The 1957 German Grand Prix: Fangio’s Maserati Triumph

The Maserati 250F was a great car. It was well-balanced; however, this does not mean that it was easy to drive on the edge. Cars of this era were heavy, but also had notoriously little grip. A driver, Paul Frere, described what it was like to drive a Formula 1 car in 1956:

“When things start to happen they happen so quickly that correcting action must be taken without delay and with the utmost accuracy: with a Grand Prix car it is extremely easy, owing to the quickness with which it responds, to overcorrect a slide and start a series of zigzags of increasing amplitude which will eventually bring you up—hard—against the bank, ditch, or whatever else happens to be at the side of the road.”

Fangio (Maserati 250F, race # 1, chassis #2529), looks cool, calm, and collected.

Another author, Paul Fearnley, was permitted to drive Fangio’s actual 1957 German Grand Prix car (chassis number 2529) around the Nurburgring in 2002. His words, captured by Motorsport Magazine, were profound. “Its throttle is feather-light and I hamfootedly kick the three Webers awake. My left tympanum goes into spasm.” The Maserati 250F, although well-balanced, took a master’s touch around the tricky Nürburgring.

Even with Fangio at the helm, it was not easy to navigate the Nürburgring. I will assume you are familiar with the ‘ring. If you are not, you should first go and look it up; it is pretty epic. The Nurburgring, circa 1957, was precisely 22,810 meters in length (14.173 miles). To win the race, you would need to be the first to complete 22 circuits, at breakneck speed.

Too long to memorize, one needed to at least remember the corners that could kill them. But, the driver also needed to compartmentalize their fears and have supreme confidence in their ability to squeeze the car through the narrow racing gaps of the newly partially-resurfaced Nurburgring.

Finally, Fangio’s main competition, the Scuderia Ferrari were dangerous contenders. Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorn, both young British drivers for Ferrari, were about to face off a 46-year-old Fangio. Vanwall, a British team, had also been coming on relatively strong in 1957.

By any stretch of the imagination, Fangio’s task was challenging. To a mere mortal, it would have been terrifying to have the wobbly 1950s machinery shrieking down the narrow pavement of the ‘ring. And yet, pictures show Fangio smiling at the wheel of chassis 2529 as he calmly circled the lengthy track. He was at-one with the car by the end of the practice sessions. The year before, pole position was set at a lap speed of 86.3 mph. This year, Fangio tore through the track at 90.1 mph. Fangio had the speed, but something would go wrong in the race.

The Maserati team and the Scuderia Ferrari would have known each others relative fuel loads on race day. The trained eye could easily tell how much the tail of a car was drooping from fuel weight. Fangio would have known that Moss and Hawthorn were on full fuel, thereby planning to run a non-stop race. Conversely, Moss and Hawthorn would have seen Fangio’s 250F sitting high in the tail; it was only half-full on fuel. Fangio planned to hedge his bets and pit at the halfway mark for fuel and tires.

The front row was four red cars: Maserati and Ferrari. 200,000 people came out to watch the race that sunny day in August 1957. At 1:15 pm, the flag dropped and the drivers revved their engines and spun their tires as they left the starting line.

The Nürburgring’s long laps bring unique challenges, such as the inability to track the race for minutes, at a time. But, when the cars finally emerged nearly ten minutes later, Fangio was not in front. Rather, it was the Ferrari of Mike Hawthorn, followed by his teammate Peter Collins. Hawthorn had done a standing lap of 9:42.5. This was a cracking lap, and they would only get faster as the race went on.

At the end of the second of twenty-two laps, Hawthorn was still in the lead. Time was just starting to grow short for Fangio to pull out a lead. Remember, Fangio needed to stop for both tires and fuel at the halfway point; the Ferraris Hawthorn and Collins would drive straight through without interruption. On the second lap, Hawthorn lowered his time to 9:37.9. But, Fangio had furled his brow and dropped the proverbial hammer. Within a few seconds, Fangio finished his second lap in an even quicker 9:34.6.

Without too much difficulty, having waited to warm his tires, Fangio finally passed both of the leading Ferraris. According to Fangio’s own comments, he had never been more “one” with an automobile than on that day, mounted atop his Maserati 250F, chassis 2529.

Although Hawthorn and Collins stayed in close formation, Fangio was screaming over the hills, down through the valleys, and around the kinks, twists, and turns of the ‘ring. Over the next several laps, Fangio increased his lead by seven seconds a lap.

By lap eight, Fangio again dropped the course world record to 9:30.8. At this pace, could his tires even last to the halfway point? He was 28 seconds in the lead. This is about the average length of a late-1950s pitstop, without the time lost heading into and out of pit lane.

Behra, another Maserati 250F driver and teammate to Fangio had shot his tires by lap 10. He needed to pit even before the halfway mark. Fangio continued to only speed up. He finished his tenth lap in 9:25.5.

Finally, his worn tires could take more. Moreover, Fangio was almost out of his half-tank of fuel. Around 30 seconds ahead of the Ferraris, he stopped at the end of the twelfth lap. However, the pit stop was bungled.

The stop was a disaster. The mechanics needed to change the two rear tires and give his 250F another half tank of fuel. However, one of the mechanics dropped, and momentarily lost, the wheel nut. The mechanic fumbled about as he looked for the part necessary to re-secure the new tire to the car. The pit stop took a shocking fifty-two seconds.

The fifty-two seconds, plus the time at reduced speed in the pit lane, resulted in Fangio being down on the Ferrari’s by about forty-five seconds. Remember, in the entire first-half of the race, Fangio’s miraculous performance only pulled out a twenty-eight second lead. Now, with less laps remaining, Fangio would need to make up even more time.

Fangio’s infamous bungled stop for fresh fuel and tires. Fangio can be seen out of the car, taking a drink, just below the number “3.”

It would take more than proficient driving and a bit of luck. Fangio knew something more was required. Rather than take off at demon pace, Fangio played it cool as his tires warmed up. Some have suggested that this was a ruse designed to get Hawthorn and Collins to lower their pace.

Whether intended or not, Fangio’s slower pace on those first few laps gave him even less time to catch the Ferraris, even if it may have lulled them into a false-sense of security. However, Fangio was back at ten-tenths soon enough. At the end of the sixteenth lap, Fangio was closing methodically. However, he remained in arrears by 33 seconds.

A truly historic picture of Fangio leaving the famous pitstop. The crowd is on their feet as Fangio drops his goggles onto his face. Two mechanics push the car back into the race.

Fangio went on to drive even faster. His record lapping time dropped first to 9:28.5, and then to 9:25.3. With three laps to go; however, Juan-Manuel still had to cover 13.5 seconds of a gap. He caught and passed both Ferraris in half that time. He must have made up at least seven to eight seconds per lap on his well-worn tires.

Fangio not only won the 1957 German Grand Prix that day, but also won his final championship. One would be well-justified in asserting that this great race was the high-point of the career of a true great master.

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Travis Turner of GPevolved.com

 

Maserati 250F: A Front Engined F1 Legend

If you ask me, the video above is simple, serene driving bliss. By today’s standards, it is a dinosaur. Piloting the Maserati 250F was something akin to riding a bull. It tried to buck you out of the seat as its leaf-spring, de Dion tube suspension struggled to compensate for the bumps in the road. It heaved and dove constantly with both acceleration and breaking. Every maneuver required the car to be placed in just the right posture to correctly flick it in the desired direction.

Maserati Works Team, Aintree 1957

Fangio, in practice and in race, hit his apexes with scientific accuracy. Although substantially down on horsepower compared to a modern racer, it was down even more grip. The end result was a car that took more than precision to drive, it took clairvoyance.

Much quality material has been written on the Maserati 250F, and I encourage you to search it out. This post could not possibly summarize the totality of the accomplishments of this the great car; however, this post does present a brief defense of the Maserati 250F. The Maserati 250F is the epitome of front-engined grand prix cars.

Macro dashboard pic from a Maserati 250F.

The Maserati 250F, chassis and engine were penned by Gioacchino Colombo (1903-1988). This gives the 250F engine one-hell of a pedigree, considering the trajectory that Colombo’s career had taken thus far.

At 35 years old, Colombo designed the Alfa Romeo 158 “Alfetta” engine, an itself legendary car that saw success both before and after World War II. In creating such a successful racer, he attracted a new employer, Enzo Ferrari. Enzo convinced Colombo to design a (tiny by todays standards) V12. It was only one-and-a-half liters, but it was used in a number of early Ferraris including the Tipo 125, 159, and 166 sports cars. Eventually enlarged to 4.8 liters, it was also the basis for the legendary Ferrari 250 engines.

The Maestro, Fangio, in a Maserati 250F.

Next, Colombo parted ways with Ferrari in 1950 and returned to Alfa Romeo. He was involved with the success of Nino Farina in 1950 and Juan-Manuel Fangio in 1951. When Colombo returned to Maserati in 1953, he began work on the straight-six engine and the whole of the Maserati 250F.

In some regards, the Colombo merely evolved an existing Maserati—their 1952 Formula 2 car. Initially, he was tasked with directly improving this car. He raised the horsepower from 175 to 190. He also improved the suspension, brakes, and various other components.

Maserati 250F engine bay, from 1956 Argentine GP.

190 horsepower might not seem like a lot of horsepower, but on the tires of the day, it would have been brutal to control. In fact, the car had some success taking it to the Scuderia Ferrari in 1953. By the time that happened, Gioacchino Colombo was already at work in developing the new 2.5 liter Maserati 250F. This car was designed by a master engineer at the apogee of his career.

The Maserati was, and is, the archetypal front-engined grand prix car. In law, there is something called a “model plaintiff.” In a class action suit, involving dozens or hundreds of plaintiffs, one must be chosen to represent all the others. In this regard, the model plaintiff has the most in common with everyone else in the class, but it also paints their cause of action in a favorable light. Of all front-engined grand prix cars, I believe the Maserati 250 would be the so-called “model plaintiff.” Thus, I consider it to be the archetypal front-engined grand prix car.

1957 Argentine Grand Prix, Maserati 250Fs, in the pits.

There were only a handful of front engined 1950s racers that could outperform the Maserati 250F. It had all the modern race-tech of a car from that period. These cars were built on an all-new multi-tubular frame, a precursor to the full-on space frame. These represented an advancement from the traditional twin frame rails.

There were between 31 and 34 Maserati 250F’s produced, depending on who is counting. The cars were continually evolved between 1954 and 1957. The first Maserati 250F put out around 240 horsepower, at 7,200 revolutions per minute (RPM). By 1957, the straight-six was putting out 270 horsepower, at 8,000 RPM.

GPevolved Maserati 250F sitting atop article notes.

A Maserati 250F, usually in six-cylinder form, but occasionally in a 12 cylinder variant, won over 40 major race wins during its most active years. Taking an egalitarian approach to racing, Maserati supplied cars to its works team and customers. The sheer numbers of the cars helped to gain its legendary status. But, ultimately, it was the excellence of the 250F in the hands of a true master, such as Juan-Manuel Fangio or Stirling Moss, which cemented its reputation.

Rebuilt Maserati 250F, circa 1954

 

Travis Turner of GPevolved.com

 

The 1900 Gordon Bennett Cup

It was actually called the Coupe Internationale; however, even at the time, everyone referred to it as the Gordon Bennett Cup.  It ran for several years; the first iteration took place in 1900.  It was, by some reports, a complete failure.  But, this minor overture laid the basic foundation for team-based racing.

Caricature of James Gordon Bennett, Jr.. Capti...
Caricature of James Gordon Bennett, Jr.. Caption read “New York Herald”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Gordon Bennett, a newspaper man, and son of the creator of the New York Herald, was based in Paris.  Since the 1894 Paris to Rouen run, the New York Herald had paid close attention to the burgeoning sport of automobile racing.  Basically, Mr. Gordon Bennett (a hyphen is incorrect) offered a trophy to the Automobile Club de France (A.C.F.).  The trophy, or cup–as it were–offered this trophy to be “competed for under somewhat unusual circumstances.”  In particular, James Gordon Bennett Jr. dictated that the trophy would be competed for and won by the various national auto clubs.  In other words, neither the individual nor the manufacturer would take the honors.  Rather, the honor of the cup was to go to a winning country.  It was Gordon Bennett’s intention to spur automotive innovation by pitting the various national industries against each other.

James Gordon Bennett never attended any of his Coupe Internationales.  In fact, he was not even a big fan of driving.  He was typically known to roll up to his office in a horse-drawn coach.  But, importantly, he did believe that the automobile would transform the landscape.  Living in France, which was also the epicenter of the automobilism movement, Gordon Bennett offered his namesake’s cup to the A.C.F. in October 1899.

By January 1900, the French club had published a series of rules, called the “articles of competition.”  These rules, in and of themselves, are fascinating because they contain the first formalized rules of motorsport.  These rules define everything from the simple construct that the quickest to the finish line wins, to a basic form of parc fermé (generally understood to be the unavailability to modify a vehicle between race sessions).

Before sponsorship, cars were painted in so-called “national colors.”  These colors shifted a bit over time.  For example, Germany switched from white to silver over time (which is its own fascinating story of stripping paint to metal).  The Gordon Bennett Cup started this pre-sponsorship tradition.  The original chosen colors were red for America, white for Germany, yellow for Belgium, and blue for France.

The teams, for the Gordon Bennett Cup, were to be composed of one to three drivers.  The A.C.F. waisted no time in choosing the French Representatives.  The Chevalier René de Knyff received 32 member votes.  Charron received 25 and Girardot was third with 15 votes.  Almost immediately, some members (including possible drivers) were furious.  First, a democratic ballot is necessarily subjective as compared to some sort of tally of race results.  Second, and more importantly, all three selected drivers favored the Panhard et Levassor cars.  However, the Mors cars had been coming on strong since the last half of 1899.  The fallout from the disagreement included a threat by Levegh, Lemaitre, and Giraud to renounce their A.C.F. membership and defect to the competing Belgian club.  The fracas eventually settled.

Organization of the race continued into 1900.  While the A.C.F. had already chosen their drivers, other national clubs through their proverbial hats in the ring but did not specify team members.  England’s national club was conspicuously absent from the international entries.  First, they were focused on their own 1,000-Mile Trial.  Second, they did not actually have any decent race car manufacturers at the time, according to Gerald Rose.

A route was selected.  However, upon measuring the route, it was found to fall too short to be within the recently ratified articles of competition for the G B Cup.  A few tweaks later and it was long enough to pass muster.

Generally, the run up to the competition was plagued by misinformation and disorganization.  The fact that racing had been banned without specific government approval did not help.  There were other problems as well.  Camile Jenatzy’s new Belgian mount was stuck in French customs (which it remained through the date of the actual race, forcing Jenatzy to strip down a touring car of the same make in order to race).  Even Levegh’s recent win at Bordeaux to Periqueux renewed the kerfuffle over the A.C.F. driver selection.

There was serious doubt, even within the organizing A.C.F., as to whether the race would actually occur.  The original date was rescheduled for June 14, 1900.  Some drivers complained there was insufficient notice to prepare there respective cars.  The sole German representative, Eugen Benz, refused to start on these grounds.  However, the real reason he did not start may have been fear that his rear tires were doomed to fail at high speed.  Or, perhaps, it was because his Benz was so slow that his “chance of winning was microscopical.”`

The Race Report

Not unusual for races of this era, the race started just a quarter after 3:00 in the morning.  The entries were: René de Knyff (France), Camille Jenatzy (Belgium), Winton (America), Charron (France), and Girardot (France).  All three French entries did, in fact, end up being Panhard et Levassors.  Winton, the new American, was in a car of his own design.  Jenatzy, the sole Belgian, was stuck in his stripped down Bolide touring car (as his actual racing model remained trapped by French customs for unknown reasons).  Levegh, not chosen by the A.C.F. as an official French entry, raced alongside the others en amateur.

De Knyff and Winton got slow starts.  Girardot and Jenatzy were able to fight for the initial lead.  Just outside of Versailles, Winton’s Winton was in last place.  However, Jenatzy, the original king of the four-wheel-grip-the-grain-all-wheel-drift was already shredding his tires.  Having to replace both rears, he dropped into last place.

English: at the next to a vehicle of his make,...
A 1914 picture of Fernand Charron, the former cyclist, and later car designer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to contemporary reports, at Limours, Girardot was in the lead at 3:49:15.  Charron was second, reaching the checkpoint just under three minutes later.  De Knyff followed only one minute behind.  Winton was in fourth and Jenatzy brought up the rear.  Levegh, the unofficial entry, was 30 minutes ahead of Girardot, the official leader.

At Orléans, roughly the mid-point of the race, things were getting interesting for the competitors.   Charron, for example, was about to give up.  He had badly bent his rear axle in taking a rather ancient drainage ditch (caniveau) too quickly.  However, at Orléans, he was in second and found out that Girardot, the first place runner, had a steering gear in need of immediate repair.   He also found out that de Knyff, was essentially out of the race with a stripped top gear.  Jenatzy and Winton were a long way behind.  Given these facts, Charron soldiered on like a boss (but I’m mixing metaphors again).

I mentioned that Jentazy was way behind.  He had several flat tires, broken spark plugs, and clutch issues–and those were only the start of his issues.  According to Gerald Rose, “vowing that with car troubles, obstreperous gendarmes, dogs, and sheep, he had never in his life driven such a race”.”  Meanwhile, the new American, Winton had bucked a front wheel.  He bowed out just after Orléans, which took him 8:30.00 to reach, compared to the unofficial Levegh’s 5:25.00.

Thus, after Orléans, only Charron and Girardot remained.  But, remember, Charron axle was shot.  Luckily, his riding mechanic (and driver in his own right) Fournier, “staved off disaster by keeping up a steady flow of oil on the chains.”  Girardot was still far behind.  He got lost in Orléans.  This really wasn’t his fault.  By all accounts, this was the result of a poorly organized race.  Also, recall that his steering gear was still giving him problems.

Dogs, in these days of open-road city to city races, were a constant issue.  In his magnum opus, Gerald Rose recounts Charron’s harrowing encounter with a particularly large dog:

The bane of the race were the dogs, and it is said that every single driver killed five or six.  Ten miles before the finish Charron collided with an unusually big St. Bernard when going down hill at nearly sixty miles an hour.  Somehow the dog became wedged between the wheel and the steering arm, completely jamming the steering gear.  The car dashed off the road, across the ditch, between two trees into the neighbouring field, and thence between two more back on to the road, finally coming to rest facing in the direction of Paris, with its two occupants too startles to say anything.  Fournier just got down and re-started the engine, and in a minute the car was speeding on to Lyons as if nothing had happened.

The passage goes on to describe how Fournier had to lean over the edge of the car, in an acrobatic manner, to hold a water pump in place while Charron chugged on to victory.

Lord Montagu called the 1900 Gordon Bennett Cup an “Overture in a Minor Key.”  The crowd at the end of the race confirms this assessment.  The newspapers said there may have been up to 100 people at the finish line.  However, these accounts were a bit generous.  More accurate estimates from the drivers suggest that only about a dozen people were at the finish line to greet Charron on his win.

The final standings were:

  1. Charron (Panhard; 24 HP) 9:09:00 (38.6 mph)
  2. Girardot (Panhard; 24 HP) 10:36:23 (33.4 mph)
  3. De Knyff (Panhard; 24 HP) – (-)
  4. Jenatzy (Bolide; 16 HP) – (-)
  5. Winton (Winton; 14 HP) -(-)

/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com

Sources

“The Gordon-Bennett International Cup Race”, The Motor-Car Journal, 285-287 (June 23, 1900).

The Gordon Bennett Races, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (1965) (Containing some minor discrepancies with the other sources.  As such, I am considering this slightly less reliable than my other, earlier sources).

A Record of Motor Racing: 1894 – 1908, Gerald Rose (1949) (Originally published in 1909).

“The Gordon Bennett International Cup Race” The Horseless Age, Vol. 6 No. 14, p. 14 (1900) (Providing an American perspective on the race).

A Mid-Season Racing Ban, Circa 1900

The automobilism movement, as it was called in the early days of the motor vehicle, was growing.  Unfortunately, so was oppositional public sentiment.  The main vehicle for informing the public about the wonders of the automobile was the motor race.  However, often, races were poorly planned.  The old dirt roads were rough.  Often, organizers failed to inform property owners, along the route, of the race.  As a result, cars frequently collided with livestock.  In the parlance of today’s youth, these events were often a hot mess.

Paris to Roubaix, 1900

Bicycle, Velo, Fahrad, Radrennen. Paris-Rubaix...
Bicycle, Velo, Fahrad, Radrennen. Paris-Rubaix, 1900 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These anti-automobilism pressures culminated with a race from Paris to Roubaix.  Fans of cycling will recognize this as a bicycle race.  It usually was.  However, in 1900, motor tricycles were included in this cycling event.  Do not estimate the danger associated with these small motor tricycles.  They may have only had two cylinders and between six and eight horsepower, but they were rumored to be faster than the quickest proper automobile, in a straight line.  There had been 52 motorized entries to be racing just behind the bicycles.  However, in the end, only 30 showed up.  One failed to start up that morning, leaving 29 motor tricycles in the competition.

The crowd, as pictured, was substantial.  According to Gerald Rose, “At one point on the route there was a certain right-angled corner known as the ‘Croix des Noailles,’ and that being a good coign of vantage from which the competitors could be seen approaching, turning the corner, and departing, a crowd of spectators some two or three hundred strong had gathered to enjoy the spectacle.  Here, the majority of spectators arrived by bicycle. They had laid them down in a stack at the corner of the road track.  Importantly, one of the spectators was the wife of a power government Deputy (for the Department of the Seine).

At first, everything went well.  However, two competitors by the names of Martin and Dorel arrived at the corner going too fast.  Martin ran wide.  Dorel tried to squeeze by on the inside as Martin trike ran wide.  They crashed together and then over the pile of bicycles.  The 300-strong crowd was too thick to get out of the way in time.  The Deputy’s wife sustained a terrible compound leg fracture, which ultimately left her in the hospital for at least two weeks.  On the one hand, the bicycles broke much of the collision such that only a few other injuries were sustained.  On the other hand, this was the unfortunate spark to the powder keg of anti-automobilism sentiment.

The result was a racing ban placed in force within days of the accident.  There was widespread sadness and dismay among the enthusiast community.  From here on, races required a government exemption from the general rule to proceed.  As France was the epicenter of the automobile movement, during the fin de siecle, this would ultimately have a cooling effect upon the popular car movement–particularly when it came to smaller, regional races.  The rundown clock on the great city to city races had been set.  The end of these great events, unfortunately, was now in sight (even if it was not known at the time).

1900 Bordeaux to Perigueux Automobile Race

Levegh_(Alfred_Velghe)_et_sa_Mors_24_hp_de_1900,_victorieuse_à_Bordeaux-Périgueux_et_à_Paris-Toulouse-Paris
Levegh and his 24 horsepower Mors.

This race was authorized in spite of the racing ban.  This fact, alone, made the race something of an attraction.  However, the bigger crowd draw was the fact that it was the first proper meeting between the latest Mors and Panhard cars.  It was a two day event, with the first day being 72 miles and the second day being 125.5 miles.  Unlike the relatively minor race of Paris to Roubaix, the Bordeaux to Perigueux race had many of the bigger names in early motorsport including Giraud and Levegh.

Giraud, had previously only driven a Bollée, but had switched to Panhard in light of the overwhelming racing success of the marque.  However, the Mors had come out of nowhere and was to be quite a contender for the supreme French racer.  Levegh, as I have mentioned several times in previous posts, was the uncle of the unfortunate instigator of the 1955 Le Mans disaster.

An American, Bostwick, was new on the scene.  He had purchased, at an extremely high price, De Knyff’s “Tour de France” Panhard from 1899.  The speed on the first day was incredible.  Levegh travelled the 72 miles in only 84 minutes, which is a pace that the racing community had not yet seen.  Even more impressive was the fact that other racers were averaging nearly as quickly as Levegh’s record pace.  At the end of the first day, Giraud was only three minutes behind in second place.  Bostwick, the new American to the French racing scene, was third.  He finished only an additional 4:30 behind the second place Giraud.

Another Photo of Levegh, from the 1900 Bordeaux to Perigueux run.
Another Photo of Levegh, from the 1900 Bordeaux to Perigueux run.

On the second day, Levegh was again quickest.  Thus, Levegh and his Mors won the two day event averaging 48.4 miles per hour.  Giraud maintained second place, at an average of 47.1 miles per hour.  Bostwick evidenced the American can-do attitude by maintaining third at 45.6 miles per hour.  This proved that the Automobile Club de France had correctly chosen both a Mors and a Panhard for the upcoming first iteration of the Gordon Bennett trophy (which will be featured in the next post).

 

/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com

Sources:

Gerald Rose, A Record of Motor Racing 1894 – 1908 (1949)

The Motor-Car Journal, April 20th, 1900 (Accessed via Google).

 

A Death at Speed Week, 1900

The Speed Week events in the south of France, around Monaco, were not the first races of the season.  The new 24 horsepower (some reports suggest a rating of 30 horsepower) had just been released.  The newly lightened Panhard et Levassors could not match the power of the Mors at 16 horsepower.  The great early racer, René de Knyff had been driving the wheels off his 16 horsepower Panhard, though many other drivers were still competing with the less powerful 12 horsepower Panhards.  New to the racing scene were the Cannstatt Daimler cars were now being called Mercedes.  They were heavy and notoriously difficult to handle, while racing.

Gottlieb Daimler Dies in March 1900.

Gottlieb Daimler (1834—1900)
Gottlieb Daimler (1834—1900) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The so-called speed week along the southern French coast was a yearly affair taking place around late March.  This year, the week started on Sunday, March 25 (1900).  Just a few weeks earlier, on March 6, 1900, Gottlieb Daimler had died.  Gottlieb Daimler’s legacy had already been cemented by his death; however, he was likely unaware of just how pervasive his influence would be on modern life.

It was Gottlieb Daimler who first miniaturized and made mobile the internal combustion engine.  Simply, Gottlieb Daimler was the first to have the insight, vision, and practical engineering knowledge to create an automobile engine.  Certainly, the autonomous mobile vehicle (requiring only a driver but no horses or other propulsion) had been conceived by great thinkers such as Francis Bacon.  Yet, it was many centuries before someone with the correct set of talents was able to make this vision a reality.  Now, the old Daimler may have been a visionary, but–like many visionaries–was stubborn, unbending, and often extremely difficult to work with.  His death, in some ways, allowed Daimler–the company–to have more freedom to develop the automobile.

The first races following the death of Gottlieb Daimler were the Speed Week races in the South of France.

1900 Nice to Marseilles

In years past, the race had been run from Marseilles heading into Nice, near Monaco.  However, for 1900, a roundtrip race from Nice to Marseilles and back was planned.  However, bad weather forced the race to be run in only one direction, with the return trip to Nice untimed.        .

Emil Jellinek
Emil Jellinek (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This was a big week each year for Emil Jellinek to garner interest in his Monacan import of the Cannstatt Daimler’s, including the new Mercedes models.  In fact, 1900 was the first year that the label “Mercedes” shows up in official racing charts and results.

The Jellinek camp, heavily connected to the Daimler factory operation, entered two short-chassis Pheonix’s under the label of Mercedes, according to Robert Dick.  Both cars were rated at 26 horsepower and weighed in at 1,400 kilograms.   Herman Braun drove the relatively longer 217 cm. framed Mercedes.  Wilhelm Bauer, the Cannstatt factory foreman entered to extremely short wheel-based (190 cm.) Mercedes.

The comparatively lighter 16 horsepower Panhards were present in numbers. Names such as Charron, De Knyff, Pinson, and Hourgieres all entered Panhard et Levassor models.

The new, massive-engined Mors was entered by Alfred Velghe.  Alfred Velghe always entered under a moniker, as was fashionable at the time (and confusing for researchers!).  He entered as “Levegh” an anagram of his last name.  Students of motorsport history may recognize this notorious name.  Alfred was the uncle of the driver that caused the disaster at Le Mans in 1955, which arguably remains the worst disaster in all motorsport history.

Prior to the race, DeKnyff’s car was fired up and ready to race.  With old-timey splendor, Gilles Hourgieres rolled up behind De Knyff’s car.  Failing to brake in time, he bumped the back of De Knyff’s Panhard.  This caused De Knyff’s car to drop into gear and take off without a driver.  Fortunately, it drove itself into a nearby barrier and did not do any damage to the new Mercedes.

Braun, in his brand new Mercedes, managed to end up in a ditch a mere 15 kilometers from the starting line.  A privately entered Daimler, entered by Prince Lubecki, broke two wheels when attempting to give Charron room to pass.  These events, perhaps, were a harbinger of what was to come later in the week.  These accidents were compounded by the sheer difficulty in driving the short wheel-based Daimlers.

As the race progressed, Levegh’s 7.5 liter Mors was clearly the fastest car.  However, power and speed are only good so long as they can reliably transmitted into motion.  Levegh lost over 30  minutes dealing with torn up tires.  One might recall that the modern pneumatic tire was but in its infancy in 1900.

Due to the difficulties of Levegh, De Knyff was able to carry the day in his lightweight 16 horsepower Panhard.  He averaged a shocking 43.8 miles per hour.

Death at the La Turbie Hillclimb

For several years, a hillclimb outside of Monaco, leading up to La Turbie followed the touring car race.  For the Cannstatt Mercedes entry, Bauer was driving, while Braun was riding with him.  According to Gerald Rose, Bauer “ran wide at the first corner into the rocks which bordered the road, and was killed.”  This, as far as I can recall, is the first death of a notable driver occurring as a result of racing incident.  As such, it signals the inclusion of a certain darkness that has continued to be a part of motorsport to this day.

Certainly, attitudes toward death in sport have changed dramatically in the last century.  In fact, it is probably fair to say that modern attitudes toward death in general differ significantly from those a century ago.  However, one result of Bauer’s death is certain: it was terrible “PR.”  Specifically, following Bauer’s death, Cannstatt-Daimler’s were often viewed as dangerous, difficult to handle, and unrefined.

A notable automotive journalist from Paris, the epicenter of the turn of the century automotive scene, defended the Cannstatt Daimler’s.  He noted that, “Before the race, Bauer had practised the hill forty time.  He knew it better than anyone else.”  He suggested that his death was the result of spectator placement and a lighter, better handling car would still have likely met the same fate given the speed the field was racing at.

Conclusion

In summary, the 1900 season is witnessing the beginning of the race toward giant displacement engines.  The Daimler’s were over 5 liter engines.  The new Mors, the benchmark of speed for the 1900 season, was up to 7.5 liters.  In coming years, the engines would grow to staggering sizes.  These giants came about from limitations in engine design.  Given an inability to raise engine revolutions, the next obvious way to increase power was to increase engine size and displacement. Ultimately, it would take the advances in technology from the first world war to design smaller, but more efficient engines.

 

Sources

Robert Dick, Mercedes and Auto Racing in the Belle Epoque: 1895 – 1915 (2005).

Gerald Rose, A Record of Motor Racing: 1894 – 1908 (1949).