Louis Chiron (1899 - 1979) - The Monaco GP Master

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Louis Chiron (1899 - 1979) - The Monaco GP Master

Louis Chiron
The principality of Monaco is so postage-stamp tiny, it is remarkable that it should have produced one of the most outstanding Grand Prix drivers of all time - Louis Chiron.

Chiron was born in 1899 and, like so many of his generation, gained his first experience of motoring during World War 1. Even at that age he must have been an outstanding driver, for it is recorded that in 1919 he was chauffeur to the great Marechal Foch himself.

The young Monegasque spent his early career working in the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, and his love for motor racing was nurtured in this sybaritic atmosphere. He first appeared in competition in 1923 at the wheel of a Brescia Bugatti. He enjoyed little success until 1927, when he bought the first supercharged 2.3-litre type 35B Bugatti to be produced.

He made his Grand Prix debut in the Spanish GP; taking over Dubonnet's Bugatti in the latter half of the race to such good effect that he could have finished in second place had not a breakdown, five laps from the end, eliminated him.

Later that year, Chiron finished fourth in the British Grand Prix at Brooklands, behind the all-conquering Delage team. It was a promising start to a racing career; in 1928, Chiron established himself as one of Europe's leading drivers, with a sensational victory in the European Grand Prix at Monza, averaging a record 99.4 mph over the 373-mile distance, and beating Campari and Nuvolari.

He followed this with victories in the Spanish, Antibes, Marne and Rome Grands Prix, all in the 1928 season. The Monza event was the only one run to the full international formula. Indeed, the two Spanish events, one for full GP cars, the other for sports cars, were won using the same Bugatti, fitted with wings and windscreen for the Touring Car Grand Prix. Early in 1929, Louis Chiron crossed the Atlantic to compete in the Indianapolis 500. It was reported that four feet of snow had been shovelled from the surface of the track so that he could try a variety of American cars, but in the end he settled on a Delage, which proved completely outclassed by the Millers and could only manage seventh place.

The Monaco Grand Prix

Back in Europe, he would win the German GP at the Nurburgring and the Spanish GP. And he had also begun to carve his own individual niche in motor-racing history by devising, in conjunction with Anthony Noghes, the Monaco Grand Prix, run through the streets of Monte Carlo.

Intended to give the Automobile Club de Monaco international status, the Monaco GP was first run in 1929, although Chiron's local knowledge did not avail him in the original race, won by Williams. In 1930, Dreyfus defeated him by just 22 seconds, but, in 1931, his Type 51 Bugatti did win at Monaco. The 1930 season had, in any case, been rather disappointing for Chiron, whose record had been one of narrow defeats punctuated by a contrived victory in the European GP at Spa. 1931 was far more satisfactory, with victories in the French Grand Prix (co-driven with Achille Varzi) and the Czechoslovak GP (first of a three-in-a-row series of wins on the Brno circuit) as well as at Monaco.
Chiron and Varzi stand alongside a P3 Alfa Romeo at the 1932 Monza
Chiron and Varzi stand alongside a P3 Alfa Romeo at the 1932 Monza.

The 1932 season opened badly for Chiron, who crashed at Monaco, almost rolling into the harbour, but he made up for this uncharacteristic lapse with wins in the Dieppe and Czechoslovak GPs, plus a number of successes with the four-wheel-drive Bugatti type 45.

It was, however; increasingly apparent that the Bugatti was becoming outclassed, and Chiron moved over to Alfa Romeo. Initially he and Rudy Caracciola jointly operated the Scuderia CC on a private basis, but he subsequently joined the works- backed Scuderia Ferrari.

Chiron demonstrated that a decade with Bugatti hadn't made him a one-make man by winning the Brno GP for the third time; he also took first places with the Alfa P3 in the Spanish and Marseilles Grands Prix, and won the 24-hour race at Spa in an Alfa 2.3 sports.

Racing The Nazi-backed Mercedes and Auto-Unions

New, more powerful rivals had appeared on the scene in 1934, in the shape of the Nazi-backed Mercedes and Auto-Unions, but Chiron managed to pull off one last coup, at Montlhery, displaying all the gamesmanship that had earned him the nickname of Le Vieux Renard (The Old Fox). He made one of his characteristically quick starts that fractionally anticipated the fall of the flag, and forced the pace so hard that the German cars broke down, leaving the way clear for him to win.

In 1934, too, he looked as though he would be the first driver to win two Monaco GPs until, two laps from the end, he overdid things and went into the sandbag barrier, letting Guy Moll through to win. In 1936, Chiron again slid into the sandbags, this time driving a Mercedes, a marque with which he had no success at all. Indeed, after that win of a lifetime in 1934, Chiron's career seemed to have plunged from zenith to nadir almost overnight - only a win in the sports car-orientated French Grand Prix of 1937, driving a 4-litre Talbot, redeemed the situation, and after that Chiron announced his retirement to the Principality of Monaco. Such a man does not bear inactivity lightly, however, and in 1938 Chiron was out again, driving a Delahaye at Le Mans.

He gave up racing for the war and resumed in 1946, but he did not get into his full stride until 1947, when his victory for Talbot in the French Grand Prix at Lyons was a Chiron classic. After 135 miles, he had established a lead of 54 seconds, yet every time his Talbot came past the pits it was obvious that Le Vieux Renard was touring, apparently to save the tyres and brakes, for he looked happy and confident enough.

Louis Chiron and his Bugatti 51 at the 1932 Targa Florio
Louis Chiron and his Bugatti 51 at the 1932 Targa Florio.

It turned out that the head gasket had gone and the air of confidence was to bluff his rivals. His last major victory was, fittingly, the Grand Prix of France in 1949, again driving a Talbot; after that he campaigned a Maserati for a couple of years, won the 1954 Monte Carlo Rally in a Lancia, and then gently faded from active competition, bowing out with a class win in the Mille Miglia at the age of 58.

Thereafter, at the invitation of Prince Rainier, Chiron became Commissaire General of the Monaco Grand Prix and the Monte Carlo Rally.

Major career victories:


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