Features - News Feature
AUGUST 7, 2002
Seventy-six years ago today
BY NICK GARTON
The summer recess in Formula 1 has led to a certain amount of boredom amongst Formula 1 fans, used to the daily comings-and goings of the Grand Prix circus. But today is nonetheless a significant one if one looks back in history because on Saturday, August 7, 1926 Grand Prix racing arrived in Britain for the very first time, a little over 20 years after the first Grand Prix was held at Le Mans in France.
Grand Prix motor racing arrived in Britain thanks to the efforts in Europe of Captain Henry Segrave, whose triumphs for the Wolverhampton-based Sunbeam marque at the Grand Prix de l'Automobile Club de France in 1923 and the following year at the Grand Prix of San Sebastian in Spain, had raised interest in the sport in Britain. It did not matter that Segrave was more Irish-American than he was British nor that his car was a copy of a Fiat, built by Italian designers under the management of Louis Coatelen, a Frenchman. What mattered was that it was a flash of British Racing Green that had taken the checkered flag. In consequence the FIA of the day, an organization with the impractical name of the Association Internationale des Automobile-Clubs Reconnus (in other words, the international association of recognized automobile clubs) offered the Royal Automobile Club a Grand Prix in 1925. The problem was that Grand Prix racing at the time was a sport which took place on closed road circuits and in Britain it would have taken an act of parliament to have created such a thing. The politicians were more interested in equestrian and field sports and although the RAC looked at the Isle of Man as a possible venue, they dithered to such an extent that the 1925 calendar was published without Britain.
The AIACR offer remained on the table however and so Brooklands bid for the event. Brooklands was the world's first permanent, purpose-built motor racing facility, constructed in 1907 in the wake of the act of parliament which banned road racing in Britain, after the disastrous Paris-Madrid race in 1903. The banked oval near Woking in Surrey had become a Mecca of both motor racing and aviation fans. It was very different to normal Grand Prix tracks but the AIACR accepted a circuit which featured the start/finish straight which diagonally bisected the oval, the main Railway Straight and the long sweep round the Byfleet Banking. In order to add a little spice chicanes were built from large piles of sand on the start-finish straight. A permanent covered pit lane was constructed and scoreboards opposite the spectator areas were erected. So too was a temporary bridge over the start/finish straight on which the first advertising hoarding appeared (for J. Smith and Co, the Delage dealership of Albermarle Street, London).
In order to ensure that the Brooklands motto of "the right crowd and no crowding" applied to this most popular of races the entry fee was set at five shillings per head (around $12 in modern terms) and 10 shillings for a car ($24). Anyone wanting access to the paddock had to pay £1 (which was about $48) but refreshments were included for those wealthy enough to pay.
Thirteen cars were due to appear, the entry headed by three new straight-eight Talbots from the works Sunbeam Talbot Darracq (STD) team, resplendent in British Racing Green for the occasion. The low-slung machines with their steeply raked radiators were so slender that the driver was obliged to have one arm out in the open air, but boasted 145bhp and the presence of Segrave in the lead car alongside Albert Divo and Jean Moriceau.
The main challenge came from Louis Delage's works team from France, which was running a trio of new straight-eight machines for drivers Robert Benoist, Robert Senechal and Louis Wagner.
The majority of the other entries were locals and did not appear. Parry Thomas ran out of time to complete modifications needed for his "Flat-Iron Specials" which had been entered for Clive Gallop and "Scrap" Thistlethwaite. The front-wheel-drive Alvis entered for Maurice Harvey was also a no-show as was a private Bugatti entered by Alistair Miller.
Captain George Eyston, however, was there in his Anzani-engined Aston Martin and Malcolm Campbell turned up in a Bugatti Type 35 after plans to run an old Talbot ran into trouble. And Frank Halford had his Halford Special.
There were, thus, nine starters for the event, the highest number achieved that year in the Grand Prix championship. They lined up nine abreast on the start line and when the flag was dropped Divo went into the lead from Campbell, Moriceau and Eyston. As the field soared down off the banking at the end of the first lap Moriceau's front axle snapped and he slithered to an ungainly halt before stalking back to the pits in a state of high dudgeon. Divo led Segrave and Benoist while the crowd thrilled at Senechal's progress after a horrible start, the Frenchman showing some wild driving in the chicanes and riding high up on the banking while the others stayed low.
On the seventh lap the veteran Wagner dropped away from the leaders as his Delage began to misfire and soon began a series of pit stops which would end in retirement. On the same lap Divo also hit trouble with his spark plugs and pitted and so Segrave went into the lead, to the delight of the locals. The Talbot looked strong but Segrave was worried because whenever the front axles were put under any load they wobbled alarmingly. He also had Benoist's Delage on his tail. Then Segrave's car began to belch flame whenever he downshifted and on lap 13 Segrave pitted and Benoist went into the lead. Segrave rejoined in second place, just ahead of Senechal, Halford and Divo.
Benoist pitted on lap 35 but was so far ahead by then that he rejoined in the lead while Segrave's troubles got worse and he fell behind Senechal, Halford, Campbell, Eyston and even the delayed Divo, who's Talbot was trailing oil all the way.
Eyston disappeared with a head gasket failure but although Halford and Campbell enjoyed a fight for third, it seemed that Benoist had the race sewn up. But all was not well. The Delage had a basic design problem as the exhaust was located too close to the cockpit and after a few laps the cockpit began to heat up and the drivers began to get uncomfortable. The result was burned feet. In addition Benoist had to cope with the fact that his exhaust had split and red hot bits of exhaust pipe were being thrown back into the cockpit. But he drove on.
Segrave finally retired when his car caught fire in the pits although he still did one more lap after that before the supercharger fell apart.
Senechal was struggling as well and eventually came into the pits to hand over to Wagner and then plunge his feet into a bath of cold water.
The order remained Benoist leading Wagner, Divo and Campbell, but on the 88th of 110 laps Benoist's car appeared trailing a huge cloud of smoke. The mechanics worked on the car but the lead had been lost when Benoist rejoined. But that was to last only two laps as Wagner could no longer cope with the heat of the exhausts and he headed for the bath of cold water and then jumped back in the car. Benoist too found it impossible to go on and went back into the pits. Louis Delage had run out of drivers.
Fortunately Andre Dubonnet was there and volunteered to take over. Dubonnet had never driven the car before and had no racing suit but after a hasty discussion he departed the pits at the wheel of a Grand Prix car, wearing a lounge suit.
While all this was going on Divo finally disappeared when his supercharger ruptured. This left the two "Flying Ovens" and Campbell. With eight laps to go Campbell caught and passed Dubonnet to an ovation from the spectator area. But there would be no catching Wagner. He had to stop one more time to once again bathe his feet in cold water but it was enough to get him to the finish after four hours of racing. Campbell came home second, nearly 10 minutes behind while Dubonnet, his feet roasted, made it home in third.
Louis Delage had won the race but when the team returned to Paris it was decided that it was pointless to go on. The cars had to be redesigned. Designer Albert Lory decided that the engine would have to be turned through 180-degrees to solve the problem. The resulting car was the 1927 Delage 15-S-8, a mighty machine with which Robert Benoist won all the major Grands Prix in 1927.