Hans Stuck had friends in high places. Born into a wealthy baronial family, he had been dominant in hillclimbs throughout the late 1920s and was married to Paula von Reznisek, Germany’s number one tennis player
. In the mid-1920s Stuck hosted a shooting party and amongst the guests was a chap called Julius Schreck, who brought along his boss, a young political leader called Adolf Hitler.
By 1933 this proved to be the most useful friend. Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany and could see from Mussolini’s boasts that motor racing excellence was a central plank of national pride. So what better way to christen the Thousand Year Reich than with a Grand Prix winning car? Mercedes evidently thought so too and had already gone to the Nazi HQ in Munich in 1932, with the well connected von Brauchitsch in tow, to pitch the idea of a national racing car. Hitler was already well-disposed to Mercedes as back in the Benz days he was provided with staff cars on favourable terms. Once the Nazis took power, Mercedes was promised funds.
Thing is, so was Stuck. And Stuck was no longer a Mercedes driver. Back in the 1920s, Ferdinand Porsche was putsched out of Benz following the merger with Mercedes. He set up his own design consultancy and, when the maximum weight formula was outlined by the AIACR in 1932, proposed an update of his Tropfenwagen design to Wanderer. Wanderer had then fallen into financial difficulties, and through the offices of the government of Saxony had been merged with similarly-troubled Audi, Horch and DKW to form Auto Union. Four interlocking rings became the symbolic logo; and as part of its plans for racing Stuck had been poached as driver.
The Germans had themselves two teams.
Whereas Europe was becoming quite excited by the new formula, the United States was reverting in the opposite direction. Not content with the use of stock chassis in the Junk Formula, Indianapolis went a stage further. A strict fuel limit was imposed on the cars. The qualifying runs had been increased the previous years from 4 laps to 10, which meant a successful run could take nearly a quarter of an hour. And they had to be completed on a meagre three gallons of fuel. The race itself had to be completed with 45 gallons; over 11 miles per gallon. And even this was reduced for 1935 by two and a half gallons.
The race therefore rewarded consistency as well as outright speed. One would have thought a man nicknamed “Wild Bill” would therefore not be an automatic choice to win the race; nevertheless, Cummings of that epithet was indeed the 1934 winner. Truth be told, he was not a wild driver, but he partied hard. His car sponsor was Boyle Products; an anodyne-looking name, but one which those in the know knew referred to Mike Boyle. Boyle was the head of an electrical union, which in itself is not outstanding, until one realizes that this was in Chicago, he was an intimate of Al Capone, and he was nicknamed “Umbrella Mike” for his habit of leaving an open umbrella in his favourite haunts and waiting for it to be filled with backhanders before closing it and leaving. His ability to call wildcat strikes enabled him to accumulate sufficient funds to go into motor racing
There was however a slight road-racing renaissance. Elgin returned to the fray with some non-championship races, and 1934 had opened with a stock car race over a Long Beach course, won by Indy regular Stubby Stubblefield (they had evidently run out of nickname inspiration). Following a couple of years of this, the Daytona city fathers, fed up that the Land Speed Record contenders had deserted the beach for Nevada deserts, took inspiration and in 1936 arranged a race up the beach and down the road for stock cars to start a new speed tradition. Just before Christmas 1934 the Los Angeles Municipal Airport laid out a 1.5 mile track for a championship race. Local boy Calvino Michele “Kelly” Petillo won by a lap when fog ended the race, which should have put him in good stead for a tilt at the 500 in 1935. However it all went wrong.
Petillo had always raced on a hand-to-mouth basis, often reneging on promises of payment, but with a formidable record on the Californian dirt tracks with skills honed by driving the family’s delivery truck on the roads from the groves of Fresno to the store in LA. He built his own chassis for the 500 using various offcuts and paid Curly Wetteroth to clothe it in steelwork. Petillo hocked everything to make the Speedway - including his family’s grocery store - and took an engine from Fred Offenhauser on tick. His first qualifying run was disallowed for using too much fuel. His second ended with a blown engine, again repaired on credit. His third saw him do a Lockhart and drive conservatively to be sure. And then it got even worse. He won the race.
Under normal circumstances this would be a blessing. He won two more races on the championship trail, including the fearsome dirt near-circle at Langhorne in Pennsylvania (the “Big Left Turn”, where drivers would lap in one continuous slide until victory or crash), to become national champion with some ease. But Petillo was a wild one. Already unpopular off track for his egotism and violence, he let his Indy win go to his head, drinking, fighting, fighting and fighting. He sunk into alcohol dependency and never came close to winning a race again. In 1945 he was arrested for shooting at two American marines in a bar and tried to bribe his way out that one. In 1949 he was sentenced to ten years in prison for slashing a woman with a knife. On his release he forlornly filed entries at Indianapolis and, rejected, still turned up seeking a ride. He never saw his seventies.
The Indianapolis races of 1934 and 1935 at least started to live up to the expectations of Eddie Rickenbacker. In 1934 four wheel drive was used on some cars, Frank Brisko leading in the early stages of the former race; a direct application of new technology for the benefit of the common or garden stock car. And in 1935 Ford was tempted to return to the sport. It entered ten cars for the 500, with Miller-designed chassis and Ford V8 engines, and Pete de Paolo as team manager. It should have been genius; instead it was farce. De Paolo noticed a flaw in the design that had steering lubrication pass too close to the engine. Nobody paid attention and even in the 10 lap qualifying runs the Miller-Fords were in trouble in trying to get around the Speedway. Only four qualified and only one made it past half distance; that of rookie Ted Horn, who, given the chance of a lifetime, was not going to relinquish it. Henry Ford turned his back on racing for the next thirty years. The cars were meant to be destroyed, but were not. Private entrants used them with some success even after World War II, but not with Ford engines...
Whereas Ford was saying goodbye, Fred Offenhauser was just about saying hello. Harry Miller’s bankruptcy in 1933 should have left long-time employee Offenhauser out of a job, but Offenhauser had obtained blueprints and machinery from the bankruptcy for $500. Offenhauser developed the Miller designs further and churned out examples for midgets, originally at the express instruction of Gilmore Speedway, which was surrounded by Hollywood glitz and suburbia and needed something less polluting than outboard motors. 1935 was the first time he had developed an engine for championship car racing, and the two examples that raced at Indy came first and second...Indianapolis would see Offenhauser engines racing for the next 45 years.
An Offenhauser did not win in 1936, although an Offenhauser-treated Miller did. It was not the greatest Indy 500 ever but it did usher in three traditions and a key change. The fuel consumption formula had been made even more stringent. Cars were now expected to finish the 500 miles with 37.5 gallons maximum, over 13 mpg. Half-a-dozen ran out of fuel before the end, others slowed to a crawl to ensure a finish. Louie Meyer, two-time winner, used his head. Every time he got near a car, he ducked into its slipstream. He said afterwards he never used more than two-thirds throttle and won with some ease. The first three-time Indy winner. In Victory Lane he was presented with the new prize; the Borg-Warner trophy, a giant art-deco lump of silver with the faces of all Indianapolis winners carved into it. He was also given a glass of buttermilk, his favourite drink, to assuage his thirst. The milk industry capitalized; from then onwards a glass of milk would be available in Victory Lane for the winner to take a slug. Meyer also received the keys to the pace car; a new prize for the winner.
The key change? The Brickyard was becoming more of a Tarmacyard. Over twenty years of brick-pounding had seen the track gradually become more and more torn up. Therefore tarmac was used to patch some of the more egregious spots. By 1941 the whole circuit, other than the front stretch, would be tarmac; by 1961 even this had gone, save for a symbolic strip of bricks at the start-finish line, giving drivers tactile feedback that they had another lap in the books.
At the end of 1936 the worlds of Indianapolis and Grand Prix racing would move a little closer together. But before we deal with that we need to see what had been happening in Europe.
At the start of 1934, Germany was calling. Alfred Neubauer, former Austro-Daimler driver, had been in charge of the Mercedes racing operation since the 1920s; he almost joined the fledgling Auto Union operation until he had been told that Mercedes was also returning to Grand Prix racing. He was therefore on the prowl for drivers. Germany was not particularly well-off in this department. Von Brauchitsch had shown promise but his best result came on a circuit where bravery perhaps mattered more than skill. Caracciola was still recuperating and the experienced Otto Merz had been killed the previous year at the Avus. Needing a more experienced head for his team Neubauer asked Nuvolari to come on board. The Flying Mantuan declined; he had already agreed to join Bugatti. Neubauer then approached Luigi Fagioli to test the new Mercedes prototype at Monza. Fagioli readily agreed and was so impressed he signed up straight away.
Perhaps he was concerned about what was happening at Alfa. The Corse had finally pulled the plug on its racing operation and handed it over to Scuderia Ferrari in toto. Two French-Algerian drivers, Lehoux and his protégé Guy Moll, had already ordered Tipo Bs, and Alfa provided these, on the strict instruction that they be entered by the Scuderia. Nuvolari was in a weird sort of limbo. He was not in the Bugatti works squad, but entered in a loaned T59 with works support. If he did not fancy entering that, he could use his Maserati.
The new formula had evidently excited organizers. The Spanish Grand Prix was back, with a new Swiss Grand Prix over a loop at the Bremgarten, plus old favourites like the Coppa Acerbo becoming top-ranked events, as well as a whole heap of races of national importance, like the Circuit of Biella, Algerian Grand Prix and Piemont Cup.
Monaco may have led him to consider that he had made a mistake in signing with Bugatti. He could only finish fifth, never having threatened the leaders. Instead he spent the first part of the race being bothered by Taruffi in a Maserati and having to see Etancelin sprint off in another Maserati in second place, chasing Ferrari’s Chiron. The Monegasque should have won his home race, but under no pressure, with but two laps remaining, he lost it at the Station hairpin. By the time he had extricated himself from the ensuing mess the unheralded Guy Moll had gone past to take his first Grande Epreuve. A major surprise from the 24 year old.
Perhaps Nuvolari needed a third option? At the Mille Miglia he was free to drive a sportscar, the two-seater required not accommodating the Bugatti or Maserati. He teamed up with Siena, a decent if workmanlike driver in his own right who had left the Alfa works, in the latter’s private Alfa, where he would face the Ferrari entries for Varzi and Chiron, as well as the Ferrari “B team” of Pietro Ghersi, Mario Tadini and Anna Maria Peduzzi, the latter teamed with her husband Gianfranco Comotti who would prove to be a decent driver himself. The single-seater Grand Prix route had had a deleterious effect on the Mille Miglia entry, as no longer could one wheel up in a racing car used for circuits, you needed something separately built. So there was almost no foreign element; just a trio of MGs for Earl Howe, Brooklands exponent Eddie Hall (whose riding mechanic was Mrs H), and Anglophile Giovanni “Johnny” Lurani with Welshman Clifton Penn-Hughes, who had had some backmarker Grand Prix experience and had raced over the 1,000 miles before
. The MGs were not going for overall victory, but to retain their class win, which they could not quite do, as Taruffi was entered in a more racey Maserati and he came fourth overall. Peduzzi/Comotti won the 1,500cc class, albeit well back from Taruffi’s 1,100cc motor; Taruffi’s name was certainly put on the map.
As was becoming customary, the race was a duel between Varzi and Nuvolari. Eventually. Pirelli had come up with a new tread-cut which was more grippy in the wet. These were available to Ferrari. Not to Siena. Hence Nuvolari was down in seventh over the damp first part of the race, with Tadini in an unexpected lead. Tadini retained his lead to Rome but Nuvolari had taken advantage of the easing conditions to rise to third, Varzi dicing with Nuvolari on the way to Rome but having started a few minutes behind. Tadini had to drop back with gearbox troubles and Nuvolari finally grabbed the lead at Bologna when Varzi had to stop for a tyre change. But after Bologna the race was decided. Insistent rain meant that Varzi arrived at Venice before Nuvolari and the race was his. The pace of Varzi and Nuvolari was such that Chiron was over an hour behind in third place. Both men were happy at the end. Varzi for the win, Nuvolari for honour being satisfied. He should not even have been close in the conditions. But perhaps there was something in this Scuderia Ferrari after all.
Nuvolari’s whistle-stop tour of manufacturers continued at Alessandria, where he tried out his Maserati. It was not a positive experience, beaten by Chiron and Tadini in his heat, crashing out in a final after being confronted by a blocked track. The broken leg he suffered forced him to miss the Tripoli Grand Prix as a result. Varzi and Chiron duelled for the win, until Moll came out of nowhere and joined the fun. Chiron dropped back and Varzi just held off the North African - incandescent after alleging Varzi had cut him off at the final corner - by half a length. The race had an intercontinental flavour, as Marshal Balbo, governor of Libya, had invited a couple of Americans over, but seventh from Lou Moore’s Duesenberg was the best they could manage.
Pete de Paolo in a four wheel drive Miller stayed on, as the next race was at the Avus and he was not engaged for the Indy 500. The race was dreadfully wet which might have given de Paolo an advantage in traction had the circuit not placed that at a minimum. However this was the race at which the German cars were to make their debut, in front of the loyal supporters of the Fatherland. Mercedes could not start, due to problems in practice, but Auto Union did with Stuck, Momberger (such was the paucity of driving talent that he was plucked from retirement) and zu Leiningen.
And what an impression they made! For a start they were not in the German white, but left bare silver. A legend has since grown that the white paint took the cars over the weight limit and was scraped off, but this is a bit more ex post facto justification as the cars were never painted white in the first place; the trend had been started by von Brauchitsch’s blimp in previous years which was also unpainted. But the unconventional colour was the least of the differences. The engine was at the back. Porsche had carried over the idea from his last Grand Prix design and the Auto Unions instantly looked different from anything that had gone before.
Stuck was one minute ahead at the end of the first lap. After ten laps in the lead he stopped for new tyres, but his clutch was slipping and he failed to make the finish. Momberger was third. The amazing Moll was the winner, ahead of Varzi. The Auto Union had shown promise. Could it repeat that on a proper circuit?
Only a week to find out. Then the teams repaired to the Nürburgring, for the Eifelrennen. Nuvolari, still recovering from his broken leg, was there, the pedals of his Maserati shoved closer together for ease of driving. Ferrari was there, albeit only with Chiron and Tadini. The rest of the field was fairly non-descript, with amateurs like Penn-Hughes and the striptease artiste Hélène Delangle under her pseudonym “Hellé-Nice” adding to their experience, plus some young Germans like Paul Pietsch and Ulrich Maag evidently hoping to impress the big teams (tragically for Emil Frankl who was killed on the first lap).
Oh, and Mercedes and Auto Union of course. Mercedes were definitely ready this time and they too had silver cars. More conventional, front-engined, but more shapely than the Alfas, edges all smoothed over and flowing, and engines supercharged. Caracciola had been signed up by Neubauer
but was still not fit; Fagioli and von Brauchitsch however were raring to go.
And raring they were. By the end of the first lap Fagioli led from von Brauchitsch and Stuck. Chiron was already being left behind and Nuvolari had to pull out of the race in pain. Fagioli was ordered to let his German team-mate through, which he did, albeit reluctantly, and had some fun catching up and repassing, before pit-stops slowed him down. In the end he retired on the last lap, apparently due to misfiring, but it could have been out of sheer spite at having to give way. Whichever way it worked out, von Brauchitsch won by a minute from Stuck, and Chiron was five minutes back in third. A phenomenal debut from Mercedes.
However, Varzi and Moll were not there; Ferrari, with an eye to maximizing starting money, had entered them at the first (and last) Montreux Grand Prix, held on the same day, together with Count Carlo Felice Trossi as a back-up entry. Good thing he did. Both Varzi and Moll suffered axle troubles which allowed Trossi to claim an unexpected win ahead of Etancelin.
So the big showdown was yet to take place. It would do so on 1 July at Montlhéry; the change of Grand Prix formula had taken everyone’s eyes off Le Mans, as the 24 hour race became pretty much a privateer and small manufacturer benefit (won by Etancelin/Chinetti in their Alfa, from a couple of Rileys and an MG), to the extent that the Penya Rhin Grand Prix in Barcelona was held on the same day. Ferrari entered this one as a tune-up for the French Grand Prix and was rewarded with a Varzi-Chiron 1-2.
Montlhéry would be a different matter. Ferrari was helped by zu Leiningen falling ill in practice; scratch one Auto Union. During the race Momberger’s went sour; scratch two. By quarter-distance just Chiron was left challenging the German cars. Bugatti (with Benoist coaxed out of retirement to join Nuvolari and Dreyfus) and Maserati were well out of it.
Then it went wrong for the Germans. Von Brauchitsch’s supercharger blew. Out. Fagioli ran out of brakes. Out. Caracciola’s gearbox broke. Out. Stuck overheated. Out.
And then there were none.
Chiron, Varzi and Moll (taking over from Trossi) cruised in splendid isolation to a 1-2-3. Benoist was fourth, 10% of the distance behind. That was it. Italy 1, Germany 0.
It was the last time Italy would have the lead.
Auto Union pulled its entry out of the Marne Grand Prix which followed a week later to concentrate on its home race the week after that. Ferrari had an unchallenged 1-2-3 again.
Things would be different for the second Nürburgring race. At least Mercedes and Auto Union knew they had the basic speed; it was the snagging list that needed attention. Plus their drivers. Zu Leiningen was (diplomatically?) unwell and replaced by Ernst Burggaller who had shown some promise in voiturettes. Von Brauchitsch crashed himself out of contention in practice, so he was replaced by motorbike great Ernst Henne, who in turn fell ill and was replaced by Hanns Geier, who had raced Bugattis some years before but had spent the last few years as a Mercedes road car tester. The German talent barrel was really being scraped.
Ferrari had sent the A team for the Tipo B. Varzi, Chiron and Moll. Bugatti, outclassed at home, gave up and entered the Vichy Grand Prix on the same date. It couldn’t even win that, beaten by Ferrari’s B team of Trossi. And American amateur expat Whitney Straight (Maserati). And Etancelin (Maserati). The only Bugatti at the Ring was that of Hungarian Laszlo Hartmann. Maserati was only represented by Zehender and privateers; the ultimate privateer of Nuvolari, plus Englishman Hugh Hamilton in Straight’s other car and Swiss Hans Ruesch. And there were a few auditioning Germans in the old 2300s.
The old order changeth. Hartmann was an outclassed and last seventh. Zehender just ahead of him in sixth. Nuvolari did beat a Mercedes, but it was that of the woefully under-experienced Geier, and he was seventeen minutes behind the winner.
Which was Stuck. Auto Union finally broke its winning duck. The only challenge to the Germans came from Chiron, who ran at the front early on before gearbox problems forced him to remain in top gear. Stuck and Caracciola fought the win out between themselves, Rudolf showing his time out had not diluted his skills, but just after half distance, whilst in the lead, Caratsch was forced out with a moribund engine. Stuck cruised to the finish, a minute ahead of Fagioli, who was certainly beaten fairly and squarely this time. Chiron hung on to third. But from here on in Grand Prix racing was almost exclusively about Mercedes and Auto Union.
One way to win races was to stop them entering. The Belgians found that a tax was the best form of defence as customs officials imposed a hefty surcharge on the Silver Arrows’ jungle juice fuel. The Germans waited until all the publicity had been displayed for the race and then withdrew. As a result the Belgian “Grand” Prix had but seven starters and should have been an Alfa benefit. Only Chiron and Varzi retired when ten minutes ahead of the Bugattis. Dreyfus gleefully snatched a final Grand Prix win for the Molsheim marque. But it was a hollow triumph.
No such tax problems in Mussolini’s Italy and Mercedes and Auto Union entered two cars each for the Coppa Acerbo. This time it was Guy Moll who took the fight to the Germans. Firstly chasing Henne until the latter was delayed, then leading until he needed to stop for fuel, allowing Fagioli to lead. With three laps remaining Moll put the hammer down in an attempt to gain a dramatic victory for Alfa. The gap was thirty seconds and he had just broken the lap record. As he lapped two slower cars he went seriously off-line and hit a damp patch. Moll slid sideways and was on the verge of regaining control his wheels were caught in a ditch. The Alfa overturned and threw the young star into a bridge parapet. Nothing could be done for Moll. Fagioli won in the only healthy German car, but Ferrari had suffered a devastating blow.
Moll had been talent-spotted by Marcel Lehoux when the latter was impressed by Moll’s performance in his first-ever race in 1932. Lehoux promptly entered Moll for the Oran Grand Prix in his Bugatti and saw him lead the first lap. There was clearly a talent there and Lehoux guided Moll through Alfa sportscars to buying a Tipo B at the beginning of 1934. From a standing start Moll became a Grand Prix winner in just two years. He never saw his third.
Another unfulfilled talent was lost at the Swiss Grand Prix. Hugh Hamilton was heading for a remarkable top five finish in Whitney Straight’s Maserati when, on the final lap, he lost control and hit a tree. Some idea of how good he could have been can be gleaned from finishing second in the 1933 Tourist Trophy in Northern Ireland to Nuvolari (whom Straight had entered in an MG Magnette), albeit on handicap. Certainly Hamilton had shown he was a voiturette master, winning that class of both the German Grand Prix and the Eifelrennen in the last couple of years, and had won the Coppa Acerbo Junior in his MG. An autopsy however suggested that Hamilton might have had a heart attack; although he was only 29 he had had a heavy accident in the Czech Voiturette Grand Prix the previous year and that might have been a contributing factor.
The race itself was an Auto Union benefit; Mercedes for some reason was ill-prepared and its cars were slow and unreliable. Some idea of the Auto Union supremacy can be shown by the mediocre Momberger being able to finish second, albeit a lap down on Stuck. Ferrari was left with the consolation of Comotti winning the Comminges Grand Prix, run the same day.
The German domination continued. A shared win for Caracciola and Fagioli in the Italian Grand Prix, held on a tortuous iteration at Monza that drove the competitors in search of relief drivers. Fagioli did not need any help at Spain, beating Caratsch after Stuck retired. And in the Czech race Stuck regained the laurels for Auto Union, beating Fagioli. The heroic Nuvolari finished third on both occasions, firstly for Bugatti, secondly for Maserati.
The Czech Grand Prix featured a number of locals seeking to make a name for themselves. None finished. One, Josef Brádzil, did not even make the start. He entered in a Maserati funded by a friend’s wealthy American fiancée, there was a problem over import duties and Brádzil was imprisoned. He was let out for practice, but was killed in an accident on an easy bit of road. Nothing could be found wrong with the car and there was no sign of braking. Suicide? Or just too powerful a car for an unknown? Maybe it is fortunate none of the other local unknowns made it past lap 8.
If there was one let-down for the Germans, it’s that their drivers were often fairly non-descript. So as the 1934 season was winding down Auto Union invited a bunch of saloon car drivers and motorcyclists to the Nürburgring with a view to signing them up. The rear-engined car had proved a little tricky for the likes of zu Leiningen, more used to heavier front-engined machinery, so the bikers were brought in as they had no pre-conceptions as to how the car should handle. And had not Nuvolari and Varzi started on bikes?
Auto Union held a sort of qualifying session over the shorter southern circuit, and the fastest five ran off over the Nordschleife (the Nürburgring proper with its 170+ corners). Paul Pietsch’s Grand Prix entries stood him in good stead, as he was fastest both times and he was duly signed up. Second fastest over the southern circuit was someone who had never even stepped into a racing car before. Although he was only third quickest over the Nordschleife, he was not far behind the second-placed Hans Simons, who had been racing for years and had even won the 2-litre sportscar category of the Eifelrennen in 1927. Auto Union’s own Neubauer, Willy Walb, decided that the young and frech - impudent, cheeky, bold - Bernd Rosemeyer should be taken on
Rosemeyer! His biography deserves the exclamation mark. Was there ever so serendipitous a choice? Rosemeyer was irrepressible, growing up around machinery as his father owned a garage, and had had an annus mirabilis in motorcycle racing in 1934 for DKW - now part of the Auto Union group and facilitating his invitation. The story is told that he turned up at the driving test wearing his best bib and tucker for the occasion; “well, you told me we needed driving suits, and this is the most expensive one I have.” Now he was part of the squad, Rosemeyer badgered his way into the Auto Union Grand Prix team. Forever hanging around the factory, drinking in everything he was told, constantly writing messages on Willy Walb’s diary asking for a drive, then asserting he WOULD drive. Anything for a quiet life, Walb conceded. Yes, Rosemeyer would drive.
He would have his work cut out though. Nuvolari and Varzi had both tested for Auto Union as well. Varzi pitched for a drive, and suggested that, perhaps, Auto Union might be compromised if Nuvolari was there at the same time. Walb agreed, although having three Italian drivers might have been a bit too much for the Nazis. That would have left Nuvolari stuck with rubbish, had Vittorio Jano not mediated a reconciliation with Enzo Ferrari. Chiron was also persuaded to get Dreyfus over from Bugatti; Chiron himself was losing his edge, as he was losing Baby Hoffman to Rudolf Caracciola. Lehoux, outgunned at Ferrari, had joined a new French outfit called S.E.F.A.C. that was going to be the French Mercedes, while Mercedes was happy with what it had. Bugatti lost Costatini to retirement but he did recruit Taruffi for the team before leaving. Ettore Bugatti did leak rumours that he was preparing a new Grand Prix car to be ready for the French Grand Prix. Les bleus hoped.
Nuvolari’s return to Ferrari started with a triumph as he won the Pau Grand Prix, held over the tight, twisting streets of the south-western town, ahead of new team-mate Dreyfus. However, this was mere pot-hunting, as there were no other works entries. Ferrari also won the Mille Miglia, thanks to Carlo Pintacuda, but the success of the single-seat Grand Prix formula had turned this into a domestic Italian sportscar event. Symbolic of its decline, Pintacuda got the drive because Ferrari had converted a Tipo B into a sportscar for the event and the diminutive driver was one of the few able to fit the seat. Of the superstar drivers only Varzi was present and he retired.
The real competition came at Monaco. Auto Union declined to enter, fearing problems in hefting such a long car around the hairpins, but Mercedes dominated for the Third Reich. Fagioli led all the way, Caracciola retired from second, so Ferrari at least had the consolation of second and third through Dreyfus and Brivio. Auto Union made up for this absence by entering Varzi for the Tunisian Grand Prix. On his debut for the marque, Varzi qualified on pole, over three seconds clear of Nuvolari in a 270 second lap, and won as he pleased, only Wimille’s Bugatti on the same lap come the end.
Ferrari had hoped to fight back on Italian soil at Tripoli. The bait Jano used to lure Nuvolari back to Ferrari was the fearsome Bimotore - an Alfa Romeo with engines at both ends. It was fast. But not fast enough. And, being grotesquely overweight, devoured tyres. By lap seven he had already stopped for tyres. Twice. The Mellaha circuit was already fairly heavy on rubber, and Caracciola lured Varzi into a tyre-melting battle before easing off. It worked; the Mercedes beat the Auto Union by a minute after Varzi punctured. Nuvolari was fourth, behind Fagioli. Team-mate Chiron, in a larger Bimotore, was fifth, but he had learned something. At the Avus race which followed Nuvolari could not even qualify for the final. Chiron, driving far more circumspectly, came second, behind Fagioli who also drove with his head rather than his right foot. Both avoided tyre stops, unlike third-placed Varzi. The average speed? 148mph.
Le Mans was scheduled for 16 June. The serious players however were all at the Eifelrennen at the Nürburgring. Sportscar racing had declined dramatically under the new Grand Prix formula to such an extent that the German organizers could arrange such a clash without any fear that the stars would prefer La Sarthe to the Ring. Von Brauchitsch led for Mercedes to three-quarter distance but suffered an engine failure; a common feature of the patrician’s driving career, to the extent that he became nicknamed Pechvogel, the jynx. This let Caracciola into the lead, followed by...Rosemeyer! Walb had let the youngster drive at Avus, but he had only lasted three laps and the two-cornered course was hardly a driving challenge. The Nürburging was a different kettle of fish. And Rosemeyer passed Caracciola to lead with 30 miles to go.
Caratsch was not stupid. He could hear Rosemeyer’s engine was not quite in perfect condition and bided his time. On the very final lap, on the one straight worthy of its name, Caracciola blasted past as Rosemeyer could not reach top speed. Caracciola won by two seconds. It was a German triumph, only Chiron in third interrupting the otherwise all-German top six. Pietsch, given his chance in the Auto Union, was sixth, over six minutes behind his fellow cadet. Rosemeyer’s first-ever Grand Prix, and second-ever motor race, had seem him come so, so close to beating the best in the world...
Amidst all this, Bugatti was notably absent. Preparing its new car, doubtless, and also for Le Mans. Like the Mille Miglia, this too had become somewhat parochial, although in many ways it had turned into a British race rather than a French one as the Brooklands regulars stretched their legs. The entry was peppered with MGs, Aston Martins, Singers and Rileys, plus many British private entrants of continental not-so-exotica. George Eyston had even entered three MG Midgets with all female crews, and they duly all finished, albeit between 24th and 26th. The winners were the British test-pilot pairing of John Hindmarsh and Luis Fontes in a Lagonda
, perhaps the most obscure of all Le Mans winning duos, although Fontes might have been more of a name had his career not come to a jarring halt when he was imprisoned for manslaughter later in the year following a fatal drink-induced road accident. Such was the sensitivity of the motor racing media it took something like 70 years for that titbit to be reported.
Sportscar racing would however receive a boost following the French Grand Prix. An expectant French crowd waited to see the fruits of its motor industry. The Bugatti turned up - and proved to be one of the obsolete T59s. No new car. The S.E.F.A.C. turned up - and vanished again. A gross blob of a thing, it was hopelessly over the 750kg weight limit and did not even approach scrutineering.
Nuvolari was mighty at Montlhéry and led to a third of the distance. Then he retired. Transmission failure. Auto Union had a nightmare, every car afflicted by mechanical bother. The final two-thirds of the race saw Mercedes cruising with its three entries, at least until Fagioli’s supercharger broke and he dropped to fourth, behind Zehender’s Maserati. Caracciola led von Brauchitsch in a formation finish. It was annihilation and the French could stand it no more. The French challenge had its bonnet fly off after four laps and it ran stone last until retirement. Poor Benoist deserved much better. The ACF therefore decided that the next French Grand Prix would be for sportscars.
The year carried settled in a familiar pattern. Ferrari pot-hunting at the lesser Grands Prix where the Silver Arrows did not appear; Brivio winning the Targa Florio, Nuvolari at Bergamo and Turin, Dreyfus at Reims and Dieppe, Chiron at Nancy. Meanwhile at the bigger races the Germans won. Caracciola in the Belgian, Swiss and Spanish Grands Prix, Varzi at the Coppa Acerbo, Stuck in the Monza Grand Prix, Fagioli the Penya Rhin Grand Prix, Rosemeyer the Czech Grand Prix
Obviously the one that both Mercedes and Auto Union wanted to win over any other was the German Grand Prix, now the biggest race of the year. 22 laps over a drizzly Nordschleife, 20 starters, the largest for a Grande Epreuve, with four Auto Unions, five Mercedes (cadets Geier and Hermann Lang added to the squad), three Ferrari Alfas, three quasi-works Maseratis under the Scuderia Subalpina name
, Taruffi’s Bugatti, private Maseratis for Hartmann, Ruesch and Ghersi, a private and outgunned sports Alfa for Renato Balestrero, and a couple of British voiturettes with slightly larger engines; the English Racing Automobiles (ERA) for Raymond Mays and Ernst von Delius. These latter had been funded by trustafarian and part-time racer Humphrey Cook, who had been impressed by Mays’ doings on the British hillclimb scene and suggested the new, 1,500cc voiturette formula would be a great way to get Britain back in mainstream motor racing. It had been a success. 1934 was a toe-in-water year but in 1935 Mays won the Eifelrennen’s voiturette race with three other ERAs in third to fifth (the last driven by Cook himself), and the week before the Grand Prix ERA had a 1-2 in the Dieppe Grand Prix for voiturettes, South African Pat Fairfield beating Siamese prince “B Bira”
to the flag.
The ERAs were not expected to be competitive, their entry a reward for the Eifelrennen performance, and von Delius did not even make the start, using practice to prove that trees were stronger than ERAs; the politically astute Mays shared his car with the German although they retired. By lap 6 all was going to plan for the Germans. Chiron, Taruffi and Brivio were all out, the top four were all German cars, Nuvolari was floundering in fifth place, over a minute behind, and the question was who could stop Caracciola. It wasn’t a who, it was a what. Caracciola almost blacked out during the race. The next day he went into hospital and had a tapeworm removed. He slowed up and the others caught up. Rosemeyer was closest but he clonked a bank and deranged his rear axle. He had to stop for a wheel change. Fagioli could not close the gap. Von Brauchitsch could and he moved into second. Then by lap 9 Nuvolari - Nuvolari! - had passed von Brauchitsch and was mere seconds behind Caratsch. At the Karussell near the end of the lap Nuvolari was on the Mercedes’ tail. As they finished the lap Nuvolari was nine seconds ahead. Rosemeyer was back up to second. Come lap 11 - half-distance - the four leaders stopped together. Von Brauchitsch’s stop took less than a minute. Caracciola’s and Rosemeyer’s a little over. Nuvolari’s? Two minutes fourteen. The Mantuan was berserk. The fuel pump broke and it had to be poured in from churns. By the time he was back into the race, it was all over.
Had it not been Nuvolari, of course. Two laps later he was back in second. Over a minute behind von Brauchitsch. The German was in fact pouring it on. By lap 15 he was 90 seconds ahead. Then Nuvolari started to reel him in. Originally little by little, but on lap 18 Nuvolari had caught 26 seconds. Von Brauchitsch sped up. But Neubauer paced the Mercedes pits concernedly. Von Brauchitsch had not changed tyres at his pit-stop and it might yet be marginal. Lap 20. Two to go. Nuvolari had pulled it back to 30 seconds. Von Brauchitsch now could not stop. It would give Nuvolari the race. Lap 21. One to go. Just over 30 seconds still. Flugplatz. Eleven miles to go. Thirty seconds dead. Adenau. Ten miles to go. 27 seconds. Karussell. Seven miles to go. It’s visual. Nuvolari can almost smell the Mercedes’ exhausts. The Karussell was a banked corned. Extra pressure. Von Brauchitsch’s tyre could not take it. It blew. Nuvolari see-sawed past the rocking Mercedes. A pity, he thought. I could have overtaken him properly.
For the record, the German cars finished second to ninth, Ruesch’s Maserati in tenth being the next best. Von Brauchitsch limped home a shattered fifth with both rear tyres gone. Under normal circumstances it would have been humiliation for the rest of the world. But these were not usual circumstances. The 43 year old Nuvolari had driven the race of an immortal. We can’t play the national anthem, said the organizers, we did not think anyone but a German could win. No matter, said Nuvolari. Giorgio, fetch my shellac. Nuvolari’s son duly brought out a recording of the Italian anthem that he always carried with him. For luck, you see. The Nazi sports majordomo, Korpsführer Hühnlein, had to improvise a speech. And compose an awkward telegram to sein Führer.
Alfa Romeo tried to hang on with a new car, the Tipo C, but Auto Union had not stood still and brought out a new model of its own, with a six litre engine, and Mercedes increased its engine to just off five litres (plus supercharging). Scuderia Ferrari, faced with Mussolini’s global isolation following the invasion of Abyssinia, was forced to use Italian drivers. Chiron went off to Mercedes and the doctor of law Giuseppe “Nino” Farina was brought in (and immediately repaid the faith by following Brivio home by less than a minute on the Mille Miglia). But the ACF’s decision to abandon the Grand Prix formula was disastrous for Ferrari; his lucrative sideline in cleaning up minor French races was gone, as the local bodies all followed suit. Worse, the Scuderia was barred from entering in France, so Enzo could not dig out the 2300s and have a go...
Monaco’s status as an independent principality proved useful as Ferrari could still enter the Grand Prix. The Scuderia had an impact on the race. Tadini’s engine broke on the first lap and he trailed around, leaving an oil-slick in his wake, that intensified at a chicane where he ground almost to a halt. Caracciola and Nuvolari had already passed him when this happened, but Chiron was the first caught out and he spun. Followed, it seemed, by almost everyone else. On top of this it was persisting down. Perfect conditions for the Regenmeister. Caracciola was a master in low grip and beat Varzi by two minutes. Nobody else was on the same lap.
The Tripoli Grand Prix, however, proved to be fateful. Nuvolari breaking ribs in practice was bad enough, the uber-tough Nivola still finishing 8th in the race, but Varzi’s win from Stuck killed his career.
Stuck’s car, according to Auto Union records, was perfect throughout the race. Varzi battled with missing gears. Yet Varzi was able to put in some terrific late laps and won by a few seconds. Accounts of what happened after the race vary in their lurid details, but it is clear that pressure was put on Auto Union to ensure an Italian won on Italian soil. The head of Hitler’s Chancellery
was a “guest” in the pits that weekend and it is perhaps notable that Fagioli beat Caracciola into third place as well. Varzi was apparently ignorant of this and only knew something was up when the seating-plan for the post-race banquet had Stuck in the position of honour. His pride shattered, Varzi spent the night with another driver’s wife, who introduced him to morphine. Morphine is highly addictive. Varzi was already addicted to nicotine. He was finished.
The race was an indicator of the remainder of the year in another way. Auto Union had finished first and second. At Tunisia all the Auto Unions retired (Varzi after a crash; the first of his career, perhaps the morphine was already taking a hold), and Caracciola won, but otherwise the year was Auto Union’s. More specifically, Rosemeyer’s. Caracciola had been called the Rainmaster, but Rosemeyer became called the Fogmaster after a mist descended over the Eifel Mountains during the Eifelrennen and he barely slowed. Rosemeyer went on to win the German Grand Prix by four minutes, the Coppa Acerbo by seven, the Swiss Grand Prix by a minute and the Italian Grand Prix by two.
His main competition did not come from Mercedes. Its revamp of its model had failed spectacularly. The car did not handle as well and was less reliable. The best Mercedes in the German Grand Prix was in fifth, a lap down, behind even Brivio, and fourth at the Swiss, again a lap back. It got so bad Mercedes did not even bother with the Italian Grand Prix.
No, Rosemeyer’s duel was with Nuvolari. Even in his forties he was a match for a man young enough (just) to be his son. At the Penya Rhin Grand Prix in Montjuic Park, Nuvolari held off a late charge from Caracciola to win by a matter of seconds, with the Auto Unions mechanically subdued. He won the first Hungarian Grand Prix in a tight Budapest park from Rosemeyer by a handful of seconds. He beat Varzi at Milan by ten seconds. He took over Pintacuda’s car to win the Coppa Ciano and head up a Ferrari 1-2-3 with a sick Rosemeyer down in fourth. And he was second in both the Italian Grand Prix and the Eifelrennen. Both had dominated their team-mates. You might expect that of Nuvolari, but Rosemeyer was only in his second season of racing. A mercurial start unparallelled in motor sport.
Bugatti’s new Grand Prix car had proved to be a sham. Instead Molsheim retreated to the backwater of French sportscar racing. Even a Le Mans win was denied as the race was cancelled due to strike action. The national strikes affected Ettore Bugatti deeply. He quit his own firm and left it to son Jean. Bugatti did at least dominate the other races; the French Grand Prix, held over 1,000km at Montlhéry, was won by Wimille and Sommer, in what were effectively Grand Prix cars clothed in enveloping bodies. Wimille then beat Benoist at Reims and won the Comminges race. All, however, triumphs of a most parochial nature. The decline of Bugatti was shown by its outings at Monaco and Switzerland. A did-not-start and broken-gearlever-after-three-laps was not the record of a true Grand Prix contender.
Just as France was retreating into its shell, however, the United States was emerging. The promoters of the Long Island decided they needed a little more pizazz and constructed a convoluted road course that they named the Roosevelt Raceway. To attract the cream of Europe a prize of $20,000 was offered to the winner. Enzo Ferrari was not one to miss such an opportunity and he sent off three entries. Humphrey Cook also entered a couple of ERAs, hoping the wiggly course would assist the smaller voiturette types, and band-leader Billy Cotton, who entered and raced at Brooklands, entered for his friend Brian Lewis. Even Bugatti had a punt, for Wimille, and two score American racers fancied their chances. Including a couple of lateral thinkers; Dan Hogan stretched a midget car and entered it for Bob Swanson, and Louis Tomei just entered a midget pure. The course, they reckoned, was far too tight for the championship cars. To add more glamour, a Vanderbilt was found to “sponsor” the race, and the George Vanderbilt Cup - not Willie K - was commissioned from Tiffany’s.
The lucrative nature of the race can be gleaned by Scuderia Ferrari earning around half of its prize money for 1936 in this one race. There was $100 at stake for lap leaders and Nuvolari led 74 out of 75. Only a brief pit-stop to cure a misfire stopped him from gaining a clean sweep. Brivio and Billy Winn in a Miller diced for second until Winn lost gears near the end of the race; scant reward for a brave, brave drive. Brivio required two late pit-stops that dropped him behind the amazing Wimille, eight minutes behind Nuvolari but securing Bugatti’s only meaningful result of the year. Swanson and Tomei were proved right, as both of them ran in the top five before problems set them back, whereas Wild Bill Cummings in seventh proved the top “regular” championship finisher, behind three Alfas, a Bugatti, an ERA and a Maserati. The race itself was allowed to continue until sixteen cars had completed the full 300 mile distance, mostly taking five hours to do so; even Nuvolari only managed to average 66mph. For the next year the organizers cut out some of the corners, oxbow-lake fashion, to make it quicker than the sceptical spectators’ saloons.
Neither Auto Union nor Mercedes thought it worthwhile to travel to the United States. They were preparing for the 1937 Grand Prix season. There was the question of driver choice; Mercedes was not happy with Chiron and the younger Germans from a performance perspective; indeed Chiron and Geier had nearly wiped themselves out with tremendous accidents. Neubauer arranged trials at the Nürburgring, which ended tragically. A bunch of German hotshoes went far too quickly in their practice Mercedes sports cars and Neubauer was left with sorting out wrecks and, the case of Hermann Schmitz, a fatality. Only two drivers stood out, and ironically neither was German; Christian Kautz from Switzerland and Richard Seaman
Seaman was an obvious choice. Not just to curry favour with Britain. Seaman had dominated the voiturette season in 1936 - with a ten year old car. Seaman was blessed with wealth as well as talent; he had bought his way into racing in the early thirties and was one of the first to have an ERA. Nevertheless he felt the ERA treatment of his model lacked that of the works equipe and on the advice of Giulio Ramponi bought a Delage, built for the 1.5 litre Grand Prix formula. With Ramponi acting as wrenchman the combination was almost unbeatable. Invited to test the Mercedes, Seaman showed his talent transferred to the higher speed. Not only was he brought onto the driver squad, he was immediately given a works drive.
The German firms were also working on something a bit more impressive - speed records. Naturally for German national pride it was an affront that the Land Speed Record was held by a Briton setting a time in America (at the close of 1936 it was held by Malcolm Campbell at just over 300mph) so for the glory of the Reich a record needed to be set on an arrow-straight autobahn. Hans Stuck had long been campaigning for a Land Speed Record car; Rosemeyer had destroyed him in 1936 and his political position was slightly wobbly, plus he always seemed to go better on the shorter, more intense “hill”climbs (on the continent these were not the typical British mile-long blasts, but grandiose ribbons of loose track hugging the side of an Alp, the Grossglockner that Stuck won in 1938 being the most egregious example; eight miles climbing from under 4,000ft to nearly 8,000ft - Stuck was a three-time European champion), and perhaps as he approached his forties he considered his time in Grand Prix racing was coming to a close. Plus a record of that nature would be a boon in those anti-Semitic times...
In order to prepare for an outright record both Mercedes and Auto Union exchanged different speed records for cars of their displacement, over different distances, on a specially designated section of autobahn. This precluded them from flying the swastika Stateside. Plus Mercedes were working hard on recovering from the disastrous 1936. The 750kg formula had been due to end for 1937, but it had been extended for a year, and the proposed engine-limited replacement (4 litre unsupercharged, 3 litre supercharged, weighing at least 850kg) was to start in 1938 instead, and Mercedes had already a new car for that on the drawing board. The Untertürkheim firm simply accelerated its development and hoped that the longer, sleeker body would remedy some of the faults of the niggly 1936 iteration.
It worked. Mercedes was right back on form. At the Tripoli Grand Prix, which opened the 1937 season, Hermann Lang won. Lang was the token working class element in the Mercedes team. He worked as an engine fitter and test-driver and won through Mercedes’ talent show to become chief reserve driver in 1936. Caracciola and especially von Brauchitsch started out as contemptuous of their plebeian colleague, “Browk” on one celebratory occasion famously ordering “champagne for all, but a beer for Lang”, but Lang had the sympathy of the mechanics and could get the engines with just a little more horsepower. Lang was also the Nazi poster-boy for achievement. Shop floor to superstar? Why, where else can that be possible! When Chiron was dumped for 1937 Lang became a permanent member of the race team. And his mechanical sympathy came in useful at Tripoli, as he made one less pit-stop than Rosemeyer on the tyre-hungry circuit to win. The next big race at the Avus was even more spectacular as it was not run to Grand Prix rules. Enveloping bodywork was the order of the day and naturally one was reserved for Lang. The 8-lap final went Lang’s way, at a breathless average of over 162mph...two seconds clear of diminutive Ernst von Delius, handicapped by having an un-enclosed Auto Union. Little Ernst’s proudest moment?
Auto Union bounced back at the Eifelrennen, with Rosemeyer beating Caracciola by almost a minute. And then there was the second George Vanderbilt Cup. This time the Germans did decide to enter, even though it clashed with the Belgian Grand Prix, meaning entries had to be split. Hitler realized it would be a good way to demonstrate German expertise to the Americans, and the German teams desperately sold acres of goodwill to prevent any political protests. Rosemeyer and von Delius, great friends off the track, went for Auto Union, with Mercedes sending Caracciola and Seaman and Ferrari Nuvolari and Farina. This time the Americans were forewarned. A number of them had arranged to purchase European cars for this most European event, Rex Mays (no relation to Raymond) having an Alfa Romeo Tipo C that Bill White had bought from the factory following the 1936 race, and millionaire Joel Thorne a B. It was Mays who showed the best of things, embarrassing the Scuderia by qualifying third (behind only Caracciola and Rosemeyer) and matching that in the race itself. Nuvolari burst his engine dicing with Seaman, who in the end finished a fine second, behind Rosemeyer who drove to the tactics he knew best, flat-out between two fuel stops rather than trying to eke out a one-stop strategy like Seaman.
Rosemeyer’s win made him third in the US national championship, as the 1937 American season had but three races. The overall champion was the Indianapolis winner Wilbur Shaw, who was ninth in a falling-apart Maserati at the Vanderbilt.
For Shaw, it was a long-overdue 500 victory. He had been second at the Brickyard twice before and with 20 laps to go - and in a healthy lead - slowed down to preserve a shredding tyre and boiling engine. He judged it finely, finishing less than three seconds clear of Ralph Hepburn. He did however cast a covetous glance over the other European cars at the Vanderbilt cup. Give me one of those modern models, he said, and I could win the 500. Umbrella Mike Boyle was in attendance. He took careful note.
Back in Europe, there had been an unexpected winner of the Belgian Grand Prix. Rudi Hasse was one of the cadet drivers who had been brought into the Auto Union team following the 1935 trials, and unusual for wearing spectacles. Hasse had driven a cautious race, banking on making one fewer pit-stop than his chief rivals, and the strategy paid off. Stuck was second, half-a-minute behind.
Mercedes must have been anxious. Although it was back on the pace, Auto Union had won the three most recent races, with drivers it had discovered to boot. And the next race was the German Grand Prix. All the stops were being pulled out, with each team entering five cars each (the Belgian Grand Prix only had eight starters total). Ferrari was less confident, only entering Nuvolari, Farina and Marinoni, and Maserati did not enter at all, being represented by the hopers, dreamers and deluded. One of its privateers was a 21 year old Austro-Hungarian count by the name of Josef Ernö Graf Festetics von Tolna, who had had some minor placings in even more minor races, and surprisingly ended up as the best of them, albeit only completing 18 of the 22 laps to be classified tenth. Fellow Hungarian Laszlo Hartmann, continuing his lengthy back-marker career, retired late on; Hartmann’s first Grand Prix had been at Monaco in 1933 and he never finished higher than fifth in a national race. One wonders how he felt having to race in front of Hühnlein and the Nazi state apparatus. Like Dreyfus, Hartmann was Jewish.
Rosemeyer as ever was mercurially fast, leading from the start. However his tail-out style, exaggerated by the Auto Union’s rear engine, cost him dear, as he hit a bank and lost three minutes minimum in getting a wrecked wheel changed. It left him in tenth, with Mercedes 1-2-3, Auto Union 4-5 and Mercedes 6, the latter being Richard Seaman who after a bad start decided he needed to show why an Anglo-non-Saxon had been deemed worthy of a drive. Battling with von Delius in fifth place, he soon took the place, but the diminutive German tried to slingshot past on a straight and lost control. Von Delius’ car yawed into Seaman’s and both speared off. Both were thrown out. Seaman was lucky only to receive minor injuries. Ernst von Delius died later that night.
Rosemeyer did not know of his friend’s death and was busy charging around to recover the lost time. He did a very good job of it too, finishing third, only a minute behind Caracciola and 15 seconds behind von Brauchitsch. Nevertheless, it went into the record books as a Mercedes win, and Monaco (moved from the start of the season to August) suited the Mercedes more than the less wieldy Auto Union. Pechvogel shed his unlucky tag for once, out-duelling Caracciola (team orders? What team orders? Neubauer was going spare in the pits desperately trying to slow his charges down) until, with 20 laps to go, he cried uncle and let Caracciola through. Had he seen that Caracciola’s tyres were shot? Because on lap 82 Rudi had to make a pit-stop. Futile to have von Brauchitsch slow down a full minute; he gained his greatest victory. Kautz finished off the Mercedes 1-2-3. It was a rout. But Rosemeyer gained revenge at the Coppa Acerbo, albeit with a little fortune, a tyre puncturing when he was 200 yards from his pit so a nifty stop enabled him to keep close to Caracciola. The latter pulled in with a moribund engine, so Seaman took over, found it bursting into flames, let the flames die down and continued to finish fifth.
Nuvolari however had had enough. Fourth at the Nürburgring, he sacrificed what would have been a soul-sapping task of lugging the bulbous Tipo C around Monaco (leaving Farina to come sixth and Pintacuda ninth and last) to test a new model designed by Jano. The 12C-37 was along Mercedes lines, low and lengthy with the driver sat well back. It was hopeless. Ferrari entered it for the Coppa Acerbo; Nuvolari gave it two laps and pulled into the pits, last-but-one, for Farina to drive, as Farina’s Tipo C had already blown in practice. Farina lasted four more laps before it broke down again.
The Italian Grand Prix was just a month away. Nuvolari gave Alfa Romeo the last ultimatum. He went to drive for Auto Union at the Swiss Grand Prix. It was a perfect storm; Varzi was coming back to earth, von Delius was dead and only Rosemeyer was capable of withstanding the Mercedes onslaught of Caracciola and von Brauchitsch. Nuvolari seemed to spend all the races with the tail out, so why not do so with a tail-happy car? It would take some time to get used to - indeed, struggling at the tail-end of the German cars early on, he was called into the pits to let the brake-problem-afflicted Rosemeyer take over; perhaps a hint of revenge for 1935, but Nuvolari was later put in Fagioli’s car for each party to continue its assessment of the other - but Ferrari was duly warned. Come up with the goods, or I am off.
Nuvolari was not the only one giving the warning. Alfa Romeo was as well. For the Italian Grand Prix the new model Alfa was entered by SA Alfa Romeo itself for journeyman tester and former riding-mechanic Giovanbattista Guidotti. Enzo Ferrari must have shuddered. Even more so when in qualifying Guidotti was only four seconds slower than Nuvolari in the old model - and actually faster than Farina. A vote of no confidence in Ferrari’s stewardship?
However, even Nuvolari was unable to mix it with the Germans in qualifying. Even though the Italian Grand Prix was not at Monza, but at the tight Livorno circuit, specially selected to favour Alfa. For the second successive race, Caracciola was dogged home by Lang, still learning his craft, not willing to incur the wrath of his team leader. At least Rosemeyer finished third for Auto Union this time after Stuck allowed a delayed von Brauchitsch to steal the position on the line at the Bremgarten. The big surprise was Varzi, in sixth. He had been second in qualifying and the three hour race was a bit too much for him; however at least he was back, even if it was not the old, dominant Varzi.
And Nuvolari? Half-way through he gave up whilst battling for fifth. Farina was in the pits waiting for his chance so he let him have it. The new car was a bust. Designer Jano was sacked. Nuvolari went back to the old one at the Czech Grand Prix. A lapped fifth. Caracciola won again. Auto Union could do no better than third. Shall we talk?
There was however one remaining race. For the past few years the Derby & District Motor Club had held a race run to Grand Prix regulations on the Donington circuit, albeit very much a home race with few foreign competitors. This time the club had managed to attract entries from both Mercedes and Auto Union.
Donington was a unique beast, a full road course in England
. It was possible to race as it was entirely on private land. Races had been held there since 1933, but still on the Brooklands model, short races and handicaps for different classes. The Donington Grand Prix events - the RAC sniffily declined to let the D&DMC use the term “British” - were an exception and the third iteration, in October 1937, would let the British crowd finally see what the Germans could do
Brooklands, and the performances of the ERA in the voiturette races, had perhaps lulled everyone into a false sense of security. Certainly, if you wanted outright speed there were few places to go better than Brooklands. And in imitation of its American cousin the BRDC had run a 500 mile race for the past few years. But it never achieved the prestige of the American race, for the simple reason that it was a handicap. So little MGs could win despite covering dozens of miles fewer than some behemoth. Behemoths they were; the 1937 event had been won by John Cobb and Oliver Bertram in a Napier-Railton, the antediluvian racing firm having switched to making aero engines and Cobb commissioning designer Reid Railton to do something around a 24 (yes, twenty-four) litre example. The average speed was 127mph, which was not exceeded at Indianapolis until 1952, but the second-highest average speed belonged to the car classified fourth. No wonder there was little incentive to the average British racer to improve his lot on an objective basis.
The on-track bookmakers were confident of a home challenge. The ERA drivers of Raymond Mays, Earl Howe and Arthur Dobson
, and Prince Bira (Maserati), were listed at 10-1. Just double the price of Rosemeyer, Seaman and Lang, and less than double that of von Brauchitsch. Caracciola was 4-1 favourite. The German mechanics piled in. The bookies must have had a shock when qualifying was over and Mays was eighth fastest with a time of 2”25 - a second slower than Bira, but nine seconds slower than Hasse, in the slowest Silver Arrow. Von Brauchitsch was fifteen seconds clear. By lap 15, less than a fifth into the race, the top four German cars had lapped Bira. They were clean away. So were the bookies, leaving their stands to get trashed by angry punters.
In the end, Rosemeyer won, after Pechvogel had a puncture. Bira was the best of the rest in sixth. The D&DMC ran the race for fifteen minutes after Rosemeyer took the flag but Bira was still two laps short of the distance.
Who of the spectators would have thought that they were watching Rosemeyer’s last victory? On 29 January 1938, the coruscating talent was extinguished in some wretchedly anonymous siding on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn. Caracciola had just set a speed record for Mercedes and Rosemeyer was deputed to break it. Going at at least 250mph a side-wind flung the Auto Union streamliner off the road and it somersaulted to destruction. Rosemeyer had been a father for ten weeks. A devastated Auto Union never really recovered.
At least the British were giving it a go and plans were laid for a repeat. The French were totally out of it. In a bizarre attempt to generate funding for a French Grand Prix competitor, the French government added a levy to driving licences to be given as a prize to whichever manufacturer could produce a car to complete a race distance at Montlhéry in a competitive time, and private donations founded a second, earlier, prize. It became laughable when Bugatti and Delahaye managed to get funds promised to them before even taking part in such a trial, then the conditions of the trial were eased so that the money could go to someone. In the end Bugatti won the subscription prize, but it was practically worthless; all the money had been spent in trying to get the prize...
So Bugatti was stuck with the hopeless T59, which was sent to the States and the Turin Grand Prix (the latter race without the Germans, so Ferrari needed a fall guy to beat), to derisory effect. Back home however Bugatti had more success in what was essentially a national sportscar championship. With its gorgeous streamlined sports model Wimille had blossomed into a genuine talent, winning at Pau and Algeria and losing the lead at Marseilles through retirement. Bugatti’s one missing jigsaw piece was Le Mans, and the dream team of the veteran Benoist and rising star Wimille duly won by fifty miles, although the race was tainted with tragedy as a six-car pile-up took the lives of journeyman Kippeurt and the talented Pat Fairfield.
However, the other big race of the French year, the Grand Prix, was a Bugatti disaster. New models had not come up to scratch, so they were scratched. Chiron led a 1-2-3 for Talbot, the firm having been bought in 1935 by Venetian wannabe racer Antonio Lago. So the French Grand Prix, moved over to sportscars to stop foreign winners, was won by a Monegasque driver driving for an English-founded firm owned by an Italian.
Bugatti probably hoped it would win the million franc prize from the French government, but it was beaten to the target time by Delahaye. The firm had been away from racing for over 30 years but had kept involved with sportscar manufacture. In the mid-30s the Francophile American heiress Lucy O’Reilly Schell had bought Delahayes for the family’s European jaunt and been so impressed she funded more out-and-out racers. Delahaye brought in René Dreyfus to drive, who had had a dreadful couple of years, feeling out of place amidst the Blackshirts in Italy and spending a retirement-wracked season with the still-developing Talbots. A full-time drive for Delahaye amidst part-time outings for Maserati’s voiturette team (just to keep his hand in) was just the thing, and he achieved the appropriate distance just before the August deadline.
Delahaye put the money to good use. Further developments of the sportscar enabled it to be a bit more competitive with the single-seaters. It even helped Delahaye to make a competitive entry into the Mille Miglia, along with the Talbot-Lagos, and smaller 2 litre cars from BMW entrants in Britain as well as German works entries. Was Germany beginning to take sportscar racing as seriously as Grand Prix racing? Not entirely. The exotic speedster for the elite was not quite the image that the Nazis wanted to project and BMW, a firm that had started making Austins under licence, was sufficiently grounded to be permitted to have a go. All this made the Mille Miglia a bit more of an international event, although the Italians still had home advantage, which was exploited to the max. Of the star drivers only Farina took part and he did not finish, which allowed Clemente Biondetti, who became something of a specialist in the event, to arrive in Rome in near-formation with Alfa team-mate Pintacuda, but as he had a higher starting number he was a couple of minutes clear. Dreyfus was fourth; team-mate Comotti retired as the team was running short of tyres.
Had the international world been paying attention, it would have noticed the entrant. Scuderia Ferrari was finished. Alfa’s managing director Gobbato was dissatisfied with Ferrari’s performance and he disbanded the team. Ferrari was offered the sop of team manager, but all work was brought in house, Ferrari’s racing assets taken in their entirety to Portello. Ferrari brooded on his next move.
And the world could not pay attention to the real tragedy of the event; a saloon Lancia crashed into the crowd on the route, killing ten people. The Fascists had sufficient control of the press not to let this failing of national socialism seep out.
The first Grand Prix of 1938 was, strangely enough, in France. The ACF’s was abandoning its sportscar formula, perhaps considering that the million francs would already have an effect. As a result sportscar racing was doubly damaged; despite attractive events like the 12 Hours of Paris at Montlhéry, most entries were small private teams. Talbot and Delahaye’s meagre works entries fought for superiority in these, except for the Spa 24 Hours, which they both missed and which the Axis Powers dominated - Pintacuda/Severi winning for Alfa and BMWs, Adlers and Lancias filling out the top ten, apart from a Delage in second and Simca in eighth, this latter entered and co-driven by Italian-born Amedée Gordini, who would soon be named The Sorcerer for his habit of producing engineering miracles.
With the new Grand Prix formula in place, Mercedes decided to use the event as a testing session for its new W154 model, and sent Caracciola and Lang; Auto Union, shellshocked from the loss of Rosemeyer, declined. Most pundits thought it would be a cakewalk for the Germans but Lang non-started after a practice crash and Caracciola, to his horror, found he could not shake off Dreyfus in the Delahaye, stripped of its Mille Miglia encumbrances. Dreyfus had considered his machine to be more manoeuvrable than the Mercedes, and the lack of power was no handicap on the wending streets of the town. On top of this, Caracciola needed a pit-stop for more fuel. The fresh Lang was installed in the Mercedes but Dreyfus, beyond all expectation, finished the hundred laps in three hours nine minutes; a minute clear of the Mercedes. The other Delahaye of Comotti was six laps behind.
The Germans had been beaten. It would not happen again.
At least Mercedes could console itself that Pau was a bit of a freak, not representative of real conditions. The first real chance to show off its new formula models would be at Tripoli, in May. This race too was tainted by tragedy, this time on the track. That perennial spear-carrier, Laszlo Hartmann, was also killed when Farina barged him off the track when the Italian was lapping him. It was the second time Farina had been involved in a fatal accident, Marcel Lehoux having died in his ERA when the two came together at Deauville in 1936. Farina was known as a hard driver...
Alfa Romeo was having a hard time of it. New designer Wilfredo Ricart was working on a 1,500cc model for the voiturette formula, which was expected to become the Grand Prix formula in due course; Alfa wanted to be ready for that at least. In the meantime it cobbled together three different models based on what it had to hand. A sportscar engine was put into a rebodied 12C/37 and called the 308. The 12C/37 engine itself was mucked around with and the resulting car was called the 312. And a V16 engine was constructed from a couple of Ricart’s prototype and shoehorned into another 12C/37 chassis and called the 316. The 308 was entered at Pau but the chassis bent so much under Nuvolari’s hard sliding that it leaked petrol and caught fire. There is only so much a man can take. Nuvolari had been broken, humiliated, seen his son die of illness and now he was being cremated. Disgusted with Alfa and with motor racing, he retired. For the moment.
At Tripoli, then, Farina was driving a 312, the other example having been entrusted to Eugenio Siena, back with Alfa as a test driver. Sommer had a 308 and Biondetti a 316. At least Alfa was trying a comparison. But it ended disastrously. On top of Farina’s accident, Siena too was killed, losing control when trying to lap Cortese’s voiturette Maserati. Biondetti retired after showing speed, and Alfa retired to regroup.
Also regrouping was Maserati. In 1937 steel impresario Adolfo Orsi - literally a rags to riches story, Orsi had started out tatting and noticing that he kept receiving scrap metal concentrated on that particular industry - had bought the firm from the financially-strapped Maserati brothers to boost his own brand. The brothers were to stay for the next ten years as part of the deal. They too had been thinking about the voiturette formula and had been fighting tooth and nail with the ERAs over the previous season with its 6CM model. For the Grand Prix formula it had developed a 3 litre engine, put a supercharger on it, and called the resulting car the 8CTF. And, to demonstrate its seriousness, the Officine had signed the biggest name it could find - Varzi. But it was just not fast enough. Or reliable. Tripoli saw the embarrassment of the first Italian car being Sommer’s bitsa 308, eight minutes behind the last Mercedes. Three had entered, finishing 1-2-3.
How depressing it must have been! A new formula should have been the chance for new thinking and new developments. Yet it was still the same. Come the French Grand Prix at Reims everybody was back to pulling out again. Even Delahaye withdrew when it emerged that Antonio Lago was getting more starting money. Only nine cars started and by lap three only five were left. Auto Union had turned up with its new model and Hasse (surely the unlikeliest of team leaders, a six-foot-plus beanpole in glasses), Kautz and “Auto Union Idol” winner Hermann Paul “Happy” Müller, who had been a major name in motorcycle racing. Müller was injured in practice and Kautz and Hasse crashed on lap one. So much for them.
The other early retirements were the great French hopes. Wimille on a re-heated Bugatti T59 and - lo and behold! - the S.E.F.A.C., which managed a whole two laps, two more than it managed in practice. Motor racing karma has a strange way of dealing with matters. Eugène Chaboud, more familiar with Delahaye sportscars, had to wrestle the beast, and perhaps as compensation he won Le Mans later in the year for Delahaye with his usual cohort Jean Trémoulet. The general failings though meant Neubauer could drop his usual team orders for once and let the dominant Mercedes fight it out. Caracciola suffered a misfire and tried to make up the ground by cutting back on pitstops. It was not enough as von Brauchitsch took an easy win. Tripoli winner Lang, who had had problems restarting after his stop, was third.
Given that the next race was the German Grand Prix, Auto Union was desperate. It had fired Stuck after the Italian Grand Prix in 1937, for seemingly retiring for no ostensible reason. Stuck suggested he be given a private car to enter minor races, thus racking up the trophies for Auto Union. No dice; private entries were not allowed. Perhaps Auto Union’s position was coloured by Stuck persuading Auto Union in June to enter a hitherto-locals only Brazilian race, the Rio de Janeiro Grand Prix, supposedly to pick up an easy trophy, but finding a very twisty mini-Pescara of a circuit, pouring rain, and Enzo Ferrari doing exactly the same thing; Pintacuda beat Stuck by not stopping for fuel and hanging on by a handful of seconds
. But Stuck had two things in his favour; firstly, he had a contract for a Land Speed Record attempt, which was being scheduled for 1939; secondly, he had friends in High Places. So he was brought back into the fold. Then Nuvolari was persuaded to un-retire. At least Auto Union had two drivers of Grand Prix stature, with the intermittent Hasse and neophyte Müller as back-up.
It was not much to face the Untertürkheim onslaught. Caracciola, von Brauchitsch, Lang. And Seaman as back-up. Plus another talent contest winner Walter Bäumer in the pits just in case. Delahaye, Alfa and some Maserati privateers were present as well, including Pietsch, trying to inveigle his way back with the big boys.
The race was mostly anti-climactic given the entry. Caracciola was not feeling well and eventually handed over to Lang, whose car was just as sick. Nuvolari, blinded by oil, left the road and retired; he took over Müller’s car. It left von Brauchitsch in an almost casual lead, ahead of Seaman, and the rest nowhere. And it would probably have stayed like that had there not been an uncharacteristic miscue in the Mercedes pits when von Brauchitsch stopped. Perhaps distracted by Seaman coming in behind, a couple of gallons of fuel were sloshed over the back of the leading Mercedes and when von Brauchitsch fired up the engine again his car was engulfed in flames. He ejected from the driving seat, Seaman’s crew calmly got him out of there, and he was away and clear.
Pechvogel did get going but his detachable steering wheel lived up to its name - the detachable part, rather than the steering - and he was out, returning to the pits to an ovation wielding the offending object like an enemy’s head. Seaman was unbothered by the charging Lang and Stuck was several minutes back. It was a somewhat embarrassed young Englishman who received the laurel wreath, and gave the most half-hearted Nazi salute possible, as Hühnlein had yet another difficult telegram to write.
Mercedes went from strength to strength. The Coppa Ciano, Coppa Acerbo and Swiss Grand Prix all fell its way, Lang with the first, Caracciola with the latter two, with Seaman surprisingly ahead of von Brauchitsch at the Bremgarten. But at Monza Auto Union fought back with a vengeance. Was it the car or was it the revived genius of Nuvolari? Either way, Tazio won, leading most of the way and cruising to victory as all opposition faded away. And for the final race of the season at Donington Nivola put on a masterclass. Losing a minute to a plug change, he stormed back and took the lead from Lang as the Mercedes lost its brakes. The next best Auto Union was Müller, a lap behind. Nuvolari was back.
Alfa Romeo was not. Although Farina had picked up some second places through attrition it was clear that none of its models had the pace to cope with Grand Prix racing. However there was some good news on the horizon. Its voiturette model, the 158 “Alfetta”, made its debut at the Coppa Ciano Junior for voiturette racers. In the hands of Emilio Villoresi, it won. The second car of Biondetti came second. Villoresi’s brother Luigi won the Coppa Acerbo Junior for Maserati after Emilio crashed out early on, and Alfa did not trust its luck in the biggest voiturette race at the Bremgarten (won by local boy Armand Hug in a Maserati, after both Mays’ and Earl Howe’s ERAs both stuttered), but it did score a 1-2 in the Milan Grand Prix with Villoresi (E) ahead of Francesco Severi
. It was evidently a potent thing.
It also got the Italians thinking. If an Italian car could not win a Grand Prix, then the Grand Prix shall come to the Italian car. So the Tripoli Grand Prix for 1939 was to be run to voiturette regulations. No German cars for that. Perhaps just to make sure, the race was moved to mid-May, not long before the Eifelrennen, the first big race in Germany.
It must have been an exasperated race secretary who received completed entry forms on behalf of Mercedes. The Untertürkheim works had completed two voiturette cars with lightning rapidity to show the other Axis power what it could do. Lang and Caracciola were nominated as drivers, and although Maserati countered by introducing an enveloping wheel-covering body to pierce the North African wind it proved useless as Luigi Villoresi had to retire it on lap two, piston broke (the engine, not the driver). Lang led from the start, Caracciola was second by lap two and by the end of the race the Silver Arrows were five minutes clear of the field. Chastening. As it to symbolize the decline of Italian racing, Villoresi won the Targa Florio, but instead of it being an epic race for all-comers over a slice of Sicilian soil, it was 40 Lilliputian laps in Palermo. For voiturettes. All Maseratis; Mercedes had proved its point.
Not for the first time in 1939. Mercedes took Pau more seriously and entered three cars. This time Lang won with ease. He then won the Eifelrennen. Opposition was falling away, only three German Maseratis and Talbot entered, Bugatti and Delahaye contenting themselves with French sportscars (at least Bugatti had a win at Le Mans to console itself with, via the team of Wimille/Veyron). And at Spa only half-a-dozen privateers challenged the Silver Arrows. Seaman, having perhaps passed von Brauchitsch in the Mercedes ranks, now challenged Caracciola for his position. Especially as it was wet. The new Rainmaster? Seaman led for much of the race until he misjudged a nondescript corner just before La Source. His Mercedes struck a tree, rendering him unconscious, and unable to escape the flames that then took hold. Extricated barely alive, he succumbed later that night. Lang saw the aftermath of the accident and wanted to give up. Neubauer sent him on to eventual joyless victory.
Lang was undoubtedly now Mercedes’ leading driver. He should have won the French Grand Prix; with an easy lead his engine gave way, leaving “Happy” Müller to win his only Grande Epreuve, from Georg Meier, who had provided excitement in his pit-stop when a mistake led to a flash fire and him rolling outside the car to extinguish them. A 1-2 for Auto Union on a curiously German-breaker of a circuit; four of the six retirements were Silver Arrows. Lang did win the Swiss Grand Prix, and led the German before a plug fouled to let Caracciola win - a race in which Paul Pietsch finally proved himself worthy of a full-time drive with a phenomenal run in his own Maserati that saw him lead for a while and ultimately finish third. Dreyfus, that most endangered of species in 1940, a French Jew, was fourth, treated with every courtesy, even in the teeth of a boiling international crisis, whilst the eyes of the world were on Germany.
It was however poor timing from Pietsch. The Swiss Grand Prix was in late August 1939 (despite the deteriorating international situation, there was a good number of entrants from France and Britain, as the race was run concurrently with the voiturette event, won by Farina) and on 1 September 1939 Germany invaded France. Two days after this the first Yugoslav Grand Prix took place, with just five starters, two each from Auto Union and Mercedes and one Bosko Milenkovic in a ten year old Bugatti. Milenkovic did gain fourth, 15 laps down in a 50 lap race, but the final battle of the Auto Union v Mercedes war went to the rear-engined cars, Nuvolari defeating von Brauchitsch.
Amazingly enough, racing still continued in Europe. Italy had kept itself out of the initial scuffle and ran the Tripoli Grand Prix in 1940. Farina won from pole, setting times faster than the Mercedes the previous year. Down in ninth place was a familiar name; Ascari. Alberto, the son of Antonio, just six years old when his father died, had made his voiturette debut in an old Maserati. And the Targa Florio (again on its diminished circuit) and the Mille Miglia also took place. Ascari moved on to a brand new make of car for the Mille Miglia, called Auto Avio Construzione. This was a company set up by Enzo Ferrari, who had chafed at his sinecure role at Alfa and re-started the Scuderia Ferrari. Forbidden by contract to use his old firm’s name for seven years, he barely disguised the origin by calling his sportscar the 815 - an obvious glance to the 158.
The Mille Miglia was, like the Targa, also diminished, banned in 1939 on safety grounds and in 1940 reduced to ten laps of a hundred miles each, and from the Italian perspective spoilt by the BMW team of Huschke von Hanstein
and Mercedes cadet Walter Bäumer beating Farina by a quarter of an hour.
And then that finally was it.
The United States were not affected so much by war, of course, only joining in at the tail end of 1941. Racing there continued along the same lines, a moribund championship series anchored heavily on Indianapolis, with short “sprint” races (eventually spawning a separate species of car, the cut-down sprint car, almost as powerful as a championship car but slightly smaller and a whole lot more dangerous) and midget cars forming series of their own, based on geographical and governing body lines. The dearth of championship races meant that the biggest names were forced into these cars to make a living, albeit generally a good one as tens of thousands would fill the arenas. However the races were not without danger. Even though midget cars were smaller and slower than championship cars, their engines were often of similar size to the championship cars of ten years before, and with smaller bodywork the driver was far more prominent. Billy Winn, who had been conspicuous taking the fight to the Europeans at the Vanderbilt, died in a sprint car crash in 1938. Lou Schneider, Indianapolis winner, suffered serious injuries in a midget car crash in 1938 that eventually contributed to his death four years later. Floyd Roberts won the 500 in 1938 and was killed defending his crown in 1939 when Bob Swanson spun in front of him; Swanson in turn was killed in 1940 qualifying for a midget race. Jimmy Snyder, charter member of the Chicago Gang of midgeteers and twice pole-setter at Indianapolis, was killed in a minor midget race in 1939. And these were just the most famous names. Many others were killed.
Fortunately, if belatedly, the Speedway had seen some sense and abolished the need for a riding mechanic. This needless extra requirement, apparently to make racing cars a bit more like passenger cars, had resulted in several unnecessary deaths. Harry Cox, Clarence Grover, Bob Hahn, Bob Hurst, Monk Jordan, Al Opalko and Leo Whitaker were all killed for no reason other than someone had to sit next to a driver. One victim, Paul Marshall, was killed in 1930 in an accident acting as riding mechanic for his brother; Cy Marshall survived, but was so traumatized by his experience he did not return to the Speedway for 17 years, a record absence between consecutive 500 drives
Indianapolis had indeed gone further, in 1938 adopting the Grand Prix formula to try to entice some of the Europeans over, cutting qualifying down to 4 laps from 1939, and introducing a test for newcomers following a disastrous 1935 when Johnny Hannon was killed negotiating the first corner of his first lap of the Speedway and Clay Weatherly, in the very same car, was killed on the ninth lap of the race. The “rookies” would be distinguished by having coloured tape draped over the tail of their cars, so following drivers would be warned of potentially imaginative driving lines, and would have to drive laps at various different speeds, assessed by their peers, before they were allowed to qualify for the race. Removing the rookie stripes became a much-photographed ritual.
The first of the European “invasion” cars had in fact participated at the 1937 500, Rex Mays driving the Alfa Romeo with which he went on to do so well at the Vanderbilt that year, but retiring early on as the temporary two-seater body did not suit the engine. 1938 should have seen a Maserati, as Mike Boyle had put in an order for Wilbur Shaw, but shipping cock-ups meant Shaw had to modify his streamlined winner from 1937 and he came a fighting second to Roberts. Alfa Romeo also entered but the assorted disasters at the start of 1938 saw it withdraw; Nuvolari came over to be guest starter and he was given a ride owned by Lew Welch for a try, but the brutal technique of Nuvolari was too much for track specials more used to flying starts and minimal gear-changing, and a surrendering gearbox ground the car to a halt before the Mantuan even rode over a solitary brick.
The Maserati was however ready for 1939, and Shaw took the lead in it with less than 20 laps to go after Louie Meyer pitted for a new tyre. Meyer charged back, and with three laps to go looped his Winfield-powered Stevens chassis into the inside retaining wall. The car rolled to its destruction but Meyer, thrown out on the first loop, was remarkably uninjured. By the time the ambulance picked him up for a check-up Meyer had decided to retire as a driver. Shaw won in the same car in 1940 and was heading for an unprecedented three-peat in 1941, leading with a quarter of the race to go, when a wheel collapsed, sending him into the wall. On race morning a fire had broken out in the garage area and the resulting outburst of extinguishant around and about Gasoline Alley washed off the chalk reference marks on Shaw’s spare wheels. One of those wheels had been marked for emergency use only, and that may have been the very collapsing wheel...
Bud and Ed Winfield were specialists in camshaft design and production, and Bud was a friend of Lew Welch, who in turn was a friend of Henry Ford. Welch had set up his own company in the town of Novi, Michigan - so small, it is reputed its name came from it being the sixth stop on a railway; No. VI - and specialized in providing Ford parts. This enabled Welch to move into Indianapolis car ownership and managed to use some of the Miller-Fords with Winfield input into the engines. Welch, impressed, moved on to getting a new engine commissioned from Bud Winfield that he named after his home town. Ralph Hepburn finished fourth; the Novi saga had started.
The winner of the 1941 race won on his days off. Mauri Rose was hard-nosed, calculating and brilliant. His day job was as an engineer at the Allison plant near the Speedway and he used his holiday entitlement to take part at the one race paying a decent prize. He had not started in the Curly Wetteroth-built Noc-Out Hose Clamp Special; he took over from Floyd Davis, stuck in the midfield, after his own pole-winning Maserati broke down at about a third of the way through. Annoyed, appalled and aghast, Davis barely spoke to owner (and former driver) Lou Moore again.
Maserati was the weapon of choice of the cognoscenti at Indianapolis. Politically Auto Union and Mercedes were not interested in the 500, it being a new challenge to devote resources to, and more to the point in the teeth of a generally hostile America. To attend the Vanderbilt they procured a promise that political demonstrations would be banned. Italy was not much better off, following the invasion of Abyssinia, and the French and English cars were not much cop. However, unlike the Germans, the Italian teams were willing to sell to private entrants, so quite apart from Mike Boyle a number of other entrants arranged to buy Maseratis or Alfas (and, in the case of Overton Phillips, a Bugatti, although he used a Miller engine). They were not that successful.
A couple of French teams did try to take advantage, but all too late. Bugatti was hamstrung by financial restraints and in 1939 by the death of Jean Bugatti, testing a prototype on the roads near Molsheim, but Delahaye did not bother and Talbot-Lago’s first entry was in 1941 as a propaganda boost for the Free French. René le Bègue, who had been third in the French Grand Prix in 1939, failed to qualify.
Le Bègue had at least had Indianapolis experience the year before. Lucy O’Reilly Schell had abandoned the Delahaye as a lost cause and bought a Maserati for Grand Prix entry. As an American, she had managed to get her two cars shipped to the States before things became too bad and plotted to get her French (and Italian - Luigi Chinetti had gone along as factotum) employees on army leave to spread the word. Dreyfus and le Bègue were duly allowed over to the States, but in a misunderstanding over the qualifying regulations, Dreyfus failed to make the fastest 33. He and le Bègue drove about half the race each in the other Maserati and finished tenth. They arranged to return home to the French army, only to find that, after the fall of Paris, there was no French army any more...Dreyfus joined the American army instead and ended up settling in the States with a new career as restauranteur.
The last event of any importance before racing ground to a halt was the Syracuse 100 mile event in September 1941. The winner was Rex Mays, who, in so doing, secured his second successive national crown, ahead of a Nutley velodrome graduate called Tony Bettenhausen. Mays was a popular champion, perennially smiling and helpful, and had become a master of the dirt tracks; he won every one (of the four) dirt championship races in the previous two years. Like Bira, Farina, Lang, namesake Raymond Mays, Müller, Villoresi and dozens of others, he would lose his best years to the war.
Even South America was not untouched. The Argentina “Fuerza Libre” series - a mixture of cars imported from Europe and stock-based specials, on road circuits that followed the rectilinear grid pattern of many cities, running races of 500 miles - had continued along parochial lines throughout the 1920s and 1930s, making little impact on the outside world; only de Alzaga, Riganti and multiple national race winner Juan Gaudino, who had a couple of Indianapolis 500 appearances, made any serious attempt to graduate from that series to overseas. Even Buenos Aires-born nobleman “Raph” (Comte George Raphaël Béthenod de Montbressieux de las Casas), whose finest hour came when he came fifth at the 1939 German Grand Prix in Lucy O’Reilly’s Delahaye, and Chilean Juan Zanelli
, who had had some success in a Bugatti in the early 1930s, both started their racing in Europe
. The Rio GP in Brazil at least attracted Auto Union and Ferrari very briefly, and some Americans brought sprint and midget cars over to trounce the locals on pony tracks, but otherwise the races were very local.
The other attraction in South America was the Turismo Carretera series, originally an annual town-to-town race starting from Buenos Aires or Cordoba and returning there via Santiago or Lima or any other interesting place, in the late thirties turning into a fuller series of races. These events took over as the biggest races when the Argentine organizers changed the racing specials regulations to make it more attractive to more stock cars. Consequently hotted-up Fords and Chevrolets would compete in these marathon events, a cross between the Mille Miglia and a rally, where the locals split along Ford or Chevrolet lines. Riganti won the biggest race (the Gran Premio) in 1929 and 1936, but otherwise the winners were unknown outside Latin America. After all, who would hear of Angel Lo Velvo, Emilio Karstulovic, Carlos Zatuszek or Juan Fangio?
But eventually problems with fuel supplies hit even this area untouched by war. Fuel rationing had forced the Brazilian races onto alcohol fuel by 1940 and even the next year all races were in abeyance. By mid-1942, the sound of the engine was stilled by the sound of the gun.
1 And, under the Nazi party’s racial characterizations, partly Jewish. Stuck’s contacts came in useful for having her treated as an honorary Aryan. 2 Penn-Hughes’ wife was more famous; Judy Guinness had won a silver medal in fencing at the 1932 Olympics. 3 As part of the deal Neubauer bought Caracciola’s Alfa; just the thing for a decent baseline comparator. Caracciola’s mental recovery had been set back by the shattering death of his wife whilst ski-ing in January. 4 Walb took quite a risk as Simons was championed by Goebbels. Rosemeyer soon had a champion of his own, however. German drivers were co-opted into the NSKK, the motoring section of the Nazi party, and given ranks according to their success. Almost uniquely Rosemeyer was co-opted into the SS; perhaps because he was the blondest of the drivers. 5 Lagonda was in such financial straits that it was distress-sold by an administrative receiver the week after the race. The purchaser, Alan Good, employed W.O. Bentley to design a new V12 model. By 1947 it was part of the growing Aston Martin group.6 Rosemeyer also won himself a wife at that race. Aviatrix Elly Beinhorn, the first German to circumnavigate the globe in solo flight, was a guest of Auto Union and the two fell for each other at the post-race celebrations.7 Maserati was in an even worse position than Ferrari. At least Alfa Romeo was state-owned and extra finance could be funnelled through via generous state contracts; Maserati was only subsidized by its profitable spark-plug manufactury, and textile magnate (and occasional racer) Gino Rovere, who owned the Subalpina team and paid Maserati to develop its models. 8 The pseudonym adopted by Prince Birabongse Bhanubandh, student, Royal Academy-exhibiting sculptor and natural talent, whose racing was encouraged by the financial largesse of elder brother Prince Chula, who ran a well-drilled team called White Mouse. Siam did not have AIACR allocated racing colours, so Chula chose pale blue and yellow, romantically taken from one of Bira’s jeune amie’s dresses. 9 Philipp Bouhler, who developed the Nazi euthanasia programme. 10 Two German drivers, Hans Hugo Hartmann and Heinz Brendel, were also signed. An element of just how impressed Neubauer was by them can be inferred from them being allowed to drive one Grand Prix each. Two years later. 11 The only similar thing was the short Crystal Palace circuit in south London which held races of varying importance from the 1930s to the 1970s.12 Other than those who attended the Shelsley Walsh hillclimb in 1936 and saw Hans Stuck blast up in record time. However that lasted less than a minute. 13 Although this was Dobson’s first Grand Prix, he had shown splendid form in voiturettes earlier in 1937, including winning the Prix de Berne, which attracted so many entries it had to be divided into heats. It was a slight fluke; coming to the finish, Mays, in the lead, lifted his foot to cruise to the line and the following Dobson, not expecting this, had to whip past to avoid a collision. 14 Ferrari was so pleased with the victory that he entered two cars for the 1938 race, Pintacuda won again, and the cars were sold to local racers for a decent profit. 15 This race saw the promising works Maserati driver Aldo Marazza, who had won the Piemont voiturette race earlier in the year, die after crashing past the chequered flag. It is possible he missed it flying as Sommer’s Alfa had stopped, on fire, just before it. Emilio Villoresi’s life did not last much longer; he was killed testing the Alfetta early in 1939. 16 Von Hanstein prominently wore the SS rune on his otherwise white overalls; despite, or perhaps because of, that faux pas, he became well-respected after World War II for his management of Porsche’s racing activities. He had been involved in the Silver Arrows auditions in previous years but voluntarily withdrew himself, when possibly in line for a drive, considering himself out of his depth. 17 By one of those odd coincidences, the record is shared with Rollie Free, more famous for setting the American motorcycle speed record, riding naked save for a helmet and swimming trunks, whose only two 500s were also 1930 and 1947. 18 Zanelli became so Europeanized he joined the French Resistance and was killed in a shootout with the Gestapo.19 Preceding them was the Anasagasti, an Argentine voiturette made by an importer of Italas and Gregoires, that participated in events before World War I - well before South America had seen real racing.