Monday 21 January 2019

Gordon Bennet! It's the Red Devil going round the bend

Brendan Lynch

Ireland was the centre of the motoring and sports world on July 2, 1903, when it hosted one of the country's greatest-ever sporting events and the first major motor race in Great Britain and Ireland.

The Gordon Bennett Cup motor race attracted the world's top drivers. Its safe and successful running accelerated acceptance of the automobile and kickstarted the previously lethargic British industry.

Among those impressed by this unexpected display of cutting-edge technology was 21-year old James Joyce. He based a Dubliners story - After the Race - on the event.

'Red Devil' Camille Jenatzy's win for Mercedes redrew the motoring map of Europe, which had hitherto been dominated by French manufacturers.

The event also bequeathed an enduring motorsport legacy to Ireland. If there had been no Gordon Bennett - there would have been no Eddies Irvine or Jordan.

The race series was initiated by the publicity-hungry US newspaper magnate, James Gordon Bennett, the man who had sponsored Henry Morton Stanley's search for David Livingstone.

The 327-mile event was staged over a figure-of-eight course in Athy in Co. Kildare. Its entry of four three-man national teams featured the first US team to compete in Europe. Among the race favourites were Paris-Madrid winner Fernand Gabriel and pioneer driver Rene de Knyff who had won many of the early city-to-city races.

Edge and Charles Jarrott led the English challenge, while the German team consisted of Belgium's Baron de Caters, Irish-American playboy James Foxhall-Keene, and Camille Jenatzy who, in 1899, became the first person to drive at 100 kph, a mile a minute. Known as the 'Red Devil' for his red beard and excitable nature, 35-year old Jenatzy was described by a contemporary as "a gentleman outside the car, but a devil in it"!

A fearless driver who pioneered the controlled four-wheel slide, he was one of motorsport's first colourful characters but he had never won a major race.

Selwyn Edge led off the starters at 7.00 am, and was soon obliterated in a cloud of dust as he disappeared towards Kilcullen. France's Rene de Knyff impressed spectators with his calm but, from the start, Irish crowds took to the 'Red Devil', whose wheels tore grooves in the road as he made the best start of the morning.

Charles Jarrott and mechanic Cecil Bianchi exited the race dramatically, when their Napier's steering failed at over 70 mph. Both men were left for dead and covered with white sheets, before making a Finnegan's Wake recovery!

The race quickly developed into a duel between the urbane de Knyff and the 'Red Devil', who led the Frenchman by two minutes at the end of the second lap.

Apart from Jenatzy, another crowd favourite was Baron de Caters, who had stopped to help Charles Jarrott and also to relay news of his accident to race officials. The Belgian's wife had not wanted him to race, following the many Paris-Madrid fatalities. The crowd cheered, as he waved to her each time he passed the grandstand.

The American team faltered with overheating problems and Selwyn Edge lost two hours with tyre trouble. But there was no stopping the 'Red Devil'. He drove on the limit and made fastest time on the final two laps to win by 11 minutes from de Knyff, Farman and Gabriel.

Sadly, race-winner Jenatzy and his mechanic, Fritz Walker, both came to untimely ends. A decade after his Irish triumph, the 'Red Devil' was shot dead during a practical joke in his native Belgium. Fritz Walker survived him by a year, before being killed during a race in America.

The Gordon Bennett race bequeathed a rich motorsport heritage, which led to the Ulster Tourist Trophy races and the Irish Grands Prix of the '20S and '30s. Light years from modern manicured circuits, over-paid drivers and computer-controlled machinery, the men and cars of the Irish Gordon Bennett Cup marked an heroic chapter in motoring history - without concessions to safety. They were truly the Titans of motorsport.

The great Irish race also bequeathed a new expression to posterity. Hotel overcharging led to a new euphemism for skullduggery and disbelief - Gordon Bennett!

Brendan Lynch is author of the recently-published Triumph Of The Red Devil - The 1903 Irish Gordon Bennett Cup, with Foreword by Sir Stirling Moss

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