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The Bugatti Queen

Release date: 02nd February, 2004
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

List Price: 15.99
Our Price: 11.19
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Back in the 1960s when broadcasters realised that putting sport on the box was a dirt cheap production exercise, the majority of sports featured on what was then a small box in the corner of the living room could rightly claim to have always accommodated a fair share of 'characters'.

Sports such as football, cricket and motor racing were awash with sportsmen who enjoyed a real and often notorious life outside of their chosen sporting occupation. Yet as more and more money began to pour into sport, particularly the televised variety, so character and individualism became thin on the ground. Nowhere was this development, which witnessed a gradual discarding of the fun-filled sporting participant in favour of the modern day 'focused' automaton, more evident than in motor racing.

This superbly written book provides a glimpse of what modern day sport is missing, for it is a fascinating account of a French woman who transformed herself from an exotic dancer into a record breaking driver who raced in more than 70 Grand Prix.

Helene Delangle was born in 1900, the daughter of a rural postmaster. She was introduced to fast cars when taken to watch the first stage of the race from Paris to Madrid where she saw one Louis Renault establish a record race speed of 87 mph; bear in mind this was over a century ago.

In 1926, Helene moved to the French capital, eventually to become a dancer at the Casino de Paris where her seductive charms attracted plenty of attention. But personal disaster struck in 1929 when she ruptured the cartilage in her knee and was told she could never perform on stage again.

Undeterred, Delangle turned her attention into becoming a record-breaking driver of the world's most desirable car, the Bugatti 35.

Few women participated in grand prix racing during the 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1929, Helene, now known as Helene Nice, entered the Journee Femininine de L'Automobile after being trained for a month by her then lover, a driver called Marcel Mongin. She won that race and the high-profile Actors' Championship a few days later, victories which presented her with nationwide fame.

Ettore Bugatti, founder of the famous racing marque, had allowed her to use a showroom model for the Actors' Championship; a few weeks later, he offered her the chance to race in a custom-prepared Type 35 Bugatti. In December 1929, Helene set a new woman's speed record of 123 mph; six months later, she was on her way to the USA to become the first woman to race in the notorious and promiscuous world of the speedbowls and dirt tracks.

Inspired by the challenge, Helene proved a massive draw although she later admitted she was terrified when driving through a storm of rocks and dirt. She was expected to drive without a helmet in order that the crowd could see her blonde hair. On one occasion, after crashing in a race in North Carolina, she scrambled from beneath her vehicle and charmed the grandstand crowd with a song before being taken off for medical treatment.

This book is packed with wonderful anecdotes, complementing the tale of an extraordinary life which was to take an ugly turn after the War. As a consequence, Helene Delangle was to die in 1984 having been cast aside by French society - a sad and undignified end for one of motor racing's true characters.

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