DSJ called this year’s German Grand Prix a race of attrition, as there were only eight finishers out of 26 starters.
I was reminded of the pre-war BRDC 500-Mile Races at Brooklands which, especially in their later years, were just as much a case of attrition. I used to sit on the pit-counter (being careful not to dangle my legs over the track side) wondering, as the long afternoons wore on, whether there would be any finishers at all in these punishing contests.
Many cars would already have retired, others would by now be misfiring and generally sounding sick and “flat”, if not actually popping and banging. Some would sound all right but would be going more and more slowly, while others would stop in clouds of steam or smoke.
Yet, although Paul Sheldon and Mark Wheeler (Letters, MOTOR SPORT, September 1987) might have fits when they think of them, the 500s were remarkable races. Where else but in England could you see such a variety of cars? Track specials, stripped sports-cars, aged monsters (an aero-engined giant amongst them) and the better Continental makes engaged in an all-out “blind” which was won at a faster average speed than was the celebrated Indianapolis 500 until after the war — in spite of the very special cars built for the American contest, and its rolling starts.
The BRDC race began in 1929, when that exclusive club decided to give drivers a chance to go really quickly at the end of the season — when blowing up a car was less of a calamity than earlier in the racing year.
This race of attrition used to commence before mid-day (as early as 10am in 1929) because a class-handicap was used, and the entries ranged from Austin Sevens to the aforementioned aero-engined giant. By mid-afternoon there would have been many retirements and the field would have been thinned-out considerably.
A mere twelve cars finished the first 500-Mile Race, sixteen got home without being flagged off in 1930, only ten the following year and a dozen in the 1932 race. But it was from 1933 that the real attrition set in. Out of 31 starters that year, only seven finished within the time-limit, and the same number out of 32 in 1934; in the 1935 contest, won so ably by Cobb’s Napier-Railton at 121.38 mph, a mere six cars got to the finish.
Watching from the pits, I would have seen the fast Duesenberg go out when the tail containing the fuel-tank began to break away, the Derby-Miller of Gwenda Stewart break a piston, the Squire split its fuel-tank irreparably and the same trouble eliminate Bertram’s Barnato-Hassan, which had taken the lead while Cobb made a very leisurely pit-stop for 50 gallons of fuel and four enormous new wheels (ten minutes was spoken of, whereas today’s Grand Prix tyre-changes take just a few seconds).
I would have noted that Dennis Evans’ MG’s engine failed, that Benjafield’s Alfa Romeo refused to restart with a presumed blown gasket, and that Dixon’s Riley (which had lapped even faster than the winner) went out with a hole in its crankcase.
That September afternoon down at Wrybridge only five cars — a Riley, a sports-engined 3.3 Bugatti, a 2.3 Alfa Romeo, an MG Magnette without a relief driver, and a Hotchkiss-followed the victorious Napier-Railton home. Attrition, you see, was the name of the garne at Brooklands that day, just as it was at Hockenheim this year. WB