Features - Historical

DECEMBER 25, 2000

Jean-Pierre Wimille: The man who would have been champion...


Jean-Pierre Wimille

world has forgotten Jean-Pierre Wimille - and it is not really fair. There were top French stars in the early years of the sport but by the late 1930s the fading French racing industry meant that France did not have many big names.

The world has forgotten Jean-Pierre Wimille - and it is not really fair. There were top French stars in the early years of the sport but by the late 1930s the fading French racing industry meant that France did not have many big names. But Wimille was there. His best years as a racer coincided with World War II but in immediate post-war period he was signed up by the factory Alfa Romeo team and he quickly became the dominant force in the period. He died in a still-unexplained accident in Buenos Aires in January 1949. If he had lived for another 18 months Wimille would have been the first Formula 1 World Champion...

Wimille's inspiration to become a racing driver came from Robert Benoist. He was France's biggest racing star in the mid-1920s and dominated competition in 1927 with his Delage. Three years later the 22-year-old Wimille began racing a privately-entered Bugatti 1.5-liter light car - known as a voiturette. Wimille was not wealthy although his father was a well-known journalist. That one drive drew him to the attention of the racing world and for the following season the persuasive youngster had talked Ernest Friderich, Bugatti's concessionaire on the Riviera, to lend him a sportscar. Friderich had raced Bugattis himself (including in the 1914 Indianapolis 500) and often helped youngsters. That year he decided to supply Wimille and another rising star called Jean Gaupillat with a Bugatti Type 51 sportscar. At the same time Wimille continued racing his own car until both machines had been destroyed and with no money to buy a replacement Wimille's season ended prematurely.

He acquired a new car for the 1932 season and soon began to win with a victory on the La Turbie hillclimb and wins at Nancy and at Oran in Algeria. That summer he was leading the French Grand Prix at Comminges when he rolled and put himself in the hospital. The other rising star of the day, Rene Dreyfus, was in the same ward having had a similar accident and Wimille told him that when his racing career was over, he was going to go into politics.

Who will elect you? Dreyfus asked.

"Women!" replied Wimille.

After the crash Wimille became less wild and after some good results in the course of 1933 was hired by the Bugatti factory team, which was led by the man who had inspired him to become a racer, Robert Benoist. It was Wimille's misfortune that in 1934 the Mercedes and AutoUnion teams arrived in Grand Prix racing. Bugatti could not compete and after two frustrating seasons Benoist made the decision to concentrate the company on sportscar racing. The aim being to win the Le Mans 24 Hours with the streamlined Bugatti Type 57Gs, which were known as "The Tanks". In 1937 Wimille and Benoist shared victory in the classic event, Wimille becoming only the fourth man in history in win the race at his first attempt. His single-seater career was in the doldrums. He raced with Enzo Ferrari in 1938 but the German teams were by then completely dominant.

"Wimille undoubtedly stands alongside Maurice Trintignant and Jean Behra as one of the greatest drivers representing France," Ferrari wrote years later. "He could have gone on to do much more."

As it was he returned to Bugatti in 1939 and that year scored a second victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours, sharing on this occasion with Pierre Veyron.

The outbreak of war was a disaster for Wimille. He was 31 years of age and in his prime. The war years would be wasted. He joined the French Armee de l'Air but after France's defeat he was demobilized. Frustrated, he began making plans to design his own sportscars. If he could not be a racing driver he would build a revolutionary road car. He recruited several Bugatti designers and put them to work. This did not appear until after the war but it was a remarkable device, with much attention having been paid to aerodynamics. Like the modern McLaren F1 road car, the Wimille had three seats side by side rather than two seats front and rear. The engine was centrally-mounted inside a tubular chassis and the gearbox was electrically-operated and fitted to the front of the engine.

At the end of 1942 Wimille's mentor and friend Benoist asked him to join a Resistance network which was operating in the Paris region. Wimille and his wife, the beautiful Christiane de la Fressange, who had been a member of the French national skiing team in the late 1930s, began working with Benoist, who was part of one of the Special Operations Executive networks in Paris. In August the Germans arrested most of the gang. Benoist escaped arrest but disappeared. Wimille kept his head down but in the Spring of 1944 Benoist returned to Paris under a new name and began building a new sabotage network. Wimille was part of the gang and on D-Day the Clergyman network attacked a variety of targets around the port of Nantes, to help slow down the German reaction to the allied invasions.

Two weeks later Benoit was arrested in Paris and the rest of the network was trapped in a German raid on a house in the town of Sermaise, just outside the capital. Wimille escaped and jumped into a stream in the woods behind the house, where he stayed, hidden under some tree roots until the German searchers departed. His wife was arrested but Wimille remained at liberty and in the weeks before the liberation of Paris he was involved in resistance activities with what was left of Benoist's old network. Christine Wimille was fortunate. On the verge of being deported to Germany she spotted one of her relatives working as a Red Cross official in the courtyard of Fresnes prison. She slipped into the Red Cross vehicle, put on a Red Cross coat and handed out sandwiches until the prisoners had departed.

After the liberation of Paris Wimille joined the Free French Air Force and before the war ended had flown a dozen missions over Germany. He was still in uniform on September 9, 1945 when the French held the first post-war motor race in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. It was called the Robert Benoist Cup. Wimille was given special permission to travel to Paris to race an old pre-war Bugatti Type 50B, which he had used in 1939, for the Prisoners' Cup, the main event of the day. He won it.

After he was demobilization by the Armee de l'Air, Wimille began to campaign an old Alfa Romeo 308 winning a race in May 1946 in the Bois de Boulogne. There were further wins in Perpignan and Dijon before Alfa Romeo's Competition Manager Giovanbattista Guidotti asked him to drive for the Italian company alongside the pre-war aces Achille Varzi, Dr Nino Farina and Count Felice Trossi.

1946 Wimille road car

His first event with the Alfa Romeo factory team was on the streets of the Paris suburb of St Cloud in June 1946. It was a strange affair held to celebrate the opening of France's first piece of motorway and was known as the Grand Prix de l'Autoroute de l'Ouest. Wimille failed to finish that day but it was important to him for it marked the unveiling of the prototype Wimille road car. Postwar shortages meant that this was fitted with a different engine than had been planned and the tests were disappointing. Wimille decided that he would build a second version of the car.

A month after the launch of the Wimille road car Jean-Pierre raced a factory Alfa Romeo 158s in the Grand Prix des Nations on the streets of Geneva, the first international race after the war. He finished third to Giuseppe Farina and Carlo Trossi. In September he raced in Turin and obeyed team orders and let Varzui win. He was a match for the old pre-war ace.

Wimille was offered a job by Amedee Gordini for 1947 but Alfa Romeo wanted to keep him and so a compromise was agreed. Wimille would race in international events for Alfa Romeo and Simca-Gordinis in France. He enjoyed a mixed season with Gordini, a number of wins being matched by a series of retirements in French national races but on June 1, 1947 on a road circuit near Nimes he won the Robert Benoist Cup. It was a victory which meant a great deal to Wimille.

A week later he was back with the Alfa Romeo factory team for the Swiss GP at the Bremgarten circuit in Berne, which he won. There would be another victory in the European GP at Spa at the end of the month. Alfa Romeo, wanting an Italian driver to win, made the controversial decision to drop him for the Italian GP and so Trossi won.

Wimille continued to race for both Alfa Romeo and Simca-Gordini in 1948 and began the season in South America where he took on the local drivers with a Simca-Gordini. In the Grand Prix of Rosario he raced head-to-head with Juan-Manuel Fangio in an identical car. Wimille led early on but Fangio outfoxed him to take the lead. Wimille forced his way past again and then ensured that Fangio was never given another chance to pass him.

The great Argentine driver, who went on to win the World Championship five times, retired towards the end of the race with an engine failure, but he never forgot the battle with Wimille. He had met his match.

Back in Europe Wimille continued his racing in France until the international season started at Berne in Switzerland at the end of June. In qualifying for the race on the Bremgarten circuit the great Varzi crashed and was killed. Wimille suddenly found himself as the undisputed team leader of the Alfa Romeo factory team but on race day he gave way to sentiment. Trossi was dying of a brain tumor and Wimille let him win the race. After that generous gesture Wimille took all the victories for himself, dominating the French, Italian, Monza and Turin Grands Prix. There was no doubting the fact that he was then the best driver in Europe and if there had been a World Championship - as there would be two years later - Wimille would have won it.

At the end of that year Wimille's second prototype road car appeared at the Salon de Paris. It was a rather more elegant car than the original and powered by a Ford V8 engine. It looked promising.

Development was halted in January 1949 when Wimille set off to Argentina to the annual races there but on January 28 while taking part in practice for the Grand Prix General Peron, on the Palermo Park circuit in Buenos Aires, he crashed heavily. The accident has always been a mystery. Some claim that he had to swerve to avoid hitting spectators who had crept forward onto the track to watch him and that the car suffered an axle failure as it skidded sideways; others say that he was blinded by sunlight as he came around a corner and lost control.

Whatever the cause, the Simca-Gordini crashed into one of the straw bales which had been put beside the track to act as a safety barrier. In fact they acted as a launch-pad and the Simca-Gordini flew into the air, turning slightly as it did so and hit a small tree. The car did not seem to be too badly damaged apart from a dent on the side of the cockpit indicating where the chassis had hit the tree. But Wimille had suffered serious head injuries and a crushed chest. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital Wimille asked what had happened but before he arrived at the hospital France's greatest racing driver was dead.

As is often the case the death of the top driver of the day was a tremendous shock just as in later years the deaths of Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna left the sport unable to comprehend what had happened.

Wimille was buried in Buenos Aires, carried to his grave by his team-mate Farina (who became the first World Champion in 1950), Luigi Villoresi and Oscar Galvez. Later his body was exhumed and flown home to France. In Paris the French President Vincent Auriol announced that Wimille had been posthumously awarded the Legion d'Honneur.

Later a memorial was erected to Wimille at the Porte Dauphine, beside the hairpin on the Bois de Boulogne circuit, where he won the Prisoners Cup in 1945 and not very far from the Gestapo headquarters on the Avenue Foch, where he had nearly been a prisoner.