Philippe Etancelin was one of grand prix's famous privateers (see Philippe Etancelin article). His talent behind the wheel was undeniable from his very first race back in 1926 when he won his first time out. His record as a grand prix driver was impressive, as well as his competitive longevity. Despite being fifty-four during Formula One's first season in 1950, 'Phi-Phi' was able to score three points toward the championship that year and remains the oldest driver ever in grand prix history to score a world championship point.
Given the fact he was able to beat out other drivers half his age the year before, it was hard for Etancelin to step away from racing at the top level. And, sure enough, Philippe was back driving as a privateer during the 1951 grand prix season. In fact, it was hard to tell the elder driver from the younger upstarts as the Frenchman's year started with almost the very first race of that year.
Toward the end of March Philippe took part in the Grand Prix de Pau. Philippe was present the first time Pau hosted a grand prix, which was Grand Prix de l'A.C.F., back in 1930. Now, twenty-one years later, Etancelin was back in Pau looking for a repeat of the success he experienced back in 1930.
Back in 1930, Etancelin was one of France's up-and-coming drivers. He proved this to be true as he went out and promptly won the race. Two decades later, Etancelin wasn't the youngster out on the track, and there were many other multi-national drivers that represented the next generation of grand prix drivers.
Fifteen drivers entered the grand prix at Pau and Etancelin showed he still had the speed, despite his age. The Frenchman took his Talbot-Lago T26C and secured a 9th place starting spot on the grid. Alberto Ascari, driving for Scuderia Ferrari, took the pole with his Ferrari 375. In fact, Scuderia Ferrari took the first three spots on the grid. Villoresi started 2nd and Dorino Serafini started 3rd.
The first races, as well as, the last few races of a season can be car-breakers. Early on, as drivers and teams try new designs, attrition rates at races can be high. Then, as was the case back in the early days of Formula One, it was not unfamiliar to have a single chassis used throughout a season. Teams would rebuild or repair as necessary. But ultimately, after a season of abuse, the wear would begin to show and the attrition rates would again increase toward the end of a year. The Grand Prix de Pau was a good example of the problems with attrition early on in a season. Out of the fifteen starters, only six would still be running by the time the checkered flag flew after 110 laps of the 1.76 mile street course.
While a Ferrari went on to win, the team did lose two to mechanical woes, including the car driven by Alberto Ascari. Villoresi scored the victory with Rosier and Farina coming in 2nd and 3rd respectively. One thing that comes with age is wisdom and patience. Etancelin used both in his favor and was able to keep his Talbot-Lago out of trouble the entire race. Philippe was able to steadily climb up from his 9th place starting spot. And, despite finishing 5 laps down, Philippe was able to finish the tough race in 5th. Not too bad for a fifty-five year old!
Given the costs of racing, and the mere fact of Etancelin's age, he didn't attend a race until two months later. In May of '51 Philippe traveled to Silverstone for the BRDC International Trophy Race. The one constant about weather is that it is almost sure to make an impact on a race, especially England in May. Sure enough, the 3rd BRDC Trophy Race would be a memorable one, but not for the racing that took part but the weather that brought it to a premature end. The race consisted of two heat races and then a final. Each of the heat races were able to be completed despite some falling rain, but the final was another story all-together.
When the final started so too did the really heavy rain. After just a few laps the track began to flood and driving became very difficult. Due to the incredibly adverse conditions, the officials decided to call the race after only six laps. Reg Parnell was able to handle the torrential rains and flooding to take the win when the race was brought to a premature end. Philippe was able to keep his Talbot-Lago under control and finished the race in 12th, one lap down to Parnell. Surprisingly, although the conditions were terrible, seventeen drivers were still running when the race was called.
Two weeks later, and back on home soil, Etancelin was in Boulogne for the Bois de Boulogne. The race in Boulogne took place on a 1.55 mile street course. As a result of the short course the number of laps contested was rather high. The race distance was a total of 125 laps or 194 miles. No fewer than six T26Cs started the race. The only other make of car that had more than two chassis present for the race besides the Talbots were the Simca-Gordini T15, and each one was entered by the team Equipe Gordini.
Philippe qualified well for the race. He would start the race 3rd. Unfortunately, he was unable to improve upon this good starting spot. In fact, the Frenchman would end up getting passed by some of those he had out-qualified. In the end, Etancelin finished the race 5th, four laps down. Giuseppe Farina ended up winning the race in a Maserati, followed by Jose Froilan Gonzalez in an Ecurie Rosier Talbot-Lago T26C. Louis Rosier, driving for his own team, took the last spot on the podium.
After Boulogne the sophomore Formula One season kicked off a week later at Bremgarten and the Swiss Grand Prix. The Swiss Grand Prix was the first time that season Philippe had squared off against the top drivers, cars and teams. He had faced Scuderia Ferrari at the Grand Prix de Pau, and then, faced the Alfa Romeo SpA team at the flood-shortened BRDC Trophy Race. Now, Philippe had to face both, and with a gaggle of other talented drivers.
Both Scuderia Ferrari and Alfa Romeo SpA brought four cars each. This was some stiff competition for Etancelin in his privately entered T26C. The Alfa Romeo 159 (update of the 158 Alfetta) was the dominant car and it showed during qualifying. The Alfas qualified 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th. The only other car in the top five not an Alfa was the 4.5 liter V12 Ferrari 375 of Luigi Villoresi. Despite the dominant power of the Alfas and Ferraris on the 4.5 mile road course, Philippe was able to hold his own in his T26C during qualifying. Nine of the top-ten spots on the grid went to either an Alfa Romeo 159 or some model of Ferrari. Fangio took the pole in his 159. Nino Farina started the race from 2nd and Villoresi started 3rd. Despite the dominance, Etancelin was able to start a respectable 12th out of 21 starters.
On a whole, the attrition rate for the Swiss Grand Prix was rather low. And attrition was about the only hope any other driver had when it came to defeating Fangio. From the very start, Juan disappeared into the distance. Etancelin benefited from the failures and mistakes of other drivers who qualified better than himself and he was able to finish the race 10th, although not in a points paying position and some three laps down. Fangio won the race in his Alfa Romeo followed by Piero Taruffi for Ferrari and Fangio's teammate Nino Farina.
Despite being 55 years old, Philippe was back behind the wheel only a week after the Swiss Grand Prix; this time for the 5th Ulster Trophy race held at the Dundrod Circuit in Northern Ireland. The race consisted of 27 laps of the 7.4 mile road course for a total of 200 miles. Twenty entrants qualified for the race, including Etancelin. He qualified 15th for the race. The race, from the perspective of first through fourth was actually rather boring and uneventful. Farina set the pole time in his Alfa 159. The following three qualifiers were Reg Parnell, Brian Shawe-Taylor and Bob Gerard. As the race unfolded, the top-two somewhat ran together lapping the entire field before the end. The second pairing of the Shawe-Taylor and Gerard also ran somewhat together and almost lapped the rest of the field behind themselves. In the end, first through fourth, from qualifying, finished that way, with Farina winning. Etancelin was the last car running on the track, but he was able to drive steadily to come up from his 15th starting spot to finish the race 11th.
The next race on Etancelin's calendar in 1951 was the Belgian Grand Prix held at Spa-Francorchamps. Out of the thirteen starters, Philippe qualified for the race 10th. The race, however, wouldn't provide any opportunity for the Frenchman to improve upon his starting spot. Etancelin was unable to take part in the second round of the championship when his Talbot developed transmission problems. Once again, Etancelin was unable to score any points toward the drivers championship for 1951.
Trouble revisited Etancelin for the very next Formula One round, which was the next race on the grand prix season calendar. On July 1st the French Grand Prix was held at Reims-Gueux. This was a tough race as it was contested over 77 laps of the 4.8 mile road course and totaled 374 miles. Philippe qualified well for the race as he was able to pilot his T26C to a 10th place starting spot on the grid. This wasn't that bad considering there were 23 entrants who qualified for the race. Since this was the French Grand Prix that year, Etancelin wanted to give his countrymen one more demonstration of his talent; but it wasn't to be. Thirty-seven laps into the race, Philippe's inlet manifold failed causing a failure in the engine. And though it was designated the European Grand Prix that year, the failure effectively ruined the Frenchman's grand prix in front of his home fans.
Although Reims was a let-down, Etancelin would soon again have reason to celebrate; only this time in the Netherlands. Philippe skipped the next round of the world championship, the British Grand Prix, and, three weeks after his failure on home soil Philippe was in Zandvoort to compete in the Grand Prix of the Netherlands. Twelve entrants qualified. The field was mostly made up of private and small team entrants but it didn't lack for competition, not with Farina, Moss and Rosier present. Etancelin qualified for the race very well, starting 4th. When the 90 lap race came to a close there were only five cars still running. Racing, though, is about finishing, as well as speed. Therefore, there is more to racing than just being fast; a driver needs to be able to balance speed with longevity. Etancelin's vast racing experience paid off as he never put a foot wrong the entire race. And, though he was one lap down, he was able to finish the race 2nd. He had managed to beat out some of the other big name talents like Farina, Moss and Chiron.
Seven days after his good result in the Netherlands, the Formula One world championship headed to Germany and the Nurburgring. And, once again, it was at a world championship round that trouble struck. The race that year was held on the full-length Nordschleife 14 mile road course and Etancelin struggled. He could not match the pace of the other top teams and drivers and had to settle for a 21st starting spot on the grid, out of 23 starters. The race, compared to qualifying, faired no better. The twisty 14 mile track took a toll on his Talbot and on the fourth lap the gearbox failed, bringing to an end his German Grand Prix and any opportunity to score even a point toward the championship.
After suffering from another failure at the non-championship Grand Prix de l'Albigeois about a week later, Etancelin set his sights on Pescara, Italy and the Circuito di Pescara race that took part in the middle part of August in that year. Scuderia Ferrari showed up in force for the race bringing four cars. Despite their presence, Philippe was able to start the race from 6th on the grid. The Nordschleife course at the Nurburgring is perhaps one of the most famous tracks in all the world. Yet, a couple of weeks after competing on that track, Etancelin was set to start the Pescara Grand Prix, which was 12 laps of an almost 16 mile temporary road circuit. Philippe was helped out by the failures of some of the top runners like Ascari and Villoresi and, as a result, was able to come up through the field to finish the race 3rd.
Philippe skipped the second-to-last round of the championship and prepared himself, and his car, for the final round, which was the Spanish Grand Prix held at Pedralbes outside of Barcelona. The Spanish Grand Prix took place in October of '51, and in only a couple more months 'Phi-Phi' would turn 56. Yet, despite his age, he almost reset his record for the oldest person to score a championship point in a Formula One race.
Twenty entrants qualified for the last race of the Formula One season. Etancelin qualified an inauspicious 13th. While Fangio and Ascari were battling it out for the championship, Philippe was just looking to end his season, and perhaps last race, on a high note. While the Frenchman would not end up fighting for the win, he still did manage a good result given the tough competition. The steady and controlled veteran made his way up into the top-ten and wound up finishing the last race 8th. He had missed scoring another point by only three places. Of course he did end up finishing the race some seven laps down to Fangio. Such was the pace of the race.
Competing at the age of fifty-five, Philippe Etancelin continued to prove his talent; the same talent that had made him known and respected among his peers decades before. By the time 1951 came around, Etancelin was one of the old 'Masters', one of those who had been around and had seen the dawning of the dominance of the team over the private entrant. Yet, despite the powerhouse teams like Alfa Romeo and Ferrari, Etancelin's talent and experience made him almost as potent. It would appear obvious that it was only his age that was going to prevent him from tasting success ever again.