Philippe Etancelin

Philippe Etancelin

28/12/1896 - 13/10/1981

Étanceline began racing with a Bugatti in 1926, making an immediate impact by winning the Grand Prix de Reims. Nicknamed "Phi-Phi," he teamed up with Luigi Chinetti to win the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1934. He almost always drove privately entered cars, competing in twelve F1 grand prix, debuting on May 13, 1950.

Born in Rouen, Seine-Maritime in Normandy, Philippe, or Phi-Phi as he was called by his friend, was one of the toughest competitors ever to race cars and was also quite possibly, the most successful pre-war private entrant. Helped by a substantial self-made personal fortune from his business manufacturing mattresses, pillows and bedding in goose down, he wore a trademark reversed blue cloth cap for his entire racing career.

He began competing in hillclimbs and speed trials in a Bugatti. In 1927 he scored his first big victory, winning the Grand Prix de la Marne at Reims with his Bugatti.

In 1929 he won at Reims once more, and claimed further victories at Antibes, Comminges and La Baule, while success continued into 1930 with wins at Pau and in the Algerian GP.

In May 1931 at the non championship GP di Monza, he went off in the Lesmo and three spectators died. Late in 1931, Etancelin took the decision to order an Alfa Romeo, which he ran relatively successfully until rule changes for 1934 forced him to switch to a Maserati. In 1934 he teamed up with Luigi Chinetti to win the 24 hours of Le Mans.

Etancelin did most of his racing as a private entrant but in 1935 he joined the Scuderia Sub-Alpina, Driving a new 3.7 liter Maserati he fought a tremendous duel with Caracciola for 2nd place at Monaco in 1935. Only after his brakes began to fade did Etancelin have to settle for 4th place. He often finished second or third with this car over the next few seasons, outright successes mainly eluding him, though he did win at Pau in 1936, and had previously shared the 1934 Le Mans-winning car with Chinetti.

Though considered one of the best French drivers between the wars he went into temporary retirement in the face of German domination.

Returning in 1938 he drove a Talbot to 3rd at Pau and 4th in the French GP at Reims though in each race he was several laps behind the winning German car.

Always accompanied to the races by his enthusiastic wife Suzanne, Etancelin took an Alfa Romeo to the first race in Paris. But he then spent the next few years looking, unsuccessfully, for an adequate mount until he was able to purchase one of the new single-seats Talbot 26C in 1948.

The car was raced to good effect in 1949, 'Phi Phi' winning the Paris GP and finishing second at Marseilles, Monza and Brno. In 1950, the first season of the World Championship, Etancelin picked up a couple of fifth places, racing his now elderly Talbot on through the 1951 season and into the following year in the few F1 and Libre events for which it was still eligible.

By 1953 Étanceline had virtually retired from racing after finishing third with 'Levegh' in the Casablanca 3 Hours, but the Rouen GP of that year was a non-championship event, so the organisers, hoping to bolster the grid, invited Formula 1 cars to compete as well. 'Phi Phi' was a local man and could not resist the temptation to dust off his trusty Talbot and take up the challenge to the works Ferraris. To the immense delight of a partisan crowd he brought the car home in third place, thus finishing a wonderful career in splendid fashion.

In 1953 the government of France awarded him the Legion of Honor in recognition of his contribution to the sport of automobile racing that spanned four decades.

His driving style was peculiar in the fact that he kept "sawing at the wheel, even on straights". His trademark was a reversed blue cloth cap, which he had worn for his entire racing career. When the use of a crash helmet became compulsory, Etancelin put one of the kind used by bicycle racers in velodromes in top of his usual cap. His hobby was an animal farm in Normandy, his native region, which he never left always living in Rouen.

Etancelin's scored 19 major victories between 1927 and 1949. One Grande Epreuve, the 1930 GP de l'ACF, one Le Mans 24hrs race, and 17 International Grand Prix.

In 1953 the government of France awarded him the Legion of Honor in recognition of his contribution to the sport of automobile racing that spanned four decades.

He passed away at Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1981.

Major career wins:

  • Algerian Grand Prix 1930
  • Grand Prix de la Baule 1929
  • Grand Prix du Comminges 1929, 1931
  • Dauphiné Circuit 1930, 1931
  • French Grand Prix 1930
  • Grand Prix de Dieppe 1931
  • Grand Prix de la Marne 1929, 1933
  • Grand Prix de Pau 1930, 1936
  • Grand Prix de Picardie 1932, 1933
  • Grand Prix de Reims 1927, 1929
  • St. Raphael 1931
  • 24 hours of Le Mans 1934


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