Disappointments...

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Personal disappointment relates to not having been sufficiently industrious in youth, to have studied things like workshop practice and simple welding etc, so that I could have worked on my cars and perhaps even built a special, and God not having endowed me with the qualities required for being a top-line racing driver… Thinking in terms of the many disappointments that have involved those who have engaged in active motor racing brings many memories. The list is almost unending but I present some of the more classic disappointments as I remember them, and if readers wish to recall others, so much the better.

I do not necessarily rate an excitingly close racing finish a disappointment for the loser; a driver may be disconcerted by not having won, but the compensation of an excitingly close fought battle must recompense, surely? So I have discounted in this article some of the breathtakingly exciting finishes I have observed at Brooklands and other circuits, although one recognises that in some of these there was reason for disappointment, for example in that tragic JCC International Trophy race in 1938 (tragic because of the early accident involving spectators) when Raymond Mays’ ERA, in spite of the handicap chicanes which were an ingenious feature of these IT races, should have caught Maclure’s non-supercharged Riley had the ERA not gone sick in the closing stages of the contest. Bitter disappointment, too, for Bira, and his entrant Prince Chula, when the Maserati, leading Mays by a small margin, refused to re-start after its re-fuelling stop…

Disappointments have characterised motor racing from the very beginning. They have pounced in many forms but the most bitter must surely be those of drivers well placed for victory, only to have it snatched from them by “cockpit-error”, mechanical disasters or other intrusions. What of Count Eliott Zborowski, who would have won the prestigious Paris-Vienna race of 1902 had his 40 hp Mercedes not been penalised about half-an-hour for non-observance of some customs formalities? This must have been a bitter blow for the wealthy amateur, who had been presented with a laurel wreath almost as large as his Mercedes after he had arrived at the finish at the Prater just outside Vienna, where the relic of an old exhibition building provided cover and to which crowds of VIPs had arrived by special train to see the outcome of this hard 615-mile four-day contest. After having been at the wheel for many hours over the dust-laden unguarded roads Zborowski and de Forest, amateurs against the pick of the professionals, were leading, having overtaken even Henri Farman on his 70 hp Panhard-Levassor, which in spite of its powerful engine, weighed only 20 kg more than the Mercedes. Although Marcel Renault had been the first to arrive at the stadium, coming in the wrong way round the trotting track where the elite of the spectators were gathered, so that his 16 hp Renault lost some quarter-of-an-hour being sent out again to complete the event properly, when Zborowski from England appeared, clearly he was thought to have won the race outright, Marcel being in the Light Car class. Only the unimportant break with customs denied the Polish Count victory, after his gallant drive lasting a total of nearly 16 ¼ hours on what was virtually a touring Mercedes. He was finally accorded second place, his Mercedes the only car to break the Panhards that occupied every other place down to seventh.

To this early disappointment can be added that of Dario Resta, driving professionally on a Mercedes at the first Brooklands race meeting. The much publicised and discussed new Motor Course at Weybridge brought curious onlookers, many in their horse-drawn carriages, to witness this new spectacle of speed and mechanised sport. On this occasion there was much prize money at stake, £15,000 in all. For the big race of this July afternoon, the First Montagu Cup, the winner’s prize was a cool £1,400 and a cup valued at £200. With the ladies, in their voluminous skirts and enormously decorated hats, and the men mostly in tight trousers and “boaters”, gathered along the rails or on the Paddock stand opposite the finishing line, eight cars were started in this exciting 11-lap, 30 ½ mile race, for a total prize offering of 2,100 sovereigns. Cecil Edge’s Napier was the 2-to-1 favourite but it came to rest after only four laps. Warwick Wright’s Darracq was passing car after car, going great guns, but its engine blew up in a big way with two laps to go. By then only four cars were in it, J.E. Hutton’s Mercedes and Resta driving another huge Mercedes for F.R. Fry, and after the Napier and the Darracq had dropped out the race became a battle of the Mercedes. Resta forged ahead when Hutton’s car went onto three cylinders and looked to be about to win by a mile or so. Alas, Brooklands was built like a traditional horse-race course and to complete a race you turned on the final lap into the finishing straight. Resta should have realised this, and anyway and official was stationed at the Fork, in charge of the semaphore, to signal to the competitors when they were due to move off the main circuit. Perhaps Resta was going too fast to see this signal; perhaps, as he implied, he was confused by a colleague or official, or spectator, waving him on round the main track. He said he had kept count of the laps covered so his mistake was odd, and what was his riding mechanic, if he carried one, doing?

The public, new to motor-racing, had little idea of what had happened, so Hutton was greeted as the winner as he crossed the line on his sick Mercedes, as in fact he was, at some 83 mph. Resta had forfeited £1,400 (and the Montagu Cup donated by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu) and even failed to catch the Japanese amateur Okura, whose giant Fiat had been well behind before Resta’s error. Disappointment must have ensued, if not more acrimonious feelings… Brooklands spelled bad luck for Resta, who was killed there in 1924, during a Sunbeam record attempt.

There were many more disappointments to come in pre-1914 motor racing, epitomised when all that the great and legendary Georges Boillot and his previously unvanquished twin-cam Peugeot could do, failed to stem the onslaught of the three white Mercedes in that fateful French Grand Prix at Lyons on the eve of war, Georges weeping beside his broken-down blue racer as the Mercedes swept on to finish in the first three places. With even more fateful irony, Boillot, having joined the Air Force in order to fight again for his beloved France, was shot down in 1916 by a German pilot over the fighting-line…

There were disappointments galore in the between-wars races. One I recall, was when Segrave outwitted K. Lee-Guinness when both were driving for the Talbot-Darracq team in the 1922 JCC 200-Mile Race at Brooklands. In the massed start and subsequently, Guinness was sure he had a lap lead over Segrave. But the latter, “controlled” with a handkerchief waved by his wife Doris on the Members’ Hill, went ahead, then eased off before he lapped Guinness to run behind his team-mate but actually on the lap ahead of him. Guinness crossed the line at the end of a long and arduous afternoon’s driving convinced he had won and was surprised to see the officials and the acclamations surrounding Segrave. Louis Coatalen, the team-entrant, had promised Guinness he should win the “200”, having been tricked out of victory in an earlier race by the wily René Thomas, so he must have been more than just disappointed at Segrave’s strategy. Signalled to speed-up, the puzzled Guinness had come home 5.8 sec behind his adversary.

One might well include the dual retirement of the two thought-to-be unbeatable supercharged Fiats of Salamano and Campbell in the 1923 200-Mile Race, in which Harvey’s Alvis went on to a fine victory, establishing the greatness of the 12/50 as one of Britain’s finest 1 ½–litre sports cars. It must have been bitterly disappointing, too, for Fiat, when Salamano’s car ran out of essence during the 1923 French GP and the tank filler cap jammed on, allowing Segrave to win this race for Sunbeam, ironically with a car based on a Fiat design…

There was disappointment for the Brooklands crowd after it had been rumoured that the greatest driver of his era, Tazio Nuvolari, would drive Earl Howe’s Type 51 Bugatti in the 1933 Mountain Championship Handicap at the October Motor Show-time meeting, as Howe wasn’t fit enough to drive it himself. For, after practising, Nuvolari returned to Europe the day before the race, which had been postponed for a week due to rain anyway. Those insular English persons who had not gone to Ulster to see him win the TT so brilliantly for MG, as he had done for Alfa Romeo in 1930, had missed their chance, for Nuvolari never drove at Brooklands again and did not race at Donington until 1938, when of course he won the GP. In that same Brooklands race Piero Taruffi, who had also come from Italy for the Motor Show and agreed to drive Howe’s Bugatti after Nuvolari had departed for Paris, must have felt disillusionment when, nicely in the lead for the Championship from the Hon Brian Lewis’ Alfa Romeo and Raymond Mays in that white Riley Six, he was confused by flag-waving after Rose-Richards’ Bugatti had skidded round at the banking turn and collided with Sir Malcolm Campbell’s V12 4-litre Sunbeam, which became glued to the track with a locked back axle.

Arriving at high speed on the next lap, Taruffi found the course invaded by officials and many others, all trying to shift the heavy Sunbeam, blue flags waving wildly. Then some unauthorised person confronted Taruffi with both arms raised and the confused Italian driver eased off, probably expecting the race to be stopped, or to find more mayhem around the corner. Not only that, but as Whitney Straight in his Maserati and Mays in the Riley passed Taruffi, the Riley suddenly cut out and stopped in front of the Bugatti, causing it too to stop. Straight went on to win the Mountain Championship. Taruffi restarted and drove as hard as he could, coming within one-fifth-of-a-second of the course lap record (77.43, mph which Straight equalled) but losing by 2.0 sec, with Lewis third. At the next BARC Committee Meeting there was a protest from Earl Howe, who no doubt thought the race should have been re-run. But it was October, with the light going early, oil to be cleared from the track, and four more races to run, so perhaps the officials had thought there wasn’t time…

History is full of disappointments on the race circuits. One can imagine, for instance, the disappointment of Chiron and von Brauchitsch driving for Mercedes-Benz, Farina (Alfa Romeo) and Siena (Maserati) at Monaco in 1936 when they all piled up at the harbour sandbag chicane due to oil dropped on the road from Tadini’s Alfa Romeo. It was only the second lap and Brivio and Trossi, in Alfa Romeo and Maserati, were also involved but were able to continue. The oil caused Rosemeyer’s Auto-Union to spin past the stationary Mercedes of Brauchitsch and the harbour wall. The officials tried to disperse the oil slick with petrol but only Nuvolari, as he was to do at Donington in 1938, drove quickly over it, so catching Caracciola’s leading Mercedes-Benz, which, however, eventually won. There was a repetition in 1957, when Moss came too fast into the chicane in the Vanwall and hit the barriers, causing Collins’ Ferrari to crash in taking avoiding action. Brooks (Vanwall) slowed right down and ran over a dislodged pole, to be hit by Hawthorn’s Ferrari. Brooks continued, but on this fourth lap Moss, Collins and Hawthorn were out… disappointed? Fangio, leading Brooks at the time of the incident, drove between Moss’ crashed Vanwall, Collins’ Ferrari and the odd poles, and went on to win from Brooks and Gregory in a Maserati.

A disappointment of a different kind overwhelmed the Jaguar team when new frontal cowling on the XK120Cs caused overheating and their mass retirement from the 1952 Le Mans 24-hour race during the second hour. However, Jaguar had won this race in 1951, and were to do so again in 1953, 1955, 1956 and 1957. And it was Le Mans that saw, in my opinion, one of the biggest disappointments in the whole of motor racing. Urged on by the patriotic French crowd, Pierre Levegh found his 4.5-litre Talbot leading from even the Mercedes-Benz 300SLs, in the 1952 race. At dawn on the Sunday the blue Talbot was still ahead, and tired as he was, the Frenchman refused to let his son take over, in case he made an error and robbed them of a seemingly certain win. Alas, bemused with fatigue, Levegh missed a gear change, a con-rod came out of the engine, and his gallant run ended a mere 1 ¼ hours or so from victory. Mercedes-Benz went on to a one, two finish… As a result of Levegh’s brave showing, rather surprisingly, Stuttgart offered Levegh a drive in the 1955 Le Mans race in one of the new, very fast 300SLRS Mercedes-Benz, and it was while driving it, with cruel irony, that the French driver hit another car and flew into the crowd, killing himself and 81 onlookers. Hawthorn and Bueb went on to score a hollow victory for Jaguar… One remembers a film of the 1952 race, showing Levegh after his retirement, walking dazedly back to the pits, noticing no one, while sympathetic spectators, and near-hysterical French supporters, reach out to touch him…

Disappointments are so much a part of any sport, of motor-racing no less than others, that they have been rife. One remembers Jack Brabham, so often robbed of victory in the closing stages of the Monaco GP, seeming to have this race in his grasp in 1970, only to go straight on at the hairpin on the final lap, due to a lapse of concentration, after a long race over this gruelling circuit. Jack (now Sir Jack) Brabham had tried unnecessarily to “shut the door” on Jochen Rindt and braking on a loose surface, went into the barriers, enabling the Lotus 49C to snatch a last minute victory from the Brabham BT33C, now with a battered nose. A similar thing happened to Brabham at Monza in 1967 when John Surtees, leading the race in the V12 Honda, was about to be out-braked by Brabham into the very last corner. However, Surtees put Jack onto the marbles and this caused the Brabham-Repco to slide outwards, allowing Surtees to take the corner on the inside and accelerate away to victory. The respective margins by which Brabham lost these two races were 23.1 sec and 2.0 sec.

After the Monaco disappointment D.S.J. wrote: “Old Jack Brabham is good, but not a god, and what is nice is he is human about it all, cursing himself quietly but chuckling about it really. He doesn’t mind his own mistakes but he can’t abide other people’s errors causing him to lose.” There was a similar episode last season, at Imola, when Patrese was in the lead but went off in the Brabham-BMW with less than six laps to go, in a truly spectacular fashion, giving the race to Tambay’s Ferrari, to the consternation of Riccardo and his mechanics…

Then there was Didier Pironi’s Ferrari running out of petrol on the final lap of the 1982 Monaco GP when in the lead from Riccardo Patrese (Brabham), who had lost his lead by spinning on the previous lap. The new F1 rules make it likely that the plight of Pironi on that occasion will happen again during 1984.

I remember, too, the anguish on the face of chain-smoking Raymond Mays, suffering disappointment from another cause, as he awaiting anxiously the late arrival of the Austin van carrying one of the ill-fated V16 BRMs, to the start of the BRDC International Trophy Race at Silverstone in 1950 – with a Police escort no less, from nearby Bicester aerodrome to which this much-publicised but non-starting Mays’ brainchild had been flown from Bourne. Alas, as Raymond Sommer let in the clutch on the starting line his race was run in a yard or less, a drive-shaft having sheared. That spelt disappointment not only for Mays but for those who had contributed some £150,000 as well as valuable mechanical components to Automobile Developments Ltd, Mays’ British Motor Racing Research Trust responsible for this BRM project. The spectators too must have been very disappointed not to see this advanced car with its two-stage Rolls-Royce superchargers contributing their quota to the ecstatic noise of the 1 ½–litre engine that ran up to some 12,000 rpm and was rumoured to develop around 450 bhp on the rare occasions when it was “on-song”…

There have been so many disappointments, of one kind or another, in competition motoring (the Minis in the Monte Carlo Rally come to mind) and there are bound to be many more, to chill the hearts of drivers, entrants, team-managers and you, the spectators, in the future. Let us hope that those involved will take such set-backs in the same spirit as D.S.J. says Brabham did after his prang in Monaco – anyway, Jack had won there in a Cooper-Climax in 1959. – W.B.

NB. The idea for this article came about before the 1984 Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race! – Ed.

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