And you though race drivers from the early 20th century were brave! As Bill Boddy points out riding mechanics worked just as hard for far less glory
Gilbert and Sullivan have it that a “policeman’s lot is not a happy one”, perhaps with some exaggeration for operatic reasons. But what would they have said of riding mechanics in racing cars? The dedicated enthusiast rode in races beside his or her driver for the sheer pleasure and fun of it. But the professional racing mechanics had sometimes a very tough and dangerous task to fulfill. Last month, in my piece about Charles Jarrott and the long-distance town-to-town races, I mentioned how some well-known personalities had had enough of riding beside drivers in the classic contests which marked the beginning of the racing game.
The uncomfortable and exposed seating, the dust, the exhaustion, removing punctured tyres from stubborn wheel-rims at the roadside, attending to oilers, the petrol-feed, etc, with no proper protection from the elements, was enough, after just one race, for some of them.
In later times it was still not exactly a picnic. In a typical grand prix car of the early days — particularly the 1920s — the cockpit was cramped, the riding mechanic having to occupy a sparsely-upholstered seat and hang on where he could, one arm draped behind his driver, the other hand grasping any hold available. The cockpit got very hot, oil was probably present, and sometimes bits of machinery intruded on any space the mechanic had — Bugatti, for one, had no compunction about magnetos protruding from the dash. Upholstery, if any, was minimal, the hard suspension of a vintage racing car made the ride very punishing, and the wind pressure and eternal noise contributed to the mechanic’s discomfort. The driver, with much to engage him, and think about, was somewhat more immune. Yet it could be enjoyable.
The Autocar’s Sammy Davis, after riding, beside Count Zborowsld in the unsuitable track-racing 2-litre Miller in the 1924 French GP at Lyon (until the front axle came adrift), said that “after four rounds, neither of us cared who was winning provided the Miller would only go 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” He could only speak to his driver when, for a few moments, Zborowski cut out for a corner; at full blast he could not hear him. Every few minutes Davis would look back to see if another car was approaching, just able to turn in his narrow seat If a car was coming up to overtake, he would give the Count a tap on his shoulder, to prepare him. When the rival car was ready to pass, two taps. He then waved the faster car on, exchanging a grin with its mechanic as it drew level.
That sort of thing apart, a mechanic had to keep watching the gauges, the oil gauge especially, keep up air pressure in the fuel tank — what a nuisance that can be if one forgets, to be reminded as the engine falters and your driver shouts abuse — and perhaps keep a lap score. In addition, when the rules permitted only the driver and his mechanic to work on the car at the pits, a mechanic had to be smart at refuelling, replenishing the oil, changing one or more wheels and doing anything else necessary. Much later, of course, the driver could sit impassive — or otherwise — while a squad of trained mechanics did the job, having pushed the car out to the starting grid beforehand. Some thrived on the job, whether professionals or amateurs. Most,
I suspect. It was also a path into becoming a racing driver: a classic example is that of Giulio Ramponi, who after going as riding mechanic to top drivers such as Antonio Ascari in the GP-winning Alfa Romeo P2s, not only went on to be an effective driver himself but a very skilled engineer, able to rebuild that 10-year-old 1H-litre straight-eight Delage into a race-conquering car for Dick Seaman. Other examples must occur to you.
But with the skills, there were sometimes menial tasks. Remember how, when Dick Seaman had forgotten his goggles at Donington Park and went to retrieve them, Neubauer restrained him, sending a mechanic instead. Or how, after Jean Chassagne’s 1H-litre TalbotDarracq burst a tyre in the 1922 Brooklands JCC 200-Mile Race and shot over the Byfleet banking, it was his mechanic, also flung out, who he sent to find his shoes, torn off and lying on the Track. Although it was for sportscars, the Le Mans 24-hour race regulations initially specified that only the driver could work on the car, later that his co-driver could assist him, then that a mechanic could join in, provided that only two of them were in the pitlane at the same time. So a head mechanic had to be appointed, hopefully of all-round skills. Thus it is somewhat amazing that when the legendary Tazio Nuvolari came to Ulster to win the TT for MG, he could not converse, for lack of English, with Alec Hounslow, of the Abingdon racing department, who couldn’t speak Italian, but was to ride with him. Surprisingly, the only pitstop went satisfactorily. Even deciding when the MG Magnette should go in was left in Hounslow, who told Nuvolari when the danger-strip showed on the tyres, on the 14th of 34 laps.
Even how they should then work together was left to chance. Hounslow leapt out and started to change the back wheels, having opened the fuel-filler as he grabbed the lifting jack. Thus prompted, Nuvolari took the fuel churn and poured in 18 gallons and also two gallons of oil. Alec was by then pushing the car off the jack, thus moving it along, but Nuvolari spotted this and moved with it, not spilling any lubricant. Each front wheel had its own jack. Hounslow got his wheel off, then passed the hub-nut hammer to Tazio, who had raised the other wheel. Passing the hammer back to Alec the wheel on his side was secured, then the hammer went over to Tazio again, who did the same for his wheel, the jacks were removed, and he ran around the car checking that all the wheel nuts were properly tight It took 3min 9sec to change those four wheels and refuel.
It was a rather vital pitstop, because Hugh Hamilton’s MG Midget was ahead on handicap until it had a fateful 20sec stop on the last lap, for a splash of fuel. Two laps from the finish, Nuvolari had a handicap lead of only 3sec but with Hamilton’s pitstop, which was slow, he won by 40sec after 462 miles, and nearly six hours. Had Hamilton not stopped, would they have won? One of motor-racing’s Tazio had signed to Alec to get down in the cockpit for more pace, but he had broken the class lap record several times and Alec thought Nuvolari had never been quite flat out, so he probably had something left. On that tense last lap, they had gone onto the reserve fuel supply — the engine faltered but Alec moved the tap over in time.
Apart from a mechanic’s invaluable help at pitstops, they have been known to exceed their normal duties. As in the 1923 French GP, when the clutch on Guinness’s Sunbeam began to slip, Bill Perkins put a rope round the pedal and pulled on it until it began to cut into his wrist. Leaning into the cockpit he became exhausted and nearly collapsed. Guinness had to stop and replace him with Jack Smith — with no telecommunication to warn his pit what was happening.
In the same race the following year, Divo’s mechanic Hivernat was hit by a stone and rendered unconscious, and similarly Marocchi, riding with Segrave, was knocked out by a piece of tyre tread from Ascari’s Alfa Romeo and the Sunbeam had to stop to replace him.
And when Salamano’s Fiat ran out of fuel far from the pits, it was mechanic Ferretti who had to set off with a heavy can.
Apart from being knocked out, mechanics have been run over, and been involved in accidents and fires. When Perkins, the dedicated Sunbeam mechanic, came to S11) meetings in recent times, the effects of his narrow escape at Brooldands — when Resta went through the fence and was killed — were still evident. Frank Bill walked with a limp, using a crutch, due to the crash in a Wolverhampton side street, after going with Joseph Christaens at Indianapolis and lesser American races, when this driver was demonstrating another Indy Sunbeam.
The noble role of riding with great drivers ended in GP racing in 1925. The FIA thought it too dangerous. Most of the accidents had involved drivers only, although in the 1924 French GP, Jack Barrett, a Sunbeam mechanic, was killed when K Lee Guinness crashed. The new rule was not immediately universal, and in the first German GP at Avus in 1926, two mechanics were badly injured when Rosenberger’s Mercedes and Chassagne’s Talbot crashed in separate accidents on the flooded track. ‘One death at a time is enough’, it was felt. However, for 1925 and ’26 two-seater bodies were still stipulated, with a minimum width of 80cm, but with only the driver occupying them. This was presumably to give time for new narrower chassis and bodies to be planned without eliminating existing cars. It is possible that the single-seaters were seen as faster, and although one associates speed with racing, you know how the FIA was forever trying to reduce it, by fuel consumption restrictions, weight limits, which the Germans overcame, and Bs4 engine capacity restrictions from 4H litres in 1914 to 1H litres by 1926. And now, in 2001, comes the idea of changing today’s wonderful 800bhp V10 Formula One power units for 650bhp 2H-litre V6s. A sigh, perhaps, for the/0=de libre years — 1912, ’31-33 and in 1934-37 by default, thanks to Mercedes and Auto Union.
The ban on riding mechanics caused much controversy. Pietro Bordino saw no need for a mechanic in the car. They received such punishment that they often required several minutes to recover before getting to work at a pitstop. He was about to race for Fiat in America and was certain he could read the instruments himself. Louis Wagner, head of the Alfa Romeo team, thought two men induced complicated racing cars only they could cope with, and that more simple ones were possible. Andre Boillot, boss of Peugeot’s racing department, said, “Away with the mechanic, all the time and every time.” A driver unable to read a rev counter should use a governor and a mirror to see overtaking cars — but someone said a mirror vibrated too much on a racing car — or a powerful Klaxon horn, as some did in touring car races. Facetious?
Jack Scales, reserve Sunbeam driver and in charge of Talbot-Danacq testing, felt that a mechanic was required in road races, when a concentrating driver could not see every 300rpm on the rev counter, which might reach the engine’s blow-up point. But Bugatti expert de Vizcaya thought a racing car should do 500 miles without attention, so no job for a mechanic, but two seats should be retained for ordinary usage — one senses an advertising point here! Both Louis Delage and Rene Thomas said nothing about mechanics, but like all the others were against the 2-litre rule coming down to 1500cc with an 11cwt minimum empty weight. Such cars in 1926 would be doing 115 or 120mph and the 1924 ones were almost impossible to control.
Having no mechanic would reduce weight, and it was thought that the change was being suggested by those who had never driven a racing car — “the utmost folly”, said Louis Wagner. Sad that even racing-car builders sought speed reductions; but suspension techniques were vastly different then, with no downforce aids, so why not a 50 per cent safety move? However, SC H Davis, and Col Arthur Waite for Austin, saw riding mechanics as necessary, Sammy for checking pit signals, cleaning goggles, lap-scoring, checking the tyres and being able to crank a reluctant engine while the driver sat operating the throttle, ready to go. Ramponi had to push, until exhausted, Ascari’s Alfa when it refused in the 1924 French GP. Waite thought single-seaters would produce high seating over the transmission, increasing instability, or resulting in unbalance if using an offset seat. As for risk, he quoted the poem:
“No game is worth a rapfor a rational man to play to which no accident or mishap can possibbifind a way”.
In the 1930 TT Waite crashed his Austin Ulster 7 and he and his mechanic were injured.
Sammy also said mechanics liked racing, many even if unpaid. But Montlhery adopted the ‘no mechanics’ rule in 1924 even before it was official, ready for the 1925 GP. Louis Coatalen, who was responsible for the Sunbeam and Talbot-Darracq teams, wanted wider bodies, to reduce speed to about 112mph, and said absence of mechanics would make cars lighter and thus help to increase speed. By 1927 single-seater cars had to be 85cm wide, and some makers added cockpit-side bulges to bring them up to width. The problem in naming outstanding mechanics is that most twoseater racing cars ran two-up until the 1925 GP ruling, and in many other races this continued, at least for some years.
There is, however, just enough space to record that when Szisz won the 1906 French Grand Prix for Renault, his mechanic was the gallant Marteau, that the great Georges Boillot had Prevost beside him in the winning Peugeot in 1913, that Hans Sieger rode with Christian Lautenschlager in the convincing Mercedes victory of 1914, Jimmy Murphy brought Olsen as his racing companion and won the 1921 French GP for Duesenberg, and that Paul Dutoit shared with Segrave the first British win, in the Sunbeam, in 1923.