Raymond Sommer’s innate talent had team managers knocking at his door. But, as Andrew Frankel explains, the man who could beat Nuvolari chose his own path
You might think the man who gave Ferrari their first GP win, humbled Nuvolari, won Le Mans twice, and upset Alfa Romeo’s seemingly invincible apple-cart in both its pre- and post-war heydays would be remembered as one of the gods of motorsport.
And yet, if you mention Raymond Sommer to even reasonably well-versed motorsport cognoscenti, the best you can usually hope for is a furrowed brow and pursed lips. The name will ring a bell — often quite loudly — and some will hazard correctly that he was French and raced either side of the war. Beyond that, there’s usually a blank.
The fact that the name of Sommer does not trip as easily off the tongue as Varzi, Chiron, Farina and Ascari is actually, and entirely, Sommer’s fault. If he’d taken even half of the works drives he was offered, he’d now be remembered as one of the greatest drivers that France — or any other nation, for that matter — ever produced. But, as we shall see, such was not Sommer’s way.
Raymond Sommer was born in Paris on the last day of August, 1906 — one of few blessed dates that ensured you were too young for the First World War and too old to fight in the Second — though he hardly idled his way through the latter.
Money was never going to be a problem for the young Sommer, thanks to the family carpet-making business in Sedan, a medium-sized town to the north-east of Reims, where France meets the Ardennes. But the Sommers were more than just millionaires. Before little Raymond’s third birthday, his father Roger took to the skies in his Farmer aircraft and did not come down again until he’d flown further than anyone else in history, breaking the record held by the Wright Brothers.
‘He knew that nothing less than an 8C would do – so he went and bought one’
Yet it would be 1931 — when Raymond was already in his mid-20s — before driving racing cars, rather than applying spanners to them, started to play any significant part in his life. He’d bought a 4.7-litre Chrysler Imperial sports-car the previous year, and after breaking himself in at the Grand Prix de Picardie and the Paris-Nice rally, he headed for the big one: Le Mans. He didn’t finish, but there was no shame in that: it was one of those years when almost everything broke, with just six of the 26 starters seeing the flag. The race was won by the Alfa Romeo 8C of Tim Birkin and Earl Howe.
Appetite suitably whetted, Sommer knew that, if his plans were to be realised, nothing less than an 8C would do, despite the fact that he had won his class in the Chrysler at the Spa 24 Hours. And, being Sommer, he went out and bought one. But if this ability to equip himself with the best machinery spoke volumes for the healthy state of his bank balance, it was what he then did with it that spoke more volubly of the man himself.
At Le Mans the next year, he teamed up with Luigi Chinetti, and surveyed the opposition. There were six other 8C Alfas, two of them works-entered cars that Sommer estimated to be 20mph quicker down the straight than his own version. There were also a brace of Type 55 Bugattis, three Aston Martins and privately-entered Bentley, Mercedes and Stutz.
From the start, Sommer held back, watching with incredulity as the other Alfas tore each other to pieces in an orgy of overtaking and lap records. The result was that, before half-distance, the race was between Sommer and the sole surviving works Alfa 8C of Franco Cortese and Giovanni Battista Guidotti. That was the good news; rather more worrying was the fact that Chinetti — either through exhaustion or illness — had retired hurt after just three hours at the wheel. Imagine what confronted Sommer: in only your second Le Mans, and with just a handful of races under your belt, you know you will have to drive solo for 21 hours just to reach the flag.
Sommer was clearly a master of understatement and described his epic drive as “a tiresome task” and likened it to “driving along an endless road through a desert”. He failed to mention he was also being slowly gassed by a braken exhaust. No wonder he became known in his homeland as Coeur de Lion, a title more famously conferred on the Francophile King Richard I. Sommer had single-handedly defeated the might of the greatest racing team on the planet. It was something, he felt, he could develop a taste for.
In fact, he had the nerve to do it again before 1932 was out, in the Marseilles Grand Prix at Miramas. This victory dwarfed even that of Le Mans, for while he had by now traded in his Le Mans-winner for a Monza Alfa, he beat the works monoposto P3, the greatest race car of its era. Moreover, and most staggering of all, it was being driven on this occasion by Tazio Nuvolari. In a straight fight, and using a two-seat sportscar, Sommer beat one of the five greatest drivers of all time in the quickest grand prix machine the world had ever seen.
Of course, there were excuses, the most popular being that the Alfa team had become confused and let Sommer by, believing him to be a lap down. The result, however, speaks for itself.
The 1933 Le Mans 24 Hours was to be Nuvolari’s first and only appearance at the Sarthe and, being nobody’s fool, he asked Sommer to drive with him; it was an opportunity the Frenchman could not pass up. Eschewing his preferred role as a privateer who beat the hell out of works teams, he accepted and formed a one-off Le Mans dream team the likes of which we’d not see until the days ofJacky Ickx and Derek Bell.
Nuvolari set the tone by breaking the outright lap record from a standing start on the first lap, a feat Sommer countered in the only way possible, breaking Nuvolari’s lap record to set fastest lap. In truth, however, this was Nuvolari’s race, as a relative cakewalk was turned by shot brakes and a leaking fuel tank into a last-lap thriller against Chinetti’s similar Alfa. It was left to Tazio to win by just a quarter of a mile. Despite their troubles, it would be four years before anyone travelled further, or completed a quicker lap, at Le Mans.
Elsewhere, however, Sommer’s dogged determination to race only what and where he wanted meant that he remained at a perpetual disadvantage to his many less talented, works-employed rivals. He may have been able to buy the best that was for sale, but then as now, works teams kept the best for themselves, and there was no more notorious protagonist of this policy than Alfa’s race boss, Enzo Ferrari. Neither Sommer’s Maserati 8CM nor the Monza allowed him close enough to the big boys for his talent to make the difference.
Other than that Le Mans win, the next three seasons offered slim pickings to Sommer. And even at Le Mans, though he led the race every year from 1934 to 1938 (when he set fastest lap again), his machinery always let him down. On the Grand Prix circuit, the Mercedes and Auto Unions teams were making everyone else look antediluvian, and while Nuvolari won memorably at the Nürburgring in 1935 using a very special 3.8-litre P3, Sommer’s three-year old ex-Enzo P3 stood no such chance.
It was inconceivable, too, that Sommer would ever have raced for either of the peerless German teams. First there was his reluctance to race for anyone but himself, and second he was no fan of the Nazis. Besides, Hitler favoured drivers either from Germany or Mussolini’s similarly fascist Italy.
In 1936, and with no hope of a result on the international GP scene, Sommer turned his attention back to sportscars, winning the French GP with Jean-Pierre Wimille in a Bugatti and finally signing for Scuderia Ferrari. He was at once entered for the Spa 24 Hours, which he won by a clear six laps. The next year, he raced for Ferrari in Grands Prix, but with predictably little success against the W125 Mercedes and C-type Auto Union. Rather more promisingly, he began his association with TalbotLago but, being Sommer, insisted on operating as a privateer, albeit it with works support Thus with his ideal set-up at last in place, he came second at Pau before winning at Tunis and Marseilles to become the Champion of France.
He enjoyed no such success in 1938, even though Alfa by now had the 158 at its disposal — it broke on him every time he raced it. And at Le Mans, a 12-lap lead and certain win evaporated when his Alfa’s tyre exploded, ripping through the bodywork
And so, bar a few unmemorable races in 1939, concluded Sommer’s pre-war career. He was still only 33 when war broke out and, like many of his racing countrymen, he made a magnificent nuisance of himself working for the French Resistance.
The post-war era of front-line European racing kicked off in France in 1946. The third race that year was held in St Cloud, an affluent suburb of south-west Paris. This 3.73-mile circuit included an 800-metre tunnel. The works Alfa Romeo 158s were there, and now the German teams were no longer extant, they were theoretically unbeatable. Sommer was not driving one, however, preferring his time-honoured role of privateer underdog in a Maserati 4CL, which he put on pole. Staggeringly, the Alfas broke and Sommer won, too, memories of Miramas 14 years earlier flooding back: he was the first man to beat both the P3 and 158. It would be five long years before they were beaten again and, tragically, Sommer would not live to see it.
With one shining exception, 1947 was to be forgotten. Maserati never got near AWa Romeo again, and diversions like the disastrous CTA-Arsenal did little to shore up Sommer’s dismal season. Then, on October 12, he won the Turin Grand Prix, which would have been cause for celebration in any car. In fact, he won in a Ferrari, and thereby notched up the first GP victory fora car bearing Enzo’s name.II Commendatore sought out the bench in Valentino Park (scene of the race) on which he had grieved for his departed brother and father in 1918 — and wept once more.
Sommer had another brief dalliance as a works driver, this time for Ferrari, in 1948, but despite coming third in the Italian Grand Prix, his supercharged 125 was once more no match for the Alfa 158s. He left the team halfway through the following season for the private life as a Talbot-Lago racer. He did, however, leave a legacy at Ferrari: Enzo himself credited Sommer with persuading him to abandon the thirsty supercharged 1.5-litre V12 engine for a normally-aspirated 4.5. And it was this tactic which finally conquered the Alfas and changed the course of racing history.
The next season, with its inaugural driver’s world championship, was to be Sommer’s last He started it as a works Ferrari driver, coming home fourth in Monaco behind Juan Fangio’s Alfa, team-mate Ascari and Louis Chiron’s Maserati 4C LT/48. It would be the last world championship GP he’d finish. Yet his finest hour was still to come.
By the time the circus arrived at Spa in June, he was back in a private Talbot, a car slower even than the works Talbots, and something of a joke compared to the Alfa 158s, which travelled around 30mph faster all the way down the straight from Malmetly to Stavelot But Sommer was convinced that in the Alfa’s fuel consumption lay their fatal flaw. And where better to prove it than among the flat-out swerves of Spa?
He outqualified all three of the works Talbots to claim fifth on the grid behind the three Alfas and Luigi Villoresi’s Ferrari. At the start, to the astonishment of Alfa, Ferrari, the crowd everyone except Sommer he kept station with the Alfas and even dispatched Villoresi in a dazzling move through Burnenville, perhaps the scariest corner in motorsport. Then, as the Alfas came in for fuel, Sommer stayed out, taking the lead on lap 13.
In the Alfa pit, they did their sums and realised their cars would have not only to catch and pass Sommer but that they would all have to stop again. Panic broke out and this time, instead of becoming confused as to Sommer’s position as they had at Miramas 18 years earlier, it was confusion they sought to create. A team was sent to the timekeepers to tell them Sommer was, in fact, a lap down. They returned with fleas in their ears.
Who knows if Sommer would have won? His Talbot let him down, as it would in every other GP of the year. And when he was asked by Raymond Mays to drive the BRM V16 in its maiden race, at Silverstone in August, that broke too.
Sommer’s last race came on a 3.44-mile track at Cadours, near Toulouse. Driving an 1100cc Cooper, he shot off into the lead, only to overturn on a quick corner, with fatal consequences.
So often, talk of drivers who never quite made it to the top suggests that bad luck alone prevented their true talent from being realised. Such is not the case with Sommer. Sure, a lot of cars broke underneath him, but he was hard on them and raced as a privateer and therefore without works engineering entirely out of choice.
The demonstrable truth about Sommer is that he never wanted to make it to the top enough to put up with the politics and bullshit that, even then, went with the job description. He made his own way and derived his particular pleasure from racing on no-one’s terms but his own. He had nothing to prove, he just wanted to race. And if, in the process, he could send a works team scuttling in disbelief back to its time-sheets, so much the better.
If you want Sommer in a nutshell, he said more about himself in one quote than you’d learn in a lifetime reading the opinions of others. On the same day in 1950 that he was supposed to race the BRM at Silverstone, he replaced the injured Lance Macklin in an Aston Martin DB2 in the one hour production car race. Having never hired him before John Wyer asked Sommer how he’d liked to receive his pit signals. Sommer replied: “I don’t want any signals. I always go as fast as I can anyway, so it’s no good signalling me to go faster because I can’t. And it’s no good signalling me to go slower because I won’t.”
Flat out and on his own terms the only way Sommer knew.