This is the story of a group of Hungarian Grand Prix drivers who could have written motor racing history in the 1920s and 1930s before the waves of war swept old Europe away. [warning: heavy use of gifs]
[Note: the following post make heavy use of images that are copyrighted by third parties. I do not own any of the imagery, no infringement intended; they are used for entertainment and - in a sense - educational purposes only, to illustrate certain aspects. You have been notified.]
Before there was a Formula One World Championship, there was Grand Prix racing that occasionally ran with Formula 1 cars in its later years. Before Formula One was a sport, Grand Prix racing was full-on war between European empires, a measure of Cold War if you like. The industrially most advanced countries at the time - Germany, Italy and France - or the ones that dared to show their teeth on the race tracks churned out some of the most competitive race cars of the time to show off engineering supremacy, until if turned into a real war. This was the period when the term ‘professional racing driver’ started to take shape, as the people driving these machines were either rich playboys having some fun, or daredevils with a death wish - apparently. Those who made it and took it all became the topic of discussion and part of racing history. There were literally hundreds of people that tried to run with the wolves at the biggest events, yet didn’t make it.
This is the tale of a group of people in Hungary who could have, might have became front page story at the time and due to the cruel nature of statistics, they didn’t quite make it to the record books either, but maybe should have.
Boxer and wrestler turned racing driver who stood out from the crew for not being of noble descent but being a son of a truly self-made man, running a successful paint producing company. Word has it that he had such a rough start with cars that his driving instructor suggested him to hire a chauffeur instead. That didn’t stop him to take on Europe by storm.
Noble man no. 1. Coming from a respected noble Hungarian family, Zichy was born in Eastbourne, Sussex in England. A sort of James Hunt-esque party person who would jump into cars after partying all night. After his racing career ended, he moved back to England, took up foot-fetish photography and even starred in “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” as pictured.
Noble man no. 2. Friend of Zichy, descendant of another much-respected noble family in Hungary. Together they formed an inseparable duo. Said family gave the world Joe Esterhas who - many years later - wrote “Basic Instinct”. Zichy must have an enormous impact on the whole dynasty.
Noble man no. 3. In the footsteps of both Hartmann and Zichy by being a notorious party-crasher and a dedicated racing driver, eager to run national colours, Festetics was to be the next generation to come, hadn’t the war changed it all.
The last of the mohicans, the final racer to run a Grand Prix for almost 70 years.
Local hill climbing and endurance rally hero, skier and motorcycle rider, the forefather of all international drivers to come.
Successful motorcycle rider of BMW fame with one foot in rallying.
Noble man no. 4. Africa explorer and occasional racing driver whose exploits served as the basis of his fictional self in The English Patient, played by Ralph Fiennes in the movie version. It has to be noted that Almásy was also gay, one for the books.
There has been a vibrant racing community in Hungary, which - of course - at the time was the pass time of the rich, and those who were wealthy meant they were mostly of noble descent. These people raced in the mountains surrounding Budapest, and in ranges elsewhere, going to speed trials, endurance rallies, you name it. Walter Delmár and his wife were the household names, winning it all, but tables were turned when said events gained more and more momentum and started drawing international superstars as Caracciola, Rosemeyer, Stuck, Nuvolari, you name it.
Antal Esterházy went on an Africa trip to Sudan with László Almásy in the mid 20s and tried to convince him to take part in the quick dash on entertainment hill climb events. Almásy preferred sticking to the desert, thus - upon returning to Hungary - Esterházy coupled up with his flamboyant friend, Tivadar Zichy to have some fun in the racing scene. They didn’t really have success in their own cars, thus they decided to take their ambitions to those who knew their jobs best. The pair travelled all the way to Molsheim, France in 1928 where Bugatti’s headquarter was and returned to Hungary in said competition cars, straight to a speed trial where they collected all trophies on first try. Their success was so unexpected that even Bugatti offered them financial support for flying the flag for Bugatti for later years. They went as far as the French Riviera to make a mark, scoring DNFs and DNSs at both the Antibes and Riviera GPs.
Before their fortunes could turn better or any money from Bugatti might have flown in, the Wall Street crash swept away all their hopes. Esterházy crashed his car badly at a hill climb - injuring a few spectators - that made him quitting racing altogether. Zichy auctioned off his car due to his losses generated in the financial crash and moved to England to pursue a photographer’s and filmmaker’s career.
Zichy’s car, though , didn’t go to waste. It was bought by one László Hartmann, who pursued a racing career himself. He was an avid boxer and wrestler, therefore he knew a thing or two about dedication and planned preparation, making him the only de facto professional of the bunch. His largest handicap was not being the noble as the others - for which he was looked down - but a general citizen of the public who happened to be rich. His newly acquired Bugatti T51 gave a massive boost to his career. He started winning hill climbs, and was able to put pressure on the international superstars arriving to the Hungarian rounds of European Hill Climb Championship.
Hartmann stepped into the international scene with the Bugatti when its days were numbered. Alfa Romeo was the name of the game, especially since they were run by the freshly formed Scuderia Ferrari. The Bugatti felt outdated and obsolete against the nimble Grand Prix cars, but that didn’t stop him from going to places as the Nürburging, Monaco, the AVUS. Tripoli, etc. in the coming years.
At the same time, a European Championship for drivers was introduced throughout Grand Prix races, a direct predecessor to the Formula One World Championship. Unluckily for Hartmann, he performed mostly poorly during championship years during races that counted towards the championship, and excelled in others.
The largest paradigm-shift occurred with the arrival of the Silver arrows in 1934, the Grand Prix cars of Mercedes and Auto Union. The German invasion washed off the Italian competition of Alfa Romeo and Maserati and the Hungarian driver felt the need to up his game.
Hartmann went to the next best solution he knew and could afford and invested in a Maserati Grand Prix car. He bought an 8CM competition car that was fine-tuned by Tazio Nuvolari for the factory and had some excellent results just missing the podium. Maserati was honoured the effort by offering a semi-factory offer, providing a 6CM competition car that was raced by Nuvolari earlier. That didn’t work as well as its predecessor, but was able to give a 7th position at the inaugural Hungarian Grand Prix in 1936, on his home turf and even ran at an ice race in Sweden.
Earlier the same year, Endre Kozma, the famous BMW motorcycle driver rolled out the achievement of winning the Monte Carlo Rally in a Fiat in the ‘small category’.
In 1937, Hartmann scored his greatest result by finishing 6th and dead last at the AVUS Grand Prix. While finishing last might not be seemed as something to put into the record books, you son’t have to look at it much closer to understand the achievement.
The AVUS had been a track in Berlin, running on two, parallel stretches of Autobahn with a hairpin turn on the Southern end and a large loop on the North. For 1937, the “Wall of Death” was built to the Northen turn, making it a seemingly almost vertical banked corner. Futhermore, the 1937 race was a non-championship Formula Libre race with both Mercedes and Auto Union turning up with streamlined machines, specially made for the event with engine displacement doubled - apart from bringing their usual Grand Prix machines as well. The race was organized in heats in which Hartmann was able to fight through all the way to the final race, finishing last behind the all-Silver Arrow field, right behind Richard Seaman. To further accentuate the importance of the event, this was the fastest race ever recorded for four decades to come.
At the same time, Hartmann received direct competition from home, impersonated by Ernő Festetics. Festetics was envious of Hartmann’s success and was furious that a non-noble could take the success he could have, too. Entering another Maserati 8CM, also in Hungarian national colours - confusing historians for the next couple of decades. The newcomer proved to be short of the veteran’s talent and quickly gave up on his international hopes.
With 1938, the clouds of war were moving closer. Grand Prix drivers were preparing for one of the largest event of the year, the Tripoli Grand Prix. The then-Italian colony served as a host to one of the fastest races in motor racing history. So fast and important, that Mercedes took its property near Hockenheim - that hosted some motorcycle races in the forest - and built a brand new track to mimic the characteristics of the one in Tripoli, thus the famous Hockenheimring was born.
During the off-season in Europe, many drivers and teams went on to race in Africa, a streak of race that ended with the Tripoli one. Hartmann chose to run in the “voiturette” category (in contemporary terms it would be GP2 or F2). During a fast turn, his car made contact with Giuseppe Farina’s and the Hungarian’s car went out of control, throwing him out of the cockpit. Hartmann suffered fractures to his backbone and died in hospital soon after. In respect to his contribution to Italian racing, an Italian military plane carried his corpse to Hungary where he is buried. Following the event, Festetics did not go on another international race, only István Sztriha tried an Alfa Romeo in the Swiss Grand Prix in 1938, making him the last Grand Prix driver until Zsolt Baumgartner in 2003 and 2004.
Tivadar Zichy continued his lavish life in England until he committed suicide in 1984.
Antal Esterházy died in WWII while serving his country as a soldier.
Ernő Festetics was arrested in 1945 due to his father’s involvement in the ruling fascist party.
Endre Kozma died in a motorcycle accident while making an evasive move not to run over a dog.
László Almásy went on trial in his involvement of Rommel’s actions in Africa after WWII, but was dismissed due to his involvement in saving jews, but went on to further trials, due to which he had to flee the country. Ironically, in 1951 he succumbed to an infection he acquired during taking some cars to fix in Austria.
It is not recorded what happened to István Sztriha
Walter Delmár and his wife remained iconic figures of the Hungarian racing scene during and after the war. He died in 1949.