From the archive with... Doug Nye

In Jarrot’s slipstream
Retracing the route of the Circuit des Ardennes, where British pioneers made their names

London’s first Chinese restaurant, it appears, was opened in 1907. Now park that thought for a while. During the same year, Belgium’s last Circuit des Ardennes race took place on a 53½-mile-long public road course based upon the market town of Bastogne. The Circuit des Ardennes was the first great international motor race in which competitors not only covered the same ground (in the same direction) more than once, i.e. by covering more than one lap of a prescribed road circuit, but which was also run without the interruption of any stage controls or neutralised sections allowing the competitors to pass through a town or village untimed. In point-to-point racing from city to city, these neutralisations had often caused great controversy, enabling the unscrupulous to make up lost time hard-won by faster rivals.

Six of these great Circuit des Ardennes road races were organised between 1902 and 1907. They were the brainchild of the Belgian sporting aristocrat Baron Pierre de Crawhez, not only an enthusiastic owner-driver in his own right but also contemporary president of the infant RACB’s sporting commission. Back in 1900, what was really the first European multi-lap road circuit race had been organised by the publishers of a fortnightly motoring magazine, La France Automobile, around Melun. Their two-lap event was run on February 18, 1900, as the Course du Catalogue. Among the six classes run, only two racers were entered in the big-car category – Degrais’ Mors and Louis Girardot’s Panhard, which set fastest time of the day. The following weekend, the more important Circuit de Sud-Ouest ran over 209 miles from Pau to Dax, Bayonne and back. But these were pioneering times and, although the event was significant within the tiny motor sporting world, only nine cars and 10 motorcycles were entered – so it was hardly a jam-packed attraction…

That race was won by another Belgian-born luminary of early motoring, the Chevalier René de Knyff, averaging 43.8mph in his 16hp Panhard – an average hard to match today over the same course. What’s the point of properly surfaced roads if the public packs them solid?

Scroll forward to the Circuit des Ardennes. Baron de Crawhez’s chosen course ran anti-clockwise, heading south-west from Bastogne down to Longlier, then east through Habay-la-Neuve and back via Martelange into the central square in Bastogne, but then into another lap – six in all.

De Crawhez’s race was essentially for the amateur and private owner – and his idea was rewarded by entries for 26 heavy cars, 38 light cars and 11 voiturettes. ‘Tourists’ were to run concurrently, keen motorists carrying passengers – plus booze and snacks – for the buzz of watching the racers blasting past – that would jazz up modern F1.

By 4am on July 31, 1902, the cars had formed up in a column around the Bastogne square, with de Crawhez’s 70hp Panhard at its head. He set off at 5am and came rumbling back into the square, around the hairpin junction and away into his second lap at 5.54am – so 53½-miles completed in 54 minutes, 102 years ago…

Fernand Gabriel’s 60hp Mors lay second and British driver Charles Jarrott’s 70hp Panhard third – having just started without any practice. De Crawhez then clipped Coppée’s Germain while trying to pass it, collapsing his Panhard’s front wheels and bringing himself to a halt on its front axle beam.

Gabriel and Jarrott battled for the lead, always within 90 seconds of one another, but at the last gasp the Mors broke a chain, and Jarrott dodged by to score his first big win. Since his friend and rival Selwyn Edge had just won the Gordon Bennett Cup for Napier, that was British motor sport’s first heady high summer of international success.

The Circuit des Ardennes remained a relatively happy hunting ground for English-speaking gentleman drivers, because American George Heath took top honours in 1904. The last Circuit in 1907 then presented separate races, one for Grand Prix-style cars and the other for Kaiserpreis machines, medium-powered nominally touring types, with engines limited to eight litres.

While Baron de Caters’ 120hp Mercedes won the poorly-supported GP car race from Kenelm Lee Guinness’ Darracq 120, the Kaiserpreis event’s 23-strong field was led home by JTC Moore-Brabazon, the British pioneer aviator-cum-racing driver heading a factory 1-2-3 for Minerva.

Driving around Belgium recently, we explored Bastogne to see if much had survived of the small town that our collection of Maurice-Louis Branger glass-plate negatives had recorded and in which Jarrott, Heath and Moore-Brabazon had so enjoyed their international race wins.

Quite apart from tracing the old circuit the wrong way around – doh! – we found the old railway station preserved almost unchanged from Le Circuit days, when cars were unloaded there from rail wagons and the goods yard doubled as the race paddock. Many of Branger’s photos showed the cars entering the town hairpin, with a distinctive three-faced building to the right. We found a similar building on what we thought was the return straight into the town, but its window pediments and details just didn’t match. Time was pressing, so we motored on. But back home the invaluable Google Earth street view revealed the answer. What we had misread as the return leg into the town was in fact the outward leg. Swing back onto the correct leg and there on the screen I found the distinctive old building from the Branger negs.

Having survived bombardment during Bastogne’s Battle of the Bulge siege in 1944, it has been revamped and survives beside that historic roadside today. And, 100 years after the Circuit des Ardennes heroes hammered past its front entrance, it is Bastogne’s New Shanghai Chinese restaurant…

Are you sitting comfortably
Our man had a privileged view as Mercedes celebrated a famous victory’s centenary

Among the long list of Grand Prix winners, Mercedes-Benz obviously rides high. And among the long list of Mercedes Grand Prix winners, so does the name Christian Lautenschlager. After all, the luxuriously moustachioed Swabian factory tester (left) won both the 1908 and 1914 Grands Prix in the days when there was only one such great motor race per year and winning it was the greatest road-racing achievement to which any factory brand could aspire.

But if one remembers that complicated name – Lautenschlager effectively means ‘lute player’ – hands up if any of you recall Grand Prix winner Hans Rieger. He was one of the unsung band of fellow travellers who contributed so much to the early-age successes of the great names and brands. He had been Lautenschlager’s riding mechanic in the 1914 Grand Prix at Lyon.

This April, to help mark the centenary of what proved to be a 1-2-3 Mercedes triumph, the modern company took the three surviving 4.5-litre 16-valve sohc four-cylinder Grand Prix cars back to the historic old Lyon-Givors public road course, just south of the sprawling French city.

The cars were American collector George Wingard’s ex-Phillip Mann machine (which is almost certainly Lautenschlager and Rieger’s winning mount), the Daimler-Benz Museum’s 1919-built from parts car (driven in the 1922 Targa Florio by Lautenschlager) and the Collier Collection’s ex-Louis Vischer team spare and reconnaissance car.

Modern-day traffic demands have led to the most distinctive part of the old 23-mile 1914 Grand Prix circuit being made one-way only around the old hairpin at Les Sept Chemins. There, the triangular café building on the hairpin apex survives with little change beyond some garish decoration and signage, while a mile to the south the old Piège de la Mort – ‘Deathtrap’ – esses snake down from the high plateau where the seven-mile return straight was known as Les Montagnes Russes, a contemporary reference to the Russian Steppes but also period slang for a roller-coaster.

We ran the cars on that stretch, and I must confess to allowing Merc’s finest to dress me in a (too-tight) pair of white overalls, a linen flying helmet and Dick Dastardly goggles to play Hans Rieger in the Collier Mercedes to specialist restorer Eddie Berrisford’s equally bewhiskered Lautenschlager.

While Eddie expertly clacked the sharp-barking Mercedes up through its four-speed gearbox, two things became clear. The first is that this muscular machine has immense mid-range torque, and accelerates most impressively. The second is that on a modern road surface it rides most comfortably, like a well-damped magic carpet. It also, evidently, is light and agile, very responsive to its steering – which in period it would have needed to be along the winding bottom circuit leg through the valley of the sinuous river Gier.

So you might think the riding mechanic was just there for the seven-hour ride, plus pit stop duties or the unwonted on-circuit emergency? No way. He had to work for his living. You’re jammed there in the bayonet-fit seat, shoulder-to-shoulder with the arm-flailing driver. The most comfortable place to put your right arm is across the ledge behind him. And that’s where your primary duty lies. Glance right and there’s an angled pressure gauge fronting a village pump. To maintain fuel flow it’s your job to watch it carefully. Should its needle flick left below 1kg/sq cm, you tug at the pump handle like an exasperated Dutchman at a slot machine. Once the needle reads above 1kg, relax, crane right around and act as the driver’s rear-view mirror (he has none) to warn of Georges Boillot’s advancing Peugeot – or in this case Jochen Mass’s evil grin in the chasing Merc Museum car.

Then Eddie – sorry, Lautenschlager – elbows you in the ribs and nods towards the floor. There’s a round button between your feet. As pre-arranged you give it two firm strokes, not more. That squirts extra oil to the camshaft and engine top end.

We bound on for another mile or two, over blind brow – long straight road stretching ahead – another blind brow, then the top of the esses and the distant view over the Sept Chemins plain to Lyon beyond. Check the pressure gauge, tug the pump, glance back for any challenge, two dabs with the right foot, enjoy the view, check the gauge, tug the pump… Let’s hear it for the riding mechanics of old – unsung heroes, indeed.

We parked the cars in the little-changed Place de la Poste at Brignais village, just minutes north of Sept Chemins, where scrutineering and pre-race photographs were taken of the competing cars 100 years ago. Amazingly to my mind, Mercedes had brought with them many artefacts from the original event, including engineer Sailer’s course-recce notes – very reminiscent of Jenks’s Mille Miglia ’55 notebook – and engineer Vischer’s January 26, 1914, hand-written original assessment of circuit and race requirements. In part his spidery hand reads: “Each superfluous kilogram on the car obviously has to be reduced, we have to factor in air escape” – aerodynamics – “considering the relatively small performance of the engine and the high speeds. In the descents the engine can reach 2800-3000rpm and has to withstand these engine speeds for shorter time spans, thereby increasing the speed up to 170-180kph. If this is achieved, the prospect of victory is there, given a skilled handling of the car.”

That was indeed given – Mercedes-Benz 1-2 wins today, Mercedes 1-2-3 one hundred years ago come July 4. Plus ça change.