12 March 2020

Fascinating F1 Facts: 100 - The Lion Heart

Formula 1 has existed as a World Championship since 1950, but there were one or two famous names from the pre-war era who are listed as “Formula 1 drivers”, although there is no official definition of what a “Formula 1 driver” must have done to qualify for such status.

One such racer was France’s Raymond Sommer, who competed in Grand Prix racing in the 1930s, winning although he never won a Grande Epreuve, although he did win the French GP in 1936, when it was held as a sports car race. He was also a factory driver in various events for Gordini, Talbot-Darracq, Ferrari and even BRM. They called him "Coeur de Lion" – Lion Heart - a title that he shared with the English King Richard I.

Sommer’s life spanned the history of Grand Prix racing until the Formula 1 World Championship came along. He was born in the summer of 1906, a few weeks after the first Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France was held at Le Mans.

His father was a well-to-do carpet manufacturer from Pont-à-Mousson, a town in the Moselle Valley in Lorraine. His father Roger had been an aviation pioneer and even manufactured his own flying machines. Raymond’s competitive urges were nurtured with boxing but he was then sent off to study in Manchester to learn English before starting working for the family firm. It was then he decided that he wanted to be a racing driver and he did his first race in 1931, at the age of 24. He enjoyed almost instant success with an Alfa Romeo 8C roadster, winning Le Mans in 1932 and 1933. He did his first Grand Prix races, although not Grandes Epreuves, and won the Grand Prix de Marseille at Miramas in his first year. He was signed by Maserati for 1933 but afterwards tended to run his own Alfa Romeos, winning at Comminges and Montlhery in 1935 with an ex-factory Alfa Romeo P3. In 1936 he won the Spa 24 Hours and was French racing champion in 1937 and 1939. After a war which involved being an active resistant, he tried to get the French government to fund a Grand Prix challenger in the late 1940s with the CTA-Arsenal, designed by the government-owned Centre d’Etude Technique de l’Automobile et du Cycle (abbreviated to CTA) and built by the Arsenal de l’Aéronautique, another state-owned firm. The car was not a disastrous failure as the government-employed engineers refused to listen to engineers who knew about racing.

He gave up in 1947 and signed to drive for Ferrari in 1948 but then went his own way again with a privately-owned Lago-Talbot. He was signed to race for BRM in the first race of the new Formula 1 World Championship at Silverstone in 1950 but the team failed to appear and so he raced he raced Ferraris at Monaco and Bremgarten. In Belgium he went back to his own Lago-Talbot andfound himself leading the race at one point as the thirstier Alfa Romeos pitted, but his engine failed. The French GP ended early with an overheating engine but at Monza on September 3, he qualified eighth for the Italian GP and ran well until he suffered a gearbox failure.

A week later he went to the little-known Haute Garonne GP at Cadours, in the south-west of France, having borrowed a Cooper he had borrowed from Harry Schell. It was a very minor race with only around 14,000 spectators but he accepted the invitation to help promote the event. He broke down in the first heat but won the second and so qualified for the final and soon took the lead but then on the eighth lap he failed to appear. The word filtered back that he had gone off and the car had somersaulted several times before hitting a tree. Sommer was dead.

Investigations would later reveal that he had suffered a steering failure.

A year later the organisers at Cadours unveiled a monument in his honour, funded by a public appeal. Later an identical monument was erected in Pont-à-Mousson.

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