On July 4th, 1914, five of these cars lined up for the start of the French Grand Prix near Lyon. The atmosphere was tense. Less than a week before, at Sarajevo, an assassin’s bullet had killed the archduke Franz Ferdinand. Awful rumors said war was inevitable. That July morning, however, the partisan French crowd awaited another “inevitability”—a French victory courtesy of 1912 and 1913 winner Georges Boillot, with his Peugeot teammates or the Delages finishing not far behind. Still, the German competition looked awesome.
Secrecy surrounded the Mercedes team. The hoods of the cars were not raised, although almost everyone knew the engine inside was based upon the aero unit Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft had developed for Kaiser Wilhelm. In the months previous, team members Christian Lautenschlager, Otto Salzer, Louis Wagner, Max Sailer and Theodore Pilette (the Belgian Mercedes importer and driver of the display car) totted up 30,000 test miles on the 23.3-mile Lyon circuit. The pit crew for “The Great White Team” was well organized, with fuel, oil and water in color-coded containers and charts galore. Nothing seemed to have been left to chance.
Thirty seven cars started the 1914 French Grand Prix. Eleven finished. Pilette, most probably assigned the task of breaking up the opposition, retired on the 4th of the 20 laps. “An accident on a corner” was the Motor reporter’s only comment. The car itself suggests the crash followed the destruction of No. 4 bore by a broken connecting rod (the one fitted on the display car is not the original). Sailer took over Pilette’s stalking horse role and was out on the 6th lap. The battle now was between Lautenschlager’s Merceces and Boillot’s Peugeot. The closing laps were the most exciting motor sport had thus far seen. Suddenly, Boillot’s car gave out. There was a hush as Lautenschlager crossed the finish line— and a gasp as Wagner and Salzer followed. The Mercedes one-two-three sweep was the first in Grand Prix history.
To celebrate, the Daimler company sent lengthy technical descriptions of its Grand Prix Mercedes to the world’s motoring press—the cars themselves to dealerships in Paris and London, and to America to race. The celebration was soon over. Two weeks later, World War I began. Among the millions of casualties was Georges Boillot, shot down from the skies in a dogfight with a German airplane.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
Most race cars were non-competitive after their first campaign — the 1927 Vauxhall was competitive for 23 years (1927–1950) and you can see it in person. Learn more