By our Continental Correspondent.
Since the Townshend Ferry's T.T.S. Halladale transported me swiftly across the Channel, with a surprising lack of fuss and bother, many miles have been covered in pursuit of the racing calendar, even though the season is only just fully under way. Journeying through France, Italy and Belgium it is interesting to view the progress being made in road mending and construction. Stretches of road in France, which last year were a shambles of bulldozers and lorries, are now wide straight roads, perfect in surface and able to carry the ever-increasing traffic for many years to come. The French are using remarkable intelligence in parts of the south in their reconstruction programme, for on hillsides of such gradients as 1 in 15, where the original roads made a sweeping S, in order to assist horse-drawn traffic or primitive early motoring pioneers, the S is being eliminated and a wide straight road is being built directly up the hillside, easily surmountable by the most heavily loaded 2CV Citroën. There is evidence of this type of planning in many places and it indicates that Continental road authorities are well aware of present-day and future conditions.
The journey down through Italy to Naples, while long, was none the less interesting and had I not been on my way to a Grand Prix I could not have escaped a certain motoring atmosphere about the journey. From France, along the Mediterranean coast one follows the Via Aurelius as far as Rome, passing over the Passe di Bracco just outside Genoa and from Rome to Naples one takes the Via Appia and passes signposts leading to the villages of Artena and Ardea. It is not surprising that Lancia has a big following in Italy. The new 2.9-litre V6 competition Lancias are making a big impression, with the third place in the Mille Miglia and winning the Targo Florio, and the thoroughness and size of the firm's racing organisation gives every indication that the rumoured 1954 Grand Prix team will soon be a certainty. For the present season Lancia opposition in sports car racing is not only most welcome, but is fast becoming a serious power, with drivers such as Taruffi, Bracco, Bonetto and Manzon driving for them, together with the up-and-coming men such as Maglioli, Anselmi and Bonomi and Colombo's influence in the design department, Ferrari and Alfa-Romeo will not only have to watch each other.
In 1950 the Alfa-Romeo factory caused quite a stir in racing circles by withdrawing their team of 159 cars from all competition for the complete season to the accompaniment of various reasons, official and unofficial. Of all the reasons given, the one I personally favoured was that the factory was about to go into serious production with a family saloon and the jig and tool department, who normally serviced the racing cars, were going to need a complete season to prepare for this new production model. The 159 team reappeared again in 1951 and the production family saloon turned out to be the 1900 model, the four-cylinder twin overhead camshaft four-seater. Since being in Italy this season the wisdom of Alfa-Romeo's action in 1950 has become increasingly obvious, for the north half of Italy is literally seething with 1900 Alfa-Romeo models and the increase in numbers since last year is quite remarkable.
The standard four-seater saloon is to be seen everywhere, and the "Sprint" model, which is lower, lighter and shorter, and has wire wheels and close-coupled coupé body is, to me, more desirable than an Aurelia Gran Turismo, while some of the special bodies on the "Sprint" chassis, such as that by Carozzia-Touring make the mouth water. On this question of the popularity of models you return to France and to the other end of the motoring scale. The discerning French public have really taken the 2CV Citroën to heart and there are now many more about the roads than either Renault 4CV or Dyna-Panhard. The object of the 2CV was to provide transport as reliable and cheap to run as a horse and cart, that would traverse the same roads and tracks at a slightly higher speed and which could be serviced in any wayside village. This the Citroën engineers achieved and the ever-increasing numbers of private and goods-carrying 2CVs is an encouraging sign of confidence in the name of Andre Citroën. At first the corrugated tin bodies of these little economy cars were left metalised, but now they are being turned out in a dark grey or blue cellulose, still keeping real economy in mind all the time, while some of the vans are painted in such lurid advertising colours that the eyes are dazzled, but nevertheless they are serving an admirable purpose.
Turning to racing, in two recent small Grand Prix events, four cars were the victims of stringent rules that at their face value would appear harsh. In the first event a Ferrari and a Connaught were stalled due to incidents on corners and neither driver was able to restart unaided, though both cars were still race-worthy, so they were withdrawn. In the second event one car was push-started after a pit-stop and the other could not be started on the electric motor, so again both cars were withdrawn though mechanically they were still capable of finishing the race. In the first instance the ruling, forbids outside assistance, which is wise, for there have been cases in the past of the public invading the course to help a popular driver restart his car and it has involved considerable risk to those members of the public, but more especially an unnecessary risk to drivers of following cars. Nowadays the task of a Grand Prix driver is a very exacting one and any ruling that removes the chance or further difficulties is to be applauded; but all the same, to have two perfectly sound racing cars sitting in the "dead-car" park, while a small field of starters is rapidly diminished by mechancial defects does suggest that some serious thought might be given to this matter. The second instance is a parallel case, both in cause and effect, for the pushing of cars to start them after a pit-stop has in the past caused many heart-stopping moments to occur. If the car starts instantaneously in a yard or so there is little danger, but there is always the recalcitrant starter whom the mechanics will push right round the course if necessary. In some races it has been permitted to push within the confines of the pit-area, but this is highly dangerous for if a car does not start it is wheeled backwards, and to another driver coining into the pit-area from a high speed it would appear stationary. There is already enough confusion in the pit areas, so that the no-pushing rule has a great deal of sense behind it, but to the driver and entrant of a disqualified car it must be infuriating.
If one is bold enough to say that Alberto Ascari is today the world's greatest racing driver, and I for one say so with no hesitation, there will be the inevitable cries from the opposition, "Why ?" Winning races is not the main reason, for luck comes into it a great deal, as shown at Naples when his accelerator pedal came adrift while nearly half a lap ahead of the rest of the field, but judgment is one of the primary reasons, and given mechanical luck that judgment results in winning races. A perfect example of Ascari's superb judgment was to be seen at the start of the Naples Grand Prix, which was on a slight uphill gradient so that drivers had to hold the cars on the handbrake while the flag was raised. On that grid there were Farina, Ascari and Fangio in the front row, with Gonzalez and Villoresi behind. When the flag fell the first three moved forward for about two lengths absolutely in line and then Ascari went ahead followed by Fangio, Farina, Villoresi and Gonzalez, the last nearly stalling. When they had disappeared, in that order, they had all left their signatures, on the grid in the form of wheelspin marks, all, that is, except Ascari. Fangio's progress was marked by very black and consistent lines left by the spinning rear wheels, for something like 30 yards, of Ascari there was not a single trace of wheelspin mark, Farina spun his wheels too much after the initial movement and the car hung momentarily and then he left uneven black lines for about 20 yards, indicating a 'floating-foot." Villoresi left determined black marks as far as Fangio, but not so black, while Gonzalez muffed his get-away completely, leaving no lines all and having no speed. Villoresi's lines were interesting as they showed that he may have been slightly baulked by Fangio, for they veered towards the centre of the road into Ascari's track, or more likely Luigi realised a path behind "the maestro" was the surest. This occasion was not exceptional, for how many times have we seen Ascari go straight into the lead from the fall of the flag; Silverstone last year was a perfect example, but at Naples the reigning champions left positive proof, all except the World Champion, and the fact that he was in the lead at the first corner was sufficient proof of his ability. - D.S.J.
COURSE DE COTE DE PLANFOY (May 14th)
The art of speed hill-climbing seems to be fast dying, not only in Great Britain, but in Continental countries as well, for already we have seen Shelsley Walsh cancelled last year, through lack of entries, and in France, La Turbie has been abandoned, while Mont Ventoux and Fribourg are no longer certainties, due to lack of support. The reason for this demise of a once popular sport is not very clear; it may be that cars are now so reliable that circuit racing is preferred, or else the brand of driver who can concentrate at 110 per cent, for a short time is no longer bred. Whatever the reason, the result is unfortunate, so that it was with great pleasure that I visited St. Etienne, near Lyon, to see the revival of the Planfoy Hill-Climb, organised by the Automobile Club de Forez. The last time this event was run was in 1928 and today the same seven kilometres of Route Nationale N82 were used. Starting on the edge of the town of St. Etienne the road twists and climbs up part of the Massif Central, through the village of Planfay, to finish near the summit of the pass, being a continuous series of corners and bends with negligible straight.
Open to touring cars, sports cars, and that delightful French category, voitures du série améliorée, in which standard cars can have anything done to them, providing they started life as standard cars, the entry consisted of every type of production car through such things as the Rosier 4CV special saloon Renault, Cisitalia saloons, 2 1/2-litre Alfa-Romeos, 328 B.M.W.s, to Type C Jaguars and Gordinis.
For some while the f.t.d. stood to Bourrely with an ex-works 1,500-c.c. Gordini coupé, followed by Gacon with a 2.8-litre Cisitalia saloon and Clermont with an 8V Siata, the origin of the now well-known 8V Fiat coupé. The Gordini time was 4 min. 3 sec., and then Fluery, a Swiss driver, with an XK120, approached this with 4 min. 4. sec. All classes were to have two runs and the last car to do its first run was the XK120C of Jean Heurtaux, it well-known French rally driver and recent Mille Miglia competitor. He arrived at the final S-bend, a very fast right-left, slid on leaving it, overcorrected, snaked from side to side and then crossed the line sideways completely out of control and crashed into a telegraph pole. He was thrown out and killed instantly, while the car ended up against a tree and caught fire, being completely burnt out. This tragedy left no alternative but to abandon the meeting and it was of little compensation that Heurtaux had recorded 3 min. 57 sec., a speed of 106.325 k.p.h.. f.t.d. and a new record for the hill. It is to be sincerely hoped that this accident will not in any way affect the already shaky future of this exacting sport.
THE 37th TARGA FLORIO (May 14th)
One of the oldest motor races still surviving, the Targa Florio, open to sports cars, was held over eight laps of a 72-kilometre circuit around the mountainous roads of Sicily. For the first three laps heavy rain made conditions almost impossible and none of the 49 drivers made any real attempt to race. When conditions improved Bracco was in the lead with a new Lancia, followed by Valenzano with a 2 1/2-litre Aurelia, Cabianca (Ferrari) and Giletti (A6G Maserati). At half-distance Fangio took over the Maserati driven by Mantovani. Cortese withdrew the Fraser-Nash with rear-axle trouble and Taruffi began to gain on the leaders with one of the new 3-litre Lancias.
Bracco went out with mechanical trouble and Maglioli on another 3-litre Lancia took the lead until on lap seven Tafuffi passed him. Giletti now lay third and Fangio was trying all he knew to catch him, making full use of his skill over the sinuous mountain course. Shortly after taking the lead Taruffi overdid a slow corner and crashed, letting Maglioli back into the lead, where he stayed until the finish. Fangio failed to catch his team mate and the two Maseratis filled second and third places.
PRODUCTION CARS AT FRANCORCHAMPS
SPA, BELGIUM, May 17th.
Anyone with doubts about the abilities of modern American automobiles should have been at Francorchamps today to witness the "Grand Prix des Voitures de Serie." Held on the magnificent Grand Prix circuit, claimed by many to be the best in the world, 21 current production saloons contested an interesting competition. Cars had to be stock models, chosen at random by agents and the carburetters were sealed. Given five litres of normal pump fuel they then drove round the Grand Prix circuit to record a consumption figure, no particular speeds being set, but each car carrying observers to note the distance and to prevent free-wheeling, This distance was then doubled to give a handicap figure for the Grand Prix which was an out-and-out race with three classifications according to the current list price of the cars. The race lasted for two hours and the distance covered by each car was added to the handicap figure to determine the outright winner.
Keen rivalry existed between the various agents of the different makes who were responsible for the preparation and running of the cars. In the luxury class three Chrysler "New York" models opposed three Lincolns, in the medium price four six-cylinder Fords faced five Plymouths, and the lowest price category consisted of a Dyna-Panhard, an Aronde, a new 1,100 Fiat and three two-stroke Goliaths. Lincoln's enlisted Claes, Warnotte, a local agent conversant with the circuit and with American cars, and Trasenter, a Belgian rally driver. The Chrysler attack was led by Paul Frere supported by two other national drivers. Andre Pilette and Andre Milhou set the Plymouths against Laurent, the Ferrari driver, on a Ford. The speed of the big Lincolns and Chryslers was quite remarkable and after letting Claes lead for an hour Frere gradually closed the gap to win; not easily, for Warnotte hung on to his tail and finished close enough to win the class on the addition of consumption and speed. However, neither of them could approach the little Panhard, driven by Welter, for he had recorded 180 kilometres on 10 litres of petrol and this, together with second place in his class on speed, gave him a win on general classification.
Viewed purely as a two-hour Grand Prix the battle between the Lincoln's and Chryslers was far more exciting than most Formula II races. A remarkable feature of the event was that not one of the 21 competitors retired, all completing the two-hour blind, Frere's average speed being 143 k.p.h.
As make-weight two short events were held, one for stock cars of varying capacities and the other for series sports cars. Two Opel Kapitan saloons dominated the first race and an up-and-coming young Belgian driver Gendebien won the second with a 2-litre Ferrari, setting up a new series car lap record in 5 hr. 34 see., at an average of 152.19 k.p.h. This was equalled by Herzet, who won the Liège-Rome-Liège three years ago, but his brand-new Ferrari, a works-prepared 2-litre coupé with three four-choke carburetters broke its gearbox.