Races: 12Career Points:
3By Jeremy McMullen
It's hard to imagine anyone with the nickname 'Phi-Phi' being highly respected. One could just imagine the ribbing someone would take were this to be their nickname today. But in his prime Philippe Etancelin was not to be taken lightly. Though already into his 50s by the time Formula One came into being, this Frenchman had achieved so much success he needed to be taken seriously even if he needed a wheelchair to take him to his car.
Born in Rouen, France in 1896, Philippe was the son of a wealthy family and did not have any aspirations of becoming a racing driver. The family's fortune came through the wool industry. This wealth allowed Philippe to purchase a Bugatti Type 35 when he was only 20. He only purchased the Bugatti, his wife related, as the result of the birth of his second son. He intended to only use it for pleasure. Driving the Bugatti for pleasure led him to realize he also gained pleasure from the idea of going just a little bit faster. So, Philippe began to use the Bugatti to compete in hillclimbing events around the area.
In 1927, before Philippe even turned 21, he took his Bugatti and competed in the Grand Prix de Reims. Despite being young and inexperienced in racing, Etancelin proved to be a natural talent as he ended up winning the event.
This victory did little to change the fact that if he wanted to keep racing he had to have another job to help pay the bills. Therefore, like many other sports athletes of the age, Philippe worked, in essence, two jobs throughout the year. In the winter he worked as a merchant in the family business and then, in the summer, spent his hours behind the wheel of his Bugatti or whatever machine he happened to be racing. Racing did, however, become a family affair as Philippe's wife worked as her husband's pit manager during the races.
In 1929, Etancelin entered the Grand Prix de la Marne 1929. At the age of only 22 Philippe entered the race and promptly won the race. This was impressive but the fact he would go on to win races at the Grand Prix du Comminges and the Grand Prix de la Baule that same year firmly cemented Philippe as one of France's brightest racing stars. What was even more impressive is that Philippe won the Grand Prix du Comminges and Baule back-to-back. All-in-all, Philippe won four races in 1929 and, as a result, Etancelin became the national face of motoracing in France. He would not relinquish this role as the golden era of grand prix racing dawned in the 30s.
Besides his success on the track, Philippe would become easily recognized for his cap. Etancelin would always race with his cap turned around. Then, when helmets became required at certain events the cap still would be displayed prominently on top of the helmet, turned backward as everyone had grown accustomed to seeing.
In 1930, Philippe competed in almost a dozen events. He scored a victory at the Algerian Grand Prix, but all-in-all, his season did not start, or, really end up being as successful as it could have been. At the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, in mid-April, Etancelin suffered a 'Did Not Finish' (DNF). Another DNF came later in April at the Grand Prix d'Oranie after a crash 11 laps into the event.
Things began to turn around as Philippe was able to score a 3rd place finish at the Grand Prix of Lyon in June. He followed that result up with a 5th place finish at the Grand Prix de la Marne; the event he won the previous year.
In 1930 Philippe scored three notable wins and the first one came after a DNF at the Grand Prix de Dieppe. In August, at the Dauphine Circuit, Etancelin raced home to a win. Despite this confidence builder, and the fact the next race was the Grand Prix du Comminges, Phillipe could not follow the win up with another good result. At Comminges, an event he won the previous year, Etancelin suffered yet another DNF. Philippe would win a heat race at Monza a month later and would end up 6th in the final race. At the French Grand Prix at Pau however, Philippe took his car to a 1st place finish. This would be the third and final victory Philippe was able to score in 1930 as Etancelin suffered yet another DNF at the final race, the Grand Prix de Espana, which was won by Achille Varzi.
In 1931 Philippe bought an Alfa Romeo. The new car enabled Philippe to keep his streak going of scoring victories in each of the seasons he competed. Etancelin's notable wins for 1931 came at the Grand Prix du Comminges, Dauphine Circuit, the Grand Prix de Dieppe and the race at St. Raphael. Comminges, Etancelin won in 1929, while he won at the Dauphine Circuit only the year prior. At Dieppe, in 1930, Etancelin suffered a DNF.
In 1932 Philippe was able to achieve one notable win in the grand prix season. Etancelin was able to drive his Alfa home in 1st at the Grand Prix de Picardie. This would be one of the events Philippe would win the next year. The other major win for 1933 came at the Grand Prix de la Marne. Etancelin had the chance to win another race. Etancelin was leading the French Grand Prix at Montlhery until he was passed on the last lap by Giuseppe Campari. What heart-break for the French fans. Philippe also scored a 2nd place finish at the Grand Prix de Nimes after battling with Nuvolari. This was a tremendous battle that raged lap after lap and showed the ability of Etancelin to compete despite having inferior equipment to the works Alfa Romeo Nuvolari was piloting. Eventually Philippe developed brake problems after pushing Nuvolari so hard and had to back off and settle for 2nd.
In 1934 Etancelin's main victory came at the 24 hours of Le Mans. In that race, Etancelin co-drove with Luigi Chinetti. The victory gave Chinetti his second win in the 24 hour race. The win also meant a French driver won the French race. This was wonderful for the French fans. This was the third year in a row there was at least one French driver driving the winning car.
Also, in 1934, Etancelin purchased a Maserati 8C. Behind the wheel of his new Maserati Philippe was able to score a win at the Grand Prix de Dieppe. This race was comprised of two prior heat races. Etancelin won his heat and went on to win the final race in dominating fashion. Etancelin won the race and had lapped the entire field in the process!
Mostly Philippe entered races as a private entrant, but in 1935, Etancelin raced for the Scuderia Subalpina team. Despite a 4th at Monaco and a 3rd at Tunis, this move proved to be rather unfruitful. Etancelin's '35 campaign came to a dramatic and, what probably should have been, fatal end. The throttle stuck on his Maserati and this sent him flying off the road at one of the turns at Monza. He rolled the car, and yet, suffered no broken bones only bad bruises.
In the 1936 season, Etancelin entered the races as a private entrant once again. Being a private entrant proved to be the right move as he was able to win again, something he was unable to do the previous year.
Due to political issues the entire field was mostly made up of private entrants for the Grand Prix de Pau. Mussolini would not allow any Italian team take part, which the Ferraris were already on their way to the grand prix, to compete until the meeting of the League of Nations was completed. This helped Etancelin cruise to an almost 14 second victory.
Philippe also took part in the George Vanderbilt Cup that took place on the 4 mile, one million dollar Roosevelt Raceway. He qualified 6th for the race. The race did not fare better, however, as he ended the race in 9th.
Etancelin took 1937 off, and despite switching to drive for the Talbot-Lago works team, it was as though he took the rest of the 30s off. In 1939 Etancelin scored his best results over a three-year span with a 3rd at the Pau Grand Prix and a 4th at the French Grand Prix held at Reims.
Despite being almost 50, when the war ended Etancelin returned to racing again. As with prior to the war, victories were becoming harder to come by. Mostly this was the result of Philippe's age, but also, because of his competition driving superior cars. Despite this, he would win the Paris Grand Prix at Montlhery in a Talbot-Lago, and at the age of 52!
Etancelin was there the next year when the World Championship officially began. Etancelin qualified 14th in his private Talbot-Lago T26C (see Talbot-Lago T26C article) for the first event of the world championship. The race ended up being nothing spectacular for the Frenchman but Philippe would end up finishing the race in 8th, some 5 laps behind the British Grand Prix winner Farina.
Philippe looked like the driver of old at the next event, the Monaco Grand Prix. He qualified 4th for the race only 4 seconds behind the powerful Alfa of Fangio. Unfortunately the race did not fare better. Etancelin avoided the melee on the first lap, but his Talbot developed an oil leak which forced him to retire from the race after completing 38 laps.
Etancelin missed the next event, the Indy 500, but was present for the Swiss Grand Prix and the Bremgarten Circuit. Again, Philippe qualified well, 6th, about 9 seconds off the pole time set by Fangio. Etancelin's Swiss Grand Prix lasted only 25 laps though as he suffered yet another DNF; this time due to gearbox failures.
At the Belgian Grand Prix held at Spa-Francorchamps, Etancelin again showed good speed during qualifying. He would out-do the likes of Ascari and Rosier and qualified 6th, 12+ seconds behind the pole-sitter Farina. The race was not good for Philippe. The punishing course was not good for his Talbot-Lago as his car's engine developed overheating problems. This forced Philippe to retire on lap 15 of the event.
Heading to France for the French Grand Prix undoubtedly gave Etancelin a needed boost. The wily veteran wielded his Talbot-Lago around Reims, a track he knew well and qualified 4th; the next fastest of any car besides the three works Alfa Romeos. During the race, Etancelin drove the first 26 laps and then turned the car over to Eugene Chaboud for the remaining 33 laps. The duo was able to bring their car home in 5th, giving each of them one point in the world championship. This was quite a feat for Etancelin who, at this time, was 53 years old. But it would not be the last time he would score a championship point.
The 1950 Italian Grand Prix, the last event on the World Championship calendar, is an event that is listed in the history books not only because it crowned Farina the first World Champion, but also, because it proved to be the event where the oldest driver to ever score a championship point took place.
Etancelin qualified his Talbot well down in the field, 16th. However, the race was one of attrition. A year of racing was taking its toll on equipment. There were only 7 cars still running at the end of the event, but Philippe was not either 6th or 7th. Etancelin came across the line in 5th place. This earned him 2 points toward the championship and the distinction of being the oldest driver to score a championship point at 53 years, 8 months of age.
By the time of his retirement three years later in 1953, at the age of 56, the man known as 'Phi-Phi' had been racing for four decades. Etancelin is one of the first 'great' names of grand prix racing. Philippe competed over 40 years in the top levels of racing at the time; a tremendous achievement for any time period. There have been periods of time throughout Formula One's history that it has been a great achievement if a driver's career spanned a decade. Even fewer drives can boast a career spanning two decades. There are hardly any grand prix drivers that can boast of a racing career that carried past three decades, such is the accomplishment Etancelin achieved. What's more, Etancelin proved he still was a threat into his 50s. As a reward for Etancelin's amazing achievements, longevity and contributions to auto racing, Etancelin was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government. Etancelin died quietly in 1981 in Paris.
Though Etancelin was like a grandfather in racing by the time the World Championship came into existence, Philippe could still show the younger 'kids' how to do it. The wool industry seemed to be the last place to find a talented racing driver. But like a wolf in sheep's clothing, hidden in the Etancelin family wool business there dwelled a real predator on the race track. What began as a pursuit of pleasure became a pursuit of passion. Philippe Etancelin was one of the 'greats' of grand prix racing and one of those that helped form the basis for Formula One's existence.Sources:
GrandPrix contributors. 'Philippe Etancelin.' GrandPrix.com, Web. 3 May. 2010.
Snellman, Leif. 'Philippe Etancelin.' The Golden Era of Grand Prix Racing, 7
Aug. 2008. Web. 3 May. 2010.
Williams, Brenda. 'Philippe Etancelin—Privateer.' Articlesbase. Articlesbase, Free Online Articles Directory, 11
Nov. 2009. Web. 3 May. 2010.
Wikipedia contributors. 'Philippe Étancelin.' Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 28 Feb. 2010. Web. 4 May. 2010.