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A major triumph in the first golden age of motor racing


Stuttgart, 6 June, 2014

The triple victory by Mercedes in the 1914 French Grand Prix on 4 July 1914 is a glorious milestone in the 120-year history of Mercedes-Benz motor sport. With this triumph just before the outbreak of the First World War, the Stuttgart-based brand was able to demonstrate its innovative strength and sporting expertise in the most famous race of that era. This Grand Prix in 1914 marked the end of an era in which the motor car developed into a racing car – and in which the culture of international motor sport with its heroic protagonists at the wheel saw its first flowering throughout the world.

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Rapturous applause for Christian Lautenschlager, loud cheers for the winner of the 1914 Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France: on 4 July 1914 in Lyon, more than 200,000 spectators celebrated the German racing driver who had just won the most prestigious motor racing event of that time in the Mercedes Grand Prix racing car, at the same time leading a triple victory by Mercedes. Although the French spectators were initially in shock to find that the previously very successful racing teams of Peugeot and Delage had been outshone by this great Mercedes triumph, a sense of sporting fairness prevailed by the time the trophies were presented, and the crowd celebrated the German racing drivers.

Less than four weeks before the outbreak of the First World War on 28 July 1914, such celebrations saw the spirit of friendly rivalry once again reach an international high point. This was confirmed by the correspondent from “Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung” in Vienna in the issue of 11 July 1914: “Showing a very sporting spirit, the public were unsparing in their applause for the victor.”

Christian Lautenschlager, Louis Wagner and Otto Salzer driving Mercedes Grand Prix racing cars achieved a surprising triple victory in this order on 4 July 1914. With this feat Mercedes made its mark on the 1914 Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, the last great motor race of international rank before the horrors of the impending war. The First World War was soon to interrupt the continuous innovation that had so far marked the history of motor racing. This made the Grand Prix in Lyon the “last race of the classic era, and it was the grandest and most significant Grand Prix in history”. 50 years later, in an article for “Motor Revue”, these were the words used to honour this Grand Prix by Heinz Ulrich Wieselmann, former editor-in-chief of the German motoring magazine “auto motor und sport”.

France, Mercedes and motor sport

The 1914 French Grand Prix was the culmination of a development that had begun in 1894 with the first motor car contest in history – the legendary 126-kilometre race from Paris to Rouen organised by the magazine “Petit Journal”. 120 years ago, when motor sports came into being with this event, the focus was on the general performance, reliability and durability of this new means of transport – no distinction was yet made between regular production cars and racing cars. Nine of the 17 vehicles that reached the finishing line in 1894 were powered by Daimler engines built under licence. Paris–Rouen therefore laid the foundation stone for 120 years of Mercedes-Benz motorsport history.

In subsequent years the combination of innovative strength at Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) and the outstanding role of France during the first flowering of motorsport proved to be extraordinarily fruitful: it was in Nice, France, that DMG cars dominated the 1901 racing weekend – where the Mercedes brand was born. And it was in France that the Gordon Bennett race series had its origin, the first motorsport series of international standing. In 1903 Camille Jenatzy won the Gordon Bennett race in Ireland with a Mercedes-Simplex 60 hp.

And lastly, in 1908, Christian Lautenschlager driving a Mercedes was victorious in the third French Grand Prix, ahead of two cars from the company’s then competitor, Benz. This race, whose full title is Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, was first held in 1906. It was the result of a counter-movement against the Gordon Bennett series, which the Paris-based American publisher of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, conceived in late 1899 and organised from 1900 onward. From 1904 on, however, the French motor industry became more and more unhappy with the rules of the series, which only allowed three vehicles per country to compete. This left insufficient starting places for the more than half a dozen French manufacturers who thought they had a chance of victory.

Urged on by the industry, the Automobile Club de France therefore decided to hold the Gordon Bennett race for the last time in 1905, and to organise another race in its place from 1906 – the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France. This Grand Prix soon grew to become the most important motor race in the world – a status that it retained until 1914. It celebrated its premiere on 26 and 27 June 1906 at the Circuit de la Sarthe, near Le Mans. On these two days, the 34 vehicles taking part were required to cover a total of 1238 kilometres. Mercedes, the only German brand in the lineup, ranked in 10th and 11th place. The second Grand Prix de l’A.C.F. was held near Dieppe on 2 July 1907. The race comprised 10 laps of 76.968 kilometres each, and Victor Hémery came in 10th as the only driver for Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft.

France’s Grand Prix was indeed an international race. In the third annual race, on 7 July 1908, 49 cars representing 17 manufacturers from six countries lined up at the start. For the first time Germany was represented by several manufacturers – Mercedes, Benz and Opel. Almost 200,000 spectators followed the race, and after 770 kilometres Christian Lautenschlager in a Mercedes Grand Prix racing car was first across the finishing line, followed by Victor Hémery and René Hanriot driving Benz cars.

Following the disappointing outcome of the Grand Prix as far as France was concerned – there were only two French cars among the first ten places – the French manufacturers initiated a boycott of the Grand Prix, which was joined by Benz and DMG. As a result, the Grand Prix de l’A.C.F. failed to take place in the years 1909 to 1911. A new beginning for motorsport activities in France was brought about in 1911 by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (A.C.O.), which staged the French Grand Prix on a circuit near Le Mans. The following year, the Automobile Club de France also went ahead once again with the original Grand Prix, although DMG did not enter the race that year. Nor was Mercedes among the participants in the Grand Prix de l’A.C.F.: the team from Untertürkheim had not itself entered the racing cars, but had passed this responsibility to its General Distributor in Belgium, motorsport enthusiast Théodore Pilette – a step that was rejected by the organisers with due reference to the regulations. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest accepted the entry, with the result that the Grand Prix de France in August 1913 on the circuit at Le Mans saw Mercedes take 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th places.

The great triumph

In 1914, DMG set out once again to take part in and win the Grand Prix de l’A.C.F. In order to achieve this, a particularly advanced Grand Prix racing car was developed in Stuttgart. It represented the quintessence of advances that had made in such development work since 1894: 20 years on, the humble motor car that had yet to prove its fundamental capabilities had become a thoroughbred racing car. Five Grand Prix cars were entered for the race, driven by Christian Lautenschlager, Theodor Pilette (Belgium), Max Sailer, Otto Salzer and Louis Wagner (France). A sixth vehicle was held in reserve with Alfred Vischer as the driver.

What occupied the minds and emotions of Europeans in the year 1914, who were witnessing both great scientific and technical innovation but also growing tension between the nations of Europe – also between the German empire and Great Britain? In 1914, the Olympic flag with its five rings was raised in public for the first time. In Florida the first scheduled aviation service using aircraft went into operation. The Ullstein publishing company took over the liberal “Voßsche Zeitung” in Berlin. Henry Ford introduced production line assembly for his Model T. The Panama Canal was opened. In Germany the “Freie Secession” (Free Secession) group of artists was founded under Max Liebermann.

The triple victory by Mercedes in the French Grand Prix on 4 July was among the historic landmarks in a year overshadowed by the outbreak of the First World War. Yet this Mercedes triumph of 1914 came back into the public eye with a vengeance when Mercedes-Benz returned to Grand Prix racing after the Second World War: exactly 40 years after the legendary victory by Lautenschlager, Wagner and Salzer, Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling won the first race with the Mercedes-Benz W 196 R Formula 1 racing car – the occasion was the French Grand Prix on 4 July 1954. This highly symbolic moment continued a longstanding culture of fair sporting competition whose roots lie in France, with 4 July 1914 standing out as an absolute highlight.