• 1926

The day the drivers baked

Martin Williamson January 20, 2010
Robert Benoist in a Delage practising turns through the newly-constructed chicanes ahead of the inaugural British Grand Prix © Getty Images

Although grand prix racing had been held on continental Europe since the early 1900s, as with many sports, Britain had adopted an approach of rather sniffy detachment. It was only when a British driver, Henry Segrave, started to make a mark with major wins in France in 1923 and Spain the following year, the attitude of the governing body, the Royal Automobile Club (RAC), changed and a decision was made to host an event.

The location was never in doubt. In 1907 Brooklands race track had opened in Weybridge, some 20 miles to the south west of London, and had immediately become the leading race circuit in the country. Its banked track had been built for speed and it could accommodate almost a quarter of a million spectators. The date was set for August 7, 1926, squeezed into a very busy European season but guaranteed a good turnout as it was included as the fourth race of five in the fledgling World Constructors' Championship.

The Europeans generally raced on roads and so were wary of the purpose-built track. The RAC made one concession to them, agreeing to build two artificial hairpins using sandbags on the home straight. Predictions this would slow the cars to as little as 15mph proved inaccurate.

By early July the RAC had received 13 entries - eight from Britain, the remainder from France - the main absentee being Jules Goux, the leading French driver who had won the previous two Championship races. There was also slight disappointment at the paucity of Bugattis, the dominant car of the season.

In the 24 hours before the race four of the 13 entries scratched, including the Talbot entered by Malcolm Campbell as he chose to run with his second entry, a Bugatti.

The Guardian reported queues forming to get inside from 8am, six hours before the start. According to the paper, there was an "exceptionally large crowd" with "all vantage points where anyone could get a foothold packed with people".

The early laps were dominated, as expected, by the Delages and Talbots, with the slower but far more reliable Bugattis further back. Jules Moriceau's Talbot was the first casualty when its axle snapped before he had completed a lap. Within a dozen laps the Delages of Robert Sénéchal and Robert Benoist were so far clear it seemed the real race was for third.

Segrave, the main British hope, was faster than his rivals but suffered from a burst tyre and then carburettor problems which meant he was unable to drop under 3000 revs. The Times reported his troubles "gave many thrills to the unsophisticated as at intervals his engine misfired in close imitation of machine-gun bursts and at this time sheets of flame streamed from his exhaust". A pit stop was wasted when a nut was found lodged in his windshield and precious time was lost while his mechanics tried to work out where it had come from. He resumed in last place and was eventually forced to retire.

The toll on the cars meant that with an hour remaining only four were left - Sénéchal, Benoist, Campbell and Frenchman Albert Divo.

Malcolm Campbell in his Type 39A Bugatti ahead of the race © Getty Images
Sénéchal then swapped with fellow countryman Louis Wagner, whose own race had ended after ten laps when his Delage's engine blew and badly burnt his leg. He not only inherited a tired car, he also found the pedals of the Delage were so hot he was forced to stop after 19 laps and spend a few minutes standing in a bucket of cold water before resuming.

"All the other drivers experienced the sensation of being baked alive," noted the Guardian, adding that during one of Benoist's earlier pit stops his crew had hurriedly fitted an asbestos shield behind the engine to try to alleviate the heat, and later still added a steel plate.

At that time Divo was leading but was forced to pit with engine failure. He tried to restart the car to no avail, at which point Segrave attempted to take over but he too failed to get the Talbot moving.

Wagner took the lead when Benoist pitted with his engine on fire, possibly as a result of his earlier tinkering. As his mechanics doused the flames, Benoist made way for another Frenchman, Andre Dubonnet.

Benoist must have had his doubts. Dubonnet clambered into the vehicle wearing a lounge suit and beret. What's more, he had never even driven on the circuit before. His lack of preparation cost him as he was overtaken by Campbell and came home last out of the three finishers.

The Sénéchal/Wagner Delage won the four-hour race by more than four-and-a-half laps at an average speed of 71.61mph. They won £1000 for the 287-mile drive. Wagner booked his footnote in history as the winner of the first British Grand Prix as well as the US Grand Prix. There was some consolation for the crowd as Segrave was awarded the Stanley Cup for the fastest lap of the day (85.99mph).

Bugatti went on to win the championship with victory in the final race, their third of the season, and Brooklands staged another race the next year, but that was to be the last.

As for the 1926 event, it was remarkable for the personalities who took part. Three - Campbell, Segrave and George Eyston - went on to break the land-speed record; Dubonnet was also a World War One flying ace and was in the French bobsleigh team at the 1924 Winter Olympics; Benoist served as an agent with the Special Operations Executive in World War Two before being captured by the Germans and was executed at Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944; and Frank Halford went on to be one of the leading pioneers of jet propulsion.