The name Bugatti and motor racing were practically one in the same throughout the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Whether it was sportscar endurance racing or single-seaters, Bugatti was a brand to have, so to have the name gone from motor racing, especially the Formula One World Championship seemed wrong, almost sacrilegious. Therefore, just the mention of Bugatti and the World Championship together just made the world seem right again.
The original Automobiles Ettore Bugatti would cease operations in 1952 after a long decline that was only made worse by the Second World War and the death of Ettore in August of 1947. Bugatti had lost its soul, and therefore, its way.
But the Bugatti name just could not disappear, especially from motor racing. Therefore, in 1955 Roland Bugatti would attempt to bring the famous name back to the fore in single-seater grand prix. And the best setting for that comeback would be in the Formula One World Championship. Therefore, Roland would set about forging a path of bringing the Bugatti name back to motor racing and, hopefully, achieving some of the glory that had been so much a part of the company's past.
Roland was the younger son of Ettore and he was determined to restore the famous company. Of course, one of the ways in which he could restore the company would be to make it the force in motor racing it had once been. Therefore, with the help of Pierre Marco, Roland would determine to create a design that could be useful for both sportscar and Formula One.
Unfortunately, Roland was not as talented as his father in designing and building cars, but he still had the drive necessary to make it all work. Still, drive couldn't make up for a lack of ability. Therefore, he would look for that talented designer to help come up with the necessary design. The answer, they believed, would come in the form of one Giacchino Colombo, the man behind the Alfa Romeo 158.
Colombo and the crew would set to work designing the car. It was to be called the Type 251 and was to feature an engine arrangement that would make it possible for the engine to be tuned specifically to the circuit.
Work would continue and work progress closer and closer to completion. The goal was to have a design with an engine producing some 275 bhp at near 10,000 rpm. This was the goal, of course. When the car was finally finished it was clear the actual output of the engine was much less than the target. Still, the team was determined and the work continued toward completion.
Bugatti had their car, of sorts, but they soon needed to think about another important element—the driver. Being a French company, it seemed a grand idea to put a French driver behind the wheel. At the time there were a couple of good French drivers to choose from. There was Jean Behra, but he was in contract with the factory Maserati team. There was Robert Manzon, but he was with Equipe Gordini. Of course, there was the talented all-around racer, Andre Simon, but Bugatti wanted a proven and successful driver to help restore the name to greatness. That would lead to one other French driver—Maurice Trintignant.
Automobiles Bugatti would be determined to make its comeback to motor racing, and its debut to Formula One, at the most important of races—the French Grand Prix. One year after the terrible tragedy at Le Mans, the French Grand Prix would return to the schedule. This, then, would be the company's goal. They needed to be ready to make an assault by early July.
Unfortunately, Trintignant was under contract with Vanwall for the entire 1956 season. It seemed the list of possible French drivers was wearing ever-more thin by the moment. Thankfully, however, Vandervell would release Trintignant from his contract for the one race. And so, Bugatti would have its driver.
Trintignant certainly seemed like the correct choice. He had driven for Bugatti before the Second World War. And, though not the fastest driver in the paddock, he was certainly one of the most consistent and steady. It was this steady, mistake-free driving that had gotten him the victory in the Monaco Grand Prix the year before. Bugatti was hoping Providence would again shine on Trintignant, thereby helping to return Bugatti to the fore of motor racing. In fact, Colombo and Bugatti were longing for such a showing that it would lead to the company producing a whole number of T251s. It would be a grand vision certainly, but it would serve as the team's motivation as they packed and prepared to head off to take part in the French Grand Prix. They were off to restore its name and experience the glory it once enjoyed in spades.
It would be a special sight to see the Bugatti transporter pull into Reims on its way to the 5.15 mile Circuit de Reims-Gueux for the French Grand Prix, the fifth round of the Formula One World Championship.
Besides the fact Bugatti was returning to grand prix racing with the French round of the World Championship, it was fitting the site of the race. Created from public roads between Reims and Gueux, the ultra-fast circuit would first host a motor racing in 1926. By 1930, Bugattis were dominating races all around the French countryside, including Reims-Gueux. When Bugatti made its return trip in 1956, not a whole lot would change. The major difference from when Bugatti dominated to when it returned to restore its honor would be in the routing of the circuit. No longer would the routing of the circuit head into the small village of Gueux. Instead, it would break off in a fast, sweeping right-hand bend that led back to Route Nationale 31 and the village of Thillois. Essentially a large triangle, the circuit featured mostly long straights separated by tight hairpin turns. Therefore, acceleration and top speed would be of greater importance than handling.
Unfortunately for Bugatti, it would become very apparent the goal of 275 bhp had not even been approached. The sportscar-like Mercedes W196s practically dominated on the circuit between 1954 and 1955 precisely because of the better aerodynamics the car offered. Unfortunately, horsepower also figures into that equation and it was very clear the Bugatti lacked a lot of it as Trintignant set out to put the car through its paces.
The fastest car on the circuit in practice, not surprisingly, would be Juan Manuel Fangio in the Lancia-Ferrari. His best effort of 2:23.3 would earn him the pole and would be more than a second faster than Eugenio Castellotti driving an identical Lancia-Ferrari. A further second would separate Peter Collins in 3rd place. Still, it would be a clean sweep of the front row by Ferrari and seemed an ominous sign to the rest of the field.
Whether it was a Ferrari on the pole or not didn't matter to Bugatti, what was proving ominous to those at the team was the difference in average speeds. Fangio would touch a little more than 129 mph around the circuit on his fastest lap. Trintignant, in contrast, would only be able to hustle his car around at an average speed of around 114 mph. This difference in speed meant the fastest lap Trintignant would manage to put together would be nearly 19 seconds slower than Fangio. This would lead to him being placed down on the seventh row of the grid in the 18th position.
The day of the race would be overcast but at least it would be dry. The cars would line up on the grid as the incredible crowd waited in anticipation for the start. Engines would come to a roar and then the flag would drop to start the race. Immediately, Collins would pull away into the lead with Castellotti and Fangio giving chase. Trintignant would make a strong start and would be in position to move further up by the end of the first lap.
At the end of the first lap it would be Collins leading over Castellotti and Fangio. Trintignant would be fighting hard to keep control of his Bugatti letting the rear end step out at times as he tried desperately to move up the running order. By the end of the first lap Trintignant would have the Bugatti in 16th place.
Fangio would soon take over the lead of the race and would maintain control over the whole of the field. Things would hold steady for a few laps before Harry Schell had to depart the race due to engine failure. This would help Trintignant move up the order. When Stirling Moss retired after 12 laps with a broken gear lever, Trintignant had already managed to climb his way up to 13th in the running order. Unfortunately, this would be as high as he would manage to get throughout the 61 lap race.
The Type 251 just didn't have the power to help Trintignant move up the order any further. Unfortunately, it really wouldn't matter the Bugatti just didn't have the power. Just passed quarter distance, Trintignant would be pushing harder and harder with every mile. This would end up back-firing as the throttle would jam on the Bugatti. This would lead to Trintignant retiring from the race after a very disappointing debut for Bugatti in the World Championship.
While Trintignant would depart the race disappointedly, Fangio would be out front well in control of the proceedings. It would be a sweep of the top three spots by Ferrari as Fangio led, Castellotti followed and Collins maintained contact. But then came along Schell in the Vanwall. By half distance, Fangio was still in the lead but Schell had managed to harass and pass Collins and Castellotti for 2nd place. His upward movement would be aided by a new lap record that would stand until Fangio picked up the pace and set the fastest lap on the 61st trip around the circuit. Unfortunately, just as soon as Schell appeared near the front of the field he would disappear. Having taken over Hawthorn's Vanwall, Schell seemed to be on his way to a top result but struggles with the car would lead him to drop back down the running order.
Schell wouldn't be alone. Luigi Villoresi, Olivier Gendenbein, Piero Taruffi and Andre Simon would all fall out of the race. But then there would be Fangio. He had been in control of the race for more than a majority of the laps. However, with 21 laps remaining in the race, Fangio would pull into the pits to have some problem checked. This left Collins in the lead over Castellotti with more than enough space between themselves and the rest of the field.
The rest of the race, therefore, turned into a exhibition between the two Ferraris powering by. The only question that remained would be which one of the two would take the victory. After two hours and 34 minutes, it would be Collins that would come flashing by to take the victory. Three-tenths of a second would be the difference between himself and Castellotti finishing in 2nd. Jean Behra would take advantage of Fangio's late troubles. He would jump up to 3rd place in the order and would hold onto the position throughout the remainder of the race. He would cross the line a minute and a half behind.
It would certainly not be the debut Bugatti had envisioned, nor hoped for when they headed to Reims. They had visions of past glory. Unfortunately, after just 18 laps, they would get an unfortunate dose of reality.
The most unfortunate reality to the poor performance in Reims would be the fact that Roland would not be willing to work on the car to try and make it perform any better. Instead, the 1956 French Grand Prix would be the once and only time in which Bugatti would take part in a Formula One World Championship race. The poor performance even brought to an end thoughts concerning an assault on Le Mans later on in the year. Instead of a return to glory, the Bugatti name would again return to extinction.