“The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”
~Sun Tzu – The Art of War~
Lyon was the focus of attention of half of Europe. Special trains were bringing in hundreds of thousands of spectators anxious to witness 37 of the fastest cars in the world compete for top honour on the 23.4-mile track. All the recent Grand Prix winners were there and the parochial crowd had high expectations as French driver Georges Boillot, piloting a Peugeot, was the favourite. Hotels were booked out for a fifty-mile radius and campers had claimed top viewing spots in preparation for witnessing the upcoming drama the following day. The weather was hot and dry. The mood was variable. There was excitement about the race but uncertainty for the future. A mere six days before Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated in Sarajevo, and rumours of war were circulating.
Peugeot had been dominant since 1913 and had the most technologically advanced car. In contrast, the 1914 Mercedes was as yet untried in race conditions. They had weighed up the advantages and disadvantages of all the latest newfangled ideas and gone for safe and sure. If they could manage to defeat Peugeot it would be due to persistence and patience, not flair and flamboyance. Even the drivers illustrated this attitude with French driver Boillot supremely confident of his car and his abilities and the Mercedes drivers more circumspect.
At seven am on race day the cars sat in two’s on the grid, looking like mechanical creatures about to enter the ark, the racing order predetermined by ballot. Over 300,000 people packed the grandstands and vantage points along the track, waiting impatiently for the anticipated spectacle. With a gap of two minutes between each pair, the cars sped off the starting line for the commencement of the 20 lap race that would last more than seven hours.
More than 20 minutes later the throng in the stands waited in breathless expectation for the first car to appear. As it came into view the partisan crowd went wild as Boillot had leapfrogged the four cars ahead of him and had established himself in the lead. In second was the junior Mercedes driver Max Sailer, who had passed everyone except Boillot and with the time gap was now leading the race by 18 seconds.
There has been much discussion of possible “race strategies” employed by Mercedes, but this was denied by all involved in the team. Most likely Sailer was inexperienced and simply drove as fast as he was capable. Prior to the race he had been told by Lautenschlager, “You certainly don’t have a clue about Grand Prix driving. One has to drive there totally different!” Sailer wanted to demonstrate that he was as competent as the more experienced drivers and drove as fast as he could, aiming to keep his car ahead of his more seasoned teammates who had started from further back on the grid. Despite the denial of race strategy Mercedes had planned meticulously for this race and I’m sure some sort of “tactics” were discussed, but probably none that were orchestrated minutely on race day.
Sailer set the lap record of 20 minutes and 6 seconds on lap five, passing Boillot and establishing an advantage of 2.5 minutes, before being forced to retire on lap six with a broken connecting rod. Boillot was now in the lead but was being chased by Mercedes drivers Louis Wagner and Christian Lautenschlager, the other Peugeot’s unable to match the breakneck pace as they struggled with handling difficulties and tyre wear.
Kent Karslake in “A History of the French Grand Prix, 1906-1914” stated that, “Lap after lap, the flying blue Peugeot, its long tail cocked in the air, raced around the circuit like the hare before the pack. Never had Georges Boillot driven as he drove that day, never had car and driver seemed so intimately a part of one another…But hard as Georges Boillot drove, always at his heels there was a white Mercedes, never overhauling him, never permitting him a moment’s respite. There had been drama enough before in motor racing, but never before had there been such a spectacle.”
The only thing keeping Boillot in the race was his ability and his brakes, but it was his tyres that proved his undoing. By lap 19 Lautenschlager in his Mercedes had needed one stop, mid-race, for fresh rubber. Wagner had been forced to do a second pit-stop on Lap 15, his tyres shredded in his quest to catch Boillot. In contrast, Boillot had needed to pit eight times, his Dunlop tyres unable to take more than a couple of laps before needing to be replaced. Boillot was a slim 33 seconds ahead after 6 hours and 18 minutes but behind him were the three Mercedes, biding their time until the opportunity came to pounce. Boillot was driving at the limits of man and machine to compensate for the huge amount of time he was loosing in the pits and his car was slowly but surely falling apart around him.
The inevitable happened on lap 18 when Lautenschlager at long last passed Boillot and quickly pulled out a gap. Boillot had no answer to the Mercedes, with failing brakes, tattered tyres and an engine in dire straits. He finally came to a halt at the side of the track on Lap 20. One by one the three Mercedes crossed the finish line, Lautenschlager, Wagner, and finally Otto Salzer, to the stunned silence of the crowd. There was an interminable six-minute wait for the first Peugeot, driven by Jules Gout, to reach the finish.
Eyewitness Sammy Davis wrote, “There was something more than motor racing in the atmosphere as the crowds made their way dustily from the course. Never before had there been that curious indefinable feeling and everyone was extraordinarily quiet…Though we knew nothing of it, there had come faintly on the winds the echoing thud of guns. The brooding shadow was death; the end had come to a generation. never again would the Grand Prix be the same…The roads we had known were to see not racing cars but millions upon million of men to bear armored fighting machines and countless numbers of guns. When next we saw the Mercedes Grand Prix engine it was in a fighting aeroplane…Men had reached their journey’s end. Perhaps it was as well we did not know.” The end of an era, the greatest race of all time.