Nimble, elegant, ultimately French
- Mattijs Diepraam, Felix Muelas
- 8W November 2000 issue
- Jean Behra - The fighting man, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Robert Manzon - The first musketeer, by Rémi Paolozzi
- Teddy Pilette - Third generation of a racing family, by Mattijs Diepraam/Leif Snellman/Felix Muelas/Eric Verkaaik
Fred Wacker, André Pilette
Gordini T16, Ecurie Belge Connaught-Lea Francis A
1953 Belgian GP (21 June 1953)
1953 French GP (5 July 1953)
One of the most striking dichotomies of the immediate post-war years is the amount of top-line Grand Prix events held in France as opposed to the poor support given to the French motor racing industry. In fact, France was the world's first nation to start racing again after peace had set in, a group of avid racers comprising of Maurice Trintignant amongst others getting together in the Bois de Boulogne near the liberated French capitol to contest the aptly named Coupe Robert Benoist. On the other hand, French car manufacturers posing a real threat to the domination of the Italian marques were as good as non-existent. Bugatti, Delage and Delahaye had barely survived the war, and although many of the cars were still raced by privateers, a serious works effort by either of them was out of the question.
There was however one exception, as Amedée Gordini valiantly continued his team with the support of French manufacturer Simca. Running as ever on a tight budget, Gordini managed to do rather well against the Italian moguls, as his neat little cars proved very effective in F2 races and minor F1 events.
Before the war Amedée had been a Fiat racer thanks to his links with Simca, the company that manufactured Fiats under license in France. Post-war Gordini picked up where he had left off and approached Simca to supply his team with Simca production engines. The manufacturer agreed and the supplies kept on coming until Gordini managed to sway Simca into producing his own Simca-derived units. In 1951, he went ahead with this 1496cc (78x78mm) four-cylinder engine with twin overhead camshafts driven by a train of gears from the front of the engine. A supercharger made the F2 engine eligible for F1 events.
Gordini ran the cars in F1 and F2 events, but success was not as high as with the production Simcas of 1950. That season, Gordini's regulars Robert Manzon and Maurice Trintignant had participated in the "French" rounds of the inaugural World Championship, debuting in Monaco, then racing a single car for Manzon in France before turning out with a two-car assault at Monza, just across the French border. The two did surprisingly well in their 1.4s, Manzon taking a solid fourth at his home race. Sadly, Gordini's development of Simca's engine kept on blowing in 1951, with only Manzon taking a couple of lowly finishes in the four World Championship rounds they contested. So at the end of 1951 Simca withdrew its support. Eventually, it didn't matter since the supercharged 1.5-litre engine would have been ineligible anyway for the 1952 championship, which was to be run to F2 regulations.
This meant that from 1952 on Gordini had to go it alone. He managed to scrape together enough money to build a new 1987cc (75x75mm) six-cylinder engine with a claimed power output of 175 bhp, although the actual power output was much less. This was used in unit with a four-speed gearbox and the chassis was a new tubular structure with torsion bars front and rear. Next to the single-seaters, Gordini built sportscars that made frequent but fleeting appearances in most of the European long-distance races.
The new T16 made an encouraging start, Robert Manzon qualifying well up in each of his Championship appearances and finishing third at Spa and fourth at Rouen. Next to Manzon a young Jean Behra was signed on, who immediately hit the headlines with a third at his Bremgarten debut race. Later in the year Jean went one better by beating the Ferraris to win at Reims. It was a great win that has gone all but forgotten since it happened to be the non-championship Marne GP instead of a full-blown ACF GP.
In 1953 the T16's form weakened considerably with just four WC points accumulated over the year. With Behra and Trintignant on board for another season and Harry Schell joining the two Frenchmen, the team featured a strong line-up, but the only results were gained in minor events, Trintignant taking both the Grand Prix des Frontières at Chimay and the Circuit de Cadours. The season also featured guest drives by Argentinians Roberto Mieres (almost doing a full season), Carlos Menditeguy and Pablo Birger, as well as American Fred Wacker.
Wacker, pictured during his appearance in the 1953 Belgian GP, was an SCCA pioneer that had founded the Chicago Region in the late forties before becoming SCCA's national president. It was in this function that Wacker acquired a factory-supported Gordini T16 to race in Europe in 1953.
During his SCCA days Wacker raced a similar Allard-Caddy to Carroll Shelby and was a front-runner in Midwest event. In 1951 he came over to Europe to contest Le Mans for the Cunningham team. The second time he staying in France he first sat in an open-wheeled single-seater when coming out to Montlhéry to test his newly-acquired Gordini, freshly repainted in white and blue, with an American flag on the sides. In the pitlane he was given a pep talk by veteran Midwest circle-track racer Wally Mitchell, Wacker's close friend that had joined him on a trip. It was well needed since the step from SCCA racing to Grand Prix racing must have been huge, apart from the fact that couldn't understand a word of the lingo his French mechanics used.
Wacker recalls: "I got in the car and nobody told me anything. I think they told me the shift pattern and that was about it. And I remember I just started to go around this track at Montlhéry, which I'd never seen before. And of course, I didn't have many brains in those days. I didn't have sense enough to go slow. I wanted to win on the first lap. Well, I went over this bump. I didn't see it. I was probably doing, I don't know, maybe 130 miles per hour. And I almost came out of the car. We didn't wear seat belts then. I was like W.C. Fields coming down the side of the mountain in The Bank Dick, you know, with the steering wheel in my hands. So I came in and told them that I had some trouble staying in the car and they said, 'Oh, well, you have to keep your left foot pressed up against the firewall and push your back against the seat. That's the way you stay in.' See, nobody told me that, and I could have loused myself up pretty good."
Those were lessons well learned, for on his first serious event, the crash-ridden GP des Frontières at Chimay, Fred took a stunning third, just 2.5s off winner Trintignant taking the first victory for the T16. It was the first post-war Grand Prix podium finish for an American driver.
Next up was the Eifelrennen at the daunting Nürburgring where Wacker wasn't half as fortunate. In practice Fred survived a scary high-speed crash and during a wet race finished ninth. It was meant to be enough preparation for his first World Championship race, the 1953 Dutch GP. The venue was the seaside track of Zandvoort and during practice Fred didn't feel comfortable at all. "I had a hell of a time controlling the car," he remembered, as the Gordini proved alarmingly twitchy on the sandy course. That evening Wacker's friend Mitchell, who had a technical mind, convinced Fred that he was not the cause. The car was. Why else was works driver and countryman Harry Schell having the same handling problems? And so, sure enough, Harry tried to persuade Wacker to loan him his car for the race.
Wacker thinks fondly of the stunt he pulled. "He said, 'I get more starting money than you do, and it's important for Mr. Gordini to have the money,' and this whole big story. So, I said, 'Well, Harry, I don't know about that. I came all the way over from the United States to race here, so I'll have to think about it.' And we agreed to meet in an hour." So Fred was on the phone with Amedée Gordini. He had a sound business proposition. He would loan Schell his own car but in return Gordini had to modify it along the lines of Mitchell's notes. Cash-ridden Gordini, thinking of the starting money at stake, thought that was a fair deal. And so, on Schell's return to Wacker's hotel room, Fred pulled every facial muscle to keep a straight face, trying as hard as he could to appear reluctant to part with his car. "Of course, I was tickled pink," laughed Wacker, "because I didn't want to drive. You know, the car just wasn't right and I didn't want to kill myself." At the end of the day Schell's, or rather Wacker's gearbox failed after 59 laps, and Gordini only partially lived up to his promise, even though Behra and Trintignant also requested some of the changes Mitchell had thought out. "Mr. Gordini suffered from the 'not-invented-here' syndrome. His ego just wouldn't let him make the other changes."
Two weeks later at Spa, Wacker finally ran his first Grand Prix (pictured). Having qualified 15th, not far off Behra, Fred finished the race 10th, two places behind Schell, to make it the first post-war Grand Prix in which two American were competing. Next up was Bremgarten but he had to forego on that one due to labour problems at his Chicago factory, obliging him to return to the States a week before the race. He got back in time but had just one qualifying session left on a track that could play evil tricks on you. "There was one hour left to qualify. I didn't even have time to put a driving suit on. I just got in the car, put my helmet on and started going around. And every time I'd come around, they'd give me the 'kick it' signal. I wasn't going fast enough. And finally, I made a real good lap. I think it was sixth fastest of the day or something, and they waved me to come in."
Tragically, Fred flipped the car on his in-lap and he was transported to hospital with a fractured skull, broken ribs, and friction burns over much of his body. It was the end of racing for Fred Wacker in 1953. At the hospital many of his peers came to see him: Moss, Hawthorn and Trintignant. But a wonderful gesture by Fangio, the great champion who had himself been taken out of action for most of the 1952 season, made the single biggest impression on Wacker. "I was really out of it when Fangio came in," Fred remembered, "but somehow I admired a little pin he had in his coat button hole, a little chequered flag. Well, he took it off and gave it to me. His name was inscribed on the back of it. It's something he'd won for something or other. But I have that to this day. It's one of those things that I really prize. It was a nice human thing to do."
Late 1954, Wacker was back in Europe and again driving with Gordini, his car donned in Gordini's familiar pale bleu this time. To lay the ghosts to rest, Wacker selected Bremgarten for his GP comeback but by now the two-year-old car was thoroughly outclassed, with the Grand Prix formula now changed to 2.5-litre F1. He qualified the T16, kept it in one piece but was trailing badly time-wise. On lap 10 the transmission broke.
At Monza Wacker simply shone. Pitching his ancient, underpowered Gordini against a fleet of W196s, 625s and 250F - cars specifically designed to the new 2.5-litre rules - Fred hung on to finish a terrific sixth, 5 laps down on winner Fangio. Nowadays that would have been good for a point but back in those days just the first five finishes took points.
Wacker did two more minor events before retiring from the sport. "I couldn't get a ride with any of the major teams, but in the end I just had to choose between motor racing and my manufacturing business, and I chose the latter."
In the same picture as Wacker is André Pilette, who was part of the Ecurie Belge that had raced Gordinis the season before with Johnny Claes and Paul Frère. And they weren't the only Belgian Gordini privateers for a marque that has mainly known official works entries. Georges Berger drove his ancient Gordini-Simca T15 in that same race while entering a 2.5-litre T16 in the 1954 Belgian GP. Both times he qualified at the back and saw his engine expire during the race.
The 2.5-litre engine was an enlarged version of the 2-litre six-cylinder unit. The capacity was now at 2473cc (80x82mm) in which form it had already been raced in sportscars and, running on alcohol fuel, had a power output of around 212 bhp. With its F2 origins the T16 was the lightest of the 2.5-litre cars but the engine, although uprated, was low on power while the chassis - which had kept a rigid rear axle - was from the dark ages compared to what Mercedes came up with during 1954.
So it was in the minor events that Gordini had to get its funding to keep the operation afloat. And with Jean Behra still on board, that goal wasn't entirely unattainable! At Pau, Behra proved a giant killer by picking up the pieces after Gonzalez's Ferrari broke its crankshaft, Jean going on to win. In the International Trophy Behra and André Simon took second and third, Behra was third at Bari and Caen, while Pilette was second at Chimay and Cadours. To top that, the winner at Cadours was Behra!
It was just enough to develop a totally new Gordini, the ambitious T32 that appeared mid-1955. The car was powered by a striking straight-eight engine of 2498cc (75x70mm) with twin overhead camshafts gear-driven from the front of the crankshaft, four twin-choke Solex carburettors, single-plug ignition and a claimed power output of 256bhp at 7,300 rpm, the true output probably being in the region of 230bhp. There was a five-speed gearbox with synchromesh on the upper four ratios in unit with the engine. Once again the chassis was a simple ladder-type tubular structure with independent suspension front and rear by torsion bars which controlled a pair of L-shaped links pivoted to the side and cross members of the chassis, together with Messier hydraulic dampers. Thus the wheels moved up and down in a true vertical plane without wheelbase or track variation. But the big news was on the outside of the car, as it featured very neat, smooth bodywork that extended out to form a full-width nose.
The car was entered for the 1955 French Grand Prix but then that race was cancelled, leading to Jean Lucas debuting the T32 at Monza, where it retired after only 8 laps. Meanwhile, the 6-cylinder was kept on for 1956 and Robert Manzon took another surprise win for Gordini at Posillipo, again coming through after the Ferrari cars had faltered mid-way through the race. Although technically very interesting, the T32 couldn't make any hay during 1956, Pilette's sixth at Monaco, albeit 12 laps down, the car's best result in a World Championship race. Nano da Silva Ramos then took a win in the minor Montlhéry Autumn Cup but it was a false dawn. The team entered just two races in 1957, Pau and Naples, before the money well finally ran dry. Not a single French manufacturer stepped in to support Gordini, as they apparently just waited for the chance to snap up Amedée's services once his racing enterprise had gone bankrupt.
In the end it was Renault that picked up Gordini for their development department. To their credit Renault kept the Gordini name alive all through Amedée's time with the car giant. The first result of Gordini's work at Renault was the sports version of their Dauphine saloon, which respectfully was named the Dauphine-Gordini. In the sixties and seventies Gordini played a big part in the development of the Alpine sub-marque before the Gordini name made a proud return to F1.
On July 17, 1977, the day of the 1977 British GP, a yellow-and-black car lined up 21st on the grid. Its 1.5-litre V6 engine produced a wailing sound, unfamiliar to Grand Prix, before its turbocharger expired on lap 16. In a fitting tribute to one of their most resourceful engineers, Renault had put his name slam on top of the cam covers of their turbo engine. So in a gratifying sort of way Gordini lay at the basis of a a technology that was to dominate GP racing during almost the entire 1980s.
1st Reader's Why by Marcel Schot
Seeing Jean-Marie Balestre in a Formula One car seems strange, right? The president of a governing board belong in a grey suit, behind his desk. Not Fred Wacker. He was the founder and president of the Chicago region of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). This on its own is quite a story. In a time when hardly any American knew about sportscars, Fred Wacker imported an MG from Britain and visited the Indianapolis 500 with his friend Bud Seaverns. After the race, the couple got stuck in the usual traffic jam. They met Bill Spears and Sam Bailey from New York, who told them about the existence of the SCCA. Wacker thought it was a good idea to join the SCCA himself and as he registered, he found out no Chicago region existed yet. Thus in late 1948 the Chicago region of the SCCA was founded.
Between 1949 and 1953 Wacker competed in several sportscar races, first with MGs and Healys and later with Allards. His biggest success came in the 1950 Sebring 6 Hours where he won with Frank Burrell. 1951 saw Wacker race outside the US for the first time. In March he competed and finished 2nd in Buenos Aires and three months later he entered the Le Mans 24 Hours in a Cunningham C2-R Chrysler with George Rand. He was back in Le Mans in 1953, now in an OSCA MT4 1100 with Phil Hill, but just like two years earlier he didn't make it to the finish.
Fred didn't only like sportscars though. Wanting to take a shot at Formula 1, he rented a Gordini, painted it in American colors and took to the track. His first outing came in the 1953 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. However, he never put a wheel on thr track as Gordini works driver Harry Schell needed his engine. The next race at Spa-Francorchamps provided Wacker with his first real Formula One attempt. More about that race below. His third and final attempt in the 1953 season was in Switzerland at the Bremgarten circuit. Again he wasn't able to set a time in qualifying. This time the reason was far more serious than the lack of engine in Zandvoort. Wacker crashed hard in practice, fracturing his skull. In 1954 he made a short return, even finishing 6th in the Italian Grand Prix, but his active racing days were coming to an end.
Still in 1954, Wacker started Liquid Controls Corporation, specialising in equipment for the military, petroleum, food and chemical industries. Wacker remained chairman of the corporation after his son took over his presidency in 1987. Less than a month from his 80th birthday, Fred Wacker died in June 1998. The importance of the Wacker family in Chicago life can be clearly seen as a major street in the city's business district has been named after them : Wacker Drive is home of one of Chicago's new eyecatchers 333 Wacker Drive amongst many others.
Fred Wacker was the second American to compete in Formula One outside the Indianapolis 500.
This one was probably taken somewhere between lap 9 and 14, when Pilette and Wacker were running close to each other> See these pictures at www.vintageracecar.com: Wacker at Spa 1, Wacker at Spa 2, Wacker at Spa 3.
2nd Reader's Why by 'Uechtel'
Since the introduction of Formula 2 in 1948 nearly the only kind of opposition - well, at least SOME kind - for the overwhelming superiority of Ferrari came from the little French Gordini team before the return of Maserati.
After moving from his native Italy to Paris, Amedee Gordini made his first steps as a constructor of race cars in the thirties, when he ran Simca-based sports cars modified by himself. Gordini stayed connected to Simca until the end of 1951 and so his first monoposto, which appeared in 1946, was called Simca-Gordini. During the next seasons his cars were of a small, neat design, compensating for their little engines with superior driveability. The cars were entered even in Formula 1 in 1950, their little engines fitted with superchargers, but their big time came in 1952, when Formula 2 races had world championship status after the retirement of Alfa Romeo had left Ferrari behind without any opposition in Formula 1.
Simca had withdrawn their support for the Gordini team and this left Gordini without secure funding, but on the other side he had now the freedom to get rid of the restrictions of the old Simca engines. The influence of both of this consequences can be seen on the photos: Gordini fit his 1952 T16 model with a new developed 2 litre six cylinder engine, and because of his chronical lack of money he had to sell the cockpits of his cars to wealthy customers like Fred Wacker from time to time.
Chicago resident Wacker had already been member of the 1951 Cunningham team at Le Mans before he raced for Gordini on some occasions in 1953 and 1954. His best achievements were a third in the non-championship race at Chimay and a finish in sixth position at the 1954 Italian Grand Prix. He was extremely lucky to survive an accident in practise for the 1953 Swiss Grand Prix with a lightly fractured skull and after the end of his Gordini engagement he continued sports car racing in the US. The picture shows him in his first Grand Prix, the Belgian at Spa, as he did not start at Zandvoort when his engine was fitted in Schell's car.
In contrast to the status of Wacker, the driver of the other picture, Maurice Trintignant, was one of Gordini's regular drivers during the 1952 and 1953 seasons. He has one of the longest careers of all Grand Prix drivers, taking part in the Pau Grand Prix as early as in 1938 with a Bugatti. His first victory came in the 1939 race at Chimay and he attended also the first post-war race at the Bois de Boulogne in 1945. In that race his car suffered fuel starvation caused by rat droppings ("petoules") in the tank. Henceforth he is also known under the not very much flattering nick name "Le Petoulet".
During the next seasons he was in the cockpits of an Amilcar and the Ecurie Gersac Delage before he finally joined the Gordini team. In 1948 he won at Perpignan and Montlhery but after that he was severiously injured in the Swiss Grand Prix. Despite being already pronounced dead by the doctors he survived and was back in the cockpit in 1949, winning the Angouleme race and scoring again victories at Geneva (1950), Albi and Cadours (1951) and Cadours again in 1953.
The picture shows him in the neat little T16 at the ultra-high-speed Reims circuit with its characteristical long straights, where he retired with transmission problems after 14 laps after running in eigth position. The year before Behra had sensationally defeated the Ferraris here, but in that year the race did not have world champions-hip status. In 1953 it was a different story because by now not only the Ferraris were back in strength but also the Maserati factory had decided to re-enter the Grand Prix scene and the Italian cars were overwhelmingly superior to everybody else. So the final order at the end of the race was Hawthorn (Ferrari), Fangio and Gonzalez (both in Maseratis), altogether nine of the Italian cars in front of the first Gordini driver, Jean Behra, in tenth place.
So it was a logical step for Trintignant at the end of the season to join Ferrari for 1954. Again he had to recogni-ze that he had to face superior opposition in form of the Mercedes team, but at least he was able to score his first win in a world championship event at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1955 and was also able to win at Le Mans, sharing a car with Gonzalez.
In 1956 he had a short inter-mezzo with the Vanwall team and the ill-fated Bugatti project and rejoi-ned Ferrari for 1957 but in that season he was less frequently given a drive by the Commendatore.
So he joined Rob Walker for 1958 and sensationally won the Monaco Grand Prix again in the Cooper, the last high-light of his career, which slowly began to fade out. During the next seasons he drove for teams like Centro Sud, Aston Martin, Scuderia Serenissima, Rob Walker again and Reg Parnell Racing before he bought an old BRM for his own use for the 1964 season. With this car he scored the last two championship points of his career at the age of 47 and ended his career as racing driver at Le Mans in 1965.
In 1960 he had been awarded Legion d´honneur for his achievements for French motor racing during his outstanding career he had experienced racing in cars ranging from the Bugatti 35 to a Ford GT.
When Trintignant left Gordini at the end of 1953 the team was already struggling. The team could not afford a completely new engine design and developed the 6 cylinder engine into 2.5 litre form. Consequently neither regular driver Behra nor the increasing number of guest drivers like Bayol, Loyer, Frere, Pilette, Pollet, Bucci and Wacker again achieved anything really countable besides a couple of fifth positions during the 1954 season.
1955 was even worse as meanwhile also Behra had defected and the cars again passed through the hands of many drivers, neither of them being able to score a single championship point.
In a last big effort a car was built according to a new design, the T32 model, fitted with an eight cylinder engine. But this proved too heavy to be competitive and so the old T16 cars were still in use at the beginning of 1957 when finally money ran out after the Pau and Naples races and after a final entry at Le Mans Gordini had to close down his racing business and joined Renault as a consultant engineer.
His name later turned up again in Formula 1 in connection with Renault when they entered the Formula 1 scene. So in 1977 Gordini's name could still be read on the cam-covers of a Grand Prix engine.