TeamsMarcel Balsa: 1952 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
There is a saying, 'You can't teach an old dog new tricks'. Marcel Balsa wouldn't subscribe to that saying. Born in Creuse, France on the 1st of January in 1901, Balsa would live a rather quiet and unassuming life right up through the Second World War. However, he would teach himself some new tricks afterward.
In the immediate years after the end of World War II, Balsa decided to take part in some grand prix races. He would start out by purchasing a Bugatti Type 51. Balsa would score a 3rd place finish in the Coupe de Paris race in September of 1945. He would later be seen racing at some of the French national events, and, despite being in his late-40s, proved to be rather competitive. Before too long, the Bugatti was proving to be quite out-matched. Therefore, Balsa would take a BMW Special with a BMW 2.0-liter 328 engine. Balsa, due to his performances in the minor races, would be asked to drive for some smaller constructors as well.
One of the moments in history in which Barcel was present, but was lost in the shadows, would be the fateful Circuit de Cadours race held in September of 1950. Balsa would happen to win his heat race ahead of Mas and Antonelli. The French hero, Raymond Sommer, would end up winning in the repechage in order to make it into the final.
In the final, Sommer had the lead and was pulling away from the rest of the field. He had managed to set the fastest lap of the race just before he went missing. One of the drivers would pull into the pits and would inform those present that Sommer crashed violently into a tree, after the car had already flipped and rolled a number of times. When a doctor, and Sommer's mechanic, arrived at the scene the French ace was already dead. In the background, the race went on. Rene Simone would take his only single-seater victory, and Balsa, well he would finish a splendid 3rd in a Jicey-BMW.
Throughout Balsa's racing career he would take part in mostly junior races, as well as, Formula 2 events. Then, in 1952, the World Championship came calling to him. The fifty-one year old driver would have the opportunity to take part in the World Championship.
The opportunity to take part in the World Championship presented itself when Alfa Romeo left Formula One at the end of the 1951 season. There was really no competitor to square-off against Scuderia Ferrari, who had truly become the team to beat, even during the later part of 1951. Costs were also spiraling out of control. This was not a good formula for continued existence, let alone success. In the search for time, in order to come up with new Formula One regulations, the race organizers and the governing-body decided the 1952 and 1953 World Championship seasons would be run according to Formula 2 regulations. This opened the door for Balsa and his BMW Special.
During the 1952 season, Balsa would take part in some smaller formula races and other special races. He would also take part in a couple of Formula 2 non-championship races as well. The first of just a few national Formula 2 events in which Balsa would take part would be the 1st Grand Prix de Caen on the 27th of July.
The Grand Prix of Caen would be attended by mostly French drivers. The race consisted of 75 laps of the 2.55 mile circuit, and therefore totaled a little more than 191 miles. While the field was rather small, it wasn't absent of the some of the best France had to offer at the time. Of course Raymond Sommer and Jean Pierre-Wimille were dead, but Jean Behra, Louis Rosier, Maurice Trintignant and Andre Simon were all present for the race.
The Caen Circuit was located right in the heart of the small city. The circuit ran around the hippodrome along some of the city's streets. After a gentle bend to the right, the circuit turned right again and followed Cours du General de Gaulle for a short distance before it turned right again and ran along the l'Orne River on the backside of the hippodrome. The only real tight, and slow, corner on the circuit was the very last one. Consisting almost entirely of right-hand corners, the circuit also consisted of mostly flat terrain as it ran around the hippodrome. Although generally without too many corners, the circuit still played out as a medium-speed circuit due to the fact the few corners there were interrupted most of the straight portions of the circuit.
The nature of the circuit, despite being relatively simple, played into the hands of Trintignant's and Behra's Gordini T16s. The T16s were small and nimble, but also had enough power to compliment its handling abilities. By contrast, Balsa's BMW Special was not as nimble, and lacked the power.
In practice, Trintignant would take advantage of the T16's strengths and would end up starting the race from pole. Louis Rosier, in a Ferrari 500 chassis, would prove to be quite quick himself and would start from the front row as well in the 2nd place position. The final starting spot on the front row would go to a third car manufacturer. Yves Giraud-Cabantous would take his HWM-Alta and would also turn in a good performance, good enough for the final spot on the front row. Balsa would end up not being able to keep pace and would have to settle for a starting position further down in the order.
Balsa struggled in practice to find a pace comparable to Trintignant and the rest of the front-runners. In the race, he wouldn't just struggle. Rather early on in the proceedings, Balsa's BMW began to have trouble. He would end up having to retire from the race after it was realized his BMW engine was having ignition troubles.
At 75 laps, the Grand Prix of Caen would not be an easy race to win. It would be rough on the cars. Giraud-Cabantous would come to realize this fact as he would lose a wheel during the race and would be another retiree. Sixteen cars would start the race. Only ten would still be running at the end.
Out of the ten still running at the end, only four would end up being classified. Jean Behra had managed to come forward to join his teammate at the head of the field. These two would be chased by the Ferrari 500 of Louis Rosier.
After a little more than two hours and fifteen minutes, Trintignant would cross the line as the victor. Maurice would end up with a thirty-seven second margin over Behra who would finish 2nd. Rosier would end up about a full lap down in 3rd place. Only Armand Philippe, who would end up some seven laps down in 4th place, would be still considered as running by the end. The six others still running in the race would be at least nine laps down to Trintignant, and therefore, would end up being listed as not classified.
In Balsa's case, to not be classified at the end of the Grand Prix of Caen would have been a blessing. However, despite the failure of the ignition, Balsa was determined to take part in his first-ever World Championship race. Surprisingly, he would choose to make his debut at one of the most dangerous and demanding circuits in all the world.
One week after the failed ignition troubles at Caen, Balsa would venture eastward to Germany for what was the sixth round of the World Championship. He had decided to enter the World Championship at a place notorious throughout Europe, and a good part of the world. The race was the German Grand Prix, and it would be held on the 14 mile long Norschleife.
The Nordschleife, or 'North Course' was merely one part of a larger 'Whole Course'. The circuit, located in the Eifel mountains of Germany, rose and fell, twisted and turned more times that a driver cared to remember. But the driver needed to remember as the circuit was very technically challenging and extremely dangerous. This purpose-built circuit would be hated and feared by many. Jackie Stewart would end up calling it the 'Green Hell'. Just one lap, for some, would be more than enough. In 1952, just one lap would take ten minutes of intense concentration and bravery. Very few places on the circuit offered either the driver, or the car, a break. This is why there would be only a few that would end up being called Ringmeisters.
Balsa, while concerned merely with the idea of taking part in his first-ever World Championship event, arrived at the Nurburgring in the midst of a championship fight. Were Alberto Ascari to win the race, he would end up being crowned the World Champion for 1952. Therefore, Ascari would push hard right from the very start.
In practice, Ascari was hard on his car. He would push his Ferrari 500 and would end up recording the fastest lap time. As a result, Ascari would have the privilege of starting the 18 lap race from the pole. Alberto's Scuderia Ferrari teammate, a former World Champion himself, would start on the front row in 2nd place. Giuseppe Farina would manage to turn in a fastest lap that was three seconds slower than Ascari's best.
Fresh from his victory at Caen, Trintignant would take his Gordini T16 and would turn in the third-fastest lap around the immense circuit. He would also be joined by one of his Equipe Gordini teammates. Robert Manzon pushed his T16 hard and would earn a lap time of ten minutes and twenty-five seconds. While over twenty-one seconds slower than Alberto's time, Manzon would do enough to start from the 4th, and final, position on the front row.
Perhaps due to being fifty-one years old, Marcel would seem rather un-phased by the daunting circuit. While he would not wow the crow during practice, he would; nevertheless, put together an impressive performance. In spite of the quite large field, Balsa would manage to start the race from the seventh row in the 25th position.
At the very start of the race, Alberto Ascari raced into the lead and began to pull away from the rest of the field. Giuseppe Farina would do his best to give chase. While at the front of the field things went rather smoothly, at the back, things were rather hairy for a little bit.
During the 1st lap of the race the cars were bunched up in the middle of the pack back. As the field twisted through the first couple of turns, Balsa was looking rather good. A couple of drivers, who had qualified rather well, had gotten pushed back down the field due to poor starts. Among them were Hans Klenk and Felice Bonetto.
During the 1st lap, Balsa narrowly missed trouble. Bonetto spun his Maserati A6GCM and did so right in front of Hans Klenk. As Klenk tried to avoid the spinning Bonetto, Balsa had to maneuver to avoid Klenk. Balsa would end up slipping by Klenk and Bonetto and actually moved further up the running order.
While Bonetto was receiving illegal help after spinning his Maserati, Trintignant would crash his Gordini and would be out of the race. Another six drivers would also fail to make it through the very first trip around the 'Green Hell'.
Balsa, however, would be one of those that would make it around. He would also make it around the circuit four more times before trouble would strike ending his day. He wouldn't be alone. Out of the thirty-two that would have positions on the starting grid, there would only be twelve still running at the end of the race.
The race itself wasn't even a race until the bitter end, at least at the front of the field. When Ascari grabbed the lead at the very start, he checked out from the rest of the field. He was fully intent on earning the victory and sewing up the championship right then and there. Farina gave chase, as did Trintignant and Manzon before both of them retired from the race. This left Farina all alone in the effort of tracking down Ascari.
The effort would fail until the very last lap of the race. Over the course of the previous couple of laps Ascari had noticed his Ferrari had troubles. He knew his car needed some work or it wouldn't make it. If that were the case he knew the championship would have to go another round. That would not sit well with Ascari. Therefore, as the white flag flew, signifying the last lap of the race, Ascari was pulling into the pits.
The pitstop would be a lengthy one. Because of the length of the stop, Farina was able to take over the lead of the race. When Ascari rejoined the circuit the roles had been reversed. He now was trying to hunt down Farina.
Unfortunately for Farina, Ascari would prove to be a better hunter. Knowing he had about ten minutes to work with, Ascari gradually pulled in Farina. Farina would not be able to deny Ascari in his pursuit for the title. Alberto would catch and pass Farina with enough track left that he would end up crossing the finish line with a fourteen second advantage over Farina.
Farina was the only driver out on the circuit that wasn't thoroughly dominated by Ascari. Rudolf Fischer, driving his own Ferrari 500, would be the sole remaining car on the lead lap. He would finish in 3rd place, but over seven minutes down. Everyone else, including Ascari's Scuderia Ferrari teammate and Swiss Grand Prix winner Piero Taruffi, would end up at least one or more laps down.
Of course Balsa wasn't in the running for a points-paying position. He just wanted to take part in a World Championship event and see what happened. Ultimately, what ended up happening was Balsa suffering a broken-down car. Having taken part in one World Championship race Balsa would somewhat retire to more local grand prix races. He would only take part in one more major grand prix race in 1952 and it would be a familiar venue.
On the 14th of September, Balsa would make some final preparations to his BMW Special in anticipation of the 4th Circuit de Cadours. The race had been good to Balsa with him earning a 3rd place finish amidst the brokenhearted French fans that had witnessed the death of Raymond Sommer. As with the race in 1950, the race consisted of a couple of heat races, a repechage and a final.
The circuit at Cadours was considered a very good track. Technically, it was a very challenging circuit. While every circuit has a flow to it, Cadours seemed to have a different cadence to it. While seemingly straightforward, the esses after the first turn could make or brake a lap. These esses were made more difficult by the somewhat blind entry leading from the first turn. The first turn featured a double-apex right-hand corner that also sloped downhill slightly. Upon making the right hand corner, heading toward the esses, the road rose a fair degree hiding the entry of the esses. While Cadours was a beautiful circuit, that was also technically very demanding, the most prominent aspect of the circuit that came into play every foot of every lap was its narrow width. Never more than a couple of cars wide at any point, the circuit was incredibly tough, and dangerous, especially when filled with a whole field of cars.
The race itself consisted of two 15 lap heat races. The entire field of cars would be split up into these two heats. Once the heats were finished there would be a 10 lap repechage, or 'second chance', that would allow those that failed any of the heats to make it into the final, which was 30 laps.
Balsa was entered in the second heat. In the first heat race, Louis Rosier and Peter Collins would battle with Charles de Tornaco, Andre Loens and some other, more local, drivers.
In practice, Louis Rosier would end up being the fastest in the powerful Ferrari 500. Rosier would manage to navigate the 3.43 mile circuit in one minute and fifty-eight seconds. Seeing as he would be the only one that would earn a time under two minutes, it was fitting he would start the race from the pole. Peter Collins would end up starting in 2nd and on the front row after he managed a best time of two minutes and three seconds. Charles de Tornaco, driving for the Belgian Ecurie Francorchamps team, would end up nine seconds slower than Rosier and would; therefore, start from the second row all by himself in the two-one-two arranged grid.
The race would end up transpiring just like practice. The only real excitement in the first heat would come from wondering who would actually make it through the 15 lap heat. Rosier and Collins ran together out front. Charles de Tornaco was following a ways back in 3rd place.
Behind the top three, the field was being hit by misfortune. Each one of the drivers that had started 6th through 9th would end up retiring from the race due to troubles of some kind. The 4th place starter, Loens, would end up dropping out of the race toward the end of the heat as well. This left Willi Heeks as the only other car still running, except for Rosier, Collins and de Tornaco.
Rosier would cruise to the victory by nine seconds over Collins. Not being pressured from behind, de Tornaco would finish a ways back in 3rd place. He would cross the line one minute behind Rosier. Heeks, the last running car in the first heat, was doing all he could just to make sure his car would make it to the end. He would finish 4th down about a lap to Rosier.
The second heat race would not be void of any talent. Balsa would have to take on Yves Giraud-Cabantous, Tony Gaze, Harry Schell and Emmanuel de Graffenried. In practice for the second heat, it would be these drivers that would give Balsa the greatest trouble.
Driving a Gordini T16, Harry Schell would manage to turn the fastest lap with a time of two minutes and one second. This was not all that surprising as the circuit's design seemed to fit the small Gordini chassis. Besides being small and nimble, its lighter weight allowed its 4-cylinder engine to accelerate the car rather quickly. When combined with the small and nimble design of the chassis, the car was potent on the twisting Cadours circuit.
Giraud-Cabantous would put together an impressive performance in another tight and compact chassis, the HWM-Alta. Yves would guide his HWM-Alta around to a time of two minutes and five seconds. This would be good enough to start 2nd and on the front row with Schell.
An even more impressive performance would come from de Graffenried. Driving an old and heavily revised Maserati 4CLT/48, Emmanuel would be able to set the third-fastest time and would start by himself on the second row.
Starting right behind de Graffenried, but separated by the third row, would be Balsa. While he would qualify better than three others, his time of two minutes and fourteen seconds was definitely not on par with the other front runners in his heat.
The second heat race would feature a little bit more excitement than what the first had. Schell was on the pace right at the start. He would throw his Gordini into every corner pushing hard. He would end up being chased by de Graffenried. Giraud-Cabantous ended up fading almost from the very start.
Like the first heat, five out of the nine would fade out of the race altogether. Included in those that would fade from the running altogether would be Balsa. The troubles meant that if he had any desire to take part in the final he would have to rely upon the repechage in order to get in.
While the top three didn't remain the same as they had in the first heat race, the finishing times were similar. Schell would go on to take the heat victory. He would finish with a margin of thirty-two seconds over de Graffenried. About a minute and ten seconds separated de Graffenried from Alberto Crespo in 3rd place. Giraud-Cabantous would manage to nurse his car across the line in 4th place.
The repechage consisted of a 10 lap race. The top three would end up making it into the final. At least in the upper levels of grand prix racing, Balsa would have to fight hard if he had a desire to end the 1952 season on a good note.
Balsa would end up in a fight with World War II fighter pilot and ace Tony Gaze. In the end, Gaze would be more than enough for Balsa to handle. Gaze would win the repechage. However, Balsa would manage to finish in 2nd place. This enabled him to take part in the 30 lap final.
The starting grid for the final had Louis Rosier on the pole. He was flanked on the front row by Peter Collins. Sitting in the second row all by himself would be Harry Schell. Having flirted with the edge of elimination, Balsa would find himself in the final race. He would start on the seventh, and last, row in the 10th position.
The cars had already gone through some tough laps during the heat races. For many of the cars, the 30 laps of the final would end up being too much. One of those that would end up being out of the race, even before it started, would be Collins. It was found that he had a failed cylinder head. There was no time to fix the problem. Therefore, the field of eleven would be reduced to ten. Very quickly, that number would be reduced even more.
While Louis Rosier and Schell battled it out during the first couple of laps, some of the others would end up battling trouble right from the start. One of the first out of the race would be de Tornaco. His Ferrari 500 would develop valve trouble and would sideline him for the remainder of the race. Willi Heeks, with his BMW-powered AFM chassis, would end up falling out of the race due to mechanical troubles.
Having the same type of engine as that of Heeks, Balsa would run a steady pace in hopes his car would be able to make it to the end. Unfortunately, the pace Balsa would run would leave him open to being lapped by those at the front of the field. However, Balsa was still running. This would be more than what could be said for Alberto Crespo and Armand Philippe who would also fall out of the race before the end was reached.
The battle, which there really wasn't one, was up front. Schell seemed content running behind Rosier. Emmanuel de Graffenried; likewise, seemed happy behind Schell. The only battle was protecting position, not gaining one. Over the course of the final, the only real battle that would continue throughout would be the fight for 3rd place. Emmanuel was intent on keeping Giraud-Cabantous away from the final step on the podium.
Despite Schell turning the fastest lap of the race, Rosier would cruise to victory with almost a forty second advantage over Schell. Schell would successfully defend his position from 3rd place as he would cross the line exactly thirty seconds ahead of his pursuer. In the fight for 3rd place, de Graffenried would push the aged Maserati to a bit of glory just one more time. He would clear Yves for 3rd by thirteen seconds.
Lost in all of the boredom up front was Balsa. After being on the brink and almost failing to make it to the final, he would continue to battle and would manage to stave off attrition to finish his last major race for 1952. Though the last car still running, Balsa managed to finish in 6th place, albeit two laps down to Rosier.
After taking part in his first World Championship race, Balsa would mainly focus on more local racing. Just a week after the race at Cadours he would win the Coupe d'Automme. Then, in 1953, Balsa would go on to win two relatively minor races, including the Coupe d'Automme for a second-straight time.
Balsa would continue to compete in races throughout the 1954 and 1955 seasons. During which time he would score a number of top five and top three finishes. He would take part in fewer and fewer races as the years would go by, but he would still manage a number of victories in class. Then, in 1959, and at the age of fifty-eight, Balsa seemed to disappear from the racing scene. He would later die in Maisons-Alfort, France in August of 1984.
In spite of being one of the older drivers around grand prix racing, Balsa would go on to prove that no one is too old to go after dreams and try something new. Should a person give it their all, it is possible to achieve success, and Balsa was a testament to that reality.