While great innovations and inventions may involve only one or a few people, it takes many times more people to take the innovation and invention to make it truly take off. Arthur Legat was one of those greater numbers that helped to shape the motor racing scene, though he; himself, may not be as well known as some other names of the same period.
Legat was born before the turn of the 20th century. He, and the automobile, grew up together. Just as motor racing's golden years were just beginning, Legat was just beginning his own motor racing career. Quite well known and beloved around his home town of Haine-Saint-Paul, Legat ran a rather successful garage in the town. Legat's career was; however, quite a bit more restrictive than some of the cars he had worked on and driven. Born in Belgium, Legat's national pride and home ties came through his racing. He would really only race in the immediate area around his home town. Chimay would end up being a regular stop for the Belgian throughout the pre-World War II era. In fact, he would take part in more than 25 Grand Prix des Frontieres between the years of 1926 and 1959.
By the time of the formal formation of the Formula One World Championship, Legat was already into his early fifties. But then, going into 1952, an opportunity presented itself that even the fifty year-old could not pass up. As one final mark in his personal racing history, Legat would have the opportunity to take part in the Formula One World Championship.
It was known throughout the middle-to-late stages of the 1951 season Alfa Romeo was going to pull out of the Formula One racing. The costs had become too high for even the defending, and soon-to-be, repeat World Championship winning constructor. Scuderia Ferrari had been coming on very strong over the course of the season. Therefore, with Alfa's retirement from Formula One, the governing-body feared Ferrari would have no competition. This would hurt the field as the lacking competition, and, incredibly high costs could have spelled the end of the World Championship. The organizers needed to come up with a solution.
However, the organizers needed time. The question was what could adequately fill the time until the governing-body could come up with new competitive regulations and cost-cutting measures? Upon looking for a stop-gap measure, the governing-body recognized the competitive racing found in the Formula 2 field, and of course the lower costs associated with the series. That was it! It also served as an invitation to many other smaller teams and privateers, like Legat, that would not have entered the World Championship otherwise.
Given the opportunity, Legat made the choice to enter a World Championship race during the 1952 season. Not too surprisingly, Legat would only enter one of the World Championship rounds, and it would be the Belgian Grand Prix.
However, before the third round of the World Championship, Legat would take part in the 22nd Grand Prix des Frontieres.
The Grand Prix des Frontieres took place at the Chimay circuit on the 1st of June, and consisted of 6.69 miles of public roads just to the northwest of the Chimay. The circuit's layout amidst the countryside made for an ultra-fast circuit. Though not as famous as circuits like Reims and Rouen-Les-Essarts, Chimay featured a couple of prominent landmarks along its course. Among the landmarks is the hairpin La Bouchere corner located near the heart of Chimay itself. The circuit then flashes by the little 'Chapelle de l'Arbrisseau', which is a small stone church located just off the edge of the road between Salles and Mairesse. Consisting of mostly sweeping and a couple of hairpin turns, Chimay was known for its high speeds. Routinely, laps around the circuit would average in excess of 90 mph.
Living not too far away from the German border, Legat became quite aware of the chassis built by some smaller manufacturers within Germany after the end of the war. Of course, one of the most well known was Veritas. While the cars were known to be good, the majority of their sales were more the result of all of the marketing the small company would do. Former BMW engineer Ernst Loof would start Veritas and would be very vocal about his car's achievements. While over-blown at times, it would help to sell more of the Veritas chassis. Legat would get one of the Meteors and would enter the car in the 22 lap race around the roads of Chimay.
Chimay was a popular race for many other Belgian racers. Legat would be joined by other well-known Belgian racers, such as Johnny Claes, Roger Laurent and Paul Frere. The majority of these other Belgian racers were also almost fifteen, or more, years younger. These younger, faster Belgians would end up taking control of the starting grid. During practice, Claes would end up turning the fastest lap of all the competitors. Driving an Ecurie Belge Gordini T15, Claes would end up grabbing the pole for the start of the race. Willi Heeks would turn the second-fastest lap with his AFM chassis. Roger Laurent, driving the new Ferrari 500 F2, would end up also starting front the front row after turning in the third-fastest lap during practice. Legat would not be able to turn in the lap times during practice to start the race up towards the front of the starting grid. However, Legat had been racing before some of the other racers had even been born. He had experience working in his favor.
The start of the race would see the entire front row wiped out. Roger Laurent and Johnny Claes would get together on the very 1st lap of the race and would knock each other out of the race. Willi Heeks would end up lasting just one lap before his oil pump went out ending his race. By this time, only one lap had been completed. There were still 21 still to go. All of this drama led to the second row becoming embroiled in a battle for the lead.
Frere and Downing looked strong. John Heath was among them with his HWM-Alta until 11 laps into the race. Heath would end up crashing his HWM and would cause him to retire from the race. This literally made the race between just the HWM-Alta of Frere and the Connaught A-Type of Downing. Legat had already fallen slightly off the pace of the front-runners but continued to circulate.
While not near as quick as the front runners, Legat continued to stay out of trouble and would be able to move up the running order. The battle between Frere and Downing would be furious. This would lead to many of the competitors falling at least a lap down before the end of the race.
Coming to the line on the 22nd lap, the victory was still in doubt. Powering through Vidal, Frere would be able to hang to take the victory over Downing. The margin was only a second. Robin Montgomerie-Charrington had enough of an advantage over Marcel Masuy that, despite running out of fuel on the last lap, he would still finish the race 3rd. Montgomerie-Charrington and the rest of the field was at least a lap down to Frere and Downing.
Legat would prove experience was the better part of valor. He would end up driving a consistent race and finished 6th, albeit two laps behind. Although he was soundly beaten, this would serve as a good warm-up before the third round of the World Championship, which would take place in only a few weeks. Though still a racer, Legat would take part in the Belgian Grand Prix more for the novelty of being able to take part in a World Championship event than being concerned with scoring points or taking the victory.
At the end of June, in 1952, Arthur Legat was fifty-three years old and preparing to take part in his first Formula One World Championship race. Thankfully, the older racer didn't have to travel all that far.
The third round of the World Championship in 1952, Arthur Legat's first, and only, round of the World Championship in 1952, was the Belgian Grand Prix. The race took place at the ultra-fast Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Located in the heart of the Ardennes forest, the 8.77 mile circuit was a blend of bravery and insanity. The course, which took place on public roads, featured a number of elevation changes. It also boasted of some hair-raising bends and kinks. A lap around the track was to flirt with the edge of disaster. Doing a lap in the rain, which was often the case, was flirting with death.
Unprotected on either side of the course throughout most of the circuit, the spectators were able to stand right at the edge of the track, and the drivers were able to skirt falling off the edge of the track as well. Technically demanding, the circuit, as it does still today, remains a favorite with fans and drivers. Even at the time, Spa was one of the more famous racing circuits in all the world.
Legat would also have to face one of the most famous drivers, as well as, perhaps the most famous team in all the world—Alberto Ascari and Scuderia Ferrari. Ascari had missed the first round of the World Championship in order to prepare to take part in the second. Ascari missed the Swiss Grand Prix to travel to the United States to take part in the Indianapolis 500, which counted toward the World Championship in 1952. Ascari obviously wasn't present to score any points at Bremgarten, and, his attempt at Indy fell foul to problems. Therefore, Ascari undoubtedly looked at the Belgian Grand Prix as his opportunity to get his World Championship hopes on track.
In practice it would be quite clear the task Ascari had before him was victory. In Legat's case, it was much less serious, but he still took the race very serious as it was before the home crowd.
In practice, Ascari would end up in a class unto himself. He would end up turning the fastest lap with a time of four minutes and thirty-seven seconds. The only ones that could get anywhere close to Ascari's time were his other Ferrari teammates. Giuseppe Farina, the 1950 World Champion, would end up turning the second-fastest time with a lap three seconds slower than Ascari's. Piero Taruffi would only be able to record a lap time that was nine seconds slower than Ascari.
This was of little concern to Legat. His main concern was finding a fast enough pace to get into the race and to finish in a decent position. Legat's lap times in practice definitely pointed out the fact he wasn't so concerned with trying for the front of the grid, because he would only be able to be at the front of the rear of the grid at the end of practice. Arthur's fastest lap was exactly one minute slower than Ascari's best time. This positioned the Belgian down amongst a couple of other Belgian racers. Legat would start the race from 21st on the grid; second-to-last.
If facing the prospect of 36 laps around the 8.77 mile, fast circuit wasn't daunting enough, then rain may have been a little too much. Sure enough, rain was falling before the race began. This would make climbing the hill through Eau Rouge a treacherous undertaking.
Jean Behra didn't seem to mind. The race got underway. The Ferrari drivers were right there at the front, but the two Equipe Gordini drivers, Robert Manzon and Jean Behra, were right there with them. The field would tip-toe its way through the first couple of laps without incident. Behra was proving to be quite fast as he would even lead a lap. However, Ascari would take over the lead and would begin to pull away. This would be helped by a collision between Piero Taruffi and Behra on the 13th lap of the race. Piero had spun in the wet conditions and ended up collecting Behra.
Legat took it easy in the conditions. He would do his best to make sure his Veritas Meteor would grip the track in the wet conditions before really applying the power. This sure-footed driving kept him going, albeit not that fast.
Ascari seemed totally unaffected by the conditions once in the lead. His pace would be torrential, just like the conditions. He would end up lapping the field up to, but not quite including, 3rd.
In the conditions, Ascari would take a little over three hours to complete the 36 laps. He would average 102 mph and would take the victory by almost two minutes over Giuseppe Farina. Third place would go to Robert Manzon, who had just started his last lap of the race as Ascari was coming into view to take the victory.
Legat had definitely seem Ascari out on the track. In fact, before the end of the race, he would see Ascari go by him five times. In spite of being so far down, Legat would finish the race and in 13th position. This wasn't too bad for the fifty-three year old driver. Many other drivers who had the opportunity to take part in a World Championship event never even had the chance to make it to the finish. After a long racing career, Legat could also say he had finished a World Championship grand prix.
Never one to venture to far away from home, and under no false allusions about the state of his career in 1952, Arthur Legat would not take part in another World Championship, or, non-championship grand prix in 1952. He would return home to his garage to work on cars and prepare for just one more attack on a World Championship race in 1954; at the very young and tender age of fifty-four.