Traditionally, the Riviera Speed Week in the south of France had been the opening of the motorsport season in early years. However, a few minor–but still notable–races took place before the Speed Week in 1900. These included the Course du Catalogue, the Circuit du Sud Ouest, and a voiturette only race from Paris to Rouen and back to Paris. The Circuit du Sud Ouest race was the most important of these comparatively minor races.
The Course du Catalogue
The 1900 motorsport season opener took place on February 18, 1900. It was a short race, just under 45 miles (72 km). The race was organized by the publication, La France Automobile.
As noted in the last post, classes were seemingly arbitrarily created by the organizing committee to suit their disparate purposes. This race had six classes, which were divided according to chassis cost. In the so-called (or at least what I am calling) “big car” category, there were only two competitors. A Mr. Degrais driving a Mors, and recent strong competitor Léonce Girardot. Girardot was rocking his usual Panhard et Levassor.
Girardot, pictured above above in his Panhard, carried the day against Degrais. Baron de Rothschild, philanthropist, racer, and ancestor of the wine maker, wagered he could complete the 72 kilometer (44.7 mile) circuit in 72 minutes. He failed. He broke a powertrain chain just before the halfway point.
The Circuit du Sud Ouest
The race on the newly devised Circuit du Sud Ouest was the main event of a series of races being held the week of February 22, 1900. This main event took place on the 25th of February. For races of the day, it was on the short side at 209.5 miles.
According the authoritative Gerald Rose, “In most cases, the cars were those of the Tour de France, though with additions and improvements.” For example, René de Knyff had managed to lighten his Panhard by 200 kilograms (approx. 440 pounds). The car was 440 pounds lighter in spite of a bigger, heavier engine as compared to the Tour de France setup. This new engine was more powerful and also utilized “dual ignition” (dual ignition involves the use of both incandescent Platinum tubes and electric ignition).
Ferand Charron and Léonce Girardot also had lighter cars, utilizing changed axels, new ball bearing setup, and several other secret developments to be used in later models. These secret modifications have been lost to history.
The race was preceded by heavy rain. However, the rain not only cleared before the race, but also served to harden the dirt roads. This reduced the usual cloud of dust following each car. In general, conditions were great for high-speed rollicking.
It was an interval start. Giraud left first; however, he was to have a rough day. Conversely, de Knyff had an epic day. At the 75 mile mark, he already led the field by a shocking 30 minutes.
Giraud, who had started first, had serious problems with his rear tires, which slowed him down throughout the race.
Fernand Charron wrecked before Saint Sever. He hit a large hump in the road, which destroyed all four of his tires. Upon simultaneously bursting all four tires, he (and his passenger) were thrown out of their Panhard.
In short, de Knyff crushed it. In the end, he won by over 40 minutes. In fact, he flogged his Panhard until it had nothing left to give. According to Rose, “Just before the end of the race, the winner’s pump gave out, and although he managed to reach the finish, his car arrived enveloped in a blue haze of smoke and refused to move an inch beyond the finishing line.”
With nearly every race, average speeds were rising, which is a testament to the furious rate of technological advancement occurring. This race set a new record pace for an automobile race of 43.8 miles per hour, which is not too shabby for a car rated at only 16 horsepower.
Paris to Rouen and Back: A Voiturette Race
A voiturette, by the way, is a smaller car relative to the “big cars.” However, for many years, the division between the two would remain vague at best. Théry won in a Decauville weighing roughly 1,030 pounds. However, the Renault voiturettes were also particularly strong.
One criticism of motorsport then, which oddly still rages today even in Formula 1, is the disconnect between racing cars and road cars. However, the Paris to Rouen to Paris race in early March 1900, raised an oddly practical point. Several people ordered voiturettes based on their observation of the cars in the race. They were infuriated to realize that the company merely delivered a touring model. It was the racers, themselves, that were converting these to race cars. The purchasers were not happy to realize that they had ordered and paid for a car rather incapable of racing, without serious modification.
Stay tuned for the next post, which will detail the story of how the “Mercedes” came to be!
/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com
A Record of Motor Racing, 1894 – 1908, Gerald Rose (2nd. ed. 1949).