Paris to Vienna, 1902 – the chaotic grandeur of city-to-city racing in motorsport’s early years
Viewed against modern motorsport – 90-minute grands prix, America’s sub-three hours Indy 500 and even WRC rounds with repeated stages and the crews comfy in the same hotel each night – 1902’s 645 racing-mile race from Paris to Vienna is simply epic.
Contemporary public opinion seemed to be against racing on public roads; the French government had already banned it late in 1901. But the Automobile Club de France was big, wealthy and influential. Its commission sportive had no desire to organise more than one major race a year, and it knew which strings to pull to have the ban lifted, when necessary…
Late in January 1902, it published regulations for the Paris-Vienna race, to be run from June 26 to 29. But, of course, it would have to use public roads in at least three countries. The Austrian government soon agreed, but the Swiss would only let the runners pass through, absolutely forbidding any racing.
France’s alcohol-fuelled, 537-mile, Circuit du Nord race went ahead (despite English driver Charles Jarrott’s Panhard clouting the commissaire de police in the final control at St Germain) and the French government granted permission for Paris-Vienna, but the administration promptly fell, so the ACF had to schmooze a fresh set of deputies.
The detail planning was fantastic. Local dignitaries had to be glad-handed. At least 200 cars had to be timed through more than 60 controls. Flagmen and markers had to be arranged throughout the 900km (559-mile) route. Special trains were chartered for officials and supporters. Customs had to be fixed. Final authority was only secured with three weeks to go.
The final entry list totalled 219 machines, but 82 failed to make the start. When the racers set off from 3.30am into a bright, moonlit night from the Champigny Fort near Vincennes, south-east of Paris, it was reported that the assorted field of cars and motorcycles was escorted "by thousands of cyclists in endless procession, with their coloured Chinese lanterns dancing to and fro to the accompaniment of songs, shouts, horns, bells, exhaust whistles and the wail of the siren so much beloved by the Gallic heart".
Trains had brought hordes of spectators while the police fought to open a narrow lane for the racing cars to pass. Roadside stalls offered breakfast, fuel, oil, wire, tools, tyres and maps. Touring cars were driven out of town, and parked to watch the racers flash by.
The five Gordon Bennett cars started first, followed by the other 132 starters. Spectators hoping to see the first cars arrive at Belfort, 233 miles away near the Swiss border, had to rush to their special train. For some miles, the road and railway ran parallel. Approaching Nangis, spellbound passengers watched Fournier’s big, dust-trailing Panhard overtake their express. To Provins he averaged 71mph – then covered the 87 miles to Troyes in 80 minutes. Try that today!
When the cars were slowed by controls, the express drew ahead. Rene de Knyff’s Panhard was first to Belfort, at 10.45am the same day. Although the French roads were good, the crew was plastered in white dust.
Next day was the "neutralised" passage through Switzerland to Bregenz, where the condition of the roads barely mattered. But the next 60 miles would be different.
The real drama was the following day, a Saturday. After Feldkirch the road began to climb 5,000 feet towards the Arlberg Pass, becoming just a stony track that was described with some understatement as "dangerous". Only occasional marker stones guarded yawning chasms. Loose-planked bridges crossed frequent torrents. Official flagmen kept assuring drivers this was the right road. Max’s Darracq somersaulted to destruction in a deep valley, its driver and riding mechanic having been thrown out – unhurt – before the first shattering bounce.
Many crews dismounted to push their cars up 1 in 6 gradients. Leon Thery – one of the greatest of all early racers – crashed when his brakes failed. Bellamy’s Mercedes also "ran away", while a motorcyclist named Derny hurtled brakeless downhill, screaming for help. Capitaine Genty, gingerly driving his Clement, grabbed Derny’s coat as he flashed past, snatching him to safety like a railway mailbag.
At Innsbruck, Edge’s Napier secured the Gordon Bennett Trophy for Great Britain. But Louis Renault’s fantastically fast light car – leading the Paris-Vienna field – was swiped by the Belgian Baron de Caters’ big Mors, smashing several spokes on the Renault’s front wheel. Louis and his master mechanic Ferenc Szisz, who as a driver would win the first ever "grand prix" four years later, whittled some replacement wooden spokes and rejoined, though badly delayed.
At Worgl, Henri Farman’s Panhard led, with the amateur Count Louis Zborowski closing fast. By St Johann, the Count was ahead, with another gentleman driver, the Baron de Forest, second, both in Mercedes.
At Salzburg, de Forest was first, Farman second by 45 minutes and Louis Renault’s younger brother Marcel third in another of the Billancourt company’s shaft-driven light cars. Zborowski lay fourth.
Sunday’s final stage from Salzburg to Vienna featured terrible roads riven by gulleys where avid crowds waited for the fastest cars to crash. The finish was at Vienna’s Prater trotting track. The special train had disgorged its race followers and as the grandstands filled, Farman was said to have regained the lead, with de Forest second.
Just after 2pm a travel-stained car burst onto the track. Travelling the shortest – and therefore the wrong – way round the course it slithered to a halt beneath the finish banner. It was Marcel Renault. The officials were horrified, and he was smartly ordered "to come in again".
His winning drive totalled 15 hours, 47 minutes, 43 (and four-fifths) seconds, at an average speed of 38.9mph. Within a year he would be dead, killed in the catastrophic 1903 Paris-Madrid event that led to this kind of open road, city-to-city racing finally being banned. But it had been simply stunning while it had lasted. Wacky Races, for real.