It was what the French call ‘Un ete de la Saint-Martin”— an Indian Summer. Across continental Europe the weather had been hot, oppressive. During our night time run into France from the east — Cologne via Luxembourg, then Reims and Paris — the air had crackled with expectancy, flurries of lightning bursting on the horizon of the rolling plains in the north. By the morning the clouds had cleared but the heat remained as we cruised the final few miles south of Paris. There, nestled on a hill above two quintessentially French villages was our destination, the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry — for a brief but glorious inter-war period the focal point of the country’s motor racing industry.
You’re hard pushed to find the circuit today; harder still to gain entry. A few small signs point the way from the village of Linas up the short climb to the tack gates but, unless you have good reason, this is probably as far as you will get From the wrong side of the fence you will see the great brooding superstructure that supports the East Banking, to the left the rear of the enormous grandstand that once ran the length of the start-finish straight
At the gate you will find the reason for the lack of bien venue. For the last 50 years the Montlhéry circuit has been run by UTAC — France’s version of Britain’s motoring research facility, MIRA. Today, well over 90 per cent of its day-to-day usage is thanks to the French car industry and military. Unexpected tourists are most certainly not welcome, and only after surrendering our passports at the gate could we make our way inside and start our tour of this Gallic Brooklands.
I had been concerned that Montlhéry’s transition into a testing site would mean that our objectives — nostalgia, evocative locations, photo-friendly scenery — might be in short supply. Photographer Andrew Yeadon snorted in a derisory way when I voiced my worries. “The French,” he declared, “never pull anything down. They just build around it”. He was right All across the circuit there are reminders of the autodrome’s past — from the steep, sweeping banking to the pitlane buildings that could only have been built fora French race track. Perimeter walls that lined the circuit from the day it was built in 1924 stand untouched three-quarters of a century later. Position yourself equidistant between the banking and before your eyes is a 360 degree panorama. Close them and, in the silence, it is easy to imagine how it would have been in its heyday.
That heyday came in the decade after its construction. Between 1925 and 1937, Montlhéry was the unofficial home of the French Grand Prix, losing out on only a handful of occasions to the likes of Miramas and Reims. In that period French motor racing enthusiasts were treated to a series of world firsts that earned the circuit a place in history. They were also witness to events that left the racing world reeling and then, without even realising it, consigned the venue to play out its days as a bit part actor on the world stage.
Montlhéry’s existence is thanks to one man, Alexandre Lamblin. A wealthy industrialist who built cars and aircraft radiators, he was also a motorsport fanatic. Keen to establish the region south of Paris at the forefront of the motor industry, he bought a plot of land on the Saint-Eutrope plain and commissioned an engineer, Raymond Jamin, to create him an autodrome. The result of six months hard work, 1000 tons of steel, 2000 labourers and 8000 cubic metres of concrete was a 2.5km banked oval that would allow cars of the time to circulate at speeds approaching 130mph.
While the circuit was soon the object of great attention from drivers attempting speed records, work continued apace on the amalgamation of a long, twisting road circuit that would allow the track to host racing proper. The extension was completed in time to allow Montlhéry to host the French Grand Prix of 1925, the first time that the race took place in the confines of a specially constructed circuit. It was not an auspicious start.
The 19th Grand Prix de l’ACF was held in late July, but in conditions very different to those of our visit. Dark clouds raced overhead, whipped along by a wind that buffeted the 30,000 strong crowd. They had come in anticipation of a master class, for heading the field was the great Antonio Ascari. On paper Ascari would face stiff competition from his team-mate Giuseppe Campari, and the Delages driven by Robert Benoist and Louis Wagner, but in reality the Italian was in unstoppable form. Driving the formidable Alfa Romeo P2, Ascari had trounced the opposition in the previous Belgian GP at Spa. So far ahead of the game were the Italians — and so frustrated were the Belgian fans by their superiority — the P2’s designer Vittorio Jano had even mocked the crowd by organising a mid-race picnic at a table in the pitlane.
If Ascari was expecting to walk to an easy victory in France, he wasn’t taking anything for granted. His competition record outside Italy was poor — a litany of bad luck and mechanical failure — and while he approached this season of world championship races with great zeal, he had not been thrilled by what he saw on a preliminary spring visit to Montlhery.
“This circuit presents difficulties and hazards that are useful to neither men nor machines,” he stated. “Along only two stretches and up on that splendid banked section can you do anything approaching full speed. For the remainder of the track, you must slow down and be very careful you don’t go off the track.” His words were to be painfully prophetic. The flag dropped early on race day, the drivers beginning their marathon exertions at 8am. Ahead lay many hours of energy sapping driving around g-force inducing banking, through tight hairpins and crests that sent the cars airborne. At 620 miles this was to be the longest one-day race yet held. Ascari began as he had finished in Belgium; streaking into a lead which, even after just 10 laps, seemed unassailable.
After about two hours of running, he pulled off the banking for a routine pitstop. His lead was so great, said his crew, he could ease right back and protect his car. Whether or not he slowed down is a matter of some debate, for although his lap times dropped off, it had begun to rain. On lap 23 the Alfa team became anxious. The Italian had failed to return. Racing back towards the banked section, Ascari had misjudged the conditions through an almost flat-out left-hander. Dropping a left wheel off the road at the apex, the Alfa made contact with a series of posts used to line the edge of the track. Sliding and then somersaulting along the track, the car flung its helpless driver out before cruelly crushing him. He died in the ambulance on the way to hospital.
Alfa subsequently withdrew from the race, leaving Benoist to win his home Grand Prix. At the muted post-race ceremony the Frenchman drove his Delage to the site of Ascari’s demise and gently laid his victory wreath beside the track. Montlhery’s first Grand Prix had cost the life of the world’s finest driver.
It was two years before Montlhery hosted the Grand Prix again, an event notable both for the domination of the Delages and the shock absence of the Bugattis which were withdrawn at the last minute when Ettore Bugatti realised the chasm in performance between the two marques. A few years later, 1931, he would get his revenge when Achille Varzi and Louis Chiron’s Type 51 took the 10-hour race ahead of Campari’s 8C Monza Alfa.
Throughout that race the drivers complained vociferously about the bumpiness of the track, for the summer heat had forced the concrete sections along the startline to expand. Seventy years later it’s easy to understand their apprehension, for even in Motor Sport’s superb handling BMW 328Ci the reverberations from the car as you sweep off the banking and past the grandstand are considerable. At speeds of 130mph and more, the drivers were literally bounced out of their seats.
Little had changed two years later when Giuseppe Campari held off the close attentions of Philippe Etancelin. Again the circuit earned a reputation as a car-breaker, although the presence of five Alfas in the top six was a fascinating clue to the outcome of the 1934 race — a race that saw the first ever appearance of the mighty Silver Arrows outside Germany.
Both Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz took the event particularly seriously, practising intently before the race weekend. However, outright speed had proved itself to rarely be enough to win Grands Prix at Montlhery, and so it was again. Undoubtedly fast, the streamlined racers could not withstand the punishment of the early laps. One by one they dropped by the wayside, leaving Louis Chiron’s Tipo B Alfa to claim an unexpected victory.
By 1935, however, things were very different A season’s development work meant the German machines were now fast and bombproof. Not even a virtuoso performance from Tazio Nuvolari could prevent the inevitable, and when his ageing Alfa eventually retired, the door was left open for Rudolf Caracciola to lead home a Mercedes procession. It was the beginning of the end for Montlhery as a Grand Prix venue.
The race continued there for the next two seasons, but in a fit of rather Gallic pique, the organisers chose to ignore the presence of the German teams altogether and run the event for sportscars instead. The move proved universally unpopular, although at least they were guaranteed a French winner… So while all around Europe race fans flocked to hear the whining of the supercharged Silver Arrows, at Montlhéry they were treated to the sight of Bugattis, Talbots and Delahayes driven by ageing racers or local hotshoes. In 1938 the circuit was stripped of the right to host the French Grand Prix. It would never hold it again.
After the war, racing returned to Montlhéry, although never in quite the same fashion as in the 1930s. In the late 1950s and early ’60s it held a string of important sportscar races such as the Paris 1000Km. Great names of the period took part in those events, the Rodriguez brothers earning Ferrari victories in 1961 and ’62. By 1964 the field had grown even stronger with Graham Hill, Jo Bonnier, Jackie Stewart, Chris Amon, Edgar Barth and many others making an appearance. Once again, however, tragedy would strike the circuit, this time with the most serious consequences.
Halfway into that 1964 race, torrential rains arrived, leaving the banking in a treacherous state. Several cars had already crashed out when Peter Lindner lost control of his Jaguar E-type and careered into the open pitlane at unabated speed. There, waiting to pull away was the Abarth of Franco Patria. In the collision both drivers and three race officials lost their lives.
The tragedy cast a heavy shadow over Montlhery’s suitability as a venue for championship races, and while events did continue there until the early 1970s, it was never at the same level. For David Piper, winner of the main sportscar race there with Mike Parkes in 1966, it was a great shame.
“We all used to look forward to Montlhery,” he remembers. “We were treated remarkably well by our hosts and, of course, racing there was always worthwhile — we used to get starting and prize money. From the beginning there was a good atmosphere. I can remember Duncan Hamilton driving over from England in his D-type and just parking it up at the hotel overnight before the race.
“But it was a dangerous place. I saw cars going over the top of the banking and it was terribly bumpy — a bit like Monza when we used to do the Supercortemaggiore race on both bankings. Because of the angle of Montlhery’s oval, much steeper than Brooklands, and the condition of the track, the cars used to get one hell of a hammering. The load on the suspension meant you were on the bump stops. We never raced on the full-length circuit because the FIA wouldn’t certify it but even so the road course section was still demanding. There were quite a few jumps and off-camber turns, rather like a mini-Nürburgring. Today, of course, it is a shadow of its former self, which is a great shame.”
Racing has since returned to Montlhery, the 1990s seeing the brief resurrection of the Paris 1000Km for an international GT race and a series of historic and vintage racing events. The future, however, is uncertain. With the banking so useful for daily testing, but a complete anachronism when it comes to modem racing, it seems as if Montlhery’s glory days are very much in the past.