Revs is pleased to announce that eminent automotive historian Doug Nye will be joining our team. Doug will be authoring a regular retrospective column featuring images from our archives. We hope you will enjoy this exploration of motorsports history with one of the finest automotive writers of this era. More images from our collection can be found at the Revs Digital Library. Conduct your own research or purchase permission to use our images directly through Revs Institute.
Having been asked to produce an occasional blog for Revs Institute I thought we might start with a look at some of the time-machine jewels that can be found in the Digital Library archive.
For example, if you go onto the Digital Library website and click on https://library.revsinstitute.org/digital/catalog/mz835hq6306 you will find this remarkable image from a former era of Grand Prix racing now long gone.
Back in 1957, the Maserati works team was making an all-out effort to emulate Mercedes-Benz in producing the winning car for both the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship and the FIA Sports Car World Championship. The cars in question were the works team’s own latest ‘Lightweight’ Maserati 250F Formula 1 single-seaters, and the muscular 450S V8, and 6-cylinder 350S and 300S sports-racing projectiles.
But Maserati had one problem which had always tended to characterize the works team’s efforts. By advancing on such a wide front, and over-committing themselves financially, technically and where their very small ‘band-of-brothers’ workforce were concerned, they would too often come badly unstuck where reliability was concerned.
I think it was the great and always wry Henry N. Manney III – the seasoned ‘Road & Track’ magazine Grand Prix reporter – who coined the phrase “meanwhile, back at the oil patch”. So what would one find “back at the oil patch”? That’s right – almost always a Maserati…
Now, amongst the Revs Digital Library’s presently 358,119 posted items, contemporary ‘Autosport’ magazine’s chief photographer George Phillips’s negatives from the 1957 French Grand Prix record an outstanding example of what dear old Henry meant about “the oil patch”.
Maserati’s French factory team driver Jean Behra had been going well in his own national World Championship-qualifying Grand Prix until first his ‘Lightweight’ 250F’s exhaust pipe split and he began to be affected by fumes entering the cockpit. This must have been a very discomforting experience on the deceptively fast, swerving, hilly Rouen-les-Essarts road circuit, but for the rugged little ex-motor-cycle racer worse was to follow. A serious oil leak developed in his engine, which began to spray oil mist back through the so-called ‘firewall’ bulkhead and onto his legs, feet and the foot-pedals. Remember, this would just have been oil soaking into his shoes, socks and trouser legs – it was HOT oil! My old friend and mentor Denis Jenkinson of ‘Motor Sport’ magazine reported: “Behra was now getting soaked in oil from a leak from the engine, as well as being asphyxiated and burnt from the broken exhaust system…”.
Eventually, as Jenks wrote: “The plucky Behra, who never gives in despite personal suffering, drove his car to a standstill just before the finishing line on lap 69 and waited there, grimly wiping the oil off his hands and face, until (his team leader) Fangio completed the race (and won outright), whereupon he coasted over the finishing line to be classified fifth, just ahead of (team-mate) Schell, whose Maserati only just dragged itself round the last few laps…”.
That French Grand Prix is remembered today as an absolute triumph for Maserati, for their ‘Lightweight’ 250F design, and for Juan-Manuel Fangio himself as he had demonstrated the supreme art of drifting the car through Rouen’s downhill swerves in a balletic – and ballistic – manner seldom seen before or since. While this itself is also recorded by George Phillips’ camera within the Digital Library – as here at https://library.revsinstitute.org/digital/catalog/yv259xj7668 – the downside evidence of Maserati’s day there is also indelibly preserved for us.
Poor little Behra is seen having been handed a towel by one of the works team mechanics. The driver’s overall legs are completely soaked in black oil. The mechanic himself is wearing the most eccentric of straw sun hats (what would Mr Ecclestone have to say about such team apparel today?). Other neighbouring frames show a concerned AC de Normand official brandishing a cement-sack to soak up spilled oil from the track tarmac. And Maserati’s Argentine rent-a-driver Carlos Menditeguy – at that time also the world’s star polo player – is hovering nearby, still helmeted and gloved, having just been forced to retire his own 250F, after its engine had burst! We see Behra mopping his face, and then George Phillips plainly ran across the track to capture Fangio winning with Behra’s stricken sister Maserati stationary in the background, ‘Jeannot’ clambering back in. Finally, we see him coasting the silent car downhill, across the timing line to finish the Grand Prix, and so secure that fifth-place classification.
An internet trawl through the Revs Digital Library’s archive is indeed like a trip back in time to that July day in Normandy. I can only think of one more enervating related experience, and that is of actually driving Jean Behra’s ‘Lightweight’ 250F from that long-gone day, now approaching sixty years ago. The old car – chassis number ‘2528’ – has been preserved for many years by a friend here in England, Neil Corner, and recently we ran it for a nostalgic day at Croft Autodrome. And d’you know what? It ran like a bird – it never missed a single beat – it had enough mid-range torque to pull your house down…and it handled like a big, warm, friendly Italian dream… So much for “back at the oil patch” indeed – but of course today there’s absolutely no pressure – and the old World Championship titles have been long-since won, and lost.