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The first musketeer



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Robert Manzon


Gordini T16




1952 Italian GP


In the late 40s and early 50s, the Gordini team comprised of four drivers: Trintignant, Behra, Simon and Manzon. They were called the Three Musketeers like in Alexandre Dumas’ novel. Robert Manzon is surely the lesser known of these French racing heroes. Maybe it's because he never won a major race. Or that he never drove for a big team whereas his three comrades have, for example, all been Ferrari F1 drivers. Nevertheless, this sympathetic man was a fast and talented driver that only lacked a bit of luck - on many occasions.

Robert Manzon was born in Marseilles on April 12th, 1917, the same year as Trintignant, one of his best friends, who was also born in the south of France. Manzon became a mechanic that grew into being a distributor of diesel engine parts. He was fond of car racing but World War II put an end to his hopes of becoming a driver, at least for a few years...

In 1947, at the age of 30, he bought a Cisitalia D46 to participate in the Robert Benoist Cup on June 1st in Nîmes. This was his very first race: he finished 3rd behind Wimille and De Saugé/Sommer, but ahead of Schell and Amédée Gordini himself. Two weeks later he was in Angoulême to finish 2nd behind Eugène Martin after a win in the first heat and signing the fastest lap of the day! He then finished 4th in Reims. In fact, his first season was so good that Amédée Gordini, the main French racing car manufacturer of the time, decided to hire Manzon.

The year 1948 began with a 2nd place in Perpignan with the Cisitalia and a 3rd in Geneva, Manzon's first race with a Gordini. Unfortunately, both results were to become the best ones of the entire season, except maybe in Angoulême where Manzon won his heat and took fastest lap (he always showed well on this track) but had to give up in the final. In fact Robert Manzon had the same problems that hampered him during his career with Gordini: the cars were light, fast but unreliable. Yet, he did his best but the results were not as good as they should have been regarding the value of the man.

However, Robert Manzon quickly gained the reputation of a quick and tenacious driver. Moreover, his technical skills were really appreciated while he also proved his courage by saving Trintignant’s life when Pétoulet’s Gordini made a looping. The driver fell on the track while his car drove as far as an embankment, then back to the track towards the floored Trintignant. As Trintignant relates in his biography: “At this moment Manzon arrived at about 200km/h. If he had passed over me, he could have gotten out of this situation. But he did not hesitate to hit my car, risking his own life to save mine. Heaven thank him for his generous act and he was not injured. Ten years later I have not forgotten - these are things that cannot be forgotten – and I am still saying 'Thank you Manzon'.”

1949 was similar to 1948. Retirement was followed by retirement... except for a few occasions. In Angoulême Manzon finished 2nd in the F2 race after taking the first heat. In Lausanne he also finished 2nd in F2. Nevertheless, he won the Mont-Ventoux hillclimb with a sports Gordini. This was his first success in a significant race. Unfortunately, as we mentioned before, it was a year full of desillusion like, for example, in the Madrid sports GP where he won his heat and retired while easily leading the final... Or during the 24 Heures de Spa where he retired while leading with Yves Giraud-Cabantous as a co-driver.

In 1950 the first World F1 Championship saw the light. Manzon took part in the Monaco GP. Unfortunately he was among the nine drivers who had an accident at the Bureau de Tabac bend. He even suffered a jaw injury but not seriously. Before this race, he showed some good performances with a pole position at home, in the Marseilles F2 GP, but once again he had to retire. Also, he finished 5th in Pau and 2nd in a minor race in Roubaix behind Sommer (Ferrari).

Then, after his experience of Monaco and a 3rd at the dangerous Bremgarten track in Switzerland, he ran in the French GP, scoring three points thanks to a wonderful 4th place. This was an excellent performance given the poor reliability of his Gordini. The talent of Amédée Gordini as a designer could not make up for his poor managing qualities. He was a good technician but not an accountant. His team always had financial difficulties, mostly due to risky choices and a lack of realism, even at the time when Simca helped the French team. However those three points were the very first of the team and meant its only score in the 1950 championship. Thus Robert Manzon ranked 13th at the end of the season. Other good performances by the French driver were his first circuit victories. Indeed, at the start of September he won the F2 race of Sambre & Meuse in Belgium after two 2nd places in the heats. One week later he won in Périgueux after winning his heat. These were minor races but victories always feel good, whatever the race.

Early 1951 proved to be a disappointing experience. From March to June he took part in seven races: he retired six times and finished 13th at the Autodromo di Monza GP. Good results were in the cards, as usual, but failed to materialize, as he took pole in Marseilles and finished 4th in the first heat of the International Trophy in Silverstone. That said, he performed well at Angoulême (4th) and after two consecutive retirements at Le Mans (while he was leading, with André Simon, the Energy Index standings) and the French GP, his results began to become acceptable at last: victory in the Sambre & Meuse Trophy, like in 1950, podiums in Rouen, Aix-les-Bains, Erlen and Cadours (victory and pole in the first heat). As for the F1 Championship, his best result was a 6th place in Monza and a 7th in Nürburgring, which alas meant no classification in the final championship standings.

1952 can be regarded as one of Manzon’s best seasons, if not his best - and a busy one too, as he took part in more than 30 races. After the Temporada, where he finished 3rd and 4th in the Piriapolis races, he finished 2nd in Marseilles behind Ascari, sharing the wheel with Bira. He also won a heat of the International Trophy (but had to give up in the final), won the –2L race in Monaco and was about to win in the Sunday race, exceptionally run with sports cars, but he crashed because of a pile-up while leading ahead of Moss’ Jaguar.

Before this deception, he was 3rd on the Swiss GP grid and challenged Taruffi in this first Championship race at Bremgarten. Unfortunately a holed radiator forced him to give up, handing Taruffi an easy win. One month later, at Le Mans, Amédée Gordini had a single goal: victory. So he decided to team Manzon with Behra. This team was considered a favourite for the 1952 race. Then, three hours after the start, the Jaguars retired and Manzon-Behra became the leaders. Gordini really thought his dream was coming true but it lasted “only” nine hours: at 3 AM the French drivers had to retire.

As Manzon said to reporters: “As Behra and I drove, we never exceeded the engine speed limit fixed by Amédée Gordini. I was never at full speed. My best lap in 4’43” was easy. I could be as fast as 4’38” (best lap by Ascari in 4’40”5) because this engine operates perfectly. And the car is really great: good road holding, very precise and very safe. Then, a catastrophe: no more brakes! You see, the brakes made by Gordini are very powerful and efficient... Our brakes are so powerful that Behra and I did not pay any attention to them...” Another disillusion.

Then came the Belgium GP in Spa, a very difficult race on the famous track. It was raining and Manzon had some trouble following the leaders. But thanks to others retiring he finished 3rd: his first podium in a championship race, but 4’28”2 behind winner Alberto Ascari. One week later he was on pole for the Reims sports GP in front of “Pagnibon” (Ferrari), Moss (Jaguar), Mairesse (Talbot) and Chaboud (Talbot). Manzon drove a Gordini 19S, the same as at Le Mans. Manzon’s own words are worth quoting: ”My car was perfect: powerful and remarkably balanced. Thus there was a huge gap between Moss and me. At the end of the 16th lap, I was easily leading the race but a stub axle broke while I was braking before La Garenne. I was in 3rd gear. The wheel and the brakes went away: I suddenly had only three wheels left and no more brakes!” The car crashed against a pylon, the driver jumping out before the crash and lightly injuring himself.

The French GP was better as he finished 4th, three laps behind the usual winner, Ascari. Thanks to this result he was temporarily classified 5th in the championship standings and the first non-Ferrari driver bar Troy Ruttman, winner of the Indianapolis race. In the British GP he had to give up in spite of his 4th place on the grid, behind the Ferraris, just as he did in Switzerland. Two weeks later, the first grid row for the German GP on the difficult Nürburgring track was red (poleman Ascari and Farina) and blue (Manzon and Trintignant). Once again, Robert was the best non-Ferrari driver. The beginning of the race was encouraging, even if Manzon was passed by Taruffi on the 2nd lap. But on lap 8 the French car lost one wheel. A strange habit of the Gordinis... Once again the driver missed the opportunity to score some points. Two weeks later, at Zandvoort, Manzon ended the race in 5th but three laps down on Ascari.

The season ended in Italy where Manzon qualified 4th, just behind his friend Maurice Trintignant. Robert drove a good race, going up and down between 6th and 3rd place, fighting with Farina and Bonetto, until mid-race, when he was forced to pit, once again missing an opportunity to score three or four points.

In the final championship standings, Manzon was 6th with 9 points, just behind Fischer and Hawthorn with 10 points. There are two ways to look at this result. There's the optimistic look that considers this is a fine ranking for a man who drove a fast but unreliable car. Moreover, he was the year's best Gordini driver, as Behra and Trintignant were respectively 10th with 6 points and 16th with 2 points. The pessimistic outlook thinks back to his retirements while he was about to finish in good positions. Keeping this view, Manzon should have been finished 4th in the championship.

In sports races, deceptions also continued to come by. While leading the Bari GP, Manzon had to pit and eventually finished 8th in spite of taking fastest lap. In the Panamericana he retired after... 40km! His single satisfaction of his season in this category was another victory in the Mont-Ventoux hillclimb. However, reporters were quite optimistic for the French team's 1953 prospects, while Manzon was about to begin his sixth year with Amédée Gordini’s team.

The first race of the World Championship took place in Buenos Aires. Ascari (Ferrari) was the poleman, ahead of Fangio (Maserati), Villoresi (Ferrari) and Gonzalez (Ferrari). Manzon was 10th. He made a good start and quickly passed Bonetto and Menditeguy while Villoresi was in trouble: so he was 5th after 8 laps. 17 laps later he passed Gonzalez for 4th. A few laps further on, Farina crashed into the crowd: a serious accident which caused the death of nine spectators. Then, after Fangio's retirement on lap 37 out of 96, Manzon was 2nd! But on lap 43 he stopped for new tyres and fell back to 6th, but on lap 68, guess what? Manzon later gave this answer to the reporters: “This is the 3rd time I lost a wheel during a race. It is a pity because my strategy was good and I could have scored a good result. I let other drivers fight each other to take some places. Thanks to circumstances I was up in 2nd. Then my brakes were out. On top of that, it took me 6 minutes to change my tyres. I often had to drive very carefully to avoid a crash. Indeed, spectators were unconscious of the danger, they were crossing over the track. On lap 7 I nearly hit a policeman's horse!”

Manzon was both angry and frightened after this accident. He was fed up too: the regular retirements due to the fragility of the Gordinis, often leading to accidents, were enough. He and Maurice Trintignant decided to write a letter to their boss, explaining that this situation could not last any longer, while Jean Behra decided to stand by Amédée Gordini. However, Gordini decided not to answer Maurice and Robert’s letter and so Manzon decided to leave the team after five full seasons, although Trintignant chose to stay. Then Manzon signed up with Lancia to participate in the very first World Sportscar Championship to drive Lancia's D20 and D24 types. However the results were very poor as he retired in each race except in the Coppa Inter-Europa in Monza where he finished 5th.

1954 was better than the previous year. Manzon was hired by Louis Rosier to drive a Ferrari 625, even though he drove for Lancia on some occasions. Also he participated for the first time in the famous Mille Miglia with Fugolc, driving a... Renault 4CV! They eventually retired. However, even if he did not finish many of his races, he managed some good performances. In May in Bordeaux he was second behind Gonzalez (Ferrari), with Trintignant (Ferrari) third and Moss (Maserati) fourth. In July he finished 3rd in the ACF GP: after a tremendous fight with Bira (Maserati) he passed the prince a few yards from the line, both lapped by the unbeatable Mercedes cars of Fangio and Kling. Both Manzon and Bira scored their very last Championship points. Finally, in September, Robert finished 3rd at the Tourist Trophy in Dundrod with a Lancia D24.

At the end of 1954 Amédée Gordini contacted Robert Manzon to convince him to “return home” for 1955. Manzon accepted. Nevertheless, the situation had not changed - the team were still in dire straits and unable to manufacture a competitive car. The results were poor as the French driver’s best result was a 5th place in Bordeaux, a minor F1 race... He even failed to drive at Le Mans as his team mate, Elie Bayol, destroyed the car during practices. It is worth saying that Manzon drove for other teams on two occasions. In March he raced a Renault 1063 with Pons and Hébert in the Sebring 12 Hours - they retired - while in October he was hired by Scuderia Ferrari to share a Ferrari 860 Monza with Eugenio Castellotti at the Targa Florio. The pair finished 3rd.

1956 was his very last season, he was 39. He continued with Gordini, except occasionally in the Mille Miglia, for instance, in which he finished 55th with a small DB Panhard, or in a few sportscar races with Maserati or Ferrari (he won the 1.5L-2L category with a Ferrari 500TR at the 12 Heures de Reims with Picard). The season proved to be as troublesome as the previous years and things could not improve given the difficulties of the French team. In Monaco he was about to finish 5th but the engine of his car broke ten laps from the end. His team mate, Hermano Da Silva Ramos, took this opportunity to score the only points he ever scored in a F1 Championship, the last points scored by a Gordini. At Le Mans, Manzon and Guichet retired after seven hours while they were 6th. But Manzon did succeed in winning two more races. The first victory occured at Posillipo in the Naples GP. It was a minor race where he finished ahead of Horace Gould (Maserati). Of course Manzon was helped by Castellotti and Musso retiring their Lancia-Ferrari D50s. Significantly, this victory was his very first victory, and it would also be his last, in a F1 GP, as his previous wins in single-seaters were all in F2 races. This victory was also the very last one by a Gordini in F1... The second win of the year took place in Pescara during the Circuito di Pescara, on the same track where the Coppa Acerbo was run before the war. Taruffi (Maserati), in second position, was led home by 0”5, with Munaron (Ferrari) third. This win was also the very last victory by a sports Gordini, in this case a Gordini T43.

In February, 1957, Manzon was on the entry list for the Cuba GP with a Gordini T44. But because of social tension and strikes on the Carribean island, the cars were not unloaded from the boat and Manzon had to forfeit the event.

This is how Robert Manzon put an end to his career. He did not achieve the palmares he deserved but he was maybe too loyal to Gordini to being able to win the races he could have won. Seven out of ten years he stayed in Le Sorcier’s (the Wizard) team. As always, it is not easy to drive for small teams that usually struggle with financial and technical difficulties. Trintignant perfectly described the state of mind of a driver in such a situation: “Like Manzon, (...) Behra and I raced gritting our teeth, taking risks to try and follow the leaders and, when our position was good, we feared retirement. It is morally exhausting to race in such conditions and at the end of the day you do not believe in miracles any longer.”