Track visit: Le Mans 1906

LeMans1906

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It’s 100 years since the first grand prix was held, on the roads near Le Mans, in 1906. It was won by a Renault, so we just had to drive the course in a Clio V6

To paraphrase Pete Townshend, this straight goes on for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles. Fifteen minutes away from here is the legendary Ligne Droite des Hunaudières, and you laugh when you consider that, for 1991, they had to insert chicanes to break up that three-mile stretch. But this straight? Pah! It can’t be far short of 20 miles, running south-east down the N157 to St Calais. Direct it may be, but it’s full of crests and cambers. In a Clio Renaultsport V6 the biggest problem is those crests. It’s weekday going-home time for France, and in this chunky right-hand-drive road-racer photographer Griffiths is permanently craning his neck out to see our way past the endless line of camions.

That’s nothing compared to the problems faced by the crews of the 32 cars that raced down this same road in the 1906 Grand Prix de l’ACF, historically regarded as the first ever grand prix, exactly 100 years ago come June 26/27. The whole 64-mile circuit was a challenge: sure, most of the course had been surfaced in the build-up to the race, but France was in the midst of a heatwave, and road traffic had already worn out some of the asphalt. Even on that long straight to St Calais, you can imagine how difficult it was, in temperatures well over 40 degrees (one source suggests 49!) and at speeds not far short of 100mph, to stay in control as ruts formed in the melting road and pellets of tar and stones were flicked up. While Ferenc Szisz sped towards victory, his Renault team-mate J Edmond suffered a breakage of his goggles on the first day and stopped in great pain from the tar and dust in his eyes. A relief driver took over, but the rules allowed only one driver per car per day. Edmond went for first-aid and then heroically got back behind the wheel, though he would retire before the day was out.

So here we are in a potent Michelin-tyred Renault, just as were Szisz, Edmond and Claude Richez a century ago. We’re steering around the same roads, but there’s virtually nothing to tell you of this venue’s part in motorsport heritage.

The Grand Prix followed on from the prestigious Gordon Bennett Cup races, but this was to be bigger, better, longer, faster… Replacing the ‘Nations Cup’ Bennett format, manufacturers would be allowed to enter three cars apiece. Instead of running around mountainous Bennett-style circuits, this would be in a relatively flat region. Unlike the Bennett format, there would be no speed controls through towns. Instead, where a town’s roads were considered too narrow for the safety of onlookers – St Calais and Vibraye – there would be detours. So instead of running into St Calais, the racers turned off across the north of the town onto a boarded road built from railway sleepers. Cars then joined the D1 for the run north towards La Ferté Bernard, this stretch punctuated by a routing onto an old cart track in the Forêt de Vibraye. At La Ferté Bernard they steered onto the N23, running through the town of Connerré just before the downhill sprint to the start-finish line, where they flashed past the grandstands at Pont de Gennes, a tad east of St Mars-la-Brière. After St Mars and Champagné, a tight left-hander took them back onto N157 and that long, long, long straight.

Not only were the speeds high, but the cars would be required to race for double the length of the Gordon Bennett events, though this was to be spread over two days. So velocity wasn’t everything. In an almost spooky presaging of events in 2006, Renault and Michelin concentrated more on getting through a long race by minimising delays and maximising consistency. Paramount among this was the use of the time-saving jante amovible, or detachable rim. With the prevailing temperatures and track conditions, and with only the driver and his riding mechanic allowed to change wheels in the almost unbearable heat, this was to prove decisive in the final result, as it took only four minutes to change a rim, as opposed to 15 to change tyre and tube.

Most teams just couldn’t use the detachable rims, because they would take the cars over the 1000kg maximum allowed by the regulations. Of the three teams that did use them, FIAT went for detachable all round, Renault and Bayard-Clément at the rear only, though Albert Clément, son of the team owner, went against his father’s wishes, changed his mind and shunned them…

By the time the race started, at 6am on Tuesday June 26, the spectators had arrived in their droves. According to the report in The Autocar (on sale just three days after the race had finished!), “All through Monday night special trains were running between Paris and Le Mans, and from this latter centre crowded trains were started every few minutes for the different points along the Circuit, where the local population spread themselves out to get a good view of the race. Never was such a crush experienced at Le Mans as that which took place on the eve of the great event. It narrowly missed developing into a riot.”

Fernand Gabriel and his Lorraine-Dietrich were the first to start, with the rest taking off at 90-second intervals. But Gabriel, winner of the calamitous 1903 Paris-Madrid, would be out of the race before St Calais. Vincenzo Lancia and his FIAT would, therefore, be the first combination to complete a lap of a grand prix. What would it have been like? It was a misty morning at dawn, but by the time Lancia turned north from St Calais, at just before half past six, it would have been evident that the conditions would soon be sweltering. He probably wouldn’t yet have been aware that the Renault of Szisz, the next to start, was already making up time. A short dash up the road, and Lancia would have been first to tackle the downhill sweepers, not too dissimilar in character to the ‘old’ Spa-Francorchamps, and unthinkably challenging in these machines, into Berfay.

By the end of the first lap Lancia would have been able to see Szisz behind him. The Hungarian soon moved ahead, but even he couldn’t hold off Paul Baras. Driving a Brasier, Baras had set what would remain the fastest lap on the very first tour – 52min 25.4sec, an average of 73mph. He was only 9sec slower than that on the second lap, but he then fell down the order and Szisz took a lead he would hold until the very end of the race, just after mid-day on Wednesday.

Clément lay second to Szisz at the end of the first day, but he was overcome by the FIAT of Felice Nazzaro on day two and finally finished third. Nazzaro was 32 minutes behind Szisz, with Clément a further three minutes adrift. But had Clément been using the jante amovible he would likely have won, especially as Szisz had changed 19 tyres…

Edmond, one of Renault’s other pilotes, was not the only competitor to need medical attention – Mercedes drivers Camille Jenatzy and Vincenzo Florio also suffered eye injuries. The legendary Belgian was replaced on the second day by ‘Alexander Burton’ (officially known as JT Burton-Alexander), the only British driver to compete. Burton, driving magnificently on a road he had never seen (although he had lunched with Herbert Austin at the race on Tuesday) also sustained an eye injury, and wrote that stones flicked up by Baras’s passing Brasier had hit him hard enough to take the skin off his leg. Another hero was American Elliot Shepard. On his race debut he was last but one to start, but worked his Hotchkiss up the order, overtaking all the time, to lie fourth at the end of the first day. He retired with a broken wheel on Wednesday.

One hundred years later all is quiet, save for the rumble of the passing trucks. The site of the old start-finish line is near the Hôtel Mascotte, a couple of miles east of St Mars-la-Brière. Passing by on the N23, you have to be eagle-eyed to notice some iron railings. But if you head to the Mascotte, then through the complex, past the swimming baths and water slides, you’ll see the spectator access tunnels, directly below the railings, dug specially for the race. These have been cleared out now, but I still have to duck to walk inside. People were smaller in those days!

Smaller in height, but not in stature. We revel in modern luxury, taking the Clio V6 to various points on the route. While we try to replicate the image of passing the pharmacie in Connerré, there are a couple of teenagers taking their own photos of the car on camera phones. But what would they make of Ferenc Szisz thundering through in the 13-litre Renault? They probably don’t even know of his heroic life.

He’d started competing as a riding mechanic for Renault in 1902, but didn’t drive for the team until ’05, when it returned to racing after a two-year sabbatical in the wake of Marcel Renault’s fatal accident on the Paris-Madrid. Szisz, who raced under the name François Szisz, had an on-off career until 1914, when he joined the French Army. He led the transport troops in Algeria, thus gaining French nationality, but was struck with typhoid and returned to Paris to recuperate. He raced briefly after the war in a La Buire sportscar, but was more involved in working at the Breuget aircraft factory. In the 1930s he retired to his passion of gardening and died, aged 70, at Auffargis, 25 miles from Paris.

There was some Elvis-is-still-alive-type confusion in the 1950s when Hungarians claimed that Szisz had actually returned to his homeland, and for 15 years a so-called impostor lived in Tiszaszentimre (no, we can’t pronounce it either), confusing historians until his death in 1970.

Either way, it is evident that Szisz outlasted the car that made him a legend. Some believe that the three Renaults from the 1906 GP were broken up to use for spares over the coming years, although historian David Burgess-Wise has upheld the theory that the winning car ended its life as an army staff car in the years after World War One.

Somehow you don’t expect Fernando Alonso’s Renault R26 to meet a similar fate, but there are striking parallels all the same. When the 2006 French GP takes place on July 16 it will be on the billiard-table surface at Magny-Cours, but, 100 years on, a Michelin-shod Renault could well win. And instead of a FIAT in second, it may well be Michael Schumacher, driving for Fiat-owned Ferrari. And another team, a Bayard-Clément equivalent, may well have the legs on speed but be let down on strategy. That’ll be Honda then. Mercedes’ team, McLaren: high hopes but disappointment? And the organisation. The Autocar wrote in 1906: “A remarkable feature which has always struck us and other English journalists to whose lot it has fallen to chronicle the course of automobile events promoted and carried out by the Automobile Club of France, is the utter and entire want of consideration shown by the executive of that club towards press representatives…” This rant goes on for another page. Plus ça change!

A run on Agatha

‘Agatha’ never competed in a grand prix, and sports a relatively small 7.4-litre engine, but this star of Renault’s GP Centenary celebrations is the closest operational relative to the car Ferenc Szisz drove to victory at Le Mans in 1906.

Commissioned by William Kissam Vanderbilt Jnr, patron of the Vanderbilt Cup races, the Renault AK 90CV won the 24-hour race at Morris Park Motordrome in New York in 1907, driven by Marcus Bernin. It passed through at least three more owners before being sold via Motor Sport by future BMC competitions boss Marcus Chambers – for ‘£30 or offer’! – in 1935.

Now owned by German Renault dealer Wolfgang Auge, it was time for another Marcus (yours truly) to acquaint himself with ‘Agatha’ on a passenger ride near the start-finish line of the 1906 Le Mans course. Then it was hot tar and stones causing problems, but on this wet day it was rain. My begoggled face was frozen, even at 40mph. What must it have been like being peppered by debris at 90? Torque was impressive, as was pin-sharp steering – ‘Agatha’ went just where Herr Auge pointed her.

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