If there is one classic of sports celebrations, it is motor racing, where victories are showered with champagne (including competitors, hostesses and the team at the foot of the podium). It is something that has transcended to the point that other disciplines also do the same. But no one asks why, what is the reason for such a special link between the pilots’ victories and the most exquisite drink? Well, to find out, one must go back to the beginnings of motor racing, and more specifically to the 1907 Beijing-Paris race (which was eventually repeated half a dozen times).
The use of engines in vehicles began in the nineteenth century naval environment and then continued on land with the railroad (not counting the previous experiments), as in the twentieth century came the turn of the air. Although the first automobiles appeared in the previous century, they continued to be horse-drawn carriages in which animal traction was replaced by mechanics. It was necessary to wait a few decades for new designs to appear, adapted to their own characteristics and almost simultaneously the sports associated with them emerged. It is true that the first car rally was the Paris-Rouen of 1894, with 196 kilometers. A modest distance, far from the 14,994 km that would have to be covered by the participants of the Beijing-Paris.
As it used to happen then, a newspaper was the sponsor of the event: Le Matin, which found in the sponsorship of this type of events a good way to increase its number of readers, making most of the press start to imitate it and thus favoring the increase in the number of races, both for cars and planes. The French newspaper had been founded in 1884 with American capital, so perhaps it had already got a taste for show business since its birth. In fact, in 1899 and in collaboration with the Automobile Club, organized the Tour de France Automobile, which, as its name suggests, was a test for sports cars on the roads of the country that would last until 1986, although in that first edition, the average speed was around 50 kilometers per hour.
The success allowed them to increase sales, increase the number of pages and raise the price, so it is not surprising that in 1907 they took up this strategy again. This time the idea was Eugène Lelouvier’s, an adventurer from Normandy who had survived two shipwrecks and won a decoration in Tonkin in 1891 but who, above all, had some fame for his 1900 project: to go around the world on foot sponsored by another newspaper, the Canadian La Patrie. While passing through Siberia, Lelouvier was assaulted by bandits who left him badly wounded and ended up in a Russian hospital where he fell in love with a nurse and married her, continuing the adventure together. They suffered another delay in Manchuria because of the Russo-Japanese War but finally arrived in Paris in 1903.
The fact is that Lelouvier gave the race a boost with a suggestive advertisement in the newspaper on January 31, 1907: “What needs to be proven today is that as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere. Is there anyone who will commit to travel this summer from Beijing to Paris by car?” That same day, the first positive response came from the Marquis Jules-Albert de Dion, a pioneer of motoring and owner of the De Dion-Bouton car factory, which he had founded in 1883 and for a long time was the largest in the world. Dion, who was also a co-founder of the aforementioned Automobile Club, ran the magazine L’Auto and had already participated in the aforementioned Paris-Rouen race, among others, he undertook to provide three vehicles.
Then more candidates arrived, with forty pre-registered, although in the end only five teams were left capable of transporting their cars to the other side of the world, given the enormous costs involved. With so few participants, the cancellation of the event was considered, but they themselves insisted on going ahead. As a result, Lelouvier himself went to China to reconnoiter the first stage, since it would be necessary to cross the Gobi desert and to know the points where there was water, as well as to take fuel to refuel in camel caravans. He travelled 2,000 kilometers and once everything was ready, including the authorization of the Chinese government, initially reluctant after the humiliation suffered six years earlier at the hands of the Western powers (due to the Boxer Rebellion), the start was made on June 10.
The five teams were the Dutch Spyker, led by Charles Godard and Le Matin journalist Jean du Taillis; the French Contal, with a three-wheeled moped led by Auguste Pons; the Italian Itala, with Prince Scipione Borghese, mechanic Ettore Guizzardi and Corriere della Sera journalist Luigi Barzini; and the aforementioned De Dion-Bouton, which had two cars, one directed by Georges Comier and journalist Eduardo Longoni, and the other by Victor Collignon plus his mechanic. As can be deduced, the race aroused so much interest in the press that it incorporated correspondents to accompany the drivers and, in fact, the itinerary followed coincided with the telegraph line so that they could send their chronicles.
However, the difficulties of the terrain and the absence of a road network to follow in many sections made the race run very slowly, so that in the first days they could only cover 60 kilometers and in Europe they wondered if they would ever see them arrive. Sometimes, given the absence of roads, they were even forced to put the wheels of their cars on the rails and follow the line, a very uncomfortable and slow march through the potholes on the sleepers but safer than finding unexpected sandbanks or swamps. Later, leaving the desert behind, the pace improved, advancing about 160 kilometers a day.
In reality, the participants did not take it as a competition but as an adventure, so no concrete rules were established, no records were kept, no attendance, and the maps were quite precarious. That’s also why no prize was stipulated and instead there was only a toast with champagne, the bottles of which were provided by G.H. Mumm & Cie, a major winery in Rheims that still exists today, part of the Pernod Ricard group (some sources say there was a cash prize of 10,000 francs).
That relaxation has its supreme example in the fact that Scipione Borghese allowed himself the luxury of detouring from Moscow to St. Petersburg to dine with his team in what was then the capital of the Russian Empire, only to return later and continue with the race. Of course, the prince, a descendant of the famous cardinal of the same name, was a sportsman who was fond of riding and mountaineering and who had made sure of having a hard and reliable car, an Itala 40 CV, with which he could reach almost 100 kilometers per hour even loading with 300 liters of fuel, besides placing assistance points on his own, in front of his rivals who chose to improvise.
Auguste Pons had to retire as his moped was unable to overcome the desert sands and got stuck; luckily, the local people rescued him. Charles Godard, who was very late in the first days, then made a spectacular comeback that ended up in Enghien (Belgium) when he was arrested by the police under the accusation of fraud. One of his subordinates had to finish the race; he had suffered financial problems from the beginning and his opponents had to lend him gasoline and spare parts more than once in a beautiful demonstration of sportsmanship.
Thus, his Spyker arrived about twenty days later than the winner, who was the Italian and did so on August 10 in 44 stages (counting only those of travel in the strict sense). Cormier came in second and Collignon third, although they did it practically at the same time; after all, the previous afternoon they had been refueling their vehicles and their stomachs, drinking together in an inn in the town of Compiègne next to the Marquis of Dion .
Scipione Borghese, whose technical superiority had allowed him to get ahead in the final stages, was received in style in front of Le Matin’s headquarters, where the finish line was located, and was given the prize, a bottle of champagne that he uncorked right there, laying the foundations of a whole tradition. The victory was very good for him from the advertising point of view, as he had planned. He congratulated his supplier Pirelli because he did not need to change his tires since Omsk. He published a book -together with Luigi Barzini- with a lot of photographic documentation entitled Half the world seen from a car. From Beijing to Paris in sixty days and was elected to parliament, retaining the seat until his death two decades later.
Le Matin also triumphed, so they announced another race for the following year: the New York-Paris, which they would organize in collaboration with The New York Times. This raid would be the one that inspired Blake Edwards’ film The Great Race (1965), with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood. And, yes, there was also champagne at the finish line.