Britain's first grand prix victory: Sunbeam Success at Tours in 1923




Some Details of the Sunbeam Success at Tours in 1923

ALL SET FOR BATTLE.—The great French driver Albert Divo and his mechanic Hivernet ready for the 1923 French Grand Prix in one of the 2-litre Italian-inspired Sunbeams, first British car so win this grande epreuve. Div. finished second to Segrave, both cars averaging over 70 m.p.h. for nearly 500 miles. We are indebted to A. S. Heal, Esq., for the loan of this and the aceempanying photograph.

THE splendid win by Brooks’ Connaught at Syracuse at the close of last season—described by MOTOR SPORT’S Continental Correspondent as “the first convincing British Grand Prix win since the beginning of motor racing “—focuses attention on the first win by Britain in an International Grand Prix race, that of Segrave with the Sunbeam at Tours in 1923. There are historians who suggest that this was really our second great success in International motor-racing, citing S. F. Edge’s win with a Napier in the 1902 Gordon Bennett. However, the G.B. is not generally regarded as a G.P. and to all intents and purposes our first and foremost Grand Prix success until Connaught took the chequered-flag at Syracuse was in the French G.P. of 1923. What a race this was ! It took place over a course near Tours measuring 22 km. 830 us., which embraced a number of bends and acute corners, of which the hairpin at La Membrolle was probably the most spectacular, and was steeply cambered in places. This course had to be covered no fewer than 35 times and it is significant that the Grand Prix commenced as early as 8 a.m. on the Monday morning of July 2nd, yet the winning Sunbeam did not cross the finishing line until after 2.35 p.m. that afternoon, the race distance being no less than 494 miles. The race received a good entry. Sunbeam put in three cars, to be driven by H. 0. D. Segrave, K. Lee Guinness and A. Divo. They were opposed by Salamano, Giaccone and Bordino in Fiats, Marco, Friedrich, Cyatria and Vizcaya in Bugattis, Rougier, Morel, Duray and Lefebvre with Voisins, Goux, Guyot and Ilemery with Rolland. Pilains, and Rene Thomas with a Delage, an imposing field of eighteen road-racing cars built mainly to the prevailing 2-litre formula. The Sunbeams had been designed. at Louis Coatalen’s instigation, by Vincent Bertarione, the talented Italian engineer who had been responsible for the six-cylinder Fiat which won the French Grand Prix the previous year. They had 67 by 94-mm. six-cylinder twinoverhead-camshaft engines, in chassis very like those of the 1922 Fiats, which cars, indeed, the Sunbeams closely resembled. The engines had forged-steel cylinder barrels with welded-on water jackets, in two blocks of three, roller-bearing main and big-end bearings, dry-sump lubrication, and two valves-per-cylinder of which the inlets were larger than the exhausts; 103 b.h.p. was developed at 5.500 r.p.m. The drive went through a cone clutch to a three. speed gearbox. with Hotchkiss open-shaft final drive. The gear lever was on the right-hand side and like all the entrants the Sunbeams had four-wheel brakes. The Fiats were new Tipo 405 straight-eight 60 by 87.5-mm. twin o.h.c., roller-bearing cars designed by Zerbi and Cavelli and endowed with the new-fangled superchargers. these being Wittig displacement-type blowers feeding air to the carburetters. Compact bodies were fitted and 130 b.h.p. WO9 realised at 5,500 r.p.m. Bugatti retained his straight-eight 60 by 88-nun. single o.b. camshaft 24-valve engine of 1922, placed in a very odd chassis having wheelbase/track dimensions of 6 ft. 6 in./3 ft. 3 in. and all-enveloping tank-type bodies. The Delage was a lone V12 51.3 by 80-mm.

machine designed in a short space of time by M. Newton, the Voisins relied on sleeve-valve six-cylinder engines and advanced streamlining of their tank-tailed bodies which enveloped the back wheels, and the 1.h.d. Rolland-Pilains were the 1922 G.P. cats of ingenious if not very successful design.

The only non-starter was Goux’s Rolland-Pilain, the Schmid cuff-valve engine of which broke up in practice.

This was the era of riding mechanics, Segrave having Dutoit with him. The Rolland-Pilains carried spare wheels with them throughout the race, for the road surface was known to be breaking up badly after a fuel-consumption race for touring care had been run off over the same course on the Sunday. a race in which Peugeots covered themselves with glory in the fourand five-seater classes. Mathis cars finishing first and second in the two-seater category.

Apart from the road surface, the 1923 Grand Prix was well organised. Visitors’ ears were parked in the streets and squares, and in four or five barrack yards opened for the purpose. Traffic was well controlled, the entire 14 miles of the course guarded, pathsade fencing being erected on both sides of the road in the villages, as at Semblancay, excellent grandstands were in place by the start, bridges crossed the road at convenient places and restaurants. cloakrooms, telegraph and wireless stations were in operation— there was even a Gaumont loudspeaker to announce progress round the circuit. The spectators were not allowed to endanger the race, for after an accident involving some of them the police moved everyone back in the area, arresting two (probably luckless journalists with the wrong passes!) who refused to move, while two cyclists who tried to ride on the course near the end of the race, when only a handful of the 17 starters were still running, were stopped effectively by a French Air Force officer, ” with a long piece of the wood fencing.”

Do not sneer, at any rate too openly, at the performance of these Grand Prix two-seaters of 1923. Over 100 b.h.p. in cars scaling 18 cwt. on the starting line resulted in a considerable turn of speed and acceleration—fastest over a timed 300 metres was Bordino’s Fiat, at 122.3 m.p.h., and he made fastest lap, at 87 m.p.h.—but whippy chassis frames, stiff springs and mechanically-compensated brakes resulted in roadholding of a hair-raising order.

Coatalen prepared his cars very carefully. They were stationed at the quiet village of Neuvy-le-Roi, at the Hotel du Boeuf Couronne, the drivers staying at the Hotel de l’Univers. A signalling station was set up immediately opposite the apex of the slow hairpin at La Membroile. Segrave trained very conscientiously, timing other drivers through the corners, practising rapid wheel-changing and replenishment with Dutoit and studying the form of past longdistance races, from which he discovered that the fastest car seldom wins. From this he evolved the scheme of starting the race comparatively slowly. to the consternation, but not condemnation, of Coatalen. The three Sunbeams were well prepared, even to relining of their cone clutches on the eve of the start. At 7.45 a.m. on that bright morning in July, the 17 cars were

lined up in pairs, some 200 yards away from the timing box-11 French, three Italian, three British. The Marseillaise rang out, Rene de Knyff raised his flag (yellow in 1923), the roar of racing engines rose with it, haze obscured the rows of blue, red and green cars, then the pace-making motor-cyclist led them forward, and the Grand Prix commenced.

The bunch rushing into La Membrolle’s first of four corners was bean-stopping but all save Vizenytt’s Bugatti got round; Vizcaya. blinded by dust, went into the fencing, injuring some spectators. The car broke down ten yards of fence and Vizoaya retired with head injuries.

After 9 min. 45 see. a buzz was heard which could have been either six-cylinder Sunbeam or eight-cylinder Fiat—it was Bordino’s compact red Fiat, leading after the first of 35 laps, at 87.18 m.p.h. from a rolling start. He was 41 sec. ahead of Guinness’ Sunbeam. and Thomas had the untried Delage well up in third place—Italy, Britain, France !

Another lap, and Bordino had increased his lead to 75 sec., Guinness still second, Thomas still third, followed by the other two Fiats and Segrave’s Sunbeam, No. 12.

As the race settled down observation showed that the leading pair, Bordino and Guinness, cornered with true precision, whereas the short-wheelbase Bugatti ” tanks ” swerved and looked unsteady, slow as they were, Divo indulged in slides in his Sunbeam, and Salamano was sometimes as wild as Dive, whereas Thomas was rock-steady, if rather slow, in the fast-revving Deluge.

Segrave cornered as fast as any but scarcely so neatly, the Fiats out-accelerating the Sunbeams slightly, Divo was fast on the less acute bends, but the Bugattis and Voisins, the latter emitting a smoke-screen, were slow, had squeaking brakes and seemingly difficult gear-changes. On the straights the Fiats could be recognised by the shrill whine of their superchargers; both these cars and the Sunbeams needed a great deal of holding, especially when pulled down the road camber, and as the race wore on Giaccone seemed to have difficulties with changing down and Selman() began to change gear farther and farther from the corners ! The Delage ran steadily but the Voisins swerved horribly and the Bugatti drivers were unhappy, smoke pouring out of their high-sided cockpits. Guyot obviously had the more stable Rolland-Pilain.

With five laps run Bordino, the great Italian driver, had a comfortable 2 min. 20 sec. lead over Guinness and Marco’s Bugatti had retired. Backing up Bordino were Giaccone and Salamano, in third and fourth places, Divo fifth. Then it happened—Bordino, his lead now 3 min. 49 sec., at an 87-m.p.h. average speed, came to rest on the straight to La Membrolle. A stone had broken the crankcase and the Fiat was out. (The 1923 Grand Prix presents an absorbing study for historians, for according to Laurence Pomeroy in “The Grand Prix Car,” the Fiat superchargers gave trouble; perhaps someone with the leisure to explore will be able to discover whether the retirements of Bordino, Giaccone and Salamano were as stated in contemporary race reports, or if for “stones,” etc., we should read ” supercharger “11. Guinness now led for Britain, his green Sunbeam itself reminiscent of a Fiat in outline, being 3 mm. 31 sec. ahead of Giaccone. Thomas’ great drive in the V12 Delage ended as one of the notorious stones penetrated the petrol tank.

After 10 laps the Bugattis of Marco and Cystria had joined Vizcaya’s as retirements, and }fernery’s Rolland-Pilain, too, was out. K. Lee Guinness still led the two Fiats but was displaced a lap later while he paused to refuel. Another lap and Guinness stopped again, complaining that his clutch-stop was hampering gear. changing. The delay dropped him to sixth position and now it was Diva who came up, running third behind the two Fiats, but he too troubled by his clutch action; his mechanics, as Perkins had done in Guinness’ car, had been pulling on a wire tied round the clutch pedal, until the three of them almost collapsed and had to be replaced. Segrave also had mysterious slip in the relined clutch. so that he contemplated retiring.

While this drama was being fought out, no doubt to the mental discomfort of Coatalen and Bertarione, the Voisins of Duray (disqualified for refuelling away from the pits) and Morel (engine trouble) had retired, never having been in the picture.

Now drama increased. The leading Fiats made pit-stopsGiaccone calm, exact, in spite of having to change all his plugs as well as the rear wheels and refuel with petrol and oil, Salamano wildly excited in changing wheels and replenishing. But Giaccone’s bolt was shot; a lap later he stopped again at his pit, work was done on the carburetter, but the engine wouldn’t respond and eventually the car retired with a broken exhaust valve.

At 20 laps Divo led Salamano by 51 sec., with Segrave in third place, 2 min. 2 sec, behind the Fiat. Rougier’s Voisin had given up, only Friedrich remained for Bugatti. Selman() now employed the superior performance of the supercharged Fiat over that of the unblown., clutch-slipping Sunbeam and, lapping at 78 m.p.h.remember t’ ate hard springs, crude chassis frame and the “real road” characteristics of the Tours circuit, which Salamano had driven over for more than 300 miles since 8 a.m, that morning— passed Divo’s Sunbeam on lap 22, leading by 2 min. 20 sec. by lap 25.

With only eight runners left the race between the first four—Fiat, Sunbeam, Sunbeam, Sunbeam—was so exciting that the grandstands remained packed throughout the lunch hour.

Divo now came in to refuel, being 5 mm. 3 sec. ahead of Segrave, when the fuel-filler cap jammed on its threads—this being before the era of quick-action filler-caps. Segrave, in his book “The Lure of Speed, claims that Divo forced the cap the wrong way, knowing Segrave’s car to be close behind in the race, but in view of Dive s five-minute lead and the fact that he and his mechanic Moricsau (later to drive a Talbot-Darraeq in G.P. races) couldn’t budge it with hammer or chisel, this seems open to doubt. In the end, Salamano now 4 min. ahead, Divo decided to carry on, filling his reserve tank every lap thereafter. A remarkable change now came over the race. Segrave suddenly found his clutch biting properly, because the metal stop on the top of the gearbox had snapped off, allewing the pedal at last to resume its natural position. With a well-nursed engine he was able to drive fast in pursuit of the leading Fiat, sending the needle of his Elliott rev.-counter up to 6,000 r.p.m. He still had small chance of catching Salamano, who, after one episode early in the race at Semblancay, when he hit the fence, tore down the palings, and stalled his engine, which had to be cranked by his riding-mechanic, was going well. Segrave, in his book, says that, even so, the Fiat pit-staff panicked signalling their driver to speed up, so that he ran out of fuel away from the pits. In fact, other reports state that a stone holed No. 14 Fiat’s petrol tank. The result was still pandemonium. The luckless mechanic arrived on foot, a fresh mechanic was given a can of petrol

and set off on u jog-trot back to the stricken car. Immediately the stewards stopped him, race rules demanding that the riding-mechanic go to Salamano’s aid. A bicycle was given to the exhausted man but this the officials deprived him of, as again contrary to the rules, the French crowd meanwhile shouting and hissing its disapproval, for the French spectator is above all a sportsman.

The result was a victory for Segrave. Divo had to stop every lap and fill his small tank painfully slowly with the aid of a funnel. Guinness’ engine was misfiring and, sans reverse-catch on the gear. gate, he stalled his engine at La Membrolle and lost over 2 min. So Segrave came up a rise in the road at some 116 m.p.h.,”* saw a red car stationary by the verge, heard Perkins yell into his car with cupped hands, ” C’est le quatorze qui est en panne Nous sommes en tete

Ilc continued, fearful of sonic last-minute calamity which did not t out.% The green Sunbeam went over the finishing line at 100 m.p.h. Britain had won her first Grand Prix race. egrave climbed out, very deaf, Dutoit his mechanic, his right shoulder cut nearly to the bone on a steel erots-member in the cock

‘The statement occurs in Segrave’s book ” The Lure of Speed” (Ilutehinson, 1928). but Laurence Pomeroy in ” The Grand Prix Car.” Vol. IL page 333, gives the calculated maximum of the 1923 Sunbeam on the level as 108 m.p.h.

pit (no ” armchair seats ” in the racing cars of 1923 I), beside him. ”

God Save the King” was played, the. Marseiliaise was played. flowers and laurels arrived, the crowd wont mad with enthusiasm.

Divo came over the line in second place, to be embraced by designer Bertarione. Guinness just missed completing a Sunbeam ” grand slam,” for Friedrich, sole survivor of the tank-like team of Bugattis, got in 1 mm. 40.2 sec. before him. Forty-eight more minutes passed ere Lefebvre, designer of the queer Voisin he drove, secured fifth and last place.

Five finishers out of 17 starter’s. Segrave took 6 hr. 35 min. 19.6 sec.. averaging 75.3 m.p.h., Divo finished 19 min. 6.2 sec. behind him, at 71.8 m.p.h., Friedrich finishing 5 min. 57 sec. behind Divo; such was racing over 500 miles of a 27-mile road circuit.

Some of the actors in this drama of 33 years ago are happily still with 11:4—Louis Coatalen, Perkins who lives in Wolverhampton. Dive whom we saw recently in Reims, while. Dutoit’s son is in China. and Salamano tests the latest Fiats … The winning Sunbeam used a Solex carburetter. Michelin beaded-edge tyres secured to the Budge wheels by six duralumin security bolts, a Bosch magneto, K.L.G. plugs, and ran on Shell petrol and oil—components and commodities with us to this day—and Segrave drove it home from Tours to London ! These team cars were dismantled and rebuilt as the 1924 supercharged G.P. Sunbeams, one of which is now in Emotes’ museum near Coventry.

In acclaiming Connaught’s 1955 Grand Prix victory we can afford to pay a moment’s quiet homage to the achievement of Segrave and Sunbeam in 1923.—W. B.