It is not unusual for motoring correspondents to look back to the first race meeting they attended. Mine was at Brooldands in 1927, after which I saw most of the races, long and short, there and at Donington, etc, including the unforgettable grands prix at the Derby track when the German cars dominated as few spectators had seen before.
But a memorable race I went to on the Continent after peace had returned was the 1951 GP d’Europe over the splendid Circuit Routier Permanent de Reims-Gueux, with its long straight past impressive stands and its interesting corners. Michael Tee (son of Motor Sport‘s owner, a good companion and excellent photographer) and I left from Croydon on race day in an Airspeed Consul flown by a pilot who had won the 1938 Star Gold Trophy Race at Brooklands in his sports Alta, and who was as keen to watch this GP as we were. Less than two hours later we landed in a bumpy field outside Reims Aero Club, from where a scruffy Peugeot 601 taxi took us towards the circuit.
On the traffic-filled country roads we saw a GP Bugatti in racing trim and a driver of a Simca saloon run into the back of a Fiat 1100, which resulted not in recrimination but laughter. To reach the course some were driving over the ditches and across the fields. In Reims I noted the ancients – two 11.4 Citroëns, aged Renaults, and many old Peugeot 301s jostling with magnificent automobiles typical of La Belle France But on the route to the race, traffic was at a crawl, so we walked.
From the fine second-floor Press stand we saw the cars pushed out, their drivers walking beside them, their National Anthems playing, as 70,000 spectators packed the huge grandstands and the fields around the 4.86-mile circuit.
The grid lines up – Ascari in one of the 4.5-litre Ferraris, Farina and Fangio in the supercharged 1.5-litre Alfa Romeos. It is to be a Ferrari/Alfa Romeo race; no V16 BRMs. But Parnell and Whitehead have Ferraris, Reg’s the Thinwall Special, as Shawe-Taylor disliked its brakes, had a big row with Tony Vandervell, and flew home. Chiron is eighth on the grid in a Talbot. A hush falls, Charles Faroux lifts the flag, Rodney Walkerley of The Motor stubs out his hundredth cigarette and raises his field glasses. The scream and roar of the 400hp engines cracks the peace as they start, and soon along the Thillois straight little blobs appear against the background of the cornfields, and become Ascari, at 170mph, leading Farina. An immaculate French girl in the Press stand grimaces as she sees that Ascari, not Chiron, is in the lead.
What a race it was! I remember the excitement when, after leading for nine laps, Ascari came into his pit, troubled by fading brakes and a suspect gearbox. He was in for just 14 sec, but a lap later came in again. This time he climbed out and the Ferrari was wheeled away and sheeted over. That put Fagioli in the lead.
More excitement! Fangio was experiencing some ignition trouble and stopped for 11min. Sanesi had similar problems.
Yet more excitement! Fagioli was forced to relinquish his good drive to let Fangio take over his Alfa. After a fresh magneto was fitted to the car Fangio had been driving, Fagioli resumed in it.
All rather confusing as I grappled with my lap chart. Radio commentators were yelling into microphones in a dozen different languages, a box bringing us messages rattled up and down, and one tried to recognise the cars as they flashed past at around maximum speed before braking hard for the slow corner ahead.
For a time Farina’s Alfa Romeo led Gonzalez’ Ferrari, with Villoresi third in the previous year’s Ferrari, which had been refuelled early in spite of its extra fuel tank in the cockpit.
Fangio broke his 1950 lap record by nearly 6mph and consternation reigned in the Alfa pits. I remember a mechanic wearing a beret displaying a sign in white letters FANG, ASCA, VILL, FAR.
Hopefully, Ferrari put Ascari into González’ car when it was refuelled, to boos from watching Argentinians.
I remember more drama when Farina’s Alfa Romeo was leading Fangio but was not far in front of Ascari when the offside front tyre threw its tread. Storming in, he overshot his pit by 50 yards. Mechanics frantically rushed wheel and jack to him, but the car was ordered back into its correct place.
Ascari led; but he then lost 33 min having the Ferrari’s brakes adjusted. Fangio moved ahead.
Motor-racing at its best.
I remember Farina falling victim to a tired magneto, how Sanesi also had this problem and pushed his Alfa in the torrid heat, stopping every so often, carefully placing a stone under a wheel to hold the car, and how, when it did reach the pits and cameramen crowded round, a gentleman in a smart suit rushed out to keep them from touching the car and disqualifying it.
This enthralling contest ended with Fangio winning for Alfa Romeo at 110.97 mph, from Ascari’s Ferrari, both using two cars, with Villoresi in one Ferrari third. Fangio’s final refuel took but 38sec, drink included, and he had broken the Reims lap record five times, leaving it at 118.29mph. Parnell was a gallant fourth.
When it was all over and FWD Citroëns with elegant ladies in them, and Lord and Lady Howe in their V12 Lagonda, and other cars, took to the circuit, we made a quick exit to the Consul, which flew us back to Croydon in 90min, our pilot saying that, as the field for the take-off was small, we should fortify ourselves with some champagne.
Had there been a deadline I would have driven to the office, having written my report in the aeroplane, and waited to check the proof pages off the ‘stone’ before driving home to Hampshire around 2am. As it was I was able to go straight home in a likeable Morris Oxford and sort out my copy the next day.