Green Notebook from Sargé-sur-Braye 

The 12th Century church of Saint-Cyr in Sargé-sur-Braye is not your average village church. It has both a sundial and a clock, not to mention an automated figure of a gendarme with a huge moustache. He has a pipe in his mouth and every half an hour the pipe is made to strike the church bell. There is some logic in all of this but only when one considers that the French peasant in medieval times did not “Spring forward and Fall back” as we do today. Daylight saving is a modern thing, less than a century old, and a sundial is not much use if you’re moving the time, but not the sun. Hence the clock. Back then, the country folk would be up with the sun and would work until dusk. They were not nine-to-five people, which is probably why Christmas has become such a big festival because they had more fun in the winter.

Anyway, the village is of little importance except if you like movies and want to see the place where Juliette Binoche spent much of her childhood. Having said that, if you are visiting Le Mans, or just passing through, it is worth dropping by for two other reasons: the first is that the road from Le Mans (the D357) is of interest to those who love motor racing history. This is virtually straight for 21 miles from the roundabout next to the A28 autoroute to the town of Saint-Calais, away to the east. Sargé is a mile or two beyond Saint-Calais.

Why bother? Well, firstly, the D357 was once part of what was called the Circuit de la Sarthe, a vast 64-mile race track made up of public roads which in June 1906 hosted the very first Grand Prix.

The name sounds better in French. Grand Prize was tried by the Americans at one point, but it does not have the same cachet. The term Grand Prix is not new. It was used first in the late 17th century when the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture offered “a big prize” to try to promote French artistic endeavours. Soon there were other Grands Prix for architecture, mathematics and science. Dull stuff.

Then in the early Nineteenth Century some bright spark decided to hold a horse race called a Grand Prix and soon other racecourses borrowed the name. Pau was one of them. It seemed logical by 1901 for the Automobile-Club du Béarn to use the name for cars when they organised La Grande Semaine de Pau, a week of races of different kinds of cars, motorbikes and bicycles. The feature race was called the Circuit du Sud Ouest in which there were various classes. The winner of the top class won the Grand Prix de Pau. The smaller voiturette class offered the Grand Prix du Palais d’Hiver, while the motorcycle class winner received a boring old Prix du Béarn.

Five years later the Automobile Club de France (the big cheese of racing in those days) was looking for a name for its big new race, designed to replace the Gordon Bennett Cup, which had been the big prize in the early years of the sport. Someone at the ACF suggested the title “Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France” and that was deemed a good idea. Ten French manufacturers entered along with the Italian firms Fiat and Itala and Germany’s Mercedes. The British and Americans did not get involved, but soon realised their mistake… A bit like the F1 teams who didn’t want to be involved with Netflix.

Motoring along the D357, as it rushes through the sandy pine forests of the Sarthe and then begins to cross undulating countryside, you get some idea of what it was like back then. By the time you get to Saint-Calais you will probably be thinking that it is about time for lunch and this is why one should venture on a little further into Binoche country.

Quite often, out in the wilds of France, it is hard to find great places to eat. There are lots of very average places but the best chefs tend to flock to the cities where money in plentiful. It was therefore an absolute delight to discover in Sargé-sur-Braye a little place called Osma, where the chef has a lot of tattoos and would love to be a racing driver. I don’t know how good he is behind the wheel, but we discovered (at a leisurely pace) that he is exceptionally good and inventive in the kitchen. One day, I have no doubt, the Michelin folk will come by and find the place and hand out some stars, but for now it’s a little gem, hidden away in a place where the sundial tells the wrong time in the summer… It is probably not smart to write such things because the place will be filled all the time once the word gets out, but people who do great things deserve success.

After lunch, if you have the energy, you can complete the Grand Prix circuit by heading north from Saint-Calais to Vibraye and then on up to La Ferté-Bernard, where you turn left and motor back to Le Mans to finish the lap, where you began.

Yes, I know this is launch week in Formula 1 and I should be writing about new Grand Prix cars, but in truth there is an awful lot of bla-bla-bla and not a lot of knowledge being gained. These days everything is done of the Internet and so there is no point in spending money to travel to such events and all you really get is a lot of hopes and dreams. I feel for the drivers because they have to buy into this hype (which is often cringeworthy), and I always sense that they are uncomfortable with spouting forth waffle that might come back to bite them.  Understatement is always the best policy at this time of year, but enthusiasm and understatement are uneasy bed partners. And no one asks hard questions.

They are, of course, emotional days for those involved (and the result of enormous amounts of work in the factories) and it is that passion that sucks you in. One should never criticise that enthusiasm and energy, but you do need to be careful that you don’t get swept away in the hot air balloon rides that these launches can become. Like flying machines of old, hope and dreams are not enough to keep them in the air, you need solid science and engineering, as the Wright brothers proved.

I’m excited about the season ahead, as always, but the rules are not really very different this year and so development will happen across the board. Those who didn’t do such a great job in the past may catch up a little, as the regulations are designed to keep the competition close, but everyone goes forward at the same sort of pace, depending on what they can afford to spend, so the pecking order tends to change little unless there are major rule changes. Moving up F1’s grid is a slow process.

This is the time when F1’s barnstormers and snake oil salesmen get their moment in the sun and their charm and energy can be very seductive. What we hear is what they want to believe and being surrounded by sycophants they don’t want to hear voices of reason. It is the time for cheerleaders to dance their dances. If they are questioned they tend to dismiss such thoughts as negativity. And so we hear “amazing”, “fantastic”, “ground-breaking” and “game-changing” almost non-stop, but we have no real idea what will actually become truth.

During the Aston Martin launch Daddy Stroll said that enthusiasm leads to him winning, but that is not always true. He was very enthusiastic, I recall, about a company called Asprey, which he bought many years ago, but that ended up costing him a lot and achieving very little. The sensible line, which we heard from McLaren team principal Andrea Stella, was spot on: Let’s wait and see.

This is also the time when you hear a lot of technical analysis about the new cars (most of which will not look the same by the time we get to the first Grand Prix and the gloves really come off). This should all be read with sacks full of salt (rather than pinches). If journalists and other commenters were good enough to be F1 aerodynamicists, they’d be aerodynamicists. It pays better – and you get to go home more often. So beware of believing too much of this “analysis”.

We might get a clearer picture with the testing, but then teams still like to play games to hide what they can really do. So, for me, this is still a moment to enjoy the break before life becomes a blur of airports again.

Which is why I found myself in Sargé-sur-Braye, thinking about 1906. The thing about the village clocks was reflected in that first Grand Prix. Early starts were quite normal for everyone in the summer in those days. The world began to get light before five in the morning and so no-one paid much attention that the event started at six o’clock.

The funny thing is that the cars were released one by one and it is a glorious irony that the man who was supposed to be the very first Grand Prix driver, the first to take to the track, was Fernand Gabriel, who had car number 1A (right). He stalled and could not get his Lorraine-Dietrich off the line before Fiat’s Vincenzo Lancia (2A) thundered away. Ferenc Szisz (3A) followed and would take his Renault to victory the following day (the race was split over two days).

It is always difficult to work out what things are worth at a moment in time, but the French Franc in 1906 was linked to gold and so we can calculate that the prize money on offer for the win was worth 13kg of gold. Today that is $776,757.

So it really was a big prize. 

20 thoughts on “Green Notebook from Sargé-sur-Braye 

    1. It’s like a massage for the brain after “an awful lot of blah-blah-blah”. If it is a road trip, I even open up a map to follow along.

  1. Excellent as always Joe and providing two answers!
    1) The source of the balloons that have recently been revealed to overfly both North America and China.
    2) The answer to the race weekend Sprint race debate. Split the race over two days, add say 50% to the normal current total race laps. (Or time.) No park ferme overnight.

  2. After all the hype and posturing at the F1 launches, in a few weeks all will be revealed. That is when the old motor racing saying comes true “When the flag drops, the bullshit stops”

  3. I think that the best “unveiling” ever was when they wheeled the Lotus 25 off the transporter at the Dutch GP 1962.

  4. Another fascinating short read and antidote to the hyperbole and general BS in circulation at the moment….Part of wants to be i n a parallel universe where they stuck with with the Gordon Bennet Cup. Somehow that lacks the glamour of Grand Prix, maybe thats just because Gordon Bennet is a colloquial term for surprise, it certainly was in use in my family and circle growing up . Understanding the deeper back story to Grand Prix as a nugget of knowledge. Great work as ever Joe

  5. This is the difference between a “presenter” and a real journalist. The presenter hires herself out to a particular team to do their launch, thus negating her credibility. The journalist does not.

  6. Hi Joe,
    I don’t want to be picky, but kettle in french is fact “bouilloire” :-),
    Nonetheless, as usual your notebook is brilliant work and I can hardly wait to read the next one.

  7. I do hope that those awarding Michelin stars don’t turn-up to Osma on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, however it certainly looks like the sort of place that I want to visit on a weekend. An excellent find, Joe.

    I confess that I also can no longer get worked-up over car launches – I used to love going to Jerez to see and hear the initial testing, but sadly that is no longer an option, and Bahrain on SKY listening to BS from Ted Kravitz hardly inspires.

    So Drive to Survive, it is 😀

  8. Dear Joe, having consumed a fine bottle of red wine this Friday night, I just wanted to express my love for the years of joy and fun you have given us!

  9. Agree. Proper old school journalism who cares about the written word. Who is following in your path Joe? They are probably doing vlogs and pods etc…

  10. Agree. Proper old school journalism who cares about the written word. Who is following in your path Joe? They are probably doing vlogs and pods etc…

  11. Thank you Joe, I love ‘Grand Prize was tried by the Americans at one point, but it does not have the same CACHET..’. Sorry to be ignorant, but do you know why it’s not ‘prix grand’?

    1. It’s true that adjectives tend to be placed after the noun in French, but the general rule in French grammar is that short adjectives such as grand, bon, jeune, etcetera, are placed before the noun, which is why we have grand père, bonne journée and jeune fille, and indeed grand prix.

  12. You’re quite right, Joe, whenever I see “American Grand Prize” in the history books, it always looks distinctly odd.
    It does indeed sound better in French, although I think the Italian “Gran Premio” sounds rather lovely too. But the German “Grosser Preis” sounds like something you’d hear in Sainsbury’s.
    It must be a north European vs south European thing…

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