AN EPIC RACE
Mercedes and the 1914 Grand Prix – Part Two
At the French Grand Prix at Lyons in July 1914, Mercedes faced down enormous competition to win the last great international race held before the outbreak of the First World War.
Article Karl Ludvigsen
Images Ludvigsen Archive & Daimler Archive
Continuing the story of the 1914 Grand Prix that began in the May-June issue of The Star…
A record field of competitors took part in what was destined to be the last European Grand Prix in 1914 before the outbreak of World War I. All the cars sparkled with new technologies, many of them prompted by the advancements being made in parallel on aero engines at a time of military preparedness in Europe. Grand Prix racing ended before the war’s outbreak at a peak of competitiveness and creativity that led to a race that many still rate as the greatest ever.
“The day of the race dawned brightly, with the usual procession of cars bearing privilege tickets and the usual throng on foot, carrying wine and yard-long pieces of bread, all making for the circuit,” wrote correspondent Sammy Davis. “Pits and grandstands were gay with flags. Crowds occupied every mound available, waiting for the event in joyous anticipation. Notable people arrived in state; others, less notable, argued happily with the police concerning the value of this or that coloured ticket.”
All along the circuit, the hills, slopes, trees and houses were darkened with an estimated crowd of 300,000 spectators.
“Each team of cars arrived in formation,” Davis reported. “Peugeot was loudly acclaimed, but Mercedes was received in silence. Drivers were clearly nervous. (Christian) Lautenschlager kept curling his long handlebar moustache. (Georges) Boillot gestured wildly in conversation with officials. Only Jules Goux remained smilingly calm, whatever he may have felt internally. There was a scarcely heeded last-minute talk between drivers and officials. The crews then went to their cars and a great silence fell upon the crowd.”
Davis was also taking stock of various teams’ preparations: “In the Mercedes pit, the equipment was laid out to a set plan. The mechanics looked very efficient and it was noticed with curiosity that as well as the customary watches, they had a chart showing car positions, lap by lap. By comparison with the free-and-easy informality of the French pit personnel, this was interesting. Of course, the usual argument about smoking was in full spate, since officials of the ACF (Automobile Club of France) were determined there should be no smoking in the pit and the pit personnel were equally determined that there should.” Containers in the Mercedes pits were painted red for fuel, yellow for oil and white for water.
Notable by their absence were senior Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft executives, including Paul Daimler. Instead, they followed the race through a telephone connection to the boardroom in Untertürkheim. A plausible inference from this – and from the lack of board-level discussion as revealed by DMG minutes – is that the directors deliberately preserved a level of detachment that would allow them to deny direct support of their company’s campaign if it turned out to be a disaster.
They may well have been having second thoughts about omitting the front-wheel brakes that were flaunted by Piccard-Pictet, Fiat and Delage, as well as pioneer Peugeot. Boillot had driven a four-wheel-braked Argyll during a visit to the Brooklands track in England and was impressed by its stopping power. Knowing that one leg of the Lyon circuit had 45 turns in a 10-mile distance, he decided this was what Peugeot needed for the 1914 Grand Prix.
As reported in The Automobile magazine three months before the race: “Boillot declares that he can approach turns at a much higher speed than is possible with any other kind of brake, thus saving several seconds per lap, and that the car is under more complete control than with brakes on the rear wheels only.” Against this was the Peugeot’s long tail with two vertical spare wheels, shifting weight well to the rear of the chassis. Early impressions of the race showed the potential of the Boillot-driven Peugeot.
“The engines were started, one after the other, by the handle,” Davis said. “Up went a healthy, full-throated roar as clouds of smoke drifted upwards. The flag was raised, fell, and the first pair shot away. Thirty seconds later two more went, and so on, until the whole field had gone.”
The crowd was left in suspense for the 20-plus minutes of the first lap. Then, as Davis reported: “Faintly, in the distance, came a murmur which soon became a roar and a car shot into sight, a dark blue machine, Boillot’s Peugeot, which had overtaken four other cars. As the big car rushed past the grandstand, it received most encouraging cheers. Car after car followed until they came thick and fast. Rapidly, the score board began to show results.”
With the cars starting at intervals, lap times had to be reconciled with these gaps to show the positions. “Suddenly there was a hush, followed immediately by a low murmur,” Davis said. Max Sailer was leading with the Mercedes – Sailer, of all people! Then came Boillot, pursued by Arthur Duray in a Delage, Dario Resta’s Sunbeam, Goux’s Peugeot, Theodore Pilette’s Mercedes, Victor Rigal’s Peugeot and Lautenschlager’s Mercedes. The battle was on.
“In the next round Sailer still held the lead,” Davis continued, “and Boillot was obviously going for all the Peugeot was worth. One could tell by the way he was handling the blue car on the turns, with the tail flicking round under exact control, that both man and car seemed to know what was required. But Boillot was not gaining. Ominously, another Mercedes, Lautenschlager’s, had come up from eighth to fifth by the third lap. Mercedes were faster than had been expected.”
“Sailer stayed out front, set the course record of 20 minutes and six seconds on lap four and thereafter increased his advantage to two and three-quarters minutes on the following lap,” related historian Hans Etzrodt. “The daring young engineer must have been inspired to show the veteran Lautenschlager a clean pair of heels. But after leading for two hours, Sailer's engine came to a stop on lap six.” The crankshaft broke, a result of over-revving according to engineer Otto Schilling. This released Boillot into a lead that he defended with his legendary virtuosity.
There was much talk – then and later – about the German team’s brilliant strategy in sending Sailer out as a rabbit to force the others to overstress themselves in a hectic chase. “Race strategy?” Sailer said, later. “Awfully stupid gossip!” Sailer ascribed his speed to his unfamiliarity with racing. He didn’t know how fast he should go so he went as fast as he could. Director Alfred Vischer, who was in charge of pits and drivers, had told his pilots not to drive like crazy at the beginning, but to stay in front and give their engines time to warm up.
And whether it was needed, drivers were also told to change their Continental tires after 10 laps. This was anathema to veteran driver Louis Wagner. When Wagner first raced in the Paris Madrid race of 1903, a driver stopped only when he had to – which was often enough.
Wagner had a troubled start, lagging in 17th on the first lap. He advanced ahead of team-Mercedes driver Otto Salzer and rose to second behind Boillot at the end of the 14th lap; he had a chance to win. Wagner angrily shrugged off his mid-race pit stop, however, but finally had to stop to change two tires. At the finish, he exemplified his prowess by placing second just over a minute and a-half behind the winner after more than seven hours of racing.
In the race’s early stages the experienced Pilette was well placed, sixth on the first lap and ahead of Lautenschlager, who passed him in lap two. Pilette remained in seventh on the third lap, but during the next lap his drivetrain failed. This was no surprise to the team because Pilette had damaged his transmission during practice; their repairs were not up to par.
Salzer had spark-plug problems at the start, requiring a change of all 12 plugs, so lagged in 28th place after the first lap. He steadily rose through the field to be fifth at mid-race, dutifully changing his tires halfway. Overtaking Goux’s Peugeot on the 18th lap, Salzer was third at the finish.
Driving an intelligent and disciplined race, the experienced Lautenschlager made his mandatory pit stop on the 10th of 20 laps to replace all four tires. According to the rules, he and mechanic Ernst Hemminger had to carry out the change without assistance. Despite extensive practice, they made a muddle of the change that cost them several minutes; time had to be made up on the track.
“Lautenschlager was now going faster,” Davis reported. “At each lap, as a hundred stop-watches indicated, the white car closed in on its opponent. Although the French champion was now driving with a fire and fury magnificent to watch, still the Mercedes closed in. Something seemed to be wrong with the Peugeot, for once it slid dangerously on the Virage de la Mort and twice it almost swung round on the mass of loose stones at the hairpin. On the long straight, it was using a lot of road, as though unsteady.
“By comparison,” Davis added, “the Mercedes looked rock steady. There may have been something else amiss, for at the 16th lap, Lautenschlager definitely gained and was now only 23 seconds behind the Peugeot; on the 17th, this had decreased to 14 seconds, although Boillot had to stop for a wheel change, which accounted for some of the time.” In fact, Boillot made eight stops for attention to tire problems, some of them to adjust tread patterns and pressures to cope with the overhung weight of the spare wheels.
The aforementioned favorites were now flagging, according to historian Etzrodt. “It soon became evident that a victory for France hung on a thin thread because Lautenschlager and Wagner were close behind Boillot. Down from the hill through the curves, clearly visible from the grandstands, the two white cars chased like a tornado after Boillot. The spectators raved and raged as Boillot passed. He was giving it his all. But Lautenschlager, now driving faster laps than Boillot, was catching the Frenchman. On lap 18, the German passed the grandstand in first place.”
In their frenzy of anticipation, the hordes of French spectators had not given up hope of seeing a blue car win the Grand Prix. Goux was not a candidate because a lengthy stop dropped his Peugeot to fifth. Overheating forced his retirement on the penultimate lap. The leaders were now on their final lap, which Lautenschlager began with a lead of 67 seconds. Only a heroic effort could restore French pride. Boillot was prepared to make this attempt, even though his Peugeot had a broken exhaust valve in its third cylinder.
“Half the crowd seemed to be concentrating on watches, estimating when the blue Peugeot was due to appear and hoping that it would be early,” Etzrodt wrote. “The seconds ran on to the time when the car should have arrived. There was no car. Instantly a babble of conversation arose. It became louder and louder as the hands ticked on. Still no car. Then the chatter grew to a roar. Hope was revived. But the machine that flashed into sight was – white. A Mercedes!”
There followed two more white cars – all Mercedes.
“Out on the circuit, the Peugeot had come to rest with its engine almost wrecked,” Davis relayed. “That last desperate effort had ended in disaster. No wonder Boillot wept! To no man could come a more disastrous ending to the drive of a lifetime.” Due to their staggered starts, Boillot and Lautenschlager had never been in sight of each other during the entire race until the winning Mercedes passed the stranded French ace, crying in despair at the roadside.
Over more than seven hours, the white Mercedes race cars broke the speed and spirit of their opposition by sheer tenacity. The team from Stuttgart defeated 32 cars of a dozen different marques and finished 1-2-3 in the last great race before motor competition was wiped off the European map by a world conflict. With its wealth of first-class cars and drivers, 1914’s Grand Prix has gone down in history as one of the greatest ever – and a tremendous triumph for Mercedes.
1914 Grand Prix of France
The First Six of 11 Finishers: Time:
1. Christian Lautenschlager–Mercedes 7:08:18.4
2. Louis Wagner–Mercedes 7:09:54.2
3. Otto Salzer–Mercedes 7:13:15.8
4. Jules Goux–Peugeot 7:17:47.2
5. Dario Resta–Sunbeam 7:28:17.4
6. Dragutin Esser–Nagant 7:40:28.2
Race Distance: 20 laps–750 kilometers–466.05 miles
July 4, 1914, French Grand Prix, Lyon. Mercedes driver Max Sailer flies by spectators in his Type 18/100 early in the race. Sailer set a blistering pace over the difficult 23.4-mile circuit, posting a new course record and leading the field for two hours before a broken crankshaft on lap six forced his retirement.
Mercedes driver Christian Lautenschlager at speed. The long course was packed with spectators.
Lautenschlager’s white Mercedes rounds the turn at the Station CafÈ.
Only the driver – here, Louis Wagner – and the riding mechanic were allowed to work on the car in the pits, under the supervision of an observer.
Winner Lautenschlager and riding mechanic Hans Rieger.
Lautenschlager’s Type 18/100 roars past the packed crowds.
Scoring the hat trick: After a race lasting more than seven hours, (from left) a laurel-crowned Lautenschlager, first place; Otto Salzer, third place; and Wagner, second place, celebrate a triumphant triple victory for Mercedes in the French Grand Prix – World War I would break out within the month, putting an end to international racing for years.