|Talbot Darracq Grand Prix|
Less than a decade after establishing one of motor racing's first displacement limits, the sport's governing body, the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR, later the FIA), lowered the limit for Grand Prix cars for the second time in 1926. The original three litre maximum of 1919 had been lowered to two litre in 1922 and eventually to just 1500 cc four years later. With the frequent regulation changes, the AIACR tried to keep the speeds down. This forced the engineers to perfect chassis and engine design, resulting in the development of some of the finest racing cars.
One of the protagonists of the 1500 cc years was the the Anglo-French Sunbeam Talbot Darracq (STD). The company's racing efforts in the two litre formula had concentrated on the six cylinder engined Sunbeams, which were designed by Louis Coatalen. It was decided that STD's next Grand Prix car would be built in France and raced under the Talbot Darracq badge. Coatalen assigned two young designers of Italian descent, Vincenzo Bertarione and Walter Becchia to develop and build the new car in the Suresnes factory.
Applying their lessons learned at Fiat, Bertarione and Becchia penned a brand new eight cylinder engine. In good Sunbeam tradition the blocks were not cast, but welded for additional strength. One of the biggest developments of the 1920s was the adoption of forced induction through a Supercharger and the new Talbot Darracq followed the trend. So despite the limited displacement of just 1488 cc, the beautiful twin-cam engine eventually produced 160 bhp at 7000 rpm. To cope with the exceptional stresses inside the engine, it was fitted with more than 200 roller-bearings.
The Talbot Darracq's chassis was equally advanced. The frame consisted of two 25 cm high pressed-steel side members, connected by several cross-members. The engine itself provided additional rigidity. The front and rear axles were fed through large holes in the side member, which considerably lowered the entire chassis. Although the regulations still required a cockpit wide enough, a riding mechanic was no longer mandatory. In the Talbot Darracq the mechanic's place was taken by the driveshaft; for the first time ever in a Grand Prix car the engine was mounted off-set in the chassis, which enabled the driver to sit much lower in the chassis.
Complementing the exceptionally low chassis was a remarkably tight aluminium body. The completed machine's most striking feature was the raked radiator, which again was a reflection of Becchia's and Bertarione's desire to keep the height to an absolute minimum. Compared to what had come before, the Talbot Darracq was miles ahead. Amazingly fellow French manufacturer Delage had developed a machine much among the same lines and had a head start as the Talbot Darracq Grand Prix cars were only ready in time for the Brooklands Grand Prix in August of 1926.
Painted in British Racing Green (it was Sunbeam's home race), no fewer than three Talbot Darracq Grand Prix cars lined up for the race. The main opposition consisted of three Delages, which had been raced before, but had not taken a victory yet. The exquisite Talbots were quick straight out of the box and shortly after the start Talbot drivers Albert Divo and Henri Seagrave led the race from Robert Benoist in a Delage. The close battle for the lead was ended prematurely when both Talbots lost time and eventually retired with mechanical problems.
It had been a promising start for the brand new Grand Prix cars, although some bugs still needed ironing out. The team returned to Brooklands a month later for the highly coveted 200 Miles race. Although not a Grand Prix, it was one of the biggest events on the English racing calendar. Sadly the Delage team opted not to go to Brooklands again, so no real revenge could be had. Still facing strong competition, the Talbots scored a 1-2 victory, beating the closest opposition by 16 minutes. The Talbot team's final event of the season was the Coupe du Salon at Montlhery in France. Only eight vehicles started the race and the Talbots romped home to a 1-2-3 win.
For the 1927 season the minimum dry-weight was raised from 600 kg to 700 kg. This enabled Talbot's engineers to strengthen the chassis, which had been prone to crack under pressure. Financial problems limited the number of outings in the 1927 season. The team of course did take part in the French Grand Prix at Montlhery. They were again beaten by the Delages, who finished first, second and third ahead of the fastest Talbot. A day earlier Divo had managed to win the 'Formula Libre' race, but it was only a small consolation. Unfortunately, the promising Talbots were not raced again (with the exception of some record runs at Arpajon), which allowed the Delages to rack up victory after victory.
If the financial problems were not enough to cancel Talbot Darracq's Grand Prix program, yet another rule change sure was. After just two years the 1.5 litre formula was abandoned and replaced by a 'Formula Libre' class, which effectively ended Grand Prix racing for the time being. Bertarione used his Italian connections and sold all three cars to Emilio Materassi. He formed the first private racing team; the Scuderia Materassi. He not only successfully raced the Talbots, but also inspired one Enzo Ferrari to set up his own team. The cars were slightly revised from the 1927 specification with new friction dampers that also served as racing's first radius arms. These might have been supplied by Bertarione during the sale of the cars.
Scuderia Materessi prepared the cars for the likes of Cremono Arcangeli, Count Gastone Brilli-Peri and Tazio Nuvolari, and of course for Materassi himself. The cars dominated the 1500 class at every event and at times managed to score overall wins. The only Formula Libre Grand Prix held was the 1928 Italian/European Grand Prix held at Monza. Sadly Materassi was involved in what would be the most deathly accident ever in Grand Prix racing, killing himself and 22 spectators. The surviving cars continued to be fielded by the Scuderia for another season, again with a lot of success. Around the turn of the decade the cars and all the spares were sold to Italian racer Enrico Platé. He continued to race the Talbot Darracq Grand Prix cars for many seasons and applied a wide variety of modifications. Eventually both the body and chassis were replaced, but the running gear was retained.
While the 1926/1927 Delage has gone into history as one of the great Grand Prix designs, the Talbot Darracq has almost been forgotten. It is a shame that financial problems prevented the Becchia and Betarione design to live up to its potential. With its exceptional low chassis and off-set engine, it paved the way for a whole generation of front-engined Grand Prix cars. Ironically, the Delage only started to work well in 1927 after having adopted the off-set layout pioneered by Talbot Darracq. Fortunately the featured machine has been brought back to its original specification, so we can still admire the exceptional design and craftsmanship of the men at the Suresnes factory.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on January 13, 2010
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