In the Eighteenth Century, Bordeaux was the second busiest port in the world, after London. Ships arrived from the West Indies and America and the port supplied most of Europe with coffee, cocoa, sugar and cotton. Ships leaving Bordeaux carried the local wines. The city was responsible for a quarter of all French trade. It was a rich town. Sixty miles inland from the sea, on the River Garonne, it sits just a few miles to the south of where the River Dordogne and the Garonne meet to form the Gironde Estuary, making the city a crossroads for trade and the commercial and cultural centre of southwest France. In 1820 the city planners laid out the Esplanade des Quinconces, a 31-acre square, surrounded by trees, planted in patterns of five (hence the name). It was built on the site of a vast fortress which was demolished after the Revolution and was used to host fairs and exhibitions, while also featuring two 70-ft high stone columns, one representing commerce, the other navigation. Later a fountain monument to the victims of the French Revolution, 165-ft tall, was built, surrounded by bronze statues. The quayside curves away in both directions, lined with imposing 18th century architecture.
In the early days of the automobile, where there was money, there were horseless carriages and Bordeaux had plenty of them. It also had the Route Nationale 10, which left the city and headed up to Paris, by way of Angouleme, Poitiers, Tours, Chartres and Versailles. For the automobile world, this was the Mother Road, along which history was written large. It was the RN that was used for the first major motor race, the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris. Later it was the route of the disastrous 1903 Paris-Madrid race, cancelled when the cars reached Bordeaux, having left a trail of destruction along the way.
What does this have to do with F1? Well, long after the great road races ended, the first Grands Prix of Bordeaux were held in the Parc Bordelais in the late 1920s and then at Saint-Médard-en-Jalles in 1932, all of them organised by the Automobile Club du Sud Ouest (ACSO). After the war, the club was headed by Louis Baillot d’Estivaux, a chemical engineer who invented various processes for wine and also designed an instant camera.
He proposed in 1950 that the city host a non-championship Formula 1 race around the Esplanade des Quinconces and along the quayside. It was a great idea. The race would require much the same infrastructure of the foire aux plaisirs, held twice a year in the autumn and in the spring, and it would spread the word about Bordeaux and attract business. Baillot d’Estivaux argued that if it was held in April or May it would slot into the international calendar after Pau, which was always held at Pentecost, and so the entry ought to be good if the cars remained a few extra days in the region. He took the idea to the mayor of Bordeaux, an ambitious 45-year-old called Jacques Delmas, who had been a Resistance hero, using a nom de guerre Chaban, and so had become Jacques Chaban-Delmas after the war. He was a dashing sportsman, who had won the French tennis championship just before the war and played rugby while working in the Resistance. After the Liberation he became the youngest general in the French Army, at the age of just 29 before Charles de Gaulle sent him to Bordeaux, where he was elected mayor in 1946. He played rugby for Begles and indeed for France.
Chabon-Delmas loved the idea and gave it his full support. Baillot d’Estivaux set to work, getting the pre-war racing star Albert Divo to design a 1.4-mile track, which ran from the bottom of the Esplanade along the Quai des Chartrons to a hairpin and then back to the Esplanade, sweeping right up the Allée des Chartres, one one side of the Esplanade, to a left-hander that led to a specially-built piece of road that swerved around the Monument aux Girondins until it reached the other side of the Esplanade and then went left along the Allée d’Orleans to rejoin the quad, through a fast right-hander. The circuit then ran down past the Place de la Bourse to a hairpin and then returned to the start-finish line running along the waterfront. Chaban-Delmas agreed to tarmac the two allées and to build the section of road looping around the monument. On Sunday, April 29 1951 60,000 spectators turned out to watch, sitting in temporary grandstands opposite the pits, or on rooftop terraces above the quayside warehouses, or at trackside around the Esplanade.
There were 15 cars entered, 10 of them having travelled the 550 miles from San Remo, where they had all contested the Gran Premio di San Remo on the Ospedaletti circuit the previous weekend. This contingent included Henri Louveau and Louis Rosier in Ecurie Rosier Lago-Talbot T26Cs, Enrico Platé’s Maseratis, entered for Prince Bira, Harry Schell and Emmanuel de Graffenried, Rudolf Fischer in his Ecurie Espadon Ferrari and Peter Whitehead in his private Ferrari, plus Yves Giraud-Cabantous in his own Lago-Talbot and the HWM Altas of Lance Macklin and Louis Chiron. They were joined by the Simca-Gordini squad (Maurice Trintignant, Andre Simon and Robert Manzon) from Paris and by an additional Maserati, entered by Scuderia Milano for World Champion Giuseppe Farina and a second Ecurie Espadon car for Pierre Staechelin.
Seven of the cars retired during the three-hour race leaving Rosier to win. A year later, using the same circuit, the race was run for sports cars because the F1 rule changes meant that no-one was really ready at that time of year. In 1953, with the circuit running in the opposite direction. The race was held over the May Day holiday weekend, with 16 cars, including the Ferraris of Alberto Ascari, Gigi Villoresi, Farina and Rosier. There were three Gordinis, two Maseratis, three HWM-Altas, two OSCAs and a Connaught, a very decent field, which included all three World Champions up to that point: Farina, Juan Manuel Fangio and Ascari. The Ferraris finished 1-2, a lap ahead of the rest. In 1954 Ferrari went one better and finished 1-2-3 with Froilan Gonzalez beating Manzon and Trintignant, with Stirling Moss fourth in a Maserati. Soon afterwards Chaban-Delmas was named Minister of Public Works, Transport and Tourism, departments for which the race had prepared him for…
In 1955 there was another strong entry with factory teams from Ferrari, Maserati and Gordoni, with privateers including Moss in his Maserati, Bira, Simon and Rosier in similar cars and Alfonso de Portago in a Ferrari 625. The race saw a Maserati factory 1-2-3 with Behra beating Luigi Musso and Roberto Mieres. It was the end of April 1955. In June the Le Mans disaster changed all the rules, just as the Paris-Madrid race had done 52 years earlier. Safety became an issue and France stopped almost all of its street races. And so ended the Bordeaux Grand Prix.
Chaban-Delmas would remain mayor of Bordeaux until 1995, winning 12 consecutive municipal elections. He was portrayed in the 1966 movie “Is Paris Burning?” by heart throb Alain Delon, and in 1969 he became Prime Minister for three years under Georges Pompidou. He was even a Presidential candidate after Pompidou’s death, but was defeated by Valerie Giscard d’Estaing. He would be President of the Assemblée Nationale (effectively the French Parliament) on three separate occasions.