For two years, either side of World War I, France’s second city hosted the prestigious GP. But first Mercedes and then Alfa Romeo dashed all hopes of a home win
By Chris Willows

It was the race every manufacturer wanted to win. Having created the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France in 1906, France hosted the single most important automobile contest in the world. Although the ACF subsequently awarded its august title (not merely the French GP, please note) to its epic road races back to 1895, it was at Le Mans that the true story of the Grand Prix began. The race graced Dieppe on three subsequent occasions before moving to the less memorable Amiens in 1913, but in 1914 the great honour was bestowed upon France’s second city, and self-appointed capital of gastronomy, Lyon. It was an excellent choice and provided a fitting curtain call to the era of the heroic age and, 10 years later, what is generally regarded as the finest race of a golden age.

The circuit chosen was roughly triangular in shape and based around the town of Givors, 12 miles south of Lyon on the left bank of the Rhône. The local authorities committed more than £10,000 in financial assistance as well as undertaking to improve the roads.

The start was a few hundred metres south of the village of Les Sept Chemins on the RN86 (now the D386) from which the cars would pass a magnificent grandstand seating 4000 people and allegedly costing £12,000 to erect. From here the course continued on a gently flowing but fast and well-surfaced route for five miles. It is wider and re-profiled now but the character remains faithful to the original. Not so the route through Givors where in 1914 the surface changed to pavé. Having circumnavigated the west of the town the route turned sharp right onto the RN88 (now the D488), the circuit faithfully tracking the course of the River Gier for 10 miles of tortuous, narrow and unpredictable road. Driving the same route today gives a very strong impression of the challenge that this road must have presented to a 1914 racing car. Along much of its length it is bordered by unyielding rock faces and stone parapets to prevent the unlucky or unwise from tumbling 100 metres to the riverbed. Tightening apexes, never out of second or third gear – it would have been tiring for the driver and a real car-breaker.

On reaching La Madeleine the third and final leg offers a yet different character. A long and winding climb eventually leads to an eight-mile switchback straight – Les Montagnes Russes – on the D342 back towards Sept Chemins and the start of another lap. This section would have been flat out through fields of sunflowers and maize, punctuated by two or three small villages that look very much as they would have done almost a century ago, albeit without today’s roundabouts. But Lyons-Givors held one last surprise. At the end of the straight one can look down at what would have been the start and finish area in the valley below, where the gaily decorated tribunes and the hordes of spectators gathered expectantly, and where another testing lap would be completed. However, to get there, drivers had to negotiate a sharp right-hand bend where the road falls steeply away into a succession of challenging corners culminating in the 180deg Piège de la Mort, the ominously-named ‘death trap’ – in essence a long downhill esses. Once that obstacle was overcome it was a short downhill blast to the fourche at Sept Chemins, hook first gear round the Café Restaurant du Terminus and hurtle into the next lap. It was a 23.38-mile circuit to deliver the ultimate test for both man and machine, and 20 tours constituted a gruelling 468-mile race, arguably the toughest racing challenge since the 1905 Gordon Bennett event in the Auvergne.

France was confident of victory: after the ignominy of losing to Fiat and Mercedes in 1907/08, her hero Georges Boillot had won both the 1912 and ’13 Grands Prix and vanquished the huge-engined Fiats in the former. From now forward finesse took precedence over sheer might under a new formula restricting engine size to 4.5-litres and a maximum weight of 1100kgs. The Peugeots had run advanced four-valve, twin-ohc engines designed by Ernest Henry in 1912/13, and the 1914 car was another step forward with a neat slipper body sporting a tapering pointed tail that housed an upright spare wheel, and, for the first time, four-wheel braking.

If Peugeot failed to take a hat-trick for France then Delage was waiting in the wings, having won the Indianapolis 500 just weeks before the Grand Prix. Between them the two French favourites faced home-grown competition from Alda and Lyon marque Schneider, seven Italian cars including Fiat (never easily discounted), two Belgian Nagants and two Swiss Piccard-Pictets (which probably could be), while from Britain three Sunbeams, fresh from winning the TT, and three Vauxhalls added variety. Rounding off the 37 starters were five white Mercedes. These were entirely new cars powered by an engine built and tested in the aero-engine department. Although its appearance was rugged the Stuttgart car was no great beauty, lacking the elegance of its competitor from Sochaux. Nor did it have the advantage conferred by all-round braking.

So confident were the French that the teams’ principal drivers, Boillot and Jules Goux for Peugeot, and Albert Guyot and Arthur Duray for Delage, sauntered back from Indy and only reached Lyon in time for two unscheduled practice sessions that were held in mid-June at the unholy hour of 3.30am. By contrast Mercedes had made two long visits to Lyon and painstakingly developed its unraced machine in the manner that would become the company’s hallmark. Its drivers actually drove their Grand Prix cars from Stuttgart to its well-ordered headquarters nearby.

Lyon and the surrounding district teemed with visitors keen to witness the great race, and although the start was set for the unusually civilised hour of 8am, the roads to Givors were blocked solid and many missed the start – a scene redolent of Silverstone in pre-bypass days. There was an air of consternation among the crowd and the suspicion that this might be the last such contest for a while: Archduke Ferdinand of Austria had been assassinated in Sarajevo just one week before the Grand Prix, firing the tinderbox that triggered the eruption of the Great War.

Despite the gathering clouds there was a festival atmosphere. The impressive tribunes adorned with clusters of flags were full to bursting. The fortunate occupants had a magnificent view both of the start and the tricky descent round the Piège de la Mort, the hillside there thick with people. They could see the sprint to the hairpin and the café, itself relieved of its roof to provide probably the most sought after grandstand of all. On our visit silver-tongued photographer Mitch talked the cafe owner into letting him take pictures from the balcony overlooking the hairpin to capture a sense of the 95-year-old scene.

The cars started in pairs on the widened road, which greatly added to the exhilaration that buzzed through the stands and among the claimed 300,000 spectators crammed around the course. Ferenc Szisz, winner of the first Grand Prix, and Carl Joerns in an Opel led off at eight sharp followed 30 seconds later by another two, but the third row brought the man all Frenchmen expected to win – Georges Boillot, who catapulted off the line. Ten minutes after the first car the last Mercedes set off. To the delight of the partisan crowd it was Boillot’s blue car that appeared first at the esses having overtaken all four cars ahead of him, but joy turned to bewilderment when the times for the first lap came in. Max Sailer had lapped even faster in his Mercedes and proceeded to take time out of Boillot on each of the first five laps. However, Boillot took heart from Sailer’s retirement with a broken engine as he joined Pilette’s Mercedes in the dead car park.

Boillot was driving his heart out but the Mercedes were clearly faster on the straights and more stable in the corners, which more than compensated for the advantage of the Peugeot’s brakes. Peugeot also had major tyre troubles, probably due to Boillot’s supreme cornering efforts, while team-mate Goux later blamed the spare wheel location for the Peugeot’s instability.

By half distance and after three and a half hours of racing France’s pride led by just over a minute from Christian Lautenschlager in his Mercedes. The 1908 GP winner had made a steady start while Sailer set the pace but had risen inexorably up the order. The leaders were followed by Goux’s Peugeot and the remaining Mercedes of Louis Wagner and Otto Salzer. They in turn were followed by the two Sunbeams of Resta and Chassagne, Fagnano in the only Fiat to show a good turn of speed and two of the disappointing Delages.

The cat-and-mouse game continued with Boillot holding his German pursuers at bay by between one and three minutes. Then the relentless Lautenschlager pressed home his attack, reducing the deficit to 14 seconds on lap 17 and taking the lead on the next. Boillot hung on gamely but his car was crippled. He started the last lap 67 seconds down, but Lady Luck had not yet struck her cruellest blow. The Peugeot went onto three cylinders and then expired completely. Boillot, the mercurial patriot who tried everything to uphold la gloire for France, was crestfallen, his hair matted with dust and sweat because he lost his cap during the titanic struggle. The crowd were stunned. Mercedes finished 1-2-3 with Goux’s Peugeot fourth, some nine minutes behind the winner. Dario Resta’s Sunbeam was a respectable fifth but only 11 of the 37 cars finished.

In just over a month the world was plunged into the greatest conflict of all time. Both the Mercedes and Peugeot cars won the Indianapolis 500 during the war years, proving that they were the greatest cars of their generation, but Boillot was never to drive another race. The daring genius from Franche-Comté joined the Armée de l’Air and was shot down in a dogfight with five Fokkers over Verdun.

For 1924 the AC du Rhône applied to run the GP again (it was also awarded the title Grand Prix d’Europe) under a new formula – 2-litre engines and a minimum weight of 650kgs – and devised a shorter 14.4-mile circuit using only part of the 1914 route due to the policing and protection of spectators, and the circuit was lined with palings. The new circuit followed the original from the start to Givors but traced the valley of the Gier for only a third of the earlier course. It then turned right up the minor D34 to rejoin the fast straight along Les Montagnes Russes and back down to the hairpin. Drivers did not have to deal with the car-breaking river section but they did have to master the difficult downhill esses to the popular photographer’s location at Sept Chemins, the restaurant now under the patronage of one J Bouvier. Covering 35 laps the 1924 race would be 503 miles, slightly longer than the 1914 event.

The high-quality entry contained a fascinating range of 22 cars and drivers. Three six-cylinder Sunbeams – now supercharged like half of the field – aiming to repeat Sir Henry Segrave’s 1923 victory faced six-cylinder Fiat 805s driven by Felice Nazzaro, winner of the 1907 and 1922 Grands Prix, and hotshoe Pietro Bordino. Delage eschewed forced induction, as did Bugatti, but brought three neat V12 machines for Robert Benoist, competing in his first GP, Albert Divo and René Thomas, two veterans from the pre-war era. The Patron brought five brand-new Bugatti T35s for the debut appearance of this jewel that would prove so successful in the years to come.

Alfa Romeo made its GP debut at Lyon too. The Jano-designed P2s were driven by Antonio Ascari, the portly opera singer Giuseppe Campari, Louis Wagner and one Enzo Ferrari. Il Commendatore lost the chance to add a Grand Prix victory to his illustrious CV when he was taken ill and returned to Italy.

The rolling massed start threw up a cloud of dust because the ACF had organised several support races in the build-up to the Grand Prix. The result was a road that had already degraded badly. Segrave, bearing number one, shot into the lead with Ascari’s P2 following closely. Bordino’s Fiat moved up from fifth to take Campari, Kenelm Lee Guinness’s Sunbeam and then Ascari, and at the end of the third lap the Italian passed Segrave as he pitted for attention to his misfiring Sunbeam. Bordino, Ascari and Campari traded fastest laps, which rose from 70.2 to 75.5mph, before Bordino lost his brakes and stopped for attention, eventually to retire. As the race moved into a more settled period, Ascari led Guinness and Campari, the Briton taking his turn at the head of the field, Sunbeam’s last in the Grand Prix, before he retired with engine problems.

Ascari and Campari continued to circulate in close company, although the unsupercharged Delages did well to keep them honest, and so the race ran out… Except that the Lyon gremlins had another last-minute trick to play. Three laps from the end Ascari’s Alfa slowed. He was passed first by Campari and on the next lap by Divo. In a cruel irony mirroring that of Boillot 10 years earlier, Ascari’s car expired leaving the pits with a lap to go.

Campari took the flag a minute ahead of Divo with Benoist a further 10 minutes back. The Milanese had driven for just over seven hours at an average of almost 71mph and apart from being the recipient of the first cash prize at a GP – 100,000 francs – the burly gourmet was probably more delighted with the award of a huge Lyon sausage, 12 feet long and weighing 10 stone. It was a wonderful win for a new team that took on and beat the best in the greatest race of its time at its first try, presaging the miracles Brawn GP has achieved this year.

Of the 20 drivers who took part in 1924, no fewer than eight had raced before the war and two – Nazzaro and Wagner – had taken part in the very first GP almost 20 years earlier. Yet it was the younger men who won the day. Nazzaro had driven his last Grand Prix. The Sunbeams were the fastest cars, but Bosch had persuaded them to change magnetos and when they were changed back after the race the cars ran perfectly. Despite this, later in the race Segrave managed the fastest lap of all at 76.25mph.

All the Fiats retired, never to race in the GP again. Count Zborowski’s Miller with Sammy Davis in the jump seat retired when the bolts holding its front axle sheared. The Count died later in the year at Monza at the wheel of a Mercedes, like his father. The Bugattis were slow, finishing 40 minutes behind the Italian cars, but the T35s’ days in the sun lay ahead. And Lyon was to hold but one more Grand Prix, a lukewarm affair in the city centre in 1947.

Lyon may not inspire the hearts of enthusiasts in the way that Monza, Spa or the Nürburgring do – but it should do, for it hosted two of the most memorable and exciting Grands Prix of all time. As for the famous restaurant at Sept Chemins, it is still there and now called Cantina Road. Inside is a photograph of the hostelry taken in 1914 with a Peugeot racing past.

That warmed my heart.