What kind of reputation do you think would be enjoyed by a man who was the first to win a race in a Ferrari, won Le Mans twice, beat Nuvolari and was the only person to interrupt the Alfa-Romeo steam-roller in both its pre and post-war heydays? He’d be a legend of the sport, surely? Well you tell me: how much do you know about Raymond Sommer?
If the answer is not much, blame him. Sommer was a wealthy and independent minded Frenchman, with neither the need nor the inclination to accept the myriad works drives he was offered. He far preferred to buy his own cars privately, take on the works factory teams and see if he couldn’t put one over on them.
I guess he first came to prominence in 1932. He’d already won his class at the Spa 24 hours in a big old Chrysler but for Le Mans he went and bought an Alfa Romeo 8C and teamed up with Luigi Chinetti to do the race. His car was nothing like as fast as the factory Alfa Monzas up the front, so at the start he let them run away and wear each other out. Unfortunately Chinetti fell ill after only three hours driving, so Sommer drove alone through the night and the following day, as car after car fell out of the race. It was only his second Le Mans – he’d retired from his first – and he won it, despite being asphyxiated by a broken exhaust. What’s more, almost single-handed he’d beaten the greatest team on earth. And he did it again at Miramas before the year was out – true he now had a Monza but Alfa had not only the legendary monoposto Tipo B (better but erroneously known as the P3), but also Tazio Nuvolari at its helm. Alfa was reduced to pretending Nuvolari only let him past because he thought Sommer was a lap behind.
Probably because it was too good an offer even for Sommer to refuse, he teamed up with Nuvolari in a works Alfa for Le Mans the following year. You’ll not be surprised to learn that this dream team of Ickx/Bell proportion won the race, but it was Sommer and not Nuvolari who set the fastest lap, a record that would stand for four years. He’d lead every Le Mans for the next five years too, but his machinery always let him down.
And then war intervened, during which Sommer occupied himself working for the Resistance, although not as an SoE agent like his countrymen Robert Benoist, Jean-Pierre Wimille and William Grover-Williams.
‘The Alfas would then have to pit again. So they sent a deputation to the timekeepers to tell the Sommer was in fact a lap down. The timekeepers told them to get lost‘
He opened his post-war account by beating the works Alfa 158s in his private Maserati 4CL at St Cloud in 1946 in a victory redolent of that at Miramas 14 years earlier. It would be five years before they were beaten again, an event Sommer would sadly not live to see. The following year he won the Turin Grand Prix, the first race win for a new constructor whose name would become the most revered in the sport, and whose cars featured a black prancing horse on a yellow background…
By the start of the 1950 season and the inaugural Formula 1 world championship, Sommer was 43 and should probably have been thinking of retirement. Instead he was about to perform the most preposterously unlikely feat of his career.
He turned up to the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in a privately owned Talbot, a car conservatively estimated to have a top speed some 30mph lower than the works Alfas driven by Fangio, Farina and Faglioli. And even more then than now, Spa was a speed and power circuit. He qualified fifth, ahead of all the works Talbots naturally enough, and behind only the Alfas and the Villoresi’s factory Ferrari.
Everyone expected the Italians to simply disappear, but that’s not what happened. At the flag Sommer went with them and dispatched Villoresi at Burnenville, and if you’ve seen that endless, evil old corner, you’ll know what a feat that was. Soon the supercharged Alfas needed fuel, but Sommer in his old Talbot did not. By lap 13 he was leading. In the Alfa pits panic broke out, they’d just realised what Sommer had known all along, indeed he’d sketched out on the back of an envelope to Geoffrey Crossley – the only British competitor – the night before. It wasn’t that Sommer was now leading, because he could be caught, it was that the Alfas would then have to pit again. So they sent a deputation to the timekeepers to tell the Sommer was in fact a lap down. The timekeepers told them to get lost.
Would he have won? We will never know because on lap 20 the Talbot’s engine let him down, as it would in almost every race he did that season, and that was that. Later that season he did a small race at track near Toulouse in an 1100cc Cooper, turned it over while leading and was killed aged just 44.
My favourite Sommer story is just a single quote of his. At Silverstone in 1950 he did a one off drive for Aston Martin in a DB2 and, never having worked with the mercurial Frenchman before, team manager John Wyer asked how he’d like to receive his pit signals in the one hour race. To which Sommer replied, ‘I don’t want any signals at all. I always go as fast as I can anyway, so it’s no good signalling me to go faster because I can’t. And it’s no good signalling me to go slower because I won’t.’ Flat out and on his own terms, as good a metaphor for the life of this extraordinary, cruelly under-rated man as you’ll find.