“The French GP, Europe’s most important race, had always been run’on temporary road circuits – until Montlhery in 1925. Bill Boddy takes up the banked track’s story
Despite the Italian and French love of motor racing, it wasn’t until 1922 that a track was built at Monza or until 1924 that the Mondhery Autodrome was opened, near Paris. But once opened, Montlhery was used almost daily for high-speed or long-distance record bids and other forms of endurance testing. But, more than that, Mondhery, like Monza, had its road circuit This made possible the honour of holding the prestigious French Grand Prix which it did on eight occasions.
The French GP of the Automobile Club de France is usually accepted as having started in 1906, although some regard it as a continuation of previous great races in that motor-pioneering county. But it wasn’t until ’25 that the race went to Montlhery with its artificial, but twisting course, which also took in the steep northern banking. After a fiasco of this great title going to the flat Miramas track in ’26- a farcical entry of three Bugattis, only two of which finished, 2hr 15mins apart the French GP returned to Mondhery in ’27. It was to be the venue six more times, with diversions in ’28 to Comminges, in ’29 to Le Mans, and in ’30 to Pau – Bugatti winning on all three occasions.
The 7.67-mile undulating course incorporated seven corners, one a hairpin. It was tar-surfaced, 10m wide, and up to 1-in-8 at its steepest. It was built at a cost of 1,500,000 by Alexandre Lamblin, who made radiators and owned newspapers, on a 12,000-acre site some 15 miles south of Paris on the Orleans-Linas-Montlhery road.
It might have been expected that the 1925 GP at the new course, within easy reach of Paris, would be well supported by spectators, but the huge uncovered grandstand was by no means full when the 14 cars lined up for the 8am start of this Grand Prix, run in the 2-litre formula. The Alfa Romeo P2s which had won the European GP at Spa were the favourites, with Antonio Ascari and Cavaliere Giuseppe Campari as their drivers, and with a third car to support them, driven by Count Gastone Brilli-Peri, who overturned it in practice. The Italian domination was challenged by the twin-blower V12 Delages, to be driven by such greats as Robert Benoist, Albert Divo and Louis Wagner. The field was completed with a number of Bugattis and the Sunbeams of Henry Segrave, and Counts Giulio Masetti and Caberto Conelli.
Ascari led away at the rolling start and, with lap records, had soon built up a significant lead, backed up by Campari. A two-minute pit-stop to change the Alfa’s back wheels and refuel, Campari taking 30sec longer, did not spoil what would surely be another Italian walkover. Then tragedy struck.
Light rain had begun to wet the road surface and, as Ascari came into the long but easy left-hand bend after Bailleau, the Alfa Romeo went into mild oversteer, hit the inside palings and overturned. Ascari was thrown out and the P2 ran over him He died in the ambulance rushing him to Paris.
Campari was now well ahead, but when the sad news reached Scuderia Alfa, the cars were respectfully withdrawn. The 621mile race finished in heavy rain as the Marseillaise rang out for Benoist’s winning Delage, which had averaged 69.7mph over nine hours. Wagner, relieved by Torchy for a while, was second and Masetti’s Sunbeam third, after Segrave’s had broken a valve.
After Miramas, it was a relief when the race returned to Montlhery in 1927. But if the grandstand was now covered, the race (over 500km) had just 10 starters hardly one to inspire onlookers. Yet a reasonably large crowd turned up, to learn that the Bugattis ofJules Goux, Conelli and Andre Dubonnet would not start, as Ettore was not happy about his new Type 39s. The news brought boos and catcalls from the paying public, who would now endure a race of seven runners: Benoist, Edmond Bourlier and Andre Morel in the beautiful 1.5-litre Delage straight-eights, Divo, ‘Williams’ and Wagner in the Talbots, and George Eyston’s lone, borrowed Halford Special. Delage had dominated the British GPs of 1926 and 1927, so it was perhaps a foregone conclusion when they came home 1-2-3, led by Benoist, at 77.24mph, from Bourlier.
The famous race was back at Montlhery by 1931, under an odd ruling that cars must be two-seaters but with only the driver in them, so reserves were called for, as it was of 10 hours duration. The start was again at 8am, but a good crowd came to see an interesting entry, and many very important drivers. There were Bugatti Type 51s, works and otherwise, Alfa Romeo 8C Monzas, and Maserati 8Cs. Germany sent Rudi Caracciola and Otto Merz with a works Mercedes-Benz SSKL, and sportsmen like Earl Howe/Hon. Brian Lewis (Bugatti T51) were there.
When Bugatti had trouble with their Michelins in practice, it was reputed that ‘Williams’, having arranged for Dunlop substitutes, was given a works T51 in return, scratching his own Bugatti.
Old rivals Louis Chiron and Achille Varzi were united for this race, and they led from the first half-hour to the end. Noteworthy retirements included Luigi Fagioli’s Maserati, which had terminal brake problems, and the Mercedes of Caracciola, which had a clutch seize. Tazio Nuvolari was partnered by Giovanni Minozzi, and they got up to second, breaking the lap record twice, but at the end of this long race, they eventually finished only 11th out of the 12 within the time limit Second was the Campari/Baconin Borzacchini Alfa, while third place went to the Clemente Biondetti/Luigi Parenti Maserati 26M.
The Grand Prix went to Montlhery again in 1933, the facility improved at the request of the ACF, which put up a generous 100,000 franc purse for the winner of the 40-lap (310.75-mile) race. Thus encouraged, there was a field of 28: Alfa Romeo and Bugatti in equal numbers, with the addition of a couple of Maseratis, Campari’s being the works car. Several top drivers who would have raced were recovering from accidents or were ill, and so Bugatti left it to their privateers, Count Stanislas Czaikowslti’s 4.9 and four 2.3s, of which Earl Howe’s lined up on the front row grid, with the Alfa Romeos of Juan Zanelli and Pierre Felix. Eyston had his overgeared Alfa Romeo on the third row, and Nuvolari, in spite of sensational practice laps (the record left at an amazing 87.76mph), was on the second row alongside Julio Villars’ Alfa Romeo.
It was expected that Tazio’s bored-out Alfa or Chiron’s Monza would win. Tazio accelerated into the lead at the start, followed by Campari. But after only six laps, Nuvolari and Chiron were already in trouble (tyres and back axle respectively), to the benefit of Campari, who lowered the race lap record to 5min 23sec. Nuvolari helped Piero Taruffi at his tyre swap, then leapt into the car, only for the crownwheel to break when he had got up to fourth. The race was now between Campari in the tyrehungry Maserati and Phillippe Etancelin in an Alfa Romeo. The Maserati stopped for new tyres, and got within 2sec of the leader before its treads showed canvas once more. Rain was now falling.
Then, drama! Three laps to go, and Campari had two more wheels changed in 20sec. He now had a minute to make up on a rival whose clutch was likely to expire at any moment
Etancelin had to crawl in after a stop to engage a gear, and so Campari won, at 81.49mph. The sick Alfa second, and the steady Eyston — who said he was just a record-breaker? — third, ahead of Raymond Sommer and Guy Moll.
The new 750kg Formula was in force by 1934. It was intended to reduce speeds, but the Hitlerinspired Germans managed to counter this. The entry induded Caracciola, Manfred von Brauditsch and Fagioli in the 3.3-litre Mercedes-Benz W25s, and Hans von Stuck and Auguste Momberger in the V16 4.35-litre Auto Unions. It seemed hopeless for the rest — especially when the German cars made mincemeat of the lap record in practice, von Brauchitsch lowering it to 5min 05sec.
In the race, however, it all went wrong for the Germans: Momberger’s suspension collapsed, von Brauchitsch’s blower stopped blowing, Fagioli ran out of brakes, Caracciola ran out of gears, and Stuck lost fuel-feed. Thus Chiron’s Alfa Romeo Tipo B won from team-mates Varzi and Felice Trossi/Moll.
By 1935, both Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union were using bigger engines and, of the 11 starters, six were German. Yet the incredible Nuvolari put his Alfa Romeo on the front row between the Auto Unions of Stuck and Varzi. The latter had been quickest by far in practice, but Nuvolari was impressively faster than Stuck. Caracciola was on the second row.
‘Three chicanes were erected, – after the cars had passed one lap – in a bid to hamper the Germans’
Three chicanes were erected around the circuit — after the cars had passed on lap one — in a bid to hamper the German cars. And Nuvolari did gain on those artificial corners, and led on the first lap, ahead of Stuck, to loud applause. Then Caracciola went ahead, but was hounded by Tazio, who regained the lead on lap seven and held it magnificently for five laps. But then trouble struck the red car, Vittorio Jano and Tazio conferred, and it was pushed away. The Auto Unions were in dire trouble, too, Stuck’s lacking stopping power, Rosemeyer lacking transmission. So Caracciola was the victor (at 77.42mph), ahead of von Brauchitsch, with Goffredo Zehender’s Maserati beating Fagioli.
The French couldn’t have this! The 1936 and 1937 French GPs were to be sports car contests. They produced fine fields of the best National makes, too — but it was not the same. The 1936 1000km event was won by Jean-Pierre Wimille and Sommer in a ‘tank-bodied’ Bugatti T57S. The 1937 race was over 500km, and produced a Talbot walkover, Chiron the victor.
That was the last French Grand Prix to be held at Montlhery. After WWII, however, the track was the scene of some important races, such as the Paris GP, the Bol d’Or, and the Coupe de Salon. But it was less used in recent years, except for some very pleasant club meetings, which continue to this day.
It is said this historic track may have but five more years before becoming an industrial site. I hope this is profoundly untrue.