1930 French GP: Like Bringing a Howitzer to a Knife Fight
September 29, 2015 by Jeremy McMullen
How preposterous the sight! Among the 25 cars lined up for the 1930 French Grand Prix there would be one large supercharged Bentley. It would be akin to a sportscar prototype lining up alongside a Formula One car on the streets of Monaco. But this wasn't Monaco. And, if everything aligned just right the results would be too remarkable to tell.
Sir Henry 'Tim' Birkin was one of the famed 'Bentley Boys' that had come to dominate Le Mans throughout the late 1920s. Son to a wealthy family that manufactured lace, Birkin was a hit with the ladies despite his small stature and strong tendency to stutter. Still, with his blue and white scarf wrapped around his neck whipping in the breeze, he still cut quite the dashing fogure when behind the wheel of a racing car.
Being a 'Bentley Boy', Birkin's preferred mount would be the monstrous Bentley, but not particularly the Speed Six that was most successful. W.O. Bentley had drive with Birkin on a couple of occasions, and yet, the two didn't necessarily see eye-to-eye when it came to producing horsepower. W.O. believed in sheer displacement to produce more power. Birkin believed in supercharging smaller engines. However, when Birkin accepted the call to come to Pau he would do so with what was still, by a wide margin, the largest car in the field.
Pau has a storied place in grand prix history hosting what would be considered the first race that would be accepted as a 'grand prix'. That event would be in 1901. Sadly, by the end of the 1920s there had not been enough motor racing history for many of the factory teams and wealthy racers to be lured by a sense of nostalgia. As a result, an appeal would have to be made to all racing drivers to come to the French Grand Prix. A national guilt-trip would be practically laid at the feet of every elite French driver. Their purpose, it was made clear, was to come and defend national honor. Certainly not French, but certainly lured by the possibility of an impressive winner's purse, Birkin would respond taking his 'lorry', as Bugatti like to refer to the Bentley, to the southwest of France looking for bootie.
While Pau held the distinction of holding what was the first grand prix, the intended circuit for the 1930 race would be quite different than what had been used nearly thirty years earlier. Most importantly, the race in 1930 would be conducted upon a circuit. And, while the circuit would still be comprised of public roads, some 25 laps of a 9.8 mile triangular-shaped circuit, it would no longer be a race to the Atlantic ocean. Furthermore, while the city of Pau itself is situated along the steep banks of the Pau River, the road course would be located out among the rolling countryside just to the east. This was anything but the tight streets of Monaco, and this is where Birkin's entry made more sense.
Except for a small section of S-bends, the Pau circuit was comprised of long straights interrupted by hairpin turns. This was similar to Le Mans in many ways, and it was at Le Mans where the Bentley ruled. And yet, many an onlooker would scoff at the mere presence of the grand sedan parked amongst the much smaller, more nimble, grand prix cars. To put it another way, in the eyes of most the French Grand Prix was going to be something like a knife fight where agility and swiftness of movement would strike a blow. Birkin, on the other hand, had brought a Howitzer. It was ungainly and unwieldy in most conditions, but if the setting was just right, he wouldn't just score a blow. He would obliterate everyone else.
In order to score that devastating blow, however, Birkin had to survive, and this wasn't a small task. Technology and components were improving all the time, but drivers still needed to take great care, or else, their race could come to a very quick end.
Stripped of everything possible, including the headlights and running guards, the Bentley did its best impression of a grand prix car as it lined up on the third row of the grid. The first row of the grid consisted of mostly Bugattis. Casali, driving a La Perle, however, would be in the pole-position for the race. Joining him would be Czaykowski and Lehoux. Birkin's row would include Senechal and Grimaldi.
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The circuit made use of public roads, but it had just been completed only right before the cars began to arrive. Therefore, practice around the circuit would be conducted with the roads still somewhat crowded with other public traffic. This would be the first time all of the drivers would get to take to the circuit without thought of any other local traffic.
The one thing Birkin would soon come to enjoy about the circuit would be the long straights. After his poor start, he needed all the help he could get to regain the ground that had been lost. Through the flowing, sweeping sections this was practically impossible against the more nimble grand prix cars. However, the straights were indeed straight, and they were long. this enabled the full power of the blown Bentley to come into play, and, whatever was lost in the other sections of the circuit was more than made up for on the fast straights.
At the end of the first lap, it would be a remarkable sight. Williams, who had started the race in 19th position on the grid, would pass every single car in front of him to complete the first lap in the lead. Bouriat would come along in second place with Zanelli, Czaykowski, Etancelin and Birkin running 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th respectively.
Completing the second lap of the race, Williams kept flying faster and faster posting a new record lap time. The speeds were remarkable. The conditions were helping his cause for sure. At the time of the start the wind was blustery but at least the circuit was dry after rain had battered the circuit all throughout the night and early morning. Zanelli had made his way up to second place while Birkin held station in 6th.
Birkin would move forward in the order at the same time Bouriat made a stop and handed the car over to Louis Chiron. While Tim would move up to 5th place, Etancelin would find himself in 2nd.
Chiron demonstrated his prowess by moving up into the lead, but Etancelin would be gaining on him from second. Tim, meanwhile, looked as though he had, for sure, brought the wrong car to the race. The Bentley struggled through the sweeping sections of the circuit but would claw back more and more time down the long straights. Still, against the incredible pace up at the front there was really very little he could do. But, he was far from out of the fight. He just needed his competitors to line up just right. If and when that happened, there would be destruction and the Bentley would be the last car running.
What Birkin had in his favor was endurance in addition to performance. The Bentley had dominated Le Mans. It knew, and welcomed, being pushed hard for 24 hours. Now, this was the blown Bentley that hadn't anywhere near the success or reliability of its brethren, but still, it was a Bentley. Birkin just needed the shell called 'attrition' to be loaded into the barrel and he would begin moving forward quickly.
Little past one-third distance 'Attrition' would be discharged from the barrel. One of the first victims would be the car out front. Williams would set a new lap record with a very impressive lap time. However, his enthusiasm would get the better of him and he would end up needing to stop to change tires. He would be the first of a number of Bugatti drivers that would be forced to pit for new tires. Nearly each and every one of the Bugatti pilots drove their cars to the absolute limits foregoing any restraint for the components that made such a pace possible. Sabipa would hit a pile of stones and would end up ejected from his Bugatti. He would end up lying in the middle of the road with his head bleeding terribly. All of this would happen right in front of Birkin, who had no time and could only react. Amazingly, he would wield his cumbersome Bentley by Sabipa's head missing him by only a matter of a couple of inches.
While Birkin tried to calm himself, Chiron would retake the lead, but it would be shirt-lived. His opportunity at victory would come to an end when he suffered a puncture and had to limp back to the pits. He would no longer be much of a factor in the race. Williams, who absolutely dominated the early going would find that his pace would come back to haunt him as he would be forced to retire due to a mechanical problem.
Attrition had blown up in a big way. The concussive force would be too exacting for nearly all of the competitors, nearly all of the competitors. And, those that would manage to escape the carnage seemed to fall victim to Birkin's Bentley, well...all except one. The result would be the Bentley occupied second place behind Philippe Etancelin's Bugatti.
Heading into the final few laps of the race, Etancelin's lead would be more than four minutes over Birkin. But, there was still time for Tim to load one more round into the chamber in hopes of taking a win.
Around one lap remaining, another round of attrition would be discharged and it would hit Etancelin's Bugatti hard. The final lap could not have been more tense and dramatic. Etancelin could feel his clutch going out. Furthermore, there was a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the amount of fuel remaining in the tank. All told, Birkin was closing the gap.
Etancelin was wounded and struggling terribly. Problem was, so too was Birkin. The lead was nearly cut in half, but, there were ominous signs from the Bentley that it too had suffered some self-inflicted wounds. The top two were struggling to complete the last lap and Zanelli was covering the ground quickly from third.
Incredibly, Etancelin would survive to take the victory. Just passed the finish lie the clutch would fail and the Bugatti came to a halt with practically dry fuel tanks. Any further and the car would not have made it. It was bleeding to death, but it had made it. A couple of minutes would pass and all eyes would be peering down the long road to see if the huge Bentley had failed. Nursing an advantage of just 14 seconds, Birkin would come across the line limping to second place. He and the car had not won the fight, but the mighty Bentley had certainly won respect and was, by a slim margin, the car that had survived in the best condition.
It was grand prix history and one of the last international successes for the mighty Bentley. It was, however, vindication and clear proof of the pedigree of the brand and of Birkin's belief in a supercharged Bentley. It had battled with cars that had gone the route of supercharging thereby vindicating Birkin and his vision. This vision would even continue to the very early days of Formula One during the early 1950s. This lineage would need to pay a bit of homage to Birkin and his blown Bentley.
Considered woefully unprepared for the battle before him, Birkin would prove, on that 21st of September, 1930 that the weapon didn't necessarily matter. It was all down to experience and knowledge of how best to utilize the inherent strengths. Birking, and the Bentley certainly demonstrated their greatness.
The grid would be cleared and the cars started in preparation for the 2pm start. At the drop of the flag, it would be Bouriat, starting from the second row of the grid, that would zoom past Czaykowski and into the lead. Birkin, on the other hand, would suffer a poor start and would be a good distance back as the field streamed toward the sharp right-hand hairpin for the first time.
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'Drivers: B', (http://www.kolumbus.fi/leif.snellman/db.htm#BIRK). The Golden Era of Grand Prix Racing . http://www.kolumbus.fi/leif.snellman/db.htm#BIRK. Retrieved 16 July, 2015.
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Wikipedia contributors, 'Tim Birkin', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 July 2015, 18:50 UTC, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tim_Birkin&oldid=670867003 accessed 17 July 2015