Andrew Frankel has been racing cars for over 20 years and testing them for nearer to 30. He is senior contributing writer to both Autocar and MotorSport magazines, sits on the Car of the Year jury and was chief car tester for the Sunday Times for 15 years. He cites driving and writing as the only disciplines for which he has any talent and therefore considers himself vocationally employed. When he is not working he lives quietly in the Wye Valley with his family, a small and unimportant accumulation of cheap old cars and some sheep.
Next week Bugatti will reveal in Geneva its brand new supercar, promised to retain for the brand the title of most powerful, fastest and, I have no doubt, most expensive supercar of all time. It is rumoured to have 1,500bhp, if you can even begin to get your head around such a number.
The car is to be called ‘Chiron’, after Louis Chiron, the famed pre and post-war racing driver. I first came across him watching an old man in a blazer flag away the field at the start of the Monaco Grand Prix in 1970s, but his career was as remarkable as any. Chiron was not French, but a Monegasque who was born and would die in the Principality, but then nor was Bugatti the person, nor is Bugatti the company.
But there’s no questioning how appropriate is his name to the Bugatti brand and, as the man who mastered the fearsome 16-cylinder Type 45, the similarly lavishly pistoned Chiron.
Indeed Louis Chiron was one of handful of racing drivers who created the Bugatti legend. It became so strong it survived its 1930s decline and the collapse of the company after the war in such good health that it was the brand to which VW turned when it decided to create the world’s most excessive supercar. Chiron’s part in that story is not to be underestimated.
He started in a standard Type 35 in 1926 but, as soon as he became armed with a supercharged 35B the following year, became one of the most successful racing drivers on the planet, rivalled at the time by Alfa-devotee Achille Varzi and, with Nuvolari’s star still in the ascendant, very few others.
By 1929 he was Bugatti’s lead driver and would remain that way, winning multiple Grands Prix in 35s and 51s until, acknowledging the total superiority of Alfa’s Tipo B, he joined the rival constructor in 1933 as team-mate to Rudolf Caracciola. Once more, race after race in both single seaters and sports cars fell his way. But his finest hour came the following year: the Tipo B was now not only old but faced with the apparent indomitability of the works Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams. Yet at the French Grand Prix held at a Montlhery, so hot it caused drivers and cars to wilt alike, Chiron humbled the lot of them. The victory probably only less remembered today because of Nuvolari’s yet more stunning upset the following year at the Nurburgring.
But not even Chiron could stop the German steam-roller and after a quiet 1935, he joined Mercedes-Benz becoming, with Luigi Faglioli and Dick Seaman, the only non-German drivers to be hired by Mercedes in its 1930s heyday. But not only was 1936 Mercedes’ sole weak year of the period, but Chiron crashed heavily at the Nurburgring, was badly injured and not invited to drive for the Silver Arrows again. Some say he was never the same driver again.
However like many other stars of the pre-war era, Chiron tried to re-ignite his career after the conflict had ended, scoring an unlikely podium place at Monaco in 1950 driving a Maserati home behind a pair of works Alfas, and winning the 1954 Monte Carlo rally in a Lancia Aurelia. The following year he came sixth at his beloved Monaco Grand Prix, driving a Lancia D50: he was 55 years old and remains to this day, the oldest man to start a World Championship Grand Prix, surely a record that will stand for all time? Only in 1958, when he failed to qualify, did he finally call time on almost 30 years of racing.
Louis Chiron died in 1979, but you need no further proof of his contribution to Bugatti history than the fact that, 37 years after his passing his name has been chosen to grace the flanks of what will undoubtedly be a record breaking car.
Images courtesy of Bugatti