The 1903 Paris-Madrid Race Tragedy

Marcel Renault and his riding mechanic shortly before their fatal crash

Long before Formula One’s birth, or the safety crusade initiated by Jackie Stewart in the sixties and which is still causing ripples across Motorsport today, the Paris-Madrid road race was organised by the ACF (Automobile Club de France).

The proposed track for the race stretched to over 1,300 kilometres – roughly four and a half times the distance of a contemporary Formula One race. It would kick off from Versailles on May 24th and would take the competitors 554 kilometres to Bordeaux. The second stint would be the 335 kilometres from Bordeaux to Vitoria, and the third and final stint would be the 420 kilometre stretch between Vitoria and Madrid. Two hundred and twenty-four entries took their place on the start line, the entries split into 170 cars and 54 motorcycles.

The race kicked off at 2.30am with competitors being launched at intervals of one minute. Almost immediately the track became clogged with spectators after the soldiers, whose job it was to keep the track clear of human obstacles, failed to hold back the 300,000 or so spectators. Some drivers opted to slow down to a relative crawl in order to give people time to move out of the path of the heavy cars, but this had no effect as people simply waited longer to move over.

By 6.45am, all two hundred and twenty-four cars had left the start line and were making the journey, which would be the longest run of the race, to Bordeaux. To worsen an already dangerous situation, severe dust hampered the drivers’ vision and in some locations the drivers reported a visibility of no more than a few feet in front of their cars. This made it near impossible for the drivers to effectively weave around the careless spectators. It was due to these conditions that the first death occurred; a young soldier who stepped in front of a car to save the life of a toddler who had innocently strayed into the path of the car.

The brave soldier wasn’t the only person to lose their life over the course of the first day. Marcel Renault, co-founder of the car brand which shares his name, and his mechanic were killed when Renault’s car left the road at Poitiers. A mechanic riding on Porter’s car was killed instantly and Porter himself was badly injured when his car hit a rail crossing guard and overturned. A driver and two spectators died when a car left the road while trying to avoid a dog in the latter part of the day and hit the crowd. Loraine Barrow crashed his De Dietrich into a tree, killing the mechanic. A woman who was obscured by dust was killed while crossing the road when she was struck by another driver.

Over the course of the first day, half of the cars left the race, either through retirements or crashes, while four spectators and five drivers or mechanics were killed.

In a knee-jerk reaction to the carnage, Ministers from the French government held an overnight conference and ordered that the race be stopped, the cars transported to the Spanish border, and the race be restarted there. The Spanish government, also disgusted at the death toll, refused to allow the race be held on Spanish ground and so the race end was announced. As the clear up began, newspapers went to press proclaiming the death of racing for sport. This turned out to be true to an extent as there were no races held again until 1927.

La Locomotion Automobile set up an inquiry to investigate the disaster. They highlighted several key causes:

  • The speed of cars, which reached over 140 km/h while providing little (if any) protection to drivers or ride along mechanics, was found to be an obvious but important cause of the deaths.
  • The aforementioned dust, caused as a result of several weeks of hot weather leading up to the event, was found to be the direct cause of several accidents (such as the death of the soldier, Wolseley’s mechanic and the woman who was struck while crossing the road).
  • The starting order of the race, which was randomly selected, was found to have caused havoc throughout, with the minute wait between cars also found to be too short. Eventually the heavier, slower cars were intertwined with and racing the lighter, speedier models. This led to many unnecessary overtakes on unsuitable (bumpy, thin, windy) roads which, inevitably, will cause an accident – such as that suffered by Renault.
  • The mismanagement of the spectators by soldiers was also found to be a cause for accidents. The enquiry found that organisers failed to adequately organise crowd control measures to ensure that the bystanders, who underestimated the danger involved, were kept off the track. A warning was given to the crowd, however, that they should not attempt to cross the roads for the duration of the race.

Looking back at the race after 111 years, it seems strange that the investigators made no mention of inadequate safety conditions (for example helmets which would offer no protection against rain – nevermind protecting a head in an accident). However, despite the horror caused by the accidents, not just in this race but across all forms of motorsport at the time, a lack of consideration towards safety was very much the norm.

After the Paris-Madrid road race, there were no sudden reforms to safety like there were after the dark days of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Nor were there changes after the 1955 Le Mans disaster – which remains the deadliest motorsport crash ever. Similarly, Jim Clark’s tragic death, although it shook the motorsport world, caused no major ripples across motorsport safety.  The only thing that the Paris-Madrid race did in terms of safety was to act as a catalyst for the slow but sure move towards permanent racing facilities.

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