On the way across from Barcelona we spent the evening in Hyeres, a delightful resort on the Cote d’Azur, not far from Toulon. It was a place where people were sent to enjoy mild winters in the 19th Century. Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edith Wharton all wrote books while staying in the town. It was so popular with the British aristocracy that in 1892 even Queen Victoria popped down for a Spring break. Things have changed a little but it is still a magical place and this morning we drove along the coast, passing Rayol-Canadel, where Henry Royce set up a drawing office in 1910 with five engineers working on the design of the Silver Ghost. From there it was on to Cavalaire-sur-Mer and along the coast under the Massif des Maures towards Saint Tropez.
This is God’s own country. It is stunningly beautiful and relatively unspoiled and I was reminded of a shot by the celebrated French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue of a trip he took in that part of the world in 1927. The photograph is one of the most evocative and romantic images that I know: with the sea, the sun, a beautiful sports car and a glamorous girl. My colleague David Tremayne sadly does not quite match up to the lady Lartique took with him, and the Toyota Prius is anything but a Bugatti… but, hey, this is all about dreams, isn’t it?
We did not stop in St Trop. Even at this time of year the traffic is horrible. Instead we headed inland in search of the village of Grimaud, a pretty place with a ruined castle on top of the hill. Our quest was to find a most extraordinary part of Formula 1 history, specifically, a grave in which are interred TWO Grand Prix drivers. And what a story it is. I researched the whole thing and wrote about it in Issue 24 of Grand Prix +, back in 2008. The story is now in the GP+ archive, but as you get that free when you subscribe this year, and it costs only £25 for nearly 100 magazines, I am going to leave you all asking for answers… Suffice to say that there was some confusion over the years regarding the story of Jose Dolhem and Didier Pironi. Some said that they were half-brothers; some said they were cousins. It took a while but I found the answer. Amazingly, they were both.
Equally amazing were their fates. In 1982 Pironi was leading the World Championship for Ferrari when he crashed heavily at Hockenheim and broke both his legs badly. He tried to return to F1 after a series of painful operations, but his legs were not good enough and so instead he built a carbon composite offshore powerboat and teamed up with pals Bernard Giroux, a two times Paris-Dakar winner, and former Renault F1 engineer Jean-Claude Guenard, to race this exotic machine in the the Offshore World Championship. In August 1987, during the Needles Trophy, off the Isle of Wight, Pironi went too fast over the wake of an oil tanker. The boat flipped and all three men were killed.
By that time Jose’s career in motorsport had run its course. He had been in F1, albeit briefly, with Surtees. He had turned to flying instead. Eight months after Pironi’s death, Dolhem was flying a Mitsubishi Marquise from Paris Le Bourget to Montpellier. The party had asked him to land at Roanne, near St Etienne, for lunch. In the early afternoon they took off, heading south. Seven minutes later, the plane crashed near the village of St Just, killing all of those onboard.
Thus Pironi and Dolhem share the same grave, with bronze portraits of the pair, and an inscription that reads ‘Entre ciel et mer.’
Between the sky and the sea.
Then it was on to St Maxime, where we stopped for lunch in a restaurant on the beach, in baking hot temperatures. It is a tough life, this Grand Prix reporting… (on the good days).
After lunch it was on to Fréjus and the quick run down to Nice, where we pottered along the Promenade des Anglais and DT (a renowned World Land Speed Record writer) reminded me that it was there in 1902 that Leon Serpollet set a new record at the amazing speed of 120.805 kph, in one of his steam-powered cars, ending the domination of electric cars up to that point…
I dropped DT off in St Jean Cap Ferrat and I went into Beaulieu-sur-Mer. I could write an entire chapter on the motor racing connections of my favourite town on the French Riviera, but that will have to wait for another day…
In the meantime Ferrari tweaked its F1 technical team, but that did not really seem that important in the sunshine of Provence.