Jean-Pierre Wimille is one of the few lost heroes from the golden age of motorsport. The 1920s and 30s saw motor racing in Europe reach new heights. Most major car makers of the time like Mercedes Benz, Jaguar, Auto Union, Bugatti, Alfa Romeo and so on battled each other in race tracks all over. The French racing scene, however, was on the decline from the heights of the 1920s and Wimille was arguably one of the last French greats.
Wimille, the son of a Parisian motoring journalist, began his racing career in 1930 driving a Bugatti 1.5-litre Voiturette (light car). His talent drew the attention of Ernest Friderich, an ex-Bugatti driver, who supported him with the Bugatti Type 51. However, his racing season came to a halt when both cars ended up written off. A string of good results in 1932 which included a victory on the La Turbie hill climb and wins at Nancy and at Oran in Algeria, and a few more in 1933, saw him race for the Bugatti works team 1933 onwards. However, unluckily for Wimille and Bugatti, 1934 saw the beginning of the fierce rivalry between Mercedes and Auto Union in Grand Prix racing. The Bugattis were relatively uncompetitive and eventually, the team decided to withdraw from Grand Prix racing to focus on sports car competitions. Eventually, in 1937, Wimille became the fourth person ever to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in his first attempt driving the Bugatti 57G along with his teammate and mentor, Robert Benoist. He won the race again in 1939 with Pierre Veyron.
Jean-Pierre Wimille Prototype 1
The beginning of the Second World War meant that motorsport activities across Europe were suspended. Wimille decided to use this time to develop his interpretation of what an ideal sports car should be. He got together a team of former Bugatti engineers and came up with a revolutionary design. The car featured a three-seater layout, similar to what the McLaren F1 would do 50 years later. The body was aerodynamically designed (with some clear Bugatti and Auto Union influences) and sat on a tubular chassis. The initial reaction hadn’t been favourable so Wimille and his team came back with a second prototype. This version featured design changes and the old engine was swapped with a 22 hp Ford V8. This engine was mid-rear mounted and power was transmitted via an electrically operated transmission fitted to the front of the engine. Unfortunately, the car’s development was interrupted by the occupation of France and the new prototype wouldn’t be seen to the public until the 1948 Paris Motorshow.
Jean-Pierre Wimille Prototype 2 that was first shown at the 1948 Paris Motor Show
The intervening years of the Second World War were eventful for Wimille. He was a part of the French Resistance, where at one point he just escaped being captured by the Gestapo by jumping from a window and hiding in a nearby stream. The latter years of the War he spent serving as a pilot for the Free French Air Force.
Wimille came into his own after the war. He signed on with Simca-Gordini to race in local French events and with Alfa Romeo for international Grand Prix fixtures. Between 1947 and 1949, he won a string of both French and International events. His notable wins in this time were in Bremgarten, Monza, and Turin, to name a few. He established himself as the premier driver for Alfa Romeo and consequently Europe, constantly battling for top places with greats like Juan Manual Fangio among others. Sadly, this promising career was cut short when in January 1949, he was involved in a crash at the practice session for the Grand Prix General Peron in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His car launched into the air on hitting the safety barriers, Wimille was grievously injured and died on the way to the hospital.
Jean-Pierre Wimille Coupe Prototype 3 sketch
His untimely death meant that his car also remained unfinished. The project lost steam and even though Ford of Europe tried to revive it, nothing much came of it. It is also widely regarded that if he had been alive longer, he would have soon become the first Formula 1 champion in 1950 – a title which eventually went to his team-mate, Giuseppe Farina. The racing success, the car project and his war efforts all point to a man who seemed to clearly fit the cliched glamorous image of a race car driver. However, Jean-Pierre Wimille was also a man ahead of his time. His car project clearly shows this. The car incorporated a lot of principles which would become industry standards. Further, it gave birth to the concept of racing drivers being actively involved in road car development, a trend fairly common now. His legacy has since been immortalized by Bugatti in a special edition Veyron the company came up with in 2013 – the Grand Sport Vitesse “Jean-Pierre Wimille” from its Les Legendes de Bugatti series of cars.