By Thomas O'Keefe, U.S.A.
Autosport-Atlas Senior Writer
The Silver Arrows and Prince Rainier are both gone, but Thomas O'Keefe pays tribute to the man and machines that made the modern Monaco GP the jewel in the Crown that it is today
What did 1954 Indianapolis 500 winner Bob Sweikert and the late French Grand Prix driver Maurice Trintignant have in common? They were the only drivers to win a race counting toward the 1955 World Drivers' Championship in something other than a Mercedes-Benz W196 - the resuscitated Silver Arrows unleashed on the Grand Prix world by Daimler-Benz AG on July 4, 1954, a world-beater of a race car that was destined to dominate the 1954 and 1955 Grand Prix seasons.
The Silver Arrows had been at the Monaco Grand Prix before, in the 1930s, the heyday of the Hitler-sponsored Mercedes-Benz/Auto-Union juggernauts, and Mercedes-Benz had swept the three pre-World War II Monaco Grands Prix in which the team had participated, even when the Other German team was present.
Luigi Fagioli won the 1935 Monaco Grand Prix in the 3.9 litre Mercedes-Benz W25B (he was later to die as a result of a qualifying accident coming out of the tunnel prior to the 1952 Monaco race in his Lancia Aurelia); Rudolf Caracciola in his 4.7 litre Mercedes-Benz 25E won the 1936 race ahead of the 6.0 litre Auto-Union Type C V16 driven by Achille Varzi, and in 1937 Manfred von Brauchitsch in his 5.6 litre Mercedes-Benz W125 had a fierce duel with his teammate Caracciola and bested him, probably against the wishes of the legendary Daimler-Benz team manager, Alfred Neubauer, for whom Caracciola was the favorite son.
Although as of the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix the Silver Arrows had not raced through the streets of Monte Carlo in 18 years, that was partly because only three races had been held at Monaco in the interim: Grands Prix in 1948 (won by Dr. Guiseppe Farina's Maserati 4CLT) and 1950 (won by Juan Manuel Fangio's Alfa Romeo 158) and a race for sports cars in 1952 (won by Count Vittorio Marzotto in a Ferrari 225S). So, hard as it may be to believe these days when we think of the Monaco Grand Prix as the jewel in the crown, the Principality was in a sense reestablishing itself as a race venue by holding the "1955 Grand Prix d 'Europe," as the race around the houses was called that year.
The Cars and Drivers of the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix
Daimler Benz AG helped the Principality put itself on the map by returning in full force with the Mercedes-Benz Rennabteilung to the streets of Monte Carlo on May 22, 1955, with 2.5 litre, straight eight, fuel-injected, Mercedes-Benz W196 Grand Prix cars, brought to the track by custom-built bright blue transporters that used the Mercedes 300 sedan as the basis for the 'cab' of the transporter. These beautifully turned out silver-painted cars with scotch-plaid seats were produced in streamliner form, in long wheelbase form and, as at Monaco, in short wheelbase form.
In these various configurations the W196 competed in twelve World Championship races in the 1954 and 1955 seasons, and won nine of them in the hands of Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Hans Herrmann, Karl Kling, Piero Taruffi and Andre Simon. Continental tyres were used by the Silver Arrows of the 1950's, as they were in the 1930's. The team was managed by the same Alfred Neubauer that ran the original Silver Arrows team, with Neubauer still brandishing the red and black flag that he used to give signals to his mechanics and drivers in the 1930's.
Although the Mercedes-Benz W196 was the superior Grand Prix car of the era, there were a variety of fascinating cars and drivers from Italy, France and England that were entered for the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix. From Italy, the most promising challenger was the Lancia D50, with which 1952-53 World Champion Alberto Ascari had taken pole position in the last Grand Prix of the 1954 season and had briefly led that race. Scuderia Lancia fielded four of its gorgeous red Lancia D50 V8's with their oval grilles and novel outrigger gas (and oil) tanks and designed by Vittorio Jano, who had designed the Grand Prix Alfa Romeo P3's from the 1930's.
The Lancia D50's were to be driven by veterans like Ascari, Luigi Villoresi and Louis Chiron, winner of the 1931 Monaco Grand Prix in a Bugatti 51, and newcomer Eugenio Castellotti, who had already showed his skills around Monte Carlo by finishing second in the 1952 Monaco sports car race when he was only 21 years old. The Lancia D50's ran on Pirelli tires.
The late Prince Rainier was also in a Lancia - a sky blue convertible which was used to open the course, with the Prince driving himself in the traditional lap of honor before the race. The Prince had not yet married actress Grace Kelly, but would add to the luster of Monaco by doing so before the 1956 Monaco Grand Prix.
Maserati 250F's got the strength-in-numbers award during this mid-1950's era. In the 1955 Argentinean Grand Prix that preceded the Monaco race as the first race of the season, no less than 13 separate Maserati 250F chassis were entered; by the Monaco race there were four Maserati 250F's brought by the factory for veterans like Frenchman Jean Behra and Argentinean Robert Mieres along with relative newcomer Luigi Musso and Cesare Perdisa, for whom this 1955 Monaco Grand Prix was his very first race. The Maserati 250F's ran on Pirelli tires and were delivered to the track by the handsome grey/blue Maserati transporters, and were tended to by the Maserati mechanics in their dark blue uniforms.
Privateer Maserati 250F's were entered by Ecurie Rosier for Louis Rosier (who won Le Mans in 1950 in a French Talbot-Lago T26C GS sports car), and Stirling Moss had entered his own private Maserati 250F for Briton Lance Macklin, but he did not qualify. Rosier's Maserati was painted French blue; all the other 250F's were Italian red.
The third Italian team decked out in red was the Scuderia Ferrari team, running on Engelbert tires, which showed up with four cars: Ferrari 625's (which were really upgrades of the Ferrari 500 from the 1952 and 1953 seasons) for Italian Giuseppe Farina (who had won the 1948 Monaco Grand Prix in a Maserati 4CLT) and Frenchmen Maurice Trintignant, and the Super Squalo Ferrari 555 for American Harry Schell and Italian Piero Taruffi, with its distinctive bulbous side fuel tanks. Harry Schell had also been in the 1950 Monaco Grand Prix, and in that race Schell had driven the first rear-engined car in the modern Formula One Championship, a Cooper T12-JAP.
In addition to Rosier's French blue Maserati 250F the home team at Monaco was the beloved, underfinanced Gordini team based in Paris, led by Amedee Gordini, the Sorcerer, whose little team had scored a victory over Ferrari at Rheims in a non-Championship race in 1952 with French star Jean Behra driving. Notwithstanding the inability of the Gordini team to repeat that success (its highest recent placing was two fifth places in the 1954 season), everyone loved the pretty little jewel-like blue car with the simple, if outmoded, design that made it look like an aerodynamic version of an American dirt-track car of the 1950's.
During 1955 Jean Behra had moved on to Maserati, and Amedee Gordini was focused on developing a new 8-cylinder car, to be called the Gordini Type 32. As a result, the cars entered for the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix were old 2.5 litre 6-cylinder cars; the Gordini T16, of which three were entered for Robert Manzon, Elie Bayol and Jacques Pollet, all Frenchman of course. Bayol had finished fifth in the 1954 Argentinean Grand Prix.
England, which today is the epicenter of the Grand Prix industry, was still a fledgling producer of Grand Prix cars in 1955. Lotus, BRM, McLaren and Williams were years away, and neither Cooper nor Connaught were present at the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix. An HWM-Alta was entered by Ted Whiteaway, but did not qualify.
Vanwall, painted British Racing Green, was the sole U.K. team, and Tony Vandervell's team was entering only its third Grand Prix race, the first two having been in 1954 with Peter Collins driving the Vanwall Special, a Cooper-designed chassis with a Norton-derived 4-cylinder engine. Vandervell had entered VW1 at Monaco, the first Vanwall chassis, for Englishman Mike Hawthorn, who had driven for Ferrari in the 1954 season.
Practice and Qualifying
The Mercedes-Benz team's weekend started poorly, with Hans Herrmann as the first casualty of the weekend. After setting some respectable practice times Herrmann crashed at the Massenet corner just before Casino Square, and his No. 4 Mercedes-Benz W196 got stuck under the balustrade, an accident similar to one that Bernd Rosemeyer had with his Auto-Union in 1936 when it too got stuck in the balustrade after a spin (except that Rosemeyer went in backwards and the rear-engine absorbed the impact). Herrmann broke his leg in the accident.
Although Herrmann had driven the W196 since July 4, 1954, the day they were introduced at the 1954 French Grand Prix at Rheims and, indeed, set fastest lap that day, Herrmann never drove the Mercedes-Benz W196 again after this accident at Monaco. As the blue Mercedes-Benz transporter extracted Herrmann's car from the balustrade, a call went out to the Hotel Mirabeau to Frenchman Andre Simon, who had not raced since running a Ferrari 500 in the 1952 Italian Grand Prix where he finished in sixth place. Neubauer asked Simon to take over for Herrmann, and the 35 year-old was thrilled to be given the opportunity.
In qualifying, the Lancia D50's of Alberto Ascari and Eugenio Castellotti held their own against the might of Mercedes-Benz, but in a 3-2-3 grid formation it was Ascari in the Lancia as the man in the middle of the front row, with Fangio on the inside in pole position and Moss on the outside in third place in their W196's. Ascari in the No. 26 Lancia and Fangio in the No. 2 Mercedes-Benz had identical times, 1:41.1; Moss in the No. 6 Mercedes-Benz was 0.1 second behind. Castellotti's Lancia and Behra's Maserati were side by side in the second row. Hawthorn had qualified the Vanwall poorly, ending up 12th. Andre Simon managed to qualify the No. 4 Mercedes-Benz in tenth place. Louis Chiron, now 56 years old, qualified his Lancia D50 down in 19th place, barely edging out the Gordini T16 of Jacques Pollet.
New for the 1955 race, the start/finish line had been moved so that it was directly adjacent to the harbor after the harbor bend/Tabac curve, making the gasometer hairpin the first turn. The pits were also located alongside this main straight between Tabac and the start/finish line, and across the track on the harbor side was the main grandstand, which was packed for the 1955 race. The spectators were protected by the one row of hay bales that lined the course and a wooden fence. The drivers were in shirtsleeves: another era all around.
Before the flag fell, smoke was rising from Ascari's Lancia as he sat between Fangio and Moss and just across from the grandstand, readying himself for the drag race down to the gasometer hairpin. But the cars got off before anything terminal happened and the three racers on the front row accelerated away, the cars evenly matched but with Ascari gradually being squeezed out by the W196's as the cars funneled down into the hairpin. Although Ascari got somewhat snookered in the run up to the gasometer hairpin, his teammate Eugenio Castellotti got a good run at Fangio and Moss from Castellotti's spot on the second run and took up the cudgels in his Lancia D50 when Ascari faltered.
Indeed, in many ways the surprise of the day was 25 year-old Eugenio Castellotti in his No. 30 Lancia D50. Driving in only his second Grand Prix, the young Italian took the race to Fangio and Moss from the very outset, trading second place with Monaco-master Moss several times in the opening laps, at one point diving down on the inside of Moss at the Station Hairpin to outbrake the Mercedes-Benz. Castellotti also nerfed Fangio in the rear with the nose of the Lancia on lap 1 at the gasometer hairpin.
When the Mercedes-Benz W196's finally established their usual two-car train out ahead of the rest of the field, Castellotti continued to fling his Lancia D50 around amongst his betters, dicing for the third place with his Lancia teammate Alberto Ascari and Jean Behra's factory Maserati 250F, the three drivers sparring amongst themselves lap after lap for Best of the Rest. As Moss finally put Castellotti's Lancia D50 behind him, the two Silver Arrows stretched out their lead in the fashion that came to be expected. After 30 laps of the 100 lap race, it appeared that this would be another Stuttgart walkover.
Apart from the Castellotti/Ascari/Behra battle, there were other skirmishes down the field. Hawthorn struggled with the Vanwall but he stayed ahead of the Mercedes-Benz of Andre Simon, had his own race with Harry Schell's Ferrari Super Squalo and climbed into the top ten until lap 22 when the disappointed Hawthorn was forced to retire the only English car in the field due to throttle problems. He must have been wondering why he had left Ferrari for this peck of troubles at a new team like Vanwall, the price of loyalty to his nationality.
Louis Rosier's blue Maserati 250F hit a wall somewhere and the sheet metal covering the gas tank of the 250F was torn apart and hanging off the rear, looking like a half-opened can of tuna fish.
Although two of the aging Gordinis, the Minardis of the time, would go out with mechanical maladies, they too mixed it up among the backmarkers, and the nimble nature of the car had Robert Manzon's Gordini up to seventh place in the opening laps by skillfully staying to the outside, circling all but the leaders on lap one at the gasometer hairpin. Jacques Pollet, who qualified dead last in his Gordini 16, ultimately placed the highest of the Gordinis, finishing in seventh place, albeit nine laps down.
Andre Simon's Mercedes-Benz W196 (which was probably the spare car brought by the team, and not the car Hans Herrmann damaged in practice) was well back in the field amongst the Gordinis and retired with valve trouble on lap 24, a further sign that there were chinks in the Mercedes-Benz armor this day. Like Herrmann, Simon never drove a W196 again. Robert Mieres in his works No. 36 Maserati 250F was as high as third place before going out on lap 64 with transmission problems.
Cesare Perdisa in the No. 40 Maserati 250F was another Maserati team car running well. Perdisa, in his first Grand Prix, distinguished himself that day by attracting the attention of Stirling Moss who, along with Fangio, had a difficult time lapping Perdisa. At one point, the 26 year-old Briton motioned the 23 year-old Italian to watch his mirrors once Moss got by Perdisa at the gasometer hairpin. The young Italian gestured back to him. As it would turn out, Perdisa holding up the Mercedes-Benz train was a strategically good move for the Maserati team, since Jean Behra in the lead Maserati No. 34 - which had been in the hunt for third place for the whole race with the Lancias of Ascari and Castellotti - had to pit on lap 42 with engine trouble. Holding up the train was buying time for the trio of red cars dicing for third place.
Another candidate for third place - Eugenio Castellotti's Lancia - hit a curb as the race neared half-distance of 50 laps and Castellotti also had to pit to repair a damaged wheel, leaving Ascari unchallenged in third place for the first time in the race.
Then at half-distance, the unthinkable happened when Fangio, well ahead of everyone else, including his teammate Moss (who had been delayed while trying to get around Perdisa), retired from the Grand Prix on lap 49 because of transmission failure, pulling Mercedes-Benz No. 2 onto the curbstone at the entrance to the Monte Carlo Railroad Station and parking it there haphazardly, as if he were late for a train!
Moss in the Mercedes-Benz team car came around the Mirabeau corner and headed for the Station hairpin, saw Fangio's abandoned car on the sidewalk and knew that he was in the lead of the Monaco Grand Prix for the first time in his career. In time, he would win 16 Grands Prix, three of them memorable wins at Monaco in 1956, 1960 and 1961, but as of May 22, 1955, Stirling Moss had not won any Grands Prix at all since he was constantly in the great Fangio's shadow, or in inferior equipment when he was not driving for Mercedes-Benz. Now was his hour, if he could just stay out in front for the last 50 laps.
As Moss passed by the pits on the main straight he signaled to Alfred Neubauer that Fangio was out of the race but okay. Alberto Ascari's Lancia D50 now moved up to second place, though still well behind Stirling Moss, with Maurice Trintignant in the No. 44 Ferrari 625 now promoted to third place while Castellotti and Behra dealt with their mechanical woes.
But more drama was in the offing after Moss took the lead. Villoresi spun his Lancia rounding Massenet, right in front of the rich and famous watching the race from the dining rooms of the Hotel de Paris, but the old master collected it and headed through Casino Square without hitting anyone or anything. Jean Behra switched Maserati 250F's with his young teammate Perdisa, to see if he could put Maserati back into contention.
Moss led for 30 laps this way, from lap 50 to 80, extending his lead over Ascari to the point that, notwithstanding Ascari's resistance, Moss finally lapped Ascari. But having vanquished his only possible challenger, on lap 81 Moss exited the chicane and a trail of engine smoke billowed in his wake, leaving Moss with no alternative but to pull into the pits even before crossing the start/finish line. Moss got out of the W196 and the Mercedes-Benz mechanics took off the bonnet and tried to determine if the Silver Arrow was permanently crippled, or could be patched together for the last 19 laps, recognizing that Moss had an entire lap lead over Ascari in second place.
But as the Mercedes-Benz mechanics spun their spanners in the pits in a race against time, back in the chicane, Ascari, whose brakes may have been overcooked from trying to hold off Moss lapping him, crashed through the sand bales and other barriers lightly barricading the chicane and plunged himself and his Lancia D50 into the Mediterranean, in a dramatic crash that was clearly the model for the similar accident staged in the John Frankenheimer's 1967 movie Grand Prix, where Scott Stoddard tangles with his faux BRM teammate at the chicane and ends up in the sea.
In real life, Ascari freed himself from the Lancia which sunk like a rock underwater and swam for his life, blue helmet still on, ultimately being taken from the water by a motor launch and from there to an ambulance waiting at the quayside. Ascari was shaken up and had a cut nose but was otherwise fine. After the race was over, the No. 26 Lancia D50 that almost won Monaco was hauled out of the sea and returned to the team.
Meanwhile, on land the race finished up with Maurice Trintignant, who had qualified in ninth place in the No. 44 Ferrari 625, suddenly poised to win his first Grand Prix, though Castellotti in his Lancia tried hard to close the gap, finishing in second place, a tremendous finish for only his second Grand Prix. Trintignant had also won at LeMans for Ferrari in 1954 in a Ferrari 375 Plus.
Moss and the Mercedes-Benz crew decided to try to finish the race, at least technically, so they moved the car from the pits closer to the finish line as the laps ticked down and then Moss pushed the car over the line when Trintignant took the checkered flag; Moss was classified in ninth place, the highest finishing Mercedes-Benz.
Behra did no better with Perdisa's Maserati than he did with his own car and on lap 86, Behra retired Maserati No. 40, Perdisa's car, after spinning due to clutch trouble at the end of the busy Massenet corner, just before the Hotel de Paris. As it turned out, Perdisa got the better of the bargain and given all the attrition finished third in the No. 34 Maserati 250F, which was Behra's original car, scoring points on a shared basis with Behra in Perdisa's very first Grand Prix.
And what of the old timers? Nino Farina (Ferrari 625), Luigi Villoresi (Lancia D50) and Louis Chiron (Lancia D50), finished fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively.
Luigi Villoresi would continue to race until the 1956 season when he retired at 47 years old. Nino Farina, who was the first Formula One World Champion in 1950 for Alfa Romeo, would race only once more, at Spa in 1955, where he would be on the podium in his Ferrari, 555 Super Squalo. He died on June 30, 1966, in a road accident.
For Louis Chiron, this 1955 Monaco Grand Prix was his last Grand Prix in a career that stretched back to 1923, and during which he drove the finest cars of the time. By finishing in sixth place in 1955, Chiron had managed to finish in all top six places at one time or another at Monaco: first in 1931 in a Bugatti 51; multiple second places in 1930 in a Bugatti 35C, in 1934 in an Alfa Romeo P3 and in 1948 in a Talbot-Lago MC; third in 1950 in a Maserati 4CLT; fourth in 1933 in an Alfa Romeo 8C Monza; fifth in 1935 in an Alfa Romeo P3; and sixth in the Lancia D50 in 1955.
In 1936, he had scored no points but was a member of the Mercedes-Benz team, driving a Mercedes-Benz W25E, along with the likes of Rudolf Caracciola, Luigi Fagioli and Manfred von Brauchitsch. In short, Louis Chiron had done it all by the time he hung up his gloves after the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix, and in the years to come he would continue to have a significant role in running both the Monaco Rally and the Monaco Grand Prix. He died in 1979 and remains the oldest driver to start a Grand Prix, by virtue of racing at age 56 in the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix.
As dramatic as the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix had been for many of the drivers - Fangio and Moss both going out with mechanical failures while leading in the bulletproof W196's, new drivers like Castellotti and Perdisa having the chance to prove themselves and old drivers like Chiron able to end their careers gracefully - the story of the race for Ascari did not end when the quayside workmen rigged up some ropes and pulled his Lancia D50 out of the Mediterranean. Shockingly, only four days after the Monaco Grand Prix, on May 26, 1955, 37 year-old Alberto Ascari was killed in an accident at Monza, while testing a Ferrari 750 for a sports car race called the Supermaggiore. Alberto Ascari, the son of a racer himself, Antonio Ascari, who drove for Alfa Romeo in the 1920's, was Formula One's first back-to-back World Drivers' Champion in 1952 and 1953, he had qualified and raced credibly at the 1952 Indianapolis 500 until his wheel bearing let go, and had won the Mille Miglia in 1954. In some ways, Formula One never got over the loss of Alberto Ascari, the first World Champion to die in an automobile accident.
But his death in the summer of 1955 was only one of many in motorsports. On May 30, 1955, two-time Indy 500 winner Bill Vukovich, who Ascari raced against in the 1952 Indy 500, was killed during a freak accident while leading the 1955 Indy 500. And on June 11, 1955, Pierre LeVegh's Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR sports car hit a backmarker and torpedoed into the crowd, causing such a loss of life (83 dead and hundreds of injured) that four Grands Prix were cancelled by the racing authorities and Switzerland banned motor racing entirely, a prohibition which persists today.
Although orders came to Alfred Neubauer from the Mercedes-Benz Board of Directors in Stuttgart to withdraw the remaining Mercedes-Benz SLR's from Le Mans out of respect for the dead, even though Fangio was leading the race at the time, when it came to Grand Prix racing Mercedes-Benz continued to race the W196 until the end of the 1955 season and they would win every race after Monaco, including the British Grand Prix at Aintree on July 16, 1955, when the Mercedes-Benz team swept all the top four places: indeed, Stirling Moss won the race ahead of Juan Manuel Fangio for Moss's first Grand Prix victory (and in England, to make the victory all the sweeter), and Karl Kling and Piero Taruffi finished third and fourth, a devastating display of Teutonic excellence that has yet to be replicated even in the current era of Ferrari domination of Formula One and Audi domination of Le Mans.
At the end of the 1955 season, Mercedes-Benz withdrew from racing entirely - Grand Prix, sports cars, the whole kit and caboodle - having won everything everywhere worth winning in both categories of motorsports. All except one race: the Monaco Grand Prix.
But for Prince Ranier and his new wife, American actress Grace Kelly, the legend that is Monaco was only beginning in the summer of 1955, and when the current breed of Formula One cars in 2005 make their way through essentially the same streets on the Sunday after Ascension Thursday on the Liturgical calendar, we will be thinking of the shy but shrewd Prince, his glamorous wife and the men and machines he brought us in the race that put both Monte Carlo and our sport on the map.