The French Grand Prix was first run back near the very start of motor racing in 1906. For many years, both before and after World War II, this Grand Prix was held on a triangle of public roads near the city of Reims. The Reims circuit, famous for the very high speeds obtained there, held its last French Grand Prix in 1966. The remains of the main grandstand, just to the right of this photograph, and the pits, to the left, have been preserved as an historical site, although parts of the original complex of rather narrow roads have been modernized. However, it’s still worth a visit.
Here is the start of the French Grand Prix on July 4, 1954 under threatening skies with the new Mercedes Benz W196 streamliner of Juan Manuel Fangio at the left on pole with his teammate Karl Kling next to him. Filling out the front row is the Maserati 250F driven by the previous year’s World Champion, Alberto Ascari. Fangio and Kling finished close together in first and second, having lapped the field, including the third place Ferrari 625 of Robert Manzon, driving for Louis Rosier’s private team Equipe Rosier. A third Mercedes was driven by Hans Herrmann, but retired, as did Ascari whose works Maserati only completed one lap before its engine expired. Watching the start, at the far left, is Mercedes Benz team manager Alfred Neubauer.
One famous aspect of the French Grand Prix, especially when held at Reims, were the antics of the circuit’s creator who also served as the race starter, Raymond “Toto” Roche. Roche was known to drop the tricouleur while walking across the track in front of the first row. Why he survived is perhaps one of the great mysteries of Reims!
The 1954 race was the first appearance of a new Mercedes Grand Prix car since 1939. Just as before the War, Mercedes was more organized and had a far more sophisticated car than anyone else. Compared to the six cylinder Maserati and four cylinder Ferrari, the new Mercedes had a straight eight motor with desmodromic valve gear and cars with streamlined bodywork. Their main competitors, Maserati and Ferrari, could compete for a single lap, but were unable to stand the pace which the Mercedes could set and then maintain.
Note how close the large crowd is to the road and how ill-protected. Perhaps a harbinger of what would occur at Le Mans less than a year later.
Photo by Alan R. Smith ©The Klemantaski Collection