In January of 1914, as Archduke Franz Ferdinand was making plans in Austria to meet his wife in Sarajevo, another man was making plans in a French village called Givors. An employee of the company that built Mercedes automobiles, he was planning a way to insure victory for Germany in that summer's Grand Prix of France.
France's Peugeot craftsmen seemed to have the race wrapped up. They not only had the best car, but also the best driver of the day: Georges Boillot. A small man with a large head and an impressive mustache, Boillot was a national hero and he knew it. What he did not know was that Daimler-Motoren Gesellschaft—the Mercedes people—had definitely decided to win the Grand Prix. When the Daimler engineer returned to Germany from Givors he brought with him a detailed report of every curve and gradient on the 23.3-mile circuit, listing the gear ratios required to negotiate them.
A few months later the Germans returned to Givors with seven practice vehicles. Every morning at 6 a whistle would blow and the drivers would come out. In the courtyard of the local inn stood the cars, each with its mechanic standing beside it. They would practice on the lengthy course until 11, return for lunch and a discussion, then drive again until 7 p.m. The leader of the expedition was Max Sailer, a young engineer who had been with the company only three years and who immediately antagonized the veteran stars of the team.
Christian Lautenschlager and Otto Salzer, although ostensibly only master mechanics, were not used to taking orders from upstart engineers. Lautenschlager, a giant of a man with an enormous, drooping mustache, had won the 1908 Grand Prix while on loan to Benz. Now he was amazed to find that Sailer not only intended to act as the martinet of the practice session, but that he also intended to drive in the race. Lautenschlager lost his usual Swabian calm. "You have absolutely no idea what Grand Prix driving is!" he exploded.
The entry at Givors was the most impressive ever, with 37 cars representing 13 makes from six nations. Germany had five Mercedes, with Sailer, Lautenschlager, Salzer, former Fiat star Louis Wagner of France and Belgian Theodore Pilette as drivers. Three Opels completed the Teutonic entry. France had three Peugeots, three Delages, three Schneiders and three Aldas. From Italy there were three Fiats, three Nazzaros and an Acquila. England contributed three Sunbeams and three Vauxhalls. The Sunbeams were identical to the Peugeots, but this didn't bother Chief Designer Louis Coatalen. "It is a wise man who copies without altering," was his answer to those who accused him.
On the Sunday before the race while the entries were being assembled in Givors, Franz Ferdinand met his wife in Sarajevo. There, too, was a 19-year-old named Gavrilo Princip. When the archduke's car paused before a cafe at which he was sitting Princip drew a pistol and fired twice. Within a few minutes the heir to the throne of Austria and his wife were dead.
Although the crime was a sensational one, to the masses gathering south of Lyon the battle of the automobiles was vastly more important than any Serbian terrorist movement. It was estimated that nearly 20,000 automobiles, more than a fifth of all those in France, were there in the spectator fleet. Parties went on all night, and the whole countryside seemed to pulsate with the noise and restless people. On the morning of the race, with many of the celebrants sleeping off the excesses of the night before, the 37 entries lined up two abreast, ready to start two at a time, with a 30-second interval between pairs. Boillot was in the third twosome, with Sailer 90 seconds behind him. Lautenschlager was five minutes in back of Boillot, and three Mercedes cars were at the rear.
The last-minute huddle of the Germans was scarcely noticed; all eyes were on Boillot as he sat haughtily behind the wheel of his blue car. The countryside was thick with spectators. As their hero tore past, a snowstorm of fluttering handkerchiefs cheered him on. Within 10 minutes all the starters were under way, and the crowd in the main grandstand settled down to wait for the leaders. There was a shout when Boillot came thundering onto the valley floor, accelerating out of the last turn and doing better than 80 as his Peugeot and its accompanying dust cloud shot onto the second lap. But as Boillot went past another cry was heard. One of the white Mercedes was coming down the hill. Sailer, determined to show his veteran teammates and the rest of the field what he could do, had completed his first lap in 21:11, 18 seconds faster than Boillot, and the crowd was stunned.
The next time Sailer was down to 20:51, which put him 46 seconds in the lead on corrected time and only 44 seconds behind on the road itself. Now coming down the long hills Sailer's riding mechanic could see Boillot in the hairpins below. On the third lap Sailer was clocked in 20:28, and on the fourth he set the race record at 20:06 and actually passed the greatest driver of the age.
It was a shock for Boillot to see this unknown German—driving his first race—go past him and to realize that the Germans had a better car. The Peugeot, with its four-wheel brakes, gave the Frenchman the advantage going into corners, but everywhere else the German vehicle was superior.
On the sixth lap, when he was almost three minutes in front on elapsed time and more than a minute ahead on the road, Sailer's overtaxed engine coughed up a connecting rod, and Boillot moved back into first. No other Mercedes would come into Boillot's sight for the rest of the day, since they had started too far back. But from now on Boillot knew no peace of mind. If an unknown newcomer could make the German car go that well what were the veterans doing? The thought of his unseen pursuers forced him to drive to the limit, extracting every bit of performance from what he now knew was an inferior car.
On the sixth lap Boillot was forced to pit for tires, and the new ones were worse than the old. After eight laps and after 10 laps he was forced to change again. Behind him Lautenschlager—now in second place and kept informed of his deficit by an alert pit crew—drove steadily onward, stopping only at half distance as ordered. When he roared in to change all four wheels and fill the tank, Lautenschlager called to the team manager.
"The brakes are gone."
"You still have a handbrake, don't you?"
Lautenschlager nodded. "You're right, sir." Then he sped away.
As the hours passed and the cars sped on through the dust and the heat Boillot tried desperately to stay in front while behind him the gigantic Lautenschlager sat implacably in his rattling monster, keeping pace seemingly without effort. Then, on the 17th lap, Boillot was forced to pit for tires again. Lautenschlager, getting the sign as he passed the pits, put on the pressure. He turned one lap at 20:53 and the next at 20:33 to put a German car in first place once again. If Boillot were to maintain his reputation as the best now was the time to do it. The minutes ticked by, and the crowd at the finish line grew restless. Boillot did not appear. Then the big white car came charging over the hill, slid through the hairpins and headed for the finish. It was Lautenschlager, all alone, averaging 65.4 mph for the distance; Boillot had blown up his car trying to regain the lead, and he sat by the roadside some-where out on the course, tears of frustration running down his face. Soon Wagner and Salzer came across. The latter, finishing fast, had managed to come in third. The Germans were 1-2-3.
The race was over but not the triumph. Two weeks before war was declared Ralph DePalma got one of the Mercedes out of Germany and he drove it to 10 U.S. victories. The next year he took the Indianapolis 500 with it.
Another of the cars, sent to London for exhibition purposes, was confiscated when the war started. It fell into the hands of a young British engineer, W. O. Bentley, and with his help Rolls-Royce set about copying the engine. The Rolls adaptations powered DeHavilland and Bristol fighter planes during the war and were also, in 1919, fitted to the first aircraft to fly the Atlantic. Another of the cars, modified to take a supercharger, recorded fastest time of the day at the Saint-Moritz speed trials, doing 120.2 mph on the ice in 1929, 16 years after Lautenschlager crossed the line to end an era.