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Dad’s Grand Prix Debut

Rivers hangs on tight as Campbell leans his Delage into a rising right-hander while being closely pursued by a Bugatti.

In modern Formula One terms, the young driver Max Verstappen is creating a storm in the motor racing press due to his tender years and being at the forefront of Grand Prix racing—I believe he has just turned 19-years old. It reminded me of my dad, known to many simply as “Rivers,” and the then Captain Malcolm Campbell at Brooklands in the 1928 JCC Junior Grand Prix, racing the Delage. Long before my time, Dad’s story of how he, as a 16-year-old schoolboy, won that race still resonates with me to this day. He was a regular visitor to Brooklands, as my grandfather had struck up a bond with a number of well-known people in the motor racing fraternity, including Wilbur Gunn of Lagonda, Harold Yarrow who drove a Napier and S.F. Edge (whom grandfather recalled as being an unreasonable and bad-tempered fellow). Captain Campbell’s secretary, Joan Taylor, was a good friend of the family and particularly good to Dad. Through this friendship he got to meet Campbell, who in turn was happy to meet a young lad with so much knowledge of the sport. So much so, Dad would often have a paddock pass to the famous Brooklands Circuit given to him by Campbell, though my grandfather wasn’t too keen on the noise and smell of Brooklands. It was due to this friendship that the following took place.

Jeremy Rivers-Fletcher
Jeremy Rivers-Fletcher

In 1928, Captain Campbell had purchased two of the works Grand Prix Delage racing cars along with a large crate of spares. At that time, the Delage was the car to have, it was by far the fastest and most successful racing car in the world, having won nearly all of the races the previous year and driven by the most successful driver of the day, Robert Benoist. The Delage was a straight-eight, supercharged, 1.5-liter, single-seat racer with the engine and gearbox set at an angle and the driver seated by the side of the prop shaft. Unfortunately, being a single-seater car, there was no room for a mechanic in the cockpit. Campbell insisted he run the car in the headline race, the Junior Grand Prix. However, the regulations required Campbell to carry a racing mechanic too. Due to the cramped seating, high position of the oil tank and insufficient leg room, neither Campbell’s chief mechanic Leo Villa, nor the second mechanic Miller could squeeze into the available space. It looked very much as though Campbell would have to use his Type 39 Bugatti rather than the Delage—this really angered him—even though he’d won the previous year’s 200 race at Brooklands in the ’39.

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