Sir Henry Segrave had a reputation for audacity, but 90 years ago a conservative approach helped him to win the French GP at Tours - a landmark success that reflected his happy knack of making things happen...
writer Paul Fearnley
French manufacturers were struck down with a weird strain of Grand Prix fever in July 1923. Gabriel Voisin's aptly titled Laboratoire, a semimonocoque device with perversely accentuated aerodynamics and smoky sleeve-valve six-cylinder, was a Futurist statement befitting Le Corbusier's preferred automobile designer. Quirkish Ettore Bugatti, who rolled out a 'Barrel' for the corresponding race the previous year, built a 'Tank' this time. Looking more like a hump in the road than an instrument of war, the Type 32's stubby footprint demanded intense concentration and reactions from drivers compromised by a cramped working environment shared directly with a thrashing straight-eight.
The cars of hometown Rolland-Pilain, outwardly conventional save for being left-hand drive, had ditched their too bold desmodromic valve actuation. But one of the three entries still featured an experimental straight-six fitted with Dr Schmid's cuff-type sleeve valves; it failed to take the start and the idea failed to take hold.
Finally, Delage had taken upon itself to build the first V12 GP engine. A slurring whirligig of roller bearings that provided a terrific aural assault and fierce acceleration, its complexity caused severe delays and this otherwise orthodox car arrived at Tours almost terminally late. This singleton entry would at least start; and its big idea would eventually take hold.
Amid this, Fiat of Turin provided a coolly red oasis of calm, form following function where innovative supercharging, another GP first, blended with convention. The dominant force of the 1922 Grand Prix de l'ACF at Strasbourg — despite a flawed back-axle design that almost cost it victory and claimed the life of driver Biagio Nazzaro — arrived stylishly late for practice and immediately set the pace on a typically triangular, steeply crowned, narrow course of converging routes nationales. The low-slung 805 was neat and natty — from its cowled prow to perky tail — rather than nutty. And its engine, boosted by a Wittig vane-type blower, was by far the most powerful 2-litre at 130bhp. In short this car went, stopped and did all things in between much better than rivals.
'Fiat did not copy: it taught, after having created' was a supporter's pithy refrain.
It wasn't wholly true — Fiat had only recently joined the straight-eight path forged by Ballot in 1919 — but it made a cutting point: the leafgreen Sunbeams' new design bore a striking resemblance to the six-cylinder 1922 Fiats. How could it not? It had been conceived by high-profile signings from Italy: Vincenzo Bertarione and Walter Becchia had swapped Turin's bright lights for Britain's Black Country.
The Sunbeam Motor Car Co Ltd's ambitious, diverse and fecund racing department reflected its energising force: Louis Herve Coatalen, a silver-tongued driver/engineer from Brittany. Having joined the nascent firm in 1909 as its chief engineer, he swiftly ran out of originality steam. He knew his limitations but preferred not to talk of them. Instead he spent lavishly to copy and/or employ his betters — as 'assistants' of course — to keep up his oft-stated pressure of improving the breed through competition.
His first big-name signing was Ernest Henry, the Swiss engineer who had collated, codified and coalesced the ideas of a fervent group into the influential pre-war GP Peugeots. Alone, he had also created the above Ballot of the immediate post-war period. He stuggled, however, to work with Coatalen. Sunbeam's factory effort at Strasbourg was sidelined by endemic valve failures caused by a panicky reduction of final-drive ratio, combined with under-reading rev-counters. Henry blamed Coatalen, who liked to reaffirm who was boss. In turn Coatalen, ruthless beneath a charming sheen, felt, probably rightly, that Henry's best years were behind him. Divorce was inevitable.
The 1923 Sunbeam was not a barefaced copy. 'Honeymooning' Bertarione and Becchia, denied the ultimate say at Fiat, took this opportunity to incorporate more of their ideas. Such empowerment was one reason they were tempted across. They simplified Fiat's dohc drive, reduced the valve angle and bore:stroke, and found 16bhp. The chassis, transmission and running gear were little changed, however.
Multinational — it had become in 1920 part of the unwieldy, politicised Anglo-French Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq combine — and multi-faceted, Sunbeam assembled a suitably non-uniform array of talent to drive its 'Green Fiats'. Irish-born Kenelm Lee Guinness was its established ace. A scion of the brewing family, and thus wealthy even before the success of his KLG spark plug concern, this Cambridge graduate had scored important victories for it prior to WWI. Team-mate Albert Divo of Paris was an experienced riding mechanic made good. The squad's third member, however, was distinctly new-generation.
Henry O'Neal De Hane Segrave was old-school English: prep, Eton, Sandhurst. But of Huguenot descent and landed Irish extraction, he had been born in go-ahead Baltimore, USA. Having bucked trends by surviving spells as a British Expeditionary Force officer — all waving Webley and glinting braid in snipers' sights — and novice pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, he sought a more controllable fix of excitement within motor sport and entered the car trade with Captain Alastair Miller.
The latter owned a brace of 1914 GP Opels, and it was with one of these that Segrave won at only his second attempt: the 1920 Whitsun Sprint Handicap at Brooklands. Never one to let the grass grow beneath his feet, the 23-yearold newcomer had already befriended `KLG' and begun badgering Coatalen for a works drive. The latter initially kept his enthusiasm in check: the wide spaces of the Surrey speedbowl were no preparation, he intoned, for the thankless confines of Continental road racing. Even when he did relent, he made no bones of the fact that he felt Segrave was destined to fail.
This reverse psychology — if that's what it was — worked. An overstretched STD, only recently returned from Indianapolis, put its keenly naïve junior through the ringer at Le Mans for the 1921 GP de l'ACF. Yet he overcame every travail, every menial task and every puncture — all 14! — to finish an uncompetitive, misfiring but resolute ninth. His probationary period was extended.
At Strasbourg, he was the best prepared of Sunbeam's drivers, strategically, mechanically, physically and mentally. He was also the fastest and most durable. That he persevered despite burns caused by sitting in a pool of spilt petrol reinforced the feeling that this prematurely bald, gawky, hawkish fellow possessed the necessary spirit as well as speed to succeed. All he needed was the right car — and a bit of luck.
Worryingly the 1923 Sunbeams proved a darting handful on the 14.2-mile Touraine circuit. But not until Fiat got into its swift stride was the British team's plight contextualised: Italian firebrand Pietro Bordino lapped more than half a minute faster than Segrave's best. It was Strasbourg all over again.
This time, however, Segrave plumped for discretion rather than his favoured valour. Fastidious research had convinced him that major races, at 500 miles and almost seven hours, rarely fell to the swiftest. He planned a conservative approach accordingly, a ruse that a conveniently laissez-faire Coatalen neither condoned nor countermanded. Not that Segrave had any choice in the matter when his clutch began to slip early in the 35-lap race.
Bordino streaked from the two-abreast rolling start into a much-anticipated lead, and held it for eight laps while KLG gave energetic, game pursuit. The latter's endeavour paid off when Fiat blew its best chance. Bordino was almost four minutes ahead when the lowmounted, unshielded blower inlet of his galloping 805 ingested debris from a road ripped and rutted by preceding races for motorbikes and, more deleteriously, blundering touring cars. The same fate also befell teammate Enrico Giaccone who, though not as fast, was sufficiently competitive to lead immediately prior to his first pit stop at one-third distance.
KLG's clutch had begun to slip by this stage and riding mechanic Bill Perkins, head dipped below the scuttle, all but fainted because of his tug o' war to hold the car in mesh using an improvised hawser looped around the pedal. In contrast, Segrave's suddenly snapped into place after 300 miles of a tedious, enforced go-slow. Sunbeam had relined its clutches the day before the race and attached a metal stop to its gearbox casings to prevent the pedal falling forwards onto the floor. In doing so it also prevented full engagement as the units bedded in — until Segrave's stop fortuitously came adrift, belatedly to release a fully functioning car preserved in the peak of condition.
Segrave considered victory beyond his reach but, having spent two weeks practising pit stops and all manner of possible roadside repairs with dextrous mechanic Paul Dutoit, plus fine-tuning his fast-corner technique and studying and timing his rivals, he wasn't going to die wondering. He made things happen.
Panic is strange. At his final scheduled refuelling stop, conscious of a reinvigorated Segrave, second-placed Divo contrived to jam his filler cap. He and mechanic Jules Moriceau went madly at the offending item with a chisel for 18 minutes, then realised that a lap at a time using only the reserve tank might be a better strategy. By which time Segrave was long gone.
As was Carlo Salamano in the remaining Fiat. Yet his crew, also befuddled by Segrave's spurt, unnecessarily gave him the 'All out!' signal. With little more than two laps to go, his mechanic Feretti arrived at the pits. On foot. He had run full pelt the 1.5 miles from the stranded machine and "benzina" was all he could gasp. His dismay at being told that he and not a substitute must return with the hefty churn was palpable. And, no, he could not use a bicycle. It made no difference — the car had suffered the same terminal fate as its sisters.
Segrave wasn't to know of course. He wrote in his 1928 autobiography The Lure of Speed: "Every noise in the engine seemed magnified a hundredfold, every corner seemed impossible, my brain refused to work in complete co-ordination with my hands and feet. I think that of the 27 miles there were to go, at least 17 were covered looking backwards over the tail of the car in terror."
It was with much relief, therefore, that he crossed the finishing line, stone deaf but delighted, after more than six-and-a-half hours of toil under a summer's sun. A British full-shot GP car had never before finished higher than fifth in this Blue Riband event, yet Sunbeam had come within a late spin and stall for Guinness of registering a 1-2-3. And yet a British car — with home-brewed adapted pump engine and telling technical input from a couple of Australians — would not win it again until 1960.
Matters might have been different had Sunbeam not been persuaded to fit new-spec Bosch magnetos on the eve of the 1924 French GP at Lyon. Segrave, his car now boosted by a Roots-type supercharger, set the fastest lap and led the early stages ahead of Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Delage and Fiat, only for an incurable misfire to relegate him to an eventual fifth.
That The Lure of Speed barely mentions the 1925 GP, held on an artificial Montlhery track that held no interest for him, indicated that Britain's guiding light was drifting from his GP course. A different type of speed appealed and he took Coatalen and Sunbeam with him to break the 200mph Land Speed Record barrier on Daytona Beach in March 1927.
Such a success — to be the fastest man in the world — was undoubtedly bigger news in a Britain starved of and thus generally ignorant of road racing because of an unwillingness to close its roads to host such events. Not that any of this did — or would — have saved Sunbeam as Coatalen knew it. The company never was paid for vital war work, while a tightening global economy sat uneasily with the vast expense of an overmanned works racing team.
Segrave had long sussed which way the wind was blowing. He wrote: "Times have changed and racing has become by no means the easy, cheap, convenient and certain method of advertising that it once seemed to be. When the inevitable — the bad-luck year — arrives, and the racing programme is found to have absorbed a sum quite big enough to have turned a loss into a profit, shareholders are apt to get a bit restive.
"The sporting side, I think, will unfortunately fall into the background since, under modern economic pressure and the intensity of the struggle for industrial existence, fewer and fewer out-and-out racing cars will be built." He was right: Formule Libre loomed.
He struck out on his own for his final successful LSR attempt, using his fame and contacts to raise finance, from Portland Cement of all places, as well as BP, for the construction and running of the 231mph Golden Arrow of March 1929. By which time he was preoccupied with setting a World Water Speed Record and building aircraft using a similar modus operandi. He needed, and so created, the swift decision-making process that Sunbeam was no longer able or willing to give him.
The disastrous Silver Bullet Land Speed Record attempt of 1930 was the silver bullet for Coatalen's regime. Despite his tireless efforts, a company denied a home outlet was destined to remain an outpost of road racing.
Three months later Segrave, a man knighted for his efforts, who in time perhaps could have inspired Britain, when it was good and ready, to build on his Tours de force with Sunbeam, was killed when his speedboat Miss England II struck a submerged object on Lake Windermere. It was Friday June 13, 1930.
Instead, only when the sport came to them via prototypical ex-WWII airfield circuits were Britain's nimble specialists able to push on from a praiseworthy but ultimately blind summit.