When the starter’s flag lowers on the Monaco Grand Prix this weekend, it will mark the 90th anniversary of the Monaco Grand Prix and a special anniversary for Bugatti. That first year, after almost four hours, William “Williams” Charles Frederick Grover was the first one to cross the finish line in a Bugatti Type 35 B, marking the start of a new era. Today, with its tight city circuit, the Monaco GP is the highlight of any Formula 1 season, and is one of the most famous car races in the world alongside the Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Everything started very small 90 years ago. The idea of beginning a race in the middle of Monaco came in the mid-1920s, when Monaco’s General Commissioner for the Monaco Automobile Club, Anthony Noghès, came into power. But it took a few years for his idea to be put into action. At the beginning of April 1929, 20 drivers registered and 16 actually started on the 14th of April, 1929. Eight drivers relied on models from Bugatti, such as the Type 35 C and Type 35 B, the latter being the choice of William Charles Frederick Grover.
In contrast to current races, the organizers refrained from qualifying and the starting positions were raffled. The Frenchman Philippe Étancelin, in a Bugatti Type 35C, snatched the pole position, his compatriot Christian d’Auvergne taking second place. Grover drew 5th, and his Mercedes rival Rudolph Caracciola 14th place.
As the starter flag lowers, William “Williams” Grover quickly flooded his eight cylinders with fuel. Off the line in third position, he could settle for a lap, bravely taking the wheel and steering his Bugatti Type 35 B nimbly through the narrow streets of Monaco. Like today, duels in the narrow streets were rarely possible. But the failure rate in the race was high and the field thinned out quickly. After 80 laps, only nine cars remained, with three vying for victory.
On lap 49, Grover goes to the pits, allowing Caracciola to take the lead. But Grover soon catches up, his Bugatti has the better grip on the hot asphalt. The front and rear drum brakes are adequately cooled by Bugatti’s new and patented wide-band spoke wheels made of cast aluminum. The front axle is hollow in the middle to reduce the unsprung weight, improving the handling enormously. The Type 35 was almost unbeatable in the 1920s; with over 2,000 race victories in Bugatti’s “golden decade” it is one of the most successful racecars of all time.
The eight-cylinder engine with multi-bearing crankshaft and king shaft runs like clockwork. Thanks to its compressor, the 2.3-liter engine delivered 140 hp at 5,000 rpm. The compressor rotates at the same speed as the crankshaft, thus pushing sufficient air into the combustion chambers without overturning at high speeds. With a curb weight of only 750 kilograms, driving over 215 km/h would be possible, but not on the streets of Monaco. Still, the abundant torque, via the compressor, boosted the Type 35’s acceleration enormously. With the combination of maneuverability and lightweight construction, Grover’s Type 35 B easily wags from curve to curve.
Ettore Bugatti had always believed that performance was important, but lightweight construction to him was everything. Hence, he made the larger parts of his racing cars, such as the engine and gearbox housing, body and wheels, out of lightweight aluminum. As a result, Grover turned the fastest race lap, in 1929, with 2:15 minutes, and an average speed of 84.8 km/h. Ninety years ago this was nothing short of a sensational time. After a hard fight over 100 laps and a total of 318 kilometers, Grover tkes the checkered flag ahead of Georges Bouriano in a Bugatti Type 35 C and Rudolf Caracciola in the Mercedes SSK. Williams wins with a time of three hours and 56 minutes. This marks another milestone in Bugatti’s racing history.
Today’s Monaco GP race distance is 260.52 kilometers, with the racers completing about 78 laps. The current course record is 1h.14’.26’’ for the 3.377 kilometers long track, with an average speed of over 150 km/h. This would have been hard to fathom for Williams and his cohorts 90 years ago, when racers like Grover drove through the city in 140-hp cars with drum brakes.
After 1929, Bugatti went on to Monaco victories in 1930, 1931 and 1933—historical moments, not only for Bugatti, but also for motorsports. All 90 years ago.