Philippe Etancelin (1896 - 1981)

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Philippe Etancelin (1896 - 1981)

Philippe Etancelin

Phi Phi

Philippe Etancelin, or 'Phi Phi' as he was nicknamed, was one of the few drivers who raced in the top flight of motor racing both before and after World War II and, although he was a successful driver, his main claim to fame among racing enthusiasts was his curious habit of wearing a cloth cap back to front when racing.

This was quite common in the early days of racing but he persevered with the cap even when crash helmets were compulsory - he simply wore it over the crash helmet! Born in 1896 in Rouen, Etancelin began his motor-racing career in 1926 with a Bugatti, taking part in local hill climbs and other small events, but the following year he took up circuit racing and was immediately successful, winning the Grand Prix de la Marne at Reims and finishing third in the Coppa Florio at St Briac.

The Marne GP and Formula Libre French Grand Prix

He retired temporarily in 1928 but returned in 1929, once again in a Bugatti, winning the Marne GP for the second time, ahead of the similar cars of Zenelli and Lehoux. He also won the Grand Prix de la Baule and the Prix de Conseil General at Antibes. In 1930, Etancelin, still driving a Bugatti, won the Algerian Grand Prix on handicap, again from his friend Lehoux. He then won the Formula Libre French Grand Prix at Pau from Sir Henry Birkin's Bentley, won the Circuit de Dauphine at Grenoble and finished third in the Lyons GP.

For the 1931 season, Etancelin placed an order for an Alfa Romeo, but commenced the season with his old Bugatti, with which he finished second to Czaykowski in the Casablanca Grand Prix on the Anfa circuit. He also won the minor Estorel Plage race at St Raphael. Several of the major races of 1931 were for Formula Libre run over a time of ten hours rather than a specific distance. This was too much for a single driver to manage, so Etancelin teamed up with his friend Marcel Lehoux. They started well in both the Italian and the French Grands Prix but were forced to retire.

However, when Etancelin took delivery of his Alfa Romeo, he finished fourth in the Marne GP, then went on to win the four-hour Dieppe Grand Prix from Czaykowski's Bugatti and Earl Howe's Delage. This was followed by victories at Grenoble and St Gaudens, where he won the Comminges GP. Etancelin had reached the top ranks of private owners by now but, with very few places in factory teams available at that time, he was forced to remain an independent. His 1932 season was unrewarding because he was always beaten by the factory cars, but he did manage a win in the Picardy Grand Prix at Peronne.

The Alfa Romeo was retained for 1933 and, with it, Etancelin came within an ace of winning the prestigious French Grand Prix. After a furious battle with Guiseppe Campari's Maserati, he had to be content with second place. However, he won the Picardy GP for the second year running, beating the formidable Raymond Sommer. He then finished second in the Nimes GP to Tazio Nuvolari and finally won the Marne GP again, beating Jean-Pierre Wimille.

The 750 Kilogram Formula

The 750 Kilogram formula was introduced in 1934, and with it came the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union monsters which tended to overshadow everyone else until the war. Etancelin bought a Maserati for the new Formula and, in 1934, he finished second at Casablanca, Montreux and Nice and won the Dieppe GP. However, his best victory was a win in the Le Mans 24 Hour race when he partnered Luigi Chinetti in an Alfa Romeo. The German cars were dominant again in 1935 and all Etancelin picked up was a third place at Tunis.

However, in the Monaco GP he fought a tremendous duel in a 3.7-litre Maserati against the unwieldy Mercedes of Caracciola, but dropped back to fourth place when his brakes faded. Etancelin used one of the new V8 4.4-litre Maseratis in 1936 but this was no match for the German cars. He won the Pau Grand Prix on the tight street circuit against modest opposition but retired in virtually every other race. Lacking a competitive car, Etancelin did not race again until 1938 when he drove one of the new Talbot sports cars at Le Mans with Chinetti, without success. In 1939, he occasionally drove a Talbot, finishing third at Pau behind the Mercedes of Lang and von Brauchitsch and fourth in the French GP.

After the war, Etancelin took part in the first French motor race, held in the Bois de Boulogne in 1946, where he drove an Alfa Romeo, but failed to finish. New racing cars were few and far between and it was not until 1948 that he was able to buy a new 4.5-litre Talbot, with which he finished second to Villoresi's Maserati at the Albi GP. He did well in 1949, finishing second to Fangio at the Marseilles GP, second to Ascari in the European GP at Monza and second to Peter Whitehead's Ferrari at the Brno race in Czechoslovakia. He also won the Paris GP at Montlhery that year.

By 1950, he was 54 years old but he continued to race until 1953, picking up good placings. He was third at the Rouen GP of 1953 and third in the 12 Hours of Casablanca, but the Talbot was only usable in a few Formula Libre races as Formula One was temporarily abandoned. He decided to retire at the end of 1953 but in 1974, he still retained an interest in the sport, occasionally appearing at meetings to drive an historic car in displays by the 'Anciens Pilotes'.
Phillipe Etancelin with his Maserati 8CM at Monaco in 1934.
Phillipe Etancelin with his Maserati 8CM at Monaco in 1934.
In that year, the Maserati was somewhat overshadowed by the Mercedes and Auto Unions.
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