Louis Chiron: idol of France
Louis Chiron’s Grand Prix career lasted over thirty years and took him to the very top of his profession. Bill Boddy reports
Louis Chiron, one of the greatest racing drivers, was born in Monaco of French parents. He served in the 1914-18 war as an Army driver and in the immediate aftermath was appointed chauffeur to Marechal Petain. He then earned a living as a gigolo, a dancing partner, at the Hotel de Paris in his home town, for wealthy ladies wanting companions. This enabled him to buy a Brescia Bugatti from the Bugatti agency in Nice. Then, aged 26, he was able to change this for a Type 35 GP Bugatti. It has been said that an American lady with whom he had danced found the finance for his first three Bugattis.
This reminds me of when a colleague and I, he for Motoring News, me for MOTOR SPORT, went in a dubious Vauxhall Ten to report on a post-war Monte Carlo Rally. After going to the General Motors depot in Lyons, as the exhaust was expiring, we arrived at our hotel. Before long a well dressed middle-aged lady asked if we were on holiday. “I have a car,” she continued “and would be delighted to drive you to see Monte Carlo.” “Don’t miss this opportunity,” I told my companion, “I will drive back to England and say you have a job at the Casino or something. You are on to a good thing, you will be made for life and I wish you luck.”
But he didn’t see it that way…
I digress. Back to Louis Chiron. He made good use of his Bugattis. The cheery plump-faced Frenchman began in the T35 with the 1926 Comminges Grand Prix, winning this 261-mile handicap race from two equally unknown Bugatti drivers. In 1927 he bought one of Malcolm Campbell’s GP Delage cars and the first supercharged 2.3 T35B Bugatti to emerge from Molsheim. So many victories was Chiron to achieve there is not space to mention them all. But by 1928 the man was in the ascendant, engaging in fierce battles with his arch-rival Varzi (Alfa Romeo) as in the only GP that year run to European Formula rules, at Monza where Materassi’s Talbot crashed due to steering failure and killed 22 spectators. Chiron that year won also the GP of the Mame at Reims, the Rome GP, the San Sebastian GP, the Antibes GP and the Spanish sportscar GP.
Ettore Bugatti noted this, and Chiron became Number One in his 1929 team, with Bouriat and Divo. Emulating a few other Europeans, he was away for a time racing his 1 1/2-litre straight-eight Delage at Indianapolis in the 500-mile race. After qualifying, Chiron finished a credible seventh. Perhaps he had faith in his visit to the USA after he had seen the Delage team come home 1,2,3 at Brooklands in the 1927 RAC GP in which he had the next to finish, for Bugatti. On road circuits the won the German GP at the Nurburgring and then the fuel consumption handicap Spanish GP at San Sebastian again.
At the start of 1929 it seemed the Chiron/Varzi rivalry was passing to the Nuvolari/Varzi situation, when Tazio had crept up on the latter in the Mille Miglia and, it is said, took Varzi by surprise to win from this other Alfa Romeo by 10min 51.8sec. But it was Chiron versus Varzi again in the mountainous Targa Florio in Sicily, Achille insisting he could cope with an outdated P2 Alfa Romeo, as first raced in 1924 but with a bored-out engine. Enzo Ferrari, who was running the official Alfa Romeo team, had protested and it says much for Varzi that he had his way! It was said the out-dated Alfa reached 140mph but was a swine on the multiple corners. But it outpaced all the other competitors, setting a new lap record on the first flying lap of that testing circuit, with only Chiron’s Bugatti holding on to the P2. Then Louis lost time. He caught up again when Varzi’s Alfa Romeo suffered a fuel leak. To counter this the riding mechanic took a supply in the car for the final lap of this 336-mile contest and poured some in as they raced on, a not surprising spillage causing a mild fire which the mechanic beat out with his seat cushion, to the delight of those watching the race by the finishing line.
But by no means had Chiron’s skill and ability to command championship stature diminished, and his smooth driving style had definitely emerged. At Monaco, over the difficult street circuit, he led for most of the 100 laps in his 2-litre Bugatti and was just seconds behind the 2.3-litre Bugatti of Drefus at the flag, earning him a Roy Nockolds drawing in MOTOR SPORT. Another great duel. I can only think that Chiron and Bouriat were given works T35C 2-litre cars in a hope of a class as well as an outright win, the class idea being abandoned on race day.
He went on that year (1930) to win the European GP over the tortuous Spa course from team-mates Bouriat and Divo. Before the race Bugatti had decided the finishing order. The Bugattis dominated the race but Chiron had to change plugs, so Bouriat passed him, but obeying team orders he stopped just before the finishing line for over a minute, to allow the chosen driver to win; the crowd audibly displayed their annoyance! This is another of those ‘nothing new’ episodes, when one remembers the recent Coulthard/Hakkinen agreement that ‘who is first out of the first corner wins’, and is an example of how a team has the right to decide the finishing order of the drivers, as Ferrari did before Schumacher’s crash.
Chiron shared a Bugatti in the 24-hour Spa sportscar race, partnered by Bouriat; the car was hastily prepared and Ettore did not want it to run but Chiron insisted that he wished to experience the Spa circuit before the European GP. In the event he was delayed when the dynamo belt broke while leading. Bouriat drove almost as fast as the master but the belt broke again and they retired lightless. But it was not in vain and, with his research duly completed, Chiron won the Spa GP for Bugatti team, and was second in the Royal Grand Prix of Rome, beaten only by Luigi Arcangeli in one of the now challenging new 2.5-litre Maseratis, almost locked together on the last lap, the sort of finish we would like to see in F1 today! Chiron also cleaned up the 1930 Lyon GP for Bugatti.
Grand Prix racing had hotted-up even more by 1931. Alfa Romeo had the Monzas and the new P3 monopostos, Maserati their new 8C-2500 cars, and Bugatti the twin-cam 2.3-litre Type 51s with engines said to be copied from the two Indy Millers. At Monaco Chiron, always debonaire, sunburned round face under cloth helmet, drove as impeccably as ever, relaxed in style, and had a lead of nearly a lap at half-distance, winning comfortably from Fagioli’s Maserati, to the delight of the Monagasques.
Rivals Chiron and Varzi then shared a T51 for the ten-hour Italian GP but went out with a broken back axle ballrace. It would be unthinkable if Chiron had not driven at Le Mans. In 1931 he was one of the team driving the difficult blown 4.9-litre Type 50 Bugattis, but after a burst tyre resulted in a crash which killed a spectator they were withdrawn.
The 1931 Monza GP was run in heats and a final. Chiron again had one of the 4.9-litre T49 Bugattis but a flung tyre tread damaged a brake cable, and with the crowds invading the course he was flagged in, seventh. Spectators had been killed after occupying a forbidden area – one does not care to remember how often this happened in pre-war races… Chiron was second to Nuvolari in the Coppa Ciano. Finally he won at Masaryk and also won the Lyons GP, once more vanquishing the German opposition in the form of von Stuck’s Mercedes. He had shared a Bugatti with Varzi in the Belgian GP and his fitness was displayed when after leading Nuvolari he sprinted 2 1/2 miles to the pits and back, trying unsuccessfully to fix a sheared magneto-drive.
He had tamed the exciting 16-cylinder T47 Bugatti with FWD in the Klausen, and in 1932 won three GPs in the Type 51. At Monaco he made a rare error when he had a lead on Nuvolari, through clipping a sandbag at Quai de Plaisance corner, the car overturning and throwing him out cut and bruised. But, applauded by the crowd wherever he led, Chimn/Varzi were third to the Alfas in the 23rd Targa Florio. Chiron could do nothing about the P3 Alfas in the French GP although reaching 130 mph along route nationale 31, finishing only fourth. He won at Dieppe, third in the Coppa Acerbo, beaten only by the Alfas of Nuvolari and Borzacchini and finished ahead of Sommer in the Nice Formula Libre race. He won again at Masaryk, from Fagioli and Nuvolari, was let down by his Bugatti at Le Mans but made FTD at La Turbie in the unpredictable Type 53 4WD Bugatti.
The T51 Bugatti was now outdated for top-line racing and the lure of the P3 Alfa Romeo drew Chiron to drive for the Scuderia Ferrari in 1933 after Caraceiola agreed to partner him, but the great German ace crashed in practice at Monaco and hurt himself. Louis won at Marseilles, at Masaryk for the third time, at the Spanish GP and, with Chinetti, in the Spa 24-hour sportscar race.
With the Scuderia backing him, Chiron had his best:season of all in 1934. At Monaco, with two laps to do, Chiron stuffed his car into a sandbag at the Station hairpin (shades of Brabharn in 1970) losing a lap lead to Guy Moll but coming home before Dreyfus, making it a 1,2,3 Alfa finish.
Success came at Casablanca where Chiron won from Etancelin’s Maserati. In the German GP, von Brauchitsch (Mercedes-Benz) and Stuck (Auto Union) showed the awesome new. might of Germany,but Chiron followed them home. At Avus he retired, but his finest hour came in the 1934 French GP at Montlhery where in his technologically antediluvian Alfa, he conquered the terrifyingly German opposition by driving with his trademark speed and eerie consistency while his new-found rivals suffered innumerable mechanical problems.
The crowds loved his professional driving and cheerful character. After that French GP over 311 miles of the Paris track he thanked the spectators for their support, saying he had found the Montlhery course difficult and the race hard — but he had overtaken Stuck’s Auto Union, set fastest lap at 91.24mph, and his 2.9-litre Alfa Romeo had beaten the other team cars, after more than 3 1/2 hours at the wheel.
By 1935 the Germans had rectified things and were able to prove the Bugattis, Maseratis and even the P3s no match, except for Nuvolari’s victory in the German GP. Chiron wisely concentrated on lesser but still important events, winning at Lorraine the GP and being second at Dieppe, Nice, Marne, Biella and at the Avus. In the Belgian GP he finished third behind two of the new Mercedes, and thus for 1936 Chiron was given a place in the Mercedes team. Unfortunately a bad crash in the German GP, when he lost it at 160mph, interrupted his career before he had shown the prowess in the German cars.
Alfa successes then eluded him: for ’37 he turned to Talbot, with whom he won the sportscar French GP. After his Delahaye had ruined its transmission at Le Mans he retired, more definitely than Damon Hill, and enrolled in the Army.
He raced again post-war, taking a 1 1/2-litre Maserati to Jersey, then winning the 1947 French GP in a 4-litre Talbot which Tony Lago had persuaded the now wealthy driver to buy, and won the GP at Comminges, was second at Monaco in 1948 and, in 1949, won the GP de France, all in 4-litre Talbots. He was third at Monaco in a Maserati 4CLT in 1950 behind the 158 Alfas. After an unsuccessful 1953 season in an OSCA, he won the Monte Carlo Rally of 1954 in a Lancia Aurelia. In 1955, aged 55, he drove his last race in a full-blooded GP car, a V8 Lancia D50, again at Monaco, finishing sixth. He practiced for two more Monaco GPs, both in Maserati 250Fs: in 1956 he blew two engines in practice, and ’58 he failed to qualify. Prince Rainier then asked Chiron, who was President of the AC de Monaco, to be the Commissaire General of Monaco’s Rally and Grands Prix, a post he held up to the 1979 Grand Prix, a month before he died.
I regard him as one of the ‘greats’ of the pre-war era. By the end of 1934 he had won more races than Nuvolari; but his greatest was that 1934 French GP when he averaged 89.18mph for 16 laps in the broiling Montlhery sun, breaking up the far more powerful Auto Union and Mercedes opposition in a far less powerful P3 Alfa, and then paced himself with skill, to lead home the 1,2,3 Alfa victory.