Back to the future or forward to the past...

I had not been in Lisbon since the last Portuguese Grand Prix back whenever that was and I really did not want to be there very much. But what can you do when you arrive in a place at one o'clock in the morning? The plane home from Brazil had broken down (as they often seem to do) and so after an extra 18 hours in Sao Paulo (Oh rapture!) everyone on the flight was happy to get going - even if we knew it would mean a second night away from home. It was not exactly a long stay. We arrived at the Hotel Ticky-Tacky at two thirty in the morning and had to leave again at seven. Thankfully it was still standing when we departed.

As a result of all that I scrambled through the door of my apartment at Wednesday lunchtime, just as the story was breaking about the wrong result having been declared in Brazil. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep but I was left with a question that I still find hard to answer: how can the world's most high technology sport declare the wrong winner? Why? Why? Why?

Having been on the road for the best part of six weeks, there were other pressing issues to be sorted out and, finding it all a bit much, and it being the school holidays, I decided that it was time to get away from it all and give my small boy a bit of his father's calm and lovable influence. And so with a nine-year-old ball of energy in tow (quite literally, for it was a bit of a rush) we headed off to Dieppe, where an old pal of mine lives in a bucolic, sheep-infested world. The little boy was told that it was by the seaside and that there had once been a very big battle there and, being at a bloodthirsty age, he was soon asking endless questions about guns, tanks, mortars and why the commandos had failed to get off the beaches. Why? Why? Why?

There is a tendency in modern life - notably in the cinema - to escape to the past or to the future when the going gets rough in the present but my intention was nothing of the sort. I just wanted to go away from my life and chose Dieppe because it was there. It was a place where I have no proper memory of having visited. I went there, sure enough, on several trips, climbing off a grimy ferry and on to a grimy train but I had no recollection of the place beyond that and had read that it was once a fashionable place to go for weekends. It had lots of grand hotels and even a casino and was within easy reach of Paris.

Apparently things have greatly improved since they knocked down the ferry terminal which dominated the center of the old port and since then buildings have been revamped, cobbles have been cobbled and cafe society will soon be moving in. The grand hotels, it seems, were largely blasted to bits when the commandos came to town in 1942 but that aside it seemed a pleasant enough place to be.

It was only when I was on the train, hurtling through Sheepville, that I remembered that Dieppe was once the home of the Grand Prix de l'Automobile Club de France and went into my computer to look up details (we are never parted).

I have to admit that I have a certain fascination for the great road races that occurred before they started building the great speedways of Europe. A few weeks from now we will come to the 100th anniversary of the Paris-Madrid race, an event which shaped the entire future of the sport. That happened because by the end of the first day of racing there had been so many accidents that the race had to be called off in Bordeaux. The sport was just a few years old and speeds had risen at an extraordinary rate. In 1897 the Paris-Dieppe trial (which attracted 59 competitors) was won at an average speed of 25mph. The Paris-Madrid (which had 275 entries) ended with the winner's average speed being 65mph and the top speed obtained by the cars was around 100mph. The dusty roads made vision almost impossible for the teams and the massive turn-out of spectators was almost completely unrestrained. There were over a dozen accidents involving fatalities, often multiple, to both the racing crews and bystanders and although the exact total number of accidents and casualties is unknown (probably because it was hushed-up) a not unreasonable estimate is something in the region of 40, including most famously Marcel Renault.

The reaction was such that the sport had to change: the French and British both banned road racing. In France the ban was later eased and then disappeared but in Britain it held fast and it was this which resulted eventually in the money being found to build Brooklands, which launched the trend towards building racing circuits. City to city racing everywhere stopped and was replaced by races on closed circuits of public road, which gradually reduced in size as the years went on as safety became more and more of an issue.

Everyone with any idea about the sport will tell you that three years after the Paris-Madrid race Grand Prix racing began at Le Mans. But few can tell you that the second Grand Prix was at Dieppe.

And, for the matter, the third as well.

I love going places and working out that it was here that this happened and there that that happened. Last year I ended up in the Lyons area and realized that we were passing close to the circuit used for the Grand Prix de l'ACF in 1914, where the great Georges Boillot took on the mighty Mercedes factory team and lost, just weeks before the two nations went to war.

In Dieppe there few signs that this had ever been a great racing town. It's a rallying town in fact because it was in Dieppe in the 1950s that Automobiles Alpine was born and developed and the seeds planted back then are still growing today. But out in the village of St Martin-en-Campagne there was evidence of the great days of the Grand Prix. It was a memorial to 24-year-old hotshoe Albert Clement, who was killed testing in the summer of 1907, at the wheel of one of his father's Clement-Bayard automobiles.

It was at Dieppe in 1908 that Grand Prix racing suffered its first fatalities in a race when some poor soul called Cissac and his mechanic Schaube were killed when they rolled a Panhard. It was at Dieppe as well that Delage scored its first major victory and then in 1912 where Peugeot's scored a great victory with great Boillot.

The more I read on the subject the better I felt. Back in 1907, for example, the biggest problem at the Grand Prix was that there were too many manufacturers and entries had to be restricted. Today, I thought, it is the opposite.

But the thing that left me feeling rested was that, come what may, the sport still goes on. Problems are faced and solved. Racing people are flexible and will always be flexible.

And, with a little more enthusiasm for everything, I went off to look at the battlefield and explain why...

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