The Bugatti 251 Debuts at the 1956 French GP

The Bugatti 251 Is Introduced.

Deutsch: Bugatti Monoplace GP 251 (1955) im Mu...

Bugatti Type 251. Only three chassis were produced.

The Bugatti 251 is a beautiful example of a Formula 1 experiment.  Only three examples were ever built.  It employed a unique engine design.  In fact, they had brought in a former Ferrari man – Gioacchino Colombo .  Colombo was a famous engine design know for his V12s.  The Bugatti 251 was introduced, at home, in the 1956 French Grand Prix.  It took four years to design the masterpiece.  It was a pretty car with stout hips, due to its transversely mounted straight-eight engine.  Thus, the engine was placed where it should be, behind the driver.  The car was advanced in this respect.  Other cars of the day were still almost entirely front-engined cars.

Not only was it rear engined, it also sported revolutionary front suspension.  Stopping power was courtesy of modern disc brakes and not drum brakes.  And the body of the car had vents in all the right places.  It looked like it would slip through the air while simultaneously inhaling massive amounts of air to power it’s engine.  Finally, the French GP arrived and the car hit the track.

After four years, $250,000, and 200,000 man hours, it would take only only a few laps to seal the fate of this beauty.  The car was not just bad, but atrocious.  You see, racing involves a dynamic and evolving compromise between power and handling.  The Bugatti 251 had neither.  Moreover, handling is involves taming the twin beasts of understeer and oversteer.  This car had not mastered either one.  It’s oversquare engine sounded exquisite at a rumored 9,000 revolutions per minute (only the ability to run to 8,000 rpm was confirmed).  And yet, it produced a weak 230 horsepower engine.  Even for the time, that output was unsatisfactory.  It was so bad, they didn’t even take it out of the country.  It never raced in another Grand Prix.

The Bugatti Type 251, therefore, may be a pretty car, but it was never a success.  One of the interesting things, to me, about Formula 1 is the way its development meanders.  Before someone gets a new idea right, usually some other team got it dramatically wrong.  It is these “wrong” cars that compose Formula One’s proverbial wall of shame.  Thus, the Bugatti Type 251 joins the Tyrrell six-wheeled car and other failed attempts at evolution.

The 1956 French Grand Prix.

Again, I am posting the video of the French GP as covered by the summary I found of the 1956 F1 season.  So, check it out if you are interested.  Either way, I am going to let it do the heavy-lifting, in terms of race explanation.  But, I will mention the essentials real quick:

The track location was the usual Reims-Gueux track.  The XLII Grand Prix de l’ACF took place in July 1, 1956.  It was a 61 lap race on a 5.159 mile course totaling 314 miles.  Juan-Manuel Fangio, of course, laid down an impossibly quick pole time of 2:23.3.  Fangio, himself, couldn’t touch that time in the race.  He did set the fastest lap time, but it was two seconds slower than his qualifying time.

Spoiler alert: Peter Collins won the race.  So, I haven’t talked much about Peter Collins.  But, I have recently looked ahead and realized that some decisions he makes alters the shape of this year’s championship.
“So, who exactly is Peter Collins?”Well, I am glad you asked.  Let me tell you…Peter Collins, Who is he?

In 1956, Peter Collins was a handsome 24 year old British bachelor and semi-experienced racing driver.  He cut his teeth in the Formula 500 series, for three seasons, around 1949 to 1951.  For 1952, he bumped up to the F2 series, just one notch below Formula 1.  Then, he lays low until 1955, racing for British Racing Motors (BRM).  In 1955, he catches the eye of a man you may know of – Enzo Ferrari.  Ferrari not only embraces Collins, but Enzo treats him like a surrogate son.  Some say, Collins reminded Enzo of his own recently passed Dino Ferrari.  Anyway, he got a shot with Scuderia Ferrari in fifty-six.

Regarding his racing ability, he was quick, but not ultimately quick.  That is to say, he was generally not considered to be “great driver” material.  Critics, at the time, placed him below the likes of Fangio and Moss.  With a self-effacing tone, he would often remark that Moss was the better British driver.  He had immense respect for Fangio as well.  In fact, it was Collins that handed over his car, despite being in the race, to Fangio at the last Monaco GP.  As if on a mission, he went on to win the next two Grands Prix (the last post at Spa-Francorchamps and this post).  So, clearly, the guy could drive.  He was just never destined to ultimately quickest.  Or was he?  At this point, he is leading the championship by five points.  So, I guess you’ll just keep having to check back to see how Collins’ manages the rest of the season.

Off the track, Collins lived the high-life.  More clearly, the man partied, hard.  While Stirling Moss frequently kept to himself, Collins had what can only be described as a bromance with Mike Hawthorn.  If you are not familiar with Hawthorn, he was a fellow racer, described by one source as always being drunk, about to get drunk, or recovering therefrom.  The two engaged in a lot of classic 1950s shenanigans and crumpet-chasing.

I am at a loss for an amusing conclusion.  Perhaps, I will edit this paragraph later.  For now, I’m leaving it there.  But, I encourage you to check back over the next couple posts to see how the 1956 season turns out.  For the first time in several years, it will come down to the last race at high-speed Monza.

If you’ve made it this far, check out this crazy 1956 video of a guy who saw Lincoln get shot.

Still here? Here’s some Louis C.K. doing President Lincoln.