Drama at Le Mans

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When I say Le Mans I don’t mean the famous 24-hour races which started in 1923, although there were plenty of dramatic incidents in those. The one I am thinking of occurred in the 1920 Voiturette race, and showed that Ettore Bugatti was either excitably thoughtless or cunningly quick thinking! Read on and take your choice.

Bugatti had entered three 16-valve Bugattis, with drivers Friderich, de Vizcaya and Baccoli. He is said to have taken his entourage to Le Mans from Molsheirn in three lorries and set up a small hangar, a travelling workshop and welllaid-out pit requirements 10 days beforehand.

He was described as an Italian artist-engineer who had studied art in Milan, but by 18 was eaming 200,000 francs a year from his inventions. He was confident his cars would beat opposition from Sizaire-Naudin, Silver Hawk, Bignan, Majola, Mathis, GN, Bebe Peugeot and some lesser makes, in this 24-lap, 258.5-mile Coupe Internationale des Voiturettes, a tough race over poor roads.

Ettore had fashionably-dressed ladies in furs, and buckets of champagne in his pits, and Friderich won for him, at 57.14mph. However, his finishing orders had been disobeyed when Vizcaya decided to win. But on lap 20 drama intruded and Friderich took the lead.

Vizcaya had pitted, according to one report, had taken on oil and was just moving off when Ettore shouted to him to stop and, running up, began to unscrew the radiator cap, to have the water replenished. As only the driver and his mechanic were permitted to work on the cars Vizcaya is said to have been flagged in a lap later and disqualified. Another contemporary account says that Vizcaya, amid much comment and excitement, was “disqualified within a few seconds”. However he may have set off for another lap, even so. But 37 years later, Vizcaya’s then-18-year-old riding mechanic, Mischall, told a different story, namely that the Bugatti had broken a con-rod and that the car stopped beyond the pits. Ettore, seeing the damaged engine, signalled for the bonnet to be quickly closed and then began to unscrew the radiator cap, knowing that disqualification would follow, but that the mechanical failure would not be reported.

A silly mistake if all was okay, quick thinking if not!

Whatever, the British motor papers reported that the car did do an extra lap but was disqualified due to Ettore’s seemingly thoughtless action. If the car really had a rod out, could it have run an extra lap?

So Bugatti got the expected victory, but not a 1-2-3 finish as anticipated. He himself had stopped Vizcaya’s ploy of ignoring his instructions (although surely not for this alone?) and trying to beat the works driver Friderich and, after leading for a few laps, Baccoli’s engine proved stubborn over plugs and he finished only fifth, behind two Bignans and a Majola.