Lost Circuits: Montlhery. Hitting the banked track in a Mercedes SLS. With its 51° banking, Montlhery remains one of Europe’s most fearsome circuits. We follow the tyretracks of pioneers in a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG – and try to conquer it Words: Keith Adams. Photography: Tom Salt/Daimler AG Archive/UTAC.
My senses are being pummelled, and I love it. The car is a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG; the location, Autodrome de Linas-Montlhery. And the reason for the sensory battering? The speedometer needle is nudging 150mph, the V8 up front rumbles to a Can-Am beat, the surface is lumpy and inconsistent, and we’re tilted over at a scarcely believable 51°. Fiftyone degrees. As experiences behind the wheel go, running at speed on such steep banking is one guaranteed to focus the mind.
On one of the first hot laps, throttle planted at the end of the start/finish straight, the SLS spears into the banked turn, endlessly looping to the left. We’re near the top of the banking, steering wheel cranked just off-centre, holding a speed that defies sanity on such an uneven surface, when the wake-up call comes.
Above and left It’s most famous for its banking but, as the map shows, there’s more to Montlhpry – not least its 10km of level track.
An expansion joint unsettles the car and throws out the rear end. A scary moment, but the correction is seamless – and mostly down to the incredible poise of the SLS.
Enough to give you a sense of perspective. If a car that nestles near the top of 2010’s supercar tree can scare you here, imagine how it must have been for the brave souls who raced wheel-to-wheel on the banking in open-wheeled grand prix cars in the 1920s and ’30s – or those who thundered around on one of the record runs for which the track became famous during the ’50s and ’60s. The SLS feels edgy; those cars must have been terrifying.
The crumbling banking is still the highlight of Montlhery, and a hair-raising one at that. It’s central to the venue’s formative years. Europe’s earliest circuits, such as Brooklands in 1907 and Avusring in 1919 were as much about vehicle testing as they were motor sport; but Montlhery had as much to do with commercial development of a south Parisian suburb as it did with international racing – in which France had led the way since the dawn of motoring.
But France’s grands prix were primarily road events, and what the country needed was a purpose-built track. The job of creating one fell to the industrialist and car enthusiast Alexandre Lamblin. He was a leading figure in the automotive and aeronautical industries, with a factory that built car and aeroplane radiators, and owned the magazine I’Aero Sport. Racing was in his blood, and he harboured a dream to build France’s first purpose-designed racetrack. His plan came together incredibly quickly.
In mid-1923, Lamblin bought a chateau and its 12,000-acre estate adjacent to the main Paris-Orleans road between the villages of Linas-Montlhery and Arpajon. It was a route that already boasted motor sport heritage: the tree-lined road was used for speed trials, and would subsequently become the site of the 1924 Land Speed Record, where Ernest Eldridge made 146mphin his 300bhp Fiat. It seemed the perfect venue for what Lamblin hoped would be the fastest race track in the world.
Below In 1935, Mercedes dominated Montlhery with Caracciola at the wheel. Now it’s the SLS’s turn.
He commissioned civil engineer Raymond Jamin to create a banked circuit in the grounds, with two 180m-long straights to join the ferroconcrete banking for a 1.58-mile lap. Work began in May 1924, with a mainly Italian workforce of 2000 masons, metalworkers, scrap merchants, carpenters and truck drivers, working two shifts between 4.30am and 10.30pm. A thousand tons of steel and 8000 cubic metres of concrete were used in its construction, with many sections of track pre-fabricated to save time.
It hardly seems believable that record speeds could be achieved in such a short lap, but Jamin applied maths to the circuit design. He calculated that, with a concave profile in the shape of a cubic parabola, the 51° banking would allow a 1000kg car to reach a maximum speed of 220km/h (136mph) – with hands off the wheel. As for the chateau, that was converted into clubhouses, with a road course added in the grounds to increase circuit length.
Incredibly, the track was completed within six months, with its first race meeting on 4-5 October 1924. Circuit biographer William ‘Bill’ Boddy described it as a ‘rather uninspired affair, open to cycle-cars and 750cc small cars’. If the circuit had been intended to change the way France viewed motor racing, this was not the way to do it. But the unique banking made it utterly suitable for high-speed endurance runs and, unlike Brooklands – under increasing pressure from nearby residents, upset by the noise – there were no time constraints at Montlhery.
More than 100 speed and endurance records were set within two months of its opening, the first by Paul Gros and Jean Martin. They drove a 16-valve two-seater Bignan for 24 hours, travelling 1820 miles at an average speed of 75.86mph, before going on to bag the 3000km record. Their best lap was set at 85.6mph. It was the first of thousands of records to fall at the circuit – Montlhery truly was the fastest in Europe. Lamblin’s dream had come true.
‘Races at Montlhery had been dominated by Alfa Romeo and Bugatti, but the explosive arrival of Rudolph Caracciola’s Mercedes-Benz W25 changed everything’
Montlhery’s place in motor sport history was sealed the following year, when the Automobile Club de France held its first grand prix there. For the big race, a road course section was added, increasing the circuit’s length to 12.5km and adding variety to the challenge.
Being Paris’s first grand prix, it attracted a huge crowd, including French president Paul Deschanel. It proved a far more entertaining race than the opening event – although it was marred by the death of Antonio Ascari in an Alfa Romeo P2 on the newly built road section. Robert Benoist went on to take the victory in sombre circumstances in his Delage at the 8hr 54min epic, pleasing the home crowd in the process.
How the partisan fans felt about the result of perhaps the greatest race held at the circuit is another matter. Ten years on, Montlhery cemented its reputation as one of the world’s fastest circuits – just as grand prix racing entered one of its greatest eras, thanks to the efforts of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union and the Silver Arrows. Until 1935, races at Montlhery had been dominated by Alfa Romeo and Bugatti, but the explosive arrival of the 664bhp 5.7-litre Mercedes- Benz W25 during Rudolph Caracciola’s dominant season changed everything.
The race was held over 40 laps – some 350 miles – and the German team knew it had something of a car advantage, stating that the track ‘was obstructed by obstacles in order to minimise the danger which the superior performance of the Mercedes-Benz cars contains for its rivals!’ In other words, the German racing team felt that the slower corners of the road course were closing the gap between itself and Alfa Romeo, which had the driving genius of Tazio Nuvolari on board.
And so it proved in the race. As the starter’s flag fell, Hans von Stuck’s Auto Union streaked into the lead, closely followed by Nuvolari’s Alfa Romeo. But before the end of the first lap, the Italian edged ahead after an audacious move on the banking. It was only a temporary upset: the Mercedes-Benz trio couldn’t be denied and, on lap three, Caracciola took the lead, outbraking Nuvolari into Les Biscornes down at the far end of the circuit, as Stuck fell back into the chasing pack.
But Nuvolari wasn’t ready to lose the lead, passing Caracciola, as the sister Alfa driven by Chiron struggled.
Nuvolari drove out of his skin to keep the Alfa Romeo in front, ahead of the technically superior trio of Mercedes-Benzes. Amazingly, he began to increase the gap as the laps passed, and the crowd increasingly believed that he really could pull off a miracle.
But the pace took its toll on the Alfa Romeo and, at halfdistance, the German trio came round at the head of the pack, much to the disappointment of the crowd. Nuvolari crawled in afterwards, and retired. His car’s transmission had been destroyed by the strain of it all. Mercedes-Benz team manager Alfred Neubauer immediately ordered his cars to slow and, once the pit stops had been completed, his drivers came home to score a glorious one-two-three: Caracciola from Fagioli and Von Brauchitsch at an average speed of 77.4mph.
Those numbers tell only part of the story because, although 77.4mph sounds pedestrian compared with the averages achieved at Avusring, for example, the driving challenge of the increasingly bumpy 51° banking at over 150mph, literally centimetres from the barrier and combined with the technical road section, made this one of the most physical races on the calendar. And to that you can add the onset of vertigo for those not used to the banking’s peculiar demands!
But the grand prix glory days were over. Drivers complained about the disintegrating track surface, and Montlhery’s final two grands prix were campaigned by diminished grids. The circuit was sold to the French Government in 1939, and placed at the disposal of the War Ministry. After hostilities, and with the track further deteriorating, it was sold to UTAC – the testing and development organisation – which subsequently renovated the entire facility. It still owns it to this day.
The tight banking proved a great testing and development centre for car manufacturers and, although it was considered far too dangerous for frontline motor sport, it continued to lure the record-breakers. In August 1952 Jaguar pitched up with an XK120 and a team of four drivers – Leslie Johnson, Jack Fairman, Bert Hadley and Stirling Moss – to set an amazing record. In seven long summer days, the team covered 16,851 miles at an average speed of 100mph, setting five international Class C and four world records for distance and endurance.
That was quite an achievement, especially considering the dangers of the banking. Over the years it claimed the lives of many drivers – and that’s never far from my mind as I push on in the spiritual descendent of Caracciola’s W25 at what seems inappropriate speed. The £157,500 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is a world away from the Silver Arrow of 1935 and, without doubt, the modern gullwing is considerably faster over the course of the lap. Its 6208cc V8 pumps out 563bhp, and 0-60mph is demolished in 3.9sec, while the 100mph barrier flashes by just 4.1 sec later. But just like that 1935 race result, these figures don’t really tell the story, because what the SLS manages to do at Montlhery is profound: it takes that banking and makes it easy to drive. Yes, its crumbling surface and savage expansion joints throw me around, but at no point does the SLS feel close to its limit.
I explore Montlhery’s nooks and crannies and find my first impressions change. It had felt sterile, thanks to spotless pitlane garages and empty concrete grandstands, despite my best efforts to bounce the Merc’s deep-bass V8 howl off the concrete. Driving round the track’s road section and heading for the banking’s underpinnings, I venture in among the complex structure and suddenly appreciate what had been achieved here more than 85 years ago. The concrete is crumbling now, permanently damp and covered in mould and mildew, but it’s here that the memories of pre-war racing are at their most potent. It’s here I discover Montlhery’s soul. The toil of those construction workers is almost tangible.
Time for more action, and, away from the banking and that start/finish straight, the SLS shows its true colours. The dual-clutch transmission initially feels a little lazy for the track, but select Sport+ and hit the amusingly named ‘AMG’ button, and the gullwing becomes far more responsive. It starts to feel like a genuine supercar – which is exactly how it looks. Unlike any other current production Mercedes-Benz, the SLS has genuine steering feel and, pitching into the challenging l’Epingle du Faye corner, it turns in voraciously, helped by super-quick gearing of 2.5 turns lock-to-lock.
Lap after lap, the stiffly sprung SLS and I circulate, gaining speed and familiarity – and feeling increasingly at home. Considering this is the first time an SLS has graced the Parisian circuit, it’s an impressive performance. It’s a challenge, but this car is the perfect tool for it.
Unlike most ‘forgotten’ circuits, Montlhery is hidden behind closed doors, with high fences to deny the public free access to the place, restricted by manufacturers who continue to use the facility for testing. And that means it’s denied the gradual process of decay that ages venues such as Brooklands and Avusring so gracefully. The Parisian track is practically frozen in suspended animation, looking clinical and lacking in atmosphere at first acquaintance.
But dig deeper, and there’s a haunting air about the place that takes its time to work its magic on you. And bringing the latest Silver Arrow to Montlhery certainly helps to reveal the heritage and charm beyond the broken concrete. A Thanks to Mercedes-Benz UK and UTAC. For more information, and to find out what event opportunities Montlhery has to offer, visit www.utac.com/en.
If a car that nestles near the top of 2010 s supercar tree can scare you here, imagine how it must have been for the brave souls who raced wheel-to-wheel on the banking in the 1920s and 30s.
Above and below The 1935 French GP.with Manfred von Brauchitsch (8) led and flanked by Alfas; Caracdola (2) ultimately won.