Raymond Sommer

Raymond Sommer was born only a couple of months after the first Grand Prix de l'Automobile Club de France in the summer of 1906. He went on to become one of France's leading racers in the 1930s and 1940s. His father Roger was one of France's aviation pioneers, being both an early pilot and an aeroplane constructor. The family was fortunate to have the financial weight of a very successful carpet-making business to support such schemes.

At school in Pont-a-Mousson, near Metz, Sommer was a successful boxer and he was then sent to Manchester to study before going to work in the family firm. His dream however was to race and eventually he convinced his father to buy him a Chrysler Imperial. At the age of 25 he did his first event, a road race between Paris and Nice in March 1931.

He then raced at Le Mans and in the Spa 24 Hours. He was obviously talented and the following year he bought an Alfa Romeo 8C roadster. Because his team mate Luigi Chinetti was unwell, Sommer drove 20 of the 24 hours at Le Mans to win the race. This marked his arrival and within weeks he had finished third to Louis Chiron and Rene Dreyfus in the Nice Grand Prix and won the GP de Marseilles at Miramas.

The Maserati factory team signed him up immediately and in 1933 he raced Maseratis while also continuing to compete with his Alfa in sports car events. He won Le Mans a second time with Tazio Nuvolari. His Grand Prix career faltered with Maserati and in 1935 he bought an ex-works Alfa Romeo P3 and won French races at Comminges and Montlhery. But he was no longer able to compete at international level where the Germans dominated everything.

In 1936 the shared victory in the Grand Prix de l'ACF with his long time rival Jean-Pierre Wimille in a Bugatti sports car and added a win in the Spa 24 Hours to his impressive list of achievements. He raced for Enzo Ferrari in 1937 while competing in a Talbot sports car in France and was French Champion that year. He was French Champion again in 1939.

During World War Two, Sommer was an active member of the French Resistance. Once it was over he brought out his old Alfa Romeo 308 and picked up some places before abandoning it for a Maserati 4CL. In 1946, the 158 Alfas emerged from wartime hibernation for their first taste of active duty on the hilly little circuit of St Cloud, where Sommerís Maserati shared the front row of the grid with Jean-Pierre Wimilleís 158. The result was a minor sensation with Sommer winning.

He had little fortune with a works Maserati in 1947 and spent some time away from the sport with illness, but he did drive the ill-fated CTA-Arsenal on its only appearance. When Ferrari entered Grand Prix racing in 1948 Sommer was signed up as a works driver, being the first non-Italian to drive for Ferrari in a Grand Prix car of his own. That happened in the Italian Grand Prix at the Turin Parco Valentino in 1948. He remained with Ferrari for 1949, but halfway through the season he left to become a private entrant with a 4.5-litre Talbot Lago, finishing the year with a win at MontlhÈry.

In the first season of the World Championship, he came fourth in the Monaco GP in a Ferrari. He then decided it was better to run his own cars and entered a Lago-Talbot in several Grands Prix, leading in Belgium before the car broke down.

At the Silverstone International Trophy meeting in August 1950 he drove the new BRM but the car broke at the start of his heat. Only a fortnight later the man they nicknamed "Coeur de Lion" was killed when the steering failed on the Cooper he had borrowed from Harry Schell for the Haute Garonne GP at Cadours.