The French Grand Prix of 1934
|by Barré Lyndon|
the French Grand Prix had always been regarded as the most vital race of the year, the
entry of the new German cars filled it with greater potentialities than ever before. It
was obvious that their drivers intended to do everything that was possible to make their
first appearance in Grand Prix racing successful, and it was equally apparent that the
Alfa Romeos, Bugattis, and Maseratis would come to the line as fit for the race as
experienced men could contrive.
The event was scheduled for July 1, but the Mercedes drivers took two practice cars to the course two weeks beforehand. That the Germans should appear so early was most unusual, and indicated how much importance they attached to the race. Ordinarily, Grand Prix teams do not reach the course until immediately before practice, which normally takes place during three or four days prior to the actual event.
The team was led by Rudolf Caracciola, who had long been recognized as the German champion. He had been racing for twelve years, since his twenty-first birthday, and had won the German Grand Prix five times. With him was Manfred von Brauchitsch. He was twenty-nine years old and, although he lacked Caracciola's experience, he had already shown his quality. The third driver was Luigi Fagioli, who had gained many successes with Maserati cars and had been Italian champion in 1933. After joining the Mercedes équipe he had done much to school German drivers in high-speed work. The reserve man in the Mercedes team was Ernst Henne, who held the world's speed record with a motorcycle, and who obviously now intended to follow the steps of Nuvolari, Varzi, and other former racing motorcyclists.
The Mercedes team could not use the whole course for practice because part of it was closed. The circuit for the French Grand Prix is unlike any other. In 1924 a track known as the Linas-Montlhèry autodrome was constructed on the plateau of Saint Eutrope, about sixteen miles southwest of Paris, and a year later a road course was added that incorporated one end of the track itself. It was this section which was closed.
The autodrome is shaped much like a gigantic bowl, a little more than one-and-a-half miles in circumference; two short straights opposite one another make it egg-shaped. The circuit routier, or road circuit, leaves the track at the end of one of these straights, runs out along the summit of the plateau and returns at the far side of the autodrome. The road is designed to include every type of bend and corner, which can be found on a highway, and at the same time to include straights on which cars can achieve real speed.
The road circuit is artificial in the sense that it is not used by ordinary traffic, but this does not lessen its value; that a very short section of the course is formed by part of the track makes very little difference to the event as a road race. The circuit routier tests cars and men as no natural course can do.
When cars leave the track itself, they dive through a narrow opening onto a tarred road which runs straight for nearly a mille, bends slightly, then continues straight for almost another mille. On the left are bushes and trees and, on the right, a narrow grass strip cutting off the return road which at this point runs parallel. After the first fast stretch, the course becomes difficult. The straight ends in a long curving approach to the Lacets de Couard where the road makes three quick bends, then drops very suddenly in a sharp dip before entering a left-hand turn. A short straight is followed by the Bruyères hairpin. One hundred and fifty yards beyond Bruyères is a exceedingly sharp left corner.
Up to this point only three miles have been covered, and within the last of these the course has produced a series of three bends, one hairpin and two abrupt right-angle corners, which is more than sufficient to demand extreme skill from drivers. There now follows a half-mille straight, then the western extremity of the circuit is reached at Les Biscornes, where the road turns back in the direction of the autodrome. This turn is accomplished through a sweeping left bend. Then a long and apparently endless curve to the right, which ends in an abrupt corner, is followed by a short straight and another right-hand corner.
The corner marks approximately the halfway point around the circuit, the severity of which now becomes lessened. The turn is succeeded by a splendid straight more than a mille in length. It switchbacks a little, drops abruptly, and immediately rises again in a long climbing corner around the Virage de la Fôret. The road then bends more gently, only to make an abrupt corner at the Virage du Gendarme, after which it runs parallel with the outward stretch. Near the track it corners left, makes a hairpin turn at the end of another half-mille, then re-enters the autodrome at the side opposite from that at which the road started. From this point cars run around the very steep eastern bank, plunge down to the flat opposite the grandstand, then start out on the circuit routier once more.
The entire setting is very attractive. Here and there are natural banks of colored sand, patches of heather, wild flowers and fine grasses, always with the green of shrubs and trees to form a background. Throughout, the surface is tarred, except on the corners, which are faced with concrete. The total length of the course is 7.8 miles. In 1934 the fastest lap recorded in the French Grand Prix stood at 88.1 mph, set by Tazio Nuvolari. Because the circuit holds a dozen bends of varying severity, eight corners and two hairpin turns, such speed is very high indeed, but the preliminary practice work of the Mercedes drivers suggested that the record would be broken before the race was over.
The Germans were able to run their cars over almost the whole of the road section, and this offered about five-and-a-half miles of the actual course, including the outward and home straights, with all the hazards between. The practice cars were used to ascertain the approximate gasoline consumption of the machines, from which could be judged how much fuel would be required during the race and how many pit stops would be necessary. The Mercedes drivers also made tests to determine the best tires with which to equip their machines. Then Fagioli and von Brauchitsch made an effort to find out how their machines behaved at high speed. They put in several laps, the best being at nearly 84 mph. As this was achieved without benefit of the very fast run around the banking of the track itself and without entering the outward straight at speed, it promised that the Mercedes machines would certainly smash Nuvolari's record over the actual Grand Prix circuit.