An exciting race on a very poor stretch of road

  • Potholes and ruts over the entire distance
  • Just under 770 kilometers in ten laps
  • Tire defects plagued the teams and catapulted some out of the race
The conditions were not ideal on the 7th of July 1908 in the French coastal town of Dieppe. Though the weather was friendly, on the day before the vehicles of the voiturette class – small, lightweight automobiles – had put the course into a wretched state during their race. Overnight repair work did little to change the situation. The track was dotted with potholes, and deep ruts had been carved especially in the curves. Things would not be improving during the course of the event, so it was clear from the beginning that pneumatics, a widely used term for tires in those years, would be a decisive factor in the competition.
A total of 769.88 kilometers in ten laps had to be covered on public roads closed to other traffic. Lined up at the start of the competition, organized by the Automobile Club de France (ACF), were racecars of the Grand Prix category – famous drivers in famous cars. For instance, Camille Jenatzy in a Mors, Vincenzo Lancia in a Fiat, Fritz Opel in an Opel, Dario Resta in an Austin, Fritz Erle, René Hanriot and Victor Hémery in Benz 120 hp cars, and, of course, the DMG team, consisting of Christian Lautenschlager, Willy Pöge and Otto Salzer, who took the start in 140 hp Mercedes.
The favorites to win the trophy were several French and Italian cars and drivers, but Daimler too. Benz was also felt to have a good chance of winning: it was in fact that company's first Grand-Prix race, but it had often fared well in rallyes and road races. The field had 48 participants all in all: 23 from France, nine from Germany, six each from England and Italy, three from Belgium and one from the USA. As in previous years the cars were painted to reflect their nationality – the German cars white, the American red and white, the English green, the French blue, the Italians red and the Belgians yellow.
Tremendous public interest
The ACF had perfectly organized the event down to the last detail. Some 300,000 spectators were expected, officially. There were stands along the course so that the crowd could conveniently keep track of what was happening. Along a short stretch of the racetrack, a wide trench had been dug. Here, in the "pits", as a British journalist referred to them in a contemporary report, were the shop areas and parts stocks of the participating teams, separated from each other by wire fences. A stop there was called a "pit stop" – a new racing term had been coined.
Public interest was tremendous, as the New York Times reported: "Such enormous crowds as invaded Dieppe by the tens of thousands, both from land and sea, were totally unprecedented. There was a steady drift toward the race course from yesterday afternoon on. Special trains arrived from all directions at intervals of a few minutes, and continued to pour their cargoes into the neighboring towns all night. Special steamers brought thousands from England to the coast towns, and for hundreds of miles around the course where the race was to be run the roads were black with people all the night through. Many came on foot from the nearby villages, until by dawn the crowd was so dense throughout the entire length of the course that farmers who owned fields adjoining the road were charging 5 and 10 francs for the privilege of standing on their ground."
The race was scheduled to begin at six in the morning so that even the last-placed drivers could reach the finish line while it was still light. The drivers took the track one by one. Willy Pöge, the second starter, soon took the lead in his Mercedes; his teammate Otto Salzer finished the first lap in first place. At the end of the second lap Lautenschlager was in the lead; in the third lap, Paul Bablot in a Brasier took the lead. In the fifth lap, at the halfway mark, Lautenschlager finally regained the lead and never gave it up again.
It was a tough race. Frequent tire defects forced many teams to drop out – they hadn't stocked enough tires. Lautenschlager used up 22 tires on the tire-killing course, stopping ten times to change them – not only in the pits, but also along the way, sometimes even several times during one lap. Afterwards Lautenschlager reported: "I always carried one front tire and two rear tires as spares on the car and strictly observed the rule that, as soon as I would change a tire, I should pick up a replacement tire on passing the depot so that I always had the normal complement of spares." Then as now, going back for 'seconds' – consumables and maintenance materials – can decide the fate of a car and team on the way to victory.
Prudence as part of the tactics
Lautenschlager was extremely prudent in many of his actions: "I had enough gasoline with me for five laps, and after the fifth lap I refilled my tank. With this new filling I probably could have finished the race, but to be on the safe side I chose to top up another 20 liters after the ninth lap so that I would not be worried about being unable to completely finish the last lap for lack of fuel."
The poor road tortured not only the tires. Tar-laden dust was whirled up and irritated the eyes of the drivers and mechanics. "To care for their organs of sight, all drivers and mechanics had to seek medical treatment after the race," the July 10, 1908, issue of Rad-Welt noted in its race report. Anyone driving too closely behind a competitor risked having stones flung into his face. A stone smashed one lens of Lautenschlager's racing goggles. "The pieces of broken glass danced up and down in front of my eye inside the goggles until I was able to exchange the goggles for another pair at the depot," Lautenschlager recounted after the race. Rival Victor Hémery was not so lucky: in the seventh lap a stone smashed the left glass of his goggles and injured his eye. He drove on to the pits, where a doctor removed a sliver from his eye, and continued the race despite reduced vision.
Victory after six hours, 55 minutes and 43 seconds
Despite the unfavorable conditions, especially for Daimler things worked out almost perfectly in Dieppe: Lautenschlager crossed the finish line in first place after six hours, 55 minutes and 43 seconds, barely nine minutes ahead of the runner-up – and with the last set of tires on board. His average speed over the entire distance was impressive 111.1 km/h. Teammate Otto Salzer turned in the fastest lap in 36 minutes and 31 seconds, which equated to an average speed of 126.5 km/h. Only about half the starters' field reached the finish line – 23 cars.
In its issue No. 29/1908, the Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung summed up: "Lautenschlager was greeted by a band playing the German national anthem. The spectators in the stands applauded; the driver was not in the least fatigued. It was wonderful to see how the Mercedes ran around the course. Pöge drove a very bold race and overcame his weariness; Hémery and Hanriot likewise had good chances of winning. Erle was not very familiar with the course, but did an extraordinarily good job."
"I knew my car was good and fast and absolutely reliable," Lautenschlager reported after his win. In the end, along with the quick tire changes his prudent driving style made the difference: "I told myself that if I am going to make good progress I must above all not risk too much, and that it is instead important to drive cool-headedly and at an even pace. So I didn't make full use of the engine power, because I was afraid of tire defects. … Applying this principle, the longer the race went on I became increasingly more composed, especially since my car was running brilliantly and was able to overtake the other cars in the bends and especially on the hills without any difficulty. Driving through the villages I was able to take the corners quickly because the roads were good there, and on the straightaways I felt like I was flying – which was necessary, of course, because I knew what was at stake." The race was physically punishing: "But as time went on my arms became a little stiff because I had to hold them in a bent position, which inhibited blood circulation; so alternately I took one hand or the other off the steering wheel and stretched my arm out for a while until the circulation returned to normal. At the end of the race, when I jumped out of the car, I didn't feel exhausted at all, but could have continued on for most of another race without feeling weak."
Following him in second and third place in Benz cars, hot on each other's heels, were the temporarily partially sighted Victor Hémery (8 minutes, 40 seconds more than the winner) and René Hanriot (plus 9 minutes, 29 seconds). Willy Pöge drove his Mercedes across the finish line in fifth place (plus 36 minutes, 47 seconds); Fritz Erle captured seventh place in his Benz (plus 56 minutes, 48 seconds). Otto Salzer's Mercedes suffered irreparable tire damage and dropped out of the race. Nonetheless the overall result was impressive.
Bitter defeat for the French
For the French the outcome was a harsh setback. "The 1908 Grand Prix proved to be a defeat of the worst kind for the French and their proud automobile industry," the Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung summed up, "and the worst thing about it is that a French origin can't be interpreted into the good German name Lautenschlager, no matter how hard one tries. Why couldn't it have been Hémery or Hanriot who won! And so this was a particularly bitter pill to swallow."
But the race also recorded the first death in Grand Prix history: The Panhard-Levassor of Henri Cissac lost a wheel, went off the road and overturned. Cissac and his mechanic Schaube were crushed by the car.
The 1908 Grand Prix went down in the history of motor sport as a major race because of the difficult conditions under which it was staged and, of course, its outcome. It would take a few years until the next Grand Prix was run. Journalist Beverly Rae Kimes concisely sums up the following years: "An era came to an end in 1908. A new French Grand Prix would not be staged until 1912. And it was promptly won by a French car. All France rejoiced and thought that French cars simply had to take the world market by storm now. Another two years on, in 1914, hardly had it begun, the flight of imagination ended miserably: a no longer unknown German by the name of Lautenschlager captured the lead and won the Grand Prix once more – but that's another story."

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    French Grand Prix near Dieppe, July 7, 1908: A visibly satisfied winner, Christian Lautenschlager (right), and his mechanic Meckle after the race.
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    French Grand Prix near Dieppe, July 7, 1908: Christian Lautenschlager with his Mercedes 140 hp during a tyre change – the murderous track surface meant he was forced to change no fewer than 22 tyres.
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    French Grand Prix on the oval circuit near Dieppe, July 7, 1908: Tyre change for the Benz 120 hp Grand Prix racing car. In this car Victor Héméry finished runner up.
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    Victor’s smile: Christian Lautenschlager, winner of the 1908 French Grand Prix, in a Mercedes 140 hp.
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    French Grand Prix on the oval circuit near Dieppe, July 7, 1908. The participants just before the start. Front right: The eventual race victor, Christian Lautenschlager, with his Mercedes 140 hp Grand Prix racing car.
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    French Grand Prix near Dieppe, July 7, 1908. Drivers and cars of the Mercedes team (from left to right): Christian Lautenschlager (start number 35), Otto Salzer (start number 19) and Willy Pöge (start number 2).
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    French Grand Prix near Dieppe, July 7, 1908. Otto Salzer at the wheel of the Mercedes 140 hp, his mechanic Stegmeier alongside him.
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    In sight of the finish: Christian Lautenschlager, winner of the 1908 French Grand Prix.
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    French Grand Prix near Dieppe, July 7, 1908 (drawing): The winner Christian Lautenschlager in his Mercedes 140 hp with the start number 35.
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    French Grand Prix near Dieppe, July 7, 1908: The eventual winner Christian Lautenschlager before the start with a Mercedes 140 hp racing car.
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    French Grand Prix near Dieppe, July 7, 1908: Fritz Erle finishes in seventh place in a Benz 120 hp.
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    French Grand Prix near Dieppe, July 7, 1908: René Hanriot (start number 23) finishes in third place in a Benz 120 hp.
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    French Grand Prix near Dieppe, July 7, 1908: Victor Hémery (start number 6) finishes in second place in a Benz 120 hp Grand Prix racing car.
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    Recognition: The VDMI (Association of German Motor Vehicle Industrialists) awarded this certificate to Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft following its victory at the French Grand Prix held on July 7, 1908.
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    French Grand Prix near Dieppe, July 7, 1908. The drivers and cars of the Mercedes team (from left to right): Willy Pöge (start number 2), Christian Lautenschlager (start number 35) and Otto Salzer (start number 19).
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    French Grand Prix near Dieppe, July 7, 1908: The eventual winner Christian Lautenschlager and his mechanic Meckle in a Mercedes 140 hp.
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    French Grand Prix near Dieppe, July 7, 1908: The victorious Mercedes 140 hp racing car with Christian Lautenschlager at the wheel, alongside his mechanic Meckle.