The heart of a lion
- Felix Muelas
- 8W July 2000 issue
- BRM Type 15 - The BRM 'Type 15' V16, by Quintin Cloud
- CTA-Arsenal - French pride rebuffed again!, by Mattijs Diepraam
1950 Swiss GP, or the 1950 F2 Prix de Berne (both on June 4, 1950)
Raymond Sommer was born on 31 August 1906 in the small French Ardennes town of Mouzon, which today still boasts a Stade Raymond Sommer. His family were carpet manufacturers in the larger town of Sedan, on the edge of the Ardennes, and it was the prosperity of the business that enabled him to start racing.
He began in 1930 driving a 4.7-litre Chrysler Imperial at the VI GP de Picardie and he gained his first success in 1931 when he won the unlimited class with the Chrysler in the Spa 24-hour race, but retired at Le Mans.
In 1932 he bought an Alfa Romeo "Mille Miglia" 8C and gained a major victory at Le Mans, sharing the car with Luigi Chinetti. On Sunday morning, Franco Cortese had the works Alfa Romeo in the lead, followed by Sommer who had driven 10 of the 14 hours and was to be forced to carry on solo to the end. Young Chinetti was ill or exhausted from relentless pre-race preparation. Exhausted too was Sommer, assaulted by poisonous fumes from a ruptured exhaust collector, but he continued his solitary chase of the leading factory Alfa Romeo. At 4.00 pm, Sommer had ground out a two-lap lead from the surviving works Alfa. His solitary pace was enough to win.
Apart from the "Mille Miglia" he also bought a Monza, which he campaigned in the latter half of the 1932 season. He picked up several places and finished the season by winning the Marseilles Grand Prix at Miramas, beating Nuvolari's P3 and Guy Moll's Bugatti. On that occasion it is thought that, just for once, Lady Luck had ridden at Sommer's side and allowed the Alfa pit men to fool themselves into a fatal miscalculation of the true position!
In 1933 he began the season with a new 8CM Maserati, but after a few races he reverted to the Monza, forming a team with another up-and-coming driver, Jean-Pierre Wimille; there were some places but no wins. Nonetheless, he gained a second consecutive victory at Le Mans, this time by sharing an 8C with Nuvolari. They put up a race record that stood for four years until 1937, and Nuvolari fought a thrilling last lap duel with Chinetti right down to the wire. As they went on to the last lap, Nuvolari, with fading brakes and a leaking petrol tank, led by a matter of yards until Chinetti caught him through the Esses. Nuvolari then returned the compliment on the Mulsanne straight and led until his brakes forced him to slow a little earlier than Chinetti and lose his precious lead again. Nuvolari knew that if he could not get past before they reached the next succession of slow bends, Chinetti was bound to win. Being Nuvolari, he squeezed past and managed to hold on through the bends, when a crash seemed inevitable, to finish a few vital seconds ahead.
Come 1934 and Sommer drove an 8CM Maserati but hardly finished a race, being plagued with mechanical problems, so for the 1935 season he bought an old 1932 P3 from Scuderia Ferrari, winning at Comminges and also in the GP de l'UMF at Montlhery. The elderly P3 was completely outclassed in 1936, and the next year Sommer joined Scuderia Ferrari, driving a 12C-4000 and sometimes appearing in an 8C-3800, ostensibly as a private entrant.
1936, nonetheless, was a successful year for Sommer. As a response to the German domination in Grand Prix racing the French created their own sportscar series with most French races that year run to the sports formula, including the French GP. With 39 entries, including three works Bugattis, three works Talbots and nine Delahayes, the French GP was the main event for French drivers that year.
Sommer was to race for Talbot but changed his mind in the last second, preferring instead to drive the Bugatti T59 'Tank' together with Wimille. This proved to be a wise decision as the Talbots soon dropped back, plagued by a multitude of problems and the GP instead developed into a race between Delahaye and Bugatti. Sommer had to make several stops with brake trouble but fought back with a brilliant drive to hand over the Bugatti to Wimille in second position for the last stint in the 8-hour race. Wimille went on to take the lead and win the event.
For the Spa 24-hour race Sommer joined works drivers Farina, Severi and Siena at Scuderia Ferrari. In the race the team's Alfa Romeo 8C 2900As proved to be in a class of their own before Farina's car had to retire. Sommer raced on to take victory, lapping the second-placed Delahaye six times in the process. The rest of the year proved less fun for Sommer as he together with several other drivers became involved in a legal quarrel with the French customs about Alfa Romeos that had been passed the border custom free as "works" cars only to be bought by privateers.
By 1937 the 8C and 12C were as outclassed at the P3 had been the year before, and Sommer had nothing to show for during the Grand Prix season but again found some consolation in sportscar racing. Sommer joined Talbot as "de facto" team leader when a dissatisfied Dreyfus left the Talbot team for Schell's Ecurie Bleue. Sommer's agreement with Talbot guaranteed his independence with a contract giving him status as a privateer with works support. Both the cars and the team organization were completely rebuilt for the season opener at Pau and Sommer immediately showed good form finishing second in the event. However, he was unable to do anything against Wimille, who in a slightly rebuilt GP car took a convincing victory.
The Tunis GP seemed to be a repeat performance of Pau but on the last lap Wimille's Bugatti stopped with a dry tank and a surprised Sommer took the flag in his T150C to give the Talbot-Lago team their first victory. The Marseilles GP, run in three heats with no refuelling allowed between the heats, became another classic duel between Wimille and Sommer. Sommer, on a non-stop strategy, managed to hang on to Wimille, racing on a one-stop strategy, in the first heat. For the second heat, Sommer stalled his engine at the start and lost half a minute but somehow managed to catch Wimille and pull away. Finally, in the last heat Sommer was in a class of his own, leading home a Talbot 1-2-3 after Wimille had retired.
As anticipated, Sommer showed his status as independent racing for Alfa Romeo at Le Mans. He immediately took the lead only to retire after only 10 laps. The French GP proved frustrating for him. First he was almost disqualified in a confusing pre-race warm-up. Then the jack became trapped and followed the car out on the track after a pit stop and finally the engine became seriously damaged whilst trying to catch Chiron. He finished a distant fifth. A disappointing end of the season (4th in the Marne GP after car trouble and a retirement at the Tourist Trophy) did not hinder Sommer from becoming the 1937 Champion of France, taking a 10.000 Francs price in the process.
In 1938, as the Scuderia Ferrari was taken over by Alfa Corse, Sommer was retained as driver but had no success. In the two races when he drove a 158 it broke down. In sportscar racing, as the Talbots had failed to show any serious improvement in pre-season testing, Sommer left Talbot for Alfa Romeo, racing the 2900B for Alfa Corse at Le Mans. At 21 hours he was leading the race by 12 laps before a series of problems forced him to retire. Sommer also dominated the early stages of the Spa 24-hour race before transmission problems forced the Alfa into lengthy pit stops and an eventual retirement.
During the abbreviated 1939 season Sommer raced a 308 in Grands Prix as a private entrant, but it was certainly a thinly disguised works entry.
He followed so many of his countrymen into working with the French Resistance during World War II. Two remarkable men of those years would have had good cause to be grateful for Sommer's interventions on their behalf in the suspicion-charged atmosphere of the so-called "Peace", when his efforts, coupled with those of the highly influential Charles Faroux, secured the release from French custody of the ageing and ailing Dr Ferdinand Porsche. Similarly, Sommer was also able to help Dr Rudolf Uhlenhaut of Mercedes-Benz. The subsequent influence of these two great engineers was to be felt throughout the world for many years thereafter.
At the end of the War he brought out the 308 (like here at the season-opening Nice GP) and picked up some places before abandoning it for a Maserati 4CL (here at the Coupe du Salon race in Bois de Boulogne). 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 Sommer's Maserati shared the front row of the grid with Wimille's 158, and Nuvolari's Maserati on the next row with Farina's Alfa. The result was a minor sensation with Sommer winning from Chiron's Talbot and Arialdo Ruggieri's Maserati. It is one of those strange coincidences of history that the first driver to defeat the P3 Alfa in anything approximately close to a fair fight (Marseilles 1932) was the same man that had accomplished the same feat over the equally unbeatable Type 158 in the post-war years. Fourteen years later.
He had little fortune with a works Maserati in 1947 (here he is seen taking the spoils at the Turin GP at Parco Valentino) and spent some time away from the sport with illness, but drove the ill-fated CTA-Arsenal, the French equivalent of the BRM, 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, where he finished third, behind Villoresi (Maserati) and the inevitable Wimille (Alfa Romeo). In addition, Ferrari himself has told how it was Sommer who first encouraged him to build the big unblown engines in place of the blown V12 125s.
He remained with Ferrari for 1949, but halfway through the season he left Ferrari and became a private entrant with a 4.5-litre Lago-Talbot, finishing the year with a win at Montlhéry. Next to that, he had some successful drives for Gordini in Formula 2.
Come 1950 and in the first ever issue of Autosport Sommer assured Gregor Grant that his three greatest joys of 1950 were leading the Alfas at Spa, his invitation to drive the V16 BRM and racing a Cooper 500/1100.
Apart from this outing at the Bari GP, three moments of that year would be worth taking a look at.
The Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps. In practice, Sommer, with not the fastest of Talbots, had equalled Villoresi's time with a two-stage blown 1.5-litre Ferrari and, in the race, he passed Villoresi on the fifth lap and then shook the Alfa pits by assuming the lead from all four of their cars when they made their first fuel stops. Needless to say, this annoyed the Alfa drivers, forcing them to put their best feet forward until Sommer's valiant car gave out after 20 of the 35 laps, when he lay third, still ahead of one Alfa! As for Sommer, he had done everything and more than could have been expected of him, even to the point of shocking team manager Guidotti into trying to persuade both himself and the race organizers that there had been a wholesale mistake. Perhaps with memories of Miramas 18 years before where they said much the same thing, it was small wonder to find the Alfa team manager visiting the timekeepers "more than once, with the faintly puzzled expression of a man who does not believe Sommer really is on the same lap and has indeed taken the lead". Just occasionally history does repeat itself.
The Silverstone's International Trophy meeting on August 26, 1950. Sommer decided to take part in three of the racing classes of the International Trophy in three different types of car. Starting at the bottom there was the over 2-litre class for sports cars where he was driving the lead car for Aston-Martin supported by Reg Parnell and Eric Thompson. Before the start Sommer had told the team manager, John Wyer, not to trouble him with pit signals; it would be quite enough if he just went fast!
Second participation was on the F3 race. Sommer's 'conversion' to Coopering had taken place earlier in the 1950 season at the Aix-les-Bains meeting the weekend after Monaco. That day he was starting in pole position in a works F2 V12 2-litre Ferrari. Next to him was Harry Schell's diminutive 1100cc twin-cylindered Cooper and, although Sommer eventually won the race, it was Harry who stole the show by leading off the grid and holding station until his clutch burnt out. After that it was maybe inevitable that Sommer would jump on the works Cooper bandwagon. He did it in John Cooper's special lightweight in the Zandvoort 500 on 23 July. Soon he was leading the race by a country mile until he missed a gear, over-revved and dropped a valve.
So it would come as no surprise that Sommer came out again in John Cooper's car at Silverstone when he was foiled by Stirling Moss's acquisition of a 'double-knocker' Norton engine, an advantage that not even Sommer's skills could overcome. Initially leading the field (here he is seen driving the No.29 car) he finished second, 8 seconds behind Moss.
And finally the BRM affair. One BRM had at last emerged from its tent to give battle on that same day and although it did not arrive until early on the morning of a damp race day, it had at least managed to last out its practice period of three laps when it had sounded pretty good. Come the start of Sommer's heat, it was a sadly different story with the driver left on the line fishing for ratios and watching the field disappearing into the distance. Third time decidedly not so lucky for M. Sommer.
Although Ferrari reputedly had a 4.4-litre car that could have been placed at Sommer's disposal for the coming Italian Grand Prix, this did not materialize, and he was left with his ageing Talbot from Spa to combat the Alfas of Farina, Fangio, Fagioli, Taruffi and Sanesi and the Ferraris of Ascari and Serafini. By the 48th lap (of 80) Sommer had fought his way up to fourth when gearbox trouble ended his last Grand Prix drive.
The following weekend, September 10, saw the national Trophée de Haute Garonne race at Cadours in France. Harry Schell had suggested to Sommer at Silverstone that they should go if John Cooper would again lend his car. John agreed, offering Sommer his 1100 twin, and it was loaded on to Schell's truck.
Because of the tightness of the circuit, the racing was split into two heats and a repechage of ten laps each and a final of 15. Sommer retired with ignition trouble on the second lap of his heat, before winning the repechage with great ease and then storming into an equally convincing lead in the final, until he left the road on a fast bend and was fatally injured in the ensuing crash on the fifth lap.
Sommer's nickname, Coeur de Lion ("Lionheart") summed him up: he was a tremendous fighter, and while all too often his car broke under him, he was usually in the lead or fighting for it. In Grand Prix racing he was a nearly man, and his results did not do justice to his ability, though his continuous failures seem to show that he expected too much of his cars. Like his great exemplar, Nuvolari, Sommer was always a tremendous trier, for whom no cause could ever be totally lost and whose whole philosophy was to drive anything on four wheels for as long as it was capable of movement. Yet, while Sommer undoubtedly made his cars work very hard for him - and sometimes too hard - he always put just as much effort into the job himself and, inevitably, made more fastest race laps than he ever won races.
As Paul Sheldon summarizes, "if a poll was taken of the best-loved drivers, then surely he (Sommer) would figure high on the list. The character that was most endearing was his refusal to give up until a car would go no further - expensive perhaps, but certainly crowd-pleasing."
Reader's Why by Michael Müller, courtesy of Egon Thurner
That day Sommer drove the same car in two races, by chance with the same race number. It's impossible verify whether the photo has been taken during the F1 race or during the Prix of Berne - the support race for F2 cars, which took place in the morning. Certainly from Sommer's point of view, the latter event was most remarkable. Himself owner of a somewhat outdated 1949 F2 Ferrari, he had been invited by the Scuderia to drive the new F2 monoposto (GP1-49). The car had its debut at the Gran Premio di Modena 4 weeks earlier, where Alberto Ascari won the car's first race. A week later he won also the Grand Prix de Mons. The third entry of the car was the Gran Premio dell' Autodromo di Monza, and another victory was booked - this time by Luigi Villoresi! Three times out, and three times winning! Sommer took his chance, as he always did. He actually was looking for a new suitable car to participate in that year's Formula 2 Championship, so during practice he first tried Heath's new HWM, and immediately was faster than everybody else with the same car. Thereafter he entered the Ferrari cockpit, and fixed his pole position with a laptime of 2'54,6. He had set a gap of over 8 seconds between himself and the next fastest drivers, Trintignant in his Gordini, and Stuck in the very fast (but unreliable) AFM.
Easy to predict who would win the race. Stuck made one of his well-known spectacular starts and took the lead with Sommer following. But as usual, the AFM lost speed after some minutes, and Sommer took the lead. After six laps his advantage of the rest of the field was already more than 30 seconds. Flat out over the whole distance he broke the lap record for F2 cars several times, improving it eventually for about 5 seconds on the old one. A great victory - and his last! Three month later at the age of 44 he was killed in a minor F2 race at Cadours / France, shortly after he had been awarded the 'Legion d'Honneur' for his international success as a french racing driver - a quite more amazing sort of honor, than the offer to run the BRM F1 car in its first race, 'running' only the first few inches of the International Trophy at Silverstone. The organizers of the Circuit de Cadours had invited him - certainly the french superstar by that time - to take part in a local F2-race. Sommer had no competitive car available, and decided to borrow one from his friend, Harry Schell. Although the Cooper had only a 1100cc engine, the car was rapid and nimble. The opposition was little, and Sommer obviously was the favorite of the crowd. He retired in the qualiyfing heat, but qualified the car in the repechage. In the race soon after the start Sommer - flat out as usual - ran off the road, crashed heavily and was fatally injured.