Time off for good Grand Prix behaviour

Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay

Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay 


There are times when you just have to get away from Grand Prix racing and last weekend I felt the need for a break. Paris was sweatier than a Turkish tour bus and so it was decided that we would get out of town and have a spot of lunch somewhere nice. The route we took was the old Route Nationale RN10, which potters its way through the suburbs to Versailles and then heads for Bordeaux. You cannot see much of the old road these days but there are occasional glimpses of the tree-lined splendor of yesteryear, particularly when one gets beyond the marshalling yards of Trappes. These were probably far from attractive before four Mosquitos, 105 Halifaxes and 19 Lancasters bombers visited on June 2, 1944 but afterwards were little more than a wasteland until a huge industrial estate was built, condemning the place to be forever hideous.

As we were pottering along the road, it struck me that this was the route of the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris, the first proper motor race, in which 22 vehicles embarked upon the 732-mile challenge which Emile Levassor completed in 48 hours and 48 minutes, at an average speed of 15mph. The fact that he finished five hours ahead of his nearest challenger meant that the layout of his Panhard - front-engined and four-wheeled - quickly became the template of all mainstream motor vehicles to follow.

But we were not thinking about motor racing.

A few miles further down the old road, just after the town of Les Essarts-le-Roi there is a charming little road that wends its way to the east, through the forests of the Chevreuse. Just the place, you might think, to escape the rigors of Grand Prix racing.

The first village you come to is called Auffargis and it seems a pleasant sleepy sort of place. By the church is a street named the Allee Robert Benoist, named after the great Delage driver of the 1920s and in the churchyard is the grave of Ferenc Szisz. Both men lived in the commune...

Szisz was born in Hungary but turned up in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century, working as a mechanic for the Renault Brothers. After Marcel Renault was killed on the Paris-Bordeaux race of 1903 Szisz became a Renault factory racing driver and in 1906 at Le Mans became the first man ever to win a Grand Prix. Szisz was a Renault man to the core and stayed with Renault until his retirement and then settled in Auffargis where he died at the age of 71 in 1944. He is buried in the churchyard although in the mid-1950s an imposter, claiming to be Szisz appeared in Hungary and lived on being feted by the locals until his death in 1970, at the apparent age of 97.

The story of Benoist is just as odd for he was the most famous French racing driver of the 1920s and 1930s and ended up a Resistance hero, being executed by the Germans in the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944. His gang of resistance cut-throats operated in and around Auffargis and indeed it was there in 1943 that "Williams", the first winner of the Monaco GP was arrested by the Gestapo.

A quiet little town...

But, to forget about Grand Prix racing, one must leave all this behind and head a little further down this gorgeous valley. After a few miles one arrives at the Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay, a country estate with the most spectacular gated driveway. You can stand and gawp if you like but it is wiser to drive a little further along the road to gain access to the estate, which is now the kind of hotel where one goes if one's helicopter is not in for a service.

It's an amazing place, dating back to 1118 when the abbey was first founded by a group of Cistercian monks.

It is a lovely place to have lunch, sitting under a willow tree looking out across the lake.

A million miles from motor racing...

Well, not quite. You see, in the 18th century the abbey fell into ruin and eventually acquired by the Rothschild Family and converted (at unthinkable cost) into their country estate. Baron Henri de Rothschild loved the place and, having the odd bit of cash to spare, was one of the earliest automobile fanatics, being convinced by Emil Jellinek to buy two of his five original Mercedes cars. The Baron then raced these during the 1900 Nice Speed Week. The Baron later went into car production, building an interesting sportscar called the Unic Torpedo.

The baron's second son Philippe was also a bit of a speed freak and in 1929 he wandered into the Bugatti showrooms in Paris and ordered three Bugatti Type 35Cs, each of which cost a scandalous amount of money. He lent one to his "friend" Helene Delangle, an exotic dancer at the Casino de Paris, who raced under the pseudonym "Helle Nice", another to a pal called Guy Bouriat and raced the third himself, using the pseudonym "Georges Philippe".

He was good too. One of his first events was the Bugatti Grand Prix at Le Mans, a race designed purely for wealthy Bugatti owners. The mysterious "Georges Philippe" finished second. Not long afterwards he led Rene Dreyfus and Philippe Etancelin in a race around the La Garoupe peninsular on the Cote d'Azur before crashing out. Two weeks later he finished fourth in the first Monaco GP and a couple of weeks after that he won the GP de Bourgogne. He was so good in fact that Ettore Bugatti let him race a factory Bugatti. Later that summer he led the German GP on the daunting old Nurburgring but after hitting a wall he had to slow and was beaten by Louis Chiron.

This extraordinary rise to fame resulted in huge public interest in France and Baron Philippe took the decision to retire, to protect his anonymity. His family did not know he was racing. But he went on to use his many talents to revive the family vineyard at Chateau Mouton, commissioning famous painters to decorate the labels of his vintages and revolutionizing the marketing of wine.

After lunch and a little stroll it was time to go home and (carefully avoiding going to the great banked oval at Montlhery) we headed back to Paris.

Having escaped Grand Prix racing for an afternoon...

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