Classic F1 Spotlight - Louis Chiron
Before Charles Leclerc, there was one other Monégasque Grand Prix Driver.
Louis’ grandfather grew wine in Provence and would occasionally take his son with him on trips to Monte Carlo where he would sell his wine to the hotels. Impressed by what he saw on these trips, the son later moved to Monte Carlo to live and work, eventually becoming the Maitre d’ of the Hotel de Paris in Monaco.
Louis Alexandre Chiron was born on the 3rd August 1899. When he was born, his father was still classed as a French citizen and so Louis had dual nationality. His mother had died while Louis was still young and he started work at the hotel at the age of fifteen, initially as a bellboy though his role in the hotel was rather fluid. At the start of the First World War in 1914, his father was drafted into the French military and Louis was taken in by a Russian Princess who had him live with her at her Villa in Monte Carlo. He became a servant but also gained an education from the Princess who taught him languages, conversation and etiquette. When he was sixteen, her chauffeur taught Louis to drive and after a brief period, the princess would only drive with Louis. Then, when Louis was eighteen, he left the security of the princess and her Villa and, though his birth nationality meant he didn’t have to, he volunteered to join the French Army.
His driving talents were soon recognized and he was seconded, at the age of nineteen, to take on the role of driver/chauffer for Marshal Petain, a senior French officer during the war and also to Marshal Foch who held the position of Supreme Allied Commander. After the end of the conflict, Louis stayed with the Army for a further three years.
During that time the army began to sell off their surplus vehicles and Louis, having made some useful connections, became the middleman. Working with an English Captain he had met, together they began to sell on these surplus cars in Nice. Around this time Louis also met Ernest Friderich, who had worked with Ettore Bugatti and had established his own Bugatti dealership in Nice. Ernest introduced Louis to Ettore and, when the sale of the surplus vehicles had finished, Chiron found himself employed as a factory driver – transferring new cars from the factory to the dealership.
Friderich’s dealership was quite successful and Louis was able to perfect his driving skills further. He also supplemented his income by working as a gigolo or dancing partner, at the Hotel de Paris in his home town, for wealthy ladies wanting companions. These wealthy, mature ladies were in many cases effectively ‘sponsors’ to several of the new breed of young racing drivers who were unfortunate to have been born without the right class or without a having a millionaire as their father. You don’t see that happening these days. This enabled him to buy a Brescia Bugatti from the Bugatti agency in Nice and sometime around 1923 he started to compete in local Hill Climb events with his first win coming at the Barbonnet event in November 1924. Then, aged twenty-six, Louis was able to change this for a Type 35 GP Bugatti. It has been said that an American lady with whom he had danced supplied the finance for his first three Bugattis. Those must have been some good dance moves.
Louis won his first local race, the 261-mile Grand Prix de Comminges in 1926, at Saint-Gaudens, near Toulouse, and having started as a privateer, by the 1927 British Grand Prix he was driving for the Bugatti factory team, where he stayed until the end of 1932.
It was also in 1926 that he met a young German driver; Rudolph Caracciola, the two would go on to become close friends. He also met Alfred Hoffman, the heir to the Hoffman-La Roche pharmaceutical company. By a happy coincidence Hoffman had both an interest in car racing and happened to own Nerka, the spark plug company. He decided to sponsor a Bugatti with Chiron as driver, so Louis promptly went out and bought the first 2.3 litre Supercharged Bugatti T35B the factory ever produced. Nice.
Louis made his Grand Prix debut at the 1927 Spanish Grand Prix, where he ran as high as second place before he had to retire. Across 1928, Louis split his racing between driving for Hoffman and the works Bugatti team, taking his first win at the San Sebastian Grand Prix at the Lasarte circuit in July 1928. The Spanish Grand Prix, held at the same circuit, brought another victory and more were to follow at the Antibes Grand Prix, the Marne Grand Prix and the Rome Grand Prix. Probably his greatest win of the season however came at the European Grand Prix, held at Monza, where he beat Varzi, Campari and Nuvolari. He also went to compete in the Indianapolis 500 that year, driving a Delage he had bought from Malcolm Campbell, despite being delayed by an over-long pit stop, he finished 7th.
In 1929, Chiron was no longer content with just winning ordinary races. The wins he took at both the German and Spanish Grands Prix, in association with Anthony Noghès, created what would go on to become the jewel of the Grand Prix calendar – the Monaco Grand Prix, for which we are all very grateful.
1930 was not such a good year and he only won the Belgian Grand Prix. He moved onto the Bugatti T51 in 1931 and this brought him a historic win at Monaco (to date Louis Chiron is the only Monégasque driver to have won the Monaco Grand Prix,). At the 1931 Belgian Grand Prix he shared a Bugatti with Varzi and displayed an impressive level of fitness when, after leading Nuvolari, he sprinted 2 1/2 miles to the pits and back, trying unsuccessfully to fix a sheared magneto-drive.
In 1932 he added Dieppe and Nice to his list of wins as well as notching up another win in Czechoslovakia. During the 1932 season Hoffman discovered that his wife and Chiron had been having an illustrious affair – Chiron was sacked. Hoffman’s wife, Alice, filed for divorce and joined Louis on his trips around Europe. After disregarding the orders of his team manager Meo Constantini, at the end of 1932, Louis was fired by Bugatti. Not one to stay down for long, Chiron along with Rudi Caracciola decided to set up their own team – they would split the costs and the winnings 50/50.
At the start of 1933 the new team, Scuderia CC had bought three Alfa P3’s as well as a couple of Bugatti’s and had them painted in their selected colours – Blue with a White stripe for Chiron and White with a Blue stripe for Rudolph. Their first race was the 1933 Monaco Grand Prix but an accident during practice would put Caracciola out of racing for an entire year. Now alone, Louis joined the Scuderia Ferrari for the remainder of the season, going on to win the Spanish, Marseilles and Czech Grands Prix. He also then went on to partner with Luigi Chinetti in 1933 to win the Spa 24 hours race driving an Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza.
Louis stayed with the Ferrari led team for 1934, driving the new and improved 2.9 litre Tipo B monopostos. At the season opener in Monaco, the Ferrari drivers finished 1-2-4 and 6. Chiron held an almost full lap lead with just two laps to go before he made an unusual mistake and ran into the sandbags that lined the Station hairpin but despite this, he managed to recover to finish in second place. He came second again at the Bordino Grand Prix before taking third in Tripoli. Finally he secured his first win of the year in Casablanca. He suffered a retirement at the AVUS track and could only secure third behind the rising German teams at the Eifelrennen.
Chiron also won at the Marne Grand Prix and finished third at the German Grand Prix ensuring this as one of his best seasons ever. But, after this high came the inevitable low as in 1935, the Germans had rectified things and were able to prove the Bugattis, Maseratis and even the P3s were no match for them - except for Nuvolari’s victory in the German GP. Chiron wisely concentrated on lesser but still important events, winning the Lorraine GP and being second at Dieppe, Nice, Marne, Biella and the Avus circuit. In the Belgian GP he finished third behind two of the new Mercedes, not the result he wanted.
In 1936 Louis then moved to join his friend Caracciola at Mercedes-Benz, arriving at completely the wrong time – just as their cars were again proving to be uncompetitive. Not the kind of timing he wanted to have at all. The 1936 season was dominated by Auto Union. Louis did manage to take pole at Monaco but his best finish over the year was sixth place and, after a high speed crash at the German Grand Prix, when he lost control of his car at 160mph led to his being hospitalised he decided to retire from racing. Anthony Lago again lured him back into racing however after he had recovered - this time at the wheel of a Talbot T150C, resulting in Chiron taking victory in the French Grand Prix.
In 1938 he made one of his many appearances at Le Mans, this time in a Delahaye, before again returning home to Monaco. The Auto Union team was also experiencing its own downturn towards the end of the 1930s and in order to try and arrest their decline ahead of the 1939 season, arranged for Louis to test for the team. On the first of September 1939 however, Germany attacked Poland. World War II commenced, and racing was part on the back burner for Louis.
Chiron, using his French citizenship joined the army, which collapsed very quickly. The racing driver managed to escape to an unoccupied part of France and from there he participated in smuggling downed Allied aviators from neutral Switzerland through occupied France and across the Pyrenees into Spain, where they had chance to get to UK.
When racing resumed after the War, he came out of retirement and drove a Talbot-Lago, staying with Talbot until 1949. Louis claimed two victories in the French Grands Prix in both 1947 and 1949 – the latter of which would be his final win. Also in 1947, Louis repeated his victory of 1926 by again winning the Grand Prix de Comminges before finishing second in Monaco in 1948. During practice for the 1948 Swiss Grand Prix Louis witnessed the fatal crash of his great friend and rival Achille Varzi.
For reasons best known to himself, though possibly based on his war time experiences, Chiron accused fellow driver Hellé Nice of "collaborating with the Nazis and being an agent for the Gestapo” whilst at a 1949 party in Monaco to celebrate the first post war Monte Carlo Rally in which he had finished second.
After a career like his Louis could not miss the natural successor to the Grand Prix series he had known for so long and at the birth of Formula 1 in 1950, Louis joined the factory Maserati team, racing a Maserati 4CLT/48 which struggled throughout the season to match the pace of the Ferrari 125, Talbot-Lago 26C and Alfa Romeo 158 entries. Chiron struggled, often out paced by the other Maserati's but did pick-up the team’s only podium of the season when, in Monaco, he picked his way through the mele at Tabac corner when the track became flooded by a tidal wave that crashed across the circuit on the first lap. This podium at Monaco was enough to earn him joint ninth in the championship.
After an unsuccessful 1953 season in an OSCA, he won the Monte Carlo Rally of 1954 in a Lancia Aurelia. In 1955, aged 55, he drove his last race in a V8 Lancia D50, again at Monaco where he finished sixth. He practiced for two more Monaco GPs, both in Maserati 250Fs: in 1956 he blew two engines in practice, and, finally, in 1958 he failed to qualify. Louis won the 1954 Monte Carlo Rally, and achieved podium finishes in the fifteen Formula One races he entered that year. His last race was in 1955, when he took a Lancia D50 to sixth place in the Monaco Grand Prix a few weeks before his 56th birthday, becoming the oldest driver to compete in a Formula One race. Kimi still has a way to go before he beats that record. Louis is also the oldest driver ever to have entered a Formula One race, taking part in practice for the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix when he was 58, though he sadly failed to qualify.
Louis retired in 1956 following a class win in the Mille Miglia. Prince Rainier of Monaco asked him to expand on his existing role of President of the Automobile Club de Monaco and become the Commissaire General of Monaco’s Rally and Grands Prix, overseeing the organisation and arranging of the two events – he held this post up to the 1979 Monaco Grand Prix, held a month before he died.
Louis still participated at small regional races until he turned 60.
He is honoured by a statue on the Grand Prix course and the entry to the Swimming Pool complex of the race-track is officially named Virage Louis Chiron. In 1999 Bugatti unveiled their concept car the 18/3 and due to his racing record with the brand, they dubbed it “Chiron.” Unusually the finished car retained the name in recognition of his exploits in the pre-war Bugatti race car which had made him one of the standout names in the "Age of the Titans".
Having won the Czechoslovakian Grand Prix three consecutive times, Chiron became so popular in the country that even, over 70 years later, there remains the popular saying "He drives likes Chiron", used mainly when referring to speeding motorists or generally to people who drive very quickly. Chiron was the only Monegasque driver to score points in a Formula One race until Charles Leclerc managed it in the 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix and the only Monegasque to score a podium until Leclerc in the 2019 Bahrain Grand Prix.
Among the greatest drivers between the two World Wars, his career embraced over thirty years, ranging from the late 1920s through to the end of the 1950s, Louis is another legend of the past. Like so many other drivers that raced around the same time as him, his story would make for an excellent film - we'd all watch that.
What do you think of Mr Chiron? Let me know in the comments below.