Track tests: Athy

England passed up the chance to host to the world's most famous race. Ireland stepped willingly into the breach and set a new standard, explains Paul Fearnley

Stand level with what you consider to be the braking point for a comer, and you cannot be anything other than impressed when today's F1 car banshees past, still hard on its 18,000rpm gas. In contrast, Camille Jenatzy's Mercedes 60 revved to not more than 1000rpm, had a top speed of 80mph and little in the way of brakes. Yet no car/driver combination has had a greater impact than the Belgian 'Red Devil' and his Gordon Bennett Trophy winner. Their spectacular performance on July 2,1903, would have been the talk of the town even in cosmopolitan London, the hub of Empire. As it was, nimbyism, a lack of suitable roads (canals and railways had long been given priority) and an unswerving speed limit meant that the race was hosted by Ireland, a colonial backwater.

The Emerald Isle had for centuries been plundered by landlords and plagued by famine. But a new century had brought new hope. Times were changing. Queen Victoria was dead. Ireland was reinventing itself; asserting itself And the Gordon Bennett race through the counties of Kildare, Wicklow and Carlow, south-east of Dublin turned the eyes of the world upon Ireland.

The future had arrived - at 80mph. Monstrous, seven-leagued, 1000kg machines, commanded by high-mounted supermen, would cover in an hour what was once considered to be a day's distance. Today's racing parlance talks in tenths of a second; this, however, was night and day. A new dawn.

James Gordon Bennett had seen it - even though he had never driven a car. A brilliant publicist, he promoted the New York Herald Tribune from his Paris base via a series of high-profile events. It was he who funded Stanley's search for Livingstone, who launched transatlantic yacht racing and who gave motor racing its twist on the starting handle. The Gordon Bennett Trophy would swiftly be outgrown by the industry running from 1900 to '05, whereupon it was replaced by GP racing — but its nationalistic slant (three cars per country) and guaranteed worldwide publicity were the keys to its importance. 'Win on Sunday, sell on Monday' had been coined.

The 1903 version was a little different, however. It was run on a Thursday: a public holiday deemed suitably distant from the Sabbath. And it was held on a closed-road course. The first three Gordon Bennetts had been city-to-city affairs, each starting from Paris — the hub of the early car industry — and finishing in Lyon, Bordeaux and Innsbruck respectively. But when the indefatigable Selwyn Francis Edge arrived in Innsbruck first to give Napier a surprise victory in '02, a problem was created: it was the victor's duty to hold the next race. But where?

Several possible English sites were put forward, but all were deemed unsuitable. The will, it seemed, just wasn't there. Which is when Claude Johnson, secretary of the Automobile Club of Great Britain, suggested Ireland. An idea that was met with Eurovision Song Contest-like fervour by R J Mecredy, proprietor of Ireland's Motor News.

Johnson's idea was not as outlandish as it might first appear. What road network Ireland had was of reasonable quality, courtesy of a cheap workforce and a lack of other transport infrastructure. And, vitally, Ireland had the free-wheeling spirit England did not. This was the birth of a motoisport love affair, and the subsequent Light Locomotive (Ireland) Act, pushed through Parliament by the Hon. John Scott Montagu, was the catalyst for the closed-road culture that still exists in Ireland and the Isle of Man.

There was, though, a hitch: the scale of the event. The regulations stipulated that it had to be between 550 and 650km. The lie of the land and roads available meant a city-to-city race was out of the question in Ireland, so Great Britain's first international race would be held on a circuit. The 1902 Ardennes race had been the first to adopt this self-contained approach, but Ireland's Gordon Bennett, thanks to Mecredy's determination to show the rest of the world how such events should be run, was to provide the blueprint

And its showcase arrival was timely, for it was held one month after the gladiatorial Paris-Madrid, which claimed the lives of a dozen people — drivers, mechanics (including Belfast's Willie Nixon) and spectators — and brought to a foreshortened close the era of city-to-city. Circuits, easier to marshal, were the future — if motor racing was to have a future. For had this Gordon Bennett added to the death tally, the sport would have been knocked back years.

Mecredy and his committee eventually decided upon a figure-of-eight layout, with Athy (pronounced 'a tie') at its hub. The 'spine' of the track ran north-east from Athy towards Kilcullen, which was the T-junction between the Eastern and Western circuits. A loop of east followed by west would be tackled three times, followed by one more final run west, to provide 327 competitive miles.

From a tight right at Kilcullen Cross, the Eastern Circuit headed south towards Carlow, via Ballitore and Castledermot. At Carlow it turned right around the courthouse and headed towards Athy.

It's here that we join it, heading north along the modern-day R417, following the River Barrow, then crossing it via a sharp left-right over the gracefully hump-backed Maganey Bridge. The next stretch of road is little used today, and its narrowness gives the closest approximation of the demands Jenatzy and his rivals faced. The French criticised the track for being a 'country lane', but although it lacked autoroute grandeur, there was no doubting that its variety of bends, ascents and descents provided a challenge worthy of this famous prize.

Turning right into Athy, again crossing the Barrow, the circuit rejoined the 'spine', nowadays the N78, and headed out across the flatlands towards the evocatively named Moat of Ardscull. The road turned right then left here after a long straight, the racers announcing their impending arrival via a dust plume — this despite liberal use of Westrumite, a concoction of tallow, turpentine and water meant to keep the dust down. Anticipation built as the dot grew larger at a pace never before seen, and excitement would bubble over as the car braked, swerved and slid just fractions away from the stone walls.

Today the Moat is bypassed by a new piece of road, so all is calm and reflective — barring a gang of noisy lawnmowers trimming a lawn opposite. The trees are mature now, but in 1903 this 55ft high Normanbuilt redoubt was one of the most popular vantage points, a wooden grandstand seating 300 (at half a guinea each), most of its incumbents having slept overnight in tents provided (at one-and-half guineas each). There was money in this motor racing lark.

From Ardscull there followed a steady climb to the start-finish area, situated half a mile south of the Ballyshannon crossroads. Forty miles completed, the competitors now faced 52 miles of the Western Circuit.

Reminded by a colour coded card, drivers turned left, not right, at Kilcullen and headed across the wide spaces of The Curragh. Famous for its horse racing connections, it was on this limestone plain that the cars would take off at full bore over an awkward bump, their focused occupants hardly noticing the sudden hardening of the terrain.

We certainly notice the change in traffic, though, as we turn left onto the M7, the main Dublin-Cork road. Its dual-carriageway becomes single lane on the approach to Kildare, and we are nose-to-tail. Our painful progress forces home the scope of this circuit. We've covered less than half of it and already a ferry ticket is burning a hole in my pocket. We are unlikely to see all 92 miles today.

From Kildare to Maryborough, via the sweeps of Monasterevin, the road was fast but narrow, and raised above unwelcoming bogs. A sharp left at Maryborough led to the most spectacular section of the course, the twisting Aghnahilly Bends on the descent into Stradbally. It was here, beneath the Rock of Dunamase fortress, that Charles Jarrott suffered the race's most spectacular crash. The winner of the 1902 Circuit of Ardennes was confident of success and was moving into contention on the second lap when his Napier broke its steering. It veered from bank to bank before somersaulting, throwing Jarrott out.

His mechanic Cecil Bianchi, at 17 the race's youngest competitor, was trapped under the wreckage. In shock, Jarrott oversaw his removal before fainting. He awoke to find himself under a sheet in a farmyard; the crowd had believed him dead. He sat up and saw another body beneath a blanket beside him. Fearing the worst, he asked, "Bianchi, are you alive?" The shrouded outline replied. The race had escaped.

The road through Stradbally was wide, the place appearing surprisingly prosperous. An enclave of Hugenot refugees, Panhard's stalwart Belgian-born Parisian, Rene de Knyff, was this village's favourite. Le Chevalier, at 39 the race's oldest competitor, embodied all that was sporting about this hobby that was fast becoming a business. People marvelled at his smooth driving and his calmness at the controls — one of which was sited here in Stradbally.

The others were at Athy, Kilcullen, Monasterevin, Casdedermot and Carlow. These, in fact, were non-competitive links that broke up the circuits into special stages. Drivers were forced to brake hard at the 'in' control. They were then led by a cyclist through a neutral section, where no work could be done to the cars, to the 'out' control. The times spent in these zones varied, from one minute at Kilcullen Cross to 12 at Athy, but these were increased when it was realised that the cars were lapping faster (a shade over 50mph on both circuits) than had been anticipated. Just before leaving a control, at least two minutes after the car ahead, a driver would be given a docket showing his total stationary time. These were then handed in each time he passed through Kilcullen Cross and taken to the start-finish area.

The efficiency was impressive, courtesy of 26 men per control and 84 silver chronometers, 12 at each control and one per car. The people most in the dark, however, were the racers. De Knyff later admitted that he had been too cautious in the early laps, and that had he known of Jenatzy's threat earlier, he might have been able to respond.

The French contingent had been very confident of success. Barring Edge's 1902 Gordon Bennett victory, they had ruled the roost Indeed, the magnificent Trophy depicted the Goddess of Victory aboard a speeding Panhard. Two of its cars were here in Ireland. And France also had the streamlined Mors, the fastest car of its day, with which Fernand Gabriel had won the Paris-Madrid.

Napier was determined to uphold local honour. No expense was spared on its three-car team, but luck did not run with it J W Stocks, in his first car race, crashed even before Jarrott, while Edge, although competitive on the opening lap, was beset by overheating and tyre trouble, his Dunlops unable to cope with the power of the new K5 model. He would finish a distant fifth on the road, but was later disqualified because of a push start from a control.

With the American contingent — two Wintons and one Peerless —

A fire at its Cannstatt works destroyed the three 90 models being prepared for the race. Had it not been for the enthusiasm and silver tongue of Emil Jellinek, the larger-than-life Czech whose daughter these famous cars were named after, this race would have been a walkover for the French. For it was he who encouraged millionaires James Foxhall-Keene and Baron de Caters to enter and race their 60 models, once they had been modified by the factory. Even more importantly, he convinced another rich American, Clarence Gray Dinsmore, to hand his car over to Jenatzy. Given this wiry all-action driver's reputation for crashing, this was a major achievement.

Jenatzy was not mentioned as potential winner by the pundits. A pioneer of the power-slide, he was spectacular but surely unsuited to the confines of this particular track. Plus he was using a second-string car. As it turned out, he drove the race of his life, and his tried-and-tested car proved ideal for the circumstances. The French still won the team prize, all three of its cars reaching the finish, led by de Knyff in his last race, but ahead of them was a lone white car. Only one of the three Mercedes did not break its back axle. But one was enough.

The circuit had lived up to all expectations, providing a fair and competitive race, outside forces kept to a minimum thanks to the presence of 7000 police and 1000 marshals. Their alertness meant that the emphasis was placed on driver skill. Of which there was plenty.

The surprise early leader had been Foxhall-Keene, proving he was more than a have-a-go playboy by setting the fastest opening lap. Gabriel got into his stride on the second lap, setting the fastest time over the first run of the Western Circuit, but thereafter his Mors was regularly hampered by fuel starvation and was to finish fourth. Henry Farman, the British arm of the Panhard team, was fastest on the third and fifth laps (both Eastern legs), but it was the unexpected consistent of Jenatzy and his Continental-shod Mercedes (yes, there was a tyre war), and his breathtaking flair during a very wet fourth lap, that gave him a handsome lead.

Hunched over his wheel, cape flying behind him, the animated man with the red beard made an indelible impression on the vast crowd. One of the French crew, seeking to leave a permanent mark, carved the word Paris into a stone wall while waiting at the Stradbally control. But for his drive in a race that saved motorsport, and pointed to its future, it is Jenatzy that people still speak of.