Features - Historical
SEPTEMBER 19, 2000
The 1921 French Grand Prix
BY JOE SAWARD
The Great War turned America from a nation isolated from Europe into a world power. American forces under General Pershing had arrived in France in 1917 and helped to drive the Germans back. American industry was booming and exports were increasing.
While France was reconstructing after the war, there was little racing, although the French manufacturers produced cars which were dominant. In 1919 Peugeot won the Indianapolis 500 with Howdy Wilcox driving. Later that year Andre Boillot took another Peugeot to victory on the Targa Florio. For 1920 both Peugeot and Ballot sent teams to compete at Indianapolis.
In 1921 the Automobile Club de France[sl0] decided that the time was right to revive its Grand Prix for the first time in seven years. It was decided to adopt the same formula as was being used at Indianapolis: three-litre engines and a 800kg weight limit.
The venue for the event was well chosen - Le Mans, where the first Grand Prix de l'ACF had taken place in 1906.
The track would be totally different from that used 15 years previously. It was laid out on public roads, running through the southern suburbs of the town and out into the country on the route nationale towards the village of Mulsanne. The track then turned west and up to the village of Arnage. It was 10.75 miles in length, narrow and very stony. The 1921 track forms the basis of the Le Mans 24 Hours circuit still used to this day.
Adopting American regulations opened the way for US manufacturers to send over teams, so to dissuade the Americans, the entry fee was extraordinarily high.
It did not work. Nor did it stop French manufacturers hiring American drivers who had more experience with the machinery being used. Not only did Duesenberg send over a four-car team, but Ernest Ballot decided to recruit an American star in his driver line-up.
The Duesenberg team featured Americans Jimmy Murphy and Joe Boyer with Europeans Andre Dubonnet and Albert Guyot and was managed by one of America's greatest early drivers, George Robertson, who had won the Vanderbilt Cup in 1908.
At Ballot there was American Ralph de Palma teamed with Louis Wagner, Jean Chassagne and Jules Goux.
A third factory effort came from the newly formed Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq team, which had four cars for Frenchmen Rene Thomas and Andre Boillot and British drivers Kenelm Lee Guinness and Henry Segrave.
The Duesenberg brothers had worked on Bugatti aero engines during the war and their straight-eight engines owed much to the French company. Their greatest technical innovation, however, was four-wheel hydraulic braking.
Things did not begin well for the Americans. A week before the race, while testing, Murphy rolled a car. He was crushed beneath his car and suffered internal injuries. He was hospitalised.
Murphy was a 27-year-old Californian of Irish stock and as tough as nails. He was determined to race.
The race was held on a Monday and, two hours before the event began, Murphy climbed out of his hospital bed, bandaged from waist to shoulder, and headed for the track. Such was the pain that he had to be helped into his car.
The cars were sent off in pairs at 30 second intervals and, at the end of the first lap, Boyer's Duesenberg and de Palma's Ballot shared the lead, both clocked with at 8m16s.
On the first lap Wagner's Ballot suffered clutch failure and, so legend has it, the Frenchman spent much of the rest of the day leaning on his parked car sipping champagne.
As the race developed the track began to break up and the cars found themselves circulating in clouds of dust. While this made life difficult for the drivers, there was considerable danger caused by flying stones. One driver, Moriceau, was knocked unconsciousby a flying rock and other cars suffered punctures and holed radiators.
The Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracqs ran into tyre trouble early in the race and, from driving consistently, Murphy emerged in the lead. Lap after lap the lead grew. He was chased by Chassagne's Ballot and the Duesenberg of Boyer.
After 12 laps Murphy finally pitted and lost the lead, but six laps later - on the same lap - both Chassagne and Boyer retired: the Frenchman having his petrol tank come adrift and the American after an accident.
Murphy moved back into the lead. The field was decimated by the flying stones, but the Americans, notably de Palma, decided that when suffering a puncture, it was quicker to drive to the pits on the wheel rims rather than change the tyre on the track.
As the race drew to a close, after four hours and 322 miles of dust and missiles, Murphy was 15 minutes clear of De Palma, who had been delayed by punctures.
But could Murphy hold out? His body was bruised and battered but he would not give up. With just two laps to go a stone tore a huge hole in the radiator of his Duesenberg. Still he would not give up. As he completed the last 20 miles of the race, he suffered two punctures, but on he went.
Muprhy crossed the line amid jeers and whistles from the French spectators, who had come to see one of their drivers triumph. Not only had it been an American victory. It had been been an American 1-2.
The team had to lift Murphy from his car. He was the first American to win a European Grand Prix. He would remain the only American to achieve such a feat until Phil Hill won the Italian GP in 1960. The French were unimpressed. They did not even play [sl10]The Star-Spangled Banner[sl0].
After the race there was a grand banquet but, once again, the Americans were given the cold shoulder. The ACF began proceedings by toasting the third-placed finisher Jules Goux - a Frenchman. At this point Murphy and Robertson calmly set down their glasses of champagne and walked out of the dinner.
Jimmy Murphy and his famous white Duesenberg returned to America. The following season Jimmy won national championship and the Indianapolis 500. In 1924 he once again won the national title. But his career was to be short for he was killed driving a dirt car at Syracuse, New York, that same year. His car hit a fence and a splinter of fencing pierced his heart. He was just 30 years old.<\#026>