DUELS ON THE DIEPPE CIRCUIT
ALTHOUGH now shorn, of much of the fame and glory that it once held, the French Grand Prix still remains as one of the most important, purely for racing car events of the year.
Famous as it is with the memories and traditions of the greatest days of motoring, quite the most dramatic races in its history were those of 1908, when the Mercedes just got home, after using all their tyres, and 1912, which is remembered as the last appearance of the old type of road racers.
I was able to learn the story of these two stern struggles of pre-War times under rather interesting circumstances. In 1930 I discovered in, a disused. corner of one of the sheds at Brooklands the shrouded outlines of an apparently very large motor car, and on its covering or dust sheets being removed, was revealed one of the original chain-driven Fiat racers.
I bought the remains then and there ; and it was during the subsequent rebuilding of this monster that I was inspired to delve into the history of what is perhaps, one of the greatest racing marques that has ever been.
The firm first became known in the very early days of the sport, by whining the Florio Cap Race of 1904 at the rather amazing average speed of 72 miles an hour, for 231 miles, with one of the old 90 h.p. racers, then known as ” Roaring Nineties,” which had been built for the Gordon Bennett that year, and which, three years later reached the zenith of their fame, by winning all three of the international races held, in Europe that summer.
The Battle of ’08.
Which brings us to the Grand, Prix de Dieppe of 1908.
For the first time in the history of the race, the cars were genuinely capable of over a 100 m.p.h. and a great battle was promised between, the two teams of Fiat and Mercedes, both using engines of exactly the same size with the maximum bore allowed by the new regulations, of 155 mm., and a stroke of 160 ram., which gave a capacity of 12,081 c.c.
They were typical “speed monsters” of the period, with big 4-cylinder engines, high chassis and chain drive, and although tremendously fast they were very heavy for the small tyres that were used in those times, as was proved on the day of the race. For there was a hot sun blazing down on the road surface, already cut up by a fortnight’s practice, and, the pace set by these two teams was not sparing.
In their duel for the lead which lasted throughout the day, the big machines would come sliding up to the corners with the rear wheels partly locked, slither round, with the high chassis healing outwards, and go thundering away with wheels and chains spimung. The three Fiats were driven by Nazzaro, Wagner and Lancia, and during the early stages of the race Wagner and Nazzaro ran into the lead, with the Mercedes team
roaring close on their heels, despite frequent stops for changing tyres. Sometimes two of the white cars would be in at the same time with driver an.d, mechanic grimed by dust and oil, working furiously on wheels that were, alas, un,detachable, before they could tear off once more, down the long straight road to Auberville.
But none the less they were the fastest cars on the course, and just beyond, half distance Wagner, driving one of the red racers, was hunted down, being forced to retire with a wrecked gear box.
Then just before the end, the race was snatched from Italian hands, when Nazzaro broke a crankshaft, and Lautenslacher, himself only just able to last out, having used the last spare tyre in the German tyre depot, came through and gained a hard fought victory with the Mercede:s.
It was not until four years later that the Grand Prix was again held, as the French authorities were so disheartened, at their many defeats that the old and once almost-unconquerable racing firms of France did not challenge the motoring world in an international event.
But in 1912 the classic race was once more revived in a great two-day event of 956 miles at Dieppe ; ten laps of the circuit having to be covered on each of two consecutive days. This time France pinned her hopes to an entirely new type of car. Gone were the usual ponderous machines with chain d,rive and a battery of ferocious looking outside exhaust pipes, and instead were the new Peugeot racers, using high speed long stroke engines, of the comparatively small capacity of 7 litres, built into a low shaft-driven chassis with Rudge Whitworth detachable wire wheels. They came as a definite challenge to the Fiat’s who had remained true to their old, traditions and, working on the same principles of design which had proved so successful in the past, concentrated all their knowledge and experience of the old days into a team of the most monstrous racing cars. Incredibly high for road work they used 14,000 c.c. two hundred horse power engines with a stroke of 200 millimetres, which although they may have been old fashioned, held the road like iron : and in combination with two of the old S.61 racers as practice cars (one of which is
still in existence) they made the strongest team on the course. But 956 miles is a long way, and whether or not they could last the distance remained to be seen. At 3 o’clock on the morning of June 25th, 1912, the stage was set for the final battle between the new and old school of motor racing. The long, gaily-decorated tribunes rising tier upon tier above the supply pits were already filled, by enthu siastic partisans of the French blue racers. Below, amid the sonorous beat of open exhausts, broken occasionally by a roar and leap of flame as a driver tried out his engine for the last time, the whole array of competitors were backing and filing into their starting positions in two lines on either side of the famous Dieppe
road, which was to be churned up an hour later by the spinning wheels of 48 cars setting off on their long journey. At the start it seemed that the race was only to last for a few hours, so fierce was the pace. Although starting at number 22, Boillot the French ace, handling Peugeot No. 2, ran through the entire
field during the first 70 miles, and led the whole entry when he passed the tribunes for the third time, with Goux in No. 1 of the same team running close behind.
Their rivals however, the big Fiats driven by Bruce Brown an,d Wagner, although they started comparatively slowly, really began to get moving at this stage, and came by at great speed, with their chain transmissions whining, hard on the heels of the leading Peugeots. Bruce Brown, on, Fiat 2, came up with Boillot on the winding section of the course from Ew, and after some inspiring
work, left the Frenchman behind down the Dieppe straight, thus starting the duel which lasted between these two champions throughout the first, and during half the second day.
Now leading the whole race by position as Well as time, Bruce Brown was handling his huge car superbly, taking the corners in long slides with the rear wheels locked, coming out of each skid at the right moment by switching in the engine with the throttle fully opened, which although resulting in terrific acceleration wore the tyres very quickly.
He was not to be slowed by this handicap however, and was the first to be flagged off at the end of the first day’s racing ; just before, a downpour of rain swept over the course, which would, no doubt, have helped the lighter French cars to gain somewhat on their heavier rivals had, it come sooner. Next day the roads were heavy with mud and. very treacherous, a bad outlook for the big cars. But Bruce Brown was the first away from the pits and during the first four laps twice gained and lost the lead in a race of seconds against Boillot’s Peugeot, which finally overtook him when three quarters of the race had been done, never again to lose the leading
position, until just before the end, when One of those exciting scenes occurred, which characterise a really first-class race.
With only one more lap to go, Boillot alarmed his assistants by pulling in for more water and a new wheel ; while this was being changed Wagner, having completed a glorious lap on the last big Fiat left in the running, Went crashing by without making the stop, which was expected, of him, and left Boillot to tear off in pursuit a few seconds later, with 37 miles in which he must hold the Fiat or lose the few precious minutes which he had in hand. Wagner thus finished his final lap at the head, of the whole race, then a swiftly growing rumour arose that Boillot was held up with trouble somewhere on the Dieppe Straight. The minutes began to run out and then a car could be heard roaring out of Dieppe ; for a few moments it was unrecognisable, until the well-known French blue flashed into view, and Boillot swept past the tribunes to win one of the most strenuous Grand Prix races that has ever been run.
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