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The uncrowned king of the forties



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Jean-Pierre Wimille, Raymond Sommer, Giuseppe Farina, Tazio Nuvolari, Robert Mazaud


Alfa Romeo 158, Scuderia Milan Maserati 6CM, Alfa Romeo 158, Scuderia Milan Maserati 4CL, Écurie Franco-Américaine Maserati 4CL


St. Cloud


I Coupe René La Bègue (9 June 1946)


Post-war pre-championship great Jean-Pierre Wimille has just jumped ahead of pole-sitter Raymond Sommer in the semi-works 6CM entered by Scuderia Milano, while similarly Robert Mazaud in Schell's 4CL beat Louis Chiron's Talbot off the line. Racing through the streets of St.Cloud, this was the fifth French Grand Prix event of the year, and a very well entered one at that. After the Nice and Marseille GPs, the minor GP du Forez and the celebratory Coupe de la Résistance at the Bois de Boulogne this was the first post-war event that saw an entry by the almighty Alfa Corse. Alfas had raced before during the year and in 1945 but these were private and Ecurie Naphtra Course efforts by Sommer and Wimille in their Alfa 308s. This time, however, Alfa brought out their 158 Alfetta vetturetti, with Wimille taking the lead No.1 car and Farina taking the No.2 machine.

The cars went on to claim an amazing unbeaten run that would last until the 1951 International Trophy, but it didn't start here at St.Cloud. Indeed, the Coupe René Le Bègue would remain their only defeat for years to come, and it was done by Raymond Sommer, who first grabbed pole ahead of the two Alfettas before two consecutive clutch problems (Farina on lap 16, Wimille on lap 19) caused Sommer to win the 30-lap race trouble-free. 17 seconds later Chiron crossed the line in his works Talbot, followed by the three Maseratis of Mazaud, Arialdo Ruggeri in the third Milan entry, and TASO Mathieson in his privately entered 8C. Sixth and seventh were the private Delahayes of Yves Giraud-Cabantous (who shared with Eugène Chaboud) and Georges Grignard.

The unquestionable star of the immediate post-war period, the austere and often aloof Jean-Pierre Wimille had been around since 1930 but only matured in his post-war years, partly because the opposition from Germany that had forced Jean-Pierre into a sportscar and voiturette career wasn't there anymore. In the supervoiturette of the day, the Alfa 158 "Alfetta", Wimille was usually unbeatable (except for that day of bad luck at St. Cloud) as he profited from his immaculate and impeccable style, rarely putting a foot - or rather, wheel - wrong. It is no surprise the great Fangio regarded him as an example he wanted to outshine. Wimille on his part recognized Fangio's talent on the spot: "If one day he has a car that is right for his temperament, Fangio will perform miracles." Neither he, nor the reborn Varzi, Fangio's other great opponent of the late forties, would live to the fulfilment of those words.

The son of a pioneering motoring and aviation journalist, Wimille was born in 1906 and thus fitted into the post-war picture of experienced, ageing drivers dominating the scene. He started out in Grands Prix in 1930, taking the grid of the ACF GP at Pau on September 21, and soon became a Bugatti mainstay, continuing for the French marque during the gruelling 10-hour series of 1931. His first win came in 1932 at Oran while he retired in the lead at Casablanca. Having taken delivery of an Alfa Monza, he took the car first across the line at the minor Lorraine GP at Nancy. A Bugatti works driver in 1934, he won at Algiers despite the Molsheim marque's terrible unreliability.

Because of being a Frenchman and not yet an established star - and thus having no right to earn himself a Mercedes-Benz, Auto Union or at least an Alfa deal - his late-thirties career was confined to picking up minor races and racing sportscars, which was the French way of getting out of the way of German domination. Having gained no better than a fourth in the T59 in 1935, beating Rosemeyer's Auto Union to the line in Spain, the French decided to stage the 1936 French GP as a sportscar race. At Montlhéry, Bugatti fielded its streamlined T57S for Sommer and Wimille and the pair duly won. Wimille then went on to take the Marne GP at Reims as well. Still with Bugatti in single-seaters, Jean-Pierre took sixth at Monaco, splitting the Ferrari Alfas of Farina and Sommer, and second in the Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island. In 1937 four minor French events fell to Wimille: Pau, Beaune, Le Mans and Reims. Bugatti's experience with the T57S 'Tank' was put to good use for Le Mans in 1937, as Wimille used his skill to win the 24-hour race, sharing with Benoist, repeating the feat in 1939, now with Pierre Veyron.

His first term as an Alfa Corse factory driver followed in 1938, racing their unsuccessful 3-litre V12 Alfa Romeo 312s. Only in 1939 his Grand Prix luck seemed to turn, being invited by Bugatti to race their huge 4.7-litre Monoplace, followed by an invitation to drive for Mercedes but the opportunity came too late. The war had already broke out. It was time for a career in the French Air Force, joining France's other racing hero Robert Benoist. After France's defeat, J-P and his wife, ski champion "Cri-Cri" de la Fressange, followed Benoist to form an underground resistance group.

Unlike Benoist, the withdrawn and deeply religious Wimille survived his work for the French Résistance, becoming a high-ranked military liaison for the US Army in North Africa, and was proudly leading the entry for the first post-war motor racing event, held in the Bois de Boulogne near Paris in September 1945. It must have been highly emotional event, if only judging by the names of the races that were staged: the Coupe Robert Benoist, the Coupe de la Liberation and - the main event - the Coupe des Prisonniers, for which Wimille turned out in his Monoplace.

All the remaining French stars were present: "Phi-Phi" Étancelin, bringing his old Alfa Monza, 'Coeur de Lion' Raymond Sommer with his Talbot, Maurice - about to be nicknamed "Le Petoulet" - Trintignant with the Bugatti T51 he raced to fifth in the 1938 Pau GP (the day of Dreyfus's unbelievable win over the Germans). Louis Gérard was there, Wimille's rival in the 1939 Le Mans race, Ernest Friderich, the veteran Bugatti man, and the pre-war Delahaye stars Eugène Chaboud and Georges Grignard. In aid of the returned POWs, J-P received special permission by the Air Ministry to race the big Bugatti and it was gratifying that he won.

Having acquired an old Alfa 308 to race in 1946 he won at Bois de Boulogne, Perpignan and Dijon, causing Alfa Corse to send Wimille an invitation to join them for their post-war debut at St.Cloud, followed by works appearances at the GP des Nations and Turin's Valentino Park. A team mate to Varzi (back to his old form), Count Carlo Felice Trossi and the team's test driver Consalvo Sanesi, Wimille took to upper hand in 1947 and 1948. In 1947 he won the Swiss and Belgian GPs, at Spa exceeding 180mph on the Masta straight! In 1948 the French and Italian GPs were his.

For the Autodromo GP, celebrating Monza's reopening, it was Consalvo Sanesi's turn to win. In a similar position to Hermann Lang's at Mercedes before the war, the test driver was regarded as a common mechanic by the bourgeois Varzi and the aristocrat Trossi, and was usually treated that way by the two. This is Sanesi's recollection of the events of that day: "I was leading when my car developed a small problem. I could see Trossi and Wimille in my mirrors, both holding back, but then Trossi could stop himself no longer and he accelerated past me. And straightaway after him came Wimille, and as he went by he waved and went straight out after Trossi - he was the quicker driver - and passed him to win, against team orders. He did that just to punish the Count for passing me when he was not meant to. Wimille was a great man!"

With Alfa out for the 1949 season, Jean-Pierre immediately turned to the nimble Simca-Gordini single-seaters he always loved to drive in the French minor events. It was soon to go wrong. In the Argentinian Temporada, on January 26, 1949, early morning at Palermo Park, practising for the Buenos Aires GP, he crashed fatally under mysterious circumstances when his car suddenly veered off-line, hitting a tree and turning the Gordini upside down. The crash fractured his skull and the 41-year-old died almost instantly. Ironically, he was wearing a crash helmet for the first time in his life. In My Racing Life Fangio simply says: "He went off on the fast Municipal Golf Club Curve. He died some minutes later." The pallbearers at Wimille's small funeral were Villoresi, Fangio, Ascari, Farina, Juan Galvez and journalist Corrado Filippini.

It is no exaggeration to say Wimille is the great lost link between the old days and the present. He drove against the likes of Nando Minoia, dominated the forgotten post-war pre-championship period and inspired Juan Manuel Fangio, who set new records that drivers to this day are still trying to beat. Part of his legacy was a road-going sportscar by his name, the Wimille, that sported revolutionary aerodynamics, all-round independent suspension and three McLaren F1-style front seats, with a central position for the driver. Gordon Murray would have wished he'd designed that one.

Reader's Why by Marc Ceulemans

At Whitsun 1946, a superb spectacle was presented to the Parisians by the city of Saint-Cloud and the AGACI: the GP of Saint-Cloud. It was a triple historic event as it saw the inaugural ceremony and the first use of the first section of the motorway of the West, the official comeback of Alfa Corse (last race and victory at Tripoli in May 1940) and also... their defeat, the only one before the historic (again!) victory of José Froilan Gonzales and Ferrari in the 1951 British GP - this day, Enzo Ferrari declared: "I've killed my mother!"

The circuit of Saint-Cloud measured 6 km. The track followed a cobbled climb to the station, a long straight line including the new motorway (a French pride in this day), then a hairpin bend, again the other way of the motorway (on the other side of course) and at last the tunnel, the main characteristic of the circuit (the most spectacular for the drivers).

During this week-end, there was another big sport event, the Davis Cup - tennis of course - but at 2 PM, the crowds in great numbers had invaded the area of the circuit.

After the official ceremony of the motorway, two motorbike races and the race of the small-engined cars run in the rain and won by José Scaron and his Simca Gordini, it was finally the start of the main race: the René Lebègue Cup.

René Lebègue was a brilliant French driver. Born in 1914 he won the Monte Carlo Rally in 1937 (in a Delahaye). He then purchased a Talbot Lago Sport (T150) and as a semi-official won the 12h of Paris with André Morel in September 1938. His best victory was the Comminges GP with the works Talbot-Lago single-seater "offset". Not mobilised he tried his luck in Indianapolis in 1940 and 1941. He accidentally died asphyxiated in his bathroom in February 1946.

27 cars were entered but only 22 cars took part to this race. The favourites were of course the two works Alfa Romeo 158s driven by Jean-Pierre Wimille and Nino Farina. But the Maseratis of Raymond Sommer, Tazio Nuvolari, Henry Louveau or Robert Mazaud, and maybe the only entered Talbot Lago driven by Louis Chiron were also competitive. The rest of the grid including 6 Delahayes, 6 other Maseratis, 1 Salmson, 1 Alfa Romeo Monza and 1 old Bugatti 35. Raymond Sommer, nicknamed "Le sanglier des Ardennes" took the position ahead of the two 158s of Wimille and Farina. But Wimille and Farina had taken delivery of their cars only the day before the race.

The race:
Jean-Pierre Wimille (Alfa Romeo 158) started immediately in first position followed by Sommer and Farina in the other Alfa Romeo. During 20 laps, the first three positions didn't change. Behind the trio, Tazio Nuvolari in a recent Maserati 4CL entered by Scuderia Milan had to retire for mechanical reasons. On lap 16 Farina also stopped, for mechanical problems. 3 laps after, the leader pulled up in the climb and parked his Alfa next to the pavement on the right side of the street. The transmission of the Alfa had broken. The two Alfas, prepared in hurry, broke down, obviously due to hasty preparation.

At that time Raymond Sommer had already won. He finished the 30 laps at the average speed of 109.442 km. Louis Chiron crossed the finishing line 16 seconds after the winner. The others were all lapped. Robert Mazaud finished third. He would be killed in a race accident the next month at Nantes during the ACO GP.

The profits of the day came to help two French villages destroyed by the war, Lessay and Wittenheim.

The results
1- Sommer, Maserati 6CM-4CL
2- Chiron, Talbot central single-seater 90201
3- Robert Mazaud, Maserati 4CL
4- Arialdo Ruggeri, Maserati 4CL
5- T.A.S.O. Mathieson, Maserati 8C-3002
6- Yves Giraud-Cabantous/Eugène Chaboud, Delahaye 135S
7- Georges Grignard, Delahaye 135S
8- Eric Verkade, Alfa Romeo 8C-2300
9- Henri Trillaud, Delahaye 135S
10- Discoride Lanza/Maurice Trintignant, Maserati 4CL
11- Charles Pozzi, Delahaye 135S