The career of Philippe Etancelin
Although he came to motor racing relatively late in life, Philippe Etancelin was renowned for his combative style and passion. Bill Boddy recalls one of France’s most talented drivers
Great racing drivers have come from many parts of the world, a blinding glimpse of the obvious as readers of Punch once used to say of similar wideopen assertions. I am not going to be drawn, should anyone expect it, on whether France or Italy has, along the years, produced the greater number of ace racing drivers.
My brief is to write about Philippe Etancelin, the popular and very successful French top driver, the inimitable ‘Phi-Phi’. Jenks used to sit in a Press box and as the Grand Prix contestants flew past, usually recognise them by their helmets (less distinctive than they are now) or cockpit-stance, while others gaped for race-numbers. But it was no problem to pick out ‘Phi-Phi’, who continued to wear a big cloth cap back to front right into the 1950s when linen helmets or crash hats were the norm. Less expensive, of course, but not so safe in a prang.
However, the Frenchman, born in Rouen in 1896, had many more claims to fame and respect. He began when 30 years of age with Bugattis in more or less local speed trials and hill-climbs. He very quickly learnt the art of driving such a car at speeds that would win races. A year later he won the 1927 Grand Prix de la Marne, at the centre of motor racing, Reims. Not perhaps a very difficult feat you may say, for his Bugatti only had to finish ahead of Dare’s La Licome and the little-known driver of another Bugatti. However, Etancelin had had to race over 248 miles, rather further than even Continental hill-climbs would have demanded, and his average speed was a respectable 71.31mph. This he had preceded with a third place in the 1926 Coppa Florio contest, which took the still inexperienced driver to Brittany, where he had been beaten only by Laly in an Aries and the great veteran exponent Louis Wagner in a Peugeot, in a race at St Brieue of 253 miles. Thus did the newcomer to serious racing learn his trade.
The year after this 1927 GP victory Etancelin did not race; I am too poor a historian to be able to tell you why, but so far as racing at Reims was involved, maybe he knew he was not quite ready to compete against Louis Chiron, who won the Marne GP, over the same distance as before, at 82.49 mph in a Bugatti grand slam. Be that as it may, in 1929 ‘Phi-Phi’ spread his wings, or really exercised his Type 35 Bugatti, not only winning the Marne GP again, this time at 85.5 mph from Zanelli and the experienced exponent Lehoux. He also cleaned up the Grand Prix de Conseil General at fashionable Antibes, and the La Baule Grand Prix on the sands against another Bugatti and Scaron’s Amilcar.
Now well established, Etancelin went to Algeria at the beginning of the 1930 season where in the three-hour handicap race he showed his mastery by coming in ahead of Lehoux and Dreyfus, in a 1,2,3 Bugatti finish. He had established his customary racing style of getting into the lead as soon as possible. Returning to his native France, Etancelin proved his increasing confidence and ability in the French GP itself, now reduced to a 247-mile Formule Libre race, his T35C Bugatti not seriously challenged, as second home was Sir Henry Birkin in a stripped 4½-litre Bentley, Zanelli’s Bugatti only third. The works Bugattis had too-low axle ratios for the long straights and blew up, but apparently Etancelin had a higher ratio put in, although refused this by Ettore! But at least Etancelin had his name engraved as a winner of France’s one-time most prestigious race. To prove this was no flash in the pan, that year, 1930, he was third in the Lyons Grand Prix, which Chiron won, and first at the Circuit de Dauphine at Grenoble, his Bugatti averaging 73.92mph, followed home by two examples of the same illustrious make.
Well on his way to becoming one of the great French drivers, in 1931 Etancelin nevertheless decided not to follow many other participants by buying one of Ettore Bugatti’s new twin overhead camshaft Type 51 Grand Prix cars. He was, instead, content to wait until Alfa Romeo released their new Monza car. Racing his ageing Bugatti in the 1931 Tunis Grand Prix he retired, but at St Raphael he took first place in the Circuit of Esterel Plage race and gained a second place in the Casablanca Grand Prix.
The important contests of 1931 were run over a ten-hour period. At Monza and Montlhery for the Italian and French Grands Prix, ‘Phi-Phi’ teamed up with Lehoux, using the latter’s Type 51 Bugatti. At Monza it ran exceedingly well until Etancelin lost it at Lesmo corner, hitting some of the spectators.
Patience paid off, however; in the French GP at Reims in his new Alfa Romeo, he was fourth while getting accustomed to his faster and more powerful car, having to give what these days would be a podium place to Chiron and Varzi, the former bitter rivals, driving Type 51 Bugattis, opera singer Campari and Borzacchini in another Alfa Romeo, and Biondetti sharing a Maserati with Parenti a nice multi-make result. But possession of the car from Milan was rewarded that year (1931) with victories at the Circuit de Dauphine, where Etancelin beat his ex-partner Lehoux in his Bugatti, winning at 72.72mph over the 148-mile Grenoble course, and with two more wins, in the Grand Prix of Dieppe, after competing for four hours against Count Czaykowski in his Type 51 Bugatti and Earl Howe in one of his 1927-type 1½-litre GP Delage cars, and at Comminges, where the new 2.3 Alfa Romeo averaged 87.07mph, again beating the Count and Lehoux.
This description of Etancelin’s early racing shows him by 1932 to be one of France’s notable exponents, over a wide-ranging variety of circuits. His wealth from the wool business made the purchase of the Monza Alfa Romeo possible, though he took some time to exploit its full potential. He ran the Alfa at Casablanca again in 1932, as well as at Nimes and Tunis. It came good at Picardy, when he won from a couple of Bugattis, admittedly driven by not all that well-known drivers.
In the round-the-houses Nimes GP Phi-Phi’ was involved in a mild collision at the start, as so often in F1 these days, and lost a lap changing a wheel, but was fourth tooind Fulchetto, Dreyfus and Cmykowski. He was fourth in the GP of Lorraine but over four minutes behind winner Wimille in another 2.3 Alfa Romeo and he retired at Comminges. At Tunis he was outclassed by the Bugattis of Varzi and Lehoux but he was second to Lehoux at Casablanca.
The 1933 season opened well, with a third at Pau, but Lehoux’s Bugatti won and Moll’s Alfa Romeo beat Etancelin’s. He reversed things at Peronne, winning the Picardy GP from Raymond Sommer’s Alfa and the Bugatti. This was maintained at Reims when he led the Alfa 1,2,3, winning the Marne GP from Wimille and Sommer by 0.2sec and there were second places at Nimes and in the French GP at Montlhery, where Campari dominated and George Eyston’s Alfa Romeo was third.
At Monaco the Alfa’s differential broke after a spin, as it did at Tunis, and in the French GP gearbox trouble had caused it to stop at one corner before a gear could be engaged, while at Nimes, where Etancelin chased Nuvolari, his rear brakes were giving out. Yet the wealthy amateur never gave up, even against faster cars and drivers, as in his Campari and Nuvolari battles at Nimes when he was only a few lengths behind the great Tazio for most of the race and at Picardy, where he so easily beat Sommer. At Nice Etancelin was on pole and he fought another terrific battle with Nuvolari before having his brakes lock; on the parade lap and when he walked in, the crowd cheered him. At Corruninges he was a second down on Wimille on the grid, then clung as furiously as ever to Fagioli’s faster monoposto Alfa until his older one lost five minutes failing to start after the pit stop, but still came in fifth. His attacking form continued at Marseilles, until he wisely stayed in third place from the faster cars, until his leg was so chafed by the 2.3’s seat that he needed first aid. At the Mont Ventoux hill-climb he was fourth.
So the career of this fine and enthusiastic driver continued. For 1934 he acquired a 2.9-litre Maserati, with which he won the Dieppe Grand Prix and scored second-place finishes at Nice and Montreaux and a third at Vichy, after using his old 2.3 Alfa Romeo at Casablanca, where he also netted third place. Having a turn at sportscar racing, ‘Phi-Phi’ shared a 2.3 Alfa Romeo at Le Mans with Chinetti and they won this endurance race, averaging 74.74 mph for the 24 hours, during which they covered almost 1794 miles and were decently ahead of the others.
The following year the might of Nazi Germany was about to engulf the opposition and Etancelin did well to drive a difficult 4.4-litre V8 Maserati to third place at Tunis, challenged by Varzi in an Auto-Union and Wimille armed with a Type 49 Bugatti. But the big Maserati was unreliable and retired at Monaco, Tripoli and Tunis that season. However, his 3.7 Maserati, delivered late, gave its owner victory in the 1936 Pau Grand Prix but was too slow in the German GP and at Eifel. It was time for most drivers to seek different cars, and like Chiron and the others, Etancelin took on one of Lago’s heavy but reliable Talbots, the engines of which had been likened to lorry power units, although Tony Lago was the one who contrived to use inclined overhead valves without the complication of ‘upstairs’ camshafts, single or twin.
Before war came again this proved a sensible move for the experienced Frenchman. He took well to this new kind of racing car, and Lago made Etancelin his No1 driver in the two-car team. We had the pleasure of seeing him at Donington for the 1938 TT, when his 4.4-litre Darraai, although hampered by gearbox maladies and spinning more than once in the wet coming down to Melbourne Comer, was third overall, winning its class and setting fastest speed for the race, at 67.93mph. This was after another go at Le Mans with Chinetti in a 4.4-litre Talbot had come to an end when a valve broke, following an opening duel with Sommer’s 23-litre Alfa Romeo until it suffered a tyre blowout. In 1939 there was a third at Pau and a fourth in the French GP.
The ageing ‘Phi-Phi’ was as game as ever after the war; his Maserati broke in the first post-Armistice event in the Bois de Boulogne but with one of the monoposto Lago Talbots, the old man won the Prix de Paris and was second three times, including in the Euopean GP at Monza. He never won after that but he notched up some impressive places in six events, and in 1952 he came to Boreham and was fifth in the Ulster Trophy race. In his final season he took third at Rouen and was third again with Levegh in the 12-hour Casablanca race.
Then, aged 54, he retired; he had to the end lost little of his determination, seldom sparing cars or gearbox. How to assess him? When William Court was listing drivers in merit order (looking at different racing periods, because overall comparisons mean little) he put Nuvolari top of the 1922-1933 era, with 14 wins; Etancelin had three wins, against Chiron’s 13, Varzi’s 12, Benoist’s 5 and Divo’s four. But these were top racers, and you cannot compare amateurs with professionals, who mostly drove in more races than Etancelin, while Nuvolari began earlier. Philippe Etancelin was, by anyone’s standards, one of the great racing drivers of his time.