Veteran Edwardian Vintage, November 1985

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The Changed Face of GP Racing

Renault are withdrawing from Formula One racing, which was the subject of last month’s Editorial. This brings up the subject of how the face of Grand Prix racing has changed since Renault won what is generally regarded as the first French Grand Prix, the premier motor race of the year, in 1906. The great French manufacturer had done well in racing in those pioneer years, for not only had Szisz won this great 770-mile two-day contest at Le Mans but the following year the same driver I car combination was second to the winning Fiat in the French GP at Dieppe. Before that Renault had had a fine racing record, Marcel Renault having scored a convincing victory over the larger cars in the Paris-Vienna town-to-town race of 1902, and before that Louis Renault had won the voiturettes section of the Paris-Toulouse-Paris race, in 1900, had repeated this in the GP de Due in 1901, followed home in his class-by Oury’s Renault, and was victorious in the voiturettes division of the Paris-Bordeaux race that same year, Marcel Renault taking second place, ahead of two more Renaults driven by Oury and Grus.

These successes for Renault Freres continued. In the great 687-mile Paris­Berlin race of 1901 Louis again dominated the voiturettes class, with Grus second, and the Renaults of Morin and Lamy beaten only by a Corre, and Oury and Marcel Renault among the finishers. In 1902 the Renaults of Grus, Oury and Cormier came in l, 2, 3 in their category in the Circuit Du Nord Alcohol race, Marcel faring less well this time (seventh), retrieved by his aforesaid convincing victory in the Paris-Vienna race, when his 646 kg 16 hp Renault light car averaged 38. 9 mph, heading no fewer than four Darracqs, compared to the 38.4 mph that was the best Henry Farman’s big 70 hp Panhard-Levassor could manage in winning the heavy-car class.

These racing performances must have done the Renault Company, which also made very sound ordinary cars, a power of good but it terminated for three years, after Marcel Renault had been killed during the notorious 1903 Paris-Madrid race that was stopped at Bordeaux by Government decree, with a grief-stricken Louis Renault victor of the Light Car class, at 62.3 mph, his 30 hp Renault beaten only by the fabulous drive of Gabriel, who won outright on a 70 hp Mors, at 65.3 mph for the 342 tragic, dust-clouded miles. After the 1908 Grand Prix again Renault withdrew from racing and concentrated on making what many would regard as the Rolls-Royce of France (along, perhaps, with the Delaunay-Belleville), not re-appearing on the competition scene until the mid-1920s, when Renault was successful in long-duration record bids at Montlhéry, later essaying a little sports-car racing (if we except de Cais’ win in the 1913 Anjou GP) but withdrawing from an intended team onslaught in the 1930 Ulster TT with straight-eight cars after the racing manager, Garfield; had been killed in an accident over the unclosed public roads while testing. In post-war times the 4cv Renaults ran well at Le Mans and elsewhere and a rally programme was instituted.

When Renault entered F1 in 1977, being the first to use turbocharged 1½-litre engines, those of us who like to see recognisable makes of cars as well as hybrids contesting the highest form of racing were delighted and it is sad that the bid did not bring more success for the nationalised motor manufacturer. At least Regie Renault’s participation may, however, have caused those in the marketplace to feel that Renault should make turbocharged engines for ordinary cars at least as well as, if not better than, others. Looking back to those races in which Renault gained their early victories, how very different it was then!

In his great work “The Grand Prix Car” the late Laurence Pomeroy states that the purpose behind those stupendously long and arduous early Grands Prix was to prove that France led in the production of motor cars and built the fastest and safest in the World. This costly participation in the six French GPs held by the AC de France between 1906 and 1914 must have seemed worthwhile to those makers who built and ran cars therein. They embraced de Dietrich, Fiat, Renault, Mercedes, Brasier, Darracq, Gobron-Brille, Itala, Panhard, Hotchkiss, Clement-Bayard, Gregoire, Corre, Porthos, Du faux, Motobloc, Germain, Christie, Weigel, Austin, Benz, Opel, Mors, Thomas, Peugeot, Sunbeam, Alycon, Sizaire­Naudin, Vinot, Th Schneider, Mathis, Calthorpe, Singer, Arrol-Johnston, Cote, Rolland-Pilain, Vauxhall, Excelsior, Delage, Alda, Nagant, Panhard-Pictet, Nazzaro and Aquilia-Italiana. They cannot all have done it for fun! Especially as Pomeroy worked out that a team of three cars represented an outlay of about £75,000 in terms of 1948 money (I leave it to economists to equate this to the expense in terms of 1985 money). Thus the Industry was investing roughly £750,000 in terms of 1948 finance on an eleven-team race. It did not work out too well for France, because· after the Grand Prix had been won by Fiat in 1907 and Mercedes in 1908 (with Benz cars second and third) the race was abandoned until 1912, when the celebrated new-design Peugeots were notably successful, until beaten into the ground by Mercedes in 1914, with the French hero Georges Boillot, they say, weeping tears of sorrow and exhaustion as he stood beside his stricken Peugeot. Pomeroy says the GP had been revived because individual manufacturers saw in racing of this high calibre a chance of valuable publicity for their products, so that as many as 14 entered for the 1914 GP.

It may not be generally known that, by the rules of the FIA, the Grands Prix of 1906 to 1925 inclusive, as the regulations were changed from weight-limit to fuel consumption restriction, from formulae libre to cylinder-bore and then engine-capacity restrictions, were specifically Réservé aux Constructeurs and that this wasn’t changed to Réservé aux Concurrents autorises par Les Constructeurs, until the Miramas race of 1926.

In 1953 Motor Sport’s highly­respected contributor “Baladeur” wrote in his “Sideslips” series of articles an amusing novelet, as he called it, to show how the Grand Prix and other competition events along the years could well have influenced the purchase of cars by the wealthy. Our contributor imagined himself as having been born in 1870 and having inherited a fortune of £1-million when he came of age, and as being a motoring enthusiast (with a liking for big white cars with scarlet upholstery, at least up to 1906). I do not propose to intrude on “Baladeur’s” reasons for his choice of cars (which, if you are intrigued, can be studied by ordering copies of these enjoyable discourses from our photocopy department) but as racing and other competition work would have strongly influenced the purchases of our imaginary millionaire, I will list the cars of his choice:

1895: 3½ hp Peugeot
1897: 4 hp Panhard-et- evassor
1898: 8 hp Panhard-et-Levassor
1898: 12 hp Panhard-et-Levassor
1900: 24 hp Panhard-et-Levassor
1901: 60 hp Mon
1903: 60 hp Mercedes
1906: 60 hp ltala
1907: 90 hp Fiat
1909: 100 hp lsotta-Fraschini
1910: 22/80 hp Austro-Oaimler
1913: 40/50 hp Rolls-Royce
1920: 37.2 hp Hispano-Suiza
1922: Leyland Eight
1924: 45 hp Hispano-Suiza
1926: Bugatti Royale
1928: 36/220 hp Mercedes-Benz
1930: 8-litre Bentley
1931: V12 Hispano-Suiza
1935: Rolls-Royce Phantom III

These would have been the leading cars he favoured over this period and if enough millionaires and others of sufficient wealth had existed, the result would presumably have justified the makers of the cars purchased going in for racing; I have continued the list to 1935 as it is so interesting, but it is between 1895 and 1913 that it is of significance to the present discourse. Pomeroy quoted the Sunbeam Motor Co. to endorse his argument that before 1914 racing spelled profit for successful manufacturer-participants. The Wolverhampton Company had trebled its profit between 1910 and 1912 and this had increased by nearly five times between 1910 and 1913, the years when Sunbeams were prominent in racing and record-breaking; after paying for three cars for the 1913 GP, Sunbeam, with a capital of only £120,000, made a profit of some £300,000 in terms of immediate post-WW2 values… the value manufacturers placed on racing is seen by the advertising of successes, Mercedes sending the 1914 GP team-cars, with the winning number painted on each one, to their’ agents all over Europe, and customer interest .was displayed by large sums offered for the winning car in an important race.

In the vintage period this profit from racing was not maintained, but the growing interest in racing had multiplied considerably the number of viable races per annum, up to, say, a dozen, enabling amateurs and professionals to begin to make a living from it, because with increased paying-gates, bonus, starting and prize money were paid. Then from 1934 to the outbreak of another World War, Italian Fascist and German Nazi participation moved motor-racing into a fresh dimension, to the ultimate benefit of Auto-Union and Mercedes-Benz, particularly the latter. After WW2 came the present situation, in which the extremely costly participation in

F1 racing (Renault’s F1 budget, for instance, was in the region of £13½-million) was covered by outside subsidies, encouraged by the publicity afforded by Wor1d coverage of Grand Prix racing. To some extent the focus of attention has passed from the cars to the drivers, but very fortunately for those of us who think the mechanical aspect of the game of vital interest, competition in the Drivers’ World Championship is so keen that the cars remain technically very specialised and powerful.

Thus there has been a complete change from the time when a manufacturer of production cars saw profit in motor racing participation, as the STD combine once did. Pomeroy pointed out that while this organisation continued to support GP racing after WWI, spending some £100,000 a year in terms of post-WW2 money on teams of racing cars, by 1926 their profit-ratio had declined from 15/9d for every £1 invested by share-holders, to a miserable 9½d and after 1927 they gave up competing. Indeed, the days had almost ended when success in GP racing might pull in sales of production models, the top ones to wealthy enthusiasts like our aforesaid imaginary millionaire, but lesser models to those of lesser wealth. In 1906 the top placing in the Grand Prix would have been seen as: Renault, Fiat, Clement-Bayard, Brasier, Fiat and Panhard; and after the 1914 Lyons race as: Mercedes, Mercedes, Mercedes, Peugeot, ·sunbeam and Nagant. But the present leading cars.in the World Constructors’ Championship as I write list as McLaren, Ferrari, Lotus, Williams, Brabham and Renault, but you cannot buy a road-equipped McLaren, Williams or Brabham (or a Ligier, Tyrrell,. Arrows, or Osella, for that matter); and, Ferrari and Lotus are for wealthy enthusiasts, who have at least £29,100 or £16,220 to spend. There may be a certain publicity rub-off in noting that McLaren use a TAG-Porsche engine, Lotus a Renault engine that Williams have Honda-power and Brabham rely on BMW power units, and it may not pass unnoticed that for these turbocharged 1½-litre racing cars the vee­six-cylinder formation predominates.

But looking at it from the viewpoint of buyers of ordinary cars, if they are influenced at all, it might be that the Regie Renault has not come all that badly out of its eight years of F1 participation, remembering that repetition of the name alone is part of the advertising ploy. Incidentally, one notes that in Renault’s present range of cars costing from £3,765 to £18,700, at least three of the basic power units are available in turbocharged form. Verb sap, or something! – W.B.

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