Some Racing Memories

As a supporting race to the French Grand Prix at Monthlery, a Formula Libre (free formula) contest was staged the day before the main event. This free-for-all was open to cars of all sizes and attracted a diversity of entrants, including Albert Divo in a 1.5-litre Talbot, Louis Wagner and W.G.Williams in a pair of 4-litre Sunbeams, Louis Chiron and George Eyston in 2.3-litre supercharged Bugattis, and Mme Devancourt in a little l,100cc Salmson. But in the end the vehicle which governed the result was an ambulance.
Heavy rain deprived the big Sunbeams of their power advantage and although Williams led on the first of the ten laps, he and Wagner soon retired with transmission trouble. Divo took over at the front, hotly pursued by Chiron, but then tragedy struck when a Guyot left the road, killing its driver, de Courcelles. An ambulance rushed to the scene but it broke all regulations by going round the track in the wrong direction. As it pulled off, it blocked the fast-approaching Chiron who was forced to swerve on to the outer circuit, narrowly avoiding a second disaster.
But for having to execute this highly dangerous manoeuvre, Chiron might well have caught the leader. Instead Divo held on to beat Chiron by 32 seconds at an average speed of 74.75mph. Eyston was third and Mme Devancourt fourth in what must surely be the only race to have been decided by an ambulance driver.

Count Aymo Maggi had dreamed of making his home town of Brescia the focus of the world’s greatest motor race. Together with fellow Brescia residents, Count Franco Mazzotti, Renzo Castegneto and Giovanni Canestrini, Maggi conceived the idea of a 1,000-mile race through Italy, starting and finishing in Brescia, and taking place on public roads which would not officially be closed for the duration. The ambitious proposal appealed to Italian leader Benito Mussolini, who saw motor racing as the way forward, and in 1927 the first Mille Miglia was held. It quickly lived up to its billing as the finest road race in the world.
The first two Mille Miglias had been a resounding success, happily free from the accidents which had plagued the inter-city races at the turn of the century and which some had predicted would blight this charge through the towns and villages of northern and central Italy. Not only did the races attract sizeable entries but they made the sport accessible to the Italian people, who turned up in their thousands along the route to cheer on their favourites. The 1929 race attracted a more modest 72 entries, mainly because it clashed with the Monaco Grand Prix, which was considered the major event by the motoring world. With eight Bugattis at Monte Carlo, there were none left for the Mille Miglia. Indeed there were no foreign works entries, making the strong Alfa Romeo team hot favourites, their challenge spearheaded by the victorious 1928 pairing of Giuseppe Campari and Giulio Ramponi. Campari was a larger than life character. A frustrated opera singer, he loved to sing at the top of his voice while roaring along the road. Alfa’s chief rivals were the Brescia-based OM team, whose drivers included Antonio Brivio and the up-and-coming Tazio Nuvolari. The smaller classes were expected to be dominated by the Fiat 509s who made up more than a quarter of the total entry. The most colourful competitor was actress Mimi Aylmer, who arrived at the start wearing a smart red dress and fur jacket, with her chauffeur at the wheel of a Lancia Lamb a. Everyone assumed that the chauffeur would do the driving but at the last minute she took the wheel, relegating him to the passenger seat where he was to stay for the entire race. Ahead of them all lay 1,018 miles spread over two days, the route descending as far south as Rome. At least one third of the race would be run on dirt roads, additional hazards including 67 level crossings, many of which were unmanned. Surprisingly it was the lone Maserati of ‘Baconin’ Borzacchini and Ernesto Maserati which led to Bologna, by which time the OM driven by two of the race founders, Maggi and Mazzotti, had been forced to retire with transmission trouble. Another early casualty was Nuvolari, who crashed out in what would subsequently prove to be typically spectacular style. Four minutes behind the Maserati was Campari, pursued by Achille Varzi, Count Brilli-Peri and Carlo Pintacuda, all in Alfas. On the run down to Rome Varzi was delayed for half an hour by having to stop and put out a fire, and Brilli-Peri dropped out with engine trouble. Borzacchini and Maserati were still ahead at Rome but on the notoriously tricky drive up to the Adriatic, they dropped out with transmission trouble. This seemed to leave the way clear for Alfa and by the time they reached the Adriatic coast Campari and Ramponi held a lead of over 20 minutes. Back at Bologna, with just a fifth of the race to go, Campari still had a commanding advantage over the OM of Giuseppe Morandi and Archimede Rosa, which had moved up into second ahead of Varzi. Although Campari’s car suffered two punctures on the final section, he reached Brescia to win by ten minutes from Morandi and Rosa withVarzi and Colombo two minutes behind in third. The Alfa’s winning time was 18hr 4min 25sec, an average speed of 56.05mph. Forty-two of the 72 starters were still going at the finish.
Among them was Mimi Aylmer, but not until she had made one last gesture to her adoring fans. Way down the field in 29th place and some seven hours behind the winner, she pulled over on the outskirts of Brescia and stopped for five minutes to attend to her hair and make-up. After putting on fresh lipstick, she felt able to face her public once more and drove on to the finish where she received a rapturous welcome. She then stepped out of the car with a radiant smile, immaculately groomed, and showing no sign whatsoever of fatigue. The expression on her chauffeur’s face told a different story. Looking a nervous wreck, the poor man was later given a special award at the prize-giving for being the most courageous man of the race. Without doubt he had earned it.

Achille Varzi was known as the ice-man of Italian motor racing. Whereas fellow countryman and fierce rival, Tazio Nuvolari, typified the explosive Latin temperament, Varzi remained cool and calculating, a breed apart. This approach had brought Varzi a number of victories in minor races but he had yet to establish himself in the very top flight of world drivers. At the 1930 Mille Miglia the flamboyant Nuvolari had revelled in emphasising his superiority. Well ahead on time as dawn was about to break on the second day, he spotted Varzi ahead of him on the road. Switching off his lights, he crept up on Varzi unawares, then flashed them on again as he swept past on his way to victory. For Varzi it had been a humiliating experience. Nuvolari was the top dog… and both men knew it.
Three weeks later the pair met again in theTarga Florio, run over five laps of the intimidating Madonie circuit. The Alfa Romeo team was managed by Enzo Ferrari, who had cars for Nuvolari, Giuseppe Campari and Varzi. The last-named had driven a modified Alfa P2 to victory in the Bordino Prize at Alessandria but, with a top speed of 140mph, it was considered unsuited to the twisting Madonie course. Ferrari certainly thought so and warned Varzi that the car was too dangerous for the Targa Florio, but Varzi put his foot down. Campari and Nuvolari were not exacdy renowned for erring on the side of caution but even they steered clear of the P2 for this race, preferring instead to drive two of the new l,750cc sports cars. Bugatti sent a strong four-man team, led by Louis Chiron and Albert Divo, and there was also stiff opposition from the Maseratis of Luigi Arcangeli, Baconin Borzacchini and Ernesto Maserati, but this was to be the day that Achille Varzi came of age.
He announced his intentions from the off, putting in a blistering opening lap to break the track record and lead the way from Nuvolari and Campari in the other Alfas and the Bugatti trio of Chiron, Divo and Count Carlo Alberto Conelli. Chiron upped the tempo to overtake Nuvolari and Campari on elapsed time but, at the end of the second lap, was still losing ground to the seemingly unstoppable Varzi. On the third lap, however, Varzi suffered a fuel leak which allowed Chiron to close the gap to less than two minutes, and when the Italian came into the pits for a wheel change at the end of lap four, he was actually half a minute behind. Having started 12 minutes behind Chiron, he was unaware of the problems that the Monegasque driver was encountering out on the circuit, for Chiron had skidded on some loose stones on a downhill section and had been forced to change two wheels. But for Varzi back in the pits every second counted. There was no time for a longer stop to take on fuel so his riding mechanic snatched the can and proceeded to pour the fuel into the tank as the car sped off along the road. In doing so, he spilt some on to the exhaust. Within an instant, flames were licking around Varzi’s neck but he had come too close to victory to be denied now and, keeping his legendary cool, he drove on defiantly while the mechanic valiantly tried to beat down the flames with a seat cushion. Somehow they negotiated that final lap safely and speedily, and took the chequered flag to wild cheers from the patriotic Sicilian crowd. Chiron was nearly two minutes back in second with Conelli third, Campari fourth and Nuvolari only fifth. Varzi had well and truly proved his point. Both he and the car had been up to the task. He was now able to join the world’s racing elite.

Ever keen to welcome ingenious new ideas to brighten up their meetings, the Brooklands committee adopted a suggestion from the light Car Club to run a team relay race for amateur drivers. The event was restricted to cars of l,500cc or under, each team of three being handicapped according to engine capacity. Each car had to do 30 laps, the fastest car in the team starting first, followed by the next fastest and finally the slowest. When the first car completed its 30 laps, the driver came in, handed a sash to the team’s next driver who then sprinted to his car and continued for another 30 laps. If a car retired, the next car could still take over but it had to cover the extra distance as well as its own 30 laps. Thus if the first car ground to a halt after 12 laps, the second car would have to complete 48 laps.
Twenty-two teams took part in the 270-mile race and, in addition to the rules, had to contend with torrential rain which flooded part of the track. More than one team had to push its first car over the start line before immediately summoning the second car to run 60 laps. The race proved a triumph for the new racing Austin Sevens, the team of Leon Cushman, J.D. Barnes and Charles Goodacre winning at an average speed of 81.77mph. A mixed team of a Lea-Francis, a Riley and an Austin Seven finished second at 80.14mph with another Austin Seven team in third.
The Morgan team adapted its cars by holding the hand throttles open with rubber bands so that their drivers could concentrate solely on steering – a tactic which resulted in some hairy excursions around the banking. Ultimately it proved of minimal benefit, the team finishing no higher than 12th. The race produced plenty of chaos during changeovers with drivers bumping into officials and photographers, while one driver was in such a hurry to get away that he tried to start with the handbrake on.