TeamsEcurie Bleue: 1959 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
In the history of grand prix racing there are very few privateers teams that last, let alone stretch decades or generations. Ecurie Bleue is one of those few notable exceptions. And it is probably one of the most interesting of them all.
Grand prix racing, historians agree, really has its roots in France around the turn of the 20th century. However, it wouldn't take very long before it became a worldwide phenomenon. One of those countries that would really help push this form of racing further on would be the United States. There were the Reliability Tours, the Indianapolis 500 and other such races, like the Vanderbilt Cup. Yet while the United States would host a number of races of the same type as the grande epreuve of France and Europe there were those, these early American racers, that realized to compete against some of the best in the world one needed to contest races on their soil. One of those that would realize this would be Laury Schell.
But while men in the world of grand prix have never been unusual, it was highly unusual to see a woman campaigning a car; at least it was around the turn of the 20th century. Lucy O'Reilly was an heiress to a fortune and another American who was interested in motor racing. She visited Europe and would eventually meet Laury. Schell lived most of his life in Europe and raced when and where he could. O'Reilly had money in spades and the two would soon become connected to each other taking part in rally events together. This was a ground-breaking couple and their team name was Ecurie Bleue.
Laury and Lucy would become prominent members of the motor racing scene of the 1930s. O'Reilly invested heavily in Delahaye and would even race their cars at times. This investment and promotion would eventually lead to Rene Dreyfus driving under the Ecurie Bleue banner at the 1938 Pau Grand Prix. Shockingly, Dreyfus would shock many pulling off an upset win over the Mercedes contingent.
But the story of Ecurie Bleue doesn't begin and end with Laury and Lucy, nor with Dreyfus. There would be a son. His name was Harry O'Reilly Schell.
Within the annals of Formula One history the name Harry Schell is not one of the first to come to mind. Indeed, it is highly unlikely the new, or casual, Formula One fan has even heard of the name. However, in Formula One, in the 1950s, Harry Schell would be very important to growing popularity of the pinnacle of motorsport.
Put into a modern context and given a more familiar characterization, Harry Schell could be regarded as similar to, say, Rubens Barrichello. A driver and fan favorite, there was worldwide enthusiasm and pleasure when Rubens finally triumphed at the Hockenheimring in 2000 at the wheel of the Ferrari. His tears on the podium reminded the world that behind the corporate face of Formula One it was still a pack of drivers longing, fighting to win. And, the tears pouring down Barrichello's face that day reminded the world of just how hard the feat truly is.
While not the family man Barrichello is, Schell was as well-liked and respected among his peers as the Brazilian. Furthermore, Schell was hardly ever without a smile on his face, or a bit of humor. This made him an endearing figure to the crowd and to those within motor racing. If ever there was a race in which he stood on the podium or took victory there was very rarely, if ever, a thought of negativity toward him.
Schell's talents were real. Genetically and lovingly passed down from his parents, Harry was fast behind the wheel of a racing car when he wanted to be. Perhaps the only unfortunate thing about that was the fact he was equally rough on his machines. This tempered the raw talent. Still, if he had the car under him, he could pull out a surprise or two.
There was no denying Schell's abilities. Over the course of the 1950s he would drive for some of the best teams in all of motorsports. He would drive for Scuderia Ferrari, the factory Maserati team, Vandervell and even Equipe Gordini. While at the wheel of a factory Maserati 250F in 1957 he would finish with 10 points and a then best 3rd place at the Pescara Grand Prix. However, one year later, and at the wheel of a BRM, Schell would seemingly find his fit. Highlighted by a 2nd place result in the Dutch Grand Prix, the season would prove to be Schell's best in Formula One. He would end up finishing the season 6th in the standings with 14 points. Sadly, this discovery of form would have its consequences.
More than a few times Schell had proven his speed behind the wheel of a racing car. Unfortunately, unreliability always seemed to mask the real potential. Therefore, when Harry began to hit his stride in the BRM in 1958 it would adversely impact his friendship with the Frenchman Jean Behra. Prior to that season the two were closest of friends. However, Schell's performance would lead Behra to believe the team favored Harry and the rift would cause their friendship to deteriorate.
One year later, Schell would remain at the wheel of a BRM while Behra departed the team to drive for Scuderia Ferrari. Despite the fact the BRM could no longer compete with the mid-engined Coopers, Schell would still manage a 4th place finish in the British Grand Prix and then a 5th place result in the Portuguese round of the championship.
Following a 7th place result in the Italian Grand Prix in mid-September, Schell would find himself without a ride for the season ending race at Sebring, Florida. But, this lack of a ride would offer Formula One history one of those truly rare moments.
Harry had been born in 1921 and would turn to motor racing at a rather early age. Having the means behind him, Shell would take part in a handful of events around Europe. Sadly, Laury and Lucy would be involved in a terrible road accident just before the outbreak of World War II. Laury would be killed and Schell's mother would be severely injured. When France fell into German hands they would return to the United States. It would be at this time that Harry took over the reigns of the family's motorsport effort. One of the first steps would include participating in the 1940 Indianapolis 500. Hiring Rene LeBegue to drive their Maserati, Schell would see his first foray as a privateer boss result in a 10th place result at the 500 mile event.
Harry could not avoid World War II. He had already volunteered and served some time in the Finnish Air Force. He would start out serving as an aircraft gunner. But, this would prove a little too remote for the man who had spent nearly the whole of his life in France. Therefore, he would earn a commission and would then take up a spot within America's Tank Corps.
In 1950, Harry would take part in the 1950 Monaco Grand Prix under his own team name of Horschell Racing Corporation. Famously, Schell would be one of nine that would become collected in a heap around the Tabac corner when a huge wave splashed across the circuit.
Then, a little less than a month later, Schell would do something very few privateers could that would give him a special place within the history of motorsport and Formula One. Harry would put in an entry for the Swiss Grand Prix held at the Bremgarten circuit on the 4th of June. The name of the entry would be Ecurie Bleue.
There had been more than a few privateers to compete in races before the Second World War that would make at least one appearance in Formula One afterward. However, Schell would have the distinction of being really the only privateer team to span more than one generation within the same family. Competing against the likes of Fangio and Farina in their mighty Alfa Romeo 158s, Harry would prove himself coming across the line in 8th place. It would be the only time Ecurie Bleue would appear in the entry list of a Formula One World Championship race. That is, until 1959.
Harry had begun the 1950 decade driving under his parents' Ecurie Bleue name. He was about to finish the decade doing the same. Gaining use of a Cooper T51, Schell would return to the United States to take part in the first United States Grand Prix, which would be held at Sebring in Florida.
Sebring was by no means an unfamiliar site. Nearly every driver and team that would make the journey across the Atlantic had done so before to race at the track in the past. However, this race would be different from previous experiences. In the past, the extremely bumpy concrete of the former Air Force training base had served host for the Sebring 12 Hour event. But this time, on the 12th of December, the circuit was to play host to the final round of the 1959 Formula One World Championship.
Not all were pleased about the race. One of those principally upset about the event was the championship leader, Jack Brabham. He was convinced the race was merely a ploy by Stirling Moss. One more race meant one more opportunity for Moss to steal the championship away from Brabham.
To others, it seemed natural to end the season at Sebring. Many of the drivers and teams hung around Florida and the Caribbean area during the winter months anyway. Some of the first sportscar races of the season were held in that area; so it only made sense.
Undoubtedly, some of the arguments surrounding the race had to do with the circuit itself. Comprised of concrete runways and taxiways, the circuit was featureless and extremely bumpy. In many ways, it is the one characteristic that has remained with the circuit right up to this present day.
The character and nature of the 5.18 mile circuit presented a very real challenge to the competitors. Unlike the twelve hour race, the United States Grand Prix would be a relative sprint event whereby the cars would be pushed to their limits each and every single one of the 42 laps. Over the bumpy surface this was a tall order.
Taking to the circuit in practice, Schell would be impressive behind the wheel of the Ecurie Bleue Cooper. In fact, he would appear, to many, as too good behind the wheel. The fight for the championship was down to three men. Brabham had the lead but Moss and Tony Brooks were still in the running. Schell's performance in practice was so good that a protest would be filed against the Parisian-American. Nothing would be done about the protest and Schell's best time would be allowed to stand.
Stirling Moss would be the quickest around the circuit with a lap of 3:00.0. Brabham would be exactly three seconds slower and would start 2nd on the front row of the grid. Out from behind the wheel of the BRM, Schell would be flying in the Cooper lapping the circuit just a couple of seconds slower than Brabham. This would result in Schell taking the final spot on the front row and Brooks being pushed down to the second row. Already facing some controversy, Schell would need to prove his pace in the race.
Moss, once again, needed everything to go his way if he had any hope of winning the championship. At the start of the race, he would do everything right getting the jump off the line to lead the race. Brabham sat in second place. Schell would start the race from the front row of the grid but would suffer a terrible start to the race. By the end of the first lap he would be struggling to stay in the top ten. This would be an unfortunate undoing of the man when there appeared to be so much promise.
Moss would lead the way over Brabham and would actually increase his lead. Brabham's controversial statement before the race, suggesting there would not have been a race had Moss not still been in the running, seemed to have some merit now as Moss would stretch his advantage ever so slightly.
It would be all Coopers at the front of the field throughout the first part of the race. Moss would be in the lead followed by Cooper teammates Brabham and Bruce McLaren. Phil Hill was the early hope for Ferrari and the United States but he would quickly fade giving Allison the opportunity to uphold Ferrari's honor.
Bob Said would take part in the race driving a C-Type Connaught. Sadly, the engine on the Connaught would run into trouble on the first lap of the race and this would lead to Said crashing out of the race after just one lap completed. Alan Stacey would be another that would make an exit from the race after just a single lap. There would be a lot of action in the opening lap of the race and it would prove to be just the beginning of a day filled with drama.
Brabham's nearest title rival was Moss and Stirling currently held onto the lead. However, after five laps, Brabham's first target would go away. Besides the suspension and other elements taking a beating, the gearboxes on the cars would be suspect around the long, fast and bumpy circuit. Moss would lead the first five laps of the race. However, on the sixth lap, it would all go horribly wrong as his gearbox would begin to give up the fight. One challenger was out of the way.
The sixth lap of the race would prove to be a destructive one. There would be Moss' retirement which, of course, would be the biggest news around the circuit. However, on that same lap, Harry Schell would find his race come to an end as well. Schell was known for being fast, but, he was also known to be rough with his cars wrestling, often swearing at them, all throughout a race. On this particular day, his Cooper T51 would grow tired after just five laps. Ecurie Bleue's return to Formula One would not prove to be very memorable. Sadly, it would prove to be one of the last times the name would ever be seen on an entry list.
Brabham would take over the lead of the race and would be firmly in control of his World Championship destiny having his teammate McLaren providing protection against any rear action.
Brabham's only other championship concern was Tony Brooks. Brooks had arrived in Florida not feeling well at all. Tony started the race from 4th place on the grid, but, an incident with his Ferrari teammate von Trips on the first lap meant he was all the way at the tail-end of the field. Jack's championship seemed sown up.
But Brooks had demonstrated at many times in the past, when his back was against the wall, that he could deliver. He would demonstrate that fact this day as well. Halfway through the race, Brooks would climb all the way back up to 5th place after falling all the way down to just inside the top fifteen after that first lap incident. However, all seemed well heading into the last couple of laps of the race though. The Australian and New Zealander had become embroiled in a battle. The two Cooper teammates showed each other respect while they battled back and forth. However, in the late stages of the race Brabham was still in the lead and Brooks was still down in 4th place. But there would be one last twist in the plot.
Coming around on the final lap of the race, the engine in Brabham's Cooper would suddenly cease. The car kept rolling for a couple hundred yards before it came to a complete stop. Brabham had secured the championship by this point in time as Brooks was too far down and would collect too few points to challenge for the title. Still, the Australian wanted to finish the race, especially when the finish line was within sight. McLaren would sweep by into the lead and on to victory followed by Trintignant. A couple of minutes later, Brooks would sweep by. It would be a remarkable scene nonetheless. Here would be Brabham at the back of the Cooper pushing it toward the finish line with the red Ferrari of Brooks flashing by in the background.
Brabham would cross the line and would immediately collapse from exhaustion. There ready to greet the new World Champion was a large throng of fans and well-wishers. One of those there immediately ready to help and congratulate Brabham would be Moss.
No such fanfare would surround Schell at the conclusion of the United States Grand Prix. His early retirement meant he too could watch those exciting last moment events transpire. The popular, fun-loving Schell was by no means the center of attention at this point in time. Sadly, the motor racing world would not have him around for much longer at all.
He had revived his parents' team name after nearly a decade of driving for other teams and privateers. It was as if he knew his time in the sport was drawing to a close. In reality, he would not realize just how quickly it was coming to an end.