Tuesday 13th October 1981
French Grand Prix motor racing driver Philippe Etancelin (84) who joined the new Formula One circuit at its inception, died. The sight of Philippe Etancelin with trademark cap worn back-to-front was a familiar one on the circuits of Europe for four decades. Although major success was limited to victories in the 1930 French Grand Prix and 1934 Le Mans 24 Hours, he remained a star throughout his long career. His father was a wealthy wool merchant from Rouen and “Phi-Phi” Etancelin wanted for little as he grew up. When he decided to start racing in 1926 it was with a new Bugatti T35 – initially competing on local hillclimbs before his first full racing season a year later. Success was immediate for Etancelin won the 1927 GP de la Marne after leading all the way at Reims, a race he won again two years later. With a burgeoning reputation at home, the 1930 French GP established Etancelin on an international stage. Run on a 10-mile circuit outside Pau, Etancelin took the lead after the works Bugattis all faltered and he was chased to the line by Tim Birkin’s 4500cc Bentley sports car. He won his only Grande Epreuve by a couple of minutes despite his clutch only hanging on by a bolt by the end.
Etancelin switched to an Alfa Romeo 8C “Monza” for the following season but success was confined to national races. However French GP victory appeared in his grasp once more in 1933 when Etancelin began the last lap at Montlhéry leading by 24 seconds. He had been nursing a temperamental clutch for some time and it suddenly stuck in neutral. He finally engaged a gear but by then Giuseppe Campari’s Maserati had snatched victory.
Etancelin drove a Maserati 8CM in 1934 but the Italian cars were rendered obsolete by Germany’s new GP challengers. He was more successful on his debut in the Le Mans 24 Hours that year when he shared Luigi Chinetti’s winning Alfa Romeo 8C. That was one of only two Le Mans outings (Etancelin retiring a Talbot in 1938) for the Frenchman loved the cut and thrust of GP racing.
It did not matter that his machinery would never be the class of the field again; Etancelin competed with a dash and a humour that enhanced the sport. He had his days as well – the gallant underdog at Monaco in 1935 for instance when he drove a storming race from ninth on the grid to challenge Luigi Fagioli’s Mercedes-Benz for the lead. He eventually overcooked his brakes when defending his second place from Rudolf Caracciola’s Merc. Etancelin finished a heroic fourth.
Ever the independent, Etancelin then acquired a new Maserati V8RI but he was seriously injured at Monza when he rolled after his throttle stuck open. Hospitalised for much of the winter, Etancelin returned at the start of 1936 and promptly won at Pau with the repaired car. With French races switched to sports car rules, Etancelin temporarily retired from the sport in 1937. He then returned with a Lago-Talbot from 1938 and finished fourth in the following year’s French GP at Reims.
As soon as Europe emerged from World War II, Etancelin uncovered an old Alfa Romeo 8C “Monza” and was on the grid for the Coupe des Prisonniers in the Bois de Boulogne on September 9 1945. Who won on that emotional day was immaterial – it was truly when taking part was more important than winning (for the record, Etancelin crashed).
It was with Lago-Talbot that the veteran competed when it was business as usual again. He won the 1949 Paris GP at Montlhéry and finished second in the final two GPs of the year in Italy and Czechoslovakia.
Despite now being in his mid-fifties, “Phi-Phi” was on the grid for the very first world championship race – the 1950 British GP at Silverstone. His privately entered Lago-Talbot T26C was a regular all year and he came fifth in France (sharing with Eugène Chaboud) and Italy. He still had the pace to qualify fourth at Monaco and Reims and was 10th equal in that inaugural championship.
The 1951 season was less successful and his Escuderia Bandeirantes Maserati A6GCM finished eighth on his final championship appearance in the 1952 French GP. Etancelin was also awarded the Légion d’Honneur in a ceremony before the start. He retired a year later after driving an equally ancient Talbot to a popular third place finish in the non-championship race at Rouen-les-Essarts.
Philippe Etancelin was a much loved and respected character who spanned more than one generation of this sport. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre in July 1952 and became a leading light in the Anciens Pilotes organisation. He later retired to the Paris suburbs where he died at the age of 84.