The late twenties Grand Prix scene was swamped by Bugatti, creating a surge of French circuits. Tim Scott visits a coastal town with an appetite for road racing.
Standing in the centre of the roundabout, the straight ribbon of grey road, bordered on each side by unkempt green fields, stretches as far as the eye can see, disappearing into the horizon: destination, Paris. Flat and featureless, it’s a scene that is nevertheless unmistakably northern France. Behind me lies a typical edge-of-town industrial estate, fed by a steady stream of Renault and Citroen vans going about their daily routine. And you get the feeling that the occupants are utterly oblivious to whose wheel tracks they are following.
That’s because there’s not a trace, not one shred of evidence that on this very spot, 70 years ago, France’s greatest drivers demonstrated their skills: Wimille, Benoist, Chiron and Dreyfus all came here to Dieppe and added to the story of the Bugatti versus Alfa Romeo battles that characterised grand prix racing of the period. To my right, screaming race cars would have once appeared going flat-out up the gentle incline, braked hard for the tight right-hander in front of me on the rond-point, and slid into view of the packed crowds, before powering up through the gears and disappearing down that long straight.
On the inside were makeshift pits, wooden running-boards supporting toolboxes and jerrycans of fuel. On the outside, to the drivers’ left, were hay bales ‘guarding’ four temporary grandstands that were erected specially each year. Of these structures, as well as the numerous petrol pumps, advertising hoardings and the wooden footbridge just after the start-finish line, there is now no sign.
The grand prix occurred here on just seven occasions, but in that time, for one weekend in July, Dieppe was completely taken over by motorsport The thriving coastal town had always enjoyed a strong association with car racing from the earliest days of intercity events, the one and only Paris-Dieppe event being staged in 1897. And then came what is perhaps the town’s most significant contribution to four-wheeled sport.
As the birthplace of motor racing, France had staged the very first grand prix at Le Mans in 1906. But it was Dieppe that hosted the world’s most prestigious race for the following two years. The ACF ran the event over a huge 48.1-mile course of public roads — known as La Seine Inferieure — which started from the Dieppe suburb of Neuville, heading inland to Londinières, then north to Eu, before following the coastline down to Dieppe.
The choppy political waters of France’s racing authority led to there being no event in 1909-11, but in 1912 the French GP returned. Once again, Dieppe was the chosen host, and the nation was rewarded by a stirring home success, Georges Boillot winning for Peugeot in lashing rain after a memorable fight with the Fiat of David Bruce-Brown. For 1913, Amiens became the GP’s new venue, but racing had taken root in this Normandy port.
In 1928, the Moto Club de Dieppe took the decision to revive motorsport in the area. The sport had evolved enormously over the previous 16 years, but two key elements were the same: France was still the global hub of auto mobile racing, and the notion of competing over public roads closed for a short period remained de rigueur. Certainly, purpose-built facilities were becoming more commonplace by the late 1920s — the French GP had visited Mondhery, Monza had been born in Italy, and the British had Brooklands — but road racing was still the basis of the sport across Europe. And nowhere more so than in France. Fuelled by the numerous successes of Delage and Bugatti, over 20 of its towns and cities across the country had staged track events.
What had changed, however, was the nature of circuits. Roads were much busier than in pre-WWI times, and to close 48 miles of highway was impractical. So the Moto Club sought a completely new venue, and chose a five-mile stretch of roads just to the south of the town, it’s only association to the previous track being that it mirrored its basic triangular layout.
On July 7, 1929, the first Dieppe Grand Prix was staged, with a huge entry of 34, mainly Bugattis and including eight voiturettes and 12 cyclecars. The race was won easily by the ex-Williams T35B of a young Rene Dreyfus (his first major triumph) and the large crowd sealed the event’s future for the next six years.
That tight right-hand turn on the roundabout next to a Maison Blanche that no longer exists (the corner itself was known as La Fourche in its racing days) marks the start of our lap. We hit the straight, the beginning of the N15, which is now a singlecarriageway main road. One of the characteristic features of the Dieppe circuit was just how narrow it was, but this section, at seven metres in width, allowed drivers to tow and then pass rivals cars with relative ease. At 1.8 miles in length, the straight also put a premium on top speed, and the Bugatti T59s and Alfa Romeo Tipo Bs would expect to approach 150mph along its course. Two-thirds of the way down it there is a blind brow, before the cars began the gentle descent to another hard right-hand turn, Virage du Val Gosset
All that greets us now is another featureless modern roundabout This had once been a favoured overtaking spot, but with cars arriving at such high speed it also placed a premium on reliability of braking. It was a tricky corner, that caught out even aces such Louis Chiron and Jean-Pierre Wimille, who both overshot during the wet race of 1932.
Within the centre of the roundabout we notice a stone carving that proves to be the only man-made evidence in the track’s entire course that this was once a circuit Closer inspection reveals it to be an art deco monument to Jean Gaupillat, a capable Bugatti privateer who suffered the misfortune of being this Dieppe track’s only fatality. The winner of the voiturette class event in 1929, Gaupillat was a regular Dieppe competitor who even briefly led the main race overall in ’32. But two years later he paid the ultimate price at Val Gosset.
Following the second side of the triangle, the circuit then heads towards the picturesque village of St Aubin. Having left the main road behind at Val Gosset, the surroundings alter completely — the road is sunk between low hills, and winds gently downhill, getting narrower all the time. A right-hand kink (now a junction) a mile on is the only true corner — a dab of the brakes and a downchange — before the cars shot along a wall-lined lane for another 500 metres, under a second footbridge and into St Aubin itself.
This section’s notoriety came from the tight confines of the track — on the run down to the village the road is no more than 12ft wide. Going single-file at high speed here was a given before braking for yet another tight right-hander.
This corner of the track is the only one where the physical surroundings of the 1930s remain today. The large 19th century house resides on the inside, while the painted metal railings still run along the outside wall. St Aubin was a popular vantage point for a few locals, and the sleepy village was often a favourite haunt for the star drivers to take their lodgings. But the greatest concentration of the 40,000 or so spectators who flocked around the track each year came at the next section, the feared esses.
The cars accelerated away from St Aubin on a 700-metre straight before entering an uphill right-hander that began a fearsome combination of seven sweeping turns which was the circuits sternest test of driver ability. Rising steeply all the time, the valley on the drivers’ left became a perilous drop below, while hills on their right created a superb vantage point for spectators.
The second right-left sequence of this section was the sharpest and most challenging, and it was here that the hillside created a natural amphitheatre that attracted many thousands of picnicking families to observe the skills of France’s racing heroes. The modem road now bypasses this turn, and the course of the once great comer is left only as a lay-by, the hill overgrown with trees. A 500-metre climb leads to the flat-out final right-hand kink of the esses before the one-mile run straight up to La Fourche to complete the lap.
The grand prix provided a true festival atmosphere, with British journalists at the time comparing it to a day at Shelsley Walsh. The main race marked the culmination of a weekend dedicated to motorsport. Saturday would feature the convergence of the Dieppe Rally on the town, with its final stage test taking place on the Boulevarde de Verdun. There was also a concourse d’elegance while on Sunday morning there were often motorcycle races to act as a preamble to the cars’ feature event.
The Moto Club was always keen to tap into potential British interest for the event, from both drivers and spectators, as Dieppe was easily accessed by the direct ferry from Newhaven. There is even known to have been a good contingent of British high society at the 1912 ACF GP, but the events in 1929-30 failed to attract such overseas recognition. This changed in ’31 when Earl Howe brought his 1500cc Delage voiturette over for the race, and his third-place finish (and generous £180 prize money) sparked much interest. Racers and fans began to make the trip, and by the final event in ’35 there were three British privateer T59s — and a T51 — in the main class, as well as the factory ERA voiturette team.
Single-seater racing’s smaller-engined class played a vital part in the Dieppe GP’s history. A pack of 1500cc Bugattis bulked-out the grid every year, and by 1933 they outnumbered the larger grand prix cars 14 to eight. Interest peaked in 1935, when the Moto Club fek strong enough to organise a completely separate, rather than concurrent, voiturette event. The factory ERAs dominated, but once Raymond Mays and Richard Seaman had retired, it was Pat Fairfield who won ahead of a 21-year-old Prince Bira, who was making his international debut.
The main race that year was also memorable, due to factory Bugatti driver Wimille’s tireless but ultimately fruitless chase of the Scuderia Ferrari Alfas of Chiron and Dreyfus. Its entry had been strong, but this proved to be the last Dieppe GP.
Bugatti’s weakness was a tell-tale sign of troubles on the horizon, as the French manufacturer struggled to remain significant in the face of the two-pronged silver steamroller from Nazi Germany. The Mercedes and Auto Union teams never came to Dieppe and it, along with many other parochial French events, was becoming less prominent due to their absence. Racing was changing. The new formula for grand prix cars, established in 1934, was now well-set and producing increasingly advanced but very expensive machinery. The newly formed European Championship was homogenising the calendar into fewer but bigger races, and the ACF’s ill-starred breakaway `sportscar’ grand prix rules for ’36— designed to protect Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye and Talbot — simply marginalised them from top-level competition. The bottom was falling out of French road racing, and Dieppe was among the casualties.
With no circuit ruins on which to base reminiscence, it seems that racing is long forgotten here. But on a final lap we stop to speak to a couple of staring French labourers in St Aubin. Mention the circuit, and their faces light up as they explain that racing cars still come to the track. It turns out that the French national rally championship uses the roads as part of a stage. Dieppe’s motorsport heart is still beating.