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100 Years Ago – Dominance in France

100 Years Ago – Dominance in France

Lyon, 4 July 1914; the final Grand Prix motor race before the First World War and a milestone in the legendary motorsport history of Mercedes. Officially titled the ‘Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France’ and staged on public roads in the French region, the 37 km circuit hosted an epic 20-lap battle dominated by the Peugeot and Mercedes marques.

The event brought together the world’s elite in terms of both car and driver, with manufacturers having produced all-new machinery to comply with the mandatory maximum engine displacement of 4.5 litres. The solution produced by Mercedes would prove the class of the field, with its 4 cylinder unit revving to 3,000 RPM; almost one third higher than the standard at the time.

Based on a 1913 aircraft engine and featuring an aluminium crank case combined with steel cylinders, Mercedes also introduced 4-valve technology to its specially developed unit. While the valves themselves were exposed to allow for self-cooling, an advanced ignition system – 2 spark plugs on one side of each cylinder, 1 on the other – formed another unique element of what would prove a ground-breaking design.

With a crowd exceeding 300,000 spectators gathering to watch the pinnacle of automotive technology first hand, a field of 37 cars lined up to take their place in the contest. The time trial format saw competitors set off at 20 second intervals; each risking life and limb in their attempts to complete the 752 km race in the fastest time.

As the cars emerged from the opening corners, Max Saller took an early lead in his Mercedes before retiring with an engine failure on lap 5; handing the top spot to Georges Boillot in the Peugeot. Behind the Frenchman, Mercedes drivers Christian Lautenschlager, Louis Wagner and Otto Salzer began to make great strides through the field; holding 2nd, 4th and 5th at the halfway stage.

With just three laps remaining, Lautenschlager seized the lead with stable-mates Wagner and Salzer making significant inroads into the advantage of Boillot and compatriot Jules Goux; passing the latter in the closing stages of the race. As Lautenschlager crossed the line to take an emphatic victory at an average speed of 65.665 km/h, late drama unfolded behind as Boillot retired with engine failure.

With Wagner and Salzer subsequently promoted a position apiece, the first all-Mercedes Grand Prix podium was complete; a dominant performance from the German manufacturer that would reinforce Mercedes’ standing as a pioneer of the automotive industry.

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