The Editor looks at the mechanical champions
Having consider ed the Champion drivers s from different ages of motor racing in the May issue, it seems logical to apply the same thinking to the cars themselves, because without these there would be no World Champion drivers. Today the Drivers World Championship tends to take presidence even over individual race results, how often in his much-appreciated TV commentaries does Murray Walker refer to the drivers, how infrequently does he name the cars they are driving, for example?
In an age when motor racing saw the mechanical aspects as of equal, even of greater importance than who was in the cockpit, great as these men were, there was a World Championship of Manufacturers long before there was a World Drivers’ Championship. In fact this Manufacturers’ Championship was established thirty-three years before the Championship of drivers. It was decided on a complex points-system that produced one Championship car a year, based the first year 1925, on how the cars were placed or the Grands Prix of France, Belgium, and Italy. and in the Indianapolis 500-mile track race In 1926 and 1927 the Belgium Grand Prix was deleted, being replaced by the British GP run over an artificial road course at Brooklands, but the European GP at San Sebastian was added in scoring towards the 1926 winner, and the Spanish GP was added for scoring in 1927. The winners of the World Championship of Manutacturers in those years were, respectively, Alfa Romeo, Bugatti and Delage.
I do not think anyone will grumble with that. The beautiful supercharged, straight-eight 2-litre P2 Alfa Romeos fully deserved their 1925 Championship. In 1926 the supercharged Grand Prix Bugatti won so many races by sheer numbers and its great road clinging qualities that it was a worthy Champion Indeed. By 1927 Delage had corrected the foot-frying shortcomings of M Lory’s magnificently watch like 1 1/2 litre supercharged team that had troubled their drivers in 1926, so that here was another thoroughly worthy Champion Grand Prix car.
After this motor racing had a period in the doldrums and this Championship lapsed it was re-introduced in 1958. when the FIA gave points to the cars as well as to the drivers in races counting towards the World Championship for the latter. In 1958 and 1959 the first five places in each race were rewarded with, respectively, 8,6, 4. 3 and 2 points, with one point for the car placed sixth being introduced in 1960. The points were increased for 1962 from 8 to 9 for a win, and these points were awarded only to highest placed cars of each make. Thus we have no need to argue which cars were the top runners after 1958. The first such World Champion was Vanwall, with 48 points, a score not exceeded until Lotus gained a total of 54 points, the scoring system by then being more favourable to high scores. Since that first World Championship of Manufacturers it has been won eight times by Ferrari, seven times by Lotus, three times by McLaren, twice by Cooper, Brabharn, and Williams, and once by BRM, Matra and Tyrrell. This is as it should be, because Ferrari is the epitome of F1 racing, with successes scored by cars in which the engines and running gear are made in the same factory…
It now behoves us to consider which were the top road-racing cars before the Manufacturers Championship was instituted in 1925, and in the interim period of 1928 to 1957. There was a paucity of great races at first, making it difficult to access the worth of the competiting makes on a points basis. But one has to accept that in the event that pre-dated the first real motor race, the Paris-Rouen horseless-carriage competition organised by Le Petit Journal in 1894, the fastest vehicle was the De Dion steam tractor, pulling a carriage. It was able to average 11.6 mph for the 78 3/4 miles of the route. However, this was not exactly a race and the top prize was divided between the Panhard et Levassor that had come home fourth behind two of the Peugeots, and the quickest of the Peugeots, on the grounds that whereas all used a 3 1/2 hp vee-twin engine. It was in fact made by the Panhard concern. In any case, the average speed of the Panhard et Levassor was but 0.8 mph slower than that of the quicker Peugeot. Taking a leaf out of the rules for the World Championship of Manufacturers instituted well over sixty years later, in which the make of the engine used in a points-scoring racing car did not influence the Championship (Lotus, in winning seven times between 1958 and 1985 employed Coventry Climax power to take two Championships. Cosworth-Ford V8 engines for the remainder), and applying the 1958 points system to the results of this first-ever Paris-Rouen Run, we find that the low-built Peugeot, with its wire wheels and rear-placed Panhard-built German Daimler engine and tiller-steering, would have won with ten points, to the De Dion steamer’s eight and the Panhard score of five.
By the following year, however, when the first proper motor race took place from Paris-Bordeaux-Paris (732 miles), the Championship score would have been Peugeot 13, Panhard 8, Roger 2. After this Panhard et Levassor forged ahead, with the “crude-but-it-works” sliding-pinion gearbox in the centre of cars conforming to horseless-carriage concepts, that is to say, with a vertical engine at the front, where the horse would be, driving to the back wheels. Moreover, from then until 1904 Panhard built some very successful racing cars, like the 8 hp car which won the great Paris-Marseilles-Paris race of 1896, the 6 hp two-cylinder 90 x 130 mm racers of 1897 and the four-cylinder 8 hp 80 x 120 mm racing car of 1898, which had wheel instead of tiller steering and won the important Paris-Amsterdam-Paris contest. Then came the 12 hp 90 x 130 mm racing Panhard of 1899, with frontal radiator, winner of the 1899 Paris-Bordeaux race, followed by the 16 hp 100 X 140 mm type with which de Knyff won the Tour de France and the 24 hp 110 X 140 mm model, with electric ignition, that was used by Charron to win the first Gordon Bennett contest. By 1902 the fastest racing car was the great 70 hp Panhard with its wooden frame, into which a four-cylinder 150 x 170 mm (12,021 cc) engine had been installed, still with automatic inlet valves, and final-drive by side chains. But we are racing too fast and must pause to access the races of 1896 to 1900 on the 1958 Championship-points basis. The outcome endorses what I have written about Panhard-Levassor supremacy. because they would have won the Championship every year, with 17 points in 1896, 16 in 1897, 73 in 1898 (as more town-totown races were held), 79 in 1899 and 81 in 1900, the only in any way impressive runners-up being Peugeot in 1897 (16 pts ). Peugeot again in 1898 with the same score. Mors in 1899 with 48 pts and Mors in 1900, with 23 pts.
It is to be noted that Mors was moving up and although, in my piece about Champion Drivers, I overlooked the comment by our erudite one-time correspondent “Baladeur” on the 1903 Parrs-Madrid race (stopped at Bordeaux), in which he pointed out that Gabriel had not actually had to overtake 167 other competitors in that distance, as some of them had already retired, others had started after him, and some would be stationary as he went by as I stated. That does not overshadow the respect which both this writer and I feel for the remarkable victory of the wind-cutting 60 hp Mors in winning that difficult race at 65.3 mph — the highest average race-winning speed to date. I believe, and eleven mph better than Jarrott’s winning pace with the huge Panhard at the Circuit des Ardennes the year before. So even if, as “Baladeur” estimated, the flying Gabriel had fewer rivals to pass on the dust-ridden, hazardous road than his starting number suggests, his victory and that of the 60 hp Mors remains a motor-racing epic nevertheless, if we apply the points-system to the leading races of 1901 to 1903 we find that the invincible Panhard-Levassor would have been the Champion-make each time, with 41, 39 and 21 points, respectively, Mors merely the runner-up, and far behind, with 23, 10 and 17 points. Which could be why many converts to the sport of ordinary automobilisrn bought Panhards in those days…
In spite of this impressive Mors performance, during the 1904 season the Panhard was still ahead, or would have been if Championship points had been thought of, with the advanced Mercedes, which so many leading manufacturers were to copy, the runner-up, following Jenatzy’s victory in the 1903 Gordon Bennett race. The latter concept of a truly International contest was now running down and in 1905 the Champion car would have been the Darracq, with Panhard-Levassor, now building racers of 120 hp, hounding it. After that year the GB theme had worn thin, to be replaced by the prestigious French Grand Prix, but Sziszs model win in the first of this new series would have been quite insufficient to gain the Championship for the Billancourt Company, and this would have the preserve of ltala, with the new force of De Dietrich but a single point in arrears.
After that the Fiat forged ahead, and would have led the 1907 Makers’ Championship comfortably from Darracq, aided by the occupying of first place in the 1907 French GP by the inclined overhead-valve, very lofty chain-drive giant, with an engine of 16klitres (at a time when Panhard was up to a 130 hp racer of over 18 1/4 litres) thanks to the brilliant driving of the debonnaire Felice Nazzaro, the Fiats being entered only at the last moment (at double fees, incidentally). The great Italian make would have remained Champion in 1908, with new 12-litre cars, but with the 121-litre Benz from Germany harrying them in races other than the GP, in which no Fiat finished, Lancia’s going out early, Wagner’s smashing a piston, Nazzaro’s breaking its crankshaft. Indeed, Fiat would have had but a single-point lead over Benz at the close of an active 1908 season and it will be remembered that it was the victory of the white i.o.e. 12.8 litre Mercedes in the French GP, followed home by the two Benz, that turned the French Motor Industry against this kind of race until four more years had elapsed.
In the interim period voiturette races flourished and after the French GP was revived in 1912 there is scarcely need for points to establish the Peugeot as the Champion car, of both that year and the one following, so supreme was the Ernest Henry twin-cam multivalve design. But in 1914, on the eve of war, that so dramatic Mercedes 1, 2, 3 domination of the French GP at Lyons got Mercedes in the ascendent, in spite of a single ohc engine and back-wheel brakes, against Peugeot’s use of the classic dohc power unit and now front-wheel brakes, and in fact Delage would have taken second to Mercedes in that final pre-war season, a tribute to another advanced design…
Continuing this imaginary Championship into the post-Armistice period, I will admit right away that I have based it on the points system that was to operate in reality in 1925/6/7, but have applied it to the first three race-placings only. The reason for this is that almost every authority to have written books about such racing has been content with such placings, even Rodney Walkerley in his “Motor Racing Facts and Figures”, the exception being David Venables but his excellent work is concerned with voiturette events. If I had the time I suppose I could have gleaned the remaining race-places from contemporary reports and if anyone has the tenacity to do this, the result might be interesting, although I doubt the effect on the imaginary Championship. In former times three places were used for race results and I see no reason why a fourth or later finish was ever regarded as possessing merit.
Allowing things to settle down, and commencing again in 1921, the Henry-inspired straight-eight Ballot would have easily netted that year’s Championship of Makes, in spite of its surprise defeat by the American Duesenberg in the French GP. With the 2-litre engine-size limit of 1922, the brilliant little twin-cam, 12-valve, rollerbearing Fiats would have been very far in front, with Duesenberg, Ballot and Bugatti tying as runners-up. The 1923 season saw the reward of the supposed Championship going equally to the 2-litre Fiat and Sunbeam, which were almost the same, the latter not yet supercharged, Wolverhampton being a year behind Turin! By 1924 the Champion car was the P2 Alfa Romeo (that was to take the true Championship of 1925), by an enormous margin. This makes extremely good sense, for no-one can deny the superiority at that time of the beautiful supercharged straight-eight cars from Milan, which were giving 165 bhp at 5,500 rpm and which had a top speed of 135 mph, and which, like the 1914 GP Mercedes before them, and the 1 1/2-litre Delages after them, were effective in racing for a long time after this.
In the case of the Delage, Dick Seaman was able to vanquish the ERAs with one which Ramponi had rebuilt for him over ten years after Lory designed it Most writers who recall this omit to mention that in spite of the compression-ratio and boost having been increased, Seaman was able to run 200-mile races without refuelling, impossible on engines which were passing much alcohol past valves and pistons. In 1936 the Delage engine was producing 113 1/2 bhp per litre, an astonishing achievement, taken in conjunction with its ability to turn very fast.
In 1926, as we have seen, Bugatti won the real Manufacturers’ Championship, helped a little by the hot cockpits the Delage drivers had to endure. This put right, Delage took the Championship in 1927, and it has never been more deserved, for any engineer prepared to use 62 roller and ball bearings and a train of 23 gears to drive the ohcamshafts of his racing engine and auxiliaries most be in earnest… After this the real evaluation lapsed, for racing was in something of a decline. Bugatti would have been Champion in 1928, Alfa Romeo in 1929, but not by all that much, with Bugatti again winning very comfortably in 1930, when Maserati was runner-up, or would have been were this not now a game in which, incidentally, I have worked in all the important GP-type races year by year, not just selected ones.
Bugatti predominated in 1931 but in 1932 and 1933 Alfa Romeo was very much the top racing-car, after which the splendid P3 monoposto had to give best to the Mercedes-Benz onslaught, although it is interesting that these two makes would in my book have had to share the Makes’ Championship of 1934 — a sort of Mussolini/Hitler alliance, as it were. After that of course, the German teams, with the kind of financial backing that enabled their engineers to overcome the intended speed-restrictions of a maximum dry-weight limit of 750 kg, were the top-cars, and in some very spectacular races. Mercedes-Benz were at first in some trouble from the rear-engined Auto-Unions but had shaken off this threat by 1935 — those who wish to study how it worked out will find it recorded in the war-time copies of Motor Sport. But had there then been a World Championship of Manufacturers Mercedes-Benz would have won it easily, after that tie in 1934, up to 1939.
For me their finest car was the W125, of 1937, developing 646 bhp from 5.66-litres, which would take it to 195 mph on a suitable road circuit, but perhaps I am biased on account of the excitement of seeing these so-efficiently presented, and excitingly fast and noisy cars in action at Donington, in the company of Neil Eason-Gibson’s super-enthusiastic father, over forty years ago…
After the second war had replaced the one to end all wars, there was the proper World Championship of Makes from 1958 and up to that year I think it can be said that when the non-supercharged 4 1/2 litre monsters first battled against the blown 1 1/2-litre cars, this Championship, had it been instituted, would have been won by the Alfettas in 1947,46 and 50, with Maserati in the lead in 1949, but with the challenge from the big V12 Ferraris, that had over 350 bhp in cars weighing less than a ton, beginning to count thereafter. In fact, Ferrari would have won my imaginary Championship in 1951/52 and ’53. The GP Formula then changed to non-supercharged 2 1/2-litre cars, perhaps more in keeping with the public’s understanding, inasmuch as turbocharging, nee supercharging, was not then found on ordinary cars. Under this ruling, until the advent of a real World Championship of Manufacturers we can fill in the winners as 1954, Ferrari; 1955, Mercedes-Benz; 1956, Lancia-Ferrari; 1957, Maserati. I will not attempt a “progressive” Championship because Doug Nye (letter last month) is quite correct in saying I cheated by not taking into account the number of races held each year. I was aware of this, but it was but a bit of fun, intended to make one think. I enjoyed his dig that I must be 101 to write about distant history, having said one should only discuss what one has seen — but a historian can only apply this to events in his own lifetime, Doug, who presumably knows what I mean…
I have been tempted to consider the greatest drives by these top racing cars along the years but for space considerations and the thought that whereas an inferior driver can sometimes appear to be proficient in a top-class racing car, an inferior car usually exerts a great handicap even on a Championship driver, albeit the reverse can also apply. — W.B.