“Le Grand Defi” by Jean Graton, first of the Michel Vaillant comics: Some reflections
I must start my reflections with a disclaimer. No comment, no observation within this piece is to downgrade the work of Jean Graton. Nothing what reads as, or appears to be negative must be rated as being negative. I have no reason to be negative about Jean Graton and his work because I am one of the many readers of his albums who owes a lot of his interest for auto racing to the albums he created. And I have more reasons to credit "La Grand Defi" as the inspiration for all that.
If there was a Hall of Fame for they who have promoted motor racing among the youth, I will nominate Jean Graton instantly.
Secondly, I rate it as very likely that elsewhere at the internet articles like this have been published about the Vaillant albums. If not in English then in other languages. I hereby want to state, maybe must confess, that I have not done a detailed search on the Internet for such pieces so if there are any, I simply was not aware of their existence at the time of writing of this piece.
Finally: This writing should probably benefit from inclusion of drawings taken from the album discussed. But due to wanting to honor and respecting the copyrights of the author and the current copyright holders I can’t bring myself to doing so.
Reflecting on the very first album of the Michel Vaillant series, it leaves a number of thoughts and questions.
Michel debuted within the comics press for the first time in early 1957 when 5 short stories were printed. The very first full album ”Le Grand Defi” appeared in 1959. Certainly with hindsight and more knowledge about the actual situation of that time, the album creates a number of questions if it comes to its origins and exact timing of when it took place.
The plot in short: French car builder Henri Vaillant has two sons Jean-Pierre and Michel and he owns a car building company, the cars are named Vaillante. Apart from passenger cars and trucks, the company also builds racing cars designed by Jean-Pierre and driven by primarily his youngest son Michel.
Before the album starts, there has been a American newspaper that had difficulties with granting Juan Manuel Fangio the title of World champion and doubts any European driver capable to do well within the “Indianapolis 500”. The Vaillants, together with a friend of father Henri, Louis Latour, who is the publisher of a newspaper, then challenge the Americans to nominate a driver and have him and Michel contest a series of five events within the calendar year for the title “Best driver in the world”. The events are a Formula One race in Argentina, the Indianapolis 500, the Formula One race at Spa-Francorchamps, the Le Mans 24 hours and finally the Grand Prix for Formula One at the Nurnburgring. (All of this is explained once the story has started)
The album starts at the moment when the Vaillants find out that the Americans accept the challenge. The events take place and all of that and more is told within the album. Graton blends a lot of the truth within his plot. Apart from the Vaillantes used by Michel there are not that many fictive cars with a name within the story. Though the majority of drivers with names are no real existing person, a very few of them are indieed drivers active at that time. Michel’s opponent within the challenge is Steve Warson, he is a fictive person.
The plot and the mere idea of the challenge as offered by Graton looks outrageous and fantasy. But there have been a few events in both 1957 and 1958 which have been inspired by some happenings earlier in 1957 and that also can have been the inspiration for Graton’s fantasy story.
In June 1957 we saw the “Race of Two Worlds”, organized by the track owners of Monza at their track which had been extended with a banked high speed oval. They had invited the 10 best American Champ cars (best known from the Indianapolis 500) and their cars to compete at the Monza Oval against the best Europe had to offer. Indeed, 10 cars and drivers and teams came over but despite the initial enthusiasm among the European drivers, eventually the F1 drivers boycotted the event they rated as too dangerous and too fast. Which caused a few comments by European and American press members.
Most outspoken of all was Floyd Clymer, a publisher in Los Angeles who had released a number of books in the past years since the war and one of his most important prints every year was the Indianapolis 500 yearbook. He was not into newspapers or magazines. Clymer truly went out after the then current World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio. Clymer stated that no driver who refused to go against the Americans on their own game, be it at Monza or Indy was a worthy World Champion. In the aftermath of the 1957 `Monzanapolis` he did two remarkable things. First of all he tried to raise funds to have the brave Scottish drivers in who had dared to taken on the Americans using their Jaguar D types. Secondly he challenged Fangio that he (Clymer) would pay Fangio $500 should he enter the 1958 Indianapolis 500, Pay another $1000 should Fangio qualify for the 500, pay Fangio yet another $2500 should he finish in the top 5 in an American built car and even $5000 should he finish top 5 in a European built car.
Some of all this was printed in the English press, it can all be found however in the Monza 500 section of Clymer's 1957 yearbook. For they who are familiar with "Le Grand Defi", all of this must read vaguely familiar, right?
What eventually did happen was that Fangio did appear at Indianapolis in May 1958, he was initially assigned to the George Walther owned Kurtis Offenhauser but the required chemistry wasn't there and Fangio doubted the quality of the team. He then tried the yet unassigned number 54 Kurtis-Novi, for which he could rely on all his experiences with the also mechanically supercharged BRM V16. The first tests laps were promising but eventually Fangio did not accept the offer to try to qualify. Instead he gave up on the plan to do Indy and went home. Floyd Clymer was good to his word and handed Fangio the awarded $500 for having entered. Fangio donated the money to charity.
That was what could have been called the true `Grand Defi`, as far as it came.
Jean Graton has stated the following about "Le Grand Defi":
"I wanted to put everything in The Great Challenge. My hero, his family, Formula 1, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Indianapolis, up to the hero offering his blood to the injured opponents."
From this first history, Graton did a lot of research. He knows the circuit of Le Mans since his childhood. He went to the track with Pierre Stasse, the director of the magazine Les Sports but who was also with L'Equipe National Belge. Graton did not have the opportunities and means to travel to Indianapolis. Instead he writes to Bill France, the Director at Indianapolis, who sends him books and photographs.
Curiously, these printed statements about Indianapolis can't be 100% correct. But I have received exactly the same answers many years before within private correspondence I had with Jean Graton for one of my own projects. What raises my eyebrows about this answer is the fact that Bill France has never been involved with, let alone has been the director of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. France was totally and entirely focussed on racing with production car based racing cars (Stock cars) and his NASCAR organisation has never ever done anything with open wheel racing. Even sports car racing was something they (At least initially) did not want to do anything with. Racing production cars was what Bill France wanted to make work and be in control about. There was already something of a rivalry between France's NASCAR organisation and the USAC which sanctioned the Indianapolis 500. A feud which USAC had inherited from their predecessors AAA.
So if Jean Graton has corresponded with someone who was related with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it must have been with someone else. Or, if he had indeed been in contact with Bill France, then it is kind of remarkable that France has been of so much assistance for Graton about an event and a facility that he (France) did not care about and had nothing to do with.
Graton's plot in the comic is of course way more interesting and in reality could have been quite something…
There are signs that he has somehow been aware of this challenge of Clymer since there is evidence that he was in the possession of a 1957 Clymer (maybe one of the books he got from `Bill France`? ) and that he has used that book for inspiration for the Indianapolis part of the story. Curiously, within the entire album “Le Grand Defi” there is no referring to the official World championship for drivers as was taking place at that time, As generally known, the World Drivers Championship was organized for Formula One cars and the Indianapolis 500 was added to the championship to have some American influence. This World Drivers Championship is open to any competitor participating, “Le Grand Defi” however is a duel between Michel Vaillant and Steve Warson only, no other drivers are eligible for this title of "the World's best driver".For the contest, the driver who scores the best result in any of the events wins that element of the contest, an overall victory is not required.
With the book being released in 1959, the question arises in exactly which year Graton’s adventure supposedly took place. There is no mentioning of a calendar year anywhere within the story. The first thoughts and some evidence within the plot appear to suggest 1958. The evidence that I found for 1958 (there may be a few more) are:
1) In the third race of the contest, the GP of Belgium for F1 cars it is mentioned that a rule change has been introduced which forbids the use of all kind of fuel blends and mandates the use of regular, commercially obtainable fuels. This rule change came in effect from 1958 onwards.
2) In the real world: there was no Grand Prix of Belgium at Francorchamps in 1957 but there was such a race in 1958.
3) In the final race of the contest (Grand Prix of Germany) there is talk about Steve Warson bettering the track record of Juan Manuel Fangio. Fangio did indeed own the lap record after the 1957 German GP, set in the memorable race in which he made a pit stop for tires and fuel and passed Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins in the last lap.
I assume that specialists in the history of Le Mans, be it in general or specialist on car brands which participated at Le Mans may find some clues to either ’57 or ’58 within the Le Mans section of the story.
As mentioned, no clue to pinpoint the exact year in which the story takes place can be found within the story. There is however one possible clue to be found within the 20th album of the series. The original title for that album is “Rodéo sur 2 roues”, released in 1971. Some drawings of meetings held within the office of Henri Vaillant are drawn and hanging on the wall is a print which features the car that Michel drives in the first two events of “Le Grand Defi”. In one of the drawings a trophy can be seen that resembles the Borg-Warner trophy. But the poster also has a year on it: 1957. For they who own this album: take a look on the following pages:
Page 7: Row 4, first drawing.
Page 8: Row 4, first drawing. (I believe that I can actually read the text Indiana and 19 on the left side of the poster and polis and 57 at the right.)
Page 10, row 2 and row 4, second drawing at both rows.
Thus, was “Le Grand Defi” an event that had taken place in 1957? Or had Michel driven this car before in (not covered) events in 1957 and won a race worth to be remembered in the board room of Henri Vaillant? And the trophy on that poster thus not being the Borg-Warner?
Another clue, found at the internet at the home page of Graton Editeur, is to be found on the page of `collectables`. A number of models of cars appearing in several albums, made by Jade Miniatures, features a model of a car that appears within the 3rd and 5th race of “Le Grand Defi”, the car is designated to be the Vaillante 571B. (The car used in the first two races of “Le Grand Defi” must have been the 571 or retrospectively the 571A.) In addition to that, the very same car that ran in the last two GP’s of “Le Grand Defi” also appeared in the second album, as well as a brand new car, introduced later on during the year. Both the cars are given a 1958 inspired type registration.
But against all of these claims for 1957 are the imaginary lists of achievements by both Steve Warson and Michel Vaillant, also found on the Graton Editeur website and in which both drivers have their achievements as obtained within “Le Grand Defi” listed as taken place in 1958.
But to add even more confusion to the actual year of the event taking place, the English print of "Le Grand Defi" as published in 2007 has a lot of drawings of Vaillante cars that appeared in the different albums over the years. One of these cars is one of the cars that actually appears within that same "The Great Challenge" but the given type registration for that car suggests that it was built in 1959! But that is for me the one clue I disregard instantly, only mentioning its existance.
But then, there are a few last clues that leave a thought or two. One of the very few drivers alive and participating within F1 at that time and who appears in “Le Grand Defi” with name and actually winning the third race of the contest is Peter Collins. The next GP within the contest is the German Grand Prix at the Nurnburgring. Now, if “Le Grand Defi” is indeed an 1958 event, then it means that Jean Graton had Peter Collins win the Belgian Grand Prix, but not mentioning Peter any further in the story any longer and maybe for good reasons. In the real 1958 German Grand Prix at the Nurnburgring, Collins was fatally injured in a crash at `Pflantzgarten`. Now there is a massive serious incident taking place in Graton’s version of that German Grand Prix but it isn’t a fatality.
Then, short before the start of that German GP, Graton has the organizers of the event pointing out that the racing season had been a tough one, marred by a number of fatal accidents. A minute of silence is held to honor these drivers. The 1958 season saw indeed more fatal accidents in racing than 1957.
So we are in the situation that it is difficult to make the final verdict on the year that “Le Grand Defi” has taken place according Jean Graton. Enough approval for both years 1957 or 1958, often with one clue supporting one year excluding the other.
I for myself don’t want to make any definite claims as for when exactly the year in which “Le Grand Defi” must be placed anymore. But, going through the album, as well as through the history of the real things, there are a number of interesting things to tell about Jean Graton’s work. About when he used the truth, put up something inspired on the truth or when something was entirely made up by his own fantasy.
Let’s have a look on that subject.
As for drivers who appear in the album who did exist, Lucien Bianchi and Peter Collins are the only two I found. Finally, there is mentioning of a certain Swaters, the co-pilot of Bianchi at Le Mans. This must have been Jacques Swaters. Other drivers which appeared within the story with a name are inspired by people working at the Publishing companies Graton worked with.
Curiously, despite that the first event of “Le Grand Defi” takes place in Argentina, not a single mentioning of Juan Manuel Fangio as participant in any of the races is found. Even if we assume that “Le Grand Defi” was a 1958 adventure and that Fangio did retire from racing during that year, he was still active during the best part of the time period in which “Le Grand Defi” took place.
The fictive person Steve Warson is nominated as the American contender for “Le Grand Defi” much to the surprise of French Newspaper president Louis Latour the man who put up the challenge to the Americans together with the Vaillants. He had expected a man like Pat Flaherty of Sam Hanks.
Both these names were taken from the real world, in fact, they might ring a bell. They were the winners of the Indianapolis 500 in 1956 (Flaherty) and 1957 (Hanks). But it is very unlikely that any of these two men could have been selected in real. Flaherty had been seriously injured some three months after his Indy victory and as a result was unable to do any racing in 1957. He returned to racing as late as 1959 but his career was pretty much over after that injury.
Sam Hanks won Indy in 1957 and once in "Victory Lane" he tearfully announced his retirement from racing. He had won the ultimate prize and that was it. He got a lot of praise for his decision, something a recent F1 World champion certainly didn’t got when he did the same....
Hanks did honor a contract he had for a few stock car races that year but all his participating within the world of Indycars after Race Day 1957 was as an official or a celebrity ever since.
Let’s say that Louis Latour wasn’t as well informed as he appears to be on first sight…..
Instead it becomes Steve Warson, a capable driver but very unsympathetic. In reality, I think that any American driver accepted to compete in “Le Grand Defi” would have been rather surprising. Most of the best American drivers were not interested to leave their country to compete abroad. Certainly the best ones were in racing not only for the sport but also because they could earn enough money to make a decent living. And the prize money at the races in America was in general higher then what could be won in European events. Thus it was very rare that top line American drivers made it over to Europe. Since there was no prize money to be won within “Le Grand Defi”, we must wonder what kind of financial reward or compensation Steve would have got (And from who!) for participating within the contest in addition to the prize money he would win at Indianapolis. Graton offers no answers on those questions. At best he left maybe one single clue. Warson is surrounded by his own crew that maintains his cars during all the races. They have his name (Warson) in large red letters on the backs of their overalls, as if Steve was a sponsor. Does this mean Steve is wealthy enough to have gathered a crew of people around him during the contest? Anyway, he certainly doesn’t match the most common profile for the Champcar/Indycar formula driver of the late 50’s. The majority of them were hired by a team owner who first had bought the car(s), found sponsors for them and then hired drivers to race their cars in the events as well as a chief mechanic and other crew members to maintain the cars. I will get beck on why I talk about cars in plural, there is a good reason for that.
Then: about the cars used by the two imaginary drivers Michel Vaillant and Steve Warson. For Michel this was easy. His father owned a car building company, Vaillante. And the company built an F1 car as well as a sportscar for Le Mans and for both cars Graton could use his imagination. For the F1 car he found his inspiration with the French built Gordini cars, the F1 Vaillante resembles the Gordini. Given the French heritage of Gordini, and it being one of the very few French influences within F1, not strange that Jean Graton fell back on the Gordinis for inspiration: “Vive la patrie!”
The car is named "Vaillante Grand Prix" and Michel uses two different examples in the three F1 events. The first car competes within the F1 race at Argentina. The second car is introduced during the third event, the second F1 race, held at Spa-Francorchamps and it is also used in the fifth and last event of “Le Grand Defi”. That is the third GP race, held at the Nurnburgring. More about why the second car was pressed into service later on.
About the sportcar used at Le Mans, the fourth event of “Le Grand Defi”, I’ll get onto that one later as well.
Steve Warson had the difficulty (at least for Jean Graton!) that there were no American built F1 cars yet. The Scarab F1 had yet to make its first appearance (1960). But Graton refused to create an imaginary F1 car and had Steve relying on what had become a proven concept by then: a Vanwall, the kind of car that had got its act together during 1957 and was breaking the stronghold of Italian constructors within F1. Steve's car was painted all white in the first race but it gets a blue stripe in the remaining F1 races, thus almost matching the American racing colors of white with two blue stripes.
The one thing that might be hold against this selection for a Vanwall is of course the fact that the creator of the Vanwall Team (Tony Vandervell) was a patriot and raced for the glory of Britain and the dream to beat the then almighty Italian teams. Somehow, I wonder if the real Mr. Vandervell, in case of a "Grand Defi" according the formula of Graton would have provided the American competitor with a car. And I am pretty sure that a number of British Patriotic race fans would have had a heart attack or worse when seeing one of their beloved `pieces of British Pride` in any other color but `British Racing Green`. But then, there was little choice for Jean Graton.
BRM (short for British Racing Motors) was name-wise already near impossible to use for an American driver, apart from the fact that BRM’s had not done much yet to rate them as serious competitive contenders. BRM had yet to win its first ever GP when Graton drew “Le Grand Defi”. If Ferrari would have supplied a car is very doubtful which leaves only Maserati. Now that company had built enough cars to provide one to just about everyone who wanted to participate within F1 that time. Thus....
To supply Warson with a suitable car for Indianapolis was little to no problem at all for Graton. Initially it is told within "Le Grand Defi" that Warson will race a "Dean Van Lines Special", the car in which he had won an earlier edition on the "500".
In reality, the "Dean Van Lines Special" did indeed exist, but never did any car that used that name win at Indy. The name came from the team owner and main sponsor of the team, Al Dean. He was the owner of a trucking company, Dean Van Lines. The car that raced under that name was a tube frame chassis, built by car builder Eddie Kuzma and it was powered by with the for the at that time at Indianapolis near standard engine, a 4.2 liter Offenhauser fourcylinder engine with a (equally near standard piece of equipment for Indycars) Halibrand twospeed gearbox. Kuzma built the car during the winter of '55/'56. It was raced by another famous driver of that era, Jimmy Bryan. Though Bryan never won at Indy with the car, he did win another famous race with it that plays a part in the coming together of Graton's plot for "Le Grand Defi". Bryan drove the Dean Van Lines in the 1957 race at Monza and was the overall winner. At the end of the season however, he left the Dean Van Lines team and went over the team of George Salih, who fielded the "Belond Special". That was the car that had won the Indianapolis 500 in 1957 driven by Sam Hanks. Bryan made a good decision: he won the race of 1958 in the Belond.
On page 15 of "Le Grand Defi", bottom row, last drawing on the page we can see the start of the race with a pink Belond Exhaust Special at the very right of the drawing. That car does not resemble the real Belond very well. Curiously, its color would make Indy specialists associate the car with another famous entrant of that era: John Zink who entered the John Zink Specials, the winning cars in 1955 and 1956. And "the Zinks" were pink! The real Belonds were yellow.
Yellow, just like the number 3 in the very same drawing, the car that wears the name "Dean Van Lines". The true Dean van Lines cars however were white. By the way, after Jimmy Bryan vacated the car, it was driven in 1958 by a young upcoming Texas driver who debuted in the Indianapolis 500 that year and would become a legend of the speedway in the 35 years that followed and in which he was one of the contenders in all 25 races! His name: Anthony Joseph Foyt, better known as AJ....
Now that are a lot of details about cars that Steve Warson eventually never drove in the race! There is no explanation offered in the text but when the race is about to begin, it is told that Warson will start the race in a Novi Special, In the Dutch translation described as a powerful car. In the English translation it is mentioned that the Novi has a compressor. Steve's Novi is white and wears the number 1. It is this number that has some consequences as for indication how successful Steve Warson was as a driver. Though there is a good chance that Jean Graton was not aware of this and unintentionally made Warson an even more successful driver then he had in mind to do.
During the 50's it was a tradition that the National Champion of the year before wore the starting number 1 the next season should he wanted to do so. Due to the points system used within the championship it happened fairly often that the winner of Indy also became the National Champion but it was no certainty. In fact the true National Champion in Champcars in 1958 was Tony Bettenhausen but his title was to some extend tainted because he failed to win a single race during the entire season! At Indy he had finished fourth that year. Anyway, starting with the number 1, it meant that Steve was the champion of the previous year but it doesn't mean that he also had won Indianapolis that year.
Come to think of it, good chance that Jean Graton was not familiar with this tradition with the number 1 and Steve's National Championship being entirely unintentional!
And now we're talking about numbers, Michel's car is numbered 8, in real about next to impossible to obtain because the lower starting numbers were reserved for the drivers who had finished in that position in the overall standing the previous year.
Now more about Steve's eventual race car, a "Novi Special". (.....)
We already saw that Juan Manuel Fangio test drove a Novi in 1958 and indeed, the Novi that Graton introduces is derived from the existing cars that ran using that name.
Now, I can tell (way too) much about those cars and their history. (Approval needed? Here we go.)
The Novi differed from any other Indycar of its time. While just about every Indycar, no matter who had built the chassis, still used a 4.2 liter Offenhauser fourcylinder, the Novi cars were powered by the Novi 2.8 liter V8 with centrifugal supercharger for powerplant. Despite a power advantage of at least 125 or more hp on every other component, they had never won a race at Indy, one 3rd place (1948) was their best result. At the time that “Le Grand Defi” took place, the then used Novi cars used a tube frame built by Kurtis-Kraft in 1956. Since it was the 6th variety of this series of Kurtis-Kraft tube fames for Indycars, the type registration for this variety was the Kurtis-Kraft 500F. But just about everyone called them the Novi Roadsters at that time.
The Novi's main problem was that the cars were caught within a vicious circle of needing way more fuel to produce their power advantage, thus were way more heavy, wore out their tires much faster for which at least one more extra pit stop had to be made and to compensate for that the cars had to be driven faster for which they needed more fuel etcetera, etcetera etcetera. That is, if there were no mechanical failures first and if there had been no mishaps during qualifying which had prevented the cars to qualify for the race!
Despite their lack of success, due to the tremendous noise and the sound of its engine the cars were crowd favorites. I think it is about fair to state that the popularity of the Novis among the Indy fans, no matter who drove them, was comparable with the popularity of Ferrari within F1 then and now.
As for their colors, while "Belonds" were yellow, "Zinks" were pink, "Dean Van Lines' " were white, Novis were chameleons. Over the years they had all kinds of colors, each and ever year a new color, in the years of two cars entered the two cars often differed in colors from another. Only once in their history, a single Novi car retained the same primary color one year later. White had been used once. So far for the time being about the real Novis.
Graton has stated to me in a brief message that he selected the Novi for Steve because he felt that is was the kind of car that matched a man like Steve.
Going back to Steve's "Big White `One`" within "Le Grand Defi", other than the already mentioned details, there is no info whatsoever given about the Novi and in a drawing of the race we can see that Steve still has his own crew to support him during the race. And this is definitely not something that could have happened. In reality during the '50s, the Novi engines and the cars they were fitted in were owned by Lew Welch, a business man from Novi (a suburb of Detroit), Michigan and the engines were exclusive to him. His team was based in California and at no time he entered more than two cars. I write entered, because Novis were for all kind of reasons (some logical, sometimes it was bewildering bad luck) never certain qualifiers for the actual race, having 125 hp more or not.
The two existing Novis also went to Italy for that already mentioned 1957 Monza race. But in practice one of the cars blew the clutch and was unable to start the race (Typical Novi Luck) while the other car had won the pole position but was the first retirement.... (must I really repeat myself?)
Knowing what I know about Lew Welch, I seriously doubt if he would have made any of his cars available to a driver like Steve and have it serviced by a crew Steve had organized himself. The Novi engines were notoriously tricky to deal with and would have required specialists of the team to assist Steve's men. I can envision however that Steve would have found a way to obtain a ride with one of Welch's cars and `amalgate` his own team with that of Welch for at least Indy.
Anyway, there is not a shadow of a doubt that, though it came after a change of heart, Graton eventually selected the by far most intimidating of all Indycars of its time for Steve. One thing however was missing to make it match with Steve for a full 100%. Steve was a successful driver, the Novis on the other hand were certainly no successful cars. Their owner, Lew Welch, while searching "Victory Lane" at Indy with his cars and their legendary engine, he only found a "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" at the Speedway grounds.
Maybe this is also the right place to give detailed attention to the car that Michel drove at Indianapolis. Did Graton have ample choice for selection a car that was inspired on a real car for Steve, for Michel he had to use his imagination for more than only the fact that the car was built by Vaillante. The F1 car used at Argentina is modified for use at Indy by putting on new tires, putting the engine more to the left within the chassis and install fuel injection. Nothing else.....
Formula One cars in that era had a 2.5 liter engine, the number of cylinders was free. This 2.5 liter era, which lasted from 1954 to 1960 saw a large variety of engine configuration being used. There were fourcylinders, sixcylinder and eightcylinders, in-line as well as within a V and even a V12. The Vaillante had a Straight-Six engine. In 1957 the power output of all the different engines was anywhere between 250 and 300 hp.
The Offenhauser powered Indycars that the Vaillante was up against had close to 400 hp in qualifying and 350 to 370 or thereabout in the race. Fuel injection, still a rarity within F1 was by then a piece of near standard equipment on the Offy fourbangers. At that time only one team was experimenting with a supercharged 2.8 liter version of the Offy and they had about 460 hp. The Novi V8 was rated at anything between 525 and 575 hp and still used a carburetor, a model derived from a type used on aircraft engines.
I must give more attention to the actual situation at Indy as it was at that time to explain a few things already told and yet to be told. For they who are unfamiliar with Indy in the 50's and wonder why not more teams opted for the much more powerful supercharged engines: First of all these engines were far more expensive in a time when there were no factory supported efforts within Indycars. All participating teams were privateers who bought what was available and supplied by small specialist companies and individuals. There were no big sponsors with massive cash flow either. Then, the majority of the Indycar series was held on dirt tracks: unpaved ovals. These tracks required a far more simple, yet rugged car. Many teams owned two different cars for the season: the dirtcar for most of the races within the championship and a second car, specialized for use at Indianapolis and the other paved ovals. But one of your hands has more fingers than there were other paved oval events within the Champcar series. This `special for Indy` car had been a fairly recent innovation, the first of them debuted in 1952 and since 1954 it had become the preferred type of car for Indy. But despite fielding two different chassis during the season, just about every team used the same engine all year long for both their cars during that season. The Offenhauser fourcylinder fitted the job perfectly. Though the Offy had less power than supercharged engines, it had a massive amount of torque which, when used at Indy, enabled the car to have a tremendous acceleration out of the corners. And this made up quite well for the lower top speed. So overall, the atmo Offy was the ideal compromise for the majority of the competing teams at that time.
Lew Welch on the other hand focussed entirely on winning at Indy and had no cars in other races entered, hence why he focussed on what he believed to be the potential superior kind of engine for Indy, a supercharged V8 with lots of power.
Since 1957, all cars that qualified for the race had been of this `special for Indy` type car, the so called `Roadster`s. A kind of car invented for Indy, developed to deal with the unique conditions at Indy with its four turns to the left. The base was a tube frame with solid axles front and rear, no independent suspension or other sophisticated tricks like in F1.
A typical Indy roadster had the Offy engine and driveline to the rear axle located within the left side of the car, the driver sat next to the driveline, thus it had an all offset design. More weight on the left side of the car due to the engine location was beneficial since it meant that in the turns when the harder worked right wheels had to carry less weight so the tire wear was reduced a bit and `transferred` to the left wheels. A few varieties on this theme existed with the Offy tilted to the side but that was about it. By default an Indycar was also very sturdy built and heavy. It had to be! The tube frame took a real beating from the engine vibrations caused by the big torquey fourcylinder Offy and in case things went wrong, when banging the wall.
So all of this explains the modifications carried out by Jean-Pierre and his assistant on the Vaillante Grand Prix to compete at Indy. But was this all that he could do? Was nothing else possible?
As a matter of fact: There were some other options. But at least one of them would cause major difficulties to make it work.
As an F1 car, the Vaillante had a 2.5 liter engine, which was smaller than the 2.8 liter limit for engine eligible for being supercharged. Though such an undertaking would have been quite a massive effort and could turn what potentially was a wild animal of an engine into an even far more difficult out of control beast. To sort out such an engine was quite a massive undertaking, enough approval of that can be found within the Indy history. I can't envision any scenario in which Jean-Pierre Vaillant puts a supercharger on the engine of his car and make it work within days time. Fotunately Jean Graton did not use such an unlikely scenario.
Neither is there any talk about the engine not only being shifted to the left but also being replaced by an enlarged version of the current engine. Within Indy history there are at least two cases of this approach to be found. The one that actually did happen however was to be in the future, in 1961 when John Cooper fielded a car for Jack Brabham, the car was derived from the 2.5 Liter Cooper-Climax in which Brabham had became World Champion the year before. The used engine was an enlarged to the utter maximum version of the 2.5 liter Coventry-Climax engine (now 2.7 liter). The second example is much less well known because it eventually never happened. Mercedes Benz had plans to run their F1 streamliners at Indy in 1956 but instead of powered by the regular 2.5 liter engine use the larger 3 liter versions that were used in the W196S Sportscars. But after the 1955 Le Mans tragedy Mercedes withdrew from racing and so the plans with the streamliners never happened. Anyway, though the idea was there to use, Graton did not had Jean-Pierre Vaillant replace the 2.5 liter GP engine for an enlarged version or another larger engine available to the Vaillants.
Inspiration by other European cars that ran at the Speedway that Graton could use for inspiration had been little because there had been so few such cars. During the 50’s only Ferrari had tried their luck at the Speedway in 1952 with the 4.5 liter V12 F1 cars of 1951 and this attempt had been a failure. Then, in 1956 Ferrari tried another time, this time with a chassis built in the USA, a genuine Kurtis-Kraft `Roadster` chassis fitted with a straight 6 Ferrari engine but that attempt had yielded even less.
Knowing all this, how are the chances that a slightly modified F1 car could have been able to be fast enough to qualify for the actual race, let alone beat all its much mor powerful opponents? Still the latter is exactly what Graton lets happen in his story. At least he made it a Phyrric victory. Once at the finish the engine is entirely gone, and that is the reason why a new F1 Vaillante appears in the next race.
If there is one part within the entire album of which one could say that Jean Graton underestimated the truth, it is how competitive a then current F1 car could be against Indycars at their own playground, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Indianapolis is the first of two non-F1 events within “Le Grand Defi”, the Le Mans 24 hours is the other one. And again Graton is out of luck if it comes to provide Steve Warson with an American built seriously competitive sportscar. There were some US built sportscars running in local competition within the USA. But the years in which "Le Grand Defi" takes place are the vacuum years in between the last of the efforts by Briggs Cunningham with his Cadillac powered specials and the arrival of the serious competitive versions of the Chevrolet Corvette. Again Graton provides Steve with an English built car, the Lister-Jaguar. This is a car that indeed existed at that time but never had set Le Mans, let alone the world on fire. But what the car has going for it is that the Lister-Jaguar has a bit less of a `bare to the bone British till the bitter and utter extreme` image like the genuine Jaguars and/or Aston Martins.
Alternatives for the Lister and other British cars, there was only the Ferraris to think about as serious competitive cars. Ironically, 1958 was the first year of the North American Racing Team, a team that promoted the sales of Ferrari passenger cars by racing Ferrari's in the biggest endurance events of the year. The tem had however yet to built up its reputation thus was not yet an option to be considered for providing a car and support for Steve Warson. The Lister appears to be the most suitable option.
Michel will race at Le Mans together with his brother in a car built by his father’s company. The car, at least to me, doesn’t resemble any of the then current cars. Jean-Pierre Vaillant, Michel’s brother and teammate in Le Mans discovers shortly after returning from the USA (Indy) during a test drive that the front aerodynamics of the cars are at fault. Within a record time, Le Mans takes place about 3.5 weeks after Indianapolis, a new body is created for the car. Like with what can be retrospectively designated as being the "Type 1", I can’t find direct inspiration by cars built in that era for this new one "Type 2" either. But maybe some specialists on brands of cars of that era as well as Le Mans (and sportscars) specialists may point some inspiring cars out. (By the way, it is this not raced "Type1" that appears within the cover of the English version of "Le Grand Defi" and said to be the "Le Mans '59")
That pretty much closes off what I can think about to tell about the cars that appear in “Le Grand Defi” when I use the actual album and the actual history.
For more about some of the discussed cars, we had to wait until the years around 2010 when the imaginary cars of Michel took shape and went into more than mere drawings. At about 2008, the French publishing company Altaya started to release a collection of 1:43 scale model cars of cars that appeared in the Michel Vaillant comic books. (Think about that! Creating a series of model cars of cars that only existed on paper!) Over time, the series contained 50 different models of all kinds of Vaillantes as well as some of the cars that were driven by opposing drivers and teams in several albums. As far as I can figure out, only two cars in the series are based on cars that truly existed.) In the closing phase of the series the collectors were pleased with models of the Vaillane “Grand Prix” as it appears in “Le Grand Defi” at Indianapolis as well as the two (the unraced `type 1` and raced `type 2`) Vaillante “Le Mans” cars.
With the models came a booklet in French with background info about the series, the album of the series in which the modelled car appeared and even some technical details about the car. From the booklet that came with the model of the car, we thus learned about the Vaillante “Grand Prix” that is was raced in 1958. The most important technical details given for the car were: Straight-Six engine, bore x stroke 84 x 75 mm for 2492 cc, three double carburetors of 45 mm, producing 260 hp at 7500 rpm, 5 speed gearbox, weighing in at 600 kgs, fuel tank capacity 180 liter and a top speed of 285 km/h. The booklet confirms the fact that for shape and figure the Vaillante Grand Prix is inspired on the Gordini F1 cars. In fact, the booklet gives more info about Gordini and how that brand of cars and its founder inspired Jean Graton.
Using the booklet that came with the model of the car, about the raced `Le Mans Sport `type 2`, that car had a Straight-Six engine with single overhead camshaft, bore x stroke: 88 x 82 mm for 2990 cc, rated at 260 hp at 6700 rpm, fitted with three double carburetors, 4 speed gearbox, weighing in at 970 kgs and it had a top speed of 280 km/h. (By the way, based on these date, it would not have made much sense for the Vaillants to fit the Vaillante car to be raced at Indy with the engine as appearing in the "Le Mans Sport" like the plan Mercedes had for 1956.)
And let’s leave it at this point for the cars, at least for the time being.…..
Are there other details within "Le Grand Defi" that caught my attention? Oh certainly.
The first event, held in Argentina is unspectacular if it comes to facilities of the track. The quality of drawing improves quite a bit after the second event (Indianapolis) and these events are very realistic and inspired on the actual conditions.
But there is more to tell about what Graton made of Indianapolis. When you watch the drawings of the race, then the pits complex at Indy resembles that of the Le Mans track at that time, a covered cabin where the crew resides and above that a grand stand. On top of that, there is no separation visible between the actual track and the pit lane. The true situation at Indianapolis was however entirely different.
After the race of 1956 the front straight had been massively reworked. Up till that year the pit area had indeed been almost part of the actual track. But other then a wall to stand behind, there was no protection for the crew, and there was certainly no cabin-like structure to stay within. But after the race of 1956 the speedway management created a new pitlane, much further away fron the actual track, into the infield. It came with a separate pit lane, separated from the track by a wall with on the pit lane side a little grass strip where mechanics could stand to give signals to the drivers passing by. In the process of rebuilding the track the old wooden timing and scoring building (the `Pagoda`) had been flattened and a new concrete building (which became known as `the Tower`) was erected. At the time truly state of the art facilities all together. But nothing of all that can be seen within the drawings of Graton. Even the lone areal overview of the Speedway that Graton drew for "Le grand Defi" shows nothing of the new track lay-out.
But Graton did predict something of what the future has in store for the Speedway. Because eventually shortly before the millenium change, a part of the grandstands behind the new pit facilities were torn down and a complex of pit building facilities with on top a grandstand was indeed build. But this part became part of the pit lane structure known since the mid 50s. These facilities were built to accommodate the Formula One race that was held at Indianapolis between 2000 and 2007. This pit building complex has never been used for either the Indianapolis 500 or the Brickyard 400 events.
Another difference between Graton's event and the reality is that Michel and Steve were two of the 32 starters in the race, in real there were 33 drivers in the race sins 1948. (for the knit pickers: and 35 in 1979 and 1997. But let’s not get into all that). And those were only the 33 fastest qualifiers among the often much more entries for the race.
Had “Le Grand Defi” indeed taken place then the imaginary Indianapolis 500 Record Book would have had some bewildering records added.
I have tried to not gave away too many details about the outcome of all events within the album, the only one I gave away, though not with the intention to do so is the race at Indianapolis. There was a commemorative poster featuring the Vaillante that ran at the Speedway in (supposedly) 1957 appearing in "Rodéo sur 2 roues" for good reasons: it was the winning car. With that knowledge in mind then there is a lot to tell about this outcome and the consequences for the Historical records of the Indianapolis 500 had anything like what happened within “Le Grand Defi” really taken place.
To start with, it is obvious that the Vaillante had the smallest engine of all competing cars in the race, even smaller than the by rules restricted to 2.8 liter supercharged engines. Now I know of at least two occasions that an Indianapolis 500 was won by a car with the smallest engine in the field and this difference between the winning engine and the majority of the other engines being significant too. Those years are 1930 and 1951. The rules for the race of 1930 are so bewildering that I won’t go deeper into that one here. But in 1951 the race was won by a car that had a 4 liter Offenhauser instead of a 4.5 liter Offy. (I ignore the 2.8 liter Novis because of thir superchargers!) But the chances of a car winning the race with an engine that gave away no less than 1.7 liters against its most serious opponents, being not even 60% of the capacity of these opponents? I wouldn’t think that scenario being a likely possibility.
But another reason as of why the Vaillante would make it into the Indianapolis 500 record book is also engine related. The Vaillante had a Straight-Six engine. Until the release of the album, there had been only two races at Indy when the winning car was powered by a Straight-Six engine: the very first one in 1911 and the very first one after the war, 1946. Every other race was won by In-line Fours and/or In-line Eights. The Vaillante thus would have been the third ever winner with a six cylinder engine. Instead, the eventual third ever winner at Indy with a six cylinder engine owed it to a rule change at Indy. Even after the release of “Le Grand Defi”, despite several attempts, not a single car with a six-cylinder engine (Straight of Vee) ever made it to “Victory Lane” until 2012! That year the engine rules were changed, mandating a V6 engine. So from 2012 on V6 engines were the only option allowed. The six cylinder is unopposed by any other configuration, little wonder that they can win Indy year after year at long, long last......
Something else which Graton drew as taking place during `his Indy 500`: Michel overtook Steve on the straight on sheer top speed. Absolutely unheard of that a lighter, yet still massively underpowered car (having only a little over half the power of its opponent!) could overtake a healthy Novi on the straight at Indy. The Novis were for a long time the undisputed kings of the straights at Indy with the highest top speeds recorded. The first ever time that it happened that another car managed to pass a healthy Novi on the straights, curiously enough, that did take place in 1957! But that was not because this car having a higher top speed. The Novi in question was passed because its rival had a higher cornering speed. Thus it had to slow down less than the Novi before the corner so the driver overtook the Novi just before entering the turn. (For the record, it was eventual winner Sam Hanks in the "Belond Special" who pulled off this achievement.)
Due to the Novi's much higher weight (up to 900 kg, 260 of those because of the engine alone!), they were rarely a match for their opponents in the corners. The straights however were their kingdoms. So the scene of a lightly modified 2.5 liter Grand Prix car overtaking a Novi at an Indy straight on sheer top speed, that was indeed only possible on paper, the paper within a comic book.
Maybe it is because I am better in knowledge about Indianapolis in the Mid-Late '50s then that I am familiar with the other events and racing for the categories which appear in “Le Grand Defi”. But at least for me, the most comments I can make about any part of the album “Le Grand Defi” is about the Indianapolis part of the album. But given how little was known about Indy at that time in Europe, that should not come as a surprise and is more than defendable to have taken place.
Jean Graton makes one other noteworthy Indy related fantasy. Once the Vaillante team arrives in the USA they meet Steve Warson for the very first time. Steve all of a sudden leaves in a big American convertible with decorations on it that suggests that it has been a Pace Car at Indianapolis. Such could indeed be possible because it was a tradition at Indianapolis that the winner also got the Pace Car of that race as one of the prizes he won. Steve is told to be an Indy winner so indeed, he could have driven a former Indy pace car. But whatever pace car Steve had won, there are two reasons why he (And any true Indy champ too) never could have won the car he actually drives.
Since "Le Grand Defi" must be either a 1957 or 1958 adventure, Steve could only have driven a car of 1956 or earlier, or the 1957 car. Instead however, he drives a car that went into production in 1958! Now it is a fact that there have been several Indy pace cars that were early pre-production versions of cars yet to go into production. Most illustrious of these cars are what became best known as the 1964-1/2 Mustang (the very first version of the Ford Mustang) and the 1991 Dodge Viper (one of the 11 protoypes). So if pushed hard, there is a chance that the car chosen by Graton still could have been a Pace Car in real.
But, if there is one late `50s production car built within the USA that was most unlikely to be ever chosen to become the pace car at Indy (or anywhere else for that matter....), it was the car used by Jean Graton. The car Graton selected was the Ford Edsel, probably the biggest PR and production failure within the history of the Ford Motor Company. The car was heavily criticized for its design of frontal view which was way too reminiscent to certain parts of the female anatomy. Now had this been the most eye catching typical female body parts, the ones which helped movie stars like Mae West and Jayne Mansfield to gain their reputation.... (or to remain within the world of racing, Linda Vaughn within the US racing world since the mid '60s.) In that case this Edsel feature might have been something Ford could have got away with eventually, maybe after a facelift of the car to downplay the simularity. But as the drawing made by Graton for "Le Grand Defi" already hints onto, the Edsel was fitted with a radiator ornament that resembled that other even more exclusive female anatomical part way too much for many to feel comfortable with......
There are more things that may cause a few wonders about if the plot of "Le Grand Defi" as Graton worked it out had been real. I have mentioned one of them briefly already but will go into more details here.
With Indianapolis being held on May 30th, that day was near the end of the week in both 1957 and 1958. Le Mans took place a little more than three weeks late in both years.
Meanwhile in those thee weeks however, Graton had the Vaillant Family first returning to France, then Jean-Pierre finds out a few days later that the aero on the intended Le Mans car is not right so he rushes to design a new bodywork shape for the car that has to be finished within less than three weeks because Le Mans is held by then! On top of that, he is also present at Francorchamps when the third event for "Le Grand Defi" is held over there. The real Belgian GP of 1958 took place the weekend before the Le Mans 24 hours. And a new F1 car had been built as well in order to compete within that Belgian race!
After the race in Belgium the rebodied Vaillante Le Mans is delivered and less than a week later the car has raced at Le Mans. Somehow that entire scenario from the moment that the Vaillants return in France looks a bit too unlikely to be possible, even in that time.
It becomes an even more bewildering scenario when, after the third and fourth event (GP Belgium and Le Mans) the last event (GP Germany) comes up and we see the Vaillant team during a meeting on the eve of that last event and the date listed is June 2nd, three days after the race at Indianapolis! This is most definitely a mess up of date since, assuming that "Le Grand Defi" took place in 1958, the German Grand Prix was held at August 3rd that year.
OK, if I am picky, I could bring up more things that are different within the comic book than the truth actually was. Maybe some other errors too if I keep searching for them.
But should I do so, then I fear that it would make me look even more picky and negative on Jean Graton and his work.
And, though maybe it appears as if I am negative because of this piece, I am not negative about either Jean Graton or his album(s) and I won't be. I am one of the few people within this world who has no right to blame "Le Grand Defi" for anything. Because I am one of few people who can say about some unforgettable moments and events within my life, I owe them to "Le Grand Défi".
Dear reader, please read all those differences between album and reality that I listed as observations, not as critics. I don't criticize the album "Le Grand Defi", I only tried to describe the differences and try to tell how the reality was compared with what Graton made up.
Even without my personal gains in life thanks to the album, I rate "Le Grand Defi" as one of the best of the stories within the entire Michel Vaillant series. In fact, because it was such a good story, it could become the album that warranted the continuation of the series and made Graton a well respected author. And the `father` of a series that is still going strong, now for almost 60 years. An achievement to be respected for any comics series.
Monsieur Graton, chapeau et merci beaucoup pour votre histoire "Le Grand Défi".
Perhaps you might think that within this piece I have given quite some attention (if not too much?) to the Novi Indycars as they were, as well as Steve Warson's Novi as drawn by Jean Graton.
I can't deny the fact that, from the moment I first had seen anything about Indianapolis and the Novi I am fascinated by both.
You may guess three times what has been my first ever moment I found out about the existence of Indianapolis. And what was the first Novi I ever set eyes upon in my life, and thus the one that started rolling the ball that represents my passion for the Novi and all that this passion has brought me ever since.
Par conséquent, encore une fois merci, monsieur Graton, encore une fois merci beaucoup.
Used for reference
- Dutch translations of the Michel Vaillant albums:
No. 1: “Le grand défi” (An English translation of this album, released in 2007 was also used)
No. 20: “Rodéo sur 2 roues”
- Floyd Clymer’s Indianapolis 500 and Monza 500 yearbook 1957
- Novi, the legendary Indianapolis race car Volume One: The Welch Years (1941-1960)
by George Peters&Henri Greuter
- The Illustrated History of the Indianapolis 500 1911-1994
by Jack C. Fox
- Autocourse History of the Grand Prix car 1945-65
by Doug Nye
- Les voitures de Michel Vaillant, no 39: Vaillante Le Mans Type2, Le Grand Défi
- Les voitures de Michel Vaillant, no 42: Vaillante Grand Prix, Le Grand Défi
This were booklets released with the 1:43 scale model of the listed car, released by Altaya France. Apart from a description about the actual car, the booklet no 39 also contained more details about the album "Le Grand Defi" and its origins.
Websites (Replace the # for a . to get the actual address)
- I also consulted Wikipedia for the Formula One seasons of 1957 and 1958, as well as for the Le Mans races of the same years.
- I also had private correspondence with Mr. Jean Graton regarding the Novis he used within his albums, among them the "Big White `One`" that appears in "Le Grand Defi".
Edited by Henri Greuter, 08 June 2018 - 11:58.