Grand Precursor

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A hundred years ago France hosted the final Gordon Bennett Cup.  It would be the end of the first set of international motor races;  because of the restrictive rules the ACF had unilaterally announced that it would henceforth run a ‘grand prix’.  The GB Cup was effectively dead, but that did not stop the French from planning a very tough event for the final running.  Ignoring practicalities like infrastructure and influenced by Michelin, whose base at nearby Clermont-Ferrand, they plotted a tortuous 86-mile circuit through the volcanic highlands of the Auvergne.

The job of organising the event fell to the AC d’Auvergne.  In mere months the committee arranged all the facilities of a major international event in a wild backwater. The entire circuit was resurfaced and three road bridges built, along with grandstands for the thousands of spectators.  It was a huge effort: a local contractor bought an entire forest to supply timber.  Using the club’s records, its current director Patrice Besqueut has complied a fascinating book on the 1905 race and its run-up, and we present some of its images here.  —  Coupe Gordon Bennett 1905, Editions de Palmier, ISBN 2 914920 45 8

Pages 59-59:

  • Henri Farman was lucky to escape unharmed when his Panhard-Levassor went off the road during the elimination trials.  He and his mechanic were flung out of the car and ended up in the branches of a tree, shaken but undamaged.  It was the end of their attempt, and as their team-mate failed to qualify this was another make out of the Cup; only three cars from each country could compete in the race itself.
  • Guests at the Hotel du Cratère are in a prime position to watch Théry, the eventual winner, through one of the track’s 3000 corners on his Richard-Brasier.  His 11259cc machine produced 96hp and had the advantage, like all the French cars, of having tested on the Auvergne circuit, since the French eliminating trials were held there.  Note the flimsy spectator fencing, and the onlooker’s dog. 
  • A pitstop. Cagno waits in his 16-litre FIAT as his pitcrew toil to change all four tyres.  Three mechanics to a wheel, plus one each to replenish oil and water, make for a chaotic scene.  Michelin also established tyre depots around the circuit with a specialist crew and a specific jack for each type of car.  The firm’s own team could change four tyres in three minutes.  And that does mean tyres, not wheels.

Page 60:

  • At the start-finish line on the empty plain of Laschamps grew the “village of canvas”,  housing the cars and teams. There were grandstands for 10,000 spectators, plus restaurants, bars, souvenir stalls (Michelin offered a huge array of promotional goods from paper cups to crystal vases), snack kiosks and local produce stalls.  The press stand, complete with telephone connections, could handle 3000 journalists.
  • Testing the facilities.  Three weeks before the big day, the race committee tries the temporary bridge erected at Laqueuille.   Railway lines crossed the circuit in three places, requiring level crossings to be temporarily replaced by timber bridges.  At 360ft, this was not the longest  — the one at Vaurtiat measured 410ft long.  Several footbridges were also built, as well as timber barriers at the riskier bends.
  • The moment of truth. It’s 6am yet the stands are packed to watch Théry depart, bearing the number 1 as victor the previous year. The rest of the 18-car entry will set off at five-minute intervals to tackle a circuit on which a good lap lasts the same time as an entire modern GP — and four of them means that Théry is going to be aboard for over seven hours.  His winning average speed was 49mph.

Page 61:

  • This bend in the village of Herment soon became known as the ‘Donkey Corner’.  During the reconnaisance period this local beast of burden took a dislike to the noisy cars and would run onto the road trying to plant a vicious back-kick to the vehicles — or any unfortunate pedestrian.  His latest victim is picking himself up in the background.  Livestock was big problem: each team had to put 200 francs into a ‘death fund’.
  • Team Darracq explores the course before the eliminating trials.  The 86-mile circuit remained open until the race itself and locals, who had probably barely seen a car before, were warned to pull in “at the first  blow of a horn”.  The 85hp Darracqs, here running without bonnets, were advanced for the time, with an overhead-valve 9896cc ‘four’, shaft drive to a four-speed transaxle, and a low centre of gravity.  
  • Hairpin bends were frequent on the course, one or two even requiring reverse gear.  This is Alessandro Cagno manhandling the massive FIAT, with rear-wheel brakes only, around one before unleashing 110hp through the massive chains. His team-mates were the great  Vincenzo Lancia and Felice Nazzaro, both of whom rivalled Théry for speed but suffered mechanical delays.  Italy’s race colour at this time was black.   

   

 

 

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