18 January 2019

Fascinating F1 Facts: 51

FIA Presidents may have long had the reputation for being blazer-wearing aristocrats who took on the job of running the federation - without any financial reward - because it was the sort of thing that nobles with plenty of money used to do. They were not necessarily very good at it, but they were not all stuffed shirts. But, without someone being in charge one can only where the sport would have been. The first President was Dutch aristocrat Baron Etienne de Zuylen de Nyevelt, who had married Helene de Rothschild, the daughter of Salomon de Rothschild, one of the French branch of the famous banking family. This might have sounded like a good career move, but she would be disinherited for marrying a Catholic… Still, they were not exactly struggling,as they had sufficient money to fund the restoration of the Kasteel de Haar, near Utrecht, which had been in the family since 1449, but had been in ruins for almost two centuries…

The baron remained in charge from 1904 until 1931.

Viscount Marie Joseph Thibaud de Rohan-Chabot, know to his friends as "Jehan", was the third President and he too came from a background of privilege, growing up in the dramatic Chateau de Josselin in Brittany, where the family had been running things since time immemorial. He was the second son of the Duke de Rohan, which meant that he needed to find other things to do and so after, qualifying as a doctor and spending the first world war as a fighter pilot, he went into business, in various board level roles, including being Vice President of the Suez company. His three sisters all married either Princes or Dukes, and he would marry the daughter of a Marquis, but the family was not without tregedies as his elder brother Josselin, the Duke de Rohan, died of injuries sustained as an infantry officer on the Western Front, while his son was a heroic fighter pilot, who was shot down and killed in 1940. So Rohan-Chabot was  fairly tough character. His links to the automobile world included being the President of BP France and later the Kléber-Colombes tyre company.

This led to him being chosen as President of the Automobile Club de France (ACF) in 1928 and eight years later, when he was 52, he was elected to head the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR), the forerunner of the FIA. In 1946 he oversaw the rebranding of the AIACR to become the FIA and became President of the new organisation. Under his leadership, Formula 1 was created.

He was still FIA President a decade later when the sport went through its darkest hours after the Le Mans disaster in June that year when Pierre Levegh's Mercedes ran into Lance Macklin's Austin-Healey and the disintegrating silver machine flew through the crowd opposite the pits at head height, killing at least 80 spectators. Probably more.

That year, the World Championship was to have included 11 races, although the Indy 500 was never run to F1 rules and so was part of the series in name only. The Le Mans accident came on June, a week after the Belgian GP, the fourth Grande Épreuve on the season, after Argentina in January and Monaco and Indianapolis in May.

A few days after the disaster, F1 went through the motions again, at the Dutch GP at Zandvoort, held at a time when the full implications of the French crash had yet to be felt. There were bans on motor racing in several countries (although only the Swiss one remained in the longer term).

The French GP (scheduled for July 3) was cancelled, but the British felt no need to worry about foreign problems and so the Grand Prix went ahead as planned on July 16 at Aintree. But the German, Swiss and Spanish GPs, scheduled for July 31, August 21 and October 23 respectively were all called off.

This meant that Juan Manuel Fangio was already World Champion by the time the Italian GP took place at Monza on September 11. He had left Aintree with 33 points, with his Mercedes team-mate Stirling Moss having 22, but with the three races then being cancelled he arrived at Monza in September with an unbeatable lead in the World Championship, although he would win that race. It would be the last Grand Prix contested by a Mercedes factory team until 2010.

A month later, in the run up to the Targa Florio sports car race in Sicily, the Daimler-Benz board of directors, under Dr Fritz Könecke, voted to stop all motorsport activities. They say that Mercedes had already decided to stop its F1 programme before the Le Mans crash, but that seems an odd thing to have been planning given that the firm had only enjoyed one season of F1 success at that point.

A week after the Targa, also in Sicily, there was a non-championship Formula 1 race at Syracuse, won by a youngster called Tony Brooks in a Connaught – the first Grand Prix victory for a British car on the Continent since the days of Sunbeam in the 1920s. It was a sign that the British were gearing up to became the dominant force in Grand Prix racing.

The Viscount de Rohan-Chabot guided the sport through these troubled times, retiring in 1958 at the age of 73.

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