Road races that provoked rage

Early city-to-city racing in France provided ample proof of the dangers of motor sport, but despite a public outcry such events were not easily curtailed

Against the background of recent top-level fatalities, it’s significant how motor racing has reacted to horrible events. Of course the 1955 Le Mans disaster was absolutely pivotal. Further spectators were lost in Wolfgang von Trips’s fatal accident during the 1961 Italian Grand Prix, and still more in bridge collapses at Luanda and Aix-les-Bains, Luki Botha’s huge crash at Laurenco Marques, a temporary grandstand collapse at Indy in 1961, Emilio Materassi’s horrendous dive into the crowd at Monza in 1928, the tragedy at Karlskoga, Sweden, and of course during the 1957 Mille Miglia. It’s not comfortable to reflect upon them.

But while perhaps the most publicised early racing catastrophes involved the 1903 Paris-Madrid race, much of that political reaction should be considered against its background.

City-to-city racing had grown in a cycling-mad France. In February 1900 a novel circuit race was organised in which for the first time road-racing cars would pass the same point more than once. This Course du Catalogue entailed two laps of a triangular public road course, from Melun to Châtillon, then Nangis, Valence-en-Brie, Le Chatelet – and back to Melun. Girardot’s Panhard set fastest time.

That year’s racing in France then progressed through the Pau meeting’s one-lap, 209-mile Circuit du Sud-Ouest and the 125-mile city-to-city Nice-Marseilles run. By the time of the Paris-Roubaix, public sentiment in France had been rising against such indiscriminate racing on public roads. Some organisers didn’t even bother to tell residents that a motor race was coming their way. Only the biggest events saw any measures taken to safeguard either competitors or bystanders. Generally most locals remained quite supportive, but “wholesale destruction of their straying livestock by unrecognisable personages who [ignored] requests to stop and who were quite beyond any hope of identification somewhat altered their view”.

Paris-Roubaix was organised by the journal Le Velo for motor tricycles. Don’t laugh. By 1900 these were formidable machines with 6 or 8hp engines, spring front forks and dropped handlebars, and they were ridden by loonies.

During this Paris-Roubaix race, winner Paul Baras covered 18½ miles from Beauvais to Breteuil in just 18 minutes. A popular vantage point along the course was the Croix des Noailles junction where a large crowd gathered, most arriving by bicycle, hundreds of which lay on the grass verge with their owners spectating beyond them. A member of parliament – the Deputy for La Seine, by the name of Bos – was there with his wife, having travelled by car together with Monsieur and Madame Darracq.

Two riders approached rapidly; the leader Martin, his pursuer Dorel. Martin arrived too fast and ran wide, Dorel dived to pass him on the inside and the pair collided – both tricycles clattering over the laid-down bicycles to crash into the crowd. Madame Bos and another member of her party each sustained a broken leg while Martin broke his collarbone.

This injury to a Deputy’s wife was too much. Two days later motor racing was banned in the Department of Seine-et-Oise, and action began against Le Velo for criminal neglect of spectator safety. Every competitor was prosecuted similarly, and they were fined in batches.

Demagny, Secretary to the Interior Minister, telegraphed all Prefects throughout France ordering them forthwith to forbid all racing within their territory. Every application to race should instead be forwarded to him, for approval or rejection. Yes, the foie gras had hit the fan…

Controversy raged for several weeks until the media – and the politicians – became bored. Le Velo organised a discreet minor race a month after the incident, and when permission was grudgingly granted for a two-day Bordeaux-Périgueux event – and it proved incident-free – the fuss abated.

But it had affected the organisation of that year’s inaugural Gordon Bennett Cup between select national teams, and although the race took place and was won by Fernand Charron’s Panhard, it was dismissed at the time as a dismal failure.

The cross-border Paris-Berlin race followed in 1901. In its early stages it passed through the small village of Montchenot, near Reims. No attempt was made there to keep the road clear, and Brasier’s Mors struck and killed a small boy who had run into the middle of the road in wonderment, to watch an earlier runner out of sight. Next day, French Parliamentary questions were asked, and within the week it was decreed that there should be no more racing on French public roads.

But the young Automobile Club de France was a highly influential gentlemen’s club. Strings were pulled, favours called in, inducements granted. Sound familiar? The 1902 Circuit du Nord and Paris-Vienna races went ahead – the latter including the Gordon Bennett Cup as a subplot, won by S F Edge and Napier… hoorah! A weight restriction had been introduced to ban monster cars, since power and speed were then equated with massive size and weight. All the new limit did was to accelerate compensatory design advances – lighter cars proved faster. The politicians kept quiet.

Through the winter of 1902-03 a great city-to-city race was then planned from Paris to Madrid. The French Government disapproved, but the ACF was convinced such long-distance races were a necessity, and wielded tremendous influence backstage. Still the Government banned the Pau Week, and a proposed Nice- Salon-Nice race. Regardless, Spain’s enthusiastic King Alfonso approved the use of Spanish public roads for the Irun-Madrid section of the proposed Paris-Madrid. A month later, the French Government gave in and let the ACF press ahead.

Despite its road race having been disallowed, the Nice Week included speed trials on the Promenade des Anglais and the La Turbie hillclimb… in which Count Elliott Zborowski crashed his Mercedes and died. Government permissions for other events were cancelled.

But the ACF still worked assiduously to keep its great Paris-Madrid dream alive. Amid unparalleled public scrutiny it began on May 24 – and in hot, dusty weather the tailor-made cars proved shatteringly fast. By ACF timing, Louis Renault’s 30hp light car stormed the Bonneval-Chartres section at nearly 90mph. But fatal accidents claimed his brother Marcel, gentleman driver Lorraine Barrow, three riding mechanics, a spectating child and a soldier who had dashed out to save her.

The Paris-Madrid race was abandoned at Bordeaux, the cars hauled to the railway station by horses for return on freight trucks to Paris. Prime Minister Combes promised the Chamber of Deputies there would be no more motor racing on French public roads. Again this would prove to be huff-and-puff, great road circuits would be adopted – but they were to be much shorter, prepared, policed and guarded… and city-to-city racing at pinnacle level has remained banned to this day. Motor racing had had change forced upon it, and not for the last time.