The second of July this year will see drivers & teams training for the Grosser Preis Von Österreich. It’s a pretty safe bet that the winning car on Sunday will have been created in the UK. There’s a fair chance that the winning driver will be British too. All rather unremarkable these days. Is there any one under the age of seventy who remembers a time when Britain wasn’t at the forefront of Grand Prix racing?
But of course it wasn’t always so, which brings us to todays anniversary. On this day, 2 July 1923, a British car & driver won a Grand Prix for the first time. The Grand Prix de l’ACF, at Tours. The French Grand Prix. THE Grand Prix. Won by Major Henry Segrave on a Sunbeam. Through planning, preparation… and luck.
Since 1920 the Sunbeam designs had been based around the engines of Swiss engineer Ernest Henry; although in truth the 1914 Sunbeam engine was ‘inspired’ by a Henry 1913 Peugeot Grand Prix design, that Louis Coatalen had acquired. Perhaps it was the decent thing to do to employ Henry after The Great War, considering that Sunbeam’s Wolverhampton works had spent the conflict manufacturing aero engines based on that Peugeot-inspired engine.
Of course Sunbeam were not alone in this regard. Take a Henry-style engine, add the valve gear from the 1914 Mercédès GP engine and you have, in essence, a Miller. W.O. Bentley owed a debt to the Mercédès too, and to a lesser extent Henry.
The irony is, the twin-overhead-cam wasn’t actually Henry’s revelation. He also had ‘borrowed’ the concept, whilst working as an engineer under Marc Birkigt – creator of “the best car in the world”, the Hispano-Suiza. More specifically; the twin-cam, 16-valve, 2.6-litre Hispano-Suiza ‘España’ of 1911.
So, when the Grand Prix Sunbeam of 1922 just failed to live up to expectation, Coatalen repeated the trick. He hired the man behind the all-conquering FIAT of 1922. Ernest Henry was out, Vincent Bertarione was in!
As an aside – all this ‘cross-pollination’ makes the McLaren ‘Spygate’, “$100,000,000 fine” toot look very silly… or perhaps it already did. I digress…
With a new FIAT-inspired 2-litre Grand Prix engine, the Sunbeam team set off for Tours. They were in for a shock. The Sunbeam was excellent, but it was ‘1922 excellent’. The world, the opposition, had moved on. FIAT, Bugatti and Voisin had entered remarkable & revolutionary machines. Well, just look!..
The revolution in the FIAT was under the bonnet, for the 805 was the first Grand Prix car to feature forced induction via a supercharger. Supercharging was to become de rigueur for over a quarter of a century in Grand Prix motor racing. That is, until Aurelio Lampredi & José Froilán González belatedly killed it in the Summer of 1951.
But what of Sunbeam? What could they do against this opposition?
They could plan, and test, and organise. The three Sunbeam drivers – Kenelm Lee Guinness, Albert Divo and Major Henry Segrave – with their riding mechanics, set to learning the 14-mile circuit. Maximising their performance. Observing and comparing the performance of the opposition. Those blown FIATs though… untouchable.
Grid set by ballot, the field of 17 are rolling. An 8am massed start, as Knyff of the A.C.F. drops the flag. Bordino blasts from the second row on his FIAT. Straight-8 roar and compressor whine as the red car passes Guinness on the Sunbeam and Thomas’ V12 Delage.
One hundred and twenty-two miles-per-hour on the straight. A faster lap time than in practice. Bordino crosses the line to start his second lap with a 41-second lead over Guinness, and the chasing pack.
Relentless. Lap after lap, Guinness stretches the Sunbeam to try and stay in-touch with the leading FIAT. As the narrow, cambered track starts to break-up in the corners.
Behind, the other FIATs have moved up to 3rd & 4th places. Guinness is surrounded, flat-out through the dust & dirt. No support from his Sunbeam teammates – Segrave is in the pits with a badly adjusted clutch, Divo watching & waiting.
By now the supercharger in Bordino’s FIAT has ingested 8-laps worth of grit and chunks of Loire asphalt.
Bang! The blower fails. A con-rod makes a bid for freedom.
One FIAT down – Sunbeam leads!
Lap 11 and Guinness makes his pitstop, rejoining just ahead of Giaccone on a FIAT. But he can’t hold the lead against the speed of the FIAT… and now his Sunbeam has a slipping clutch too. Tumbling down the standings.
Lap 15: Giaccone (FIAT), Salamano (FIAT), Divo (Sunbeam), Guyot (Rolland-Pilain), Segrave (Sunbeam), Guinness (Sunbeam), Freidrich (Bugatti), Rougier (Voisin).
Lap 16, and it’s time for the FIAT team to make their stops. The leader can’t get the car restarted, then it sounds rough as hell… Giaccone is out! Refueled, Salamano takes the lead and romps away from the field. FIAT-power, over four minutes ahead of the full Sunbeam squad: Divo, Segrave & Guinness.
Segrave & his mechanic Dutoit look at each other. The pedal stop on the gearbox has snapped. For the first time Segrave’s Sunbeam has a properly operating clutch, and is probably the freshest car left running. Game on!
Lap 30, and Divo’s second fuel stop is a mess. Somehow they manage to jam the filler cap on the main tank. Eighteen minutes lost and forced to run on the reserve, stopping at the pits for each of the last two racing laps.
As Divo leaves the pits, the crowd rises to look for Salamano on the FIAT… he never arrives. Instead, the green Sunbeam of Henry Segrave is next to appear.
Is that a man?!
Running down the track, through the dust… it’s… Ferretti, Salamano’s mechanic!
Exhausted, he explains that the FIAT has stopped almost two miles away from the pits, out of fuel. Another FIAT mechanic grabs a bidon and starts to run… but an official blocks his path. Changing mechanics is forbidden! Ferretti jumps on a bicycle… forbidden! The broken mechanic sets off on foot, returns to Salamano & the car, dumps the fuel into the tank… and the FIAT refuses to start.
They can only watch as Segrave sweeps past them at 116 mph to unlap himself, then again to take the lead.
After 500 miles, 6 hours 35 minutes of racing, Sir Henry O’Neal de Hane Segrave and Paul Dutoit win the 1923 Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France on a Sunbeam. A first for both a British driver and a British constructor. For the winner, champagne… he hated the stuff!
The victory was huge news, and was celebrated across the country. Especially in Wolverhampton and at Sunbeam’s Hanover Square showroom. Segrave having driven the winning car home, directly from Tours to London… of course.
The Gaumont cameras captured the great race, so please enjoy the British Pathé edit of their footage.