“The departure of Bentley from Le Mans had an almost immediate effect upon the volume of entries received for the 1931 race. The headline works team was entered by Jean Bugatti who filed paperwork for three 4.9 liter Type 50s painted, of all colors, black.
The bulk of the field (up to 26 from the all time Le Mans low of 18 the previous year) was composed of privateers of varying quality. The cream of the new cars was the new Vittorio Jano-designed 2.3 liter 8C2300 ALFA Romeo. After a four year parade of Bentleys the elegant 8C2300 was a clean departure from Bentley’s beefy monsters toward a true sports car.
The Germans had just a lone 250 hp Mercedes-Benz SSK (of the beefy phylum of Le Mans bolides) of alleged former Russian Imperial guard and Paris-based ex-patriot Boris Ivanovski and Henri Stoffel. Britain was best represented by two 140 hp three-liter type-105 (London) Talbots. Even Scotland’s Saltaire was represented by a sleeve-valve Arrol-Astor. Despite the creeping reality of the Depression the car count was up dramatically from 1930 with 26 cars facing the tribunes on Saturday afternoon.
The ALFAs were the favorites simply through their stunning performance in the Mille Miglia. But the Italians had clashed with the ACO in scrutineering when club officials wished to discuss what were in fact the first “slicks” to be presented at the 24 Hours. Last minute squabbles over the ACO-mandated fuel brew dictated a change of pistons at ALFA and a mad dash to Paris — in Tim Birkin’s Speed Six Bentley sedan! — by ALFA’s competition chief Giovanini. This Franco-Italian opera, and its near-comical aftermath, could have been a descent outline for a movie script or a complex role-playing video game, had such a thing then existed.
By 5:30 a.m. June 13th Lord Howe’s 8C2300 was finally ready while its stable mate, the number-16 of Campari and ALFA’s great test driver Attilio Marinoni, blew up its eight-cylinder engine after new, high compression pistons were installed. Wisely Marinoni moved in with “Freddy” Zehender in the #14 8C2300.
At 4:00 p.m. Raymond Sommer was first away in the 4.6 liter Chrysler 29-80 but it was another Frenchman, Louis Chiron, who led the first lap in one of the black Type 50S works Bugattis with the odd, lightweight and quite angular (even for Bugatti) fabric coach work. The big Mercedes was next and Bugatti teammate Albert Divo was right behind him along with Tim Birkin in Lord Howe’s ALFA.
It took Birkin a lap to displace Divo, and one more to pass Stoffel’s mammoth 7-liter Mercedes but it didn’t last. A lap later Chiron missed made a mess of Mulsanne and so Stoffel led in the Mercedes with a cautioned Birkin and Chiron nearly even for second. This went on for nearly 100 miles until Birkin broke off the fight, pitting to change a spark plug and cinch up his shock absorbers (with noisy and comical verbal help from the ALFA Romeo crew). Four laps later Stoffel had the leading Mercedes in the pits with a shredded Englebert tire.
More tire problems stuck just after six o’clock. Just as Chiron’s Type 50 passed Birkin for the lead the Bugatti shuddered violently: the entire tread of a rear tire separated from the casing and began to flail the Bugatti’s underpinnings. The new experimental heavy-tread Michelins that had been star performers at the Targa Florio were clearly unsuited for the big run down Hunaudiers to Mulsanne. (This long before the days of Michelin’s brilliant Radials.)
Within the hour Bugatti was visited by further tire troubles. Traveling at nearly 130 mph Jean Rost’s Type 50 suffered a massive tread separation on the fastest part of the circuit. Reports said the tread wrapped around the axle and locked the rear wheel and momentum and physics simply took over. The Bugatti vaulted the ditch at well over 100 mph, tore through the fence and flat spun into the wooded spectator area on the eastern side of RN 158.
Rost had a severely lacerated scalp and complained of chest pains. One spectators died and four were injured. Bugatti team leader Louis Chiron reacted the only way he knew how and set the fastest lap of the race at over 84 mph. Both ALFAs pitted: Zehender in for Marinoni; Lord Howe relieved Tim Birkin.
The big Mercedes was running roughly the same schedule as the leading ALFAs and Ivanovski got back into the number-one car. Then Chiron pitted as well, but with an ominously treadless rear tire. A quiet and subdued conference broke out in the Bugatti pits. Jean Bugatti arose and reached behind the pit counter for a sign.
He stepped to the edge of the road and signaled Bouriat to pit while Chiron drove the number-4 Type 50 he shared with Achille Varzi slowly to the dead car park. Which summoned a scattered barrage of cat calls, whistles and sporadic booing from the wine and beer enthusiasts who were shouted down those who understood Bugatti’s pitiable pneumatic plight.
At quarter distance the ALFAs were one-two with the Talbots an impressive third and fourth: the Mercedes-Benz now lay fifth. By midnight the top ALFAs swapped positions and a massive thunderstorm arrived about 2:30 a.m. It was serious enough to compel Freddy Zehender to pit and raise his windshield. It did him little good.
He skidded off the road at Indianapolis on his out lap when startled by the nose of Tim Rose-Richard’s Talbot who had been behind him since his brief stop. Zehender’s ALFA skated across the cobblestones and mashed both a fender and a headlamp.
The car was no longer the same. Even the gifted and mechanically sympathetic Marinoni had to wrestle the ALFA around until, on the 98th lap, the rear axle broke.
By dawn J. S. Hindmarsh, who had got the Talbot he shared with Lord Essendon (who everyone at Talbot called “Bug”) into second overall (!) was forced to pit with a cracked frame. The flaw was profound enough to dislodged the fuel tank that was now wobbling about ominously.
After a protracted session with wire, string and tape it was decided, grudgingly, to retire the number-ten Talbot three-liter after a heroic performance and 132 near perfect laps.
Its podium place was taken by the Rose-Richards/Saunders-Davies Talbot which was ultimately passed by Ivanoski’s big Mercedes. The Russian, who had started the race on Belgian Englebert tires had beseeched the Dunlop men for a set of their Le Mans specials. When the lads from Clermont-Ferrand charitably gave in the Russian put them to good use with a fine second overall.
By 4:00 o’clock the Howe/Birkin ALFA led the big re-shod Mercedes, the number-three Talbot and the ancient 1.6 liter Lorriane, with the regular 1.5 Aston-Martin fifth and first in the 1100-1500 cc class.
ALFA had swept Le Mans, winning overall, winning the Biennial Cup and the Index while breaking Le Mans’ 3000 kilometer barrier for the first time. Jano’s svelte ALFA has changed the basic grammar of racing at Le Mans.
A true sports car had bested all comers and eclipsed the record of the train-like Bentleys that suddenly seemed of another age and epic rather than just last year’s winner. Art and science had defeated brute force. Mussolini sent a telegram of congratulations.”