Born: 18 November 1876 in Brest/France
Died: 8 September 1950 in Le Mans/France
Victor Hémery’s reputation as one of the most successful racing drivers of his time was already established when Benz & Cie. engaged him in 1907. A little later he achieved what was probably his greatest triumph for the company: driving the "Blitzen-Benz
", he became the very first man to break through the 200 km/h barrier
. He drove for Benz until 1910, and then for other manufacturers again. His heyday as a racing driver came to an end with the outbreak of the First World War. Although he still remained involved in motor racing afterwards, he never matched his previous successes.
The Blitzen-Benz was a colossus in the motor racing scene. Officially designated the Benz 200 HP, it was built specifically to establish speed records and help to advertise the quality products make in Mannheim. Its centrepiece was an enormous 21.5-litre engine developing an output of 147 kW. The vehicle was literally built around the engine, and had a massive physical presence. This was accompanied by a sound signature that can justly be described as "infernal" – when a Blitzen-Benz is started, the bellowing roar of the engine soon makes the ears ring, and the ground around the car is felt to vibrate. The occasional flame erupting from the exhaust is usually seen as a fitting additional accompaniment to this impressive spectacle.
Victor Hémery took the wheel of this infernal machine on 8 November 1909. The Brooklands racetrack
in England was just two years old, and the only track in Europe where really high speeds were possible. He first absolved a few trial laps, but also began to edge closer to the declared aim for that day, which was to breach the
200 km/h barrier for the very first time. Brooklands did not make this easy for him. The two banked curves of the oval concrete track were designed for very high speeds, but they also imposed limits, for if the speed was excessive there was a risk of becoming airborne. Hémery eventually got the measure of the car and circuit: 205.666 km/h was the time measured for the half-mile with a flying start, and 202.648 km/h for the kilometre. Indeed Hémery set three further records – it was a great day for Benz. And for the first time the speed was recorded to three decimal places, thanks to new equipment manufactured by Holden.
Hémery was a pioneer of the motoring age, which was just emerging from its infancy. After training as a mechanic he joined the Léon Bollée company in 1895, where he worked as a technician and driver until 1900. He then moved to Darracq as head of the test department, where he constructed and fine-tuned several racing cars for the Gordon-Bennet Cup – the precursor to the later Grand Prix series. Hémery often took part in races himself. In 1905 Darracq built a record-breaking car in which Hémery promptly set up a speed record of 176.5 km/h for the brand. In fact 1905 with its various triumphs was the most successful year in his career, as he went on to win the Ardennes race in Bastogne/Belgium and the Vanderbilt Cup in Long Island/USA for Darracq.
The Frenchman came to the attention of Benz, and he joined the Mannheim-based company as a works driver in 1907. In the same year he took part in various events, winning the Coupe d’Evreux and coming second in all the other races. In 1908 he won the St. Petersburg – Moscow race (Benz advertising: "The hottest race in automobile sport"), which "covered 686 kilometres with sometimes appalling road conditions, which he absolved in his Benz Grand Prix car in the astonishing time of 8 hours and
30 minutes, representing an average speed of more than 80 kilometres per hour", as the publication "Automobil-Welt" reported. These were the kind of figures that made a racing driver into a hero at the turn of the last century.
Hémery consolidated his reputation at the French Grand Prix in the same year, where he came second to Christian Lautenschlager driving for Mercedes and in front of René Hanriot, who was also driving a Benz. This was a considerable feat, for on the seventh lap, after five gruelling hours, a stone shattered the left lens of his goggles and caused an eye injury. He drove into the pits, where a doctor extracted the splinter, and continued the race with impaired vision.
In other racing events too, he regularly landed in second place – often only a second or so behind the winner. This is the somewhat tragic aspect of his career: Hémery was always among the leaders, but emerged the winner comparatively rarely. This is no way detracts from his fame, as he was one of the most brilliant drivers of the period between 1900 and 1914. Perhaps the fascination with Hémery was also partly due to his sometimes impulsive behaviour: more than once he was disqualified for launching torrents of abuse at race officials and fellow-drivers.
After his time with Benz he drove for various brands, and always with similarly mixed success. The First World War put an end to his career. Although Hémery also took part in races after the war, he was never able to match his earlier successes. On 8 September 1950 Victor Hémery, living in abject poverty, committed suicide in Le Mans/France at the age of 74 years, followed a few days later by his grief-stricken wife. In 1951 Hémery was posthumously awarded the title of US Champion for 1905.