What killed Zborowski?

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At one time I was reticent about publishing photographs of fatal motor racing accidents in my books or in MOTOR SPORT. It seemed rather distasteful and even disrespectful. However, since William Court’s interestingly morbid Grand Prix Requiem (Patrick Stephens 1992, £20) has been published and a contemporary magazine has used pictures of the horrible crash at Brooklands when Joseph Paul (not Hall, ) lost control of his Delage and ran into the spectators, feelings seem to have changed.

So, with Chitty-Bang-Bang-like aeroengined motor-cars in the news again, perhaps it may not be considered unseemly to investigate what may have ended the career of Count Louis Zborowski in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September 1924.

The mercurial Count had ambitions to drive in Grand Prix races as well as achieve wins at Brooklands with his outrageously big cars. To this end he had financed the struggling Aston Martin company run by enthusiast Lionel Martin, so that he could have suitable road racing cars built in the form of this marques twin-cam machines, even though they were half-a-litre under the size of the current GP entries. Having by 1924 achieved quite a number of successes with these Aston-Martins and ventured to run his quite unsuitable two-litre straight-eight Miller, with SCH Davis as his brave passenger, in the classic French Grand Prix at Lyon, Mercedes offered Zborowski a drive in one of its new works cars in the Italian GP at Monza.

Why Mercedes did so is subject to conjecture. It may have been because it was forming a fresh GP team and had a vacancy in a fourth car. It may have been because the Count, whose father had been killed in his new Mercedes Sixty at the 1903 La Turbie hillclimb, had from a young age been, as was his sport-loving parent, a staunch user of Mercedes cars. Or was it that Mercedes saw in the wealthy Count Zborowski a useful means of regaining favour after the war with a British public who knew of the skill, bravery and success of Zborowski at Brooklands and in other English speed events?

Whatever, one of the team of four Ferdinand Porsche-designed two-litre, straight-eight, Roots-supercharged Mercedes was allocated to Zborowski, then 29. The other drivers were veteran Christian Werner, Italian Targa Florio victor Count Giulio Masetti and Alfred Neubauer, who in 1926 decided he preferred running a racing team to driving and was, of course, to become one of the greatest managers of a racing department of all time, architect of the dominant Mercedes-Benz victories of the immediate pre-WW2 period and beyond. The heavyweight Otto Metz and new-boy Rudi Caracciola were there as reserves.

In September, the Mercedes racers traversed the Alps from Stuttgart, but after Werner had done one lap of the Monza Autodrome his car overheated, and they were all returned hastily to headquarters for a redesign.

This caused the 1924 Italian GP to be postponed, because Fiat had withdrawn its team of cars and, without Mercedes, this would have reduced the entry to the four car P2 Alfa Romeo team and a few insignificant also-rans. So it was not until October 19 that the Italian GP got going. Zborowski had endured a disappointing 200 Mile Race with an 1100cc Salmson before he went out to Italy for his first Grand Prix drive in a works car. The race was over 497 miles of the combined track and road circuit. The Mercedes arrived on Continental tyres but, to raise the gear ratios, Pirellis were fitted before the race. On the opening lap Masetti was second to the leading Alfa Romeo, but soon dropped back to fourth place before retiring on lap 43 with a reported severed fuel pipe. Werner was going well until he had to stop on his 17th lap for fresh sparking plugs. Neubauer had the same trouble and handed his car to Metz, Caracciola being reluctant to fill this place. Metz then had more plug trouble.

So what of Zborowski, from England, in his first works drive for Mercedes?

He had been delayed at the start because of a sticking clutch, necessitating a push. The eight-cylinder Mercedes engines had proved to be reluctant to fire up, to the extent that ether had to be fed from a small tank under the scuttle to the carburettors to induce them to start. Werner had also been delayed on the line when the flag fell at 10 am.

After Zborowski had started, he had to stop to change tyres but got away again, only to crash fatally on lap 44. News of this did not reach the Mercedes pits until Antonio Ascari was being flagged home as the winner, his Alfa Romeo having averaged 98.79 mph. Ascari’s team-mates Wagner and Campari/Presenti were second and third, with Minoia fourth.

Zborowski’s accident happened at the fast Lesmo curve. Early reports suggested that the Mercedes had run wide and collided with a tree (no Armco then, of course) and that the car had then skidded back across the road and struck another one head on. Len Martin, the Count’s riding mechanic, was not too badly injured but Zborowski died soon afterwards. On hearing of the accident, Max Sailer had Werner and Metz flagged in.

Sammy Davis told how he heard of the death of his friend after ” . . the loudspeaker of my set was switched on and . . . confirmed my worst fears.”

This is interesting as well as sad, because it suggests that at this still experimental stage in wireless broadcasts, Davis must have had a pretty powerful set if he received the transmission direct from Italy. But maybe he heard the announcement on 2LO, which, if lt was in Sunday evening action as early as 1924, could have had the news from Reuters and transmitted it, as Zborowski was so well known and liked in this country.

Perhaps a radio buff can tell me?

Lt-Col Clive Gallop, with whom I travelled to see Fred Ellis’s restoration of a twin-cam Aston-Martin similar to that the Count raced when Gallop was Zborowski’s engineer, told me, 23 years after the accident, that not only did the Monza Autodrome authorities hold a three-day inquiry into the crash, but that he was ordered to attend a similar investigation by Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft. Gallop had the dismal task of conveying the Count’s body to his home at Higham, in Kent, the coffin being carried from Dover to the house on Zborowski’s aged Mercedes truck, on which his racing cars had been transported to European circuits. In sympathy with the occasion, I have heard that it expired on the house drive with a seized-up steering column, the bushes thereof being made of poor wartime material . .

First accounts of the accident suggested that a seized cable on one of the Mercedes’ front brakes had prevented the driver from releasing the brake after sliding on oil on the corner (as early disc brakes did when used on the sports/racing Jaguars). This theory was given some credence because Masetti’s four-cylinder Mercedes, with similar brakes, had crashed three weeks earlier at San Sebastian for this very reason. In practice Neubauer had lost his Mercedes at the same Lesmo corner, causing the car to spin round on the wet road and hit a bank; Neubauer and his mechanic Hemmingway were uninjured. But the Mercedes investigation found nothing wrong with either car. Caracciola’s biography, however, suggests that immediately after Zborowski’s pit stop a tyre deflated, causing the crash. It is true that in a photograph of the wrecked car one front tyre is clearly flat, but this could have been caused by the impact. As the axle appears to have been torn from the chassis it is difficult to decide whether it was the near or offside tyre that punctured.

Zborowski was known to have lit a cigarette during his stop. This may seem odd, especially as refuelling was required. But it should be remembered that many people smoked in those days and the Count was often seen to be doing so. It may be that, as his multi-plate clutch was still inoperative and he knew how difficult the Mercedes’ engine was to start, he contemplated a long stop. He threw away the fag after getting going again, in spite of the ‘solid’ clutch. By now the race must have looked hopeless to Zborowski. The four Alfa Romeos were well ahead, Ascari having a lead of 20 minutes. In the end the fifth place Schmid was 10 laps in arrears of the winning P2. It had been a hard race, Campari needing his reserve driver and Metz replacing Neubauer.

Isn’t it possible, even then, that Zborowski would have wanted to show that his Mercedes could do something, as other drivers have done in very recent races? He was known to be fearless, even impetuous, and he may well have been on the limit of his car’s road-holding when the accident occurred. He may also have been tired at this stage of the race. Although Zborowski had lots of track racing experience, at Brooklands, Indianapolis and Sitges, his road racing experience, practice apart, could not have amounted to much more than 1000 miles. And most of that was in his 55 bhp Aston, whereas the Type 218 engine of the Mercedes in which he was killed developed 170 bhp at 7000 rpm (and would run up to 8000), but the power did not come in until some 5000. A three-speed gearbox rendered pick-up slow, which would not have appealed to the Count’s temperament!

In the outcome, the cause of the accident was ascribed to oil at the slightly banked, high-speed Lesmo. It was suggested that the Alfa Romeos had a catch tank in their tails, which became overfilled after the lubrication systems had been replenished at the pits because at first the scavenge pumps could not cope and that they thus put oil on the course — and I have never seen a refutation of this from Alfa Romeo. It was also suggested that oil to supply the superchargers of any of blown cars, the Mercedes included, might pass into the exhaust systems and onto the track.

That apart, it would seem that the real cause of Zborowski’s death was probably the poor handling of the eight-cylinder Mercedes. After Mercedes GB had one of these cars brought to England for Raymond Mays to drive in 1927, he said that during a test run on a private road he braked for a corner and locked over the steering wheel, and the car’s tail spun round in a flash. In an uncontrollable broadside he went off the road. Mays described the roadholding as “appalling” – and the German mechanics who had accompanied the car agreed. Mays bravely raced it at Brooklands, lapping at 116.91 mph and claiming 130 down the Railway straight, which was about the top speed at Monza. He was second in his race to Eyston’s 1 1/2-Iitre Bugatti but found the Mercedes “all but unmanageable”. It is said that Segrave told him, after watching the race, that he was “damn lucky to be alive”, and advised him not to race it again.

Mays never did.

Lady Dorothy PAget then bought the car from T&Ts for a large sum of money for Sir Henry Birkin to race, after big Hartford shock absorbers and a TNT steering damper had been fitted in a bid to tame it. However, Birkin abandoned the idea after using it in one Mountain-circuit race at Brooklands in 1931.

After that, this 1924 Mercedes languished at T&Ts until it was acquired by J A Peck, who had a garage in Staines, just before the war. (When Mays used it the starting trouble had not been cured. He said the mechanics kept the revs to 6000 from a cold start, as otherwise the engine would stall, and even when warm he found it would stop if the speed became too slow. At Brooklands Mays saw 7400 rpm in top gear, but getting to this speed “took entirely too long”.) These Mercedes later gained a number of successes in hillclimbs and speed trials, and Caracciola won the 1926 German GP in one of them, on the smooth Avus track, running it as a stripped ‘sports car’, with Eugen Salzer squeezed in beside him. Its handling was now perhaps a little better, thanks to relocation of the fuel tank. Even so Rudi stalled at the start and had to be push-started. Team-mate Rosenberger, using ether as at Monza, started cleanly but later ran off the wet track into a timekeepers’ box, killing three of the occupants. How wise Caracciola had been to refuse to drive at Monza two years earlier. . .

It does seem fairly conclusive that the poor handling was the cause of Zborowski’s fatal accident, coupled with poor steering geometry, to which Peck drew our attention when I took Gallop to see his car in 1948, saying he was surprised that Porsche and T&Ts failed to notice it. Karl Ludvigsen comments, in his great work on Mercedes and Benz racing cars, the standard reference work on the subject, that the angularity of the long drag-link encouraged steering kick-back with suspension movement, and the hard springing probably altered the castor action, which was designed into the axle, through which the springs passed, the hubs off-set to the rear of the kingpins.

But Mercedes GB would have nothing of this! It told the press that it had been concluded that “the accident was due totally to the car being oversteered (interesting that this now universal term was used so early) when leaving a curve.” They said that Len Martin’s confirming statement, as the riding mechanic, “was beyond any doubt”. This incurred bitter criticism from Zborowski supporters here. I have tried to obtain a copy of Mercedes’ report, but I have been unable to do so, though Mercedes-Benz UK’s PR Sue Colby provided an eye-witness account from the Daimler-Benz museum (see Eye Witness Account).

It is an unhappy thought that had Zborowski abandoned the Grand Prix when told the night before of his Mercedes’ clutch trouble, or had Len Martin not been able to push-start the car either at the beginning of the event or after the tyre stop, the Count would have returned the Lancia Lambda lent to him by the Monza authorities and lived to race again.

Alas, there is no place in motor racing for ifs and buts . . .

W B

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