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René Dreyfus and the upset at Pau



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René Dreyfus


Ecurie Bleue Delahaye T145




1938 Pau GP


The Delahaye company had been founded in Tours in the middle of the 19th century by Emile Delahaye for constructing engines for the ceramic industry. The first Delahaye car was presented to the public in 1896. Delahaye had no heirs and in 1901 a young engineer named Charles Weiffenbach took over the management of the factory and held it firmly until 1954.

Weiffenbach was no friend of motorsports, the cars that left the factory were intended to be dependable if not fast. In addition to private cars Delahaye constructed fire engines, trucks, parcel carriers for the post office and other commercial vehicles. During the first world war Delahaye's army trucks became a well known sight on the Western Front.

By the early 30s the French motor industry was in crisis and with Delahaye's private cars being technically way behind the competition, Weiffenbach realized that dramatic changes had to be made to save the company. Several of his rivals were in for sportscars and Weiffenbach decided to go the same way, a bold move for a managing director who was already 62 years old and for a company that had never constructed a car to go faster than 110 km/h.

A 29 year-old engineer named Jean François was ordered to construct a series of sporty cars using as much as possible of the current parts. Delahaye got a license for Talbot's new independent suspension and it was added to a new strong chassis with box-section side members. The engine was a development from a truck engine with a formidable 65mm crankshaft with internal lubrication. The cars were introduced at the Paris car salon in 1933 and soon afterwards Weiffenbach was visited by a young lady who wanted the factory to build a special development of the new car for her to enter in rally events. Her name was Lucy O'Reilly Schell.

Lucy O'Reilly was the daughter of an American multi-millionare of Irish origin. As the only child she was used to get anything she wanted. On a trip in Europe after the First World War she met Laury Schell, a race-crazy American, who had lived in France since his early youth. They got married and settled down in France and their son Harry was born in 1921. (He would become a well-known F1 driver in the 1950s.) Lucy and Laury soon became familiar names in rally events. With her father paying the bills Lucy demanded and got the best equipment available and in 1934 the name Delahaye started to appear in the results lists of motor sports events.

But Lucy had greater plans. For 1936 the French developed their own sportscar series as an alternative to Grand Prix racing in which the Germans dominated. Delahaye was developing a new car series, the type 135, and Lucy wanted a special racing variant to be built, the 135 Compétition Spéciale or 135 CS. Soon she had collected orders from wealthy friends for 12 cars and suddenly to Weiffenbach's surprise Delahaye found themselves into sportscar racing with a two-car works team and 12 privateer cars, six of them owned by Lucy Schell. Drivers included Laurie Schell, René le Bègue, Joseph Paul and later also René Carrière and René Dreyfus.

By now Lucy had taken over the multi-million property as her father had died and nothing could stop her. Old Weiffenbach could hardly believe his ears when Lucy one day early in 1936 said: "I want to be to France what Ferrari is to Italy. Build me a Grand Prix car for the new 4.5-litre formula for 1937. I'll pay all the costs." That was an offer old Weiffenbach couldn't refuse. Again Jean François was set to work. The decision was taken to first build a hybrid for both Grand Prix and sportscar racing (fortunately, as the 4.5-litre formula was later delayed until 1938). The car demanded a totally new engine and François made the bold decision to cast the whole block in magnesium, a technique hardly anyone has dared to follow. After numerous failures he finally managed to build a 230bhp V12 magnesium engine and it was added to a development of the 135CS chassis. A totally new body was also constucted.

On 25 June 1937 at the Montlhéry track the Delahaye 145 was shown for the first time. When the car came out from the transporter everyone went silent. There was no applause, everyone seemed to be in shock by the sight of one of the most ugly cars ever seen. Someone tried to make a joke and asked if the constructor had taken the model from Lucy's pet bulldog. The car was in fact very low and had a highly aerodynamic shape. The sportscar mudguards had been set high over the rest of the car so that they should not disturb the air flow but it made the sports variant look even uglier. The new car made its debut at the Marne GP sportscar race on 18 July 1937, retiring. But its time would soon come.

In 1937 the French Fonds de Course, a organization with the aim to put back France into GP racing, had announced that 1 million francs should go the French car built to the 1938 formula that could run 200km at a speed exceeding 146.5 km/h by the widest margin on the Montlhéry track before 1 September 1937. The Bugatti team with Wimille were favourites but the team got into technical problems and Wimille was involved in quite a bad accident with a road car. On August 7 Dreyfus made his attempt with the Delahaye taking the record. Then the team was stand-by all the weekend to counter any rival attempts. When Wimille's last minute attempt had to be aborted after a few laps it was clear that Dreyfus had won the "million" for Delahaye. Lucy Schell ordered a white and red line to be painted in an angle over the body on all the cars to celebrate the event.

Work was going on with the pure GP car, the Delahaye type 155, but for the 1938 season opener Lucy Schell's Ecurie Bleue team depended on the type 145 and entered two cars for Pau to be driven by Dreyfus and Comotti. Dreyfus had joined the Ecurie Bleue sportscar team after a miserable season at Talbot. Born in 1905 Dreyfus' greatest achievement so far had been the victory at the 1930 Monaco GP with a privately entered Bugatti.

Pau holds the honour of arranging the first race ever to be called a Grand Prix in 1901. After that the 1928 French GP was held in nearby St. Gaudens, Pau also wanted to arrange the race and in 1930 the French GP was held on a Le Mans-type track outside the city with Étancelin winning for Bugatti. Pau was back in the race calendar in 1933, now with a Monaco-inspired track in the city center. After a one-year pause the race was back in 1935 with Nuvolari dominating for Ferrari. The 1936 race saw the only major victory for the Maserati V8-R1, driven by Étancelin. In 1937 the race was part of the French sportscar series with Wimille dominating in a Bugatti.

GP racing was back in 1938 and Mercedes-Benz had decided to enter the race with two cars as a test of their new cars before the Grandes Epreuves. After a troublesome practice session Mercedes was down to one car, driven by Caracciola. Alfa Romeo were also in trouble and had to withdraw their cars after a fire which left Nuvolari fuming, vowing never to race an Alfa again. The final entry list included only 8 drivers. Caracciola took the lead of the race followed by Dreyfus' Delahaye. On the twisty Pau street track Dreyfus was able to keep pace with the leader and actually pass. After that he let Caracciola re-pass as he by now was confident of a victory. With the fuel consumption only half of that of the supercharged Mercedes cars Dreyfus' Delahaye had a clear advantage and when Caracciola, with half the race gone, went into the pit for refueling, the Delahaye driver, on a non-stop strategy, opened up a large gap never to be challenged again during the race. Dreyfus took the flag nearly two minutes in front of Lang, who had taken over the car from Caracciola.

The Mercedes team had to admit that they had been beaten fair and square. Korpsführer Hühnlein had surely some explaining to do in his report. The Germans had been beaten by a French driver with a Jewish name driving a semi-sportscar from a more or less unknown lorry factory…

Dreyfus also won the Cork GP two weeks later and Lucy Schell was convinced that the team should have the full backup from the Fonds de Course from now on. But the French seemed to prefer Talbot and Bugatti and the whole thing ended in a fierce fight, with Ecurie Bleue moving to Monaco and boycotting the French GP. The Delahaye 155 was never fully developed and Ecurie Bleue changed to Maserati. Laury Schell died in an accident just before the war but Lucy took the Maseratis to Indianapolis where they were raced by Dreyfus and Le Bègue. After the war Dreyfus remained in the USA where he opened a restaurant in New York.

A full description of the 1938 Pau GP can be found here.

Reader's Why by Michael Ferner

Anyone for a joke?

Try this one: This car actually beat the best Mercedes-Benz could throw at it, and quite easily at that! Nice one, this - except that it's true!

Here's the story of one of the most unlikely GP results of all time: Emile Delahaye was one of the earliest car pioneers in France at the end of the 19th century, first as a dealer and from 1895 on as a manufacturer in Lyon. Three years later he opened a second plant in Paris and another three years on and he resigned. The marque though lived on, albeit mainly as a producer of lorries and the like until, in 1935 it took over the remnants of the once famous Delage firm.

From now on both marques appeared in sportscar races and to good effect at that, culminating in a Delahaye 1-2 at Le Mans in 1938. As early as 1936 though, some of the 3500cc type 135S Delahayes had already appeared at the Donington GP, where they were outclassed even by a secondary field, of course. Still, they were an inexpensive way of staying in the game for a number of French privateers when GP racing belonged to Italy and Germany.

For 1938 Jean François designed the 4.5-litre type 145 V12 which fitted nicely into the new Formula A, although still being a two-seater. There was to be no works entry, instead two cars were entered by Ecurie Bleue, a French team managed by Irish-born ex-racer Lucy O'Reilly, now married to American gentleman racer Laury Schell and domiciled in France (they were the parents of '50s playboy-racer Harry Schell).

The first race of the new formula was to be at the picturesque Pau in the Pyrenées where, in 1901 the first circuit car race in history had taken place. In 1930 the French GP was held here and three years later, on a new and to this day virtually unchanged circuit the Pau GP started its long and exciting history when, for the only time ever a GP was held during a snow storm! By 1938 the date had moved from February to April to compensate for that, and both Mercedes-Benz and Alfa Romeo brought two of their new challengers along. Only Carraciola's made it to the starter's flag and duly led until, surprise: Dreyfus passed him on lap 7! It took the embarrassed German 8 laps to restore the situation but, relinquishing a 6-second lead on lap 52 of the 100-lap race he had to stop to refuel whereas the Delahaye would go the whole distance thanks to better mpg. Also Carraciola had to hand over to Hermann Lang as his feet had been slightly burned, but although Lang tried all he knew he fell even further behind when the clutch packed up and was finally very lucky to stay unlapped!

A fortnight later both Alfa Romeo and Mercedes-Benz as well as Auto-Union gave the Cork International Road Race, a Grand Prix in all but name, a miss and with Dreyfus winning again Delayhaye went unbeaten to Tripoli. There Dreyfus could not even hold down the Formula B Maseratis of Taruffi and Rocco, finishing a colossal 25 minutes behind overall winner Lang!

The team fared no better at the German GP, then appeared at the Coppas Ciano and Acerbo with the new single-seater type 155 (still with the 145 engine), finishing dead last on both occasions. Reverting to the two-seater, Dreyfus and his new teammate Georges Raph became frequent visitors of GPs over the next twelve months (although they mysteriously withdrew from the 1939 Pau GP) but inevitably finished well down the order or retired, making this initial performance all the more unreal.

So, how on earth could this possibly have happened? Certainly Dreyfus was no slouch, a veteran of almost a hundred GP, having won the Monaco GP as long ago as 1930, but his driving in the Pau GP was something more than inspired. His team mate, the experienced sportscar ace Gianfranco Comotti was no less than six laps behind at the finish, and Dreyfus' qualifying and winning averages would still have seen him competitive in 1939 and all but invincible in the early post-war years. Sure enough both Alfa Romeo and Mercedes-Benz were not exactly race-ready but these figures indicate there was more to it than that. A very special and sadly frequently ignored feat!

When war broke out Dreyfus was drafted into the French Army but granted special leave to compete in the 1940 Indy 500, entered by Ecurie Bleue. He blew the engine of his 8CTF Maserati in practice and, when Germany invaded Paris a fortnight later decided to stay in the US and join the American Army. After the war he brought his family over and opened a famous restaurant in Manhattan, Le Chanticlair. As late as 1980 he appeared in a celebrities' race supporting the Long Beach GP and three years later published his autobiography, My two lives: Race Driver To Restaurateur. He died in 1993.

Delahaye, along with Delage was bought by Hotchkiss in 1954 and ceased to exist. The Pau GP remained a top-line international event for F1 or F2 until this year, when it was reduced to an International Formula 3 invitational race, though poorly supported. Hopefully it will become a round of the Italian F3000 Championship in 2000.