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In the pantheon of Grand Prix stars, Christian Lautenschlager ranks among the earliest and the best. At the time he raced there was only one event that mattered – the GP de l’Automobile Club de France. It was the equivalent to today’s world championship and decided the year’s best driver and fastest machinery in one race. Twice a winner of the French GP, his 1914 victory remains among the most epic GPs of all time.
Upbringing and early career
Lautenschlager was born into a poor family close to the French border. He served an apprenticeship as a locksmith and worked in Switzerland for a time before finding employment in a Chemnitz cycle factory. He joined Daimler in 1899 as a mechanic and began a career-long association with the Mercedes marque. As well as working as a foreman in the racing department from 1905, Lautenschlager was Otto Salzer’s riding mechanic in the Circuit des Ardennes a year later – finishing ninth.
Grand Prix winner for Mercedes
He was promoted to driver as replacement for the great Camille Jenatzy in the 1908 French GP on the roads near Dieppe. 48 cars from six nations started at one minute intervals and by the time Lautenschlager was waved off, the early starters had almost completed their first 47-mile lap. He was second quickest on that opening lap and led on adjusted times two laps later. It was a lead he would not lose and Lautenschlager’s Mercedes beat Victor Hémery’s Benz to win on his GP debut.
It was a defeat that the French took badly and the GP was not organised for another four years. Mercedes did not enter that 1912 race although Lautenschlager was sixth in an unofficial French GP in 1913.
1914 Grand Prix de l'ACF
Mercedes returned in force a year later for the French GP proper of 1914 and the race has often been described as the greatest of all time. It certainly bristled with international tension as war loomed in Europe. Legend has it that the Mercedes Board of Directors decreed that "for reasons of propaganda we have decided to win the GP."
With an estimated crowd in excess of 300,000, Georges Boillot’s Peugeot took the fight to the Germans before retiring and Lautenschlager led a famous but far-from-popular 1-2-3 for Mercedes. The German national anthem was greeted with silence. Lautenschlager used the 25,000 franc prize money to build a house for his planned retirement from racing.
In the event, he returned to racing after the war although he was not as competitive again. Tenth in the 1922 Targa Florio, he was 11th as a relief driver in the 1923 Indianapolis 500 after crashing his own car.