True grit

These were unsettled times, with the Great War a matter of weeks from declaration, but political tension was no obstacle to one of the most gripping of all motor races. A century has passed since Peugeot – or, rather, Georges Boillot – fought Mercedes in the French Grand Prix
Writer Paul Fearnley

Otto Merz, an ex-Daimler apprentice mechanic and future winner of a German Grand Prix for Mercedes-Benz, turned 25 in June 1914. Although his need for speed had been tempered by the recent unexpected deaths of two previous employers – one a former racing driver, the other a wealthy advocate of this new and exciting sport – his mind might easily have wandered to the forthcoming French GP as the motorcade trundled along Appel Quay by Sarajevo’s River Miljacka. Until, that is, the grenade rolled beneath his wheels.

Chauffeur Merz emerged unscathed from the assassination attempt, but his passengers were among those injured. Intended target Archduke Franz Ferdinand had also escaped – the grenade bounced off his car and under Merz’s – but his insistence that he visit the unfortunates in hospital handed plotters another pot-shot at infamy. His car caught reversing on a narrow street after a wrong turning, the Habsburg heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a sitting, plump and ostentatiously plumed duck for Gavrilo Princip’s semi-automatic pistol.

Though this would prove to be the Great War’s trigger, Europe was not plunged immediately into chaos – even Viennese reaction was initially indifferent – and a July brimful of hopeful diplomacy lay ahead. Relations between France and Germany had been particularly fractious since the latter’s victory in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, but several threats to European peace had been averted since.

It’s erroneous, therefore, to suggest that the huge, mainly French yet surprisingly cosmopolitan crowd that lined the 23-mile road circuit south of Lyon just six days later (July 4) did so in the knowledge that war was both inevitable and imminent. Although subsequent events would colour this race, its battle between Peugeot and Mercedes – though a metaphor for Third Republic versus Second Reich and Belle Époque versus bellicose Kaiser – had its own compelling contexts: innovation versus conservatism, plus impetuous, charismatic Georges Louis Frédéric Boillot versus imperturbable, pragmatic Christian Friedrich Lautenschlager.

It was all there – in blue and white.

It had form, too. Six years previously, Mercedes and Benz had forced the once-dominant French manufacturers into undignified retreat at Dieppe. Of those that agreed a motor sports ceasefire, only Lorraine-Dietrich (briefly), Darracq (as part of the STD Group of the 1920s) and (69 years later) Renault would return to GP racing’s front line. Bayard-Clément, Berliet, Brasier, Hotchkiss, Léon Bollée, Motobloc and Panhard et Levassor were missing in action, presumed dead. Mors and Porthos, meanwhile, went to the wall.

Les Charlatans, however, vowed to fight on. D’Artagnan-like Boillot, a trained mechanic, joined like-minded racers Jules Goux – they were born eight months apart in Valentigney, Peugeot’s original Swiss-border home – and Milanese Paul Zuccarelli in hiring Geneva-born designer Ernest Henry to bolster, codify and draft their ideas. The result was a comet of a car – lighter, smaller and more efficient – that rendered chain driven behemoths extinct from 1912 by blueprinting future racing engines: twin overhead camshafts operating four inclined valves per cylinder within a hemispherical head.

Built in a Parisian skunk works by hand-picked mechanics, it proved successful on both sides of the Atlantic: Boillot won consecutive French GPs and Goux, allegedly fortified by slugs of champagne at pitstops, won the 1913 Indianapolis 500.

These results, however, were achieved in the absence of a works Mercedes team.

Content to rest on its laurels after 1908, Mercedes persuaded other German manufacturers to extend the boycott until 1913. In August that year it contested the less important GP de France, organised by L’Automobile Club de l’Ouest rather than the national governing body, and was beaten by Delage in Peugeot’s absence. Important lessons had been learned, however, and no fewer than five heavily revised Mercedes, plus a training car, arrived at Lyon. Peugeot had three plus a spare.

This was racing on a war footing.

Stuttgart’s challenger, type 18/100, was designed by Gottlieb Daimler’s son Paul to be a simplified Peugeot. It too featured a 4.5-litre – this was the first GP with a stipulated capacity limit – in-line four with four valves per cylinder inclined at 60 degrees in a hemi head. But there the similarities ended.

Using its experience of aero-engines, Mercedes opted for a single overhead camshaft, exposed rockers and separate steel cylinders wrapped in light, welded steel water jackets.

Its five main bearings were plain and pressure lubricated – a superior method to its rival’s innovative but hit-and-miss dry sump – whereas Peugeot’s two-piece crank ran in three ball bearings within a barrel case.

The French car, type EX5, was arguably too advanced. Inherent benefits of its engine’s architecture were compromised by a 3000rpm limit caused by laboured breathing due to poor port design and the lack of ram effect from valve overlap. Given the prevailing performance parameters – unscientific cam profiles, crank imbalances, fragile valve springs and temperamental spark plugs – Mercedes’ approach, with its three plugs per cylinder and room for a fourth, was entirely adequate and promised better reliability.

Henry, though also renowned for introducing (at the same time as Duesenberg) the straight-eight engine to racing in the immediate post-WWI period, had a better grasp of suspension design. His Peugeots handled well, a Hotchkiss drive and front and rear springs positioned in line helping to reduce oversteer. But his decision to place engine and gearbox within a separate U-frame – to shield their innards from stresses caused by chassis flex, albeit at a cost to overall rigidity – came home to roost when the addition of front-wheel brakes increased unsprung weight.

Mercedes shunned front-wheel brakes and so perhaps lost out on the approach to Lyon’s many corners, but better low-down torque gave it an accelerative edge – despite carrying an extra 25-30kg according to the pre-race pésage. Meanwhile, the stiffness generated by bolting engine directly to frame, and bolstered by a cross-member behind the gearbox, provided reassuring stability on the eight-mile switchback straight that comprised most of the return leg.

The Peugeot was more rakish, its spare tyres slotted longitudinally within a long, shapely tail, yet the Mercedes, with its V-shaped prow and spare tyres mounted widthways and lower – less streamlined but better for the CoG – was able to maintain a higher top speed. The latter’s precisely tuned double shock absorbers were of greater benefit than Peugeot’s front-wheel brakes.

Mercedes was better prepared, too. Its engineers and drivers had made several visits to the circuit, the first as early as January, before some race cars were completed in time to test there prior to an early-April curfew. Its calculated response to this hard-won knowledge was to shorten the chassis, dock the tail (to save weight), spread the gear ratios and optimise the suspension’s settings for the cambered roads.

Peugeot was complacent in comparison. Official practice was in short supply – two 90-minute sessions from an ungodly 3.30am on June 15 and 17 – and announced at such short notice that Boillot and Goux dashed from Paris having just returned from Indianapolis (where Delage defeated them). What home advantage there was had been frittered away.

But Boillot was Boillot. Oozing flair, darling Georges calmed local fears with a brilliant opening lap. Passing the four cars ahead of him – released in pairs at 30-second intervals from 8am – he led on road and clock at the end of the first lap. According to The Autocar: “His name was murmured almost caressingly by the thousands of his fellow countrymen.”

Until debutant Max Sailer popped up.

The youngest member of the Mercedes quintet – an engineer who would play a key role with the Silver Arrows of the 1930s – had overtaken nine yet still led Boillot by 18 seconds. This was no fluke. Sailer recorded the race’s fastest lap – 20min 06sec (69.65mph) – on lap four and led by almost three minutes after five, having passed a bemused Boillot on the road. The Frenchman, hardly one to play a waiting game, seemingly had no answer.

This, however, was not the first incidence of a designated hare drawing the opposition into an unwise chase. Though Mercedes had issued strict orders about pit work and tyre changes, its drivers were free to race – and Sailer was happy to rub sniffy Lautenschlager’s nose in it.

Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft through and through – he had joined as a 22-year-old machinist in 1899 – Lautenschlager was a serious Swabian. With a fearsome handlebar moustache – Boillot’s was unkempt – perched on an impassive top lip, photographs of him, even in victory, exude a forbidding air. After his win at Dieppe in 1908, he returned to his role as chief test driver at Stuttgart and, so it’s said, adopted a supercilious manner.

Lautenschlager certainly felt upstart Sailer to be too full of himself and too hasty at the wheel – and told him so. That moustache probably camouflaged a wry smile as he passed his more inexperienced team-mate after a conrod collapsed, on lap six. For a man dressed in white aboard a charging white car, Lautenschlager made for a great pantomime villain.

Boillot was again the leading man, despite a swift pit stop on lap four. He stopped again on lap five to switch from steel-studded non-skids to grooved Dunlops. He had previously pronounced himself delighted with the circuit – its surface (at the hairpins) reinforced with concrete and dust damped by tons of calcium chloride – yet now he seemed uncertain about tyre choice. He would switch again before his race was over. Mercedes, on Continentals, had resolved to make a single stop at halfway, barring punctures. And stuck to it, in the main.

Lautenschlager, drawn at 28, was eighth on aggregate after the first lap, more than a minute behind Boillot, but was second by the end of the sixth, having halved that deficit. And he wasn’t alone.

The hand of fate had put three Mercedes in the final starting positions. Of them, Belgium’s Théodore Pilette, the last of 37 starters representing 13 works teams – there had been only 20 and eight at Amiens in 1913 – made the fastest start and suffered the earliest retirement: a broken transmission. But on-loan Frenchman Louis Wagner and Otto Salzer – 17th and 28th after busy opening laps – continued to make stealthy progress up the order.

This gradual pincer movement was made more insidious by the fact that Boillot would never see his tormentors. Though Goux – no mug yet no match this time for an inspired team-mate – briefly mixed it with Lautenschlager, even passing him on one occasion, he was unable to stem the build-up of German might.

Boillot was alone. Outnumbered.

He responded with his fastest lap – 20min 20sec on lap seven – before again pitting for new rubber. Though he did not lose his lead, it was frantic stuff, his cornering “daring in the extreme”. Delage, Fiat and Swiss marque Piccard-Pictet were also using front-wheel brakes, but theirs were not as effective as Peugeot’s. At least that’s how Boillot, all daring and dash, made it appear.

Lautenschlager, hauling muscularly on the handbrake, appeared unhurried in comparison, the engine note of the Mercedes less urgent than Peugeot’s. His halfway stop for fuel and four tyres at the end of lap 10 was two minutes slower than it ought to have been – Salzer managed the process in a minute flat – but at least it was scheduled, unlike Boillot’s on lap 12.

This was method versus controlled madness.

It still seemed as though Boillot might work his magic, for he held the gap at beyond two minutes from laps 12 to 16. That lead, however, was far from healthy: his front brakes were fried and his engine cooked and misfiring. Compensating for these problems caused Boillot another stop for tyres, on lap 17, and Lautenschlager, who had briefly lost second place to Wagner while he again diced with Goux, closed to within 14 seconds.

In 1912, Boillot had made a late stop to use a tyre lever to straighten selector forks (his clutch had been inoperative for many laps) and free a seizing UJ – yet won by more than 13 minutes.

In 1913, he won despite ignition trouble, which cost him an early lead, and a water leak that caused a nervy, six-minute pit stop with three laps to run. But there would be no time for miracles in 1914.

As “an anxiety fell upon the crowd”, Lautenschlager set his fastest lap to take the lead, while Salzer passed Goux to make it three Mercedes in the top four.

Second-placed Boillot began the final lap with a 16-second advantage over Wagner, who was recovering after shredding his tyres, but only made it as far as the circuit’s southerly tip. Some said that his back axle broke, others that his propshaft failed, but chances are that a snapped valve lay at the root of his retirement.

Undoubtedly there were tears of release after seven hours of exertion. Boillot had given it his all and more – the steering wheel was reported to be resting in his lap because of broken mountings – yet it hadn’t been enough.

Lautenschlager was greeted by a bemused silence at the finish; the crowd had expected Boillot to appear first. Even the cheer when Goux crossed the line subsided swiftly when it dawned that Salzer was still third. France’s defeat was total: a Mercedes 1-2-3. Though the crowd mustered applause as Lautenschlager and riding mechanic Hans Rieger toured from the Tribune d’Honneur – “This was a race worth winning and all the world agreed that Mercedes had won it well” – theirs was not the popular victory.

That an Opel had broken the arm of Hungarian Szisz Ferenc (sic), winner of the inaugural (1906) French GP for Renault, as he changed a wheel by the roadside hardly improved the prevailing sentiment.

Ex-infantryman Boillot was mobilised on August 2, the day before Germany declared war on France. His first military role was as chauffeur to Marshal Joffre during the latter’s Miracle of the Marne campaign in September. But as an early member of the French Aero Club, it was natural that Boillot should look to the skies.

He joined L’Armée de l’Air and by May 1916 was commanding Escadrille N65 as a sous-lieutenant. With two confirmed kills and two others claimed, a Croix de Guerre and a Légion d’Honneur, his standing in France had never been higher.

On May 19, above the killing fields of Verdun, his Nieuport encountered five Fokkers. He shot down one before being overwhelmed. The funeral was held two days later.

Fighter aces Charles Nungesser, wounded the day Boillot was killed, and Jean Navarre, to be grievously injured within weeks, dived low in salute and scattered leaves over the grave: a suitably theatrical send-off for a man who had lived life at high speed and to the full before dying a hero’s death at 31.

Lautenschlager lived to be 76, having worked for Daimler until retirement. He competed in the Targa Florio and Indy 500 after the war, but was past his best. He died in his sleep at an Untertürkheim grace-and-favour cottage in January 1954. But he, too, suffered tragedy: wife Katharina Maria died weeks after Lyon, leaving him with five children. As redoubtable in life as in competition, he remarried within a year and had two more children.

Lautenschlager does not deserve to be the bad guy – fiery and arrogant, Boillot undoubtedly had a dark side – but lines were being drawn even as he negotiated Lyon’s ‘Death Trap’ downhill S-bend for the final time. Subsequent events ensured that harsh opinions and blinkered attitudes became entrenched.