17 December 2018

Fascinating F1 Facts: 19

Lots of folk know that Louis Chiron was the oldest man to start a Formula 1 race, in Monaco in 1955, when he was 55 years (and 292 days) of age.

But how many people can name the very first man born who would race in a Formula 1 World Championship event?

The World Championship began in 1950 and Chiron was born in August 1899, which means that any Grand Prix driver who was born before him, yet was still racing in the 1950s, must have been over 50 - but younger than 55. In fact, the gentleman in question raced in the very first Formula 1 World Championship race at Silverstone in May 1950, when he drove a privately-entered Lago Talbot T26C. He was then 53 but would go on racing for two more years before he retired, as the second oldest F1 driver ever, at 55 years (and 191 days), his last race being the 1952 French Grand Prix, held on the Rouen-les-Essarts circuit in Normandy, which he had helped to create the previous year as a member of the Automobile Club of Normandy.

His name was Philippe Etancelin - known to his friends as "Phi-Phi" - and he was born in December 1896, just two years after the world's first motor race had taken arrived in his home town of Rouen. The Paris-Rouen Trial of 1894 was not really a race, but rather a regularity trial that went from the Porte Maillot in Paris, along the Seine valley until it reached Rouen, around 80 miles away, but it was a very significant event for the sport.

Rouen was a port, inland from the sea and famous for its textile industry and if you look at most stories about Etancelin you will read that he was the scion of a wealthy family who had made their money in wool. That is not actually the case… Etancelin made his own fortune by trading duck and goose feathers, which he bought from the many farms in Normandy and then sold to manufacturers of mattresses and pillows in Paris.

In effect, he was a middle man, but by buying cheap in the country and selling at a high price in Paris, he made himself a fortune from feathers. The story goes that when he had become quite wealthy - in around 1925 - he travelled to Paris to buy his wife Suzanne a diamond ring and while he was doing this, on the Avenue Montagne in Paris, he stumbled upon the Bugatti showroom at number 46 and decided that it made sense to buy a Bugatti Type 35 Grand Prix car (...as you do).

In fact, he had no intention of racing the machine, but he felt it would be a good car to speed his passage from farm to farm in Normandy. For the next couple of years Etancelin did exactly that and is said to have managed to get the car up to 125mph on some of the public roads around Rouen. He then decided that he might try his hand in local hillclimbs and was quite successful. In 1927, passing through Reims on business, he went to find the organizer of the Grand Prix de la Marne, Raymond "Toto" Roche, seeking an entry for the event. Roche turned him down brusquely, he didn't want any amateurs in his motor race! However, it was a pretty weak field that year, made up of cycle cars and voiturettes, with only a couple of Bugatti 35s and some 37s, which were voiturette versions of the 35. There were few star names and so in the end Roche went to find Etancelin the night before the race at his hotel and, wanting another Grand Prix car on the grid, informed the feather salesman that he would be allowed to start the race from the back of the grid - but instructed him not to overtake anyone and just keep out of the way.

Etancelin paid no attention to these daft instructions and drove through the field to win the race, and the considerable prize money that was offered. He would win the race again two years later and in 1930 he travelled to Pau for the French GP, held on a road course outside the town, and took the lead when all the factory Bugattis had mechanical troubles and consequently was able to win, ahead of the rather large Bentley, driven by Tim Birkin.

He came close to winning the Grand Prix again in 1933 at Montlhéry, but he suffered a clutch problem on the last lap, but that year he won the Le Mans 24 Hours at his first attempt, sharing an Alfa Romeo with Luigi Chinetti.

He impressed everyone the following year at Monaco, starting from ninth on the grid but moving up the fight for the lead against Luigi Fagioli’s Mercedes-Benz but still finished a remarkable fourth in an era when such things were almost impossible. Later that year he rolled a Maserati at Monza when the throttle stuck open and suffered some serious injuries, but he returned in 1936 and won at Pau in the same car, which had been repaired.

He continued to race until the war and then when peace returned he took part in the Coupe des Prisonniers in the Bois de Boulogne, the first race after the conflict ended. After that he appeared regularly driving Lago-Talbots and twice finished runner-up in Grands Prix. When he retired he was appointed to the Legion d'Honneur, for services to the sport.

In the 1920s death was ever-present in Grand Prix racing, but the evergreen Etancelin lived on until he was 84 years of age…

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