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1917… is remembered for…
US paid Denmark $25M for the Virgin Islands… streetcars appeared on the streets of San Francisco… Russian/Bolshevik Revolution… Mary ‘appeared’ to three shepherd children in Fatima… British royal family dispensed with German names and titles, and became Mr & Mrs Windsor… Raggedy Ann doll invented… Lawrence of Arabia took Aqaba… Battles of Passchendaele and Ypres… 10,000 African-Americans marched in New York to protest lynching… Beersheba: last successful cavalry charge in history… Ukrainian Republic declared… and, Paul Frere, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Frankie Howard, Sidney Nolan, Ella Fitzgerald, John F Kennedy, Lena Horne, Susan Hayward, Bourvil, Robert Mitchum, Ferdinand Marcos, Jean- Pierre Melville, Dizzy Gillespie, Felix the Cat, Sir Arthur C Clarke and Andrew Wyeth were born . .
. . . and today Robert Manzon celebrates his 97th birthday . . .
Born in Marseille, in the same year as future teammate Maurice Trintignant, Robert Manzon started his F1 racing career at the dawn of F1 – or just afterwards, as he missed the British GP and first appeared at Monaco, in a works Simca Gordini 15, and retired, along with nine others, when a multi-car shunt, on the first lap, was caused by localised flooding.
With an engineering background, and a love of motor sport he was unfortunate to come to prominence as WWII took over Europe but by 1947 he had acquired a Cisitalia D46 and, in his first race, finished 3rd, behind Wimille and Sommer, but ahead of Harry Schell and Amédée Gordini. Two weeks later he won his heat, and 2nd in the final, plus fastest lap, at Angouleme, and then took a 4th place at Reims… which resulted in a works Gordini drive for 1948.
After 2nd in Perpignan in his Cisitalia, Manzon took 3rd in Geneva in his first Gordini drive, but the rest of the season had little to write home about. Like Mr Chapman’s cars twelve years later the Gordini’s were known to be light, fast and unreliable. Nevertheless Manzon was noted for a natural skill and persistence that already seemed to promise more than it delivered.
Manzon also achieved fame when he came across his teammate, Trintignant, lying on the track where he had been deposited by his car which had rolled, just as the car was rebounding from the barriers back towards Trintignant. Manzon had to choose between hitting Trintignant or the other Gordini… He drove straight into the other car, and saved Trintignant’s life.
1949 was a similar saga of retirements, in sports-cars as well as single-seaters, but 1950 started to come good, despite that ignominious exit from Monaco., and he was placed 4th in the French GP, the first points scored by Gordini. Manzon also had several wins and podiums in minor, and F2 races.
1951 was similarly marked by either brilliant performances in an outclassed car or retirement but 1952 (which was held to F2 regulations, for which the smaller Gordini was better suited) was his best year. With Behra, Manzon also led the 24Hrs du Mans, for nine hours, before the Gordini brakes expired but, in the rain at Spa, Manzon finished 3rd, to take his first F1 podium.
At the French GP he finished 4th and, for a brief, gaudy moment, was running fourth in the Championship, behind three Ferraris. In Britain and Switzerland he was again fourth on the grid, behind the three Ferraris, but, at the Nurburgring he managed third, with Trintignant’s Gordini fourth. Unfortunately, in the race Manzon’s car lost a wheel (a not uncommon occurrence with Gordini) but, at Zandvoort, Manzon managed 5th… and finished 6th in the Championship. His teammates, Behra and Trintignant, finished 10th and 16th.
1953 was Manzon’s sixth year with Gordini. In the first race at Buenos Aires he qualified 10th but started well, and was 5th after just eight laps… then passed Gonzalez (who, remember, came 2nd in my Top-20 Drivers series) for 4th. Tragedy struck when Farina crashed into the crowd, and Fangio retired at half-distance, and Manzon was 2nd… After stopping for tyres, as he was working his way back up again, another wheel came off…!
“This is the 3rd time I lost a wheel during a race. It is a pity because my strategy was good and I could have scored a good result. . . It took me six minutes to change my tyres. I often had to drive very carefully to avoid a crash. Indeed, spectators were unconscious of the danger, they were crossing over the track. On lap-7 I nearly hit a policeman’s horse!”
Manzon and Trintignant wrote a letter of complaint to Amédée Gordini, who didn’t reply. Manzon, angry and frustrated, left, and joined the Lancia sports-car team for the rest of the year.
For 1954 Manzon had a stroke of luck and was invited to drive a private Ferrari 625 for Louis Rosier who, though twelve years older than Manzon, had started racing at the same time. He is particularly famous for winning the 24hr du Mans in 1950 (aged 44)(in his private Talbot-Lago), with his son, Jean-Louis… who had actually only driven two(2) laps… finishing a lap ahead of the second car, and recording fastest lap, after driving for 23 1⁄4 hours. Legend has it he then slept for three days… 🙂 but I digress.
Despite several retirements Manzon performed well, finishing 2nd to Gonzalez in Bordeaux, and 3rd behind the all- conquering Mercedes in the French GP, after a long battle with the Siamese(Thai) Prince Bira – the last F1 points either man was to score.
After finishing 3rd in the Tourist Trophy Manzon was lured back to Gordini for 1955 but, sadly, nothing had changed – he lost a certain podium at Monaco with gearbox problems, and finished the year with a 3rd in the Targa Florio.
1956 hit the depths of despair – remaining with Gordini in F1 Manzon also drove in sports-car events for DB Panhard, Maserati, and Ferrari. After running fifth at Monaco, before his engine faltered, Manzon was able to win the non-championship Naples GP, his first and only F1 victory, and Gordini’s last. Finally, he won the Circuito di Pescara, which became the last victory for a sports Gordini.
Ford made money with the Lotus Cortina, following the considerable success of the Mini Cooper, to this day (though I always wonder how many present-day buyers have any idea what the appendage means…), but Gordini versions of Renault cars… Does that really mean anything to anyone…? Surely Alpine is worth more, as the jury is possibly still out that the ‘Caterham Connection’ will amount to much…
Robert Manzon competed in F1 for seven seasons, six of them loyally with Gordini. Perhaps, as with Moss, it wasn’t his best move. After returning to the family business Manzon eventually retired to Cassis.
He is the last living racing driver to take part and score points in the first season of F1. However, unbeknown to many, he is the second-oldest living F1 driver, by just six weeks, to Robert La Caze (born: 26th Feb 1917).
French-born, but longtime Moroccan citizen, La Caze raced a lot in North Africa, often in rallies, and later organized the Rallye Maroc, which led to him arranging a deal for the Moroccan GP in debutant team-manager, Ken Tyrrell’s, F2 Cooper Climax. He qualified 23rd out of 25, and finished 14th – 3rd in the F2 section. Somewhat bizarrely he was also a national ski-ing champion! Robert is still alive, and is the oldest former Grand Prix driver, but now in very poor health. La Caze is also the grandson of the man chiefly responsible for the Suez Canal, diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps.
There… three, largely unforgotten drivers, for the price of one…