Veteran to classic -- a classic protest

Protests over the results of races or rallies are nasty things! Necessary perhaps but nasty nevertheless. They can cause ill-feeling and friction, delay the publication of results, and cast doubts as to the validity of the outcome. There have been some classic protests, like the one relating to yellow headlamps on the Monte Carlo Minis, the refusal of the Le Mans scrutineers to accept Colin Chapman’s 750cc Lotus as an Index of Performance entry, and many others along the years.

One such protest was that about who had won the highly exciting British Empire Trophy Race which the BRDC put on at Brooklands in 1932. The idea was to have a race over 100 miles or 36 laps of the outer circuit, the runners decided in shorter heats. The Final was clearly going to be an enthralling battle, as indeed it turned out to be, with the starters including Sir Henry Birkin with the lap-record-holding blower 4-1/2-litre Bentley single-seater, John Cobb in the old but formidable 10-1/2-litre V12 Delage, experienced George Eyston with the 8-litre single-seater Panhard Levassor, and Jack Dunfee in Woolf Barnato’s 6-1/2-litre Speed Six Track Bentley. A battle of giants was in prospect, and no-one was disappointed, speaking for the spectators that is.

In fact, this turned out to be one of the closest very fast races ever seen. It was won by Cobb in the big Delage at 126.363 mph. He was just 2/10ths of a second ahead of Capt GET Eyston in the Panhard, after some of the most intense motor racing imaginable. So close were they that the difference in race average speed was a mere 0.009mph. Eyston protested that he had been baulked and was given the verdict. Cobb counter-protested to the RAC and was later awarded first place. (These drivers won the Empire Trophy and £100, and £50, respectively). At that time I said I found that decision satisfactory. Now, with hindsight, and having before me the official lap-by-lap times for this remarkable race, it seems opportune to take a fresh look at what occurred down at Weybridge on that eventful 30th of April 1932.

The BRDC’s Secretary HN Edwards and its race sub-committee usually chaired by Lord Howe, thought more entries would have been acceptable and the closing date was extended, at the existing fee of £11 per car. The prizes were donated by Sir Harold Bowden and Edwards had taken upon himself to name those for the heats the South Africa, India, Canada and Australia trophies. He had used HRH Prince George’s name in Press hand-outs, and later the Prince stated that he had no objection. (It was hoped that the Prime Minister might be invited to take some part in the forthcoming BRDC 500 Mile Race).

From the beginning there was anxiety about the very fast cars involved being subject to overtaking problems. The faster of them were required to keep to the left of the black line at the Fork, except when overtaking, as laid down by the BARC itself in 1931. Drivers in the BE Trophy race were required to sign the back of the final Race Instructions to show they understood this rule. Eyston, however, wrote “Disagree entirely with regulation black line, want to ignore this, otherwise don’t start”, which has a significant bearing on the protests which were to follow.

Eyston did start, of course, so was persuaded to ignore his objection. Why did he express it? He had raced at Brooklands but more recently had used Montlhéry Track, whereas his chief rival John Cobb was extremely well versed in lapping very fast round Brooklands, having started with the aged 10-litre Fiat in 1925 and holding the Class A lap-record at over 132 mph with the Delage.

It seems to me that Eyston was aware that the 10-1/2-litre V12 Delage could out-accelerate the 8-litre Panhard, which was a not-much-younger car (which proved to be the case) and that if he kept to the left of the Fork black line and Cobb passed him, he would never be able to catch the bigger-engined car. Or it may be, perhaps a subsidiary thought, that Eyston feared he would lose too much pace and concentration if he had to so place the heavy-handling Panhard when pulling it off the Byfleet banking as to keep the black line to his off-side.

This BE Trophy Race was obviously between the two Bentleys, the Delage and the Panhard, Earl Howe’s 1-1/2-litre GP Delage and Widengrin’s 1-1/2-litre OM being outclassed.

Thanks to help from the BRDC archives, we are able to analyse what happened, lap by lap. AV Ebblewhite signed the time-sheets, so they can be regarded as infallable, while laps were timed to the nearest 1/5th of a second. If drivers did cross a forbidden line (but see earlier) or were thought to be baulking another car, they were to be shown a black flag bearing a white cross, and all signal flags were to be a uniform size.

As the starting flag fell Cobb accelerated away and led the first lap by four seconds from Eyston. Birkin then got the blower Bentley into its stride and overtook Eyston, to lead the race at the end of lap 4. This continued until, with a bang which was mistaken for a burst tyre, the Bentley cracked its cylinder block and retired on lap 18, when 4.6 sec ahead of Eyston. So far as the Eyston/Cobb duel went, the Delage kept ahead of the Panhard for the first six laps, by margins of 4, 4.8, 3.2, 1.6, 0.8 and 0.6 sec. The Panhard then got past and ran in first place for the next 19 laps. The margins varied as follows: 1.0 sec on lap 7, then by 1.2, 2.6, 3.6, 3.2, 2.4, 3.0, 2.4, 1.8, 1.2, 2.2, 1.4, 1.0, 2.6, 2.6, 3.8, 1.8, 1.4 and 0.4 sec. (One wonders if the slower time on lap 22 may have been caused by Eyston weighing up the position after realising that Birkin was out, or wanting to conserve his tyres?).

Cobb had said he would not open right out until about five laps from the finish, and Eyston was known to be troubled about the life of the Panhard’s tyres. Eyston may have eased off a fraction, because the Delage slipped past on the inside as they entered the Railway straight, to lead by 0.8 sec. at the end of lap 26. Its lead dropped to 0.6 sec. on the next circuit and then the Delage, rather earlier than intended, was opened up, to lead by 1.6 and 1.2 sec.

However, Eyston had clearly seen the danger and put the Panhard in fierce pursuit. He closed to within 0.4 sec on the following two laps and from lap 31 to the finish line he had the Panhard within a mere 0.2 sec of the Delage on every lap; but he was unable to overtake.

Just think about it! We are used to James Hunt explaining that in modern GP racing a car close up to the one in front encounters turbulent air, loses downforce, handles badly and wears out its tyres. I would not dispute that, or the anxiety of matching the moment when your opponent bangs in the power out of corners. But I think Eyston and Cobb were quite brave, driving these big racing cars at over 130mph within very close proximity of the unprotected banking edge, knowing that if the car in front got ever so slightly out of control they had virtually no brakes with which to cope — and there was also the ever-present risk of tyre bursts. In fact, Eyston lost a tyre tread immediately after the race had ended.

It must have been some spectacle, these two giant cars lapping to within a lap-time of 1/5th of a second of one another, for those final furious six laps. Eyston had done his best, attempting to pull his heavy car early off the Byfleet banking in the hope of taking the Delage on the inside across the Fork. To no avail. Nor had he the surplus acceleration to overtake Cobb along the half-mile of the Railway straight. But far from leaving his challenge to the last six laps, Cobb confessed he had had to drive flat-out for the final 12 laps or so, catching and passing the Panhard but thereafter keeping it only slightly in arrears. (Eyston’s minor changes in times on laps 28 and 29 were probably the result of his unsuccessful bids on awkward lines to pass the Delage).

Whatever your verdict of the outcome of the two protests is, you must surely agree it had been a magnificent track race. Earl Howe thought it the best yet. It must have rivalled the fine display of aerobatics in a Fairey Firefly 11M which F/Lt Chris Staniland had given before the race commenced! We now know that Eyston protested verbally at his inability to pass the Delage, saying he had been baulked, while still sitting in the Panhard, immediately after finishing. He was informed that such a protest could only be accepted in writing, accompanied by the requisite £5 fee. Now Eyston was one of the most gentlemanly of racing drivers and no doubt that spoken comment was the reaction of a very tired and disappointed man. I understand that Eyston did not want to take any further steps. But friends, including Kaye Don, apparently pointed out that the Panhard had been brought over from France for the purpose of winning this well-publicised race and that as a professional driver, if he thought he should have won, Eyston should protest. So he did!

The Stewards called both drivers before them, debated for two and a half hours, and found in favour of George Eyston. John Cobb then put in a counter-protest to the RAC and a proper legal hearing was instituted.

My comments? The Observer called to hear Eyston’s protest agreed with the Stewards that it should be upheld, and during Heat 4 the blue flag had twice been shown to Cobb, who was deemed to be preventing Dunfee from overtaking, it being recommended that the Clerk of the Course speak to the driver, at his discretion.

It took Dunfee seven laps to get by, although he got within 0.2 seconds of Cobb. It might also be noted that in this 18-lap heat Eyston passed Cobb on lap two, to lead throughout, winning at 126.21mph, Cobb settling for third place after both Birkin and Dunfee had passed him, Birkin later falling back. But nothing conclusive there, except that the Panhard was nearly a minute ahead of the Dunfee Bentley at the finish, as Cobb may not have been trying. (Cobb had a mere 0.2 sec lead after that first lap, and was three seconds in arrears after the next lap.) Eyston made fastest lap, at 131.41mph, quicker than Parry Thomas’s old Class B speed.

The race itself involved another protest, when Dunfee was crawling round on the last lap with a burst tyre and was inadvertently flagged into the Finishing straight instead of over the Fork finishing line, giving third place to Howe’s little Delage. The Stewards found that there was no proper liaison between the finish line officials and the parking officials but that the driver should have continued until seeing the prescribed finish flag. It was resolved by awarding Barnato and Dunfee consolation prizes.

The Cobb appeal became a legal battle. Lewis & Lewis, a leading firm of solicitors, instructed the Hon Ewen Montague, KC, who had driven ABC, Riley 9 and OM cars in MCC trials, to act for the Delage driver, assisted by Mr Brian Davis. Ernest Hancock represented Eyston. The BRDC stewards Sir Algernon Guinness, Lionel Martin and SCH Davis had well-known MCC member, trials driver and solicitor, D Duncan-Smith, to look after their interests. The case was heard at the RAC, before RAC stewards Lord Cozens-Hardy, Sir Arthur Stanley, GJF Knowles, HB Shackleton, Percy Short, and Maurice Burton.

Unfortunately the RAC no longer has the depositions, but apparently the Hon Ewen Montague advanced the argument that as the drivers of the faster cars had agreed to pass, as far as possible, only on the Railway straight (this in spite of all that fuss over that black line at the Fork!), Eyston had no sound reason to complain that he could not overtake the Delage on the Banking. He made the further point that once Cobb was in the lead he had every right to choose his place for entering the Byfleet banking and could not be expected to ease up and wave his rival on.

It was also put forward that the Delage was the faster car, at which Eyston expressed surprise. The only evidence for this assumption seems to have been that eight years before the BE Trophy race, René Thomas had done a two-way mile at Arpajon at 143.31mph and that Albert Divo was supposed to have lapped Montlhéry at 138.5mph, at a time when the Delage was less highly-tuned and had a lower cr than it had by 1932, whereas when Eyston broke the Hour record at Montlhéry earlier that year, the Panhard’s best lap was at 137mph. There were those who said that as the V12 Delage had a capacity of 10,688cc and weighed 34cwt, against the Panhard Levassor’s 7938cc and 42cwt, the Delage had been bound to win. Which overlooks the respective hp-per-litre of the engines, and the Panhard’s better streamlining, etc. (Both drivers could be described, I think, as equally skilled and determined.) If the advantage possessed by the Delage was valid, it does seem somewhat odd that Cobb was satisfied to leave such a small margin between himself and Eyston for the final six laps of this very intense race.

The appeal lasted more than four hours, after which the RAC stewards took only ten minutes to award the race to Cobb. It was all settled amicably, with Eyston standing Cobb dinner afterwards. As usual, it was the public who suffered, because the hearing did not take place until 26 days after the race had been held —a long delay in deciding the outcome. — WB