French Resistance

The Forgotten Races – 1914 French Grand Prix

Whether bravery of pointless egoism, Georges Boillot’s vain battle shadowed the conflict to come. By Mark Hughes

Georges Boillot was a vain man. a strutting, cocksure peacock of a man. Just a look at the way he carried himself – head tilted back upon his broad shoulders, heavily-lidded eyes peering down over handlebar moustache – told you that.

Perhaps it was vanity, maybe patriotism, that led him to chase so hard after Max Sailer’s Mercedes in the first laps of the 1914 French Grand Prix, using up everything his Peugeot had to offer. For here was Boillot, the fastest driver in the world, winner of the event in both previous years, being seen off in front of the partisan crowd by a foreigner. Was that an unacceptable slight to his ego? With the war guns already being primed, was it an unbearable offence from a hostile nation to,the pride of France? Or was it just racer’s instinct?

Boillot was an awesome racer. Though his name is virtually forgotten – he didn’t survive the war – his achievements arid the manner in which they came confirm him as one of the handful of giants in the sport’s history. He won his very first Grand Prix. He was the fastest man on the track in his first attempt at the Indy 500, setting pole and breaking the lap record in between tyre troubles. He won the Targa Florio outright at the wheel of a lesser-capacity voiturette. In the 1913 Coupe de l’Auto – the premier voiturette race of the time – he took a mid-race pit-stop, not because the car needed replenishing, but simply to climb out and strut around, wave to the crowd, make a big show of enquiring how his rivals were doing in their vain chase of him. He still won, of course. Just as he won the Grand Prix the next day.

Today you might consider Schumacher to be brashly arrogant; he would pale to invisibility alongside Boillot.

Fuelled by this need to display his superiority, his style in the car was breathtaking,all-out attack. As a companion to his fabulous skill, it made for an irresistible force on any race track. But there was an immovable object, as Boillot was just beginning to discover in those early laps of his final race. The cars had started the race two-by-two at 30-second intervals and the number 14 Mercedes had left two-and-a-half minutes after him.

Within three laps he knew for sure he was in trouble, for Sailer passed him on the road and continued to edge away. Boillot could exploit the new-fangled four-wheel braking of the Peugeot to claw some distance back from a Mercedes that made do with rear braking only, and on the straights the French car was at least as fast. But it wasn’t enough to offset the vastly superior stability of the Merc through.the turns, its far broader power band and perfect gearing.

Still, the great Boillot wasn’t about to be daunted by the apparent impossibility of his task. In fact it merely spurred him on to greater efforts. Just to keep the Merc in sight, he had the Peugeot bucking and flailing like a bronco on ice. It wasn’t a car that cared to be driven like this; its two spare wheels had been mounted high on its tail, playing havoc with its centre of gravity and ruining the handling. Jules Goux – a Grand Prix and Indy 500 winner – and Victor Rigal could barely even make the sister cars competitive, their times way off the Mercs and no faster than the also-ran Sunbeams and Delages.

No, the fact that Sailer in a superior car, was having to push so desperately hard to eke out his lead had little to do with Peugeot, everything to do with Boillot Which meant that Boillot was on his own, one man against a squadron.

Sailer’s drive was one of resolve rather than inspiration. A Mercedes director, he was a cog within a wheel. It was his role to be running where he was, pulling the Peugeot along in his wake at a pace which, the Germans hoped, would prove fatal to its health. He knew he was probably surrendering his own chances for the greater good.

This was just one manifestation of the Mercedes steamroller approach. Returning to frontline racing for first time since winning this race in 1908, it came prepared and pre-drilled like no team before it. For months beforehand pit stops were practised and a new science was brought to the matter of pits-to-driver signalling. Old Mercedes racers pounded round the 28-mile course of public roads in Lyons, until such runs were forbidden by the race organisers. Thereafter rapid Mercedes tourers could be observed continuing the work.

It was a demanding and varied track, running through the Garon valley, by-passing Givors to run alongside the River Gier for eight miles, then climbing out of the valley to an undulating six-mile straight, returning back to the start by two downhill right-angle turns and a hairpin. The race would comprise 20 laps of this around seven hours.

When the new Mercedes racers turned up for the meeting, their suspensions allowed for the precise camber of that particular road surface so that the rear wheels were perfectly perpendicular. And, as Boillot would discover, their gearing was perfect. The car had been designed by Paul Daimler, son of the Mercedes founder Gottlieb. It borrowed its engine technology from the parent company’s aero-engines, where lightness and solid reliability were so critical. Each of the four cylinders was Forged separately, with welded-on ports and water jackets, allowing thinner sections of metal than in a conventional cast block. This not only made it lighter but also ensured that potential hotspots in the cylinder were more adequately cooled. Also in the quest for reliability, each driveshaft was made integral with its own crown-wheel for perfect matching.

But even the Mercedes couldn’t be reliable at the pace Sailer was pushing it. On lap six, after two hours of flat-out running, it broke a conrod. Boillot assumed the lead for the first time, but the delighted crowd might have noted the clear menace in the three remaining healthy Mercedes, poised ready to stalk the Peugeot. Agonisingly for Boillot after all that effort, there were still another 14 laps and five hours to go. Surely he couldn’t hold on as the Mercs of Christian Lautenschlager another full-time company employee and hired gun Louis Wagner began to move in on the tired Peugeot.

Remarkably, Boillot dug yet deeper and his seventh lap of 20 minutes 20 seconds was faster than he’d gone even in his pursuit of Sailer. But his pace was blistering in more ways than one. It demanded he use his four-wheel-brake advantage to the full and bully the unstable machine through the turns, all of which was caning his tyres. He’d rarely manage to complete more than two laps before having to stop to replace them, and so Lautenschlager despite never approaching Boillot’s best times was catching him as a donkey would catch a hare over a long enough distance.

At half-distance, the hare was given a break. For all its practising, Mercedes messed up Lautenschlager’s routine pit stop. Boillot’s lead went from under a minute to over four as Wagner now took up the chase. But still Boillot’s car was eating its tyres and within four laps Wagner was within a minute of the leader, with Lautenschlager just another minute further back. By now Boillot wasn’t even lapping as fast as the Mercedes in between stops, his mechanical resources dwindling, almost certainly the price of that early chase of Sailer.

Yet still it looked possible that his speed might settle the race in his favour, because on the 15th lap Wagner was in the pits, his tyres in shreds from his chase of the amazing man in the Peugeot. It lost Wagner a place to Lautenschlager, still over two minutes adrift of Boillot with five laps to go.

But it wasn’t to be. Now was time for the kill. The metronomic Mercedes closed in on the hunted, panting Peugeot with ruthless purpose. Lautenschlager took the lead on the 18th lap. Within a further lap he had pulled out over a minute on the Peugeot which was now, pitifully, running on three cylinders and just a few seconds ahead of the fast-closing Wagner. Peugeot number five eventually rolled to a silent halt in the Garon valley on the final lap. Its driver sat at the wheel for a few moments and wept, before climbing out and forlornly taking refreshment at a terrace cafe lining the track.

Back at the start/finish line Lautenschlager led a crushing Mercedes 1-2-3, with Wagner and Otto Salzer following him home. The applause was muted, the victory band somehow managing to ‘lose’ the music to Deutschland uber Alles.

The Autocar’s Sammy Davis was there that day and, several years later, wrote the following recollections of the mood: “There was something more than motor racing in the atmosphere as the crowds made their way dustily from the course… everyone was extraordinarily quiet… There was quite distinctly the feeling that a menacing though invisible presence had been manifest. The thing disappeared in an hour or two, normality returned; but though we knew nothing of it, there had come faintly on the wind the echoing thud of guns. The brooding shadow was death, the end had come to a generation.”

The engine that powered Mercedes to victory would within a few months be propelling most of Germany’s fighter planes – the very planes that Boillot would be fighting in the skies as a member of a French airforce unit called Les Sportifs.

Many regarded Boillot’s 1914 race as the greatest of many magnificent performances, even though it yielded nothing. But others, whose hearts beat a different way, saw it as a drive clouded by vanity and ego. They doubtless expressed similar sentiments when, in April 1916, Boillot attempted single-handedly to take on a posse of seven enemy scout planes over the Western Front. The man who routinely reached for the stars was shot out of the sky.