By By Charles Jarrott
Ten Years of Motors and Motoring
It is a curious fact that my most successful win on the Continent was in a race in which I had, when I started, very little interest. – Charles Jarrott
Jarrott had often remarked that circuit racing even when each circuit was over 85 km held little interest for him feeling that the repetition removed the skill required in what was then the traditional City to City races being held on the continent.
The dreary monotony of grinding out a certain distance over the same road again and again destroys the charm, and instead of calling for the exercise of natural judgment in the negotiation of the road, merely resolves itself into a premium on the most reckless and daring driving rendered possible by the knowledge of the course. – Charles Jarrott
I was sitting in the Hôtel Bristol in Vienna, at the finish of the Paris-Vienna race, and bemoaning the wrecked condition of my car and the impossibility of having it ready for a speed kilometre race at Welbeck which was to be held some three weeks hence, the Panhard firm having informed me that it would be impossible for them to get the car back to Paris and put it into order within the time. M. Pinson, however, one of the keenest of the Panhard team, evidently knew more about the capabilities of the firm than I did myself, and after inquiring the date on which I wished to have the car, he suggested that I should run it in the Circuit des Ardennes, a race being organized by the Belgian Club for the first time over a circular course in Belgium, without controls or neutralizations. He explained that if I elected to enter for this event, no doubt the Panhard firm would get my car back to Paris, and make special efforts to enable me to have it for the race, and I could then take part, afterwards proceeding to England in time for the meeting at Welbeck. I did not feel particularly keen about this Belgian race, but it was obvious that entering in it was the only possible method of getting my car put right quickly; so I telegraphed my entry that evening to Baron de Crawhez, President of the Sporting Commission of the Belgian Club, and afterwards informed De Knyff, who immediately gave instructions that if I was driving in that event my car had to be returned to Paris without a moment’s delay, and prepared. He explained to me that the firm themselves were not officially entering for the event, and that only four or five Panhard cars were taking part, driven by their owners. I had, however, achieved my object.
Three days before the event I presented myself at the Avenue d’Ivry for my car, accompanied on this occasion by A. McCormack, who was then the manager of the Panhard et Levassor repair works in London. George Du Cros had decided, after our desperate finish into Vienna, that acting as an amateur mechanician on a racing-car was very poor sport and very hard work—an opinion with which I entirely agree, as very little glory comes to the second man on a racing-car, whether the car wins or not, and he has more than his share of the hard work to perform. McCormack, however, had never been in a race and was anxious for the experience, which, by the way, cured him once and for all.
The “70” was beautifully spick and span. The broken frame had been replaced, a new gear-box fitted, and every part of the car was au point; and we started off by road for the little village of Bastogne, away up among the pines of the Belgian Ardennes.
I may here explain that the race was an experiment, as nothing of the same nature had been held before. A 531/2 mile course, almost triangular in shape, had been mapped out over roads of an ideally perfect surface on two sides of the triangle, but broken up as to the other part of the course by stretches of very winding road with a very bad surface, part of it running between dense pine forests.
Therefore, while over a portion of the road very high speed could be obtained and maintained, a great amount of care had to be exercised in negotiating the difficult parts. With a circuit of 531/2 miles it had been arranged that the race should consist in covering the course six times, making altogether a total of 321 miles. In addition, a touring section had been arranged to run over the same course at the same time as the racing- cars, and as there were over fifty entries of the latter, altogether apart from the very considerable number of touring-cars taking part, and all these vehicles were spread over a 53-mile circuit, it can be imagined that the race looked like being an exciting affair. It was only when I arrived at Bastogne the day before the race and realized from the nature of the roads and the number of the competitors that the race would offer a great amount of sport that I began to be interested.
I arrived at Bastogne early in the morning of the day before the race, and as we had a lot of work to do to the car – new tyres and new chains had to be fitted and the many other little things attended to which are always necessary before starting out on a big road race – I did not bother about anything in the nature of rooms or hotel accommodation, as De Crawhez had previously written to inform me that he had reserved rooms for me in a private house in the village. I therefore pulled up my car in the middle of the village street, and there being no shed or other accommodation available, we started to work there and then and toiled all day until the evening. Then, having finished, the next problem was as to where I should put the car that night; and in this difficulty I met De Knyff and M. Clement. They were not racing, but they immediately joined me in trying to find in the village accommodation for my car. Eventually we found a little carpenter’s shed lumbered up with wood, benches, and tools, which had to be cleared away before I could get the car in. It was then getting late, and if the car was going to be housed we had to do it ourselves; so the four of us set to work, cleared out the shop, and squeezed in the car.
While walking down the road with De Knyff and Clement prior to discovering this shed we had an exciting experience. De Knyff and I had, of course, driven in the Paris-Vienna race the big 70 h.p. Panhards which were the racing-cars of the year, but neither of us had ever seen as a spectator one of these cars on the road traveling at top speed. Suddenly in the distance a little speck appeared and a sound like the droning of a bee could be heard. This sound became more and more distinct as the speck approached us, leaving behind a fan-like tail of dust. It was George Heath on his 70 h.p.
Panhard just returning from a final run round the course, and we crouched into the hedge as the bounding, swaying monster came on to us; and I shall never forget my sensation as, with an appalling crash, he shot by, leaving us enveloped in the huge dust-cloud. We got out of the ditch and gazed at one another. Even De Knyff never seemed to have realized how fast these cars were capable of traveling, and it certainly was a startling revelation to me. When we were talking to Heath about it afterwards, he explained that at that particular point he was just slowing up.
After housing the car McCormack and I went up into the village to secure our rooms, very tired and very hungry; and we received a severe shock when we were informed by the good lady of the house that owing to our not having presented ourselves earlier, the rooms had been given to some one else.
There existed in the village one tiny hotel, the Hôtel Collin, which had been filled up a week before, and I knew it was no good going back there, as we had just passed it on our way to the lodgings that should have been ours. The yard of the hotel presented a weird sight. Apparently everything in the place had been eaten up; and quite a number seemed to have made up their minds to accept the inevitable and give up the idea of going to bed at all. It was certainly quaint to see such lights in the automobile world as Clement, De Knyff, De Caters, and De Crawhez seated around ordinary packing boxes in the hotel yard (which was practically a stable yard), endeavoring to eat their dinner—and a very rough dinner too—by the light of many tallow candles.
Every private house had also been requisitioned to accommodate the big influx of competitors, officials, and visitors, and I had no friend to whom I could turn for assistance. McCormack was almost heart-broken at the idea that we should in all probability have to spend a night out in the open. I suggested that at the worst we should merely have to sit up and thereby lose a certain amount of sleep. This suggestion also affected him considerably, and he could not conceive it possible that we should be able to start in a big race on the following morning, having had no sleep the previous night. However, it was an experience that I had become accustomed to in the past, so I did not feel very much concerned at the prospect.
I perched myself on my bag in the middle of the street and surveyed the situation, McCormack in the meantime walking up and down disconsolately and attempting quite ineffectually—owing to his very imperfect French—to obtain some assistance from the passing villagers. While I was sitting there, a man came up and spoke to me, and I did my best to make him understand what our trouble was. He appeared to understand me, but I certainly could not understand him. Perhaps this was due to my French being so good and his very bad; but somehow I have an idea that this was not quite the case. In the end I came to the conclusion that he was inviting me to accompany him, and wondering what might be in store, we set off together, McCormack bringing up the rear and asking all the time where we were going, and expressing the greatest surprise when I told him I didn’t know and didn’t care. The end of it was, however, that our worthy friend took us to his own home, gave us rooms and a most excellent meal; and calling us at 3.30 on the following morning, had ready the best meal of which I have ever partaken before the start of a race. This hospitality I have experienced on several occasions in Belgium, and never were any benighted travelers more grateful for food and accommodation than we weary mortals were on that night before the race started.
Half-past four, and we had our car out and took up our position—No. 32. While sitting on my car, I discovered with pleasure a friend among the spectators in the shape of an English newspaper correspondent, who asked me the inevitable question as to how I felt. I had to confess that instead of, as usual at the start of a race, feeling very keen, my feeling was more of boredom than anything else, as for some reason this race did not appeal to me. I could imagine the sixty odd cars traversing that small fifty-six mile circuit, and the prospect of sitting in dust for over three hundred miles was not exhilarating. At one minute past five, Baron Pierre de Crawhez, the organizer of the event, as president of the Sporting Committee, of the Belgian Club, was sent off. He was back in 541/2 minutes, having completed the first round of 531/2 miles in that time. He had, of course, a clear course, and knowing the road like a book had made full use of his knowledge. He was driving the 70 h.p. Panhard previously driven by De Knyff in the Paris-Vienna race and accompanied by De Knyff’s mechanician. At two-minute intervals the rest of the cars were started, without any attempt at classification, some being tourist cars carrying four persons, racing voiturettes carrying one only, then two or three racers, and then a light car.
Our number being 32 we were sent off at 5.32. Although the circuit was only fifty-three miles in extent, I had been unable to find time to take the opportunity of going over the route, and I therefore started off ignorant of what was in front of me, not knowing where the turns were, how far they were off, or what the road was like. One of the first things I came upon, almost immediately after the start, was Jenatzy’s broken car, smashed into ten thousand pieces. It appeared almost impossible that any one could have escaped from such a wreck alive.
Then I began to pass cars which had started in front of me, and I immediately realized the appalling task it would be to complete the full course. Having once started, all my lethargy had disappeared and I was cramming on speed, intent upon one idea, namely, to overhaul every car in front of me. The worst task was the passing of the touring cars. They were undoubtedly driven by sportsmen and contained sportsmen as passengers, who were out for a good time first and a race next. It was rather exasperating when behind a car of this type, having swallowed a considerable quantity of dust, to discover them so intent upon drinking big, burly bottles of champagne, that they were oblivious of everything else, and the fact that a driver of a huge racing car was making desperate efforts to attract their attention to enable him to get by never entered their heads. We kept overhauling car after car, and having completed the first round, which took us exactly 581/2 minutes, we began to catch up the other cars which had started behind us on the first round, and the passing became very frequent and the dust worse than ever.
Many of the cars were having trouble, and some of the “cracks” had already retired, having either given up or smashed up. De Crawhez in passing another car on his second round cut out the spokes of one of his steering wheels and came down with a terrific crash, both he and his mechanician having a miraculous escape. Charron collided with another car, and De Caters, driving in my dust after I had passed him, ran into a brick wall and retired. We were still traveling grandly, covering our second circuit in 57 minutes 5 seconds. Then I caught W. K. Vanderbilt Jr., who was driving one of the Mors cars and traveling in splendid style. He was on his third round, and, do what I would, I could not pass him. I do not know how many miles the two cars were together. On many of the corners they almost interlocked, as again and again I attempted to pass and could not manage it. It seemed to me that there was hardly any difference in the speed of the cars, and we traveled together a very great distance before I eventually, on a very sharp corner, managed to get by, and then went on to overhaul the next car.
I have already referred to the dust The clearest impression I have in connection with this race was the anxiety of keeping the car at full speed through the blinding dust-cloud which enveloped the whole course. On the wide open stretches the wind cleared it off the road immediately; but between Haby le Neuve and Longlier, among the pine forests, it hung as a thick stifling pall, worse than a London fog, and at times it was only possible to judge of the direction of the road by watching the tops of the trees. It invariably happened that one came upon a slow-traveling tourist car in the very thickest dust-cloud, probably pulled up to repair tyres. I had numberless escapes in passing these obstructions.
Zborowski was driving finely. Vanderbilt, in spite of the lead I had gained on him, was doing well. But when I stopped for a few minutes to refill my tanks with petrol on the third turn—covered in 59 minutes 52 seconds – I was informed that Gabriel, on one of the Mors cars, was traveling grandly, and that there were practically only two of us in the race. Then I realized that I had but one man to go for. It appeared that at one period of the race I got within thirty seconds of catching him, and yet did not see him. My car was going magnificently, and had not given a moment’s trouble from the very commencement of the race, and as we passed car after car I could not help thinking that it was too good to last. At the corner at Longlier, we executed a perfect manoeuvre in turning clean round in the loose dust, a performance I repeated again two turns later.
On the fourth circuit a bottle of champagne, handed up at the sharp turn at Bastogne, had a very reviving effect, and we gained two minutes on the next turn, completing it in 57 minutes 20 seconds. This little incident seemed to amuse the foreign crowd immensely, and marvelous stories were told after the race of the large number of bottles of champagne I had consumed en route.
At the end of the fifth turn – 60 minutes 32 seconds – I stopped to make sure I had sufficient petrol and water to carry me through, and it was then that I was told Gabriel was sufficiently ahead to make the race an open one, and I knew that my last fifty-three miles would be a stern chase.
The dust by this time was fearful, and as we sped on I wondered if I could ever do it. On and on we went, and yet I could see no signs of Gabriel on the Mors. As time went by I became more anxious; and then, reaching a long open stretch of road, we eventually saw, away in the distance, a little speck which I knew must be Gabriel’s car. We gradually but steadily gained on him, and then suddenly we shot into another dust zone between a forest of trees. Sitting in the dust, unable to see a thing, and yet pushing the car at top speed, it seemed incredible that we should come through without accident There was no question now of slowing at corners or taking things steadily; it was only a question of who was to finish first Then Gabriel’s car loomed up in the dust before us and suddenly slowed down, and I narrowly escaped dashing into it from behind.
Gabriel had stopped and we were alone, only seven kilometres from the finish, and we thundered down the long hill into Bastogne amidst the greatest excitement As I approached the finishing point, with my brakes hard on, the first figure I recognized amongst the crowd was that of De Knyff, with his cap flung into the air, the most pleased and excited of all. I had won, in a race lasting five hours and fifty-three minutes for the 321 miles, including two stoppages.
I could understand afterwards the reason of the intense excitement of the crowd. It was known that only a few seconds divided Gabriel and myself on time, and that the car which appeared at the top of the hill first must be the winner. Hence every eye had been fixed on that one little spot on the road where the cars would first come into sight.
It was the hoisting of the Panhard flag once more, in the last big race of the year, and in view of the Panhard defeat in the Paris-Vienna race it was doubly welcome. Never was a victory better received. Frenchmen, Belgians, and Englishmen who had come over to see the race vied with one another in congratulating me on the run; and as I stopped my engine, which had been making merry music for six hours unceasingly, it seemed too good to be true that I had really won a big and important continental race.
Gabriel finished nine minutes later, the cause of his sudden stoppage being a broken chain; whilst Vanderbilt, with whom I had raced for such a long distance, eventually arrived third. I have often been asked after a race what were my impressions and thoughts during its progress, and this question was put to me in regard to the Circuit des Ardennes. It is almost impossible to give a satisfactory answer. Thousands of incidents are crowded together in such an incredibly short space of time that the mind has hardly appreciated each incident before it is succeeded by the next, and so on.
A stone on the road to be avoided; a sudden bend; the passing of a car; an unusual noise in the engine; these are matters of vital moment when they occur, but almost before one realizes that they are happening they have been forgotten, and the mind is occupied with some other problem, to be in its turn equally soon forgotten. Thus when it was all over I only seemed to realize that a race had taken place, that I had driven in it and had won it, having passed a great number of cars on the road, journeyed through miles of dust, and that through it all the beloved “70” had traveled without a hitch or falter.
No sooner had we finished lunch than we were away again, en route for Sedan that night, and then home to England on the following day. It was then that McCormack suddenly discovered that the continual roar of the wind, the hiss and spit of the engine, and the clamour and noise of hurtling through the air, had effectually done their work in depriving him of any sense of hearing. Certainly the jubilation we felt at our victory was in his case spoiled, at any rate for that day, by the realization that possibly he had paid a very dear price for it. However, the next morning saw us once more en route for the coast, McCormack happy again in having made a complete recovery during the night. The performance of the “70” at Welbeck in the speed trials is another story, but I may say that on that occasion she upheld her great reputation.
It was only after the finish of this race that I realized how perfect everything must be before it is possible to actually win. Had I given anything away, or luck been against me, I should have merely been in the position of one of those who finished instead of being the actual winner. The prize offered by the Belgian Club for the winner of this event was a beautifully designed little gold medal, which I treasure among my most valued possessions at the present day.
1902 Circuit des Ardennes Results
31 July 1902 – Bastogne: 512.05 km (85.34 km x 6 laps)