for a great deal of attention when overtaking. By the time the first half of the practice session was over the circuit contained a very distinct air of some good racing going to take place, and after a half-hour break, to allow late-corners to reach the paddock on the inside of the circuit and anyone who had practised enough to leave, the pace continued. The faster cars were going past the pits at some 130 m.p.h., and the narrow road lined by straw bales provided a wonderful impression of speed. By 8 p.m. practice had finished and, while most of the competitors returned to their hotels or to the garages to make final adjustments for the 8-a.m. start next morning, I set off along the coast road towards my third motor-race meeting.
Winding and twisting along the Cote d’Azur, through St. Raphael, Nice and Monaco, I reached the Italian frontier shortly after midnight, to be greeted by a flood of neon light and soft music issuing from a nearby café. Apart from the centres of such towns as Monte Carlo or Nice, there is a noticeable tendency for France to be closed down and darkened by midnight and, crossing into Italy at that hour, the difference was most striking. The Italians, having discovered neon lighting, are not content with formal mauve-coloured strips, they make all manner of patterns and designs out of neon tube and with a multitude of different colours. Being the only car at the frontier at this hour, I had the feeling of entering a peculiar sort of fairy-land as I set off along the mountainous coast road, past the bright lights and soft music. Although the road was empty, every little village still seemed full of life, and even at 3 a.m., when I got to Genoa to stop for the night, there was no feeling of the hour being late, bars and cafés still being open with plenty of customers about. Day-time motoring in Italy is complete pandemonium and the relative emptiness of the trip from the frontier had been most peaceful, but in comparison with any other country at the same hour Italy was still overcrowded. Anyone who feels that Great Britain suffers from overcrowded roads should try motoring in Italy; if you can drive there without having accidents you can drive anywhere.
After a few hours’ sleep I was awake again and the hard-worked Porsche was made to really scream its tyres along the winding and mountainous Autostrada from Genoa towards Milan, and then by normal roads round the north of the great Italian city to the Monza Autodromo. Here the Gran Premio Supercortemaggiore for sports cars up to 3 litres was to take place, and just as the amateur sportscar race at Hyeres was a noticeable step up from the dull Albi meeting, the Monza race was another step upwards. Here the entry was fully supported by the Maserati and Ferrari factories and this was the highest form of sports-car racing, a truly “blood and thunder” affair, with screaming Maseratis and booming Ferraris. Naturally, the tragic death of Ascari during practice had cast rather a cloud over the meeting and the public just did not turn up to watch the race. At most Monza meetings there are about ten Italians to every seat in the grandstand, but this time it was the reverse and a very small crowd was scattered round the course.
In spite of this, or maybe because of it, the competitors were all driving hard and the battle for the lead was severe. The distance was over 1,000 kilometres, which is 160 laps of the Monza circuit, and, apart from a lone 1,500-c.c. Ermini the whole entry was composed of Maserati and Ferrari cars, of both 2 and 3-litre capacities. A very pleasant sight in the Ferrari team was Hawthorn sharing a car with Maglioli, for these two had won the race last year. They were supported by Taruffi/Trintignant, Schell/Carini, with factory cars; Landi/Cornacchia, Lucas/Silva Ramos, Musitelli/Luglio, Piotti/Cortese and Bornigia/Mancini with production 3-litre four-cylinder Ferraris. The chief opposition to the big four-cylinder cars was provided by three Maserati 3-litres, driven by Behra/Musso, Mieres/Perdisa and Valenzano/Bordoni, while there was a veritable horde of 2-litre Maseratis, the faster ones being driven by Bellucci/Ruffo, Graffenried/Giardini, Cacciari/Cabalen, while having their first outing in a car of this type were the two French rally drivers Houel and Jose Behra, brother of the famous Jean. Opposing the 2-litre Maseratis were the Mondial Ferraris of the brothers Leto di Priolo, Taramazzo/Ansehni and Della Favera/Buticchi.
From the word go it was the Ferrari of Hawthorn/Maglioli that set the pace, but the big Maseratis were clinging on and giving no quarter, and after 20 laps there was less than 60 seconds covering the first five cars, which were in the order Hawthorn, Behra, Mieres, Bordoni and Trintignant, while Hawthorn had made fastest lap in 2 min. 04.2 sec., which is a time comparable with many Grand Prix cars at Monza; later Behra improved on this.
On the 49th lap Trintignant had a most spectacular accident when his Ferrari got onto the grass verge while overtaking another car, and it went end over end. Fortunately the French driver was thrown out and got away with a severe bruising, but the car was completely smashed. Almost immediately after this Bordoni had a brake lock on and his Maserati crashed into the workings of the new speed-track at the end of the back leg of the existing course. The battle for the lead continued between the Hawthorn/Maglioli team and the Behra/Musso one, in spite of changing drivers and refuelling, and by half distance the Maserati had taken the lead, but barely half a lap in front of the Ferrari. There was so little difference between these two cars and the four drivers that the issue of the race was relying on pit work, and one time Maserati would gain the advantage, another the Ferrari team would, and so the battle went on.
Having got the lead at half distance the Maserati was managing to keep it, but at no moment could the team relax, and after three-quarters distance a continued reshuffling of drivers had arrived at the situation of having Hawthorn in the Ferrari and Musso in the Maserati, with the result that the Englishman began to make up ground. In a panic Musso was flagged in and Behra put back in the car, and that arrangement kept the distance between the two cars to a fairly safe 1 ½ minutes. The whole situation now seemed settled, for Hawthorn could not gain on Behra, and as the last laps were reeled off the Italian police were lined up in front of the pits ready to control the crowds at the finish, and the Maserati mechanics began to pack up their tools and prepare to enjoy their victory. With only three laps to go Behra suddenly headed for his pit and, amidst leaping policemen and excited mechanics, he yelled for more fuel as the engine was cutting out on corners. A churn of fuel and a funnel was produced and the liquid flung into the tank while all eyes were on Hawthorn, who was streaking down the back straight, and as Behra rejoined the race the Ferrari was in sight, mere seconds behind. The Ferrari pit waved their car on furiously but it was no use, for Hawthorn too was running out of fuel and the engine was spluttering at high revs., and after 1,000 kiloinetres the two cars crossed the line a mere 17 seconds apart. The remaining 3-litre Maserati, driven by Mieres/Perdisa, was a steady third, while the searing pace had left the rest of the runners way behind.
After starting my Whitsun holiday at Albi on Friday afternoon with some rather dismal Formula 1 practice, it finished in a blaze of excitement on Sunday evening. Having motored more than 1,000 miles, Whit Monday was spent driving slowly across Switzerland amidst 10-m.p.h. Swiss motorists enjoying their holiday, while the following day was spent with the “bush telegraph,” the “journalistic grape-vino” and “carrier pigeons” finding out what went on at Chimay and Nurburgring and the other two meetings which I had to leave early.
The Albi meeting resulted in a win for Andre Simon, while poor Macklin had an engine bearer break off on the borrowed Maserati when he was a certain second. Horace Gould rushed out from England to drive Bira’s Maserati and after muffing the start he got going well to finish third.
At Hyeres the expected Aston Martin/ Ferrari battle resulted in a win for the Italian car driven by the Swiss/Italian team, with the complete row of Australian-driven cars following, though the brothers Whitehead had been well in the lead when their clutch packed up.
At Chimay the race was limited to sports cars and Claes was well in the lead on the last lap, driving a Monza 3-litre Ferrari, when he ran off the road and ditched it, letting the Swiss driver Musy win the race with his 2-litre Maserati.
At Nurburgring Mercédès-Benz gave a demonstration ran with their 300SLR sports cars, Fangio finishing a few inches in front of Moss. They were supposed to be opposed by Farina with a 3.7-litre factory Ferrari but he could get nowhere near them, and Kling, who should have been third, went too fast and broke his engine, limping home fourth. In the 1 ½-litre Eifel class the East-Zone E.M.W. cars were out again and making a very good impression, but not sufficient to beat the combination of von Frankenburg and a 550 Porsche. Unfortunately he was a little way behind Kling when the latter’s Mercédès-Benz broke and spilt oil and the Porsche was the first car to go in the ditch before the oil flag was flown, so the E.M.W. had an easy victory.