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Talbot-Lago - a case of what-could-have-been



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Philippe Étancelin, John Bolster, Yves Giraud-Cabantous


Talbot-Lago T26C (self-entered), ERA R5B 'Remus' (entered by PH Bell), Talbot-Lago T26C (entered by G Grignard)




IV RAC British GP (14 May 1949)


It is commonly accepted that had 1949 been a World Championship season it would have been Alberto Ascari's. But the Talbots of Venice-born industrialist Antonio Lago would have figured high up the championship table. As it was, the cars were past their prime when the first World Championship got underway but helped by Alfa Romeo's absence that season 1949 was definitely the year for the French marque, which included a stunning economy run by Louis Rosier to beat the Ferraris of Villoresi and Ascari at Spa.

By 1949, the heavy but reliable T26C had become the mainstay of French privateerdom, allowing some of the country's best drivers to take on the works Gordini effort that was usually led by Manzon and Trintignant, and the few privateers that kept the Delahaye and Delage heritage going.

The first big race of the season was the British GP on May 14 - the scene of Chiron's pole for Talbot the previous October - and it was to be a direct match between the Talbot-Lagos of Rosier, Chiron, Étancelin, Giraud-Cabantous and Johnny Claes, an armada of pre-war British ERAs led by Bob Gerard, David Hampshire, Peter Walker and Cuth Harrison, and the blob of privateer Maseratis 4CLs led by Prince Bira, Luigi Villoresi and Toulo de Graffenried. Ferrari was represented by a single car for Peter Whitehead (that he eventually shared with Dudley Folland), backed up by the Vandervell car of Raymond Mays and Ken Richardson.

Pole became a straight fight between the Maseratis of Villoresi and Bira, the Scuderia Ambrosiana 4CLT/48 taking it by four tenths. Peter Walker was the first of the ERAs in third, with Graffenried fourth in Platè's Maserati, Bob Gerard fifth in his fast and faithful ERA R14B, Villoresi's team mate Reg Parnell sixth and Tony Rolt seventh in the Alfa Romeo Aitken Special. Eighth was Philippe Étancelin in the first of the T26Cs, with Giraud Cabantous 11th, Chiron 15th, Claes 18th and Rosier 20th.

The Talbots of Chiron and Giraud-Cabantous were out by mid-distance, having fallen victim of a failing universal joint and a oil leak respectively. But from his lowly grid position Rosier stormed through the field to take an encouraging third, one lap down in a 100-lap race won by Emmanuel de Graffenried, a minute ahead of the unbelievably quick Gerard in a race that took almost four hours. Étancelin took fifth, led by the ERA shared by Hampshire and Billy Cotton. The third car in our picture, the ERA raced by Autosport man John Bolster, crashed out on lap 52.

Shortly after, Étancelin was beaten to the line at Marseilles by a driver named Juan Manuel Fangio making his second Gordini appearance, but at least he beat Trintignant in the other Gordini and Bonetto in the Ferrari. Guy Mairesse then took Talbot's first season win at the poorly GP des Frontières (where half the field was made up of Talbots!), before the Belgian GP was to take place on June 19.

Although a mere 14 cars took the start, the race had a heavyweight entry, with Tony Lago entering four works cars for Étancelin, 'Levegh', Rosier and Chimay winner Mairesse. Alongside them in an Ecurie Belge entry was Johnny Claes. Ferrari had sent two 125s for Ascari and Villoresi, with Peter Whitehead in his own car. The ACA made a national Argentine entry with two 4CLT/48s for Fangio and Benedicto Campos, with the CSI doing a similar exercise for Farina. The entry was completed by the Ambrosiana Maseratis of Parnell and Fred Ashmore and Geoffrey Crossley's Alta as the odd one out on the grid. On pace Villoresi and Fangio were fastest but Étancelin still managed to qualify ahead of Farina, Whitehead and Campos. Ascari was eighth behind Rosier after a troublesome qualifying.

Within 8 laps, however, the three leading Maseratis were out, Fangio retiring on the first lap with a broken piston and Parnell on lap with clutch problems, while Farina crashed on lap 8. The next three to go were from the Talbot-Lago camp, 'Levegh', Mairesse and Étancelin all retiring between lap 10 and lap 20, along with Campos' Maserati. This left a battle at the front between the Ferraris and the lone Rosier Talbot. Through sheer endurance and strength the Talbot-Lago prevailed, leading Villoresi home by some 50 seconds. It was a massive and impressive win.

In the Swiss GP Ferrari bounced back, Ascari winning ahead of his mentor, but Sommer, Étancelin and Rosier still managed third, fourth and sixth, confidently trouncing the Maseratis of Bira and Graffenried. That man Fangio again stood between Talbot and victory at Albi, but Chiron's SFACS Ecurie France Talbot brought Lago another major win at the French GP, a success that was underlined by Rosier and Sommer in fourth and fifth. The next Grande Épreuve brought another boost for the marque, with Étancelin the only one to come close to the race pace of Italian GP winner Ascari. 'Phi-Phi' then went on to repeat the result at Brno, where he probably should have beaten Peter Whitehead's private Ferrari. Talbot-Lago finished their glorious season in style by swamping the podium of the season-closing GP du Salon, Sommer ahead of Schell and Pierre Meyrat, although it must be said that the Montlhéry race was a beefed up French national event, with the only foreign interlopers being Whitehead and two Spanish Maseratis for Jover (see below) and Godia. Still, the Talbots occupied the first six places on the grid.

Had there been a constructors championship made up of the British, Belgian, Swiss, French and Italian GPs (using the 1958 scoring method, with only the best results counting), Talbot would have taken it hands down, actually beating Ferrari by four points. A remarkable result for such a heavy and unfavoured car.

"1949 Constructors Championship" GB B CH F I Total
Talbot 4 8 4 8 6 30
Ferrari   6 8 4 8 26
Maserati 8   2 6 4 20
ERA 6         6

In fact, using the 1950 drivers' points rules (8-6-4-3-2-FL1, four best scores), after three races of the "season" Rosier would have been joint drivers' championship leader with Ascari and Villoresi, even have taken a three-point lead after the French round before losing our fictitious title to Ascari in the last round by 21 points to 15. Surely, a Talbot driver would have won this figment of imagination had their best results not been divided between Rosier, Chiron and Étancelin.

"1949 World Drivers Championship" GB B CH F I Total
Ascari   4 8   9 21
Rosier 4 8   3   15
'Bira' 1   2 6 4 13
Villoresi   6 6     12
Graffenried 8       3 11
Étancelin 2   3   6 11
Chiron       8   8
Whitehead   3   5   8
Sommer     4 2 2 8
Gerard 6         6
Claes   2       2
Farina   1 1     2
Hampshire 1,5         1,5
Cotton 1,5         1,5

Only including other major races into the non-existent championship, such as San Remo, Zandvoort, the International Trophy and the Lausanne GP, would tip the scale towards Ascari and Ferrari. (That this would be in closer check with reality is proven by a similar exercise for 1948, a championship that would logically include Monaco, Switzerland, France, Italy and Britain. Here Wimille would be the rightful champion ahead of Villoresi, but amazingly Maserati would have beaten Alfa Romeo by virtue of its consistent points scoring in all rounds of the "championship", a monstrosity that Alfa would have certainly set straight if they had known of such a championship. They would then have entered Monaco and Silverstone as well, of course.)

Sadly, this was as far as the Tony Lago-led company would go in Grand Prix racing. During the World Championship days they would remain also-rans until the 1.5-litre supercharged/4.5-litre unsupercharged category was relinquished as the Championship category but Talbot-Lago did almost produce a shock result when Étancelin's non-stop run in the 1950 Belgian GP almost repeated Rosier's similarly achieved 1949 victory.

Although the race went Alfa's way in the end, it is often said that Étancelin's miracle performance made history as it showed that a 4.5-litre engine was the way forward and thus inspired Enzo Ferrari into creating his 375 Alfa beater, the car to win Ferrari's first-ever World Championship Grand Prix. But then, with all the vision the man is usually attributed, Enzo will have taken notice the year before when his own cars got a fair Talbot licking. And indeed he did.

Reader's Why by John Cross

This story begins in March 1943 when Silverstone airfield was built. It had been occupied by 17 Operational Training Unit, their prime function being the training of crews for Wellington bombers. After the war, it was abandoned, along with many other airfields. And that is where the story would have ended, had it not been for a certain Maurice Geoghegan who lived in the village of Silverstone.

In September 1947, Maurice was one of a group of enthusiasts who were drinking at the Mitre Oak, at Ombersley in Worcestershire, after a day's competition on the nearby Shelsley Walsh hill-climb. Beer and adrenaline had been flowing readily as the lads looked for alternative methods of motoring combat.

There was very little on offer. In fact, there were no motor racing circuits at all. Brooklands had been sold to the Vickers aircraft company and Donington was littered with military vehicles, relics of the war which had ended in August 1945. There was a circuit at Crystal Palace in south London, but this was now in need of major renovation. So, where could a motoring chap go to exercise his racing car? Our hero Maurice mentioned the airfield near where he lived. Now it was more or less redundant and would shortly become, in RAF parlance, 'a surplus, inactive station.'

Geoghegan said that during the summer of 1946 he had wanted to test a rebuilt Frazer Nash and the airfield seemed as good a place as any. He had found a fairly respectable two-mile 'course', starting at, as we now know it, Club Corner and running anti-clockwise along the perimeter road to Stowe, down to Becketts before returning along one of the runways to Club. He had been back a couple of times since then, in fact. So why not go tomorrow? Very little persuasion was needed. Another round was ordered to celebrate.

After a hearty breakfast, the owners of 11 Frazer Nashes and a Type 51A Bugatti set off, accompanied by their mates. Upon arrival, they set up a base at Maggotts and, so the story goes, the pilot of a passing Tiger Moth landed on the runway and joined in the fun.

The perimeter was used anti-clockwise, first for practice then a race of sorts. The race itself, who won it and how long it was are very properly lost in the mists of time: its name however is not. One of the cars, appropriately carrying Maurice himself, had rounded Club and was going up to Stowe when he came across a well-nourished and slothful sheep. The resulting impact inverted the sheep and caused it to out-accelerate the Nash up the straight with its legs in the air and very dead. The race for Geoghegan was over as the Nash bowed down at the front and threw its axle after the deceased. Later, folding money changed hands in the best traditions of pioneer motoring and the party finished at the Saracen's Head, Towcester.

The race was henceforth known as the Mutton Grand Prix.

The RAC heard about the airfield after some 500cc racers had an altercation with the caretaker. At the end of July 1948, a temporary lease was arranged; the RAC Grand Prix would be held at Silverstone on 2 October. And, happily, the 500cc men were invited to provide a supporting race.

When the RAC visited the site to weigh up the task before them the place had the forlorn look familiar to abandoned aerodromes of a greater vintage: rotting wood, faded paintwork, weeds and grass sprouting freely in the concrete runways, the odd broken pane of glass allowing the chill wind access to deserted buildings and hangars. Everywhere had a layer of dust and grit. It was clearly a place that no-one had been sorry to leave. An unhappy era was about to be replaced by one with a similar sense of tingling anticipation which came from a more acceptable source.

Before then, however, the RAC had to wade through an administrative nightmare. A subcommittee to help organise the race consisted of many distinguished figures, including General A. H. Loughborough, who had won the first RAC Rally in 1932, S.C.H. Davis, John Morgan of the Junior Car Club and Captain A.W. Phillips of the RAC.

Dealing with one county council would be difficult enough but with the Northamptonshire-Buckinghamshire border bisecting the airfield, the problem immediately doubled in size. On top of that, the war had caused havoc with the various government departments and the race organisers had to deal with the Ministries of Air, War, Town and Country Planning, Agriculture, Supply, Transport, Fuel, Works and, just for good measure, the Board of Trade. As The Autocar noted sagely, it was a 'Gilbertian situation.'

On a more practical front, motor clubs weighed in with labour when it came to laying out the track itself. The aim was to simulate a road circuit as best they could, a requirement which obviously ruled out the use of the perimeter road alone since, regardless of the direction of travel, one particular type of medium-speed corner would dominate. By utilising the runways as well, it would not only be possible to add to the length of the circuit, but there would also be the opportunity to include hairpin bends.

The races would be run in a clockwise direction. It made sense to place the pit and paddock area near an access point. There was a particular spot close to Luffield Abbey Farm, so-called because of the nearby ruins of Luffield Priory. Thus, the name Abbey Curve was given to the sweeping left-hander which led onto what would now become the pit straight.

The first corner, a fast right-hander, was to be known as Woodcote, named after the RAC's country club at Woodcote Park, near Epsom in Surrey. The perimeter road then ran towards Copse (so-called because of the nearby Seven Copses Wood) where the track then swung onto a runway for the first time and headed along Segrave Straight. A sharp left turn would take competitors back towards the perimeter road, rejoining it at a point on the short straight between Maggotts Curve (in deference to another local landmark, Maggotts Moor) and Becketts Corner. The ruins of the Chapel of Thomas a Becket lent its name to this right-hander, and Chapel Curve, which followed in quick succession.

Onto Hangar Straight now, a name derived from two large aircraft hangars, now demolished, on the left-hand side, before reaching Stowe Corner, a link with the local school of the same name. A sharp right-hander at Stowe meant a return to the same runway - now called Seaman Straight - and the prospect of motoring flat-out towards competitors racing along Segrave Straight. The erection of screens perhaps blanked out the drivers' fears but it did nothing to lessen the risk of a potentially serious incident if drivers failed to negotiate the lefthanders at the runway intersection.

By doubling back, competitors rejoined the perimeter road for the last time at Club Corner (named after the RAC Club in Pall Mall) before charging through Abbey Curve to complete a lap measuring 3.67 miles.

There would be detail changes to the layout over the years but the original names and most of the track remain part of Silverstone today. And with the advent of private travel by air, the runways have been returned to the use for which they were originally intended.

After the first Grand Prix in 1948, Silverstone continued to be viewed as nothing more than a stop-gap measure, pending either the release of Donington or the construction of a 'proper' circuit elsewhere. But, one thing was sure. Having set the ball rolling, the RAC was not going to let 1949 pass without Great Britain holding a Grand Prix, regardless of the shortcomings and the insecurity of the tenancy at Silverstone.

A day in May was seen to be more favourable from every point of view, not least the expiry of the leasing agreement the following August. Of more importance, however, was the granting of official Grand Prix status by the FIA, thus putting the Silverstone race on a par with classics in France, Italy and Monaco. The RAC immediately renamed the event the British Grand Prix. But the tricky question of financing, not just the Grand Prix but motor racing in general, remained.

Desmond Scannell of the BRDC had raised the subject in casual conversation with Basil Cardew, motoring correspondent of the Daily Express who, in turn, discussed the matter with Tom Blackburn, the general manager of the newspaper. It was quickly agreed that the Daily Express would lend its considerable weight to motor racing at Silverstone, thus beginning a liaison which would last for at least 40 years.

The first thing the Express wanted to know was the quality of the entry for the British Grand Prix. The news was not good. Once again, there was not enough 'starting money' on offer for the likes of Ferrari; the 1,500 prize fund alone was insufficient. But, at least Maserati had agreed to be present once more, albeit in a semi-works capacity. That meant the mixture had changed little since the inaugural race seven months before. The track, though, was different.

The runways were abandoned since spectators had been prevented from getting close enough due to the cultivation of strips of land on the infield. Thus, the track now followed the perimeter road, duly widened and resurfaced in places, for its entire length. And, in the interests of variety, a ludicrously tight chicane, marked out by straw bales, was introduced at Club Corner to slow the cars. There were now two grandstands 'out in the country': the East stand at Becketts and the South stand at Stowe. And, in an attempt to speed up the traffic flow and make the points of access more understandable, the various parking areas had been given different colours. The scaffolding representing the pits was shifted further away from the exit of Abbey Curve and the lap distance now measured three miles exactly.

Villoresi, back in a Maserati for this event, mastered the new track better than most when he urged the 4CLT round in 2 minutes 9.8 seconds on Friday, the second day of practice. The previous day had belonged to the ERA of Peter Walker, but the Englishman had to be satisfied with an eventual third-fastest time behind Villoresi and the 4CLT of 'Bira.' The privately-entered Maserati of 'Bira's' team-mate, Baron 'Toulo' de Graffenried, was just four-tenths slower than Walker and they were joined on the five-car front row by the immaculate ERA of Bob Gerard.

The second Scuderia Ambrosiana Maserati was entrusted to Reg Parnell, the doughty Englishman nearly half a second slower than Gerard, although that was not a true reflection of Parnell's ability. This time, Talbot were represented by five cars, the Belgian driver Johnny Claes and Yves Giraud-Cabantous (cutting a dash of sartorial elegance with a beautiful knitted helmet) joining Rosier, Chiron and the effervescent Etancelin. Ferrari may not have been entered officially but the British privateers were present, Whitehead on the outside of the third row in his 125 while Tony Vandervell had entrusted his 'Thinwall Special' to Raymond Mays. As usual, Mays' pride and joy, the ERA, was well represented but, on this occasion, the classic upright machines would be rattled by the more advanced Alta of George Abecassis.

It was clear that the primitive facilities evident the previous year had not deterred the enthusiasts; this time an estimated 120,000 choked the narrow roads leading to Silverstone. If they thought the amenities would have improved in the intervening seven months, the spectators were to be disappointed, but for most, it was the sport which mattered.

As in 1948, there was a 500cc supporting race, the 'vivid little projectiles' (as The Autocar referred to them) taking a rolling start behind Col. Barnes in an Austin A90 Atlantic. A certain Stirling Moss won.

There was, however, little chance of a British victory in the main event. But with Gerard on the front row in a very reliable car, you never knew, although 100 laps at an average of around 80 mph would be a tall order and, in the event, 300 miles would prove too much for over half of the 25 starters.

Indeed, the race had barely started when Roy Salvadori pulled into the pits for a change of plugs on his Maserati 4CL. His early absence would scarcely have been noticed since there was a battle royal going on at the front. 'Bira' had stormed into the lead, chased strongly by Villoresi, the Italian forcing his way through after two laps. But that was not the end of the story. 'Bira' gave chase and retook the lead, only to have Villoresi regain the initiative a few laps later. Then the lead changed hands again on lap 24 but, this time, the Scuderia Ambrosiana car was in trouble and Villoresi made a pit stop to investigate sagging oil pressure. Eleven laps later, the previous year s winner was out. That left 'Bira' with a massive lead over Parnell but, once again, the Prince was in trouble with fading brakes. It was almost inevitable that if trouble were going to strike, it would occur under heavy braking for the Club chicane and that's exactly what happened on lap 47, the blue and yellow Maserati ploughing into the straw bales and hitting a marker tub. Unfortunately, the 'tub' was an oil drum filled with concrete. The front of the 4CLT was badly damaged and, even though 'Bira' managed to limp into the pits, nothing could be done.

There was little dismay in the enclosures since this meant that an Englishman was leading the British Grand Prix for the first time in 23 years! Driving with his familiar blend of determined aggression, Parnell seemed comfortable as he maintained a 25-second gap over the 4CLT of de Graffenried. The excitement lasted for about 15 minutes. An oil plug worked loose from the back axle of the Maserati and Parnell was forced into the pits. He returned to the track but, after stopping a few more times, Parnell's race was run. De Graffenried was in the clear.

Further down the field, there was a heroic drive of truly British proportions as Abecassis pushed the Alta round Silverstone at a pace which even surprised members of the team. The one exception was Alf Francis, a Polish-born mechanic completely devoted to his trade. From the minute he had joined H.W. Motors Limited at Walton-on-Thames the previous summer, Francis had been impressed by their Alta which, in effect, was the only purpose-built Grand Prix car made in England at the time.

Alf Francis would prove to be one of the greatest improvisers in the pit lane at a time when racing teams could not afford to discard faulty parts and simply replace them with new ones. Alf could seemingly keep a car running on sheer ingenuity alone. He would go on to become chief mechanic to Stirling Moss and, in association with the journalist Peter Lewis, he later wrote the book Alf Francis. Racing Mechanic.

Francis described George Abecassis as 'one of the pre-war gentlemen drivers who has not acquired his style of driving from anyone.... on one of his good days, he is a difficult driver to catch and a pleasure to watch in action.' 14 May 1949 was one of George's good days.

After 10 laps, he was in fifth place, the Alta, as Francis described it, 'going like a bomb.' Then carburettor trouble meant a four-minute pit stop as Francis lay on his back in the pit lane and reached inside the engine compartment, plugging off the miscreant carburettor by feel. The bodywork was so low that he could not get his head underneath the engine.

Abecassis, really fired up now, rejoined and began carving his way through the field. There would be a routine stop for fuel, and not even a broken exhaust pipe would deter the Englishman. It was the most satisfactory sight a hard-working mechanic could wish to see. Francis describes the moment in his book and, along the way, he unconsciously sums up a classic chauvinistic view of motor racing.

'We were all so excited about the prospects of the flying Alta getting to grips with the front end of the field that James Tilling (who was managing the pit) agreed with my suggestion to speed up Abecassis even more. This was the first time our pit had been really well organized and our code was a simple one: F. for faster. Twice we showed the chalked message to Abecassis and then, much to the disgust of Mrs. Abecassis, I added the plus sign.

"Do you want to kill my husband?" she said.

"Madame," I replied, "we are motor-racing."'

While George Abecassis was doing his bit for Britain in the mid-field, the hopes of a home victory rested with the steady 'Mr Bob'. Gerard's ERA was some three minutes behind de Graffenried. The only hope was that the Swiss would go the way of Giraud-Cabantous, who had retired with a piston failure, or Walker, whose ERA had been forced out by brake trouble, or Chiron, a victim of transmission failure on the Talbot.

Bolster had been injured very badly when his ERA left the course at Stowe but there was an incident of an even more serious nature when Ken Richardson, having taken over the Thin-wall Ferrari from Mays, proved that the handling of the short-wheelbase car really was as bad as Mays had claimed. Coming through Abbey Curve, the inexperienced Richardson lost control and spun backwards into the crowd, injuring several spectators. Whitehead's Ferrari was in trouble too when Dudley Folland spun wildly at Maggotts shortly after taking over from the car's owner.

With 20 laps to go, Gerard rose to the occasion and stepped up the pace. It was asking a bit much from a 12-year-old car however and he eased off enough to maintain his second place ahead of Rosier, who ran the race non-stop, and the ERA driven by Billy Cotton and David Hampshire.

For de Graffenried, though, this was almost too difficult to believe. The immaculate 'Toulo' would go on to become adviser to Philip Morris when they introduced their 'Marlboro' brand to motor sport as tobacco sponsorship truly got into its stride in the Seventies. De Graffenried also became Chairman of the Club International des Ancient Pilotes de Grand Prix and, doubtless, he was grateful for the Silverstone success as a means of counting himself as a Grand Prix winner.

When recalling that race forty years later, however, de Graffenried did not embellish the story behind his victory.

'I had my chance and my luck,' he said. 'It was a long race and the thing was to wait during the first half and see what happened. For instance 'Bira', who was now my team-mate, went out when he hit that oil drum; then Villoresi's Maserati went out. The aim was to finish, obviously, but you always set out expecting to win - even if you eventually finished last. But just to finish was vital because the prize money was more important than anything else if you were a private team.

'The Maserati was owned jointly by me, a friend, and the chief mechanic, Enrico Plate. In fact, the team was called Scuderia Enrico Platè. Things were very different in those days you know! It was not uncommon for the driver to take his turn at driving the lorry so that the mechanics could rest while we travelled to the circuit.

'We had genuine hopes of a good finish and it looked good when 'Bira' disputed the lead with Villoresi. When they both went out, it was up to me to do something for the team and I chased Parnell's Maserati. Then I noticed his car was spilling oil and I wasn't surprised when he had to stop. After that, I had to worry about Gerard, even though he was quite a long way behind me. I knew his car was likely to finish but I kept getting encouraging signs from the pits. In fact, I remember that Villoresi was standing with my team and helping with the pit board. I can't imagine that happening today! Anyway, once Gerard began to ease off, I knew I could do the same. But those last few laps were very worrying. The car was okay - but I kept checking the oil pressure gauge just in case. 'It was to be my first victory in an international Grand Prix and it meant a lot to me. Winning that race meant I was engaged in all the Grands Prix and my sporting career began to improve from that point.

'For me, the British Grand Prix was, and still is, a great name. I was lucky, yes. But, my God, it was a nice feeling...'