A talk with Baron de Graffenried

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Taking the positive step of retiring from motor racing is obviously an extremely difficult thing for an international driver to do, and it would be pleasant to think that some of the current Formula One and sports car competitors will still be seen in the paddock at major meetings long after they’ve stopped actively participating. The immediate post-war era is still represented by a number of stalwarts who can be seen watching from the sidelines nowadays, and one of the most regular and popular of their number is Baron Emmanuel de Graffenried, Swiss Maserati privateer up until 1954 and winner of the second post-war British Grand Prix, a race held at Silverstone in 1949.

Like so many drivers, his connections with matters motoring extended long after his retirement some 19 years ago, de Graffenried owning a prosperous garage business in Lausanne which has held the Alfa Romeo agency for that area since 1950. He is also a Rolls-Royce dealer, a very popular commodity in this tax haven, we are given to understand, and held the Ferrari agency from 1959 to 1967 although he has since given this up. He attends all the international Grand Prix events as an ambassador for the Swiss-based Philip Morris tobacco concern whose Marlboro brand name has been a familar sight on the works BRM Grand Prix cars for nearly two seasons now and more recently appeared on Frank Williams’ machines. But, perhaps more important, Marlboro’s extensive “adoption” of various major circuits and events throughout Europe has widened their contribution to motor racing considerably, and Baron de Graffenried’s presence lends an air of respectability, even gentility, to what might be otherwise considered a high pressure, albeit welcome, business operation.

Baron de Graffenried was about as loyal to Maserati when he was racing as he has since been about selling Alfa Romeos. In fact, he raced little else from the time he started with a 1.5 Maserati in national events at Berne’s Bremgarten circuit. Over the years he frequently handled Formula One cars on this demanding circuit, about three-quarters of which was run through thick forest, and he mourns the time when alleged safety constraints brought about its closure.

“It’s really interesting to remember” reflects de Graffenried “that there was something of a panic about safety over all European circuits after the Le Mans tragedy in 1955. In fact there were safety inspections of all the leading tracks soon afterwards and Bremgarten came out as the safest. I’m not saying it would have been open today, although it might have been with modern facilities, but there was so much pressure from the Church in Berne to have it closed that the Government acted.”

His first memories of any other circuit apart from Bremgarten are of Donington Park, the English track which he first visited in 1936 when he had a 4 cylinder and 6 cylinder Maserati which he shared with an old school friend by the name of John Du Puy. Shortly before he spoke to us, he had visited the Donington Collection and the revised circuit at the invitation of Tom Wheatcroft and was bubbling with excitement at the thought of racing returning to the Derbyshire circuit. “We never did tremendously well at Donington, but the atmosphere was something to be experienced. It really was the best circuit on which I ever drove in England”.

He almost took part in an event at Crystal Palace as well, “but my mechanic was so anti-Fascist that he spent most of his times at European border points arguing savagely with the customs officials. As a result of one of these fits of rage, he missed the correct boat and the car arrived at Crystal Palace three hours after the race had started. We felt very foolish standing there with our overalls and goggles on and not a car in sight!”

He partnered with Du Puy up until the war, during which he remained in Switzerland. “We were very lucky to have all our mountains around us to keep any prospective invaders out. Anyway, it must have been extremely convenient for both sides to have a neutral country right in the middle of anything.” Pondering only to remark that he’d wished he kept hold of his pre-war cars – “I’d have been a rich man now” – he continued to talk about the post-war years when he drove a privately owned Maserati alongside Bira’s similar car in a private team run by Enrico Plate.

He met Plate at the first Grand Prix after the war, held at Marseille, and they teamed up together until 1953: De Graffenried remembers Bira as being “always competitive” and they took in as many of the international races as they could at the time, cramming in maintenance of their 4CLT Maseratis as best they could during the weeks between races. Things could be very hectic, and de Graffenried well remembers a time when their transporter, complete with two Maseratis inside, was dropped from its sling into the hold of a ship at Dieppe, just as it was being unloaded.

“We’d got the San Remo Grand Prix coming up the following weekend, so we put the wrecked cars straight on a train to Ventimiglia (on the French/Italian Mediterranean border) and set off with Plate and two other mechanics to the Maserati factory. We completely stripped down the cars to the bare chassis, straightened the chassis, both of which were completely bowed, and then re-assembled the cars. We rushed them along to San Remo and just arrived in time to qualify for the race”.

The first post-war British Grand Prix had been won by Villoresi at Silverstone in 1948, and it was the Italian’s misfortune the following year which allowed de Graffenried to win. Bira led initially at the wheel of the other Plate Maserati, but he was soon passed by Villoresi who stayed ahead until engine failure caused his retirement. Then Bira assumed first place before sliding into the bales on one of the corners and de Graffenried took over in front, staying in front to the end of the race and beating Bob Gerard’s ERA by something over a minute.

“Silverstone was my favourite circuit” admits Baron de Graffenried, “I suppose I shouldn’t say that, but I liked it because there were no trees to fly into if you went off the track.” He emphasised that he didn’t like trees bordering the edge of the track, as they did at his home circuit of Berne, and that he drove through those sections with a great feeling of apprehension, and, in consequence, rather more care that he didn’t go off the circuit than perhaps he might have taken on Silverstone’s wide open spaces. But, to emphasise the fundamental difference in attitude between drivers of that era and some of today’s racing professionals, the thought never crossed his mind that the trees should be cut down in order that his progress be made less potentially hazardous.

Another aspect of motor racing which de Graffenried wasn’t particularly fond of was driving in the rain. He was quite emphatic in his dislike of wet weather racing, “I liked to race on the open road circuits, but always tried to keep the car well within my own personal limits. I enjoyed both Jersey and the Isle of Man, but I never went quickly when it rained at either place. I just wasn’t a rain driver!”

In 1949 his second best placing was second in the Formula One race at Zandvoort, although he was promoted from third place after Farina’s works Maserati had been penalised for jumping the start. “That was behind Villoresi who had a works Maserati – and it was considered to be a very safe circuit at that time.” It was interesting to note that, at this point in our conversation with Baron de Graffenried, when he wasn’t quite sure of the year he’d finished second in the Dutch race, a fascinated Gijs van Lennep chimed in “yes, it was 1949. I’ve watched every Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort since I was a little boy, and that was the very first one I went to”. Shortly after our conversation, de Graffenreid watched “the little boy” drive one of Frank Williams’ Iso-Marlboros into sixth place in his home Grand Prix. The interest that van Lennep showed in motor racing history in general while listening to de Graffenreid was fascinating, and one just hopes that a contemporary driver like the Dutchman will be around many years after racing has stopped offering him a living, showing a similar enthusiasm.

De Graffenried made his first visit to Goodwood in 1951, a circuit which he considered to be “Utterly charming. I went back to visit it a few weeks ago and it’s just as I remember it” although a subsequent visit to Snetterton prompted “I’ve never seen rain like it! The race was won by Mike Hawthorn in that tiny Cooper-Bristol and he was so quick that we never even saw which way his wheel tracks went. They had disappeared by the time we arrived”.

During 1951, de Graffenried was offered a works spare Alfa Romeo Tipo 158 for the Swiss Grand Prix at Bremgarten. It was to run alongside the usual works drivers, much in the same way that BRM ran a spare car for Marko in Austria two years ago and then for Eaton in Canada. He finished sixth overall and was subsequently invited to drive for the team in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. “In fact I was only invited to stand in for their usual team driver Consalvo Sanesi, who’d been badly burned during pit stop practising at the circuit before the event.” In fact it wasn’t a particularly long race at Monza for de Graffenried as he stopped early on with mechanical problems. The other team drivers on that occasion were Fangio, Farina and Bonetto.

For the remainder of his career, it was back to Maseratis with one or two exceptions. At the start of 1953, Plate bought a new F2 Maserati for de Graffenreid to drive and he took a lucky victory at Syracuse in front of Louis Chiron in an Oscar. But the entire Ferrari team – Ascari, Hawthorn, Villoresi and Farina were first eliminated with mechanical trouble. He recalls an occasion when he went to Venezuela to race for Ferrari, finishing third behind Fangio and de Portago and finished a close second to Masten Gregory at Barcelona “in the car owned by a friend I didn’t want to blow it up.” He came out of semi-retirement to help do some filming of the first big motor racing picture “The Racers”. It was enjoyable, but I didn’t much like the idea of cutting off my moustache in order to double for Kirk Douglas. I drove one lap behind the field after the start of the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa (much in the same way as Phil Hill did while filming “Grand Prix” in 1966), and I had to reach down and actually activate the camera when I needed it.”

Since his retirement, de Graffenried has taken an active interest in motor racing, always attending the Monaco Grand Prix when time permits, although he has increased the number of events he visits every year since he became involved with Marlboro. In fact that business connection runs in the family, his son being involved in the press liaison side of the Marlboro-Lancia rally team “fortunately, although he raced, he decided that it was too expensive. That is, fortunately for me!”

He wasn’t one of the leading drivers of his day, but a popular amateur who gained some of his success when faster cars fell by the wayside. But, above everything else, Baron de Graffenried is an enthusiast who is now prepared to watch and take an interest in others who are currently doing what they want to do. In twenty years time, who will be considered in the same light from amongst the current crop of Formula One drivers? – A.H.

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