Wednesday, 19 September 2012

ANDRE BOILLOT: Talent obscured by uncompetitive cars


Career 1919 -1931

Andre Boillot in the 1914 Peugeot 2.5 litre  with which he won the 1919 Targa Florio and ran third at Indianapolis
There have been several great drivers in grand prix history who have remained obscure and unacknowledged due to not having top-rate or race-winning cars. One of the most glaring is the French driver Andre Boillot, who competed in major class racing from 1919 to 1931.

Andre was the younger brother of the great Peugeot driver Georges Boillot, who was reckoned rightfully to have been one of the best drivers of the years 1912-1914. Andre is perceived in grand prix racing annals solely as the winner of the 1919 Targa Florio. After this great drive in atrocious conditions he is considered never to have performed as well again.

In the first of his masterly volumes “Power and Glory: a History of Grand Prix Motor Racing 1906-1951”, William Court says: “Like the proverbial 18th century Member of Parliament who won the nickname ‘ One Speech Hamilton’, Andre Boillot never again put up a similar performance, seemingly having burnt up his entire quota of fire and luck in eight dramatic hours over the Sicilian mountains.”

Going purely by race results, this would seem to have been the case.

However, while embarking on my rating system, which measures speed or time differentials rather than pure race results, a different picture emerged. Andre Boillot was clearly an outstanding driver throughout the twenties and into the early thirties. His problem? Like John Surtees for most of his career, Boillot seldom drove a competitive enough car.

Having suffered the deaths of his two older brothers in World War One, the 22 year old Andre, working for the famous Georges’ old firm, Peugeot, debuted at his first major race, the 1919 Indianapolis 500 in May. He drove a 1914 Peugeot of just 2.5 litres/152 cubic inches, created for the 1914 Coupe de l’Auto formula. He was up against the latest 4.9 litre/300 cubic inch formula Ballots, Duesenbergs, Packard, Frontenacs, Stutz and three of the dominant 4.5 litre 1914 GP Peugeots. Qualifying in 31st place of the 33 starters, and at 17% off-pace, confirmed the general opinion that Boillot’s little Peugeot stood no chance. Driving smoothly and accurately,and exploiting his car’s light tyre and fuel consumption in this 500 mile/805 kilometre event, Andre rose unobtrusively to 7th place at 100 of the 200 laps! Running amongst the top five from lap 105, he rose to third place by lap 160. Only by supreme effort did the official team Goux/Peugeot 4.5 GP car get past. Running fourth at lap195, Andre then ‘lost it’ and crashed out. In several exhaustive race reports at the time, Boillot and his little Peugeot get no mention. All focus was on the big-engined race leaders and US cars. Bear in mind that this race was over 500 miles or 805 kilometres, and lasted over five-and-a-half hours. And that among the drivers were such talented and experienced track racers as Ralph de Palma, Howard Wilcox, Louis and Gaston Chevrolet, Jules Goux, Ralph Mulford, Earl Cooper, Tommy Milton and Joe Boyer. This was quite some drive for the 22-year-old rookie Andre Boillot. In fact one of THE great debuts.

The 1914 Peugeot 2.5 litre Coupe de l'Auto car in which he campaigned so well in 1919

Boillot appeared for the next major race, the Targa Florio held in November 1919 after a night of storms and snow! Again driving the Peugeot 2.5, his opposition included the Indianapolis pole-setting Ballot 8C5L, two 4.8 litre Fiat S57s, three six litre Alfa Romeos, and two 8.3 litre,1913 GP Italas. He was facing drivers such as 1914 Indianapolis winner Rene Thomas, Antonio Ascari, Giulio Masetti, Campari, Sivocci and Moriondo. AS the times were posted after each of the four 108 kilometre/67 mile laps, everyone was amazed that the 2.5 litre Boillot Peugeot headed the field. Most of all Thomas in his powerful 4.9 litre Grand Prix Ballot.

Andre drove flat-out from the start, was reported to have left the road six times, and arrived well-ahead at the finish after 7 hours and 51 minutes driving. The small Peugeot was obviously suited to the tortuous circuit, but the driver skill, stamina and concentration required must have been considerable. Andre’s race savvy was shown when the sun came out and the road started drying after three laps: he stopped to change his non-skid tyres for smooth-treaded ones, knowing that Thomas’ Ballot would be faster in improved conditions. As it happened, Thomas never caught up enough, and left the road on the last lap.

In just these two races Andre Boillot showed he had as much talent, mechanical and road feel, racecraft and enthusiasm as his famous brother Georges. Examining the rest of his career shows that 1919 was no flash-in-the-pan...

As a member of the four-car Peugeot team for the 1920 Indianapolis 500, Andre, like his team-mates, must have been dismayed at their cars’ lack of pace. The all-new Peugeot, built to the 3.0 litre/183 cubic inch formula, featured three overhead camshafts to its 16-valve, four cylinder engine. The fastest of the Peugeots qualified 12th, driven by veteran Indianapolis expert and 1919 winner Howard Wilcox; Boillot was next in 17th, Howard 18th and Goux 19th. They rated at a way off-pace 111.6 to 117.6% compared with the pole-setting Ralph de Palma/Ballot 8C3L on 100.0! Tellingly Peugeot had lost their brilliant Swiss designer Ernest Henry to Ballot in 1918. All four Peugeots retired.

In 1921 Boillot again appeared in Indiana as part of the Sunbeam team, with the experienced Rene Thomas and American Ora Haib as team-mates. Significantly more competitive than the 1920 Peugeots, Andre qualified the Sunbeam far faster than his team-mates, in an impressive third place and within 3.2% of the pole-setting de Palma/Ballot. This was a very close margin for the times. Unfortunately the Sunbeams did not run well in the race and Andre retired on lap 41. In the French GP at Le Mans two months later, Andre was paired with Rene Thomas in the French Talbot-Darracqs, with Guinness and Segrave in the English Talbots. These were all the same cars as the Indianapolis Sunbeams, just entered under differing names within the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq combine. Hastily prepared and undeveloped, they were completely overshadowed by the Duesenberg and Ballot battle. Boillot was easily the fastest of the Talbot drivers but could only manage fifth place, over 11% behind the winning Murphy Duesenberg.

This was to be the last grand prix car drive for Andre Boillot. He returned to driving for Peugeot, but the company had ceased to design or build any more formula grand prix cars. Instead they promoted and raced their big, roadgoing, four cylinder sleeve-valve engines. First in a production sports car for 1923, then from 1924 to 1929 in a cobbled up1919 or 1920 chassis (according to various sources). Consequently these big Peugeots were ineligible for the 1922-1927 2.0 litre and 1.5 litre formula grand prix events. The only classic race for which they qualified and entered in those years was the Formula Libre Targa Florio, home of Andre’s first and only major win.

In the 1923 Targa Florio Boillot’s production sports, 6.0 litre Peugeot T156 was outclassed by the 3.0 litre Alfa Romeo RLTFs and a 2.0 litre Steyr. Andre retired on lap two.

From 1924 to 1929 Andre and team campaigned the T174 with its 3.8 and later 4.0 litre sleeve-valve four. In 1924 Andre managed sixth place in Sicily after all three Peugeots suffered tyre troubles. The Mercedes 2.0 litre TF model which won was 3.7% faster, with Alfa Romeo RLTFs in between. Continually improved in detail, the T174s faced the nimble Type 35 Bugattis in 1925. Boillot led for the first lap until but tyre problems hindered him. Teammate Wagner led until over halfway when he too was delayed by tyre trouble. This allowed Costantini’s Bugatti to win, Wagner and Boillot finishing second and third at 1.1 and 1.8 % adrift. In 1926 the Bugattis were far superior to the big Peugeots. Andre retired while Wagner placed sixth, but way down at 7.2% behind. For 1927 the Peugeots had to carry regulatory ballast to compensate for their large engine, a huge disadvantage on the slow and tortuous Sicilian road circuit. A heroic drive saw Boillot finish fourth, but 6.9% down on the winning Bugatti. The team skipped the 1928 Targa, for the writing was on the wall.

Andre Boillot’s next major race appearance was in the 1929 French GP at Le Mans. Although the P2 Alfa Romeos were absent, the Bugatti teamwas there and had as drivers the top class Divo, Conelli and first Monaco GP winner, Williams in 2.3 litre, supercharged Type 35Bs. Senechal drove a private Bugatti. All were proven race winners. Andre was paired with Guy Bouriat in the big, cumbersome Peugeot T174s. As David Hodges wrote in his excellent book “The French Grand Prix” (Temple Press Books, 1967): “Only Boillot intruded on the Bugatti procession... at half time Boillot and Conelli raced about ten seconds apart until the end, thus tantalising the crowd...” In fact Andre drove his heart out to finish second, just 0.5% behind the winner, the Williams/Bugatti 35B.

Andre Boillot in the Peugeot S174 on his way to a great second place in the 1929 French Grand Prix

English media reports rightfully made much of Birkin’s phenomenal second place in the 1930 French Grand Prix at Pau, when he finished second in the huge, sports, 4.5 Blower Bentley against the nimble Bugattis. Boillot’s 1929 achievement was even greater. Almost as big, heavy and cumbersome as the Bentley, the 4.0 litre Peugeot lacked a supercharger, and featured a sleeve valve engine, a type not noted for high performance. Comparing the two events beyond pure race finishing results reveals Boillot’s superior achievement. Boillot’s 1929 Le Mans race lasted 4 hours and 33 minutes, Birkins at Pau just 2hours 43 minutes. The Pau circuit was faster, won at 145 kmh/90 mph, the Le Mans race at 133 kmh/83 mph. Therefore Pau was more suited to a big, powerful car. Birkin finished second to the privately owned-and-driven Etancelin/2.0 litre Bugatti 35 C; Boillot was second to the official Bugatti team’s Williams/2.3 litre 35B and just beat the second factory 35B driven by the talented Conelli. Both Bugatti team cars ran well throughout. In Birkin’s case, the two team Bugattis of Williams and Bouriat dominated early on then retired with engine problems; Etancelin’s private Bugatti was slowing near the end, the driver nursing a slipping clutch and driving carefully to conserve low fuel. This allowed the Bentley to close up. At half distance Birkin had been 4.0% down on the Etancelin Bugatti; at the finish he closed to within 2.1%. This compares with Boillot’s half distance status in 1929, at which stage Andre was only 1.3% down on the Williams Bugatti. Admittedly Williams slowed near the end, allowing the big Peugeot to finish within 0.5%. However the facts that Andre beat the second team Bugatti, and all three cars ran well throughout, reveal that Boillot’s opposition was so much stronger, the circuit more unsuited being slower, and the race duration 60% or almost two hours longer. Manhandling those big cars against the small, light and nimble Bugattis was some achievement.. Sheer driving talent and capability. Andre Boillot’s greatest race? Surely a match for his 1919 Indianapolis and Targa Florio showings.

Boillot entered the 1931 Monaco GP, again with the big, tall and heavy Peugeot S174! Now it looked like a sparrow in a cuckoo's nest. He was up against five of the latest, dominant Bugatti Type 51s, three new Maserati 8C2500s, Caracciola’s 7.1 litre Mercedes-Benz SSKL and a host of private Bugatti 35Bs and Cs. Andre faced a new, thirties generation of star drivers: Chiron, Varzi, Caracciola and Fagioli. With no chance of a good placing, he drove his usual, highly professional and error-free race to finish a remarkable sixth, only 4.0% down on the winning Chiron Bugatti Type 51. This is a bit closer to the front than the HRT-Cosworths performed in 2012. In a 7-year-old, cobbled-up, sleeve-valve engined sports car, was testimony to Andre Boillot’s high class as a driver.

As always ‘the car’ is essential to success in racing. Andre Boillot only twice had race winning cars, in the 1919 and 1925 Targa Florio events. For the 1919 and 1921 Indianapolis 500 and the 1924 Targa his machines were about 3.0% off, about where the 2012 Marussia-Cosworths rate. In 1925 his Peugeot S174 with its tyre problems package rated at 101.8, where Sauber-Ferrari rated in 2011. For the rest of Andre’s career his cars were far slower, over 110.0 as rated from the front. Only once did he have a chance, and he took it in Sicily in 1919. His phenomenal performances in the 1919 Indianapolis and the 1929 French GP were close to the front, but the cars were too far off to win. At over 1.0%. they were at best about where the winless 2010 Mercedes packages of Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher rated.

Had Andre Boillot driven for ballot in 1920-21 or Fiat in 1922-24, the 1924 Sunbeam, the 1925 Alfa Romeo P2 and for Bugatti from 1926-1931, he’d doubtless have been rated amongst those great rival drivers of the twenties, de Palma, Murphy, Milton, Bordino Ascari, Masetti, Segrave, Costantini and Divo. And perhaps among those of the thirties, Chiron, Caracciola, Nuvolari and Varzi. Instead, Andre Boillot crashed fatally in a minor hillclimb in 1932, almost unacknowledged in the racing world.

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1 comment:

  1. My friend says a grand prix performance car can be upgraded easily. I'm no mechanic and I'm wondering if he's just saying that to sell me his car.

    ReplyDelete