Brilliant promise shown by French cars in the first Formula race of the season
The Grand Prix de Pau provided as good an example as one could wish to find of the uncertainty of motor-racing, from the organisers’ point of view. Starting with sixteen entries, the number gradually dwindled as the race drew nearer, the excuses given varying from lack of preparation to accidents in practice. The last withdrawal was announced an hour before the race, by which time there were only eight runners left – 50 per cent. of the original entry.
According to all calculations, the race ought to have been a flop in consequence, especially as the solitary Mercedes-Benz was regarded as a certain winner. At this point, however, fortune decided to relent in its cavalier treatment of the A.C. Basco-Beamais, and by providing a fine struggle between the aforesaid Mercedes and the Delahaye driven by Dreyfus, gave the spectators good value for their money.
The first important non-starter to be announced was the winner of the race last year, Jean-Pierre Wimille, whose ” works ” Bugatti could not be prepared in time for the race. The same reason was given for the scratching of the Talbot team. Then, while practising on the day before the race, Tazio Nuvolari had the devastating experience of finding his Alfa-Romeo in flames, leaving him no alternative but to jump for it while still on the move. The little Italian was burnt about the legs and suffered quite considerably from shock. The trouble was traced to a split petrol tank, caused by excessive flexing of the chassis, and it was decided, for safety’s sake, to withdraw the second Alfa which should have been driven by Villoresi. Meanwhile Bayard and Daniell, two independents, had scratched from the race, and Negro crashed his Maserati on the last day’s practice and damaged the steering. He collided with the straw barricades just past the stands, and did not hurt himself.
Even then the chapter of accidents was not complete, for a couple of hours before the start it was found that Lang’s Mercedes-Benz had lost all its oil pressure, and Herr Neubauer was forced to withdraw the car.
The fastest practice laps were a good forecast of the course of the race. Best time was shared by Caracciola (Mercedes) and Dreyfus (Delahaye) in 1 min. 48 secs., with Lang (Mercedes) a second behind. This was a bit of a surprise to those who had thought that the unblown 4½-litre French cars would not be able to get anywhere near their 3-litre supercharged rivals. Comotti was 11 seconds slower with the second Delahaye, but it looked as though the fault was with the car and not the driver.
The sadly reduced number of starters did not keep the crowd away, and when zero hour arrived at 2 o’clock the stands and enclosures were all full. The cars were drawn up about a hundred yards before the tribunes, with Caracciola and Dreyfus side by side in the front row. The rest of the field consisted of Comotti (Delahaye), Raph (1½-litre Maserati), Negro (1½-litre Maserati), Lanza (1½-litre Maserati), Trintignant (2.3-litre Bugatti), and Matra (1½-litre Bugatti).
As was expected, Caracciola jumped ahead at the start, and at the end of the first lap he was about twenty yards in front of Dreyfus (Delahaye), with Comotti, Trintignant, Lanza, Raph, Matra and Negro stringing along behind. The two leaders quickly drew away from the rest of the field, but Caracciola was unable or unwilling to shake off his rival. Instead, to the immense delight of the highly partisan crowd, the French driver actually gained on the Mercedes and passed into the lead on the seventh lap.
For five laps the two cars went round with only a length or so between them, and then on the fifteenth circuit the German car slipped past just before they reached the stands. The superiority of these two over the rest of the field can be judged by the fact that they both lapped Comotti on the same circuit. In turn, Comotti was a long way ahead of the others. The unfortunate Negro, incidentally, had already retired on the 10th lap, finding his steering far from recovered after the crash the previous day.
Just to show there was no ill feeling, Caracciola proceeded to shatter the lap record with a round in 1 min. 47 secs., a record for the race and the course. This display enabled him to build up an increasing lead over Dreyfus, who declined to be drawn into a prolonged dogfight. Afterwards he explained that he didn’t like the smell of the Mercedes’ exhaust and that he preferred to follow Caracciola at a distance of a couple of hundred yards. Once he got involved with some slower cars who were scrapping together, with the result that he fell behind Caracciola to the extent of 10 seconds, but he quickly drew back to his former position.
The battle between the leaders naturally had the effect of overshadowing the progress of the tail-enders, among whom Raph was putting up a sound performance on his 1½-litre Maserati, which he had worked into fourth place. Trintignant stopped at his pit for plugs, and then found that his engine would not start again. After sweating away for some time, he and his mechanics at last succeeded. Matra’s Bugatti was also giving trouble, and after repeated pit-stops the driver called it a day on the 40th lap. The only other driver left in the race, the Italian Lanza, was putting up a good show in spite of the handicap of a groggy gearbox.
All this while Caracciola was being urged to go faster and faster. The reason was that Herr Neubauer wanted him to build up a lead over the Delahaye which would compensate for the fact that the Mercedes would have to stop for refuelling—while the Delahaye would not.
Try as he might, however, Caracciola could not shake off the French car. His lead varied from 8 to 10 seconds, according to ” local conditions ” represented by the presence of slower cars on a twisty course. Half-time came, with the cars in the following order :
1, Caracciola (Mercedes-Benz), 1h. 32m. 26s.
2. Dreyfus (Delahaye), 6 seconds behind.
3. Comotti (Delahaye), 3 laps behind.
4. Raph (Maserati), 4 laps behind.
5. Trintignant (Bugatti), 12 laps behind.
6. Matra (Bugatti), 12 laps behind.
7. Lanza (Maserati), 14 laps behind.
On the 52nd lap Caracciola pulled into the pits for the fatal re-fuelling stop, while Dreyfus sang cheerfully past. While the mechanics worked feverishly on the car, Caracciola climbed out and told Neubauer that his feet were slightly scorched. The team-chief promptly ordered Lang, who was standing by, to take over. The car was only stationary for 50 seconds, but to this must be added the time taken in slowing down and accelerating again.
Lang set out to catch Dreyfus with a fine display of his dashing driving, and managed to cut down the margin between them from 1 min. 23 secs. to 1 min. 19 secs. The German then found that all was not well with his gear-change, and the difference between the two cars increased to 1 min. 27 secs. On the next lap Lang drew into the pits for a quick examination of the trouble, losing 1 min. 20 secs., and increasing Dreyfus’s lead to 3 mins. During the stop, however, the mechanics managed to cure the gearchange difficulty, so that when Lang got going again he had a fit motor-car at his disposal.
On the 70th lap Dreyfus was 2 mins. 58 secs. ahead. In twenty laps Lang reduced this to 2 minutes. Dreyfus made no effort to stave off this challenge, playing for a safe finish. There was terrific excitement two laps before the end when Lang came up behind Dreyfus and roared past him – still a whole lap behind.
And so it was that the first race run under the new formula was won by an unblown 4½-litre car, in defiance of the forecasts of most people, and to the indescribable delight of thousands of Frenchmen, who stampeded across the road to congratulate their compatriot ; cool, calm and unruffled Rene Dreyfus.
1. Dreyfus (Delahaye), 100 laps, or 276 km. 900, In 3h. 8m. 59s., Speed 54.78 m.p.h.
2. Caracciola-Lang (Mercedes-Benz), 3h. 10m. 50s.
3. Comotti (Delahaye), 94 laps in 3h. 9m. 50s.
4. Raph (Maserati), 85 laps in 3h. 10m. 37s.
5. Trintignant (Bugatti), 83 laps in 3h. 9m. 33s.
6. Laura (Maserati), 81 laps in 3h. 9m. 54s.