Grand Prix Weekend 1914

Posted by Ivan Rendall on Saturday, 5 July 2014 in Blogging

Exactly one hundred years ago last weekend, 4th/5th July 1914, the French Grand Prix took place on a 23 mile circuit near Lyons. It was less than a week since Gavro Princip had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. On the same weekend, his uncle, the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, was preparing letter to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, seeking German support for war against Serbia, something he had wanted to do for years.

German self-belief was at its peak. Militarily, economically and technologically Germany was a world leader. But the Kaiser wanted more, and he was complacent and stupid enough to believe his own, and his country’s, rhetoric. Earlier in the year, a Mercedes board member had said, with Kaiser-like authority: “for reasons of propaganda, Mercedes has decided to win the [French] Grand Prix this year.”

Engineers from Mercedes visited the 23-mile circuit of public roads near Lyons where the race would be held, and optimized their cars for its characteristics. Meanwhile, an epidemic of patriotic fever hit France. On race day, 4th July, the road from Lyons to the start was a 12-mile traffic jam. Many of them missed the 8.00 a.m. start but over 300,000 people did, and they lined the circuit. They were overwhelmingly French and cheered the Peugeots of Georges Boillot, first  in 1913, Jules Goux, second in 1913, and Victor Regal while treating the Mercedes team of Christian Lautenschlager, Max Sailer and Otto Salter, and the French driver Louis Wagner (who had been given a Mercedes drive out of courtesy to the host nation) to a passive/aggressive silence, or boos.

The atmosphere was highly charged, not just because of the race but because the international crisis was developing in Belgrade, Vienna, Berlin, St Petersburg, Paris, which had secretly urged Russia towards war and was accordingly preparing public opinion to join in. London was wavering, but in reality,  the government supported France, but at Lyons, the Sunbeams of Kenelm Lee Guinness and Dario Resta were not seen as a match for the Peugeots or Mercedes.

The stage was set for an epic struggle between Peugeot and Mercedes as proxies for France and Germany. It started well for France: Boillot led at the end of lap 1 but Sailer was faster and overtook Boillot. He forced the pace, setting fastest lap, but engine seized on lap 5. It was all part of the German plan – a tactical team move. Boillot, back in the lead, was tailed by Lautenschlager, a minute behind, then came Goux, Salzer and Wagner. Lautenschlager steadily overhauled Boillot and Salzer did the same with Goux. Boillot drove the race of his life for 13 laps, but in the process, wrecked his car. It was all part of the plan. Salzer and Wagner overtook Goux, but they could not get ahead of Boillot until on the last lap when Boillot’s Peugeot failed, leaving Mercedes to take first, second and third place.

The crowd remained completely silent as the trophy was presented. To rub it in, the Mercedes team replaced their headlamps and mudguards (removed for the race) and drove their victorious cars all the way back to Unterturkheim near Stuttgart where they paraded with laurel wreaths draped over their radiators.

The Kaiser, who sponsored Germany’s Kaiserpreis and supported the Opel team, sent congratulations. The next day, he received two letters from Austria. He gave the Emperor his unqualified support, the “blank cheque” as it became known, for war on Serbia. The day after that, he left on his yacht for his annual holiday and cruise in the North Sea, not returning until 28th July, by which time the crisis was deeper. Six days later, his armies invaded France.

Lautenschlager used his 25,000 franc prize to build a house for himself.

This weekend, 5th/6th July 2014, Mercedes cars are in their fourth period of dominance, albeit built in Brackley, Northamptonshire rather than Stuttgart, and will most likely win at Silverstone tomorrow. Well, that’s the EU for you, and George Osborne was in attendance at Silverstone for qualifying.

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