There are times, rather too many of them, when what should be a good motor race settles down to become processional, so that the less-avid onlookers tend to become bored and even those of us who are happy just to watch racing cars in action, wish things could be a bit more exciting. The fact is, that the fairer the race rules, the more evenly-matched the competing cars are going to be, and with lap-times more or less the same, only an unexpected happening or a particular piece of brilliance on the part of one or more of the better drivers can dig the thing out of something of a rut. Thus the close finish, the “photo-finish” in modern parlance, is something rather exceptional and to be remembered.
Such finishes were so rare in the early days and the great contests were of such extended duration and commenced at such uncivilised hours, that it is a wonder that motor-racing survived as a spectator sport. Fortunately the novelty, coupled with the noise and excitement, carried things along. But ponder on it, the very first proper motor race, from Paris to Bordeaux and back in 1895, saw the winning Panhard, conducted by Levassor himself, finish some 5¾ hours ahead of the Peugeot that took second place. This wasn’t so bad for those who wanted to watch, because it took Levassor not far short of 49 hours to cover the 732 miles, so there was ample time for residents of Paris to return to their beds meanwhile. This applied to other great contests which started and finished close to the capital city. Later, when circuit racing was introduced, spectators had to be of a more enduring breed.
For example, the first French Grand Prix started at 6 am, but as the roads leading thereto were closed by Sam, early rising was called for, after which there were two days’ racing to follow before it was apparent that Szisz on the splendid Renault had won this prestigious race, at 62.88 mph. Moreover, the last car to finish, a Mercedes, came in some 4½ hours after the victorious Renault had been received, and again it would have been necessary to have been in one’s place beside the dusty road of the Le Mans circuit at least by ham, in order to see the whole of this contest, even though Szisz, his car hauled to the start behind a horse, had spent 11½ minutes after he had been flagged to leave at 5.45 am attending to the needs of his machine — the land of care which was to serve racing men well in the years ahead! There was another factor that detracted from the spectator-appeal of those early races, namely that many of them were run over circuits the lap-distance of which was excessive by today’s standards, so that the cars passed a given point, where the onlookers braved sun or rain, comparatively infrequently, although this was to some extent off-set by the length of the contest — for instance, that 1906 Le Mans circuit was 64.12 miles long, the Dieppe GP circuit 47.84 miles to a lap and in the 477½-miles races there in 1907 and 1908 the competing cars passed but ten times.
Even after the war, had you attended the 1922 French GP at Strasbourg you would have had to be in the grandstand by 8 am to see the then-unique massed start, and it would not have been until more than six hours had passed that you would have seen Felice Nazzaro flagged home in the Fiat as the winner and you would then have had to wait nearly an hour before the second-place Bugatti arrived, and another half-an-hour for another Bugatti to cross the line in third place, the only finishers out of 18 starters. After which, a “photo-finish” must have seemed welcome indeed, to the paying public that supported the game — no TV sponsorship in those days…
Yet I suppose there are many of us who would willingly be transported back to the stirring days of those pre-1914 Grands Prix, with their towering, multi-litred cars controlled by drivers of great strength and stamina, or to the 1920s when cars were more sophisticated, their drivers endowed with a special brand of skill… Just as, I. suppose, D.S.J. must regret the passing of the “ride mechanic” Mille Miglia in which role he had exciting times and I am sorry I was never able to experience the thrill of riding in a racing car in a long race, as Sammy Davis described, after accompanying Count Zborowski at Lyons in the 1924 French GP: “After four rounds neither of us cared who was winning provided the Miller would only go on and on for hour after hour over that wonderful course in the sunlight, with the purring roar of the exhaust behind and that ribbon of road flanked by palisades, in front…”
Reverting to spectators, it is not often that they have enjoyed the thrill of a “photo-finish”. Resorting to statistics, I find that the narrowest Margin by which the French Grand Prix was won between 1921 and 1939 was 0.5 sec in 1935, but this was because the Mercedes-Benz team had matters so buttoned up that Caracciola was able to tour home with his tram-mate von Brauchitsch on his tail. More like it was the following year’s French GP, in which, after 60 laps, over 621 miles and nearly eight hours’ racing over the artificial road circuit at Montlhéry, the Wimille / Sommer Type 575 streamlined “tank” Bugatti won by 50.6 sec from the 3½-litre Delahaye driven by Paris / Mongin, pit-stops having affected the positions during the race, which was seen by only a small crowd, because most preferred an important horse-race on the same day. It had been almost equally close in 1933, and even more exciting, when Campari brought his 3-litre supercharged Maserati home just 52 sec before Etancelin’s blue Monza Alfa Romeo that had a failing clutch so that it crawled round the Montlhéry banking on that dramatic last lap. It had been close, too, in 1932, when Nuvolari’s P3 monoposto Alfa Romeo covered 0.35 more miles in the five-hour race at Rheims than Borzacchini, who did 0.33 miles more than third-place man Caracciola, but then this was a team-finish and Tazio was the No 1 driver, who, nevertheless, had had to open up to wash out a better replenishment-stop by Borzacchini.
Mostly, however, those pre-Hitler War French Grands Prix had unexciting finishes In terms of the distance at the finishing-line between winner and second-place car and driver, although this may simplify the drama of a race, in which there may be factors way down the field, or matters concerning the top runners, that can sustain interest even with a widely-spaced run towards the end. Mostly, though, the margins of over 18, 19, and 24 minutes between first and second places did not suggest much excitement for the onlookers, although in the great 1924 French GP the margin between the winning P2 Alfa Romeo of Campari and the V12 Deluge of Diva was 65.4 sec, after more than 503 miles over the Lyons circuit. Hardly a photo-finish, however…
You would hardly expect such a result at Le Mans, after continual 24 hours of racing, yet that is what more or less happened there in 1933. Nuvolari, in the 2.3 Alfa Romeo he was sharing with Sommer, had been delayed by a lane front mudguard and a leaking fuel tank. He lost 16 min at the pits and although the little Italian drove like the wind, setting a new lap record, there were further stops to plug the leaking tank. The last three hours of the long race became a duel between the Nuvolari / Sommer Alfa and the other 2.3litre Alfa Romeo of Chinetti Varent. Four laps from the end and Nuvolari was in the lead, but Chinetti passed him, in front of the stands, with only eight minutes from the flag-fall indicating the end of the marathon. Nuvolari responded by re-passing Chinetti the Hippodrome on that sizzling last lap, but was overtaken again, neither car, perhaps, at peak condition after so long a struggle. It was then that Nuvolari pulled out all the stops, for it was typical of Tazio that he was at his most skilful and determined in times of adversity. He re-took the lead, to win by 10 sec, 0.25-of-a-mile, after the Alfa had been racing for more than 1,953 miles at an average of nearly 81½ mph…
At Monaco Nuvolari had no chance to exert his skill in a tense battle with his arch-rival Varzi but this was a race to remember, nevertheless. It had been a battle from the start between Varzi’s works Type 51 Bugatti and Nuvolari’s Scuderia Ferrari-modified 2.6 Monza Alfa Romeo. Varzi had the front row of the grid, this being the first time such a start had been used, 0.2 sec faster in practice than Tazio, who, however, was behind him on the second row. They fought one another all the way after the third lap, first one in the lead, then the other, Nuvolari a second behind Varzi at half-distance, the Bugatti with its shorter wheelbase perhaps taking the notorious Monaco corners faster but the tail-sliding Alfa accelerating better out of them.
After 80 of the 100-lap race Varzi broke Nuvolari’s long lead, but the Alfa was ahead of the blue Bugatti again by lap 83 and pulling away. However, by the end of the 99th lap Varzi was level with Nuvolari and out took the lead for a moment as the last lap but one started. As they raced past the Casino on the final lap Varzi over-revved the Type 51’s engine to over 7,000 rpm in third gear but Nuvolari held on, also over-revving, until a piston broke, hot oil spraying onto the exhaust pipe as Tazio jumped out and started to push his stricken Alfa Romeo to the finish. Thinking from the smoke that the Alfa was on fire, officials helped, and Nuvolari was disqualified, Borzacchini taking second place. Very nearly a “photo-finish” at Monaco…
Space precludes continuing this theme, but since the war D.S.J. and A.H. have faithfully reported the Grandes Epreuves, in the pages of Motor Sport, which will refresh the memory of classic close-finishes which are not remembered from personal spectator attendance. Do readers recall any that particularly excited them, I wonder? Of course, in handicap racing close finishes are to be expected, dependent on the efficiency of the handicappers. In order to make possible competitive racing between all types of cars, new racing designs, stripped sports cars, pre-war Grand Prix cars and home-built Specials, even touring cars — for did you know that someone once drove a fully-equipped 40/50 hp Rolls-Royce with its full complement of passengers in a Brooklands race? — individual handicaps were in use at the Weybridge Track from 1907 until it closed in 1939, and in the longdistance races held there class handicaps based on engine size were employed, until the JCC hit upon the ingenious idea of handicap chicanes to obviate these time elements and make handicapping easy to follow by the race-going public.
In a handicapped race, under ideal circumstances, all the runners should cross the finishing line together! Fortunately for the peace of mind of safety conscious officials, this never happens. But it is to the credit of the BARC handicappers that in those Brooklands’ short handicap races dead-heats, real “photo-finishes”, happened on four occasions. In fact, of course, there were no finish line cameras in those days, as used at today’s horse races, and determination of the results implied a reliable Judge stationed by, and squinting along, a broad line painted on the Brooklands concrete.
The first of these dead-heats happened at the very first Brooklands Meetings on July 6th, 1907. Some excitement was badly needed (for a new sport), and that is what Charles Jarrott on his 60 hp De Dietrich and Frank Newton driving S. F. Edge’s 50 hp Napier, both bare chassis, provided as they came up the finishing straight on that now faraway summer afternoon at some 60 mph, to dead-heat at the finish of the Byfleet Plate. Jarrott, who had retired from racing but had returned to support this opening Brooklands Meeting, accused Newton of using oxygen to obtain a burst of speed to the finish. The stake of 550 sovereigns for first and second places was divided and this “photo finish” by two rival makes, the four-cylinder French De Dietrich and the six-cylinder British Napier, was excellent publicity for the new Motor Course.
The next dead-heat at Brooklands was in 1909, at the Easter Meeting, in the Sizaireet-Naudin Cup, the grand-sounding title of which simply covered a half-mile sprint along the Finishing-straight for single-cylinder 8.9 hp cars of that make, a make well known there because the Clerk-of-the-Course, Major (later Col.) Lindsay-Lloyd, used to run about the place in a yellow car of this kind. On that Easter Monday afternoon the judge at the finish was Mr F. Fowler, who saw the green and violet colours of W. H. Milburn begin to come up on B. S. Millard in red coat and black cap on Con’s car and the two identical-looking little cars crossed the line abreast. And that was a non-handicap event. Down the years it was to happen again, not only with ties for second place on two occasions but involving two winners. The first of these involved J. P. Turner, who in the 75 mph Short Handicap at the 1925 Autumn Meeting was driving George Newman’s orange 2-litre Austro-Daimler. Giving Purdy’s duck’s back 12/50 Alvis an 18 sec start, Turner overtook two other Alvis cars in the run home, and had then swung across the Finishing-straight to finish level with Purdy. The judge, still Mr Fowler, gave it as a dead-heat. Turner had lapped at over 93 mph and today’s Alvis owners may care to know that Purdy had lapped at 88.15 mph . . . The other two Weybridge dead-heats were on the Mountain circuit, but before that two 5-litre cars, “J. Taylor” in Sir Alastair Miller’s Delage and E. L. Bouts’ Sunbeam had finished level in the one-lap handicap race for a cup presented by the driver of the old Delage, which had started eight seconds behind Bouts — could it have been a faked result, as was a later match race? The Mountain dead-heats were between Whitney Straight’s non-supercharged 2-litre Bugatti, penalised 30-sec, and Faulkner’s blown 2.3 Bugatti, in 1932 (the bookies had offered evens on Straight) and Roy Eccles in his blown Rapier Special, based on the little ‘twin-cam Lagonda, and King-Clark’s MG Midget, in 1936.
There were, of course, many exciting results at Brooklands, timed to the nearest one-fifth-of-a-second, where today they think in terms of 1/100ths of a second, and some of the long-distance races produced close finishes. One remembers that in the 1930 BRDC 500 Mile Race Dr Benjafield’s blower-4½ Bentley was coming up fast on S. C. H. Davis’ blown Ulster A7 at the end, in this class-handicap contest, so that the result was very tight, the “Blood Orange” A7 lapping at 87 mph, the Bentley at all but 123 mph, in those closing stages, the big car’s n/s rear tyre breaking up as it crossed the line, the flying tread giving the mechanic a nasty rap, as it crossed the line. In fact, there were seven minutes separating them, after more than six hours’ racing. And to put the thing into perspective, how many of today’s much-prized Ulster A7s, whether fibre-glass bodied or not, could hold around 5,000 rpm for that duration?
Two more close finishes at Brooklands come to mind. The 1936 JCC International Trophy Race was a tremendous duel between Raymond Mays’ 1½-litre works Zoller-blown ERA and Prince “Bira’s” Jamieson-supercharged 1½-litre ERA. With a decent lead, Mays decided he needed more fuel and coming in, overshot his pit. A few churns of fuel were flung in but “Bira” went by. I wrote at the time: “From then on the race was as dramatic as anything I have seen. Mays did all he could to catch the other ERA. He had 16 sec to make up. A lap, and it became 14 sec; another and the gap was 12 sec. Slide-rule / stop-watch holders said the battle most end in a deadheat. On the following laps Mays closed the gap to 10.8 sec, 8.8 sec 6.8 sec then to 3.8 sec, and there was then only a lap to go. On that final lap he strained every nerve, forgot rev-limits, in his effort to catch “Bira” and then, on the very rim of the Byfleet banking, the green ERA overtook the blue one! alas for Mays, even then it wasn’t victory. Along the Railway-straight his over-stressed engine faltered and “Bira” tucked skilfully into Mays’ slipstream. “Bira” then chose just the correct moment to pull up, and passed Mays. As they came up to the finish Mays seemed to make one last great effort to re-pass, the breaker-strip showing clearly on his n/s rear tyre. But “Bira” won by one second, or 0.01 mph. It was one of the finest finishes ever seen in a long-distance race and after congratulations “Bira” left with Prince Chula and a BBC script-girl, in their Derby-Bentley, so that 1½-hours after the race they could be “on the air” in a London studio.
The other close finish was in the 1938 JCC International Trophy Race, when May’s ERA went sick but was still in a position to catch Percy McClure’s unblown 1,736 cc six-cylinder Riley he had prepared for the race himself, after “Bira’s” Maserati, which had been close up on Mays, had retired. Mays made up six seconds on one lap and on the last lap, braking late for the corners, he was right up with the Riley, accelerating up the straight to within lengths of it. But popular Percy McClure, driving with his goggles on his forehead, kept his cool and won by 0.02 mph. I shall always remember a weary-looking McClure coasting in with a dead engine, as “God Save The King” was played, signing a few autographs, then getting out and moving to the sanctuary of his tattered Riley 9 Monaco saloon… But it’s all in my Brooklands book.
So is the account of that close-fought veritable Battle-of-the-Giants, the 1932 British Empire Trophy Race, when Cobb’s 10½-litre Delage beat Eyston’s 8-litre Panhard-Levassor by 0.009 mph, at over 126 mph. Eyston protested, was given the race, until Cobb himself lodged an appeal and the decision was reversed. That same year there was the great duel between Sir Henry Birkin, Bt. in the blower-4½ single-seater Bentley and Cobb in this Delage, which the Bentley won by 1/5sec after a level start. In the 1933 Tripoli GP less than a length separated Archie Varzi and Guy Moll as their Alfa Romeos took the chequered flag, after racing for 500 kilometres, and one -recalls the 1934 TT when a muddled pit stop held back Hamilton’s MG Midget and Nuvolari in a K3 MG Magnette won this handicap contest after a heart-stopping last lap for those of the spectators who could follow that kind of thing, Tazio once again pulling out all the stops on the closing laps, and almost running his fuel tank dry, although this was not quite a “photo finish” as he won by 40 sec. In fact the Ulster TT, run on a credit laps / time class handicap, was noted for some close, but not “photo”, finishes.
No doubt other intense races will come to mind, for even Motor Sport readers may sometimes get ever so slightly bored by those races in which positions have remained unchanged for lap after lap, and will hope for a few more “photo finishes’ during 1985.— W.B.