Jean-Pierre Wimille (1908 - 1949)
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Jean-Pierre Wimille

Jean-Pierre Wimille
Jean-Pierre Wimille, son of a journalist, was born in Paris on 26 February 1908. He began his career at 22 as a racing driver by entering a Bugatti in the 1930 French Grand Prix at Pau. Early in 1931 he competed with a Lorraine in the Monte Carlo Rally and finished second. Soon he became a regular at the racing tracks.

The Monza Italian Grand Prix

Together with Jean Gaupillat he drove a new 2.3-liter Bugatti T51 in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, finishing fourth in the gruelling, 10-hour race. However, Wimille was destined not to finish the French Grand Prix at Montlhery owing to a broken radius rod.

The 1932 season put Wimille on the road to success. He won the Oran Grand Prix in North Africa and led at Casablanca until the Bugatti retired at half-distance. He also campaigned one of the none-too-successful 4.9-liter Bugatti T54s, notably in hill-climbs, and at the end of the year he acquired a 2.3-liter Alfa Romeo Monza and won the Lorraine Grand Prix at Nancy.

At Comminges, however, he crashed while in the lead, adding fire to his critics' forebodings about his being wild. Place results were achieved in 1933, a year in which his driving style noticeably improved: he was second at Comminges and in the Marne Grand Prix, third at Brno in Czechoslovakia and fifth at San Sebastian.

Joining the Bugatti Works Team

In 1934, first year of the new 750kg Grand Prix formula, Wimille was invited to join the official Bugatti works team. Sadly, however, the new 3.3-liter Bugatti T59 was outclassed and not always reliable. He won the Algiers Grand Prix, a race in which neither of the German works teams competed, and at the end-of-season Spanish Grand Prix at Lasarte held a fine second place, splitting the Mercedes team until carburetor problems intervened and dropped him to an eventual sixth.

Next year the car was faster and more reliable, giving Wimille a second to Achille Varzi's Auto Union at Tunis, a second to Louis Chiron's Alfa Romeo at Nancy and fourth behind the superior Mercedes-Benz of Caracciola, Fagioli and von Brauchitsch in the Spanish Grand Prix. Bugatti withdrew from full-scale Grand Prix racing in 1936, when the French Grand Prix was for sports cars and was won by Wimille in Bugatti's T57S, 'The Tank.' Wimille also won the Comminges and Marne Grands Prix for sports cars and, with the Grand Prix Type 59, won the Deauville Grand Prix but retired in the German and Swiss Grands Prix and was a poor sixth at Monaco.

He also raced in South Africa and the United States, taking second place in the Vanderbilt Cup at Roosevelt Raceway in a 4.7-liter Bugatti. In 1937 Wimille shared the winning Bugatti T57S with Robert Benoist in the Le Mans 24-hours and also took 'The Tank' to victory in the Marne, Pau and Bone Grands Prix, all sports car races. Next year Bugatti attempted a return to full-scale Grand Prix racing with the new 3-liter formula in force. Engine trouble kept Wimille on the sidelines in the Cork Grand Prix and the new car only lasted a lap in the French Grand Prix before an oil pipe failed.

Joining Enzo Ferrari

Exasperated, Wimille joined the Enzo Ferrari-run Alfa Romeo team for the Coppa Ciano and Swiss Grand Prix, before rejoining Bugatti in 1939. Highlight of the year was victory in the Le Mans 24-hours, sharing a Bugatti T57C with Pierre Veyron, he also managed to win the Coupe de Paris and Luxembourg Grand Prix and was second in the Prescott hillclimb in a 4.7 liter Bugatti. During World War 2 Wimille served with the French Air Force and later joined the Resistance, finishing the war as a liaison officer with the Allied troops.

The Grand Prix de la Liberation

In September 1945 the first post-war motor race was run in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, the Grand Prix de la Liberation, and Wimille unearthed the 4.7-liter Bugatti and won. In 1946 Wimille campaigned a pre-war 3-Iitre Alfa Romeo 8C-308 in the 'Formule libre' events that comprised international motor racing in those days. He won the Burgundy and Perpignan Grands Prix plus the Coupe de Paris and was invited to join the works Alfa Romeo Grand Prix team, finishing second at Turin and third at Geneva in the successful 1½-liter Tipo 158 models.

The next year Wimille won the Belgian and Swiss Grands Prix, won the Coupe de Paris and the Benoist Cup in his old Alfa Romeo and in a Simca-Gordini was also second at Nice and Lausanne. Wimille became involved with the development of a road car in 1947 with rather sleek lines but with a Cotal electric gearbox fitted to the front of the engine necessitating stepdown gears to take the drive line to the rear axle. The 1948 season was Wimille's last. He was on the crest of a wave. Whereas in previous years he often had to let a team-mate take victory - such was Alfa Romeo's superiority they could decide beforehand who should win - this time he was definite team leader.

He won the French, Italian, Monza and Valentino (Turin) Grands Prix for the Italian marque as well as winning the early-season Rosario Grand Prix in Argentina in a Simca-Gordini. Wimille was acknowledged as the best driver in Europe when he went to Argentina in January 1949 for a series of races. Now 40, he showed no inclination towards retirement, and neither had his prowess dimmed. Yet practising for the Buenos Aries Grand Prix at Palermo his tiny Simca-Gordini left the road and crashed into a tree. Wimille died of severe injuries. Why it happened remains a mystery to this day. Wimille was survived by his wife Christine and a child.

A great race driver, but Jean-Pierre Wimille was also involved in the development of this extremely rare road car
A great race driver, but Jean-Pierre Wimille was also involved in the development of this extremely rare road car.
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