Tripoli – A dip into the past

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Two letters from readers caused me to think about Tripoli and the Grand Prix that was held there during the nineteen-thirties. One reader wrote from Tripoli itself, on the Mediterranean coast of Libya, where he is working as an architect on a new University for North Africa, while the other wrote from South Africa. The first enquired about the actual location of the old Tripoli racing circuit, as he wanted to search it out, and the second was enquiring about some old Grand Prix race results, among them the 1935 Tripoli GP. These two enquiries caused me to turn to my bound volume of Motor Sport for 1935, wherein there was a very good report of the race. Reference to Barre Lyndon’s book “Grand Prix” revealed plenty of facts about the circuit.

Once I start dipping into the motor racing history books I tend to get carried away and a quick five minute reference invariably develops into an interesting five-hour session of research, and this was a typical occasion. The circuit was officially known as the Circuito Permanente di Tripoli, but more popularly it was called the Mellaha Circuit after the Mellaha salt lake which was encircled by the public roads which made up the circuit. The length was 13.1 kilometres (8.14 miles) and was roughly rectangular in shape, though the two long straights contained very fast curves. Even the corners where the circuit changed direction were very fast, and were slightly banked. Speed was of the essence for the Tripoli GP, and the two big problems were tyres and the heat. The last race was run there in 1940, just before Italy joined in the war, and during the nineteen-fifties the huge ferro-concrete grandstands and pas were still intact, though racing never resumed there. Whether those structures are still standing we shall no doubt find out soon from reader number one. During the North African campaign in the last war, many enthusiasts in the army and air-force found themselves on the Tripoli circuit, but with little time for reflection. The secretary of the Vintage Sports Car Club named his house “Mellaha” when he left the RAF, and today there is probably someone living in it who has no idea how it got its name.

The Tripoli Grand Prix was first held in 1925, when Renato Balestrero won with an OM at just under 60 m.p.h., and it continued until 1930, when there was a lapse. It was re-started in 1933 on a new version of the Mellaha circuit, where it was held regularly until 1940. The 1933 race was won at 104.7 m.p.h. and by 1937 the race average had risen to over 134 m.p.h. Each year a national lottery was held in conjunction with the race and the holder of the winning ticket was in a similar situation to someone winning the jackpot on the Football Pools today. The drivers shared in the lottery winnings, as well as getting the regular prize and starting money, so that everyone was out to win, the winner netting something in the order of £6,000, which would be like winning £60,000 today. A maximum of 30 cars was allowed, that being the number of prizes in the lottery, and entries were by invitation, with a driver’s past racing record being taken into account.

The 1935 race was a memorable one with a high quality entry. Daimler-Benz sent Rudolf Caracciola, Luigi Fagioli and Manfred von Bruachitsch with W25 Mercedes-Benz cars, Auto-Union sent Achille Varzi and Hans Stuck with the 16 cylinder rear engined monsters, while the Scuderia Ferrari, directed by the middle-aged Enzo, sent a veritable armada. At this time Grand Prix races were normally run to the Formula that stipulated a maximum weight of 750 kilogrammes, but the Tripoli organisers opted out of official rules and ran their race to Formule Libre. This allowed Ferrari to send his two stupendous Bi-motore Alfa Romeos, unbelievable machines with a Grand Prix Alfa Romeo engine in front of the driver and another one behind him. The two supercharged straight-eight cylinder engines drove to a central gearbox and then by Alfa Romeo’s classic divided prop-shaft layout, to the rear wheels. One of the Bi-motore cars had engines each of 3.2 litres and the other used 2.9-litre engines. The 6.4-litre car was entrusted to the Scuderia Ferrari team-leader, Tazio Nuvolari, while the smaller 5.8-litre car was to go to the driver among the rest of the team who made the fastest practice lap with a Tipo B “monoposto” Alfa Romeo. The team drivers were Louis Chiron, Rene Dreyfus, Count Brivio, Carlo Pintacuda and Mario Tadini and they had a variety of single-engined “monoposto” cars to choose from, some with 2.9-litre engines and some with 3.2-litre engines. It was Louis Chiron who was the fastest and had the doubtful honour of driving the second Bi-motore. These twin-engined cars were incredibly fast, but consumed fuel and tyres at an absurd rate, and their handling was “tricky” to say the least. When the first one was built Nuvolari drove it on the famous Florence Autostrada at over 200 m.p.h., and it actually took records at 199 m.p.h. In road-racing trim it was probably good for 175 m.p.h. for as long as the treads would stay on the tyres.

The rest of the 1935 Tripoli entry was made up by private teams or individuals with Alfa Romeos and Maseratis and Marcel Lehoux with the lone SEFAC, but it was a non-starter, along with the Earl Howe’s Maserati. This left 28 starters, so straight away two luckless lottery ticket holders were weeping into their vino. The starting grid was decided by ballot, as was the general practice in those days, and the cars were lined up in rows of five, four, five, with Fagioli (Mercedes-Benz) on the front row, Caracciola (Mercedes-Benz) and Varzi (Auto-Union) in row three, Nuvolari in row five with the big , von Brauchitsch (Mercedes-Benz) and Stuck (Auto-Union) in row six, and Chiron on his own in row seven with the small Bi-motore. Among the field was Balestrero, who had won the first Tripoli GP, in 1925, Etancelin, who is still alive and well, living near Rouen, Farina who was to become the first FIA recognised World Champion in 1950, Hans Ruesch, who was to win the 1936 Donington Park GP, and Piero Taruffi, who still lives in Rome.

The race was run over 40 laps, in almost tropical heat and tyres were the big problem, so that drivers had to decide whether to run fast and keep changing tyres, or run slower and conserve the rubber, for they had 524 kilometres to cover. The German Continental tyre firm, who looked after Auto-Union and Mercedes-Benz, had shipped something like 300 tyres to Tripoli, and in those days there were no variations in rubber mix, size or construction. Although Fagioli shot off from the front row, Caracciola caught him before the end of the opening lap, and Nuvolari took second place on the second lap, but the Bi-motore used up its rear tyres by the end of lap 3 (a mere 24 miles) and the Italian stopped at the pits for new tyres. Tyre wear and the speed of pit stops were the key-notes of the race, run at an average of well over 120 m.p.h., and at one point Caracciola dropped as low as 10th, only to climb up to fourth as other fast runners changed tyres.

Five laps before the end Varzi looked to have the race in the bag, but then one of his rear tyres lost its tread just as he passed the pits and he had to limp 8 miles on a flat tyre. By the time he reached the pits the tyre and wheel were a red-hot mess and before he could rejoin the race, Caracciola went by into the lead. Varzi gave the Auto-Union its head in a last desperate effort to catch the Mercedes-Benz, and looked like doing so as they started the last lap, but then the other rear tyre burst and he limped home in second place. Fagioli was third, Nuvolari fourth, Chiron fifth and Dreyfus sixth. Just like today the works drivers dominated the scene and took the lion’s share of the money, with the private owners not getting much of a look in. Only ten cars finished. Caracciola averaged 197.993 k.p.h. (123.03 m.p.h.) and set a new lap record on lap 38 when Varzi was after him, at 220.167 k.p.h (137.74 m.p.h.).

The following year Varzi set a record lap at 142 m.p.h. and in 1937 Lang won the race for Mercedes-Benz at over 134 m.p.h. Then the Grand Prix Formula limited supercharged engines to 3-litres, which cut nearly 200 b.h.p. off the power-outputs and speeds dropped. In 1939 the Italians got tired of the Germans winning all their races and taking all the loot, so they put a 1½-litre limit on the Tripoli race, as they had a strong force of 1½-litre Alfa Romeos and Maseratis. Daimler-Benz appeared with two brand-new and untried V8 Mercedes-Benz 1½-litre cars and wiped the floor with the “eye-ties”. In 1940 Germany was busy with another competition (which they lost!) and Alfa Romeo won the Tripoli GP with their supercharged straight-eight cylinder 1½-litre Alfetta at a higher speed than Lang had done with the little Mercedes-Benz, and higher than Caracciola’s speed in 1935 with the 4-litre Grand Prix Mercedes-Benz. Such was the progress in those days.

When the Scuderia Ferrari pensioned-off the Formula Libre Bi-motore Alfa Romeos the big-engined one was broken up and the small-engined one was sold to Englishman Austin Dobson, who tried in vain to race it at Brooklands and Donington Park. At the end of 1938 the car was virtually cut in two and the rear engine and axle were discarded and a new back end built for it. This was done for the new owner the Hon. Peter Aitken, and in mono-motore form it was called the Alfa-Aitken. It eventually went to New Zealand and over the years got hacked about and altered in various ways. Recently Tom Wheatcroft acquired the remains and brought them back to England. If he can acquire two Alfa Romeo “monoposto” engines he is planning to re-construct a Bi-motore for his Donington Park collection of single-seater racing cars.

It is interesting to think about the very fast Mellaha Circuit in today’s Formula One scene. We could still field an entry of 30 cars and the works teams and star drivers would still collect all the loot, but I cannot see them accepting a ballot-decided starting grid. Tyres should no longer be a problem, but a 500-kilometre race distance would pose some interesting problems. With modern cornering powers the average speed would he interesting, though the maximum on the straights probably would not be vastly different to 1937. Remembering that Varzi got round at 142 m.p.h. in an Auto-Union, with negligible brakes, low cornering power and “tricky” handling, a modern Formula One car would probably lap at 175 m.p.h., which would be spectacular, all on a 3-litre unsupercharged engine running on straight petrol. Progress indeed.

In the 1935 lottery Caracciola was drawn by Signor Gaetano Giacomini from Rome, and Varzi was drawn by Signora Rozina de Gerraro from Casacalenda. During the last laps of the race they must have been biting their nails, for there was something like £50,000 at stake, which was a lot of money in 1935. A similar lottery today on a Grand Prix would have the Andretti or Hunt ticket holders on the edges of their seats.

Just as watching today’s racing activity passes many happy hours, a dip into the past can be equally enjoyable, especially when it is sparked off by something unpremeditated. – D.S.J.

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