Motor-racing, by its very nature, has seen countless dramatic episodes since it commenced in 1895. Extremely close finishes to long races, a Talbot being placed in a race it finished upside dow Andre Boillot’s Peugeot crossing the finishing line backwards in the lead in a Targa Florio and the exhausted driver being advised to go back to where he spun, turn, and drive over the line in the normal manner, after which he is said to have collapsed, murmuring, Pour La France… Other drivers so exhausted they had to be helped out of the cockpit after, for example, a Monaco Grand Prix, the shunts between top-F1 rivals in recent Grands Prix, the list could go on and on, an you must have personal “favourites” I should have remembered?
We all know how a “blown gasket” or “out of fuel” has almost since time immemorial, masked calamities like two rods hanging from a fractured crankcase or everything in a power unit seized solid… Denis Jenkinson used to see such “concealed truths” when he volunteered to work overnight with the Maserati mechanics when they were changing a pre-race back-axle ratio for Stirling Moss or whatever, until it was realised that he was MOTORSPORT’s Continental Correspondent and was reporting what he saw!
One of the most dramatic of race retirements was that which overtook both the 1 1/2-litre supercharged Fiats which were expected to have no difficulty at all in coming home an easy first and second in the 1923 JCC 200 Mile Race at Brooklands. It was one of the few such occasions when no reason for the unhappy failure was ever given, was never subsequently divulged.
It was dramatic almost from the start. When it was known that Fiat was returning to serious racing in this country for the first time since their great efforts with giant cars and giant drivers like Felice Nazzaro in pre-war times, the STD concern, who had twice won this JCC race with their “invincible” Talbot-Darracqs, were so convinced that Italy, in the form of the great Turin company, would dominate this Brooklands “200” that they, rather sheepishly I have always thought, withdrew as quietly as the Press would let them, and took their beautiful little racing voiturettes to compete, and win, in Spain, nine days later.
Had they not been so alarmed by the Fiat entry they would almost certainly have dominated this unique and fascinating race, as they had done in 1921 (its first year) and 1922, and were to do again in 1924 and 1925 with the supercharged Daracqs. But Fiat, who had had just begun to exploit the use of the supercharger in racing, scared the hind wheels or all wheels for that matter, off the sTD racing department. So Fiat it was who entered the premier cars in this 1923 long distance track event. Their subsequent retirement was dramatic, for various reasons. It was quite unexpected for cars universally billed as sure victors, and was very sudden to the horror or delight of those present, depending on what they had backed or, of course what cars they were driving. And it is inexplicable even to this day. The potentially World beating pair of cars from Turin were driven by Malcolm Campbell (Fiat 1) and Carlo Salamano (Fiat 2). Campbell I assume because he had been popular with ‘the right crowd’ since well before the First World War and was perhaps seen as a useful adviser on Brooklands procedure and a useful sale-promoter, Salamano as the top driver in the Fiat GP team, in the absence of Pietro Borden who had an injured arm.
Not a lot was known about these red twin-cam Roots-supercharged Fiats which were coming rather unexpectedly to England to do battle with the mob of British light cars and five Bugattis. It was probably intentional that little was divulged about them. But exciting they were, as they lapped the scarred Weybridge concrete in practice at a confident 103mph. A sight which no doubt endorsed the STD departure for that other race, in far distant Penya-Rhyn, from critical British eyes.
STD fears would not have diminished in any degree as the race started and the two Fiats, carrying riding mechanics as all had to in the ‘200’, led easily on the opening laps, circulating at an impressive and uncatchable 101.64mph. But what is this? Only 13 laps into the 74 lap race and smoke is seen trailing from Salamano’s cockpit! The driver tries to reach his pit nearly colliding with another car, then changes his mind and the Fiat slither to a stop on the far right of the track, the reason for this soon obvious, as flames flicker around the bonnet louvres. The occupants leap out, as officials start to run across the crowded track with fire extinguishers. But the fire is out before they get there. The brown-overalled Salamano then runs across to his pit and, the crowds behind the pits silent, declares he has retired. A red disc against No 32 on the scoreboard confirms that this astonishing development is irrevocable…
That was sensation. But drama now, for only two laps later Campbell’s Fiat comes coasting into its pit, the engine dead. Some minor problem, perhaps, which the Fiat will be able easily to make up, for it is over 10mph faster than its fastest rivals? Alas, no! Malcolm Campbell gets out and, turning away, calls “Finished… ” From the pits the racing manager begs him to try the engine. Unconvinced, and saying it may wreck the car for good, Campbell goes back and supports himself on the cockpit side as his mechanic winds the engine over. It eventually fires. CampbelI listens for a moment, then signals “Retired” spreading his arms out in a gesture of despair. Both the unbeatable foreigners are out!
It is a heaven-sent opportunity for C M Harvey in the Alvis, who wins so deservedly at 93.29mph confirming forever the superiority of the Coventry built Alvis and the 12/50 to be one of the finest-ever vintage 1 1/2-litre sportscars. Smith-Clarke, designer of the Alvis, must have been proud indeed; his push rod racer developed from standard parts had been faster by 4.47mph than the pure-racing twin cam Talbot-Darracqs of Segrave and K Lee Guinness the year before.
Let us try to analyse this sensational double retirement. Fiat would have put in a race entry through D’Arcy Baker, their English representative, who may have nominated Campbell as the driver. Later, when it was found that another Fiat could be readied, the second entry was made, the fact that the first car had been given No 26 and this one No 32, confirming a later entry. The Fiats arrived late at Brooklands but in time to practice, with no problems apparent.
They started in the “200” from row two of the line-up, positions having been decided not on practice times, more likely by the luck of the draw. Consequently, Cushman’s Bugatti got away in the lead but at the Fork on lap two, both Fiats went past him, Salamano ahead, Campbell having made a hesitant start. Later in the race the Italian was praised for the skillful way in which he threaded through bunched groups of slower cars at 100mph. One observer said he went wide at the Vickers sheds on lap three, due to being unaccustomed to Brooklands, letting Campbell slip past on the outside; it is far more likely that Fiat wanted a British driver to win, as Mercedes-Benz did at Aintree many years later, Moss passing Fangio, and that the Italian was doing the same for Campbell. Then came the retirements…
Various theories have been put out to try to explain them. It was said that the Fiats started without warming up the oil, difficult to believe with such an experienced team, and Campbell well aware of track requirements. (One reporter wrote of the Fiats’ large oil capacity, but as little was known of the cars this was odd, unless he was thinking that extra would be needed to lubricate the superchargers.) Of course, the cars may have been held too long before the grid was sorted out. Another idea was that Brooklands was different from road racing and the Fiats were too low geared to sustain flat-out lappery. But as Monza Autodrome, a 2 3/4-mile banked track, had been used for testing, surely this was invalid? The steeper Brooklands bankings might have introduced unforeseen oil-surge, but this should have shown in practice? What is clear is that Campbell, coasting in with a dead (unless this had stalled) must have heard something amiss and switched off, a run bearing or a seized supercharger perhaps, the latter more likely on a roller-bearing power-unit. Trying the engine at the pits he no doubt heard again a noise indicative of this kind of terminal trouble.
But what of Salamano? His attempt to swerve to his pit and then abandonment of the Fiat on the righthand side of the track indicates some sudden emergency.
As Salamano pulled up streams of oil dripped in the car’s path and it was on fire. The fire was quickly extinguished by the occupants, so may have been oil set alight by the exhaust pipe or a minor petrol-fire, stopped by turning off the supply, a fuel or oil pipe severed, by broken bits from a seized supercharger or con rod. Salamano was too experienced a racing driver to have stopped so quickly and in a dangerous place, with I think, little or no run off area, unless obliged to. (History does not relate how the Fiat was moved or by what means, with the race in progress). Salamano was conversant, with Brooklands, having tested cars there during a spell at Fiat’s Wembley Depot.
It was said that the Fiats were racing one another but this was untrue; both drivers kept to the plan of getting a lap ahead and then easing to a 100mph lap-speed. It could be that the Fiats were incorrectly geared for Brooklands, having to run at 4500 to 4700rpm instead of 4000rpm, and the blowers presumably running fast in consequence. Salamano called for “big tyres”, attributed to easing the bumps. but maybe to gear things up a trifle?
The cause of this astonishing failure of these latest racing volturettes was never divulged. There were even unconfirmed stories of locked bonnets to conceal broken parts, and the cars hurriedly taken away. Admittedly there had been the fiasco of the first 2-litre supercharged Fiats retiring ignominously in 1923 at Strasbourg when the Wittig vane-type compressors sucked up road grit, but this was rectified by using Fiat-Roots superchargers, enabling Salamano and Nanaro to finish 1,2 in the 1923 Italian GP. STD must have viewed the Fiat failure in the “200” with some distaste, because the Talbots would no doubt have won again! I think the best explanation for the Fiat debacle in the “200” was given by the highly respected Kent Kerslake when he wrote of Fiat’s s/c experiments. “The nearest that one can get to an explanation perhaps, is that the 1500 cc engine had not been designed from the start for use with a blower (giving an extra 25bhp) and a long-distance race at Brooklands was the hardest possible trial to give it if there were any latent defects to be discovered”.
If it seems unkind of me to recall this matter I would say in defence that in the AIR feature last month I was full of praise for Fiat, whose cars I did, and do, admire. Anyway, the “200” debacle was retrieved when the 2-litre straight-eight Roots-blown cars finished first and second in the 1923 European GP at Monza, Salamano winning at 91.01mph, with Nazzaro second, the first supercharged car to win a Grand Prix. Before that one of the s/c 1 1/2-litre six cylinder cars had won a race at Brescia, there months prior to the failures in the “200”. W B
OTHER WRITERS’ OPINIONS
Kent Kerslake also wrote “Supercharging had not been confined to Fiat’s new 2-litre engine. In the 1500cc class it promised to be equally efficacious, but insteat-of designing a new engine to accommodate it, the Fiat engineers contented themselves with applying a Roots type blower to their existing engine of 65 x 12mm bore and stroke, thereby extracting from it some 80bhp.” (The inference being that such an engine was unable to stand supercharging at prolonged high speeds; at Brescia Cagno had had little opposition, so an easy race.)
Michael Sedgwick, in his Fiat History, remembered that at the 1924 Targa Florio, where these 1 1/2-litre Fiats were last raced, Salamano crashed in practice after saying the car was a handful to drive. Nazzaro then tried it but declared it almost impossible and refused to race it, and Bordino who did, found the car to most uncomfortable and exceptionally difficult to hold. Sedgwick agreed that Brooklands was not like the Sicilian roads but was rough (Salamano’s call for ‘big tyres’ may have been as much for greater comfort and control as for higher gearing – WB). Could it be,” he asked, that the Tipo 803 was too fast for its chassis, and just pounded itself out of business?”
Sir Malcolm Campbell MBE, in The Romance of Motor Racing, explained that he and Salamano had a private agreement that whoever had the lead at the end of the first lap should retain it until 10 laps from the end of the race, then fight it out. (Which conflicts with his race behaviour WB). But, he said, Salamano had not raced on a track before and went too fast: Campbell stalled his engine at the start and it had to be cranked by mechanics, after which he drove flat-out to catch Salamano, having been told no rev-limit applied. He then had to drive fast to keep close behind, as Salamano increased speed (again, not in agreement with race-reports WB) until he saw his companion stop, and then heard a noise from his own engine. “I coasted to the pits, there to discover that I had broken a connecting rod, while Salamano had suffered a similar Fate”. (The book contains a picture of Fiat No 26 at the pits, bonnet open and oil on the ground beneath it.)