The most talented of amateurs
- Leif Snellman
- 8W November 1999 issue
- Dick Seaman - Britain's hero of the thirties, by Leif Snellman/Felix Muelas/Mattijs Diepraam/Robert Blinkhorn
Team Straight Maserati 8CM-3011
1934 Monaco GP
Carlo, Bindo, Alfieri, Mario, Ettore and Ernesto were the names of the six Maserati brothers, sons of a locomotive engineer from Voghera. Carlo, the oldest and most technically talented, died in 1910 and Mario was not interested in technical things but the four other would make racing history. Starting off with a little workshop and making spark plugs they soon constructed cars for the SocietÓ Anonima Autocostruzione Diatto and then got "carte blanche" to build a GP car from scratch.
When Diatto got into financial difficulties Alfieri Maserati took over the project, and at the 1926 Targa Florio the first Maserati GP car was seen, a two-seater with a 1.5-litre 8-cylinder engine. Improved and enlarged variants of the car were used into the early 30s. For the 1933 season the Maserati brothers developed a new and much improved 8-cylinder engine for their racing cars as an answer to the new Alfa Monopostos. The engine was a straight 8 with a capacity of 2992 cc (69x100mm) giving some 210bhp at 5600rpm. The two first cars delivered had two-seater bodywork and were known as the 8C-3000. The subsequent cars were all monopostos and known as the 8CM-3000. A special feature of the new car was the very narrow chassis (twenty inches).
The roadholding had been the weakness of all old Maseratis but the narrow chassis made the 8CM-3000 even more unstable and in the corners it sometimes moved in a way that was alarming for both drivers and spectators. The steering wheel was in the centre as was the gear selector. The car was equipped with hydraulic brakes (a feature that had not been seen on a GP car since the early 20s). By using special materials in the gearbox and axles the weight was kept low. Maserati made some tests with front-wheel drive but the idea was soon abandoned.
With Alfa Romeo retiring from Grand Prix racing in 1933 the Maseratis had only the 2.6-litre Alfa Romeo "Monzas" of Scuderia Ferrari to worry about. Luigi Fagioli and Giuseppe Campari were the main drivers for the Maserati works team and as usual the Maserati cars proved to be popular to the privateer drivers (Maserati was famous for their support and good relations with the privateers). Among the new Maserati owners should be mentioned Bernard Rubin with Sir Henry Birkin as driver and Raymond Sommer. But the most successful Maserati amateur in 1933 was probably Whitney Straight, racing an old 2.5-litre car.
American Whitney Willard Straight was born in a wealthy home on November 6, 1912. After his father died in 1919 his mother remarried and the family moved to England in 1925. Later Straight became a British citizen. Whitney Straight had a great interest in flying and motor racing. At the age of 16 he became England's youngest licensed pilot. Studying at Cambridge he became friends with a motor racing interested student named Dick Seaman and Straight decided to start racing, too. In 1932 he purchased Tim Birkin's black 2.5 litre Maserati. The first race he entered was the Swedish Winter Grand Prix at Lake Rńmen. In 1933 Straight had a successful year winning at Brooklands, and he decided to create his own Grand Prix team.
So for 1934 Straight together with Reid Railton and the Earl of Brecknock formed a company, the Whitney Straight Ltd. and ordered four new Maserati 8CMs. During the 1934 season Team Whitney Straight entered their cars in the major GP races, Straight transporting his personal valet and the mechanics with his own airplane.
The only change the Maserati factory had made for the 750kg formula in 1934 was to increase the chassis from twenty to thirty inches, and a light horsepower increase in the engine but with ex-Alfa Romeo mechanic Giulio Ramponi in charge of the preparations, the Team Straight cars were modified with new Wilson pre-selector gearboxes, bettered suspension and more streamlined bodies. The cars were painted in the American racing colors, blue and white. For the Monaco GP, the first important race of the year, Straight entered the first 8CM delivered (chassis number 3011), a narrow 1933 model. Other Maseratis were entered by Earl Howe, Siena (with an ex-works 8C twoseater), Taruffi (with a 4-cylinder, 2.5-litre works car), and ╔tancelin.
All the Maseratis were in trouble because they were overweight. The sumps, axles and gearboxes were drained of oil and finally the drivers had to fit alloy wheels to come under the 750kg limit. Straight got himself into 11th position on the grid, 4 seconds slower than pole man Trossi in an Alfa Romeo.
The new German teams were not ready for the Monaco race. Before the start of the race Caracciola, who had crashed at Monaco the year before, did a slow lap of honour around the track to the applause of the spectators. When the flag dropped Chiron came from the second row to take an early lead followed by Dreyfus, ╔tancelin, Varzi, Moll, Taruffi, Nuvolari and Straight. A hard fight for third position between ╔tancelin and Varzi ended when the latter had to do a two-minute pit stop. ╔tancelin closed up on Dreyfus and soon took the Maserati up to second place. "Phi-Phi" then continued his march upfield, trying to catch Chiron's Alfa. The order after 20 laps was Chiron, ╔tancelin, Dreyfus, Moll, Nuvolari, Taruffi and Straight.
At half distance ╔tancelin, who was 46 seconds behind the leading Alfa, overcooked it at the Station hairpin, crashed into the sandbags and had to retire. The other Maserati cars were unable to challenge the Ferrari-Alfa Romeo duo of Chiron and Moll, who had taken over second place when Dreyfus made a pit stop. Nuvolari was up to third but fell back with brake troubles. Chiron almost had a one-lap lead but with just two laps to go he made a mistake and ran into the sandbags at the Station hairpin. It took Chiron three minutes to get back on track in second place behind Moll and it was Moll who took the flag a minute in front of his teammate. The best of the Maserati drivers, Taruffi, in fourth, had to retire on the very last lap with a misfire. Straight finished best of the Maserati drivers in 7th place.
The 1934 season was quite successful for Team Straight. With team mates R.E.L. "Buddy" Featherstonhaugh and Hugh Hamilton, Straight took part in several of the events during the season. Straight was victorious at the Donington Trophy race, the Brooklands Mountain race and the handicap South African Grand Prix. At the Albi GP Featherstonhaugh and Hamilton came first and second but at the Swiss GP there was tragedy for the team as Hamilton fatally crashed into a tree on the last lap.
Then 1935 beckoned. It is popular belief that for the 1935 season Straight tried to buy an Auto Union. In fact, the real story is even better: he was asked to join the works AU team! Auto Union main men Walb and Feuerreissen were thinking of replacing Hans Stuck for some time and Whitney Straight had shown considerable speed in the 1934 season. In the end the matter became irrelevant, as Straight not particularly favoured the NSKK pomp and circumstance and was an outspoken anti-fascist at a time the rest of the world were slow to discover the evil of Nazi Germany. And he had made that promise to his wife to quit racing.
He kept his promise and broke up the team. During the war he joined the RAF and spent time in a German POW camp after being shot out of the skies. After the war Straight continued to show his interest in flying, working for Rolls Royce and becoming managing director of BOAC. He died in 1979.
You can find a full race account of the 1934 Monaco GP here.
Reader's Why by John Cross
Whitney Straight was born on 6 November 1912 in USA in a wealthy home. After the father died the mother remarried and the family moved to England. Later Straight became a British subject. He had a great interest in flying and motor racing. As a Cambridge student he started racing in 1932 with a one year old 2.5L Maserati (bought from "Tim" Birkin), finishing 2nd at La Turbie and twice setting a new Brooklands Mountain lap record. In 1933 he had an amazing win in the small car class of the Coppa Acerbo in a blown K3 MG Magnette, beating the Maseratis of Barbieri and Furmanik, a defeat neither of them could quite believe! In the ex-Birkin Maserati Whitney won the Mountain Championship at Brooklands, set a new Shelsley Walsh record of 41.2 seconds, won the Brighton Speed trials, finished 2nd at Albi setting a lap record, and, best of all, made best time of the day in France's Mont Ventoux hill-climb, beating in the process what was said, by no less an authority than Phillippe ╔tancelin, to be an "unbreakable" record. Following this success (in only his second season!), he decided to create his own Grand Prix team, Team Whitney Straight, and ordered two of the 2992 cc 8-cylinder Maserati 8CMs which had shown promise in the second half of the 1933 season in the hands of Nuvolari. These had to be widened to comply with the new 1934 regulations and Whitney entered the white and blue painted cars in the major GP races, transporting the team members with his own airplane!
The first of these was delivered in time for Whitney to enter the first GP of the season at Monaco on Easter Monday. Before the start of the race Caracciola, who had crashed in Monaco the year before, did a slow lap of honor around the track under applauds from the spectators. Trossi had put his Alfa Romeo on the pole position but when the flag dropped Chiron came from behind to take an early lead followed by Dreyfus, tancelin, Varzi, Moll, Taruffi, Nuvolari and Straight. Trossi was in for new plugs on lap two. A hard fight for the third position between ╔tancelin and Varzi ended when the latter had to do a two-minute stop with plug, brakes and magneto problems. ╔tancelin closed up on Dreyfus and soon he took the Maserati up to second place and ╔tancelin continued his high speed advance, trying to catch Chiron's Alfa. The order after 20 laps was Chiron, ╔tancelin, Dreyfus, Moll, Nuvolari, Taruffi, Straight, Lehoux, Siena, Varzi, Balestrero and Veyron. At half distance ╔tancelin, who was 46 seconds behind the leading Alfa, overdid it at the Station hairpin (Loews), crashed into the sand bags and had to retire with broken steering. The other Maserati cars were unable to challenge the Ferrari-Alfa Romeo duo of Chiron and Moll, who had taken over second place when Dreyfus made a stop to attend to a slipping clutch. Both Trossi and Varzi had made further pit stops. Varzi had clearly given up any hope for a good position and was now cruising around with a cigar in his mouth! Nuvolari was up to third but had to fall back with brake troubles. Chiron had almost a one lap lead but with just two laps to go he made a mistake and run into the sandbags at the station hairpin. It took three minutes before he got back at the track in second place behind Moll and it was Moll who took the flag a minute in front of his teammate. The best of the Maserati drivers, Taruffi, laying fourth had to retire on the very last lap with a misfire so Alfa Romeos and Bugattis filled the top six positions with Whitney in the first of the Maseratis a disappointed 7th. Howe, who had had carburation trouble throughout the race, limped home 10th and last.
The result was a sensation as this was Ferrari recruit Moll's first race as a works driver! It proved also to be the greatest moment of the young Algerian's tragically short racing career.
Whitney went on to win more events that year than any other Maserati driver, including the JCC International Trophy at Brooklands, the Shelsley Walsh record, the Brooklands Mountain Championship, the 2nd heat of the Vichy GP, and the Donington Park Trophy, a 50 mile race that was the forerunner of Donington's great Grand Prix. He even broke International class records and at Mont Ventoux, Vichy and in the British Empire Trophy his superb driving earned him second place in all three events. His team, composed of himself, Hugh Hamilton and Buddy Featherstonehaugh, was an excellent example of the amateur "Scuderia" element in motor-racing, and the Straight stables performances in 1934 will forever remain historic - for two reasons, one joyous, one sad! Buddy Featherstonehaugh, using the beloved ex-Birkin Maserati, gave Britain a joyful day when he won the second Albi GP from Hamilton, the first British driver to win a genuine GP for many years. The joy of this victory was soon soured, however for disaster came in the first Swiss GP at Berne on 23 August when Hugh Hamilton met his death on the very last lap of the race, when his Maserati 8CM went off the road into some trees. Whitney himself won the first South African GP held at East London at the end of the season.
Whitney tried to buy an Auto Union for the 1935 season but the negotiations came to nothing and because he had promised his wife to quit racing he broke up the team, at the ripe old age of 23. He joined the RAF during the war, spending some time in a German prison camp after being shot down. After the war he became managing director of BOAC. He died in 1979. Who knows what he might have achieved had he continued racing.
The famous Maserati brothers from Bologna - Carlo, Bindo, Alfieri, Ettore and Ernesto - had links with motoring going back to the pioneer days when Carlo, the eldest, raced motor cycles and cars and worked successively for Fiat, Bianchi and Junior, while Bindo and Alfieri joined Isotta-Fraschini. Carlo died in 1911 and during World War 1 the brothers began to manufacture Maserati sparking plugs. The business was born in 1926 - as Officine Alfieri Maserati SpA - and grew slowly in pokey premises at the Ponte Vecchio, Bologna. They produced a long series of GP, sports and voiturette cars and business was booming in the early 1930s as more wealthy amateurs like Whitney and Howe.