A RIDDLE UNSOLVED.—Views differ as to what finally caused the retirement of Georges Boillot and his blue Peugeot, only French car to challenge the all-conquering white Mercedes team in the dramatic French Grand Prix at Lyons on the eve of war in 1914. Indecision about which type of tyres to fit may have delayed the great French driver, seen here changing the Peugeot’s back wheels in the pits. This is but one of more than 300 fine pictures in T. A. S. 0. Mathieson’s new book on the pre-First-World-War French GP races.
I have in the past been disturbed by serious discrepancies in race reporting and have published tables showing the confusion that can arise from comparing the reports of current Grand Prix races in several technical journals. The causes of retirements, the laps on which cars retire and how long they were in the pits often vary considerably when the different reports, in reputedly responsible journals, are critically analysed.
The splendid book about the French Grands Prix of 1906-1914 by T. A. S. 0. Mathieson (see ” Book Reviews ” in this issue) raises the question of how accurately the early motor races have been recorded. Spending more time than I should have devoted to investigating this matter, I studied the reports on the French G.P. races of this period by Gerald Rose, Kent Karslake, Laurence Pomeroy and T. A. S. 0. Mathieson,* concentrating on the reasons these eminent authors devote to the causes of cars retiring from these historic races.
I found that very considerable agreement is reached by these four authorities, possibly because they have based their texts on the same contemporary reports! But Mathieson’s book is far more detailed than the others, especially when describing the 1908, 1912, 1913 and 1914 races, while Rose’s book covers only the 1906, 1907 and 1908 Grands Prix, and is more concerned with the earlier town-to-town races, his accounts of the G.P. contests being quite brief. Pomeroy is concerned with the technicalities of G.P. car development and publishes only superficial, but clear and concise, supporting race accounts.
The main comfort, however, is that few discrepancies are apparent—and if contemporary reports were relied on when writing the books concerned, it is unlikely that any errors committed in reporting will ever be discovered.
Dealing with the 1908 race, Karslake reports a smashed pinion as putting Wagner’s Fiat out of the running, whereas Mathieson is content to call it gearbox trouble. And it is amusing that while Karslake details Callois’ exit from the 1912 race as due to his Sunbeam running a big-end, Mathieson dismisses this more generally as engine trouble, and when writing of the 1913 race it is Karslake who dismisses Pope’s Itala as going out of the running with engine trouble, which Mathieson details as a run big-end. Karslake discusses the disqualification of Goux (Peugeot) and de Palma (Fiat) from the 1912 G.P. when they took on fuel illegally after their petrol pipes had fractured, but Pomeroy merely records the broken fuel lines.
The important thing is that in the main the authors agree, even if Karslake takes pains to tell us that a seized timing wheel bearing eliminated Joerns’ Opel from the 1913 G.P., whereas Mathieson simplifies this as engine trouble. The serious discrepancies concern the reporting of the dramatic 1914 French Grand Prix, when it might have been assumed that reporting would have become easier as interest expanded and more was known about motor racing. The explanation is probably bound up in the proximity of World war, which curtailed investigation into the aftermath of this great road race, and the distaste in France, where the facts could have been resolved, of the convincing German victory. Be that as it may, we find Seiler, whose Mercedes was given the task of setting the pace and trying to break up the opposition at Lyons, described by Karslake and Mathieson as coming to rest by the roadside with a broken con.-rod (Karslake says it was poking out of the crankcase) but Pomeroy giving the car’s demise as due to a broken crankshaft. Admittedly, one could well result in t’other! Even more remarkable—or not remarkable, in view of French indisposition to discuss a very sore matter—is the statement by Karslake that Georges Boillot’s blue Peugeot lost its desperate battle to beat the white Mercedes because its back axle gave out, while Pomeroy and Mathieson both say a valve broke in the twin-cam engine, the latter adding that the car was generally in a very sorry state, the front-wheel brakes inoperative, the steering column broken away from its mounting.
Never mind, only the other day I read a report in a weekly motoring newspaper of a far shorter Club race in England which described a pre-war 8-litre car as leading the field, while the tabulated results below showed a post-war 4.5-litre machine to have won, and I was guilty of coupling the smooth masterful driving of Ronnie Symondson in recent V.S.C.C. events with a type 57SC Bugatti, whereas the beautiful Molsheim car he drives so well is a non-supercharged Type 57S.
Someone with more time than I can devote to such researches might like to look at these books on the French G.P. races and check if any other discrepancies exist over lap speeds (and Mathieson’s book gives them for every car on every lap), the positions of the competitors at various stages of the races, the number of tyres changed, the time lost over pit-stops and so on.
Although Karslake’s book is extremely creditable and it is a pity its publication coincided with Motor Racing Publications’ cardboard-cover, spiral-binding era, it is outclassed by Mathieson’s great work, the finest pictorial record of motor racing yet published, with highly commendable supporting text. Providing sufficient people are interested in races the last of which took place over 50 years ago, it should not only enable Kenneth Bail, who is promoting it through his firm, Autobooks, to warm the cockles of those who attended the party in honour of his new house at Ditchling, but of his bankers as well. . . .
Mark you, a truly complete history of those old French G.P. races, treating the subject with the research devoted, for example, by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu to the Gordon Bennett races of 1900-1905, has yet to be written. If I had the time, the energy and a command of technical French I would like to devote myself to the task. But it would, I consider, be necessary to visit each of the circuits—Le Mans, Dieppe, Amiens, Lyons, Strasbourg, Tours— for rural France changes but little as the years roll on and it should be possible to meet people who remember still those stirring days of old, when racing cars disturbed their peace, and who might be able to add fragmental but useful pieces of information to blend with the broader fabric of one’s race-history. Not so many years ago, when driving back from a Monte Carlo Rally in a Vauxhall with John Blunsden, I was able to pick up a piece of concrete from the link-road built in 1913 so that the French G.P. of that year should not interfere with traffic on the main road to St. Quentin. We drove later over the Lyons course, finding a furiously-driven modern Vauxhall no match for the times established by the competitors in the 1914 G.P., and I have subsequently found the Tours and Strasbourg circuits also largely unchanged, although I gather that a new Route Nationale has cut the latter about and caused the memorial stone to the luckless Biagio Nazzaro to be moved from its place by the roadside. (I only hope it has been re-erected elsewhere.) The yard in which the pre-1914. Grand Prix Peugeots were assembled is still, I understand, to be found at a Peugeot parts-stores in Paris; Albert Divo and Rene Thomas are, I think, still alive. . . . I shouldn’t be surprised if the tunnel dug under the road at Le Mans in 1906, and the two made at Dieppe in 1907 to enable spectators to move to the other side while the races were in progress, or that for the officials built at Amiens in 1912, can still be found, or at least the approach gradients, if the tunnels themselves have been bricked-up. Near Tours you can still find the chateau where the Sunbeam team stayed for the 1923 Grand Prix which Segrave won for Britain in those Italian-inspired cars, and at least until recently could talk to the postman who delivered letters to the drivers in that race and see the weighbridge on which the racers were weighed. . . . Does anything at all remain of the by-pass built round Vibraye for the 1906 race? Or of the ” pits ” of the 1908 contest? There is untapped scope for the historian, if he cares to investigate. . . .—W. B.