Ten years earlier, a longer version of this demanding road circuit had hosted perhaps the greatest race of the pre-war era: the 1914 French GP, occasion of Georges Boillot’s heroic but ultimately unsuccessful battle against the might of Mercedes-Benz in his Peugeot. This struggle adopted a global, bloody face later that same year and motor racing was understandably forgotten. It had resumed not long after the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month, but it had not fully recovered until here and now: Lyons, August 3, 1924.
Only the second race to carry the title of the European Grand Prix — Italy had been the first in 1923 — was packed with innovation and excitement. It was impossible to predict a winner: Fiat’s supercharged straight-eight 805 had been the fastest car of the previous year, and it was back for more; Sunbeam, who had copied Fiat’s six-cylinder 804 of ’22 — and had the further cheek to beat the Italian marque in the ’23 French GP at Tours — had now joined the supercharged ranks; Delage’s car was not supercharged, but it was the first V12 in grand prix racing. And then there was Alfa Romeo’s P2, the first design for the Milanese manufacturer by the legendary Vittorio Jano, and Ettore Bugatfi’s Type 35. The battle between these two marques would colour the next 10 seasons of European motor racing. It was Alfa Romeo, however, that got off on the right foot on this occasion.
Bugatti entered five of his new cars, and although three of them finished on this their debut, all were delayed by troubles with rushed-through Dunlops: seventh, eighth and 11th was the best they could muster. In contrast, the Alfas were tried and tested, having won at Cremona and led before retiring at Pescara, and they were always in the hunt — before taking the eventual victory.
Sunbeam’s Henry Segrave led the first three laps from his advantageous spot on the front row (the grid was decided by ballot) but his day was to be ruined by a constant misfire caused by what later transpired to be a duff magneto; his fastest lap was small consolation for finishing fifth. Fiat’s mercurial Pietro Bordino took up the running, but he was gradually hauled in, and then overhauled, by Antonio Ascari’s P2. Bordino fought back, but the strain was too much and he retired with failing brakes at half-distance in this 500-mile race.
Ascari looked set for victory until a cracked cylinder block put him out on the last lap. Fortunately for Alfa Romeo, his burly team-mate Giuseppe Campari stepped into the breach and beat the Delages of Albert Diva and promising newcomer Robert Benoist.
It had been a dramatic day. But had you looked past all the banner headlines you would have noticed a footnote that would eventually become a chapter heading. Count Louis Zborowski, with Sammy Davis as his riding mechanic, had done a steady job in his American-built Miller 122 until its front axle broke on lap 17. The significance? His was the first-ever grand prix entry by a privateer as opposed to a manufacturer. Within two seasons this would become the norm — Bugatti, with help from Alfa Romeo, would see to that.