The Swiss who opened the account

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In the spring of 1949, a Maserati driver from Switzerland became the first man to win a British Grand Prix. Five decades on Baron Emmanuel de Graffenried talks to Simon Taylor

A tall, upright figure, elegant in blazer and tie, white hair and moustache lending him a patrician air: you see him at Monte Carlo or Silverstone, swapping old racing anecdotes in several fluent languages, shaking hands on the grid with people who matter, or presiding over meetings of the Association des Anciens Pilotes. For this distinguished man is indeed an ancient pilot: he is Baron Emmanuel “Toulo” de Graffenried, the winner of the first race to be called the British Grand Prix.

Toulo is Swiss, the first from his country to win a post-war Grand Prix (and still one of only three, with Jo Siffert and Clay Regazzoni). He is 84 now: but meeting him in the bar of the Hotel Metropole in Monte Carlo where he has stayed during Grand Prix week for half a century the first impressions are of a clear blue-eyed gaze, a firm handshake and a broad grin that shows a lot of straight white teeth. The teeth can be seen in almost any photograph of Toulo hunched up in the cockpit of one of his Maseratis in the 1940s and early 1950s, because when racing his lips would draw back in an involuntary grimace, giving him an expression of desperate effort.

In fact his style was always one of unflurried, reliable consistency. As a private owner, he needed to avoid mechanical disasters at all costs. He’d raced first in the 1936 Milk Miglia in an Alfa, and then began sportscar racing around pre-war Europe with an American friend, John Dupuy, in a pair of 1500cc Maseratis. “Our aim always was to finish. We went everywhere: Italy, Germany, France. The old Donington you went under that narrow bridge part way round the track. And the Isle of Man, in the pouring rain, where I first met Prince Bira. He became a very good friend, and eventually my team-mate.”

Just after the war, at a race in Marseilles, Toulo met Enrico Plate. “He was a Maserati driver from Milan, but he was also a fantastic mechanic. He wanted to give up driving, and he offered me his car for a race in Geneva. After that we worked together, and we were friends, we were a team. Later it became a two-car team: Taruffi or Schell in the other car at first, and then Bira.”

Apart from a spell in 1951, when he joined the works Alfa Romeo team (he substituted for the injured Sanesi, and drove a 159 into fifth place in his home GP), Toulo’s partnership with Plate was to last virtually his entire racing career. Then, in a freak accident in the 1954 Buenos Aires Grand Prix, Plate was knocked down in the pith by an inexperienced local driver, and died on his way to hospital. The grieving de Graffenried more or less retired from racing there and then although he had a last outing in the 1956 Italian GP in a Scuderia Centro-Sud Maserati 250F. Typically he brought it home, just out of the points in seventh place.

That memorable win at Silverstone, on May 14th 1949, came on Scuderia Plate’s second visit to the new airfield circuit. De Graffenried and Bira had run Plate Maserati 4CLTs the year before in the inaugural meeting, when Toulo had distinguished himself by going off the track and severing the cable to the public-address system. But he still got the now overheating car home, in ninth place.

Scuderia Plate’s resources were always limited. Apart from Enrico himself, there were just two mechanics to look after the two cars. Toulo often drove the van as well, so the weary mechanics who always had a lot of work still to do on the cars once they arrived could snatch some sleep. Toulo chuckles at the thought of one of today’s Formula One drivers forsaking his executive jet to drive one of the transporters…

On that first 1948 trip, having driven across war-ravaged France, they docked tired and hungry at Dover and went in search of a meal. It was their first taste of our post-war austerity. “British food then was, you know, like nothing else in the world. Terrible. They brought us porridge. Plate had never seen such a thing before. He thought it was some strange sort of pasta, and trying to make it eatable he poured olive oil over it. After that we learned to stop at those, you know, transport cafes, and there the food was fine.”

He has much fonder memories of the hotel they found near the circuit, which became a fixture on all future Silverstone visits. He doesn’t remember which town or village it was in, but the name has remained with him: The Comhill Hotel. “It was a wonderful place. The very grand lady owner had a French boyfriend, very different from her, from Marseille. It was an interesting situation for England in those days…”

In 1949, on their way from Dover to Silverstone on the tortuous county roads of the day, they got lost more than once many of the signposts removed as a war-security measure had still not been replaced and so they missed the first day’s practice altogether. Prince Bira meanwhile had turned up looking as immaculate as ever in his Farina-bodied road-going Maserati coupe, and in the second day’s session he and Toulo qualified second and fourth on the front row of the five-four-five grid, split by Peter Walker’s indecently quick ERA. Then the cars were taken back to the Comhill Hotel’s garage for final overnight preparation.

Race day was clear and warm. The low-chassis 4CLT Maseratis, particularly the works car of Villoresi, were the pre-race favourites in the 24-car field, but the Lago-Talbots had huge fuel tanks and were said to be able to do the full four-hour race without a pitstop. It was the first time Silverstone’s perimeter track had been used in its entirety, avoiding the main runways and tracing more or less the same route that has remained to this day except that an absurdly tight chicane was created out of straw bales and marker barrels at Club Corner. It was very unpopular with the drivers, and was not used again.

From the start Villoresi and Bira began a tremendous wheel-to-wheel battle for the lead which lasted for the first hour or more, while de Graffenried paced himself back in fourth place ahead of the Talbot of Chiron. Eventually Villoresi’s engine ran its bearings, and then Bira hit a marker barrel at the chicane and bent his front axle. Reg Parnell’s Maserati inherited the lead until an oil leak intervened: the track became very slippery, and John Bolster’s ERA turned over at Stowe, injuring him seriously. Chiron’s transmission broke and the gallant Walker, driving bare-headed and without goggles, survived a hair-raising trip across a cornfield when his brakes failed.

All this left the metronome-regular de Graffenried in front. He made two fuel stops: Motor Sport records his second one, including jumping out for a quick drink and donning a fresh set of goggles, as taking a brisk 25 seconds. The unemployed Villoresi had now become his pit signaller: “He was giving me the gap to Bob Gerard in second place, but then as Gerard’s exhaust note went flat he just held up a board with a single word: Bien.”

So Toulo reeled out the last 150 miles ahead of Gerard’s elderly ERA and Rosier’s Talbot, which as predicted had not stopped for fuel. “Once I finally allowed myself to think that I might win, those final laps were a nightmare. I was afraid that the engine would not hold out, and my eyes were stuck on the oil-pressure gauge for lap after lap. But my luck stayed with me. I was still there when the chequered flag was waved, and I’d won by just over a minute.

“After the slowing-down lap my mechanics pushed me to the winner’s enclosure and I got the laurel wreath from Countess Howe. Then we all went back to the hotel. It was a beautiful English summer’s evening and we celebrated, as you say, not wisely but too well.” The broad grin becomes the famous grimace as, across almost 50 years, Baron Emmanuel de Graffenried relives the next morning’s hangover.

So, if any Motor Sport reader knows if the Cornhill Hotel still exists in any form, give me directions and I’ll pass them on to Toulo. When he comes to the Coys Festival at Silverstone for the half-century celebrations in a few weeks’ time he’d like to go there, and revive over a glass of good English beer a few memories of the day, 49 years ago, when he won his greatest victory.

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