This French resort bears little sign of the Grand Prix it hosted in 1936, when Giuseppe Farina cemented his ‘hard man’ reputation
By Mark Braddel
Between the wars, dozens of race tracks sprang to life as motor racing grew in popularity, and local dignitaries were seduced by the supposed commercial advantages that such events would bring to their towns and cities. On July 19, 1936 the Normandy resort of Deauville held its one and only Grand Prix on a circuit that has so vanished from memory that even the most exhaustive websites have no record of its layout.
Today, the centre of Deauville is like many French towns, in that it’s busy and has the usual array of clothes shops and restaurants, mostly closed on our off-season visit. Towards the coast, where the circuit was, older buildings are interspersed with new, no doubt thanks to the war. But it’s clear that although now looking rundown, this was once an elegant resort.
Even though in 1936 France had recently elected a socialist government, Deauville had not forsaken the good life. The town was built between 1860-64 after the Duc de Morny, half-brother of Napoleon III, came up with the idea of building a ‘kingdom of elegance’ near Paris. As the Premier Adjoint told me during my visit, the town could be summed up by the fact that the horse racing track was built before the church!
The race was the brainchild of three people. Marcel Letarouilly was a hardware store owner, André Misonnier had a decorating business and was a close friend of driver Philippe Etancelin, and Armand Esders was an industrialist and advisor to the municipal government. Known as the ‘King of the Clothmakers’, he owned a Rolls-Royce, a Hispano-Suiza, a biplane and a Bugatti Royale that famously bore no headlights as he never used to drive at night. He was behind the construction of the local aerodrome in 1931 and was a good friend of Ettore Bugatti, who often visited the town. Indeed, Bugatti himself attended the race and officially closed the course in a Royale.
An association called the ‘Law of 1901’ was created to organise the event and it eventually settled on a circuit measuring 2.31 miles which avoided the town centre but took in the wide promenade and the main road. These two sections were linked by four tight corners, a series of quick S-bends on the sea front, and a fast left-hander on to the start/finish straight.
Henri Thouvenet secured a deal for Helène Delangle, the famous Bugatti Queen, to get 4000 Francs in start money. The Mayor was a good friend of Mme Delangle and her common-law husband Marcel Mongin, but she decided to travel instead to Brazil for the Rio and São Paolo Grands Prix, in which she subsequently suffered terrible injuries after a last-lap accident.
Apart from the Pau Grand Prix, Deauville’s was the only race of 1936 on mainland France that was run to the 750kg rules, and for political reasons no German teams were invited to take part. Marcel Lehoux was there with his 2-litre ERA R3B, joined by two 3.3-litre Bugatti T59s for Jean-Pierre Wimille and Robert Benoist, while Enzo Ferrari entered two 8C-35 Alfa Romeos for Giuseppe Farina and René Dreyfus. There were also Alfa Romeo Tipo Bs for Raymond Sommer and Jose de Villapdiema, and a lone T51 for Etancelin.
In the course of my research I met Lionel Duhault from the Deauville archives at the beautiful, timber-clad Mairie on the Rue Fossorier. On his desk was a file about an inch thick which we gradually worked through over the next couple of hours.
Most of its contents were administrative, much of it in triplicate, typed on what is now delicate paper in need of careful handling.
It was impressive and oddly gratifying to see how seriously the town took the idea of hosting a Grand Prix.
The road surface required significant upgrades in many areas, and the organisers submitted a detailed evaluation of the conditions along the full length of the course with recommendations for works to be undertaken, along with surveyor reports on the underlying road structure in the most damaged areas. All of this was budgeted at FF95,200, the contract granted to Entreprises Morineau.
There was also correspondence covering the positioning of trackside advertising, closure of side streets during the event, an estimate of FF20,000 for policing (FF3000 payable in advance), requests for consideration when allocating race tickets, and clear instructions on the running of the event from the French Ministry of the Interior to the Calvados Region. A letter from a local industrialist, Marcel Boussac, showed that he was very much against the running of the event, and one from the disgruntled manager of the Normandy Hotel complained that a guest had checked out early after being disturbed by the sound of cars during practice.
It would be fascinating to know whether the papers of the Comité du Circuit Automobile de Deauville are similarly preserved. Various letters made reference to the Grand Prix de l’Ouest and the file showed that the event was organised under its patronage along with that of the Le Matin newspaper.
The final document revealed that on October 26, 1937 there was a ceremony for two drivers killed during the event, and four days later a bronze monument featuring their images was erected on the Boulevard du Mer. This was paid for by the journal l’Aero. I searched for some sign of the monument during my visit but it seemed to have disappeared.
The start/finish was on the Boulevard Eugène Cornuché in front of a row of magnificent 19th-century villas. Those that have not been replaced by modern apartments are now officially protected by law. There were grandstands on the inside of the final two corners. To the right across the river was the town of Trouville, the view dominated by the casino.
Just beyond the casino the road now bears sharply right and left as part of a modern traffic system that incorporates new ornamental gardens and parks. In 1936 the track went straight on past the casino where the car park is and then bore gently right on the original road which ran alongside the villas.
At the end of the Boulevard the track turned right through two corners – the scene of the first of two fatal accidents. The promenade marked the start of the return leg of the circuit all the way down to the marina. This part of the track ran on roads that were constructed on a huge shingle bank formed after a storm during the winter of 1874-75, which added 400 metres to the depth of the shoreline.
The boardwalk is famous for having been featured in Claude Lelouch’s romantic film drama A Man and a Woman, and it is where the names of Hollywood’s rich and famous are recorded from their appearances at the annual American Film Festival in Deauville. The circuit ran to the right of this piece of history and then swerved gently right and left, past the swimming pools, followed by an almost mirror-image left and right sweep on to another straight.
From there the circuit turned sharp right through two final corners separated by a short straight. It was at the first of these that Farina and Lehoux tangled.
For the big weekend the teams installed themselves in various garages around town. There were two days of practice, with the circuit open between 7-8pm, and a two-hour qualifying session between 3-5pm on the third day. Newspaper accounts reported that the normally calm town was transformed “as if invaded by a swarm of bees”. In addition a “hideous” wooden fence was constructed around the entire circuit in order to discourage non-paying spectators.
The race started on Sunday at 3pm in gorgeous sunshine. Farina led them away, followed by Wimille and Benoist with Lehoux on their tail. Dreyfus was out almost immediately with gearbox problems, but disaster struck when amateur driver Chambost overturned at the Virage des Dunes and was taken to hospital with a fractured skull, from which he would die a few days later. After an hour’s racing Farina was 35sec ahead of Wimille, who in turn was 55sec ahead of Lehoux, effectively almost a lap and a half behind the leader. Farina stopped to refuel and still managed to get out ahead of fourth-placed Sommer. Lehoux started to chase down new leader Wimille but in due course Farina caught up with Lehoux and on the right-handed Courbe des Bains before the grandstand straight the two collided as he tried to overtake, locking wheels and spinning on to the gardens.
Farina was 30 years of age and Italy’s most promising driver. He was 14 years away from becoming the first ever Formula 1 World Champion. Throughout his career he had numerous accidents but he always seemed to come off better than his adversaries. Most biographies, while praising his undoubted genius, invariably moderate their enthusiasm by mentioning this character flaw. G N Georgano even goes so far as to say that he was “hardly the most sporting of competitors and was given to displays of temperament which sometimes affected his driving judgement”. He was obviously dominant that day and quite why he would choose this corner to attempt a pass when it was followed by a straight of over a mile upon which he could have breezed by quite easily is difficult to say. Maybe it was to make a show to those in the grandstand during what had become a processional race. Maybe it was that innate streak of impetuosity. Whatever the reason, both men were thrown from their cars. Farina suffered only minor head injuries but Lehoux was critically injured and died in the ambulance on the way to hospital.
Unbelievably, there is YouTube footage of the accident which can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sNA1wDK03I. It shows Farina trying to catch a slide, cuts abruptly to the moment of impact and then to the shocking sight of a marshal dragging Lehoux’s unconscious body by the feet as both cars burn in the background.
As was usual in those days the race was not stopped, and Wimille counted down the laps to victory in 2hr 57min 44sec, with de Villapdiema posting the fastest lap of 1min 10.3sec. Given Wimille’s strong relationship with Lehoux he would have been devastated by the death of one of his mentors. Known for his lack of ostentation, professionalism and generosity towards racing drivers of all abilities (he was himself a mentor to Guy Moll), Lehoux is someone who might just have achieved greater success than he did had he ever been given the opportunity of a properly supported works drive.
There were no more Deauville Grands Prix. The deaths cast a long shadow and the promoters were left looking down the wrong end of a FF200,000 loss. The only winners seemed to be those who had printed fake tickets, and even the strenuous efforts of local shop owners in orchestrating huge traffic jams to keep people in town after the race did not yield the financial rewards they had hoped for.
A short while after my visit, I received an e-mail from Lionel Duhault in which he told me that he had found the drivers’ memorial in the archives. Hopefully, one day it can be restored to its original site. If Deauville can find a place in its heart for Mickey Rourke on the boardwalk, surely it can do the same for Lehoux and Chambost, whose lives were taken in the race that no one seems to remember.