This circuit for heroes attracted the cream of French and British competitors. But success came at a high price, says Damien Smith
This grey ribbon of road stretches into the distance and disappears — then pops up again, narrowing to a dot on the horizon. The 911 Turbo wafts along the smooth asphalt, urging its driver to press on with the assurance that it’s safe, despite nudging three figures. The ribbon dips slightly through a crossroads lined by houses that zap a message to the driver to rebuff the coaxing of the Porsche temptress: imagine the horror of a dog or, worse still, a child stepping into our path. Once clear of the creamy yellow buildings, the ribbon rises to that first brow as hedgerows and trees blur. More, more, whispers the 911.
I can’t do it. As the brow looms, I can’t ignore what might be over the other side, my mind’s eye focusing on a truck barrelling towards me encroaching into my already narrow lane. But there’s nothing there. I could have kept my foot in to face the brief sensation of stomach floating into throat rather than merely chest.
Now this roller-coaster plunges down, down, down. There is no fear this time. We punch into the dip and then up the other side to a brow that had been my horizon barely seconds before.
Giuseppe Guippone had not listened to any cautionary voices in his head on this road 94 years before. At whatever speed his Lion-Peugeot would certainly not have ‘wafted’ along on its spindly wheels, over a dusty surface that would only be sanitised by a sealed surface years later. But he kept his foot in and never stood a chance. As Guippone crested a rise during practice for the 1910 Coupe des Voiturettes two cyclists were making their way along the road. He swerved and hit the brakes but the car left the road and overturned into a ditch. Guippone had become the first victim of Boulogne’s lethal switchbacks.
The port of Boulogne-sur-Mer is only a short hop across the Channel; Calais, just 25 miles across the sea from England, is a half-hour drive up the road. No wonder the Boulogne Speed Week of the 1920s became almost as British as it was French.
It was actually an Englishman who was responsible for reviving motor racing on a circuit that had grown in popularity before WWI. Frank Pickett was an extremely wealthy entrepreneur who used his influence to help the AC du Nord close roads and build pedestrian barriers and grandstands. Pickett had made his money in the scrap metal business. But not with any old scrap metal: with the permission of the French government, he accumulated wartime shells, many of which were still live! The danger of this enterprise allowed him to form a private army to guard his stash.
From 1921 to ’28 the Speed Weeks became a summer staple. Each year speed events would kick off the action, for example a 3km flying-start speed trial, a kilometre standing-start and a hillclimb over 600 metres.
The Light Car race on the Sunday was the main event, run over 12 laps. The list of winners says much about how popular this was with the British: Henry Segrave took the honours in 1923 driving a 1.5-litre Talbot; he was succeeded by B S Marshall, who won back-to-back races in ’24 and ’25; George Eyston’s Bugatti conquered the track in ’26; then Malcolm Campbell took wins in ’27 and ’28.
But it was fitting that the home nation should dominate the annual event run on the Saturday, a sportscar handicap named after France’s greatest pre-WWI motor racing hero. Seven out of eight Georges Boillot Cups were won by Frenchmen: André Dubonnet, Paul Bablot, André Pisart, René Leonard, André Lagache and Robert Laly — while Chénard-Walckers took a quartet of wins between 1923 and ’26.
Naturally, the rivalry between the British and French competitors simmered. In 1925, Robert Sénéchal caused a diplomatic storm by lodging a protest against Marshall’s Bugatti. He claimed the car was overweight but, when it was on the scales, the Bug came in well within the limit. This did Sénéchal’s reputation no good at all.
The next year more protests dogged the Light Car race. This time Marcel Violet sparked British ire by questioning the legality of George Eyston’s winning Bugatti and that of second place finisher Captain Douglas, who was disqualified for coming in six pounds underweight.
But the action backfired on Violet. Eyston roared to the designated garage and ordered the engine be stripped. Three hours later his car had been given the all-clear and returned — along with a bill for 1000 Francs. This he took to the race committee, which passed it to Violet to pay. The deposit made with the protest was forfeited too; it was used to buy a medal with which to compensate Douglas.
The final Georges Boillot Cup, held in 1928, might have been claimed by the Bentley of ‘Tim’ Birkin, but it seems the French organisers did all they could to stop him from doing so. His handicap was such that he did not take the start until 1hr 5min after the first car had departed. Needing to average 80mph, Birkin managed ‘only’ 73.16mph — the fastest Boillot Cup ever, but still not good enough.
At least chivalry was still alive, regardless of nationality. In 1926, Ivy Cummings set the early pace in her Bugatti until seized brakes forced her into a ditch. When it became clear that she hadn’t a single coin in her pocket, the crowd showered her in Francs. The Autocar reported, “One grey-bearded old gentleman claimed the right to kiss the lady on both cheeks, which action was most vigorously approved by the numerous spectators gathered around the damaged car.”
The war memorial in St Martin-Boulogne, a mile or so east of the main town, became the circuit’s most familiar landmark in the 1920s. It marked the apex of the triangular track’s first turn, a tight hairpin formed by a fork in the road. The heavy braking required to get into the corner made it popular with photographers and spectators — it could catch out even the best. It was here that a brakeless Campbell asked too much of his supercharged Bugatti’s gearbox in the Georges Boillot Cup race of 1928; approaching too fast, he rammed home second gear and retired on the spot. Tramlines added to the hairpin’s difficulty, pulling tyres off the rims that dropped into them.
The braking zone is now one-way, against the direction of the circuit, and the memorial sits at the end of a car park: it’s physically impossible to re-enact those downchanges and turn-in. But the buildings that line the streets, and the church and cemetery that loom in the background of so many photographs, remain unchanged.
From here the drivers would accelerate hard, engine notes bouncing off the houses, as the circuit headed out of Boulogne, (now under the autoroute to Calais) along the road to St Omer towards the village of La Capelle and then an eight-mile blast through the first sequence of switchbacks. Most of this part of the circuit is now dual-carriageway, but you still get the idea as it cuts through the Forest of Boulogne.
The track climbs to an area of beautiful rolling farmland and then turns right to head towards the town of Desvres. The 23-mile course used in 1909 and ’10, and then again during the Speed Weeks of the 1920s, turned right at La Wast. But for 1911 and ’13 (there was no event in ’12), the track went further east to take in Longueville, lengthening it to 32 miles.
The twistiest section of track led to Desvres, today a bustling market town that is known for its heritage of pottery. Locals look on with bemusement as snapper Griffiths recreates a photo of a winding section of road that is like a mini Eau Rouge in reverse, albeit lined by quirky houses. Back in 1913, it seems this place did not charm the English. The Autocar cited Desvres as, “the dirtiest little town that ever defiled a glorious landscape, and herein is a steep ascent, covered with garbage and decaying corpses of dogs and cats, and all overlaid with an atmosphere better imagined than experienced.”
Once the drivers had left the grime of Desvres, they faced the roller-coaster blast through the villages of Wirwignes and Bamethun. The road climbs Mont Lambert and just beyond this is the area used for the start/finish for all but two of Boulogne’s events. The autoroute to Calais passes below it now and the little wooden pit stands are long gone.
Boillot’s luck finally held as he won at Boulogne at the fourth attempt, his 1913 spoils a fitting end to the first part of the town’s motor racing history. As early as 1899 Parisiens took part in rallies to Boulogne. Through the early years of the new century the AC du Nord, the enthusiastic Claude Crespel and newspaper L’Auto put on races there. Things got more serious in 1909. The stands erected for the Coupe des Voiturettes were not full that first year, but all the roads were lined with spectators. And they watched a tough three-way battle between the Lion-Peugeots of Guiponne, Jules Goux and Boillot. Guippone got the better of Goux to win in just under six hours.
Guippone’s death in practice in 1910 cast a big shadow on the race. As in the previous year, Goux set the pace until Boillot took the lead on lap two, only to suffer overheating problems. Paolo Zuccarelli won in a Hispano-Suiza.
For 1911, the main race was renamed Coupe de L’Auto and was run for four-cylinder cars with a maximum capacity of three litres. Over the revised, longer course Boillot proved to have the legs on the competition, while Zuccarelli came close to imitating Guippone; early reports suggested that both he and his mechanic had been killed when their Peugeot overturned. But, in fact, both men had survived. Meanwhile, to use a phrase that sounds all too familiar today, Boillot lost the race in the pits to Bablot’s Delage.
The Coupe de L’Auto was held over in Dieppe in 1912, but a year later it was back at Boulogne. Once again Goux and Boillot fought it out in Peugeots, but this time Georges’ luck held; Goux lost time with a fuel leak leaving Boillot to win comfortably at a speed of 63.15mph.
Three years later, Boillot, now an ace fighter pilot, succumbed in battle. But the event that would be named in his honour kept his memory alive, and the switchback roads of Le Circuit du Boulonnais lay in wait for a new generation of racing heroes.