14 January 2020

Fascinating F1 Facts: 42 - Norman wisdom

The city of Caen sits nine miles inland from the sea, on the Orne river, in lower Normandy. It has long been a river port where ships are better protected than at Ouistreham, the village where the Orne flows out into the English Channel. Overlooking the town of Caen are the remains of a once-mighty castle, one of the largest medieval fortresses in Europe. Nearby are the abbeys of Saint-Étienne and Sainte-Trinité. All were built (or at least started) by William the Bastard, the illegitimate son of Robert le Magnifique, Duke of Normandy.

It took William some years to secure control of the duchy and to build himself a castle, but he then turned to other matters and in 1066 set sail witH an army to claim the kingdom of England and thus was able to change his nickname to William the Conqueror, which was less of a burden for the poor fellow. Apart from William, Caen is celebrated for its stone, which is pleasant to the eye and easy to work with and thousands of tons of it were shipped to England to build the cathedrals at Canterbury and Norwich, the Abbey of Westminster and even parts of the Tower of London.

When William died in 1087 he was buried in the Abbey of Saint-Etienne where his tomb remains to this day, although the locals don’t mention that the grave was desecrated several times and all that is really there is a thigh bone. After William Caen returned to being a backwater until it was decided to build a canal alongside the Orne, to allow bigger ships to reach the town. This coincided with the arrival of the railways, while the earth dug for the canal was used to aid construction of a hippodrome on the flat lands to the west of the town, known as La Prarie, originally a marsh that had been drained in medieval times. Caen became a more important port with trains running from the quayside all the way to the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris, where the citizens were happy to eat fresh fish rushed each morning from the port.

Caen was never much of a tourist destination, as the visitors went to the sandy beaches at nearby Cabourg and Deauville, but it remained a busy town with a coastal paddle steamer service that went across the Seine estuary to Le Havre, carrying both goods and passengers in the days before the automobile made it easier to get about. There was also a freight service across the Channel to Newhaven, at least for a time.

In an effort to attract visitors the hippodrome was joined by a velodrome and in the early years of the 20th Century it was decided to host automobile races. These were given the title Coupe de Normandie and took place on a triangular road circuit to the west of the town, running up the main road to Bayeux and then back by way of Tilly-sur-Seulles. The earliest races were amateur affairs for wealthy locals, but in 1909 and 1910 Peugeot voiturettes dominated, with victories going to the redoutable Georges Boillot and to Jules Goux.

It was not until 1944 that Caen was thrust on to the world stage when around 80 percent of the town was literally blown to bits by Allied bombers which dropped 2,000 tons of bombs on the city one night in July 1944, as a prelude to an armoured assault the following day to drive out the Germans. Nine thousand buildings were completely destroyed that night with another 650 badly damaged. Only 2,000 remained. The Allied push was successful but there was little left in Caen but rubble. It took almost two years just to clear this away. The city’s reconstruction would not be finished until the early 1960s.

Much of the local population lived in wooden huts while the work was done. One of the first tasks was to rebuild the roads and the local mayor Yves Guillou pushed for a new network of wider boulevards, rather than trying to rebuild the original streets. Once this was done and work began on the buildings, it struck the mayor that it might be a good idea to host motor races on his new roads, in order to show the world that Caen was still open for business. The local branch of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest thought this to be a splendid idea and in 1952 a temporary street circuit was laid out around the hippodrome on La Prairie and the first Grand Prix de Caen was held for Formula 2 cars. There was a decent entry with 16 cars, including a quartet of works Gordinis, a couple of private Ferraris, and even two HWMs sent out from England. The big names of French racing were there and Maurice Tintignant beat his team-mate Jean Behra to victory. It was a great success.

The ACO then suggested that the 1953 race should be for Le Mans sports cars and 16 cars arrived with a battle for victory going to the little-known Pierre de Chancel, a garage owner from Paris who drove his own Panhard, beating Rene Bonnet in his DB.

It was then decided that the 1954 race should be for Formula 1 cars and 10 Grand Prix cars arrived for the III Grand Prix de Caen. The entry might have been small but there was some quality in the field with Trintignant’s Scdueria Ferrari 625 beating Stirling Moss in a factory Maserati 250F. The fourth Grand Prix de Caen was not until 1956, because the 1955 race was cancelled in the wake of the Le Mans disaster but on a damp track Harry Schell drove his Maserati 250F to victory over André Simon’s Gordini.

In 1957 Guillou had a stroke and handed over the role of mayor to his deputy Henri-François Buot. The race was timed to be between the British GP and the race in Germany and while Maserati decined to attend, Jean Behra was permitted to find a ride elsewhere and convinced BRM to loan him a pair of BRM P25s which needed development. Behra won the race by more than a lap, ahead of Roy Salvadori in a Cooper-ClimaxT43.

A year later, it was decided to hold the race on Sunday, July 20, at the start of the French holiday season. The only problem with this was that the British Grand Prix was scheduled for the previous day, which made life pretty interesting for nine of the 12 drivers taking part, as they had to get themselves and their cars (in most cases) from Silverstone to Caen overnight. The race was scheduled for the late afternoon to give the late arrivals time to practice in the morning. The Grand Prix was a straight fight between Moss in a Cooper and Behra in a BRM with Jo Bonnier and Bruce Halford chasing in Maseratis. In the end Behra’s car broke down, leaving Moss to win the race.

Early in 1959 Guillou stood down as mayor and was replaced by Jean-Marie Louvel, not a man who saw the value of motor racing. The race died.


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