Robert Benoist v Ayrton Senna
Writing this before the outcome of the Mexican Grand Prix I do not know whether Ayrton Senna will have recovered his unbroken run of successes for McLaren-Honda this year. But as I write, there is some excitement among those who plunge themselves into statistics that the great Brazilian driver has already set some sort of record or target by having won the first four 1991 F1 races in succession. That apart, McLaren-Honda are the dominant make in modern Grand Prix racing and it will be interesting to see if the team, or the invincible Senna for that team, wins every remaining race this year.
Of course, as all good students of motor racing history know, there has been significant race domination in the past. The outstanding chain of victories by the Type 159 1-1/2-litre Alfa Romeos in 1950 comes to mind immediately, followed by the run of Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz successes. But without delving for too long into masses of dull figures, I think I am correct in saying that no great driver of the past — Ascari, Fangio or whoever — has opened a season by scoring wins four times in a row, as Senna has done this year. Why do I write in recent times?” Because we should not overlook the performances achieved by the French driver Robert Benoist, during the vintage years. You the reader may well say that I must be out of my mind to compare two such very different periods of motor racing, that the competition was sparse when Benoist took to the circuits and that conditions are now far different at the more sophisticated tracks over which Ayrton Senna demonstrates his remarkable and eminently praiseworthy skills. That the cars are faster, more powerful and all the rest of the arguments can be brought to bear. I don’t mind! To me motor racing is motor racing and if the scale and technical proficiency is not questionnable, why cannot we take a look back to some very fine drives by Benoist, and performances by Delage, even if they took place nearly 65 years ago? Prompted, you see, because Senna is doing so splendidly for McLaren-Honda at the present time. Unless my memory has faltered, and if it has you will be ready to tell me, I do not think any other make has dominated Grand Prix racing in the way that Delage did in 1927.
Before the 1914/18 war there were too few annual contests to make such a point, although there were dominant marques even then. But between the wars racing at this level expanded and one or two makes became outstanding — Bugatti won almost everything by the totted up scores, the Louis Coatalen Talbot-Darracqs earned the title Invincible, as Motor Sport told some years ago, but in the 1-1/2-litre Grand Prix division, it was left to Delage to show total dominance and Benoist, their No 1 driver, to achieve, as a statistic if you like, what even Senna has not yet done.
However different the motor racing scene then, Louis Delage thought it worth spending about £800,000 in today’s values to run a racing programme. He had M Lory to engineer for him the cars he proposed to race in 1926 and 1927, under the 1-1/2-litre GP formula which had replaced the 2-litre formula prevailing from 1922 to 1925. Apart from the limit to engine capacity, the new formula required that at first the cars weighed not less than 600kg increased to 700kg for 1927 and that the bodies were not less than 80cm in width, increased by 5cm for 1927. Not many people worried about minimum weight in those days, leaving this to Mercedes and Auto-Union with access to new light-alloys and the desire to use big engines, a decade later.
Under the 2-litre formula Delage had had M Plancton produce for him an advanced V12, which was supercharged for 1925, when it developed nearly 200 bhp and netted for him the French and Spanish GPs and the Championship of Europe. Something a little less complicated was deemed a good idea for the 1500cc racing and, aided by M Gauthier, Lory came up with those splendid straight-eight Delage racing cars, which by 1927 were poking out 170 bhp at 8000 rpm in a car weighing 15.8 cwt unladen or 19.3 cwt on the starting-line. The project was not all that much less complicated, when you consider that Lory used a twin-cam engine of 55.8 x 76mm (1488cc) with two valves per cylinder at an included angle of 100 deg, the camshaft driven by a train of gears, a crankshaft running in nine roller bearings, roller big-ends and dry-sump lubrication, and that in the original design the number of gears all running on roller-races totalled 23. The camshafts ran on ball-bearings, one on each side of each cam and there were triple valve springs. Lubrication was dry-sump. In all, there were 62 ball or roller-races in the engine.
This 1926/27 GP Delage was as advanced as any racing car of its time. I have seen its theoretical top speed quoted as 162 mph and it actually was able to reach nearly 130 mph at 7500 rpm in the fourth gear of its five-speed gearbox. If it had any shortcomings as seen on the drawingboard it was that it was a long power unit, measuring 4 ft 7 in from front to the rear u/j, behind the unit gearbox, installed in a rather too whippy frame, which probably restricted somewhat the car’s full potential. At a time when Talbot, Thomas Special and other cars were making use of underslung chassis, Delage did this only at the back; the front axle was underslung but not the frame at this point, it being above the half-elliptic springs.
We all make mistakes and this Lory did in his 1926 design. He had the engine exhausting on the off-side, presumably having miscalculated the amount of heat his efficient engine would dispel. This resulted in the cockpit getting fearfully over-hot, to the extent of actually burning the driver’s feet. It was to lose the cars all but the 1926 British GP, and Benoist won that only because there were inexperienced take-over drivers present to give the aces a chance to dunk their blistered feet. The problem was probably accentuated because the driver sat low down to reduce frontal area (the top of the scuttle was only 2 ft 11 in from the ground) by having the transmission biased four inches to the near-side. The re-design put the exhaust ports on the nearside, but Lory had to dispense with twin superchargers, and put a single Roots blower at the front of the engine, using rotors twice as long to get a boost of 7lb/sq in. At the same time he increased the diameter of the camshafts and stiffened up the steering connections. He now had a thoroughly effective racing car, as you shall see. Incidentally, I recently heard Murray Walker telling his TV audiences that today’s F1 cars will do about 90 mph in bottom gear; the 1-1/2-litre Delage would do over 60 in first, 65 years ago.
As a curtain-raiser to the 1927 season Louis Delage sent 32 year-old Robert Benoist to Montlhéry in March, to compete in the GP de l ‘Ouverture. The lone Delage should have raced against Albert Divo in a 1-1/2-litre Talbot, both of which gave 500cc to the majority of the field in this 2-litre 155 mile race over the road circuit. But the Talbot was a non-starter and in the rain Benoist ran away with it, finishing two laps ahead of the second car home, a 1-1/2-litre Bugatti. It was a forecast of finer things to come.
It was now a case of running in the full International Grand Prix races. The first of these races was the French GP in July, over the full road/track Montlhéry course. Delage had nominated Robert Benoist, who had gained experience with Salmsons, and had come to Brooklands where he won the 1100cc class of the JCC 200 Mile Race in 1922, Edward Boulier, who had driven Talbots for STD, and Andre Morel, the Amilcar driver. Robert Senechal, who had assisted during the “frying” problems of 1926, was appointed spare driver.
At the last minute Bugatti withdrew, to howls of derision from the grandstands it was said, so the contest was between the Delage and Talbot teams, backed up by Eyston’s Halford Special, a car you can still see racing at VSCC meetings. They were flagged away by the trans-Atlantic pilot Levine. Any excitement was contained in seeing Divo’s Talbot lead Benoist, and Wagner, also in a Talbot, set a record lap in making up time after stalling at the start. After four laps, however, Benoist got ahead and held that place to the finish. The lap record fell again and again, Williams (Talbot) doing 81.28 mph in chasing the Delage after Divo had fallen back. Benoist responded with 81.5, then 81.99 mph, rather as Senna does today.
Interest was to some extent maintained by the battle between the rivals Diva and Benoist although by quarter-distance the Delage was 11 minutes ahead. Tyres were lasting about 170 miles. Delage pit-work was good; Benoist and his Italian mechanic were very quick — note that the driver and his riding mechanic had to do this work themselves in those days. By half-distance Boulier was second to Benoist, Wagner a lap behind them, Divo out with suspected valve failure. Benoist made two pit-stops and Morel had problems, so Wagner was still in the hunt. But when the Talbot retired, the Delage team ran 1, 2, 3. In this dominant placing they crossed the line, Benoist averaging 77.24 mph for the 372.7 mile race. He had been driving for fractionally more than 4-3/4 hours. The cars were on a fuel mix of petrol/benzole/alcohol/ether, Champion plugs and Dunlop tyres.
Next, it was the Spanish GP at San Sebastian. Only seven started, the Talbots this time being the absentees. There was a strenuous battle between Benoist and Materassi’s Bugatti, the latter at one time 3 min 30 sec ahead which ended when the latter hit a wall nine laps from the finish. The Delage was then two seconds behind and in the resulting dust-cloud Benoist spun round, received an OK signal from his adversary, and continued, to win at 80.5 mph for the 430 miles. Conelli (Bugatti) was second, Boulier’s Delage third, but Morel had plug trouble. Benoist set a lap record of 85.41 mph for the twisting Lasarte circuit.
So convinced was Louis Delage that he had demonstrated satisfactorily the superiority of his cars that he did not intend to contest the European GP at Monza. But in the end he let Benoist take one Delage. After a dry summer, rain fell heavily at Monza that September, as six cars lined up for this important Grand Prix. Fiat had withdrawn and although Bordino with the new 12-cylinder arrived after frantic repairs, to win an opening 50km race at an excellent 92.88 mph, he did not run in the GP. So Benoist was up against two Miller-powered FWD Marmon Specials, a Duesenberg, and two hastily-entered OMs. He easily ran away from these to win at 90.04 mph, for the 311 miles, his best lap at 94.31 mph. He won by some 34 miles, in spite of a stop for fuel and oil. Having taken the title of European Champion (he was later to be awarded the Legion D’Honneur, which George Eyston once hinted to me he valued about as much as if he had received a British Knighthood), Benoist declined to start in the 50km GP of Milan that day, saying he was tired and that the Italian fuel was not quite what the Delage engine liked. So Bordino’s Fiat won that race, at 96.49 mph, and why he wasn’t in the GP proper is a mystery.
Perhaps persuaded by his English concessionaires, J Smith & Co of Albemarle Street W1, Louis Delage sent his team over to Brooklands for the second British GP, run over an artificial road-course. (The concessionaires took an advertising banner across the bridge over the Finishing straight, victory before a British crowd no doubt being thought useful in promoting the new side-valve 15.7hp and handsome 31hp six-cylinder Delage cars at Olympia later in October, shown with closed bodies, priced, respectively, at £655 and £820). The race had 16 entrants, of which 11 started — the Delage team, with Albert Divo now in the third car, six Bugattis, and two Thomas Specials; this time it was Alvis who had withdrawn. Divo led off, after an initial burst by Materassi’s Bugatti, and after two laps the Delage were in 1, 2, 3 formation. Their flexing chassis may have caused the front wheel flap under braking and the skids at the turns, but their speed and acceleration were superior to those of their rivals. Divo’s lead ended when a near-side tyre began to deflate. It was changed, and the car refuelled, in 2m 18s. The positions of the dominant Delage cars changed with their pit-stops (Boulier 2m; Benoist, who changed both back wheels, 2m 14s) but by three-quarter distance they were almost 16 miles ahead of Chiron’s Bugatti, their pit showing the drivers the Slow signal. Without ever extending his engine, Benoist won, at 85.59 mph for the 325 miles, followed home by Boulier and Divo, the latter having had two more stops due to a loose silencer (a crime to lose this, at Brooklands). Divo also complained of the heat, although drizzly rain had fallen, plastering Benoist’s face with mud. Chiron was fourth, over 10 mph slower than the winning Delage.
Indeed, the Delage cars had never been fully opened up, running at 6800 rpm instead of at their customary 7500 rpm. They were giving about 10 mpg of fuel. M Delage himself was in the pits to control them, and to congratulate Benoist after the finish. So there it is — five consecutive wins, four in International Grands Prix, like Senna this year. Benoist could not score any more, as the 1927 season was over, but by the time this is in print we shall know whether Ayrton has improved his score. Those GP Delages had an impeccable record. The only 1927 retirement was Morel’s (after which Divo replaced him), and I believe that in 1926/27 they started in seven races, won five, and were 1, 2, 3 in two.
Practice apart, in 1927 they ran some 3600 racing miles, with just that one retirement, and whereas Senna worked a total of 7hr 7min 32.7sec to achieve his four consecutive 1991 Fl wins, Benoist in four GPs drove for 17hr 22m 40.2sec. After 1927 Delage retired his invincible cars. The present generation that goes to F1 events or watches them on TV would be justified in thinking that spectators were mad to go to the pre-war GPs with so few runners, to have to wait half-an-hour if they wanted to see who was fourth at Montlhéry or Monza, or indeed to watch races with only four finishers. I see it differently. Surely the fact that such dull events still attracted good crowds, 100,000 for the French GP, and a big attendance at the British GP, shows the great enthusiasm there has always been for motor racing?
At Brooklands in practice before the 1927 British GP the Delage cars apparently lapped the course at 90 mph and the outer circuit at 120 mph. In the race, timed over a kilometre at a slow part of the Track, Benoist was doing 102.61 mph. (Four years later WB Scott’s Delage lapped Brooklands at 122.37 mph.) After the Delage Company had retired from GP racing Benoist drove Bugattis, winning at Le Mans with Wimille, aged 52 at the time when he managed Bugatti’s Paris showrooms. During the war he joined the Resistance, was captured by the Germans and executed at Buchenwald by the Gestapo in 1944.– WB
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